Issues with playing cello at middle age

I’m spending a fair bit of time thinking of the big five-oh.  I thought arthritis in my hands  would be my biggest challenges, but it turns out it is my eyesight.  This weekend Had the worst lesson of all time because I could not read the music at all because I had left my reading glasses at home.  I couldn’t tell the difference between D,E,a nd F easily, nor was it easy to to see the difference between low F and low G. That’s how blurry things got! Reading glasses: my best stand partners They are no longer optional!   Having a bright stand light also really helps.

It also helps to have as light a cello as I can get away with that still sounds good, and I’m starting to think it would make a good investment to get a carbon fiber case.  The combination would save me about 5-6 lbs of weight, which would be huge when I have to carry my cello up the stairs, as well as later in life.

Having Father Time lurk around the corner is also a blessing, since I realize I must make the best use of my practice and lesson time.  My feelings aren’t easily hurt because I need the most useful feedback as quickly as I can make use of it.

I still think that taking up the cello was one of the smartest moves I have made, both for the enrichment in terms of musical development and in terms of interesting people.  

Shifting Practice

Nothing terribly exciting to write about, but it’s all been shifting practice from first to second position, and making sure I have that motion hard wired into my brain again. In this regard, I feel a bit peeved that I have to do this again, but my shifting is becoming more confident.  The other thing I am focusing on is keeping my left hand position firmer (but not rigid) so that my thumb can lead the shift accurately.  I had acquired the habit of aligning my thumb to 1 in all positions, not just fourth.

When you’re having a horrible, no good, very bad practice session do you

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  1. Bail, so you don’t ingrain a bad habit
  2. Focus on what went right
  3. Blame the weather and low humidity
  4. Blame the cello, and take it in to the luthier
  5. Blame self, for practicing while tired
  6. Play something easy that does not hit on your sore points (really, a form of #1)
  7. Write it all down, so you can look back on it and laugh,but also to see if there is an adjustment that may not be obvious.

Sore points:

1. Not getting good contact with G string on C or D string on E – especially on the long note

2. No plan for where the bow should be.

3. Tense bow hand

4. New pieces sound like note soup.  Part of the issue is not wanting to play them.

What went right

Second position target practice is going better – today harmonic G/4 on II/2 on II – they should all sound the same.  Really need to start recording myself, although today was not the night to start that.

Organization

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I need to get organized.  For various reasons, this is a psychological block for me, but that’s a subject for another day.  In a nutshell, I viewed organization as the antonym of inspiration.  I’ll get over this by focusing on benefits.

The benefit is that I will know how I really spend my time.  Although I have never been able to implement David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” system completely, I do agree with him that getting things out of my head and onto paper can only help, especially as I get older!   So, if I go in and my etudes are weak (or strong!), I’ll know how much time was put in, and will adjust.  It also helps me know what I got for my practice time.  I also am doing this more at work as well.

I’ve enclosed a practice log, which I am going to keep from now on, so there is no more “but it worked well at home” kind of lessons.

JPG image of my practice log format

JPG image of my practice log format

Below the log, I keep notes about what actually happened, but I think it would be easier to summarize those at the end of the practice week.  My lessons are on Saturday afternoons.  My first lesson, I forgot where I put my car, so I was wandering the back alley parking lots wondering which snowy lot had my car.  Another argument for patience and organization.

None of this is groundbreaking to anybody.  What was new to me is assessing what I’ve accomplished in the last five years, and what I want to accomplish in the next. If I act as a dilettante, I’ll get nowhere.   The challenging part is consistency and execution.  I’ve tried hundreds of organizational schemes that did well the first three weeks and petered out somehow.

So, how do you organize your practice time?  What has worked year-in and year-out? 

First Lesson

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We’re reviewing some basics, including confident shifting.   I was reminded to lead with my thumb and not with the other fingers.

Much of my plan will be a step back in time for me, but the difference is that there will be performance opportunities, and the emphasis will be in playing with others.   I’m a little embarrassed to tell you what I’m working on, since you might think this is too basic, but going back and relearning will be good for me, particularly with a goal of freeing my right arm, and playing relaxed without scrunching my face.

But it’s Schroeder #9, and a few duets from AppleBaum’s duets for 2 stringed instruments.  I was given a new scale pattern to learn and to work it on C major for now.

One issue about taking up the cello late in life is reading the scores.  I need good reading glasses and a bright stand light to avoid blurriness.  And to keep from losing all those pieces I had been studying, I will apply the basics I’m relearning to my Kol Nidre and to other favorites.  I don’t want to put my Bach aside during this period.

New Era! First real post since October MVA.

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I’m starting lessons again, and we’re going to need to backtrack to earlier material to get my right arm moving fluidly.  I’m grateful for finding a teacher in this area of the state, and there’s even a music school with some opportunities to do recitals.  I think the pressure to perform might focus my practice, as well as prepare me for the CelloSpeak workshops this summer.

I must confess that during my trial lesson,I was guilty of all the classic cello sins. First, I didn’t really practice, even though I thought I had been.  I said the dreaded “but it worked better at home”, which means I was in denial on how I sounded.

But, lessons!  I’m not going to post any information about teachers or colleagues until I build some trust and get their permission, even pseudonymously – if that’s a word.

And I’m starting tonight to re-tag my blog because I want to reference my trials with my pieces.  And the usual promise to post some sound files is in force as usual.

I hope people who were following my blog in the past will start reading again.

First Post in Two Months

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I’m going to try to post more regularly, but for now, here is what I am working on – the Bourree I and II from the third suite.  The excerpt is from a copyrighted score from Cello Classics,  19 Pieces by 14 Composers, (c) 2008 by G. Schirmer, excerpted for fair use for the purpose of discussion.  Still working on getting the rhythm in my head, and keeping the  rhythm going through the shifts on the first line.

Bourree I Suite 3

Schumann & Beethoven

I’m pledging to practice 30 straight days to get back in the habit.   I’m also pledging to have a clear, but modest, goal for every practice.  Today’s practice was the minor section (of the #2 Pieces in Folk Style, op. 102) and getting the shift from G to Eb on II sounding right.  Then I walked through the rest of the section with just the LH.  I’m so glad to have Stempie back.  It feels like singing and less like work now.  I’m amazed what a difference a few repairs make.  There’s so much to explore now. It’s not nearly as much work to make music now.  My next goal is by the end of the week to make a video of the first half.

Outside of the cello, I have been taking the Beethoven Piano Sonata coursera, and enjoying learning about the structure of music and a little bit more about how Beethoven stretched the idea of sonata almost to a point where the word lost specific structural meaning.  My next step is to listen to the Sonatas for Piano and Cello and see how they intertwine with his development of the sonatas for Piano Solo.

Sonatas Op 5 Sonatas #1 and #2 for example, come right before his publication of the Piano Sonata #4, for instance.  A complete listing of Beethoven’s work in Chronological order can be found at Wikipedia.  Maybe it’s just trivia, but I find it fun to peruse the lists and see which pieces are nearly contemporaneous with others in different genres.

Oh, and starting a new job and dealing with moving the family very inharmoniously are major themes in my own life right now.  Which is why I’m glad I can once again feel good about playing.

Quick thoughts on the electric cello

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I have been playing with my new NS cello for about a month now.  I like that it’s durable and I don’t have to worry about it excessively.  I’m still learning the ins and outs of how to set up gain and volume, so I don’t want to make any definitive statements about quality until I remove myself as a confounding factor.

There are a few things that make it easier to play and one thing that makes it harder.  There are markings on the neck so I can see where the notes are.  Since I was told to learn by ear and not use marking tape, this is like a video game cheat for me.  There is also no reason to use thumb position since the cello does not have a belly.  Nonetheless, I am still going to practice it anyway because I will be returning to my Stempie as soon as he returns.  The one hard part is that the tripod mount gives me no body contact with the instrument.  When I play some passages, particularly in the Prelude to Suite 1, the tripod tips over towards me.  Likely this is my fault and not the cello’s, but before I compensate for it, I want to see if I have a parallel problem on the wooden cello.  If I do, then I need to make sure whatever new habit I use also works on Stempie.   In summary, my concern is that the electric cello is a different instrument, and I’m concerned about picking up non-transferable habits.

 There is a traditional endpin mount with a body contact bar that makes it feel more like a traditional cello.  I may wind up getting that. 

All and all, it’s fun, durable, and although not a substitute for a wooden cello, it is affordable and easy to maintain. 

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