Holy bleep, it’s been 5 weeks, or Playing the game of Metronome

Has it really been 5 weeks?  The summer is just flying by.  One highlight of July is that I recently got to visit  Andy Fein in St. Paul, who let me play his top of the line cello. Just to have a chance to experience what the next level might sound like was quite motivating.  I lack the words to describe the buttery sound that cello made, and I’m sure I didn’t come close to getting all I could out of it.    I had bought a bow from Andy some time ago, which I am still using, and really enjoyed meeting him in person.

Anyway, this is beginning to sound like a free ad, so I’ll shut up, but I am grateful to him for showing me his studio and trusting me with his instruments.


Returning to PA :

Lately, I’ve been working on the following pieces

  • Schroeder, etudes #12 ( Lee op 70 No 4) #13 (Lee Op 70, #5).
  • Mozart, May Time – working my way back through Book 2
  • Scales – Susan Brown scale book. C major and A Melodic minor.   The latter was more ‘shifty’ than I remembered it pre-accident.

I’m amazed at how much mileage my teacher helps me squeeze out of each etude – even when I think I’m done with it, I see there is far more.   Lately, the name of the game has been metronome. When I can keep tempo, I notch it up and try again.  When I fail, I drop it down two.   My range on #12 is supposed to be 69-84, and now I can handle 76.  one thing we’re doing is marking the beginning of every beat of the music in tricky passages (tricky sometimes means ‘easy’ – where I stop paying attention because the section is very scale-y).   This helps me know, in the absence of a teacher, if I’m hitting the beat on each click.

Continuing to review

I am working on double checking my intonation on scales,using a tuner to see if I can spot the trends where I go off.  I also am practicing without the tuner and really working on trying to audiate as much of the scale as I can.

To this end, using a mirror or iPad camera to keep an eye on my left hand – watching for microcrawls, unneeded finger shifts, keeping 4 near position when I extend back for Bb or Eb.

Other than that, quiet summer.  Outside of cello, have begun looking seriously into kayaking as a hobby.

Second Position

Being in tune within second position is giving me fits. Mostly because my pinky goes awol and then I can’t get 4 right.  I could just sit and focus on this all week and not do anything else.  I played my Whales song with a tuner today, and I start off well, but even without shifting again, I am drifting out of tune.  This  is the number one most immediate problem to solve.   The first problem is, when do I start seeing problems.  And then zoom in on it.

So, Today I put the bow down and just worked my left hand.  I also listened to C and G octaves over and over.  I’m going away for the weekend to have a break from this circus I call my life, and we’ll see what we sound like when I return.

But Nancy is right. I have the right to complain my ass off because I know I’m never going to quit, and what sounds like complaining on the surface is really just an attempt to identify so that focus on development areas.   I have always taken the long view; that I am studying cello so that I can always have something to do in retirement (as well as today) and somebody with whom to socialize around music.

Growth Opportunities (translation: serious butthurt)

I practiced many hours this week, but apparently not in a way that was helpful.When it came time to perform today, I really had things messed up.  Here is a list of problems and possible solutions we came to.   Finally, I’ll end with some good news.

Big news is that I am using a new cello now – an Eastman 205.  Very warm sound, but still bright enough.

First, the bad news

  • Whale Song: Mooney – Position Pieces: Hand drifting south on subsequent shifts to second position.  Keep left hand position constant.  Try to keep fingers actually in place on momentary crossings where I have to return.
    • Instead of playing the music as written, when there is an opportunity to test against an open string, play that double stop instead.
    • Take up the harp – all pizzicato on open strings.
    • Use the mirror to watch my left hand.  I bought a mirror, but having trouble installing it because I think there’s concrete behind these panels.  Might just get a free-standing mirror as Nancy recommended.
  • Schroeder – # 12
    • Still rushing the beat
      • Need more practice splitting the beat – used kinesthetic technique of beating hand against both leg and hand to create eighth notes out of a quarter
      • Slow down
      • Quit Playing Cello
    • I think the piece is actually in good shape, despite the rhythm problems, which we will work on.
  • Scales
    • Play more legato – instead of playing true quarters, I was playing dotted eighths, followed by a rest
    • Start mid bow for now
    • Consider starting at 16ths, and working my way back to wholes rather than the other way around. I forgot why we said to do this.
  • Arpeggio Studies – Susan Brown, 2 Octave Scales
    • I couldn’t remember the notes, with the exception of the major arpeggio
    • After playing C major scale, I’m supposed to do these arpeggios in this order. Note each changes by only one note.
    • I couldn’t do a single one right, except C major, which I have a good feeling for.
      • C minor (C-Eb-G)
      • C major (C-E-G)
      • A minor (C-E-A)
      • F major (C-F-A)
      • F minor (C-F-Ab)
    • Make sure I can do this without memorizing (and thus avoiding looking at the music).
    • The stand light is my friend.
  • Still debating whether to do my shifting practice with or without tape markings.  I’d prefer to avoid them, but a second position tape marker might save me some time in learning the tactile distance.  I think though, it creates too much temptation to avoid solving problems.
  • Orchestra Performance
    • Know a piece well enough to look up at the conductor while playing and return and not get lost.  Include this in my practice, next time I’m in New Strings Ensemble.

The Good News

  • Teacher is optimistic we can make a great deal of progress in a year, once we fix up these foundational issues.
  • My feelings aren’t really hurt, despite the title.  I took up cello to both learn the cello and learn basic music skills and theory.  I’m learning them now.  The amount of detail we covered was impressive.
  • I now have one performance under my belt!  I can now say I’ve performed and carried my weight.  Those who followed my blog know I once sat in my son’s orchestra for a summer. That doesn’t count.
  • Half position shift while keeping 4 in place was in good shape.

How not to make a recording

Today was the cello day from hell.

I often ask myself- why do I not keep my promise to put recordings up here?  Partially because I hate how I sound, and I make a recording session into a multi-hour ordeal, wasting my time colossally and possibly repeating mistakes.

I know all the nice cello things to say about process when somebody is frustrated.  They didn’t help me much, largely because I was guilty of the “4th graders can do it better” conundrum.

What I actually need to do, while i am in the process of getting things right and learning the notes, is to record like I practice – get small sections down, do exercise creation and record those as well.  Each gets its own little snippet.  Also, set a limit for the number of takes you will tolerate before giving up.  Never do more than 5.

Here’s what I learned from recording the Minuet #1 from Suzuki Book 2

1. The shift to second position also involves a string change.  So, left and right really need to be coordinated.

2. Focus on the notes, not the fingers. I know what it should sound like.   If I think only of the fingers, I may go to the wrong string.

3. Articulate the first measure- all three notes.  Same in third.

4. Pay attention to phrasing, but that comes after I feel that my fingers know where the notes are.  There I can pay attention to the four bar phrases. I’d like to know more about how understanding the structure of the piece helps me play better.

5. Do not take first position for granted.  Keep a handshape, and stay consistent with it.

6. Slow down and listen.  Don’t just get through it.   Nobody can hear on a recording that you “nailed that shift” – they just want the piece to sound good.

This is just a first attempt – parts are good, and parts are really g-d awful. But we’ll chronicle the progress.

Pinky Curling


Working on not curling my pinky so that it is ready to play its role as 4 when needed.  I think this entails a little more motion in my arm to press down the string and less with my fingers.  I seem to remember being that that particular tension which curls the pinky actually comes from the elbow.    Anyway, that’s the theme for this week of practice,  I just need to see if I can find some way to depress the string that doesn’t distort my hand shape.

A mirror was recommended to me, although I’m still using my phone’s camera as a mirror.  I have this phobia of hanging things on walls, namely that I’ll make a mess of the wall or use the wrong fastener.   So, my goal for this week is to get a floor length mirror and put it up in my little studio area.

Hand position

On my left hand within the same position,  I have been coached to try to keep a reasonably constant shape so that I don’t have to re-find it time and again.   I generally need to work on some constancy in my left hand, since my intonation is suffering.

Practice Logs

Still working on my 2d position shifts, which I need, but feeling frustrated by the elementary pieces.  I cannot deny that focusing on easier pieces so that I can work on my rhythm has made me a more confident player.  But I still think I should be tackling harder material, so I pulled out my “easier” kummers and ‘harder” scales and got back to work.

The new glasses are AWESOME.  This is the first time I can ever remember seeing my notes from 18″ away without any eyestrain whatsoever.  De-LIGHT-ed.  Yes, pun intended.

I also rented a newer cello, an Eastman 200, to use to see how I feel about it. I do like some aspects of it, although I still think if I buy a new cello it will need to be a grade higher – like a 305 or equivalent.   Stempie sounds great, and I need to make a photo, but outside of minor adjustments, any money put into it will not be worth it.  That same money could be applied towards a new cello.

Still, don’t want to stop playing Stempie, because the sound is great, but for now it’s good to have two for comparison.  And in that regard, the Kummers make much better test pieces, and they seem more satisfying to play when testing out new instruments.

Still considering putting my electric NS-4 string on the market.  Not using it as much as I thought.

Cello Playing in Retirement



I wish I were ready. Part of my reason for taking up cello playing in middle age was to enjoy it in retirement (as well as the present).

 Of course, we’ve all heard some version of the proverb “Man proposes, God disposes”, but I prefer Eisenhower’s dictum: “Plans are useless, but planning is essential”

I’d love to hear your stories and plans for retirement, if actively playing your instrument a factor.

  • Roughly, where do you see yourself retiring?
  • How much cello playing are you planning to do in retirement, assuming health permits?
  • To what extent does music figure into your retirement plans, including going to concerts and/or playing in ensembles?
  • Will this figure heavily in your plans, or is it more of a “cards fall where they may” type of thing regarding music?

I’m not nosing after anybody’s specific plans, but would love to hear your more generic ones.  [Of course, if you all wanted to purchase a cello playing commune, I wouldn’t protest.  Might even invite some violists for variety.]   For instance, my own wife prefers to live near the coast, preferably in the South.  If we’re near the sea, that’s not a particularly friendly environment,physically speaking.  If we’re too far from a city, that may be a culturally isolating place to be.

I might need do save up for a carbon Fiber cello.  And in the event of a flood, I can use it as a flotation device!

It occurred to me that part of my second act could actually include teaching at some level.   Of course, there’s a lot to think out there, but not completely out of the realm of possibility. Ideally, I’d like to play in a community orchestra or even a smaller ensemble if one is available.  So, if that’s my choice, a 55+ community would be a better choice than a windswept cabin on the Outer Banks.


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