Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Making the Cello Chair Comfy

I finally made a little cushion for the portable cello chair I bought recently. The chair is black (though looks blue in the photos), so I had in mind a sedate black cushion. However, while rooting through my vast collection of fabrics, I found a fake fur fabric that I thought might be a little more fun. So, here's the cushion:

It is actually pretty comfortable, but in the course of my hunt for the perfect seating for outdoor performances, I realized that a flat surface is better. In fact I use a small piano bench as a seat when I practice. It is portable, too, but heavier and more awkward to carry around than this folding aluminum seat. The addition of a fat paperback makes for fine seating. This Classical Music book, in particular, is just the right size. But it would be wrong, especially for a bluegrass festival.

Besides, I need to read it, to prepare for a review of a local concert I am writing this weekend. (The featured piece is Mendelssohn's 2nd piano concerto in d minor, if anyone would like to share any insights. I have no degrees in music; I just write reviews because people ask me to, local professional musicians are reluctant to critique others, I like to do it, and the research I do adds to my musical knowledge.)

In the end, despite all this fuss I have made over my cello chair, I have found that, in a concert, I am oblivious to my seating, carried away by the music. :-)

Sunday, May 27, 2007

View from my window (or stuck inside)

I am inside working, but our cat (Buster, Milo, or Elmo, depending on which family member is talking about him) is outside, enjoying the sunshine, or perhaps contemplating a small tasty rodent.

I haven't even practiced very much, and I missed a performance yesterday and a rehearsal today. But, all in all, I am feeling happy and serene; centered, if you will. Today, on fairly pleasant work, if not on cellos. No lesson tomorrow because of Memorial Day, so no get-ready-for-lesson-related stress.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Memory talismans (talismen?)

It has been a busy week, work-wise, with little time for blogging. Still busy, probably right through the weekend. The joys of self-employment.

I have been re-reading Music for the Joy of It, Enhancing Creativity, Skills, and Musical Confidence by Stephanie Judy (who plays multiple instruments, including cello). This is a great book, full of information and advice on learning, practicing, and performing for amateur musicians. I bought it maybe 7 or 8 years ago and read it then, but am finding much of interest, lots that I forgot, or just seems more relevant now.

The following quote from the book is probably not the best example of useful information, but given my obsession with memorizing, it struck me as worth considering:

"If you are getting ready for a performance, it can help a surprising amount to practice your memory work in the place where you will perform. That's not always possible, of course, but as an alternative you can use a talisman--perhaps a special necklace, a scarf, or a belt that you put on when you practice and plan to wear when you perform. Suzanne McGrath learned this trick from her teenage daughter:
Kathryn always studies for exams wearing the same shoes that she's going to wear on exam day. I used to laugh at her for being superstitious, but she persuaded me to try it when I was getting ready for a recital. I kept my concert shoes next to my music stand and slipped them on when I worked on my recital number. (Kathryn absolutely insisted that I must never, never wear them for anything else or the spell wouldn't work.) And you know what? It worked! I had this very eerie feeling while I was playing that if I forgot anything, it would be down there in my shoe somewhere! At one point I even started to giggle because this idea struck me funny. But I'll definitely do it again."
There are lots of other more conventional and musically serious tips, and I am trying them all. My teacher has suggested, more to her younger students, practicing in a special scarf, not for memory, more just to make practicing a special time, so I am kind of up for this one.

So, I am playing four pieces for memory at my next recital. Should I have four talismans? Scarves are a little warm in the summertime. I'm not much of a shoe person and I don't wear shoes at home. I like the hat in the above illustration, but it might be a little too dramatic. Perhaps a sparkly ring, shining with the true vision of the music. Four sparkly rings. We'll see.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Strange coincidences

I have loved this quote since I first saw it on a greeting card in the early 1970s:
"Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really merely commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the planning, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chain of events, working through generations and leading to the most outré results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable."

- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), English author. Sherlock Holmes to Watson, in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, "A Case of Identity" (1892).
I shared the quote recently with a friend whose life had taken an amazing and wonderful, almost unbelievable happy turn, at a time when she was in need of good fortune. I found the quote easily on the Internet and e-mailed it to her. I remembered the card as having an illustration of Peter Pan and Wendy-like characters, hand-in-hand, flying over London. Imagine my surprise when I recently found the greeting card when I reorganized my office:

In case you can't see the illustration clearly, it is a drawing of a monkey playing the cello by candlelight to an audience of large birds: herons, dodos, penguins, flamingos, pelicans, etc. It is a much more an Alice-in-Wonderland theme than a Sherlock Holmes theme, but then again, this card was published in 1970, and it reflects the psychedelic times. It is most amusing to see the cello there, predating my obsession with the instrument by almost 30 years. The cello has five strings and four pegs. I am going to ignore that for now. As for the monkey and the birds, my father used to call me Marilyn Monkey, and I am fond of drawing birds.

I am not sure how they all go together (in the absence of psychedelics), but it was fun to find the card again. I still love the quotation. I still haven't read the story the quotation is taken from.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Cello fiddling fun

One of our two fiddle performances today was canceled due to rain. First it was moved from 10 am to 7:30 am, so most people were quite relieved that it was canceled. Who would want to listen to fiddle music at 7:30 am?, you might ask?

This was an overnight cancer walk, a fundraiser in which participant teams camp out around a high school track and walk all day and night, in shifts. I have participated in the past as a camper/walker, and any music, any time of day is good. Well, not in the middle of the night, when, if it isn't raining, the stars are company enough.

The second performance was at 11:30 am and went until 1 pm, with a break in the middle. It was an environmental fair with Americorps volunteers providing information about coastal ecology, who whooped and danced as we played. The acoustics in the big barn at the Fairgrounds were not very good, and sometimes I couldn't even tell what tune we were playing, but it was fun. There were 13 of us, five fiddlers and others playing mandolin, banjo, tin whistle, dobro, guitar, bodhran, and, of course, me on cello.

The portable chair worked out great. I didn't feel odd being the only one sitting, and was shortly joined by a mandolin player who explained that he had recently had two knee surgeries. (The only chairs available were big white plastic lawn chairs with arms, totally unsuitable for cello-playing, so I was glad to have my own portable chair.)

I played melody on only one or two tunes. The rest of the time, I was happy to improvise backup, somewhat like a string bass, sometimes pizz., sometimes arco. I will try to memorize a few more tunes before our big concert on June 9, but on the whole, the backup is fun too, and provides something different.

Friday, May 18, 2007

New cello chair

I mostly pleased with my new portable "cello chair," intended for outdoor fiddle performances. I was looking for something portable and light, so I could easily sling it over my shoulder, along with the cello case. It was hard to find something the right height. A lot of "camp stools" were much too low, even for me, a fairly short person. I wasn't overly concerned about comfort, as concerts usually do not run more than an hour, but it had to reasonably comfortable. The design had to allow one to sit with legs apart, of course--no arm rests or too narrow a seat. So, I bought this one, via the Internet:
It is lightweight, has a retracting shoulder strap and a 20" high padded seat, but, the seat sags a little awkwardly. I wanted a flatter seat.

First I tried filling in the little "valley" with my puffy alligator slippers:

But that wasn't quite enough, so I added a fuzzy heart-shaped pillow. Perfect!

Well, perfect for practicing. I think it might be a little awkward arranging my puffy alligator slippers and heart-shaped pillow in a performance. Until I have time to sew the perfect pillow, I am going with another alternative: casually draping a sweatshirt over the seat. Works just fine. I will test it out tomorrow at the fiddle performance.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


I've been a little groggy the last couple of days, following some major dental work, not my favorite way to pass the time. Some of my dental problems can be traced back to the year I was 22 and eager to move to London for a time. I had a toothache, but ignored it, focusing on getting organized for the trip, getting my plane ticket ($425 round trip, by the way, more than it costs today), storing my stuff at various locations.

Almost as soon as I got to London, my painful tooth forced me to seek treatment at the Royal Dental Hospital. I sat in a dental chair, one, as I remember, in a long double row of dental chairs full of patients. The tooth was extracted in a quickie procedure, without charge. I do think my dentist at home would have saved it. I still wonder why I thought I could ignore the toothache, rush off to London, and not suffer any consequences. Kind of an irrational moment (the kind I occasionally recognize in my own kids).

Anyway, I've missed a day of practicing and a rehearsal, but feeling better now, especially after a gorgeous day of warm sunshine, and eager to play again.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Happy Mother's Day!

Warm and loving Mother's Day wishes to my sister, my mother-in-law, my sisters-in-law, friends on and off-line, and especially to my mother, who is deeply missed.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Fiddles, Bluegrass, and Smiles

It was an evening of fiddle and bluegrass music. No cello though. I took my fiddle (because it is easier to stow in the car during the day of errands that preceded the night of music) to the Thank-You-in-Advance cookout and fiddle jam. All the bands performing in the June 9 bluegrass festival were invited. Great food and a good opportunity to meet and play with the other bands. I haven't practiced the fiddle in months, but did remember a few tunes. If only I had more time to practice all this stuff. I just love the idea of people coming together and playing common music. (In the photo, I'm the one on the lower left.)

We left early to attend a bluegrass concert at Johnson String: The Reunion Band. Excellent music and the individual band members were very personable and talented. I smiled through the whole concert. Beamed in some parts. Will write more tomorrow, as it is getting late, and I am tired!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Cello Cellobration Day

I finally bought my new cello today. I have had it out on trial for weeks, practicing with it, taking it here and there to play, acting it as if it were already mine. I feel like throwing it a party, maybe we will go out to celebrate in its honor, but knowing it, it would probably want to come along.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Tips for Writing

I saw this at the dentist's office today (from

Two important principles for good creative writing:

1. Keep your audience in an anticipatory mood.


Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Right Audience

I have been working on Ashokan Farewell for a couple of weeks--first memorizing it, then making it sound beautiful, plaintive, mournful.

Memory seemed easy at first (I had already memorized in on the fiddle), but playing it with the fiddle group threw me off. Some of the fiddlers put a lot of flourishes in it. I like the flourishes, but haven't added them yet.

So, I finally memorized it, played it with intense emotion, pouring my heart and soul into. "Da da deee, da da da da, da da daaaa da da da da daa, da da da da da da da deeee, da da deeee. And so on.

I recorded my masterpiece and played it back. It sounded like clunk-clunk-clunk, clunk-clunk-clunk-clunk..... and so on. No emotion, and terrible intonation. Very, very discouraging. And why do I hear it so differently when I play it?

So, I've collected a couple of recordings of Ashokan Farewell: Jay Unger's emotional rendition on violin, from You Tube, and the Adagio Trio's version on cello, flute, and harp.

I was playing the Adagio Trio's version (in which the cello part is somewhat clunkier than Unger's version), when my husband called. He heard the recording in the background and actually thought it was me playing. When he came home later, I was playing Ashokan on the fiddle, and he said he thought it was a recording. What a guy!! I couldn't ask for a more appreciative audience.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Curly, Moe, and Larry the Cable Guy

Ok, there were only two of them, and they were probably very competent, but it was hard not to laugh at the very earnest cable guys who came yesterday and today. They were each vying with the other to explain the intricacies of our new high-speed Internet/tv/phone cable system and why my computer was in danger of blowing up with the stress of the new connection.

They came because my husband had called with a question about wireless Internet. The cable people discovered that we had weak service, and sent not one, but two, trucks out to help.

"Too many splitters," they said. "weakens the power of the signal going to your computer. Do you have to have a tv in your office?"

"Well, yes, I do." I spend many hours in here, and, late at night, need Comedy Central and CNN to help me through yet another deadline.

They disconnected the tv anyway. The lead cable guy gave me a little lecture, and then the other cable guy told me I could have my splitter back (to connect the tv), and re-install it myself, in secret, after they left, but they would be really, really mad if problems resulted from that arrangement. (Or words to that effect.)

I asked if there was any way to deal with this issue, other than with splitters.

"Yes," they said. "You could install a dedicated line for the Internet connection."

Ok, I said. How much?

It turned out to be $26.99. Sheesh. You'd think they might have mentioned that in the beginning. They couldn't install it that day because they had another customer to go to. We'd have to call service.

So we called service, and the lead cable guy showed up again today.

He looked angry. "What's the problem? I was just here yesterday," he said.

Well, I said, you said you could install a dedicated Internet line.

"That would be an Install Call. I'm here on a Trouble Call. I can't install a line unless I am here on an Install Call"

Ok, I said, should I call the cable company?

"No, I'll call them," he said.

So, finally, minutes later, we had our dedicated Internet line. And my office tv. And there seems to be little likelihood that my computer will blow up. You never know, though.

Fiddling performances, Americorps

I just noticed that the fiddlers have at least four performances at local fairs, fundraisers, and events before the one on June 9 (my performance goal), including two on one day (May 19). Well, I said I wanted to perform. I am going to aim for playing in the two on the 19th: a cancer walk and an Americorps Fair. Both worthy causes, and if my imperfect cello fiddling helps in some way, all the better.

I served in VISTA after college, and it was one of the great learning experiences of my life. I've been encouraging my kids to look into Americorps. The program seems so different, much more structured, from when I entered, in 1968, a turbulent year. ("Turbulent" was a word I used often in college papers. I also thought it was good luck to start each paper with "Although.")

When I was in VISTA (on an open Sioux reservation in South Dakota), the philosophy was that we, as college-educated middle class Americans would just naturally know how to share our skills with the people we were there to help. My degree was in international relations. My only relevant skills were sewing and flute playing. My roommate, a Ute from California, and I were a little lost. Finally we decided to help teach in the one-room, 8-grade schoolhouse. That was fine, until they said they didn't need us anymore--they had decided to hire a second teacher. But that is the philosophy of VISTA, or was then, to work yourself out of a job. Then winter hit. There were six inches of ice on the roads, covered by six inches of snow, and snow was piled six feet high on either side of the road, or at least that is how I remember it. It was hard to be of much help, and I left before my year was up. I returned to visit three years later and about six of the twelve volunteers who were there with me were still there, far more dedicated and/or able to cope than I was at the time.

When I checked last year, Americorps offered programs where volunteers could teach jazz in the inner city in New Jersey, or help with a high school chorus program in Seattle. My son plays jazz sax, and my daughter sings, especially classical music, so I thought these would be great programs for them. One of my son's friends dropped out of college and joined Americorps. He seems to be enjoying it immensely. I think he is learning home construction, in a Habitat for Humanity type setting. The Americorps people on the Cape seem to be mostly involved in coastal environmental protection, and I think there are a lot of older people involved. Well, I should find out in a couple of weeks.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Sunday night cello thoughts

Sunday night is the night I usually remember that I have a cello lesson on Monday morning that I am in no way ready for. But, I have long ago realized that canceling due to lack of adequate practicing is not a good idea, and tends to lead to yet another week of less than brilliant practicing.

This week, I am actually fairly well-prepared, having recorded myself over and over again (comparing five different bows, three on trial, one loaner, and mine), and listened to, and tried to learn from, the recordings, working on intonation and expression. Either I am getting slightly better, or I have gotten used to how I sound in the recordings.

In any case, memory is coming along, thanks to multiple practices with the five different bows, and use of various analytic techniques. I haven't gotten out the colored highlighters yet, but I intend to. I have a zillion of them that I use in my work. I normally avoid highlighting music (it gets too raucous for me to look at), but for memory work, it makes sense.

I've been working on the fiddle music, too. Friday night, in fiddle session, I watched the bass player and copied some of his rhythms for the pieces on which I play accompaniment. I couldn't hear him from across the room-full of musicians, but I was glad to see that there was some similarity in our approach. The bluegrass festival is a little over a month away, just 4 more sessions before the big event (plus a pre-concert thank-you barbecue/jam session next Saturday for all the bands, which I am shyly attending, wondering if there will be another cellist). I have ordered a lightweight folding camp stool for the performance. I am not going to try to stand up and play this time!

Saturday, May 5, 2007

More bows and classical guitar

I tried out more bows today, during some free time I found while working at the shop. I'm trying less expensive bows, as I feel I am not advanced enough to make adequate use of the more expensive bows I was trying earlier, especially after listening to that dreadful recording I made of myself. Still, the ones I tried were around $1,000, about the same price as the refrigerator we are contemplating.

How can you compare these two things for $1,000: a bow and a refrigerator?! And my daughter is on the verge of buying her first used car at $600.

Then a young woman came in, wanting to learn to play an instrument. She once had a guitar, but gave it to a friend because the friend played it better than she did. She had recently returned from Colombia, where she had worked in an orphanage. A friend there played classical guitar. I showed her a violin and helped her play a few notes. The shop manager played classical guitar for her, coincidentally the very song her friend had played for her. In the end, she bought a classical guitar for $199 and a case for $39.

I looked at the $1,000 bow, and thought: wow, 4 classical guitars. With cases. And frets.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Good-bye to Town Band

Town Band rehearsals started last Thursday, and I didn't go. This would have been my 10th year playing flute in Town Band, but I have decided to take a break.

Town Band is fairly demanding. There are 10 weeks of rehearsals, followed by 10 weeks of public performances, outside, at the band shell on the harborside. We play 14 different pieces a night, so have a huge collection of music to learn. We play each piece twice a year, once (sometimes more) in rehearsal and once in performance, but after you have been in Town Band for a few years, you do get to know the music. It is hard to practice 14 pieces a week and do them any justice. I could only manage a few each week. Two to six new pieces are introduced each year, but there are many old standards, like John Philip Souza's "Washington Post March." Even I remembered that from high school.

I started Town Band when I could barely play the music, in part to learn to play better. I had been directing/producing a children's music/art TV show for the local cable station, and I felt that I had done my part to promote music and the arts, that it would be OK if I used Town Band to teach myself how to play the flute. We have had as many as 20 flutes in the 100+ member band, so my wrong notes, or inadequate playing of some passages, did not seem to create any problems. One philosophy of Town Band is always play out, even if you make a mistake. You learn from it. Even with 20 flutes, the dozen trumpets tend to drown us out, so, for a flutist, Town Band remains somewhat of an individual journey, even in a sea of musicians.

Town Band is an intergenerational band, and I enjoyed that aspect of it. There are kids who just completed 6th grade, there are high school and college students, there are 70 and 80-year-olds, and there are people who have been in the band over 35 years. It welcomes adults (like me) just picking up their instruments after a lapse of 20 or 30 years. At one point our whole family was in the band: my son on saxophone, my daughter on clarinet one year, oboe the next. My husband serves as announcer. Each concert is taped by the cable television station, and shown year-round. I always meant to practice along with the tapes.

In the beginning, I was lost or inept much of the time. Struggling with my too-fast, too-high parts, I was helped greatly by sitting next to, and becoming friends with, two excellent adult flute players. I have improved considerably over the years, and I have learned a lot from the directors/conductors, and the other musicians.

But, honestly, band music is not my favorite type of music, and it is much too loud! I have developed a ringing in my ears and do not want it to get worse, so am giving up Town Band this year. Also, I am in two other ensembles that meet on Thursday, fiddles once or twice a month from 5-7 pm, and early music at 7 pm. In those ensembles I play the cello, sometimes flute too. So, while I will miss the camaraderie of Town Band, it was not such a hard decision to leave. I need to cut back on ensembles, and prefer the ones in which I play cello.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

More memory

I've been finding a lot of good information on memorization, and will try to put it together soon. In the meantime, I recorded myself playing (from memory). Memory issues have improved greatly, but my intonation was appalling. Back to work!

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Memorization tips

My teacher suggested, as a memory builder, that I try saying the names of the notes in a particular passage, away from the instrument, away from the music. I used to be able to do this quite easily. In more than one lesson, I claimed I could write out the piece; I knew it that well. But in the actual playing of the piece, sometimes my mind went blank, as if those neurons weren't connecting properly.

I can't say this about current pieces. I don't think I could actually write them down. I am relying too much on automatic memory.

We went over one section in the lesson, me trying to remember the note names. I did play this section much more fluently, from memory, today (using the loaner bow only).

So, I am going to work on analytic memory, and have found some memory tips online.

These tips are from Music

1. Read and sing your music (without the instrument)

2. Color-code parts that are the same with markers

3. Practice away from the instrument and study the music by itself

4. Practice it in sections. Don't try to do it all at once

5. Practice one phrase/section 5 times in a row and then try to play it without the music

6. Do some of the sections spell a word? ie: b-a-g-g-a-g-e

7. Can you make a section/phrase spell something to help you remember? ie: Bears Always Eat Fish Every Friday

8. Finger practice without playing your instrument

9. Take it slow!

10. Reinforce 100% accuracy...don't allow yourself to make mistakes; your brain will remember them!

11. Slow practice too!

12. Use your metronome

13. Play for family and friends the weeks and days before a recital or performance

14. Play on other pianos (if you are a piano student) to get used to playing on pianos other than yours

15. Don't overpractice

16. Play with and without the music

17. Make a copy of your music and cut it up into sections. Number or letter the sections and have someone call out the section and you have to start the piece from that section

18. Tape record yourself and play it back to give and get feedback (

19. Don't forget to breath!

20. Stay relaxed (easier said than done!)

21. Don't Panic

22. Play for others

23. Have fun

I saw an article in today's paper about memory in mice likely to develop Alzheimer's disease. When given an enriched environment (cages filled with toys and exercise wheels) memory is restored. I have spent the last week enriching my environment by cleaning my almost hopelessly cluttered office, unearthing many long-forgotten toys (art supplies, CDs, etc.). And of course the cello is a fine amusement. All I need now is an exercise wheel, or to go to the exercise place more often.