Old World or New, Sacred or Profane

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Weekend Plans

Welcome and thank you to Dale, Marilyn, Miacello, and Elaine Fine. I see from Elaine's profile she writes CD reviews and program notes, composes, and plays viola and violin. Oooo. Miacello is another of us blogging cellists; there's getting to be quite a family of us. Dale's got some funny stuff on his blog. And Marilyn? No blog or profile yet, a woman of mystery.

PS; And also welcome to Coaster Punchman. Yes, I'm with you, tell those kids: indoor voices!

This weekend, barring complications, my wife and I will go to a weekend New Years Camp put on by The California Traditional Music Society. At this point some there's some doubt my wife will go, she's ill (getting the cold I had last weekend) and she's got a lot of work to have done this week. Her job entails a lot of writing. I do hope she goes. I'll do what I can to help her make it out there.

Friday, December 22, 2006

David Allan's The Highland Wedding

Rather than write, I'm posting a painting: The Highland Wedding at Blair Atholl (1780) by David Allan (1744-1796). The fiddler represented is the famed Niel Gow (1727-1807), the cellist is his brother Donald. According to the Dunkeld Cathedral website, Donald's sensitive accompaniment inspired Niel to play his best.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Email Duet

PFS and I have collaborated on a duet on Red Is The Rose via email.

Well, by the end it's more like a quartet. PFS recorded first and plays melody throughout 4 times. On the first time I play pizz bass/strum. On the second time I play an arco lower harmony part, usually a sixth or third below the melody. On the third time, through the magic of multi-track recording, I play both the pizz and the arco at the same time. For the 4th time I add to that another arco part, this one above the melody with mostly long tones.

While some notes are not precisely what we'd like, I think there are some spots that came out quite nicely. I hope we do more soon.

Red Is The Rose

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Common-Practice Era music "theory"

Who out there has some so-called music "theory" study or training? By that, I mean (a) how to form the different types of chords, (b) inversions, (c) how to read figured bass, (d) doubling rules in 4-part harmony, (e) types of motion, (f) voice leading, (g) what chords most easily follow what other chords, (h) the types of non-harmonic tones and how they are used, (i) ways to modulate..., y'know, fun stuff like that.

My high school band teacher brought someone in to teach us that stuff for a few sessions each year. I loved it and so it really struck a chord, so to speak, with me. I could often be caught studying the conductor's scores whenever I had the chance. I learned to read all the different transpositions. What really intrigued me were scores or parts of scores that ignored the "rules". How did they know it would work? It seemed like magic. Of course, now that I'm much older and presumably wiser I know for sure that it really is magic.

I get the feeling most adult beginners and even most child beginners don't get enough instruction in that stuff. Isn't there more to playing an instrument than putting finger X on spot Y to get note Z, just because that's what's on the paper?

Or maybe it's just me and it's not that important for most instrumentalist folks.

Reposted from CBN, below are links to written music and midis for God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman with two different accompaniments. While both accompaniments are for the same tune, the two accompaniments are not at all compatible!

The first accompaniment is the traditional bass line sung by bass voices or played on piano since who-knows-when. It conforms to the collection of rules practiced during the Common-Practice Era, ie, the kind of rules one learns in "theory" class. No parallel fifths or octaves, no 2nd inversions except under special circumstances, no doubling the 3rd except under special circumstances...

The second accompaniment, mostly in double stops, ignores some of those rules. Mr. K would have given it a big ol' F! Make that F minus! There's nothing like telling a kid he can't do something to make him do it (35 years later, even!).

I've prepared two midis, one with the traditional bass accompaniment and one with my own thing.

PDF of all 3 parts

MIDI with CPE-stype bass

MIDI with non-CPE bass

PS: I decided this cryptic post was necessary to set-up for Chapter 4, so that's why it's here.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Busy Time

I've been away from computers and the Internet the past week. Part of it is my wife's mom passed away this weekend. Also issues with my daughter. Twelve years old and the moods are raging!

I also played and sang in a show at church: "A Time for Christmas". You may have heard of it, it's making the rounds. For some parts I played cello in the small orchestra, and for some of it I sang in the choir. Also, there was my stellar acting in a non-speaking role as Shepherd #2. My robe had been fashioned from the remains of an awful, apparently 70's vintage, curtain. Shepherd #1 had refrained from shaving for the last two weeks. He looked just like the late Yassir Arafat. If the costumes weren't so bad we would have looked like a bunch of middle-aged over-the-hill terrorists.

Thank you to Robin for her comments on what's important in teachers. I'm surprised there's not more comments about teachers, here or at CBN. For something that is so important, I'd think folks would give a lot of thought to what they want from teachers.

Also, I know I owe PFS something. Soon!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Road to Cello - Chapter 3

The festival gave me incentive to pursue an instrument. Something other than trombone, my high school/college instrument. It had served me well, but now it was time for something different, but what?

The memory of the washtub bass thumping in the mist persisted. The music of that weekend was dominated by high range instruments. String bass and washtub bass, along with just some guitarists who emphasize bass notes, were the principal exceptions.

I did a little on-line reseach into washtub bass and found that, while there are no instruction guides at all on how to play one, there are many variations and plans on how to make one. One design in particular appealed to me, dubbed Tub-o-Tone by it's inventer, Lauren Miller. It has a fixed neck, a single tunable string, and a simple, to-the-point, no-frills, sound efficient design that appealed to me.

In my research I learned that washtub basses and harps share something unique in the string instrument world. Other instruments, i.e. those with bridges perpendicular to the string, transmit vibrations to the sound chamber at the same pitch as the string itself vibrates. One cycle to one cycle.

Harps and washtub basses, on the other hand, don't have bridges. The string attaches directly out of the sound box. In those cases the top of the sound box is pulled up and let down twice for every one cycle of the string. The pitch one hears from the sound chamber is twice the actual pitch of the string. Oooo, Cool! So that explains how those guys can play notes in the string bass range with ordinary clotheslines at low tension! It also explains how those long thick nylon harp strings sound higher than it appears they should.

By the end of the summer of 2002 I was in the Home Depot selecting materials and building my very own Tub-o-Tone. By fall I was attending local jams. Suffice it to say my unique home-made instrument got a lot attention and compliments; my playing, well, not nearly so much.

But it turned out to be a super way to start learning how fiddle tunes are put together, and start developing an ear. I got two of the most common tune books: Dave Brody's Fiddler's Fake Book, and Susan Songer's The Portland Collection.

At first the chord progressions seem to just fly by without making much sense. Sometimes it's as fast as one chord per beat at 2 beats per second. But some things began to make sense:

- Most fiddle tunes have two sections, with one or more contrasting characteristics. One section might be low in the fiddle range, the other high. One section might have very few chord changes, the other many. One might have all major chords, the other mostly minor. Usually, each section begins on the tonic and ends on the tonic (Even that is not always true, but it starts to become obvious when it isn't).

- Ancient modal and gapped tunes can often be accompanied with only two chords so they're the easiest for a beginner to follow: i (or I) and VII chords. E-dorian and A-dorian tunes are fairly common; consisting mainly or entirely of just E-minor/D-major or A-minor/G-major, respectively. A-mixolydian tunes can typically be accompanied with just A-major/G-major.

- Modern tunes (ie, within the last 300 years or so), tend to have at least 3 chords, usually I (or i), IV, and V. For me, hearing the V to I was easiest to hear first. It especially comes just before the end of a section. Then comes I to V. Picking out the changes to/from IV are harder. vi chords even harder.

- One thing you discover quickly is not everybody harmonizes the same tune the same way. There's a lot of variation. The most commmon variation seems to me to be the I vs VI chord; for example, G vs Em in the key of G major. Also, the ii vs the IV; for example, Am vs C in the key of G major. In many places you could play either one. Often, both of them together can be compatible enough that most people don't notice in a jam situation. But another that's more problematic is the IV vs VI; for example, C vs Em in the key of G major. Here the difference is much more noticeable and the two at the same time are not at all compatible.

- Fiddle tunes don't usually have chromaticism so when it happens it stands out. One of the examples is the VII chord built on the minor seventh degree. For example, a G major chord in something that's decidedly A-major. Does that ring a bell? Ah, it's a throwback to old fashioned A-mixolydian. Purity of musical style is not a big concern for tune writers or accompanists.

- It's still way too hard for me to hear and identify every individual chord change. They go by way too fast, for one thing. But after awhile one thinks of a section as a sentence. Some tunes have the same or very similar standard sentences.

Like: I - - - - - - V - I - - - - - - V - I -
or: I - - - IV - V - I - - IV - V - I -
or: I - IV- I - V - I - IV - V - I -
or: vi - - - - - -I -V - vi - - - - V - I -

Even if it's not one pattern or another, picking a first draft guess can lead to finding the real pattern after a few trials and watching the senior guitarist's left hand.

- I was really thrown for a loop over places where the chord changes every beat. How can anybody hear and follow that? Well, it turns out in practice that happens for one reason: The melody is basically a scale fragment; up or down. So what's a thumpy ol' washtub player to do? The easiest thing to do is to also play a scale fragment, in unison or in parallel. Take, for instance, a melody is |G-BG|F#-AF#|EDC#E|D. When I know the tune well I might play the chordal roots: G-D-A-D, but it's easier and works well for folkie purposes to just play G-F#-E-D.

Ok, when am I getting to cello? Patience! It's coming up next time.

Bodhrán side-track

PFS asked about that drum in Morrison's Jig/God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. That's a bodhrán, pronounced bow-rawn, that looks like:

and played with a short stick that looks like:

A player might play something like this, with a mixture of open and muffled tones:

Too much bodhrán gets old mighty fast, hence a plenitude of bodhrán jokes. Here's a clip from a recent movie with a bit of bodhrán in the mix: Road to Perdition clip

Thursday, December 07, 2006


Below is a repeat of something I posted on ICS's CBN yesterday. Perhaps someone may respond here, or pick it up on his/her own blog, differently than they would post over there with the thought-police.

In echo of the recent thread on what makes a good cello, what makes a good teacher? And, are good teachers rarer than good cellists?

Recent posts have prodded me, but I've been planning to start a thread on this subject for months. I'm sure the answer varies depending on the student, but I also imagine there are some constants.

My first teacher, whom I had for a year and a half, was an undergraduate student with limited cello performance and teaching experience. My second teacher has a Master's degree in Cello Performance and rather extensive performance experience in the US, Europe, and recently, Australia. Yet, I am struck more by their similarities in teaching much more than their differences. Yes, there have been differences in emphasis, and some things one mentions but not the other. But nothing from the first teacher has been undone or contradicted by the second. Both teachers have presented things within a framework that makes logical sense to me, so even if I can't do something well right away, I feel I understand where I'm heading.

Also, both teachers have tolerated, even welcomed, my sidetracks and off-the-wall questions. Both teachers patiently understood that I'm not just going to take their word for it, I'm going to have to experience it and sort it out for myself. It has to make sense by my understanding of how music, the physical world, levers, and the human body work, not just platitudes and simplistic catch-phrases that sometimes ignore physical reality.

Both teachers themselves, are active in both classical and non-classical cello, although their non-classical pursuits are immensely different.

Also, both teachers made me much more aware of how I actually sound than I would otherwise hear. It's so difficult to hear ourselves and play at the same time. Learning and playing takes up so much attention, there's precious little attention power left for listening.

When I read the ICS newsletter interviews, even as a very beginner, one thing struck me about what these artists appreciated about their teachers. They most appreciated the teachers that gave them strategies for solving new future problems rather than providing specific pat answers to specific current problems. That says something about the teacher, but even more about the student!

To my perspective, there's quite a few accomplished cellists in the world. I'm surprised at how many skilled or formerly skilled cellists are around, although few earn a full living performing. Few earn a living performing music in any area.

But really good teachers? I suspect they are far rarer. It seems to me few understand how it is they do what they do, and can transfer what it into another individual. Even more rare, I would think, is the truly effective match between student and teacher. Clearly, no teacher is right for everyone at every point in a musician's trainig.

I have told my teacher that someday, years (many years!) from now, I'd like to teach. She said (maybe lied) that I'd make a great teacher (Bob & Rich's worst nightmare, I know. They'll have to add a caveat to the ol' "Get a teacher" refrain). See! All the more reason for y'all to not just get any teacher!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Morrison's Gentlemanly Medley

"Well, how did the performance at the mall go?", I hear you cry. Ok, you didn't cry; I just have a wildly hyperactive imagination.

Our first Christmas gig went reasonably well considering it was our first performance for most of the tunes and the limited time we had to prepare with us altogether. Children danced joyfully. Shoppers stopped and swayed. I even saw a few sing along. Middle-aged men sat and passed the time with us while, presumably, their wives were helping mall retailers boost year-end revenue figures. And I understand the agent that hired us was quite pleased with us. With that going for us, what's a few rhythm and intonation problems in a noisy shopping mall between friends?

We played three 45-minute sets so we had a good bit of Christmas music prepared besides God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, but that's the story I started, so I shall finish it.

As I mentioned, we put GRYMG together with Morrison's Jig (MJ) to Christmas-fy it. For this combination we played MJ twice, GRYMG twice, and MJ twice. MJ, as three of us are now used to playing it, has a cello intro and prominent cello part. I don't remember how I started playing it, maybe by accident, maybe influenced by suggestions of the leader. It's an accompaniment that has evolved some as I've been playing it, mostly getting simpler. The A strain consists entirely of parallel fifiths. I think it makes a strong, gutsy, modern rock-ish sound, but in any basic classical music theory class it would earn me a big ol' F.

MJ traditionally moves along at a fast clip. Reminds me of a joke a hammer dulcimer player once told me:

How can you tell when a hammer dulcimer player is at your front door?

The knocking keeps getting faster and faster and faster...

I set up my minidisc recorder just prior to the 3rd hour. I should record myself and ourselves more often. I can tell we were tired from the hours of hammering and sawing. I hear some of my habitual mistakes cropping up along with some new original ones. I have ideas on things to change. Such is life, live performance, and music of the people!. HIPP it often ain't.

Here's MJ and GRYMG.

Post Script: The band leader really likes the A part I play to Morrison's (double stops) and is less satisified with the B part. She wonders what it would sound like if I stayed low to provide more contrast with the dulicimers, and what do you all think? Seems to me even the highest note (D above middle C) is still pretty low, and continued low grumblies throughout would be too much.

But that's part of why I like this folkie sort of music making over, let's say, a Mozart quartet (if' I were ready for such a thing). You can't fuss with and change and experiment with Mozart. He's the boss and you gotta do exactly what he wrote. Otherwise, it's not Mozart anymore.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Less is more, more or less

Well, at practice with the two hammer dulcimers I found I had to toss out and re-think my accompaniment to God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (GRYMG). We are doing other Christmas tunes, along with a few non-Christmas tunes, but I think the story illustrates how things typically develop as I try to come up with my own notes.

Our fearless leader has placed Morrison's jig into a medley that leads into GRYMG, with the guitar player playing bohdran (a type of drum, pronounced bow-ron) instead of guitar. That means my cello will provide the only harmony.

Both tunes are, nominally, in E minor, but that's about where the similarity usually ends. GRYMG, as usually harmonized and performed, is in classical E minor. The melody technically fits the Aeolian mode but traditionally with the 6th and 7th degrees raised or lowered in the harmony lines to enhance harmonic richness and make for interesting alto, tenor, and bass parts .

However, the melody itself has no altered tones. By itself it's just good ol' simple, primitive Aeolian. And that's what you hear with just two dulcimers playing melody with no harmony to "classicalize" it.

Morrison's jig is even more primitive. Our version consists almost entirely of a gapped scale. Of the 100 or so notes, the sixth degree appears only once, and then as a very quick passing tone, and it's raised, ie Dorian mode. However, the sixth degree is so brief that the tune's commitent to Dorian is negligible. The tune is mostly just notes of the E minor chord alternating with notes of the D major chord.

Also, the tempo of Morrison's jig is quite fast. The thump-ity thump-ity of the drum moves us right along. That means our GRYMG will move along like that proverbial bat from the underworld.

So, from a melody-only point of view, these tunes are quite compatible. With the bodhran tying them together, it brings out the primitive modal character of the GRYMG melody. My accompaniment, stripped of the guitar chords, and moving a mile a minute, didn't make a lick of sense anymore. It was introducing a mix of D#s, D naturals, C#s, and C naturals into the fray in a harmonic way of thinking that requires the cooperation of other, no longer existing, harmonic notes. Back to the drawing board.

Ok, so now I have another idea. GRYMG is largely a series of fast moving scale fragments. If my notes are the only non-melody tones, why not just moving scale fragments too, but slow, like a countermelody. Forget about following any chord changes or making up nee chord changes; it's going to work. I'll make my own slow moving solo melody and pretend those other instruments are accompanying me :-)

In ABC notation:


(Note: For ease of eading I've written this two octaves above what I actually intend. The notation rules for indicating notes below middle C make it harder to read for someone unaccustomed to ABC notation. At this point what anticipate I'll play for this tune will all be within the bass clef staff. The 4s mean the preceeding note is held 4 times as long as the default length, 2s means the preceeding note is held twice as long at the defail length. L: 1/4 indicates the default length is the quarter note. K:Em indicates the key and default key signature is that for E minor. The z represents a rest; a quarter rest because that's the default length. [] is a double bar. I should get adept at reading ABC notation so I might as well just jump right into it and use it.)

All of this is well and good except for one thing. The performance at the mall is tomorrow so I won't get a chance to try it out with the others. Yikes!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

God Rest Ye Freylehk Rabosay

I practiced with just the guitar player last night. One of the Christmas tunes that we had to simplify chords for was "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." There's a standard E minor 4-part harmony arrangement that's been around for many years that perhaps you've heard or sung. In 4-part harmony singing you can easily change the chord for every note and it makes sense. With guitar it's too difficult, makes no sense, and would sound dreadful if you could. Better to choose a chord for a measure and let some of the melody notes be non-harmonic.

So I brought a proposed chord sequence and a bass line and we tried it out. The bass line has some C naturals followed by D#s. Y'know, linke in the good ol' harmonic minor scale. Also in some Jewish modes. Oy, it started to sound Klezmer! At practice tomorrow with the dulcimers (akin to cembala, an Eastern Eurpopean instrument) maybe we can add some Eastern European-ish rhythms, if they'll go along with this cross-cultural travesty.

Welcome, Yellow Dog. Glad to hear you're stilling playing with the fiddler.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Road to Cello - Chapter 2

Over a year had past before M came back. She was in a happier, more connected of mind. "Must get date, or at least phone number!" I thought. That had a snag, she was traveling to Washington soon to visit her brother for awhile. Hmmm, the next possible weekend I had my daughter with me. A few weeks later we had a first date at Chuck E. Cheese with me bringing my 7-year-old along and she bringing her dog.

In the following months we got to know each other, and each others tastes in things like music. We took some road trips out to the desert and she brought some of her favorite tapes along: some Celtic, some Appalachian, some various guitar/banjo/song collections. Real nice stuff. After awhile it starts to grow on you. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes somewhere in between, but always hummable and good listening.

Sometimes M spoke of the Summer Solstice Festival held in Calabasas by the California Traditional Music Society. It was one of her favorite places. I had heard of it and I knew many of the contradancers went up there but I didn't know much about it and hadn't thought of going before. So when June came, we packed up a tent and food and out to Calabasas we went.

Wow, it was better than I had imagined! It was held on the grounds of Soka University which was a beautful somewhat isolated place. Small by University standards perhaps, but with expansive lawns, large shade trees, a creek and pond with large graceful swans. Are we still in dusty, crowded, concrete-covered Southern California? Didn't seem that way.

For the two days there were workshops for singers, instrumentalists, and dancers at various levels, concerts, and jam sessions (both planned and unplanned) all over the campus and at the campgrounds. Instruments included, but were not limited to: fiddles, banjos and mandolins of various shapes, sizes, and tunings, guitars, hammer and fretted dulicmers, harps, whistles and flutes, psalteries, concertinas and accordians, string basses, and even home-made instruments, such as PVC pipe marimbas and washtub basses. And for non-instrumentalists, sessions in harmony singing, cowboy songs, Celtic songs, humorous songs, American contradance, English country dance, Greek dance, belly dance, and other international dance styles.

In the mornings and evenings groups formed in the camping area for song circles and jams. It's gets very dark there (no campfires are allowed, of course, but then, these people are not the type to pack music stands). At one point a washtub bassist came by, stopping for a while at the camping area before continuing on to a hotel with many other late night jams sessions. I still remember how that bass added a gentle depth and anchor to the sometimes chaotic mixture of treble instruments. Bimm-bumm-bimm-bumm... wafted through the campground. I had no idea that a washtub could actually hit specific notes and follow the chord changes like that. I wished I could do that, but I couldn't imagine learning to pull on a stick just the right amount to match chord changes by ear. No way I could even hope to identify chord changes well enough and fast enough for any instrument yet alone on something like that. It seemed like magic.

Note: Since that time (2002) the CTMS festival has been scaled back. The grounds of the Calabasas campus of Soka University were purchased by the CA Park Service (See http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/712/files/031105a.pdf, and http://angeles.sierraclub.org/News/SS_2005-05/soka2.asp). By contract, although the sale was completed in 2005, Soka University maintained control on the use of the grounds until 2007. I'm told the Park Service wants more money for the use of the grounds than CTMS can come up with. While the 2006 festival still took place on the same grounds with a cut-down schedule, we hear the 2007 festival might be held at a large hotel in Encino instead. We're waiting for more word from CTMS.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

It's That Time of the Year

Christmas time is here, by golly,
Disapproval would be folly.
Deck the halls with hunks of holly,
Fill the cup and don't say "when".
Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens,
Mix the punch, drag out the Dickens.
Even though the prospect sickens,
Brother, here we go again.

Tom Lehrer

A little group of us has a gig at a local mall on
Dec 2. Two hammer dulcimers, guitar, and cello.
We've started working on Xmas tunes (Unlike some
folks, I don't have a problem with the abbreviation
"Xmas." It's not an English X! It's a Greek Chi,
for Ihsous Xristos. Makes it more international
and connects us with its original and true meaning
that way.)

It turns out the guitar player's chords differ,
quite significantly at times, from what I've assumed.
I'll need to do some revision. On Monday I'll get
together with just the guitar player and run through
accompaniments, cleaning them up. No pesky melodies
to distract us.

Sometimes my semi-classical/pop/theoretical taste
clashes with what others play, and have played,
for years. Part of it is I look for a good bass
line, rather than what's easy and natural on a
chording instrument like guitar. Also, I can't
help but feel Xmas music often lends itself to a
more colorful, classical-ish treatment, rather
than down-home 3-chord boom-chick.

"Y'know, we could substitute the relative minor
for that same
old tonic chord here... and don'cha
think a temporary modulation over here
would be so
cool... and waddabout a suspended 4th before the
cadence over there..."

Just knock it off already, Terry. Find out the
chord changes they're
already playing and play
something that sticks to those.

Monday, November 20, 2006

If I Were a Tech Whiz

Cellist Hilton commented: If you could magically play with the technique of a professional, would you? Why or why not?

Interesting question. I'm going to take a shot at answering.

No. At least not often or much. Consider the typical orchestra parts. The cello parts are usually far easier than I would think the composer would expect the players to be able to play. Yes, some composers make it a struggle, but normally players in an ensemble have other things on their mind than using their technique. Listening, balancing, matching, following, emphasizing, backing off, energy, restraint, artistry... The notes themselves are relatively easy.

Perhaps a good, albeit imperfect anology is: technique is to music as vocabulary is to story-telling. You need a minimum vocabulary to tell a story. To a point, a fuller and more accurate choice of words can make a more vivid and interesting story. But long, complex, high-falutin' words for the sake of showing off one's vocabulary doesn't help the story. And if the story is told by multiple story-tellers in ensemble, but one teller's words don't fit, it degrades the story.

Certainly Mark Twain had an educatated man's vocabulary, but should he use all that educated vocabulary for the voices in the story? Aren't there other elements to a story than just vocabulary. The relationships of words to other words. Images the words evoke. Tension and release. Main characters and supporting characters.

In practice, too many notes in the cello range sounds sounds too cluttered and hurried.

Rushad Eggleton, a classically-trained cello prodigy, said in Fiddler Magazine: "I began working out tunes like 'Bill Cheatum' and 'Salt Creek,' but at first I started out playing them in a way that felt totally unnatural. I tried playing them using classical cello technique, which was difficult. It took me a long time to realize that people who play folk and vernacular music didn't play their instruments in a way that's physically difficult, like classically trained musicians do. They play their instrument in an organic way. Fiddlers tend to play in first position, for example. So if I was going to play this music on cello, I was going to have to play it in the simplest way possible. I experimented with different ways of holding the bow, and for a while I tried playing without the end peg, but eventually I stopped thinking about technique altogether. "I stopped playing the tunes in the upper octaves, the same range the fiddle is tuned to, and started playing them in first position, in the lower ranges I call the heart of cello land. In bluegrass music, not every instrument plays the tune the same way -- the banjo does it a bit differently from the mandolin and so on -- and I realized I could change things a bit, too, so they fit the cello. I could put some passages down an octave for example, and make the tone really bluesy and growly and take advantage of what the cello has to offer. I've really gotten into the low, grumbliness of the instrument."

Friday, November 17, 2006

A Road to Cello - Chapter 1

What's an, ummm, unorthodox, not-terribly disciplined, not terribly classical-minded man like me doing sitting behind a cello. Cellos are conservative, orthodox, highly disciplined, and highly classical instruments. Perhaps no other common musical instrument presents such a classical, and nearly only classical, image in today's world. Say cello and people think of serious music and performers like Casals and Piatigorsky. Ok, maybe oboe and bassoon are even more square, perhaps to some measure because Yo-Yo Ma, the household name in cello, has branched out from the strictly classsical repertoire.

I'm going to start my story of how I took up this consuming habit in the summer of 2000, over 2 years before I ever touched a cello (Hey, it's my story. I can start it where I want!). I was at a contradance. I had been going once in a while for a couple of years by then. I liked the concept of attending a dance with a live band, and found it worth supporting. I found the sounds and the atmosphere growing on me. It was very different from the kinds of music I grew up with, but that was fine with me. It was gentle, unsophisticated, earthy, and real. Not an electronic wall of sound; and not so complex that one had to sit and listen carefully to get it. It was all about the audience and their enjoyment of the dance, not about the performers. And the people were my kind of people. While I'm no tee-totaler, there's no alcohol at contradances. I could bring my daughter; she was 6 years old the first time I brought her. The people are friendly; very happy to see you come back. And the dancing is easy. Much easier than Country-Western or Swing. Mistakes are freely forgiven.

The folks in nearby Riverside County have made a video that gives an accurate picture of what a contradance is like. I have a link to their site over on the side. I recommend it if you want to understand some of what PFS has been writing about contradances.

Anyway, at that dance back in 2000 I met a delightful lady whom I'll call M. She seemed to be about my age, she participated in Sierra Club events like I did, and we seemed to have a lot in common, but she was clearly in emotional pain. Sadly, her husband had passed away about three months before, from heart failure. She was still grieving but had to get out of the house and be around some people. She had enjoyed folk music for years but her husband had required considerable care in his last years, even though he was not very old at all.

M & I had an interesting and memorable conversation. I left the dance that night hoping to see her next month. It was not to be. She didn't show up at the next one, either. Or the next. Oh well, I thought, maybe she's found somebody new and she's doing well again (to be continued).

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Maybe Tula has the right idea

Tula's rendition of Whisky Before Breakfast is considerable simpler than versions I've seen in print. I like that simplified version, yet I don't think it's terribly noticeable that it is simpler.

Dave Brody's Fiddler's Fake Book is a commonly used source for fiddle tunes by all instruments. I've prepared a jpeg that shows the Fiddler's Fake Book version down an octave, and below it a transcription of what Tula played, with some of it down two octaves, and some of it down one octave. Big difference in playability!

Whisky Before Breakfast: Complex vs Simple

The FFB version (top line) is what I've worked on, and I'm still too slow and fuzzy (for want of a better word) at the shifts. I'd think I'd be making better music, as far as listeners were concerned, playing the bottom line.

There's no Correctness Police enforcing exactly how to play this music. Where is the line between "my version" and "wrong"? Is there such a line?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Whisky Before Breakfast

I use Audacity (freeware) to export mp3s from minidisc recordings. When I exported the A Place in the Heart mp3 I forgot to change the title field and it was saved with a prior title, Whisky Before Breakfast. Sorry for that initial confusion.

The Whisky Before Breakfast recording that I had been working with before was done with a guest fiddler, Tula, from Monrovia. This was after just one rehearsal with us. Tula is very much my idea of what a fiddler should should like. Monrovia is a bit far away, but I hope she comes down and guests with us more often in the future. Unfortunately, the minidisc filled up before the end of the tune, so the recording with Tula abrubtly ends.

I've worked on the melody Whisky Before Breakfast some, off and on, for a couple of years. It goes up to 4th position, but the tricky part is a back and forth section between 3rd and 2nd. At first it seemed impossible, then it seemed like someday off in the future, and now it seems like it's just a bit beyond my reach at full tempo. Maybe a few months more and I'll be posting myself on the melody.

Here's the band When Pigs Fly! with guests Tula and myself guesting on washtub bass: Whisky Before Breakfast

Monday, November 13, 2006

Ar hyd y nos

Yesterday at church, the program listed the closing hymn as For the Fruit of All Creation. I didn’t recognize the title but I sure recognized the tune: An ancient Welsh air known as Ar hyd y nos (no, I don’t speak Gaelic), also known as All Through the Night. I looked in the back of the hymnal and saw that the tune index listed Ar hyd y nos at three different locations in that one hymnal: Go My Children With God’s Blessing, God Who Made the Earth and Heaven, and For the Fruit of All Creation.

Mozart it ain’t. Some totally unknown person or persons, perhaps a poor peasant, made up this simple tune in his, or probably her, home, perhaps to be a sung to her baby, many centuries ago. Yet it still appears in hymnals and many thousands, perhaps millions of people, have sung it and continue to sing it. Mozart should be so lucky.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

A Place in the Heart

Well, thank you commenters for your kind words.

A Place in the Heart is a relatively recent tune composed by Bill Crahan for mandolin. I don't know the exact year but I think in the '90s. We've started working on it with our mandolin player and below I have a link to a recording of last week's practice session on it. It's an AABB structured tune. For the A sections, I'm playing pizz chords. For the B sections I've made up my own little harmony part. I know, the actual playing, especially intonation, still leaves a lot to be desired, but I think the cello line works out rather nicely in this piece.

I can't imagine not writing my own parts some of the time. It's not improvisation in the sense Eric Edberg advocates because I figure out what to play ahead of time, then change and work with it between practices. The choice of notes notes often remain a work in progress.

A Place in the Heart

Thursday, November 09, 2006

A Start

Welcome to my newly starting blog. My intent is that this blog will mostly discuss musical activities and thoughts, mostly regarding cello and amatuer music, but with occasional wanderings to other subjects. My hope is that reader comments will help me steer where this blog goes.

I started cello at age 49, after having played trombone off and on from age 13 to 40. Soon I'll post how and why I came to cello. For now, suffice it to say I certainly know, starting at this advanced age, I won't ever be playing Shostokovich or Brahms sonatas in great metropolitan concert-houses like a life-long professional. That's alright with me. I'll make myself a niche playing simple music with friends in concerts and jams. Fiddlers, guitarists, banjo players, etc, often start as adults and make highly enjoyable music within just a few years, so why not cellists? True, we can't go as fast and high, but our accompaniments can sound wonderful, and listeners find a well-executed melody on cello a special treat.

For most of the 20th century, cello, viola da gamba, and basy (a 3-stringed Eastern European version) had been largely forgotten as instruments of the working class, largely supplanted by the guitar, double bass, banjo, cittern, bouzouki, and the increased availability of the piano (once prohibitively expensive for common folk). Then in 1973, Abby Newton brought cello back into the folk world playing with the famed Putnam String County Band. In 1974 Nancy Blake began playing cello and guitar with her husband fiddler and mandolin player Norman Blake. Gradually more artists and bands brought cello into their sounds, prompting LA-based author and disc-jockey Larry Wines to proclaim 2005 The Year of the Cello (Folkworks bi-monthly newspaper, Jul/Aug 2005 issue).