Old World or New, Sacred or Profane

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Track of the Wrist

Uploading an image for future use.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The kid's got a lot on the ball

Here's the sitch: He's now in his second year of elementary school orchestra. Tomorrow he auditions for elementary honors orchestra which, I gather, is school district-wide. There's 4 cellists in his elementary school orchestra, he's the only one trying out for honors orchestra.

Besides scales, the piece he is to play is the cello part to an orchestral arrangement of All The Pretty Little Horses. While it doesn't go above D one leger line above bass clef, I was has surprised at how hard it is rhythmically (This is for elementary school kids?!). A couple of meter changes, syncopation, 16th note runs, some portado, some pretty tricky stuff, considering. And he was told they want the A's longer than 16th notes on the D string.

Too hard for him (and me!) to just play through, so we did the Julius Ceasar thing in quite a few spots: Just a few notes several times, then just a few more notes, then put them together several times, then add a few more notes....

For a kid who hasn't had lessons, he doesn't seem to have 1st-position-itis. He just zips up to 2nd and 3rd position easily, likes it's no big deal. Hits that A to match the A string pretty well. There are other areas, though, where lessons will become critical. My opinion is that he needs to get the left arm higher for lower strings, a higher right arm to keep the point-of-contact from creeping up on the long down bows, get further back on backward extensions, take care to keep 2 finger from going sharp --- the usual suspects. But that's for a possible future teacher to decide.

I gained an increased appreciation of how hard it is to put directions into words, especially on the fly in the middle of things. Like with the syncopated rhythms, one can try to explain 'hold the A until after beat 1, then on the 'and of 1' play the Bb, then on the 'and of 2' play the C,...", or one can just say "It's: bah bah bah..." I get too tongue-tied. I'm more suited to the bah-bah-bah method (I think he was more comfortable receiving the bah-bah-bah method, too).

I certainly could see how, to be able explain things, one should not just know how to do it, but rather observe other teachers explaining things at that particular student level.

I hope he does well tomorrow.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Asked to coach a 12 year old boy

My sister-in-law called last night. She wanted to know if I’d be willing to come by on Saturday for a coaching session with a 12 year-old boy who’s auditioning on cello on Monday for a school “honors” orchestra. My sister-in-law has known the family for a long time, likes the boy and has “baby-sat” him often in the past, and the boy has apparently been playing cello for some time, but has never had a lesson.

Well, what could I say? Of course, I’ll come by. Naturally, I hope to motivate the parents to get the boy private lessons with a real teacher if the boy shows genuine interest. I’ll stress that I’m not at all qualified to teach.

Still, I’m quite looking forward to meeting a fellow traveler, even one 42 years younger than me, seeing how he does, and talking cello. I think it will be fun.

But since he’ll be meeting me, of all people, maybe some prayers for his cello-istic soul would be in order here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ok, now at last -- Seven Things about Me

Long ago Mike tagged me on this, so it’s way overdue.

1. I’m father to a fine 13 year-old girl. Perhaps parenthood defines who I am more than anything. She’s bright, difficult, draining, independent, delightful, disappointing, impossible, dependent, talented, frustrating, inspiring,. . .

2. I’m happily married for 4 years now. While M doesn’t play an instrument, it’s M that helped re-kindle my interest in getting back into music, but in a different way. M kindly accepts, and even encourages, me in this cello pursuit.

3. I was in the Navy for seven years. Oh yeah, I’ve seen much of the world --- mostly the unimaginably immense watery part. I served on two ships, the USS Bradley and USS Chicago, and as an embarkation instructor at a Marine training command. I really liked those days as an instructor. Marines is good people.

4. I’m a computer professional. The computer world is so incredibly large, so incredibly diverse, that a label like that means absolutely nothing. So let me refine it – a former IBM mainframe, former OS/2, now Unix computer professional using a message brokering system to connect numerous disparate computer systems dealing with law enforcement and criminal justice for a very large metropolitan entity. (Yeah, it’s an occupational hazard; after enough years we all start talking like that.)

5. I’m a Penn State alumnus, class of ‘75. Hail to the Lion!

6. My wife and I are considering buying recumbent bicycles. Anybody out there familiar with them?

7. I’ve been through over 12 years of near constant litigation to maintain contact with my daughter (I currently have her about 1/3 of the time). I’ve had 70 or more court dates since 1996. My ex will not again attempting to reduce my time and increase my payments, so and I must return to court yet again on December 5th. Naturally, my opinion of Family Law courts and attorneys is pretty darn low, and the senseless conflict drains my spirit and my faith in humanity. But these things are also a part of life.

Monday, October 29, 2007

So why bother?

Also copied from parts of a Cello Chat post:

So, if we have so many disadvantages, then why bother?

Well, of course, there’s The Tone. Ain’t nothin’ like it; it adds class to a flock of tinkly dulcimers, strummin’ git-tars, twangy bangos (spelling intentional), and squeaky fiddles.

It turns out it’s actually a good thing that cello’s not just an octave violin. How wise were those early designers! Because of its octave-plus-a-fifth lower tuning, it can perform in one or more of several roles ---

Played by a beginner: (1) it can take the role of string bass (plucked or bowed), (2) it is well-suited for song-speed melodies in typical vocal keys, and (3) it can play back-beats, “potatoes”, and simple groove rhythms in pitches well removed from the melody.

For the intermediate: (4) harp-like strummed/plucked accompaniments, (5) rich harmonizations in that beefy, baritone, octave-plus-a-third to an octave-plus-a-sixth or so, range below fiddle-keyed melodies, (6) beautifully airs in that tenor range one octave lower than fiddle pitch, and (7) some fast tunes in fiddle keys --- either one, two, or often, a combination of both one and two octaves below fiddle pitch

And for the advanced (to which I aspire): ( 8 ) exciting and driven groove patterns, and (9) tunes and harmonizations all over the fingerboard, from deep in the low grumblies to the upper areas of the treble clef staff. Will I get there? Who cares! The joy is in the journey.

For (1), you’ll want to learn to identify chord changes, at least in the root notes. I’m not great at it, but I know if I listen and experiment with it quietly, I’ll eventually get it. After a while you get to recognize certain patterns right off the bat, like I-IV-I-V I-IV-V-I, or VI7-II7-V7-I, or i-VII-i-VII(or v)-i.

Regarding (2), ever notice that songs for general singing, like in a hymnal or Christmas book, typically extend up only to D or E? This works out very nicely for cello learners still limited to 1st and 2nd position. There’s no shortage of written tunes in that range. Try playing/recording well-known Christmas Carols and your intonation limitations will become all too obvious.

For (3), some books address this, but so does watching others and using your imagination: doo-wada-doo-wada-doo-wada... or boom, ka-chk, boom, ka-chk-a-chk, boom, ka-chk… or whatever. Copy and experiment.

But for these you need to know some basic theory. Be able to spell any chord. Read or figure out tunes by ear. Understand how chords migrate to-from the tonic. Select the right note for the situation.

Time spent with a teacher following any of the commonly available methods, like Suzuki, All For Strings, Essential Elements, Feuilliard, or whatever, provides a physical foundation and you gotta have that foundation. Remember, if you can’t yet play Vivaldi, you can’t yet play typical fiddle tunes, anyway. It can come, but it’s gonna take time on the instrument with formal lessons and playing formal stuff.

Ok, now I’ve got my pontificating urge out of me. I hope to soon answer the question and comment on some of the books with which I'm familiar on the good lists Jim and Marilyn have provided.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Fiddle vs Cello

This post is copied from my parts of a recent post on Cello Chat, in response to a newbie asking for book recommendations regarding folk music. "Folk music" can mean a lot of things, but I think he probably means fiddle tunes on cello.

Over the past four years of participating on those chat boards I’ve seen quite a few beginners interested in the folkie side of cello come, and then disappear. Off-hand, the only one I can think of that has really stuck with it besides myself is Maricello, who unlike me, is sensible enough to not stick foot-in-mouth there on Cello Chat, as I do [Note: I forgot to mention PFS. Hey, PS, how are you doing on that?].

What Maricello and I have in common is a solid background with another instrument, we take classical-type lessons regularly, practice near daily, keep in touch with and play with the local fiddle/folk instrument community, listen to the folk-type cellists, research and think for ourselves, and realize this is a slow process that will take some years to develop.

I think it’s fair to say, of the usual folk instruments, fiddle is, by far, the hardest. The coordination, ear training, precision, and touch requirements well exceed that required for the fretted instruments, like banjo and guitar. A mandolin or harp, for example, can make nice tones (in tune!) if picked or plucked by a total novice. Not so, the bowed fiddle (and the cello!). Still, a highly motivated and reasonably talented adult, taking fiddle or violin lessons, and practicing daily can be decent enough to play in jams and keep up with a good number of tunes in a year. A violin student that has, for example, completed Suzuki 1 and 2 well, is ready for fiddle tunes.

For cello, make it at least four years (for fiddle tune melodies, that is). I suggest that’s one reason why it’s not a usual folk instrument. Some may dispute it, but for us, typical fiddle tunes are as hard, or harder, than a typical fast movement of a Vivaldi sonata, or a typical student concerto/sonata piece that you’d find in, say, Suzuki 5.

Why? First off, it’s the keys the tunes are usually played in. Virtually all fiddle tunes make full use of the E string (Why? ‘Cause it’s there!). We ain’t got E strings, so we shift --- lots and fast. True, for some tunes we can put it down two octaves, rather than one octave, from the fiddle, but that gives us slower response and often that gets just too slow, thick, and muddy.

Also, it’s the speed. From my own simple-minded approach, there are two basic types of folkie tempos – singing tempos and dancing tempos. For me personally, dancing tempo is where it’s at, but that’s 100-120 beats (foot steps) a minute. For reels and polkas, that’s usually four eighth notes per step. For jigs, we get a break --- only three notes per step, but they also tend to be at the upper range of dance tempos. So we’re looking at 360 to well over 400 notes a minute. It’s going to take quite some time to even be able to perform major scales at that speed, yet alone tunes, yet alone tunes that require constant changes of position, yet alone be anywhere close to in tune.

Why are we so slow? Well, for one thing, the strings are much heavier and much further from the fingerboard, so it takes us longer to finger, and longer for the string to respond. Secondly, our bow arm is not in an optimal position for speed. With their down arms near their side, fiddlers can bow single notes or shuffles very quickly by merely opening and closing their elbows a small bit. With us, we have to either awkwardly hold our arms far out to the side, or move the entire arm from the shoulder for that fast bowing.

Also, without using open strings, a fiddler can play diatonically without shifting. We cannot. We cannot go to, say, 5th position, and just stay there, unless we use the thumb, which is a quite advanced technique.

We have lots of disadvantages, which I think partially explains why there as so few successful professional cellists in the folk world.

But then, we have some advantages too, so if I haven’t scared you off I’ll write about those, maybe tomorrow.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Low Bowing Shoulder

On the esteemed Cellomania blog, PFS wrote “The more relaxed the shoulder, the better the tone. Maybe Terry could explain the physics behind that.” This was in a discussion that touched on keeping a lowered shoulder. Umm, thank for the vote of confidence, PFS (I think).

I can’t exactly explain it in such a rigorous and exacting manner that it would be published in a scientific journal, but I think I can explain it well enough that it makes intuitive sense. But keep in mind, two years ago I didn’t understand it. This was something that had to be demonstrated to me, physically, for me to get, mentally.

If I rest my hand on my trusty ol’ computer keyboard and raise my shoulder, what happens? I put a more downward pressure on the keyboard. Straight down. To a neophyte cellist, this seems like a good way to add a little so-called “weight” to a cello string, too. It’s so instinctual we tend to do it automatically, without even knowing it.

One of several problems with that instinct is that the string is not horizontal, but rather at a 45 degree angle or so. The force coming from a raised shoulder is straight down, rather than into the string. That straight down force doesn’t help the rosined hair help move the string sideways very well, and not only that, the straight down force interferes with the string’s sideway motion when the string slips from the rosin hair, giving us crunchy distortion.

If instead, we pull towards ourselves, something like what we would do rowing a boat, the force is more into the string, rather than down onto the string. We get freer sideways string motion. Not only that, but we can pull on that “oar” without stiffening our shoulder, arms, and wrist, allowing fluidity in strokes, bow changes, and string crossings.

So for me now, raising the shoulder when bowing a cello makes about as much sense as raising a shoulder when pulling on a boat oar. I'll bet not many people have a problem with a stiffened, tense shoulders when rowing a boat, even though they're putting a lot of force into it. Why? 'Cause they're too busy rowing! But then, what'ch y'all think?

Basic Cello Chords

[Posted a few weeks ago on Cello Chat, re-posted here for archival/later reference]

The subject of playing chords like a guitar comes up once in a while. I've started a simple chord chart that still leaves much to be desired. I lifted the diagrams from a tenor banjo site. Tenor banjo is usually (but by no means always) tuned one octave higher than cello. Unfortunately, many fingering combinations that are easy on a small fretted banjo are just not practical on cello.

I only included the most common major and minor chords, with the root as lowest note, for jams and sing-alongs. That means some are three-string chords. I also omitted 7ths because the tenor banjo fingerings a that site were mostly impractical for cello, but it should be easy to figure out how to do a 7th from the major fingering.

Note that the numbers represent frets (ours are imaginary), not fingers. Mostly it's barred finger 1, 2 for minor/3 for major, and 4.

For the 4-string chords, often you can play the 7th with finger 2 on the A-string. For the 3-string chords, you can play the 7th with finger 4 on the D-string.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Accompaniment examples with chop

As I proposed in the previous post, here's a few examples accompaniment examples. Of course there can be many others, and many variations just on these, as well as patterns without chop (Which I think should be the usual).

I've put them in two categories: One set appropriate for a reel, polka, or other duple meter tune, and another set for jigs and some hornpipes (if done with a triplet meter).

Friday, July 27, 2007

Chop – Bowing down & up, as well as left & right

In response to mycatmarti, here’s what I know about chop – that percussive chk sound that some cellists put into their playing at times. The effect is somewhat similar to the slap that old-time/bluegrass bassists sometimes do. Notable practitioners of the technique include Rushad Eggleston, Natalie Haas, and Dr. Renata Bratt.

In the DVD “Chops and Grooves,” Eggleston joins fiddlers Darol Anger and Casey Dreissen in demonstrating the technique. Dr. Bratt describes the technique some in her Book/CDs “The Fiddling Cellist,” and gives more examples in “Celtic Grooves for Two Cellos” which includes some of the patterns Natalie Haas plays.

Chops are not played alone, but together with normal notes as part of a rhythmic pattern called a “groove”. I will attempt to explain how the technique is performed, but direct observation and instruction with someone already adept at the technique is far better. To begin, I’ll describe four types of chop:

The hard chop is executed by bringing the bow straight down hard, just an inch or so from the frog and close to the bridge, striking the strings (usually the C and G strings) from above at an angle and skidding to a stop. The skid into the string across the windings produces a chk sound. This is the most common chop.

A soft chop can executed in much the same way but by bringing the bow with less force, and further from the bridge.

Another chop, the up-bow chop, is a yet softer sound. It can be executed by scraping the bow back up off the string, usually immediately after a hard chop. The result of a hard chop followed by an up-bow chop is a chk-a sound.

Yet another type of chop is the ghost chop. The ghost chop makes no sound, but that’s ok. It’s just a light bounce off the strings as a place-keeper, to physically maintain a constantly flowing rhythm in the hand. As Rushad puts it, "Feel the boogie."

I think the most important thing to point out about the chop is that a little goes a long way. Too much gets annoying real fast.

Here an audio example with chop from a CD by Dr. Bratt, with Rushad and guitarist Jim Lewis: a pleasant rendition of that good ol’ standard, Cripple Creek. Notice how well they integrate chop into the normal notes.

Chop is relatively new, the exact technique for executing chop has not been codified, so there’s considerable variation in the way the motion is executed. Rushad uses a lot of finger motion, extending his fingers down quite straight in order to strike the strings. Natalie, on the other hand, uses her her whole arm to bring the bow down, with virtually no finger action that I can see.

From observations at a New Directions Cello Festival workshop lead by Natalie with assistance from Dr. Bratt, the problem most beginners have with executing chop is that the bow bounces off the string instead of sinking into it. If the bow bounces off the string, there’s no chk sound.

Why the bounce? I've found that the bow bounces when the the wrist is too tense. If the wrist is tight, like a stretched rubber band, well sure, the bow/hand/arm combination just bounces right off. To sink into the string on a chop requires a wrist that gives; one that acts like a shock absorber rather than a spring.

Those who ride horses Western-style will understand exactly what I mean. Especially at the trot, a beginner's butt bounces unmercifully against the saddle: SMACK– SMACK – SMACK… Ouch!!! Why? Because the rider’s calves are tight. Beginner’s legs act like rubber bands, propelling frightened, hapless novices up into the air with each horse stride. And what goes up, must come down. Hard. The competent rider bounces very little because his calves stretch but stay relaxed, acting like slack, compliant shock absorbers, ever yielding to the horse’s motion. So too, with the chop. The wrist must yield; in just the right way.

I find I cannot chop well with finger extension alone, as Rushad seems to do. I need a whole arm approach. Something like the motion of slapping one's thigh with the heel of the hand.

Watch Natalie in this YouTube video (The chop pattern starts about one third into the video): Fraser and Haas. I’ll think you’ll come to the same conclusion I do. Note that, unlike Rushad, she strikes the string far from the bridge. Her petite, light bow arm and hand come down so easily and effectively her C string usually clacks against the fingerboard. Powerful --- but no bounce.

If there's interest, I'll post some groove patterns in music notation.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Who's who in Folk Cello

At times I'm amazed at the number of people that play cello at some level. And so many that are really very good! Many are college trained to some degree. And many that play professionally or semi-professionally at one level or another. And there will be no shortage in the foreseeable future: so many children study cello!

Yet, it seems to me, in the folk-related genres there really are very few widely-known cellists. I have some ideas on why this is so; some of those thoughts may be considered fighting words if expressed within some circles, but I'll float some of them in a future post.

Ok, so who, exactly, is out there, playing/recording at a professional level in a folk-related genres? Well, here's some names, listed in categories of my own choosing. Perhaps readers will want to add a few (names and/or categories):

The Classicists: Those whose playing is generally consistent with mainstream classically-oriented cello.

- Abby Newton Performing since 1973. Contributed to over 70 recordings. Largely Celtic repertoire. Currently with violinist David Greenberg and harpist Kim Robertson playing "Baroque-folk."

- Nancy Blake Performing since 1974. Married to well-known fiddler/mandolinist Norman Blake. Also plays guitar and other instruments. Largely Americanna repertoire.

- Barry Phillips Performing since 1980's. Cellist/arranger/producer working with a loosely affiliated group of folk musicians centered around Santa Cruz, CA. Repertoire has spanned many traditions and countries of origin.

- Yo-Yo Ma In addition to so many unique projects - Americanna with Mark O'Connor & Edgar Meyer, and with Alison Krause; Central Asian with the Silk Road Project.

The Young Groovers: Those who emphasize driving rhythms and rock-influenced groove patterns.

- Rushad Eggleston Also a singer/songwriter. Works with some very well-known multi-genre fiddlers. Includes some jazz, blues, and other more modern idioms.

- Natalie Haas Plays with Alasdair Frasier, typically as a twosome, Mark O'Connor, and others. Repertoire is largely 18th/19th century Scottish, with some 20th century compositions consistent with that style, but modernized by her high-energy bass/rhythm grooves.

Up and coming college student: Ariel Friedman. Plays/records with her sister Mia, and with Hanneke Cassel.

The Folk Singers: Those who are predominately folk-style singer/songwriters.

- Lindsay Mac Folk/pop singer/songwriter with jazz & rock elements. Her songs are often stories, sometimes autobiographical.

- Caroline Lavelle Sings and writes in the English/Irish tradition. Also has performed with Loreena McKennitt and with the Chieftains in what she describes as Chamber-Folk.

- Ben Sollee Appalachian-influenced singer/songwriter. Also performs in a quartet with banjoists Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleack, and fiddler Casey Dreissen.

The Educators: Those who are primarily educators. At present, I have only entry.

- Renata Bratt President of the International Association for Jazz Education String Caucus, chair of the 2007 American String Teachers Association Alternative String Styles Steering Committee and vice-president of the Kuumbwa Jazz Center Board in Santa Cruz. Writes articles, books, records CD, and conducts workshops for students and teachers. Researches and teaches techniques commonly employed by folk-oriented cellists, but omitted from classically-oriented cello pedagogy.

The One-and-Only's: Those in a category all by themselves.

Sean Grissom, the "Cajun Cellist". Fiddle tunes and music similar to fiddle tunes, strongly influenced by Cajun-style fiddling. Features double shuffles, blues notes, and slides.

There they are, until you give me more names to add. I have not included studio musicians that to play on some folk-related recordings, or on folk band tours, but rather have a focus in music written and traditionally played by regular, non-classically trained folk. Nor have I included players like Denise Djokic (as much as I like what she does) that play formally-composed classical music that was originally inspired by folk music.

So who else should I have included?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Most Influential Musician of the 20th Century

Last night I excused myself early from a small group practice (they only wanted me for my washtub bass playing, anyway) so that I could run home and see a PBS documentary on legendary guitarist/recording artist Les Paul. I already had some idea of his significance in the evolution of music genres, music technology, and the recording industry, but I found out he's even more important than I had realized. He was first to figure out how to do so many things that are common place now. Plus, he's a genuine real nice guy.

At 92, he still plays in a night club in NY. Plays well, too. No, not the stunningly fast, virtuoso sort of things he astonished the world with in the 40's and 50's, but he's still classy, artistic, and a joy to listen to.

First to over-dub. First to make and play solid body guitars. If not the first to make garage-band recordings, he certainly gave the idea respectability. The Capital records he made with wife Mary Ford were recorded all over the house -- bathroom, kitchen, living room anywhere. They even went out searching for homes for just the right acoustics. Capital publicized the fact that just husband and wife, working by themselves, recorded so many No. 1 hit records just in different rooms of their home, not even bothering to drive down to the studios.

So, Most Influential Musician of the 20th Century? What about bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones? What did the Beatles play at their first gig? --- How High the Moon. Keith Richardson, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, B.B. King, and so many others idolized, were inspired by, and longed to be like Les Paul.

Even though Paul playing might usually be nominally categorized as "jazz", I think it's fair to say it was Paul's imaginative new techniques and his over-laying of guitar tracks to form a new type of all-guitar orchestra that made the guitar the dominating instrument of the 20th century, clearing the way for Rock n' Roll, Rhythm and Blues, Country-Western, and leading into what would become Heavy Metal, Punk, and other off-shoots.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Trip to Pennsylvania canceled

Father - daughter problems. I'm pretty sad about it, but, I can't fix it. She's 12 and impossible.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Farther Than the Sun

Readers of this blog back some time ago might remember that the event that put me over the edge and drove me to try to learn cello was a Chieftains concert with Caroline Lavelle sitting in on cello as something of replacement for pianist/harpist Derek Bell. The six of them were having a great time on stage.

Most folks probably never heard of her, the Chieftains "discovered" her busking, someplace in London, I believe.

Here's a video of her in Monterrey with a guest cellist of her own on YouTube (If you'r confused at first, that's because it starts out with a BMW ad)

Farther Than the Sun

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Snap went the Cello

My starter cello which served me for 3 years, and for which I paid a whopping $139 (plus $40 shipping, don't forget!), is now in two pieces. I'm sad.

I was in the last stages of proof-of-concept for my grand D-I-Y 5-string conversion scheme. I was gradually tuning the five strings up to pitch. The G string was still low. As I turned the G-string peg, the neck neatly snapped off. Foop. Oh well, for now it's a disproof-of-concept.

The break is nearly all on the glue boundary, only a little spot of wood separated. Maybe it can be glued back. But if it's glued back, can the joint be made substantially stronger? Should/can the old glue be removed?

I'm leaving on a week trip to PA soon, so it'll have to wait.

Monday, June 25, 2007

CTMS Summer Solstice Festival

Last Sunday, Mrs. and I drove up to the California Traditional Music Society's Summer Solstice Folk Music, Dance and Storytelling Festival. This year it was held at the Warner Center Marriott in Woodland Hills, CA.

In previous years it was held on the grounds of Soka University in Calabasas. Soka has moved to Orange County; those beautiful garden grounds now belong to the State of California. I don't like it in the hotel. As large as the hotel it is, it's too crowded. Too much overflow of sound from one group and workshop into another. I was playing in an outside jam session and a presenter came from around the corner and said the guitars and dulcimer and fiddle were OK, but the sound of the cello carried too much and interfered with their story telling. I moved further around the corner of the hotel building and tried to play quieter. Still a problem; I had to move inside to a different session. These darn, booming, excessively loud cellos! ;-) I was told that inside four walls the problem is reversed and it's the high fiddle notes that carry too much.

In the main lobby I participated in some of the scheduled jams. In the Blues Jam, I took an improvised solo chorus and I didn't do well. I rushed it and it came out sounding, well, dorky. A while later I tried again and the results were very different. Somehow, that one clicked. A fortuitous accident! When I finished I heard several compliments and at least one participant gave me a big thumbs up. One particpant later told my wife I done good. Move over, horns and git-tars, cello can play the blues, too!

For Maricello, who seems to be an East Coast counter-part: Absolutely, I have that book. Great stuff. I've worked on a few of the pieces. Maybe soon I'll play one in public. I also have the Ferintosh CD. Very different, in some ways more serious and artistic. The three make for some interesting chemistry. Let us know in your blog how it goes at Scottish Fiddle Camp.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Lady that Brought Cello Back

In 1973, an upstate New York band named Putnam String County Band (Note that word order) was, to my knowledge, the first American band of its kind for generations to make significant use of cello. The young cellist was Abby Newton, next door neighbor to the fiddler, the now very well-known Jay Ungar.

Ms. Newton went on to play in over 70 recordings in the folk idiom with many well-known fiddlers and singers. Her recording featuring herself on cello, Crossing to Scotland, superbly demonstrates how cello can hold its own as a solo instrument.

On YouTube, here is a recent video of Ms. Newton with David Greeenberg on fiddle and Kim Robertson on harp: Celtic Colours

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The role of cello in Serenaders

So what sort of parts did Henry Bogan play in the Serenaders? Bass notes. The standard one-and-five. Sometimes arco, sometimes pizz.

This was a time when fiddle was king. Out of 14 tracks, the fiddle is the only one that plays any sort of melody at all on 22 of them. The tenor banjo plays a short bit of melody on one track, and only tenor banjo (no fiddle at all) plays melody on one track: Before I Grew To Love You (I didn't detect any cello at all on Before I Grew to Love You, only tenor banjo and guitar).

The bass played, as played on the cello, does add an element that is distinctive. Bogan "propelled" the band by starting the arco notes just a smidgen ahead of the beat, yielding a "vRrruump vRrruump" sound that resembles tuba. Because tuba is slow to respond in the lower register, tubists need to stay on top of the beat. Bogan also stays on top of the beat, in keeping with the '20s style.

Another noteworthy item for me in listening to this recording is how the cello, guitar, and tenor banjo function together as a section. This ensemble knew their place, as accompaniment, and played tightly together. This style, of course, would become more emphasized in the Big Bands, where tightness as a section and as a full band became crucial in the quest for the driving but tightly-together rhythmic precision of Swing. It seems to me a contrasting style that would come a couple decades later is Bluegrass, where each individual plays a different and soloistic part, even when playing accompaniment.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Texas String Band with Cello?

When we think of depression-era string bands, we typically don’t think of cello. However, one influential band, the East Texas Serenaders, did indeed include a cellist. The Serenders are considered by some as a prototype Western Swing band, setting off a departure from standard “old-time” fiddle repertoire with a smoother, more syncopated, and more modern style.

So I recently purchased a CD of their recorded works, from 1927 – 1937, off the Internet and have been trying to learn what I can about them.

The Serenaders lived and worked in and around Lindale and originally featured left-handed, long-bow style fiddler Daniel Huggins Williams with Cloet Hamman on guitar, John Munnerlyn on tenor banjo, and Henry Bogan on cello. Later, Shorty Lester replaced Munnerlyn, who had moved to Houston, and his brother Henry Lester was added to the group.

Bogan originally played bass fiddle, but switched to cello; the bass didn't travel well on top of the car in bad weather. Like most bassists prior to the 1920’s, Bogan played with just three strings on the instrument. Naturally, Bogan and the other band members were not full-time musicians. Bogan worked for a time on a ranch near Happy, Texas, in the Panhandle, served in the Navy during World War I, worked for Wells Fargo, and worked for the post office in Mineola.

The recorded pieces consist of waltzes and rags, or rag-like melodies; mostly composed by Williams, but some by Hamman. The influence of rag-time, jazz, and pop music is strong and clear. Some of the tunes can be found today in David Brody’s Fiddler Fake Book: The Three in One Two-Step, Ozark Rag, Mineola Rag, and Beaumont Rag. Their Shannon Waltz can be found in the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Country Music, annotated by Bill C. Malone (Washington, 1981).

The Serenaders' last recordings were made in 1937. By then, the era of Western Swing Big Bands like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and Milton Brown and the Light Crust Doughboys was well underway. These highly poplar radio swing bands would go on to attract larger crowds in many parts of the country than the convential swing bands of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and the Dorsey brothers.

I'll have more on what the Serenader's sound like, including an opinion of the role of cello in the group, in a few days.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Observations on du Pre's playing

I don't know that watching and listening to du Pre will give me any insight into her psyche, but she sure is fascinating to watch.

Duets with her Teacher

One short section of the documentary shows du Pre playing duets with William Pleeth, with du Pre playing a relatively easy 2nd part. This part was apparently filmed sometime after 1967 (when she was 22) because du Pre is wearing a wedding band.

Du Pre engages in exaggerated body movements, up and down, side to side, and twists, with very strong, forceful bow strokes. She appears to bounce off the seat; her cello a moving target. It brings to mind Horst's words, "... she played with brute force, sacrificing sound quality and technical precision." I'll say!

Pleeth seems to be completely at home with this behavior. I have to wonder, were these motions her idea, or did Pleeth have her do this as a way of warming up? Might this have been Pleeth's instructions to students to prevent tentative playing?

I have to think so, because most teachers with any sort of pride are not going to want their students seen doing something wrong. I have to think this is part of exactly what Pleeth taught her to do, and this was something they had done many times before.

Then there's that distinctive left hand position. Both Pleeth and du Pre often have the left hand base knuckles slanted out from the side of the fingerboard at about a 45 degree angle, even in first position. The hand is at the same angle to the fingerboard at 1st position that it would be at mid-string or further. And so, du Pre often extends 2nd finger forward rather than 1st back, even in 1st position, although she does extend 1st finger back on occasion.

I can see how it is helpful in large shifts; her hand simply falls or lifts with no change in orientation to the fingerboard. But she sure has to move a lot to get 4th finger back into the game. No wonder she engages in such wild body movements!

Du Pre's Bow Changes

Zambo, at one point, writes "if you know well how to throw, then you know well how to make an excellent bow change!"

I'm not so sure that's completely true, but in watching the du Pre DVD one can see elements in common; especially if you put it on slow motion. Du Pre curls in tight for the wind-up. Shoulder, elbow, and wrist bend and fold in close to the body. Then wham, she punches it all back out. It all unfolds, from the torso out like a horse whip uncurling, until it hits the end, bounces back and comes rolling in tight again. Hypnotic to watch.

My teacher once told me her quickest learning adult student had been a boxer. I can see the similarities there. See, I should've paid more attention to those late night boxing bouts my dad used to watch when I was a kid.

Latissimus Dorsi

When I first started cello, I didn't understand at all how back muscles were relevant. In the last year, I can't understand how I could not have understood.

One of the things that make watching women cellists more interesting than men is the relative lack of clothing. Now here me out on this. With a sleeveless gown one can easily see the lattissmus dorsi muscles, which insert into the upper part of the humerus (just beyond her underarm), become taut and then loosen. Constantly working. The Elgar portion of the video provides some especially good views from, what in the Navy we would call, her Port Quarter: From behind on her left by about 45 degrees. One can easily see the muscle under her arm extending down to where her bra comes around the back, alternately tighten hard and then release. I think if you wanted to explain to someone what the back muscles do on cello, this would do it for you.

So, maybe someone here can see the video or the Schubert Quintet video (I've yet to see it but intend to soon) and provide some additional comments, if not soon, in the next few months or whenever.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Jacqueline du Pre In Portrait DVD

(This was also posted at CBN, with minor changes.)

I’ve rented the 2004 DVD “Jacqueline du Pre In Portrait” from Netflix. It is a combination of two BBC films, both produced by Christopher Nupen in the late 1960’s, and both with recently filmed introductions by Nupen describing the circumstances of the films.

Knowing virtually nothing about Ms. du Pre, I’ve always skipped over the JDP Wars of the past on Cello Chat. I thought maybe this DVD would give me some insight into why du Pre is so greatly admired, and, so intensely disliked.

Well, the book certainly fulfilled Part I, that is, I can clearly see why she was so popular and is still fondly remembered. On Part II, i.e., why she is so intensely disliked, it failed completely. So, I still don’t get it.

I’m not complaining. To be sure, Nupen’s DVD is completely pro-du Pre. None of those sordid details of her personal life are mentioned, and I’m just as glad they aren’t. Instead, the DVD celebrates her accomplishments and is an entirely pleasant way to spend an evening. Other than introductory and background information, the bulk of the DVD is du Pre playing the Elgar Concerto with the New Philharmonia Orchestra, and du Pre with Barenboim and Zuckerman playing the Beethoven “Ghost” trio. I’m not as big a fan of most classical music as many of you, but I liked the DVD so much I’ve ordered a copy from Amazon.com.

Nupen’s opening remarks to the Elgar Concerto documentary describe how du Pre fit in very well with what the BBC was looking for at the time. The documentary was an opportunity to use a newly invented silent 16mm camera. For the first time a cameraman could film very close to musicians without camera noise. The extreme close-in shots of du Pre playing the concerto photograhed from within the orchestra, and various other scenes taken within tight places, such as her playing in a train, and in duets with William Pleeth, would not have been possible before.

And, well, du Pre is fascinating to watch: Whole body motions, facial expressions, distinctive and graceful arm flows. Soon, maybe tomorrow, I hope to describe describe what I observed about du Pre’s playing.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Links to my last reference

Sorry Seylan, I seemed to have foolishly assumed that everybody would know what I mean by CBN - the Cellists By Night Board maintained by the Internet Cello Society. I meant to put the links in.

The posts in question are Beginnings of a Musical Theory Board Game? and Herr Bach's Wild Ride.

My best writing yet?

Perhaps inspired by Peter Schickele, and after a week and a half of sorting and clarifying things in my mind, I made a couple of humorous posts on CBN regarding a "Transit Map" illustrating normal and alternate chord progressions. The first post displays and explains the map, the second uses the map to walk through the Prelude of Bach's 1st Cello Suite.

Even if no one ever reads and understands them, I'm really pleased with those posts. Maybe the best writing I've done on those boards since starting over 3 years ago.

Yes, I know, they are really difficult to read. I'd guess it would take someone over an hour to absorb them, and that's only if they already have enough musical theory background.

And yes, it was a lot of effort, not in the writing but in the thinking --- away from the computer. But I wouldn't have gone through the thinking if I wasn't intent on writing it down, and I wouldn't have been intent on writing it down unless there was the possibility someone out in cyberland would read it and taste the same little hint of insight I feel I had.

The need to share ideas, even wacky home-brewed ideas, is a powerful thing.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A Road to Cello - Chapter 5

Yes, we are finally approaching an end to this terribly long-winded story.

After hearing Barry Phillips' cello on that CD, I became more aware of cello on a few other tapes my fiance had: Barry Phillips on Northern Lights and Orison, and a few a couple of other tapes with other cellists.

Then, about one month later, my fiance and I attended a Chieftains concert. Before the concert I was aware of that fact that Derek Bell, long-time harpist with the Chieftains, had passed away the preceding October. The Chieftain's U.S. concert tour went on without that formerly crucial member.

When we arrived I was surprised to discover that, for the most part, a cellist substituted for Bell --- Caroline Lavelle. Ms. Lavelle did not play in everything, but in quite a bit of the Chieftain repertoire. She also sang a few solos accompanying herself on cello, standing, with an exceptionally long endpin.

She played pizzicato bass, bowed bass and middle harmony lines, and even fast melodies. I was particularly struck at how she played Give the Fiddler a Dram (sort of a Chieftains' "theme song") with them, at tempo (which is very fast), zipping up and down the fingerboard with apparent effortless. Hey, I thought, fiddle tunes that go beyond 1st position can be done at tempo!

As you might imagine, the typical crowd at a Chieftain's concert is more, ummm, expressive than the genteel, well-heeled audience at a typical Classical concert. As the concert develops, both audience and performers get caught up in the excitement. As part of that, the cello rocked! While flute and Uillean pipes and fiddle player made great sounds but, as seen from a distance, hardly moved, Ms. Lavelle physically propelled the band "Down The Old Plank Road".

Ok, maybe fate was telling me something here. I had to at least try the instrument out, even though I doubted I could sustain the effort for more than a few months. I visited a few music stores, not knowing which stores carried cellos, and didn't see anything appropriate. Then I looked on Ebay and saw slews of cheap cellos. Since I couldn't imagine that I would keep it up more than a few months, maybe weeks, and if I did keep going, I could get a real instrument without losing much of an investment, I bought cello and bow on Ebay for $139 + $40 shipping. Of course, at the time I realized I should get a teacher, but I had no idea where to find one. Later.

I know, I know, I did exactly, PRECISELY, what scores of Cello Chatters warn NOT to do! At the time, I had no idea Cello Chat existed. Shucks, I didn't know anything at all when that big box landed on my front porch.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Houston, We Have a Problem!

First, I want to say: Hi Maricello, Wecome. I want to get back to Maricello's question of ornament in accompaninent. I'm thinking the answer is mostly no, but maybe we can think of some exceptions. Maricello has her own blog, Cello Centered, at maricello.blogspot.com.

Ok, as promised, I have seen Peter Schickele's DVD, Houston, We have a Problem! Yes, there are quite a few lame gags and excessively silly spots. But for me, there's also quite a few worthwhile laughs, too.

Professor Schikele, while also a serious composer, has been a major recording artist in the field of musical satire for 40 years. His shtick, in case you've been living under a rock those 40 years, is as the discoverer, biographer, and researcher of the previously unknown 18th century composer P.D.Q. Bach, love child of Johann Sebastian.

The DVD is of a recent concert in Houston. The orchestra that participates and plays along with Schikele's merry antics is identified only as Orchestra X. Except for the conductor, and an elderly beret-ed accordian player, the orchestra is all college kids. Clearly, they are having a blast. It's all the more enjoyable to remember being that young and having that much enjoyment out of band. Ah, to be young, with boundles energy, a sense of humor, and no pretensions of maturity to maintain.

For me, the best part of the DVD is the Unbegun Symphony, which only has a 3rd and 4th movement. P.D.Q. is alleged to have never written an original note in his life. While some composers are known to have stolen a theme or two from other composers, P.D.Q. is the only composer to have composed major works entirely on tracing paper. The Unbegun Symphony is a sophisticated pastische of well-known classics and popular songs of the past. It opens by interweaving a section of the Mozart Jupiter symphony; Du, Du Liegst Mir In Herzen; and Cieito Lindo all together. One of my favorite spots is when the the horns are playing that well-known part of the 1812 Overture while the lower strings are playing Schubert's 9th Symphony and the high strings are playing You Are My Sunshine. Smultaneously. Great stuff.

Also a treat were the vocal duets and trios in Odden and Enden on the bonus features portion of the DVD. Also, the interview of Schickele on KUHT. Schickele relates how he started these shenanigan's in college as a composition student, such as discovering that a part of the Bach cello suites goes together perfectly with the then-popular pop song Brazil.

The New Horizon's in Music Appreciation skit, however, along with other portions of the DVD, get just too silly. Sight gags were added that wouldn't have made sense in an audio recording, but are just too much over the top for my taste.

Below is a list of the pieces on the DVD:

“Desecration of the House” Overture

Schleptet in Eb major, S. 0
- Molto Larghissimo—Allegro Boffo
- Menuetto con Brio ma Senza Trio
- Adagio Saccharino
- Yehudi Menuetto
- Presto Hey Nonny Nonnio

Iphigenia in Brooklyn, S. 53,162
- I. Trumpet Involuntary
- II. Aria: “When Hyperion”
- III. Recitative: “And Lo!”
- IV. Ground: “Dying”
- V. Recitative: “And in a vision”
- VI. Aria: “Running”

“Unbegun” Symphony
- III. Minuet
- IV. Andante—Allegro

New Horizons in Music Appreciation
- Allegro con brio from Symphony No. 5 in c minor (Beethoven)

Fuga Meshuga, from The Musical Sacrifice, S. 50% off

The Seasonings, S. 1 1/2 tsp.
- Chorus: “Tarragon of virtue is full”
- Recitative: “And there were in the same country”
- Duet: “Bide thy thyme”
- Fugue
- Recitative: “Then asked he”
- Chorale: “By the leeks of Babylon”
- Recitative: “Then she gave in”
- Aria: “Open sesame seeds"
- Recitative: “So saying”
- Duet: “Summer is a cumin seed”
- Soloists and Chorus: “To curry favor, favor curry”

With DVD Bonus Selections:

- “Unbegun” Symphony with Theme Identifications

- Odden und Enden
- The Mule
- Three-Step Crab Dinner
- O Serpent
- Johann Sebastian Bach (Prof. Schickele)
- Please, Kind Sir, from The Art of the Ground Round

- KUHT interview with Peter Schickele

Or look at http://www.schickele.com/shoppe/houstondvd.htm for more info.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Addendum from Maynard

Maynard Johnson, in reply to my email asking him how he decided what and how to play, added some additional thought which I pass on below. I'm especially amused by his second quote from C.P.E Bach down at the end. Well, I guess if an expert such as C.P.E. Bach can say that, maybe we should not be so hard on ourselves that we also have those troubles.

"One of the things that I forgot to mention in terms of technique is my sources for 18th Century technique. The Scottish Fiddle School that we work with (Jink & Diddle, after a Robert Burns poem) emphasizes Scottish 18th Century, including a few things that are probably counter to modern practice.

"Open strings are not bad. There are many times when you want to play a note with an open string and not the same note higher up on a lower string.

"Vibrato is an ornament, to be used as an ornament and not on every note that is long enough to vibrato. As I recall, the modern heavy use of vibrato did not really come into vogue until the early 20th century.

"Music is frequently not played quite the way it is written.

"A lot of the repertoire is dance music, or began as dance music, and has a pulse - emphasis and the first beat of each bar.

"Another one that I have liked is Francesco Geminiani's "Art of Playing the Violin". Geminiani was a student of Corelli who moved to England, and I tend to think of him as, like Handel, English, though he was not born in England. His 1751 book was published in English and was one of the foremost technique books of its time. Early in the book he says that it may have some value as well to those who play the cello. IF you can find a reprint in a library, take a look at what he says about playing, and about ornaments. He lists and discusses the 14 Ornaments, one of which is holding the pure note - not shakes, no trill, no vibrato (close shake).

Geminiani’s 14 Ornaments

1 Plain Shake Trillo semplice

2 Turned Shake Trillo composto

3 Superior Appogiatura

4 Inferior Appogiatura

5 Holding a Note “It is necessary to use this often, for were we to make Beats and Shakes continually without sometimes suffering the pure note to be heard, the Melody would be too much diversified.”

6 Staccato “Rest, taking Breath, or changing a Word…..where it may not interrupt the sense.”

7 & 8 Swelling and Softening the Sound

9 & 10 Piano and Forte – “..to produce the same Effects that an Orator does by raising and falling his Voice.”

11 Anticipation

12 Separation – designed to give a variety to the Melody…it will not be amiss to add a beat, and to swell the note, and then make the Appogiature to the following note…

13 Beat

14 Close Shake – Tremolo, or perhaps what we would call extreme vibrato

Then there are some nice quotes from others:

Music is invaluable where a person has an ear. It furnishes a delightful recreation for the hours of respite from the cares of the day, and lasts us throughout life. – Thomas Jefferson, 1818

Every melodic piece contains one phrase at least from which the variety of tempo of the music can be clearly recognized. This phrase…often compels one into its own natural speed. Leopold Mozart, 1756

…certain deliberate disturbances of the beat are extremely beautiful…certain notes and rests should be prolonged beyond their written length for reasons of expression (1753) The attempt should be made to hold the tempo of a piece just as it was at the start, which is a very difficult achievement. (1787) C.P.E. Bach

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Ben Franklin – folk cello aficionado

Maynard’s mentioned James Oswald. In case you’ve never heard of that famed cellist, let me you about him, by way of Benjamin Franklin.

Since I was seven years-old I’ve admired and wanted to be like ol’ Ben (Hey, I’m from Philly, what would you expect --- all the sports teams were in the cellar through the entire 60’s.)

Now, for much of his life, Ben Franklin was a Londoner wannabe. He was enthralled with all things English, and with London, his perceived center of the cultural Universe. In 1757, after becoming a wildly successful businessman; postmaster; inventor; brilliant scientist; highly acclaimed author and publisher; founder of fire and insurance companies, libraries and numerous organizations for the public good; lead perhaps the first environmental protest ever; recipient of at least three honorary doctorates, and only the most famous American, by far, the world over, Dr. Franklin traveled to London to represent his home, the ever loyal American colonies. He was considering staying in London permanently.

London was not impressed with this uppity commoner, but then soon, neither was Franklin with London, who saw the aristocratic system there as hopelessly corrupt. By 1774, he would be publicly condemned and humiliated before London's Privy Council. The next day he fled England convinced that the colonies must become an independent nation, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But back to music. Franklin was fortunate enough, by our standards, to have heard G.F. Handel’s last concert. He didn’t care for it. Too much repetition. He felt it was indicative of a lack of intelligence.

But he was very impressed indeed with a different court composer – James Oswald. Oswald was an import to the court from Scotland. In addition to composing, Oswald played cello, and collected and published folk tunes of his homeland (They are still available, I have his book “A Curious Collection of Scots Tunes” in PDF format). In a letter to Lord Kames, Franklin remarked that when a musician named James Oswald played tunes on his cello, the crowds fell in love with it so much that he witnessed "tears of pleasure in the eyes of his auditors".

But don’t just believe me, go to http://www.whyy.org/artsandculture/stories.html , do a Find on Franklin, and listen to two of Franklin’s favorite Oswald tunes, one of which is performed beautifully on solo viola da gamba.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Kitchen Musicians

For, I guess, nearing 20 years now, Sara and Maynard Johnson have published books and recordings, and performed at re-enactments and historically themed events. They perform and publish music of the Renaissance through to the American Civil War. They also publish articles on the music and customs of those periods.

Sara plays various hammer dulcimers, harpischord, spinet, piano, cittern, and pocket fiddle (also called a kit or pochette). Maynard plays recorders and flageolets (aka whistles) of various types, cittern, and English guitar. Together with a variety of others, depending upon the venue, they make up the group Rogue's Consort.

Their web site, www.kitchenmusician.net, has long been a source for others who play that kind of music, especially for the hammer dulcimer community.

A few weeks ago I was alerted, through a hammer dulcimer friend, who learned about it through a hammer dulcimer web list, that the Kitchen Musician site has a new CD, Oceans So Green, with cello on it.

Well, this was something new. None of their other recordings had cello, but sure enough, Maynard played cello on this new CD. The music they perform is what we do, so to keep abreast of the field, I ordered that CD along with their previous one, Pass'd Times. I've heard them now, and: Well done, Maynard! While I wasn't around back then, it seems to me this CD shows very well what role cello would play in this genre during that period.

About half the tracks of Oceans So Green have cello to one degree or another; on some it's hardly noticeable. Two of the tracks, Carolan's Receipt and The Night Before Larry Was Stretched, have very prominent pizzicato cello melody. Their website contains a sample of The Night Before Larry Was Stretched.

Now, Maynard is clearly not a conservatory-trained cellist practicing the great classical concertos 6 hours a day. He's a relative beginner playing in a physical manner that departs from modern orthodox cello technique. But then, the real people that played this music those centuries ago had hard lives with hard labor day jobs, limited education opportunities, and very limited spare time. That's the true HIPP!

I've been in contact with Maynard, and I'd like to conclude with his own words:

"I started playing cello before we recorded the Pass'd Times Album, just didn't use it on the album.

"We have been going to the Jink & Diddle School of Scottish Fiddling for 15 years or so. Since I don't play fiddle, I had tried playing accompaniment on guitar or ten string cittern, but wasn't happy with that. A lot of the music published by 18th century fiddlers includes a bass line, often described as for violincello, harpschord or pianoforte. The great 18th century Scottish Fiddler, Niel Gow, often played with his brother Donald accompanying him on cello. There's a painting of them which also appears on Highland Games T-shirts. Donald is the one playing cello in a kilt, with baroque grip (no end pin) and underhand viol grip on the bow.

"I've also seen other pictures of 18th century cellist playing in the same position. It's not surprising, since the bass viola da gamba is about dead on the size of a cello, and had no end pin. Neither did the cello until maybe about 1800. Some of the old descriptions refer to the cello as the "bass". In an age when your primary method of transport was your feet, a cello is about as big as anyone could handle.

"Since we perform in a variety of historic settings for that time period, I wanted to stick with the period style as much as possible. We often perform as a trio, with Sara on hammered dulcimer, Michael Thompson (or John, or Carmen) on fiddle, and me on cello. Paul Gifford's book on the history of the hammered dulcimer says that a typical performance ensemble for dulcimer in the 1700s was dulcimer, fiddle and cello.

"As a practical matter, when the cello is in a viol or baroque position, underhand bow grip makes a lot of sense. With a baroque grip, the strings are almost straight up and down, and with a modern overhand bow grip, gravity is NOT your friend; the bow wants to slide down to the floor. A practical advantage of my archaic playing style is that I take up a lot less floor space than a cellist with an end pin. When you are playing for gambols in Colonial Williamsburg's Chowning's Tavern, having a small footprint is essential. An end pin would be a safety hazard.

"Some of my backup style comes from instinct, and years of playing and teaching backup guitar for dances and instrumental folk music in the 80s and 90s. And some of it comes from the bass lines written in the music from the 1700s. On the Oceans so Green CD, on those tunes identified as Bunting's arrangement, the cello backup is from Bunting's bass line. On So Merrily Dance the Quaker, the cello line comes from Henry Beck's copybook. Both Bunting and Beck has some bass line ideas that I had not thought of on my own.

"One of the things I love about cello in this setting is that it is much lower in pitch than typical folk backup instruments, such as guitar. It thus almost never doubles with or overlaps the melody notes of the dulcimer or fiddle, and it gives the combined performance a much fuller tonal range. And unlike a guitar, the cello can do pizzacato bassline, detache bowed notes, or long bow slurred notes, or a bowed ground, which makes it more flexible.

"Sometimes I do have to remind myself that I am not the lead instrument. "Remember, you're not Pablo Casals or Yo-Yo Ma; or even James Oswald; you're Donald Gow and you are playing bass accompaniment." And when, like Donald Gow, I play wearing a kilt, I have to remind myself about how to sit down and how to stand up and where the cello should be at which times.

"My cello is a late 19th century Mittenwald instrument, and has pretty good projection and tone, so I can play bass under or behind several fiddles and still hear myself and be heard. My bow is a snakewood bass gamba bow from Shar. My case is a beat up and sprung fiberglass monster that is waiting for Shar to have another sale on cello cases.

I've been hoping that some junior high and high school history teachers will find out about the album and use it as we approach St. Patrick's Day."

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Road to Cello - Chapter 4

Lesseee, I left off in the fall of 2002 playing my home-made fixed-neck washtub bass. It was interesting and different, but it wasn't completely satisfying. I still intended to start anew on a real instrument; I just hadn't decided what. Fiddle had some appeal, but it seemed so difficult; everything goes so fast and fiddle is so hard at first. I had heard beginning fiddlers, ummm, well, it's obviously a long learning curve. None of the other commonly heard instruments were calling out to me yet.

At the time my fiance was interested in starting hammer dulcimer. That instrument had long had a special appeal to her. So one day I went down to a local folkie instrument shop to look at hammer dulcimers for her. I didn't buy one then, but a CD caught my eye, "Simple Gifts" by a group of musicians in Santa Cruz, containing a collection of Shaker tunes. I recognized many of the names of the players from my fiance's old, worn, tapes that we played on long car trips. At the time I vaguely knew the Shakers had left behind a large body of tunes which intrigued Aaron Copland; Simple Gifts was merely the best known because he included it in both Appalachian Spring and his Old American Songs. The CD had hammer dulcimer in it, along with Appalachian dulcimer, flute, alto flute, English horn, violin, viola, mandolin, harp, bowed psaltery, spoons, cello, steel-string and classical guitar, and I forget what else. The arrangements were written by the guitar player, William Coulter, and the cellist, Barry Phillips. I thought maybe she would really like this, and we certainly could use a CD of the Santa Cruz gang instead of those old cassette tapes from the 80's.

When we played it, I was more than impressed. What a superb tribute to those social pioneers! In tune, cleanly played, expertly and imaginatively arranged, with respect and enthusiasm for the values of a humble, devout, plain-living frontier people (when Ohio and Indiana and Kentucky was the frontier) who lived and worshipped by the beat of their own original heaven-sent songs and dances.

Coulter and Phillips had both earned MMs at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Coulter's degree is in guitar performance, Phillips' is in composition.

Then there was the cello. Of the CD's 20 tunes on 11 tracks, the cello has the melody on only four of the simple diatonic tunes, usually for only a short time. Elsewhere it plays modest accompaniment, or not at all. All of it sounded so easy, as if no effort or technical difficulty was involved at all -- as easy as singing in the shower, yet, I couldn't take my ears off of it.

(At the time it wouldn't have meant anything to me, but Phillips had been a cello student of Irene Sharp at San Francisco, who in turn was a student of Margaret Rowell.)

And the cello, as played by Phillips, provided something something I had not heard much in folkie music: Inversions! Everything wasn't all 1-5-1-5... ad tedium. The bass lines, pizz or arco, were melodic, adding depth to the already existing height and width of the tunes. It brought class to folk.

One place the cello does play melody is in the Shaker version of the Lord's Prayer (Our Savior's Universal Prayer). It's slow; the notes go only from G at the bottom of bass clef to A at the top of bass clef. Yet, for me it was one of the best parts of the CD. It so evokes an image of an old God-fearing man singing the sacred words in an original ad hoc melody rising directly from his heart.

Too bad I didn't know any cellists; a cello is an arranger's dream, I thought. And for me to start cello was out of the question. Too old... I don't know where to start... I don't know who could teach me... Too out of the mainstream for the musicians I know... Way too expensive... Even more way too time consuming... Ah, but if only I had life to do over again...

A little research revealed that cello tuning would make most of tunes played in the groups and jams I knew very difficult, if not impractical. A lot of shifting at very high speed. It just didn't seem workable.

That CD is still available, or you can hear some samples, each of which has cello in the accompaniment, at Simple Gifts. One can also download it from iTunes. No, I don't get a cut ;-)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Let's Have Jam for Breakfast

Those who read Cello Chat might understand why I call this "Wrong Seating #74."

This is from New Year's Camp, taken by the dulcimer player's husband. It looks like one of the breakfast jams in the dining hall. Ok, LA Chamber Orchestra we ain't, but we's is havin' fun anyways. Why am I sitting up front? I much prefer my usual place, way in the back.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Teamwork: the 4th Element?

In a very basic music theory or appreciation class, one learns that the essential elements of music are rhythm, melody, and harmony. Rhythm evokes tension and release in the mind of the listener by a series of tones that come to rest on an agogic accent. Melody evokes tension and release by combining the rhythm with a curve of successive prominent pitches that come to a rest at the end of a phrases. Harmony evokes tension and release by the perceived instability and stability of simultaneous, or near simultaneous, tones.

And that's enough to call it music. No more is strictly necessary.

But I suggest there is another element that many of us crave from music. I think of it as teamwork. It's not all that different from the sort of teamwork one sees on the sports field. The changes of musical focus: anticipation, cooperation, resolution; produce an ebb and flow not unlike the tension and release produced by the other elements.

In the Banshee in the Kitchen! workshop one could hear how ebb and flow affect their decision making. Three players - three inter-player relationships. Each player's decision on what to play cannot be made in a vacuum, the relationships to the other two players must be considered.

They might not like me saying so, but their workshop reminded me of the 30-some year old P.D.Q. Bach "New Horizons in Music Apprciation" skit. It's a "concert-cast" of the 1st movement of Beethoven's 5th symphony. If you've never heard it, you just must go order it now! Peter Shickele and Robert Dennis provide a play-by-play running commentary on the composition and performance as if it were a ball game. Absolutely hysterical!

As farcical as it is, it speaks truth. There is a game going on there on the stage. The "ball," i.e. musical focus, moves from section to section, with tension and release between players and sections as they follow the game plan. And when it all works, it is a joy to behold.

It's been quite a few years since I've heard it, but some lines still stand out in my memory. Below I attempt to recall and paraphrase some excerpts that remain lodged in my mind:

Orchestra: Ta-ta-ta-taaaaa... Do-do-do-doooo...

Shickle: "And they're OFF on a four-note theme!

Orchestra continues....

Shickle: "Oh, it's very exciting. The start of a symphony is always very exciting, but I don't know if it's slow or fast yet because it keeps stopping!"

. . .

French horn warbles on entrance...

Shickele: "Wow, Bob, did you hear that! That horn player really fumbled that note. I think that was number 61, wasn't it, Bob?"

Dennis: "Yes, Pete, that was Bobbie Corno and that's his 4th major flub of the season, which gives him a solo average of .8753 which is pretty darn low for a 1st chair player, but he's popular with the fans and he's really strong in the long concertos, so maybe they'll keep him around for another season, on the other hand..."

. . .

Shickele: "That sound like a recap. Is it time for a recap, Bob?"

Dennis: "Well, yes, Pete, the average symphony has a recap just after the 1st quarter and this one's falling right into line."

. . .

Shickele: "The strings are cutting up that theme into little pieces. It's getting downright lethargic down there, if you want to know the truth.... [Brass entrance] The brasses have tried to wake them up, a welcome relief, but to no avail."

. . .

Shickele: "Nobody but nobody knows where the theme is down there. Why, the players are as lost as we are. Wait a minute! Wait a minute!!! The brasses have got a hold of that theme! The brasses have got a hold of that theme and THEY ARE NOT GOING TO LET GO!!!"

. . .

Shickele: "... and it's tutti all way and it looks like they have a great symphony on their hands. But wait, I can't believe my ears, it sounds like another recap! If that happens that will be the first time in 15 years of concert casting.

Dennis: "Well, I think that's something the Composer's Commission will have to look into.

Shickele: "Right you are, Bob. Wait a minute, those are final chords, though. Is it? Wait! The referee is lowering his hands. YES!!! That is the end of the piece! The players are now taking off their helmets and acknowledging the cheers of the crowd!"

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Teacher Asks

My cello teacher is asking her adult students:

What particular things were you taught in the beginning that you feel were most helpful? What things do you wish you were taught earlier?

As she accumulates more adult students, she's wants to consider the issues for adults more closely.

I've placed this question on CBN, too, but perhaps I'll get different, maybe more candid, responses here.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Arrangements of Traditional Music: Good, Bad or Ugly?

Many of the the tunes I accompany or play were composed by a lone singer, fiddler, harpist, or other instrumentalist and performed without harmonic accompaniment since centuries ago. Without that tradition, maintained by poor folk with bare subsistence day jobs, we wouldn't have that body of music.

Is it wrong to accompany them with a line or chord sequence that was not a part of that melody's original single-line tradition?

Is it wrong to combine different tunes into medleys? Different tunes from different countries or eras?

What of using classical Common Practice Era conventions to compose original introductions, bridges, modulations, vamps, inversions in bass lines, counter-melodies, and parallel harmonies?

What of applying modern jazz/rock/pop-derived chords, rhythms, riffs, and "grooves"?

Electronic effects? Synthesizers? Looping machines? Is it all OK? Is the David Downes' highly-produced PBS "Celtic Woman" extravaganza of "She Moved Through the Fair" with synthesizers, back-up chorus, 60-piece orchestra, and smoke machines still a traditional folk song as it stands alongside "Somewhere" from West Side Story and "Someday" from the Disney animated Hunchback of Notre Dame? At what point does the healthily functioning gag reflex prompt a frantic self-protective lunge for the remote control?

At New Year's Camp I watched a workshop on Celtic guitar (sadly, I don't play guitar) by Mary of Banshee in the Kitchen! followed by a workshop by all the members of Banshee in the Kitchen! on how they come up with their arrangements. My hope was to get inspiration for bringing some ideas into the music I play with the little local group. Brenda acknowledged right off that some folks are not comfortable with arrangements; some even disapprove of accompaniment, yet alone arrangements.

Indeed, I have heard one person express the feeling that Banshee in the Kitchen! over -arranges. I don't agree, my background and evolved taste appreciates imaginative, colored, sometimes surprising, sometimes subtle variations in both melody and accompaniment. But a part of me does understand reverence for the centuries-old minimalist tradition. Long may it also continue.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

CTMS New Year's Camp

We both made it to New Year's Camp. What a fine weekend! Great featured performers and attendees, I experimented with a couple of other instruments, and I participated in a trio that performed, along with six other acts, in the Camper's Concert on Monday morning. And, I'm pleased to report, I was not the only cellist in attendance.

CTMS New Year's Camp is a much smaller event than Summer Solstice, but in some ways that's a good thing. With fewer attendees and featured performers you get to know some people better than you would with the much larger attendance at Solstice.

The event was held at Camp Hess Kramer, a Jewish summer sleep-away camp for youngsters located in Malibu, California, between the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Jewish symbols, artwork, and Hebrew text adorn the camp, and the cabins are named after Biblical characters. That said, a Hindu group was wrapping up their event just as we were arriving. I know a camp for deaf and hard-of-hearing children is also conducted there, and I suspect many other events, as well. I'm not Jewish myself, but I'm quite impressed and grateful the temples that run the facilty make it available to others. I reckon it's a good thing Mel Gibson doesn't own all of Malibu.

New Years Camp featured performers that performed in the staff concert Friday night, conducted workshops on Saturday and Sunday, and performed "at large" in jams, dances, and song circles throughout the weekend. This year's featured performers were:

Banshee in the Kitchen!: To my thinking, this is the premier Celtic group of Southern CA.

Cathy Barton and Dave Para: Their repertoire includes many songs and tunes from U.S. history performned authentically, along with stories about the music's origin.

Martha Wild. Mountain dulcimer, piano, and contra dance calling. The mover and shaker for much of the evening activities.

Tom Sauber and his son Patrick. Tom Sauber's been one of the most influential Old Time musicians in the country. His son may become even more so. Nicest mandolin playing I think I've ever heard live.

Amber and Jim Mueller. Jim and Amber have been major performers and organizers since the seveties and eighties, repectively. Jim's also a math professor at Cal Poly.

At Friday night dinner we met a couple, whom I'll call MA & B, who played hammer dulcimer and fiddle. It turned out B knows a cellist and had written out harmonies for a tune he had learned at a fiddle camp, Josefin's Waltz. He had heard it as recorded by Dervish; I had heard it as performed by Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas at the 2006 New Directions Cello Festival. We agreed that we would get together at some point that weekend and try it out.

On Saturday I had my first strums on a lap dulcimer (aka fretted dulcimer, mountain dulcimer, appalachian dulcimer, hog fiddle, and, no doubt, other names). Martha Wild had a flock of dulcimers for us to try out. Since I was last in the group I got a bass one, tuned an octave lower than the others. Ok, that was fitting. I'm not about to get serious about dulcimer but it was fun to strum up a storm.

I also went to a couple of workshops on whistle conducted by flute, accordian, and whistle player Jill of Banshee in the Kitchen!. I played my "wooden" (actually polymer) keyless flute. Every once in a while I get the urge to pursue wooden flute but I get frustrated after a while. Maybe I'll take off from cello lessons for a few months someday if I can find the right sort of flute teacher. I know of no flutists in my area that would find wooden flute acceptable. Yet, there's something very attractive about an instrument so simple that apparently even Neanderthals made and played. A conical tube (unlike Boehm's cylindrical design), closed on the wide end, with one blow hole and six fingering holes.

I also attended a fiddle modal tune workshop by Jim Mueller. Why do I torture myself like that? I start to get the tune for a while, but as they get up to speed I'm left in the dust. Someday, someday...

My wife led a beach walk. Regrettably, I didn't get out there. I understand those that went were glad they did, but it was rough going in some spots.

I participated in some jams and we both danced. I also enjoyed playing duets on the dining hall patio with a harpist and the other cellist (Hey S, are you out there?). Not until late Sunday afternoon, as the sun was going down and the cold breeze setting in, did I come across MA & B and joined them out on a outdoor walkway to try out Josefin's Waltz. B's arrangement worked out very nicely almost instantly! Despite misgivings about performing in front of so much more skilled musicians, we decided to perform it in the Camper's Concert the next morning. I signed us up quick before we came to our senses. Burn those ships!

One of the workshops consisted of the Banshee in the Kitchen! members discussing how they develop their arrangements and what factors go into their decisions to keep or toss out an idea, along with demonstrations. In future posts I intend to go into the accompaniment and arrangement issue. For now, suffice it to say some folks disapprove of the approach of some groups like Banshee in the Kitchen! while others love it.

The Camper's Concert was the last event of the weekend. Folks were free to sign up for it through the weekend for a maximum of two tunes/songs and 5 minutes. One performance that was a particularly pleasant surprise was by a Scandinavian native (I don't know which country) on a keyed fiddle named "Christine." Christine likes certain songs, and what Christine likes, Christine does. Christine has four main strings tuned similar to a viola, C-G-C-A, with, I think I counted, 16 sympathetic strings. It's much like a hurdy-gurdy except it's bowed like a fiddle giving the player more manual control and options for expression and phrasing than a wheel, but with that big bright hurdy-gurdy style sympathetic resonance.

We played our Josefin's Waltz to a very encouraging group. While I think we did better in practice sometimes, we certainly did worse sometimes, so I'm satisfied with how it came out. We played the tune 3 times. We start out in unision, then split to fiddle on harmony with cello and HD remaining on the melody the first time. Then HD and fiddle on melody while I strum. Then fiddle and HD on melody and myself on a bowed harmony. I left my mindisc recorder on by my cello case to record it: Josefin's Waltz. I've retained the audience applause and Clark's commnent to show the really nice and enthusiastic response we received (Ok, vanity too).

Also of special interest to me were a wooden flutist and guitarist duo whose association went "way back to Friday." I had had an interesting discussion with the flutist the day before. He prefaced his performance with a few comments that were especially well-spoken. He thanked the late Elaine Weissman, a principal force in developing CTMS, for providing us with so many friends that we otherwise would not have.

The last and funnest (funnest is a word!) Camper's Concert participant was Leo on fretted dulcimer. He first played a splendidly clean rendition of Kesh Jig. Then he described his personal interest in the recent passing of James Brown and how he had once covered Brown's visit to Ireland for a dulcimer newsletter. Right away the laughter started; something was up -- a James Brown concert written up in a dulcimer newsletter?). He then launched into a rhythm and blues song, complete with blues chords and funky vocal stylings (Well, as funky as a middle-aged balding white man can get). The audience soon recognized the words despite the disguised rendition: Whiskey in the Jar, a well-known Irish pub song. He pulled chords out of that dulicmer that are seemingly impossible on the instrument. It turns out his dulicimer has a some strategically placed extra frets so he can get the major 3rd, minor 7th, and augmented 9th of the major chords at the same time. As my daughter would say, "Sweet!" The performance was hysterical and received a richly deseverved standing ovation.

That closed it; all that remained was the packup and good-byes. We hope to be back next year, and we hope all of them can be back next year, as well.