Old World or New, Sacred or Profane

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.