Old World or New, Sacred or Profane

Thursday, October 02, 2008

A Question for Adult Cello Students

Last Saturday my wife and I put in some volunteer time for the Southern California Dulcimer Heritage's annual Harvest Festival. It has various workshops and concerts for mountain and hammer dulcimers, but also has room for other instruments. One of the workshop leaders was Mintze Wu, a fine professional, classically-trained violinist (graduate of Cleveland Institute of Music), a former member of the Azmari Quartet and on the Northern Kentucky University faculty. But now she's making quite a name for herself on the dark-side -- as a fiddler.

I attended her workshop. Wu showed how to take a simple, rather sing-songy tune (Road to Lisdoonvarna) and with some imaginative bowing and ornamentation, make it --WOW!-- very nice, indeed. I was the only cellist, and very welcomed by Ms. Wu. With some fingering adjustments I was able to get by about as well as the violinists (sometimes I've been over my head at these things). Wu made us individually play back what she teached, which put us on the spot, so I know other students had mixed results in getting it right as well, including one competent classically-trained violinist.

I also attended an organized jam workshop. I was somewhat fussed over by the leaders, who were delighted to have a cello in the mix. I was asked to start a tune and when I played the first few notes, I heard at least one gasp, presumably of delight ;-), emanate from the group.

My question is this: Given the almost embarrassingly welcoming treatment we can receive, and how one can easily play 1-5 bass parts until ready for more, why aren't there more adult student cellists venturing out to Old-time, Celtic, and other casual "traditional music" events? I know the cello students exist. Is it a matter of interest? -- adult students took up cello because they want to perform Classical, and that's that? Is it fear of playing without the trusty music stand and paper? Too much uncertainty and lack of structure? Is it lack of preparation and encouragement by the teachers? Fear of a lack of ear training or music theory? Too easy? Too hard to lug around that big case? Unfamiliarity with what cello sounds like in those genres?

In a nutshell, why don't cello students do like other instruments? It ain't 'cause we ain't got frets; violin and string bass (and some banjos) also ain't got frets.

By the way, we know cello and dulcimer played duets together in colonial Annapolis at least as far back as November 1752, so there is a tradition for this kind of thing in America, albeit sometimes appears to be forgotten.

Any thoughts on the subject?


Maricello said...

I have many thoughts on this subject, as I do try to play cello with the local fiddle group and they are always welcoming. I also played fiddle with them for a time and feel that playing cello is more challenging: harder to play fast, more complicated fingerings, music theory knowledge required to play accompaniment.

There are many cellists in my area, but no one else even tries to play with the fiddlers. I think it is simply because they prefer classical music. Other reasons are the memorization needed (or ability to play by ear), the large number of tunes the fiddlers play and know by heart, general unwillingness to stand out in a crowd on a different instrument.

There are no cello teachers here who specialize in fiddle tunes. I attend fiddle camps, but always feel (1) inept at learning by ear, (2) too slow, (3) that I don't know enough tunes.

I also play classical music, and, while I enjoy both, it is easier to play classical because you can read the music, because you know what is on the program and what you are supposed to practice, etc.

I have a limited amount of time, and classical keeps winning out these days, but have to say: my fiddle group is very supportive of my efforts; my teacher will help me on fiddle tunes, though she is not a fiddler; and audiences also seem appreciative.

It would be nice to play with another fiddling cello locally, if only to work out arrangements together. I have wanted to bring someone in to do a fiddle workshop for cellists here, but there seems to be a lack of interest.

P.S. My sister is on the music faculty at NKU. She is a classical pianist but s big fan of Celtic music and every once in a while talks about learning to play fiddle. On a violin.

Anonymous said...

I think this about answers it. I played cello as a young girl and went back to it as an adult.

I love folk music (my husband plays folk guitar and banjo and we and our children frequent folk festivals in our area) but I just don't feel competent playing cello with the fiddlers: I don't know enough music, have a hard time with the fingering and speed, and generally am not so terrific at playing by ear.

Oddly enough I do spend a great deal of time playing with (amateur) orchestras (varying styles from classical to big band) and small chamber ensembles with friends. But again this is all sheet music based.

I am looking for a new teacher to help with the playing by ear - this can obviously be trained. Only I've found that most classically trained cello teachers are not very good at this themselves.

The speed however is still an obstacle - the older you are the harder it is to get that speed, even with a great deal of practise.

Btw - I'm encouraging my son to take up violin - so that he can fiddle! ; )

Diana "Zoe" said...

All of those fears (except too easy). I am not particularly interested in fiddling (I lean more toward the goth rock/indie rock end of the spectrum), but all of these things are potential fears when trying to play with nonclassical musicians. I feel like I can't assemble what I know in the same way as rock guitarists and bass players. I don't have the same "vocabulary" that they do, so they can't explain to me how they do what they do. I read in one of your posts how to do a "box pattern" on a cello, and I want to thank you for explaining it because I have been dying to know if it was possible to have tricks like that for myself! All the guitar magazines have these great crutches to help people play along with each other without music. The nonclassical cello people need to share this stuff. Concrete, helpful things need to get taught to beginners when they get instrument lessons, because it keeps people playing if they can use it to interact with others outside of printed music. Thank you again.