Romberg Sonata for Cello and Piano II: Andante Grazioso

January 29, 2020 | posted in: cello reperroire

The second movement of Romberg’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor, Opus 38, Number 1, is “andante grazioso”. Or gracefully moving along. The movement is only 51 measures long and has a 3/4 time signature.

The movement has a nice lyrical quality, and I find it pleasing to both listen to and to play.

There are two rhythm patterns that reoccur through out the movement. Measures 10 and 11 introduce these two patterns.

Measure 10 and 11

Measure 10’s pattern occurs 7 times in the movement, measure 11’s 8 times. Clearly getting the subtle difference between a dotted quarter note (measure 11) and a quarter note tied to a sixteenth note (measure 10) is vital to correctly playing this movement.

The other noteworthy (sorry) measures are the 32nd notes in measures 18 and 23. Here’s measure 18:

Measure 18

And here is measure 23:

Measure 23

Of the two, measure 18 is considerably easier to play. Measure 23 is the crux of the entire movement for me. Especially when you realize that the eight 32nd notes occupy as much time as one of the following quarter notes.

Approach

Once measures 10 and 11 were identified as the two repeating rhythmic patterns, I made a copy of the music and lightly shaded those measures; green for measure 10 and red for measure 11. And I shaded each subsequent repetition of each pattern.

The green pattern occurs in measures 10, 19, mid 24 - mid 25, mid 25 - mid 26, 37, mid 47 - mid 48, and mid 48 - mid 49.

The red pattern occurs in measures 11, 15, 17, 38, 40, 42, 44, and 46.

The pairing of the two patterns as they first occur in measures 10 and 11, happens once more, in measures 37 and 38.

Using the metronome, set for 16th notes, I started with m. 10 & 11. Once they were reliable, I set the metronome to eighth notes. Counting eighth notes proved to be trickier than I expected in m. 10. The tie between the opening quarter note and the first sixteenth note, means the second sixteenth note - and first pitch change - happens between beats. In m. 11, the dotted quarter note at the start of the measure puts the pitch change on a beat.

As with the triplets in the first movement of the sonata, regular, daily practice of these two rhythm patterns is what helped me to learn them. Skipping a day or two on these patterns forced me to slow down and reintroduce them to my fingers.

32nd Notes

The 32nd note pattern in m. 18 is really a turn. I think that is why I’ve found this measure far easier than m. 23. The trick to m. 18 is getting the ratios correct as you slow down from 32nd to 16th to 8th as the measure progresses. After the 32nd note turn, the last four 8th notes seem to be very long.

Measure 23 is an altogether harder problem to solve. The first four notes can be played in 1st position. The F# that follows requires a shift to 4th position. The middle C played with the 4th finger is 4th position on the D-string, i.e., a string crossing. Surprisingly the second set of 32nd notes is easier to play faster: two notes, string crossing, two notes. The first four notes followed by the shift to 4th position are harder for me.

While playing the A - B - C - D pattern, I tend to carry my 4th finger too far away from the finger board. The results in a stutter where the 3rd finger strikes the string every so slightly before the 4th finger does. I’m working on keeping my fingers much closer to the finger board. This not only improves intonation, it helps to speed things up.

I’ve spent a lot of time with the metronome on m. 23. First counting 32nd notes, then 16th, then 8th, and finally quarter. I am up to about 50 for the quarter note. My tempo gaol for the movement is 72. So I have a ways to go yet.

Self Trust

I’m also learning to trust my instincts regarding tempo and rhythm. I tend to play the two rhythm patterns correctly most of the time. When I doubt myself, it is usually in error. My internal sense of pulse has always been there. Now I am more able to rely on it while I’m actively making music.

I am enjoying learning this movement. As with the first movement the passage work and focusing on details have really improved my ability to play it. And being able to play it vastly improves my enjoyment of it. The Romberg Sonata in E minor has become one of my favorite cello pieces.

Romberg Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 38 No. 1 E minor

January 19, 2020 | posted in: cello repertoire

Romberg’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in E minor is a beautiful piece. The arrangement between cello and piano is perfect and the piece is romantic without going overboard. Playing it, for me, is not without some challenges.

The Romberg E minor is written in three movements: Allegro non troppo, Andante grazioso, and Rondo Allegretto. This posting is about the first movement. I’ll write about the other two in a couple of future posts.

Allegro non troppo

This movement follows the typical exposition, development, recapitulation form of the sonata. The exposition, or A section, is repeated. The movement is entirely in bass clef and ranges from low E on the C-string to an A harmonic above middle C on the A-string. The piece is wonderfully cellistic, meaning it feels right to play it on the cello.

Technically there are two challenges in the first movement: triplets and turns. There are also several places where a note value is skipped, which is a rhythm challenge.

Turns

There are five turns total with three starting on a down bow and the remaining two starting on an up bow. All of the turns follow either a pair of quarter notes or a half note. As the turns are written in sixteenth notes, you are skipping at least one note value, if not two from the preceding note into the turn. I have found it difficult to be confident in my ability to play the turns, especially the initial one in measure 7, so I tend to tense and panic, making them much harder to execute.

The solution to playing them with confidence has been to slow way down, and start with just the four sixteenth notes and the quarter note the follows at first.

m. 7
F# - G - F# - E - F#

Not only is slowing down important, but pausing between each repetition is vital. If you repeatedly play a passage without pausing, you stop thinking about what you just played and how you played it, and start playing mechanically.

Part of the difficulty in m. 7 is that there is a shift. Here is the whole measure plus the first note of m. 8.

m. 7 & 8
| F# - G - F# - E - F# - A - D - C - A - F# | E

You turn around the opening F# and then skip up to the open A string. While descending from D back down to the F#, you need to shift while playing the open A, so that you play F# with your 4th finger, allowing your 2nd finger to play the E in m. 8. There is a D# following the E. You could play the F# with your 3rd finger and extend backwards to the D#, but intonation of the D# is more reliable in half position. Measure 8 ends with a quarter rest, so there is plenty of time to return to first position.

Measure 13 is the second turn. This turn happens completely in 4th position, and there is no shift immediately following the turn. This turn has always been the easiest of the five for me to play accurately and reliably. Measure 13 begins with a half note G above middle C.

m. 13 & 14
| G - F# - G - F# - E - F# - G | F# - E - D - D |

Measure 15 & 16 follows the same pattern as 13 & 14, half note - turn - dotted quarter - eighth - quarter - quarter. Measure 15 begins on middle C.

m. 15 & 16
| C - B - C - B - A - B - C | B - A - D - D |

The last two turns are the same. The second one has a shift to half position at the end, to set up for the D# that follows. Measure 17 starts with F natural below middle C. The D# in m. 20 is played in half position.

m. 17 - 20
| F - G - F - E - F - A - D - C - A - F | E - D - C |
| F - G - F - E - F - A - D - C - A - E | D# - F# - A |

These five turns are repeated in the recapitulation at the end of the movement.

Unlocking the first turn with slow repetitions and gradually increasing the tempo with the metronome helped all of the turns. Playing them from the recapitulation also helps, as they occur in different places along the staff, with breaks to the next staff happening in new places in the pattern. Visually the music looks different, even though the turns are identically to what was in the A section.

Triplets

Of the 126 measures in the first movement, 33 have triplets. Being able to play a triplet per beat reliably, over and over, is the key to this movement. For me it is the relentlessness of the triplet passages that is hard. Your focus cannot slip or you’ll lose your place and the passage will collapse. In order from first to last the triplet passages have 8, 1, 9, 5, 7, and 3 measures each. For me the apparent, sudden, increase in tempo is the challenge. You move from a flowing, lyrical passage immediately into several measures of triplets (sometimes interspersed with quarter notes, or dotted eighth note sixteenth note triplet figures) where you are playing far more notes for the same four beats.

Solving the triplets was the single biggest challenge for this movement. The final triplet passage was where I started. Measures 122 - 124 start on E below middle C. The entire passage is all within first position, with one extension for the low F# at the end

m. 122
| E-G-B A-G-F# E-G-B A-G-F#

m. 123
| E-F#-G F#-E-D C-D-E D-C-B

m. 124
| A-B-C B-A-G F# - B

Learning to play the triplet passages was pure metronome work. The approach was to start with the metronome set for 8th notes at a slow speed and gradually increase the tempo. Once the metronome was too fast to really listen to individual clicks, approximately 160, we divided the setting by three and started counting quarter notes, once again slowly increasing the speed after successfully playing the passage.

Here are some of the metronome numbers for the triplet passage at m. 122, taken from my practice notes on November 26th:

For the eighth note: From 80 to 88 to 96 to 104 to 110 to 116 to 120 to 124 to 130

Dividing 130 by three, to switch from counting each note, to counting each triplet, I reset the metronome to 43.

For the triplet: From 43 to 45 to 47 to 50

Once I reached 50 I experimented with long bows, short bows, staccato notes.

If I skipped a day of triplet passage work, it would take far longer to return to the tempo of the previous practice session. Even overnight I would sometimes seemingly lose ground. However, as I completed more and more triplet passage work, the amount of “warm up” time needed to return to tempo decreased.

Performance

I started working on the Allegro non troppo movement on October 3rd, with an eye toward performing it on December 22th at a studio recital. Two weeks before the performance, at my lesson with my wife accompanying me on piano, we performed the movement for my teacher. With a couple of minor intonation problems and maybe one stumble, I was able to play through the piece. Three days before the performance, when my wife and I began our practice session with a start to finish performance of the piece, it completely fell apart. Passages that had never before been an issue were unplayable. The performance was a disaster. I contacted my teacher and asked to not perform in the recital. He and I discussed it at my lesson, and agreed that I would not play two days later.

It was upsetting and disheartening to have spent over two months working daily on this piece only to not perform it. Performance anxiety was something we hadn’t addressed in practicing. Imagining the other members of the studio (grade and high school aged children) and (worse) their parents watching and listening to me, was enough to completely derail me. Obviously I need to incorporate some kind of mock performance into my practice. Setting up a video camera that is blatantly pointed at me while playing, perhaps.

I haven’t set this piece aside. In fact I am now working on all three movements. I would like to master this piece. I want to be able to play it in front of other people, or a video camera, without hesitation or difficulty. Using the approach of passage work, and deliberate, slow playing using a metronome, I am slowly assembling the passages into movements, and the movements into a sonata.

Behind the Haystack

January 18, 2020 | posted in: mandolin repertoire

This morning I spent about 25 minutes learning an Irish jig called Behind the Haystack using a video from Mandolessons.

The piece has a ternary form: A - B - C, where each of the parts reuses the same endings. So the form looks like (E1 = ending 1, E2 = ending 2):

A - E1 - A - E2 - B - E1 - B - E2 - C - E1 - C - E2

I really like the sound of this kind of music, particularly on the mandolin. It has a beautiful sway and lilt to it. What is fascinating is how easy it is to know how long any given note is in relationship to the ones around it without ever seeing the music. Learning by ear is really remarkable.

Music Subdomain

January 17, 2020 | posted in: site

Eleven years ago I create a website to track my experiences in learning to play the violoncello. For a time I actively updated that and enjoyed sharing my efforts. Over time I stopped updating the site, and it has lain fallow for several years now.

Last spring I purchased a mandolin and I have been teaching myself how to play it by ear. And I have started learning to play piano. Each of the musical experiences helps to reinforce the others. I have also done some mental adjustments in my attitude toward practicing and being a dedicated musician.

I had allowed the frustrations of not being able to progress as fast as I wanted or not being able to play the way I though I should to interfere with the enjoyment of playing. You don’t do things you don’t like. After a couple of disastrous cello lessons in November I reached out to my wife, who is also a musician and a piano teacher with decades of experience, saying I didn’t want music to be drudgery; that I wanted it to be enjoyable and to make progress.

Since then I haven’t missed a day of practice (except for a work related trip), and I am averaging at least 40 minutes per day of practice. Even better those minutes are spent on dedicated, focus, goal oriented practice. Passage work, metronome work, intonation work. My understanding of the tools I have and how to use them has increased (I no longer dread using the metronome) and the music I am making now is far better than it has been for a while.

Playing mandolin by ear has helped. It’s a completely different approach to learning that I am pursuing with the cello. I experiment and play around far more on the mandolin than I ever have on the cello. There is something bright and bouncy and fun about the sounds a mandolin makes.

I’m also slowly learning to play the piano. This also approaches learning music from a different direction than the one I’m using for cello.

I am still in my heart a cellist. I just happen to also play a little mandolin and piano too. Hence this new site. It contains all the old cello site postings, and the few mandolin postings I had made on another subdomain. Going forward I’ll be putting all my music related experiences here.

⇪ Romberg Sonata In E Minor Op 38 No 1

I’ve been working on this movement, and on the entire sonata for a while now. To say that my approach to practicing and my practice habit has improved as a result would be an understatement. I’ve been considerable time on “passage work” getting the triplets and turns into my fingers. AS a completionist I find it hard to do just part of a piece. I want to play it all. And therein lies the problem. In order to play all of a piece you have to practice it part by part, passage by passage, and even measure by measure if necessary. Lots of detail work. My progress has been steady and I now feel like the entire sonata is within my grasp.

I could not have accomplished this without the help of my wife, who has shared her musical knowledge with me, and helped to guide me through disassembling this piece, practicing those individual passages, and now reassembling the piece. Thank you Sweetheart.

⇪ Vivaldi Allegro

One of my current assignments is the Vivaldi Allegro from Suzuki book 6. It’s actually a violin piece that has been transposed for cello. My teacher calls it a 5th, 6th,a nd 7th position étude.

Practice Log

November 26, 2019 | posted in: practice

For anyone who is curious, I keep a daily practice log. It isn’t long on details, but it does capture what I worked on from one practice to the next.

Metronome Practice

November 26, 2019 | posted in: practice

Metronome. I suspect for many students, and certainly for me, that one word represents the hardest thing to incorporate into a practice routine. I often liken play cello to juggling: I’ve got several balls in the air, the rhythm ball, the intonation ball, the technique ball. Adding one more, the metronome ball, causes me to drop all the balls.

Tonight I wanted to work on the last set of triplets in the Romberg E Minor Sonata, 1st movement. Measures 122 through the first note in 125.

E-G-B A-G-F# E-G-B A-G-F# E-F#-G F#-E-D C-D-E D-C-B A-B-C B-A-G F#-B-E

Each pair of triplets goes up in pitch for a triplet, and then down in pitch for a triplet, and the last three notes are quarter notes.

Initially I tried setting the metronome to 60 for the quarter and playing the triplets. This did not work. I wasn’t able to stay on the beat. Slowing the metronome down didn’t help either, nor did using the triple setting to give each beat a sound for each note in the triplet.

After becoming frustrated and wanting to abandon metronome practice yet again, I regrouped and tried again. With Sibylle’s help I set the metronome to 80 for the eighth note - one click per each eighth note in each triplet. I was able to play that tempo. In fact it felt almost too slow. Working up in jumps of 8 and later 6, I played measures 122 - 125 at 80, 88, 96, 104, 112, 118, 124, and finally 130.

Next I set the metronome to 43 (roughly 1/3 of 130) and turned the triplet feature on. The sounds were the same as a moment before and I was able to play it. Next I set the metronome to distinguish the first note of each beat so that I had tick-tock-tock-tick-tock-tock, and so on. I was able to play in time, and was able to recognize that I was playing the correct note on the beat. I was no longer panicky or stumbling, I was in control.

Working up slowly from 43 to 50 (43, 45, 47, 50) I was able to play in time. Once or twice I lost the beat. Stopping to think about it I realized I was allowing the bow to bounce on and off the string, which gave me less control, and which caused me to lose the beat. Keeping the bow on the string allowed me to play it properly.

Once I was at 50 I experimented with long, fast bow strokes, short bow strokes and staccato notes. 50 for the quarter while playing triplets would be 150 for the eighth note. I nearly doubled my triplet speed in 30 minutes. Not only did I nearly double my speed, I did so with good intonation, solid tone, and relative ease.

The trick is to start slow enough to be successful. If you can’t play it at the first metronome setting, slow the metronome down until you can play it correctly - no wrong notes, no panic, no getting lucky - absolutely correct. Then speed up in small increments 6 or 8 beats per increment, no more. Once you are in the 130 range (or when the clicks start to blur together), reduce the metronome speed to a third of the last number and turn the triplet feature on. Slowly work up from there again.

Tomorrow night I need to be prepared for my initial attempt to not work. One night of success will decay in 24 hours. I’ll need to start slowly again, and can probably jump up in larger increments, say 16 or 20 beats at a time. It shouldn’t take too long to return to 50 for the quarter, set to triplets. Then I can move on to the next set of triplets in the piece, and begin the process all over again.

It is hard to admit that in 10 years of playing the cello I have never really tried to learn how to use the metronome. I used to set it to count the smallest note division in the piece, but since that doesn’t speed up well, I have always abandoned the metronome. Tonight I didn’t, thanks to Sibylle’s help, and I feel like I used it properly for once.

Focused Practicing

November 25, 2019 | posted in: practice

Until eleven days ago my practice habit / routine had become toxic. I didn’t look forward to practicing, I wasn’t actually practicing when I did do it, and I was embarrassed to present the results of my efforts to my teacher at my weekly lesson.

At best I was treading water. I certainly wasn’t making any progress, or if I did make progress it was random and by accident, not by any design.

All of this came to a breaking point about two weeks ago after I had two abysmal lessons in a row. At one I couldn’t play a triplet passage to save my life. I was very unhappy with my performance and with how I was behaving about cello. Something needed to change.

I am very fortunate that my wife is a piano teacher, and a very good one. I have often turned to her for help with my music. Feeling like I was doing nothing but floundering I again asked her for help. The result has been 11 days in a row of productive, focused practice. I feel invigorated about practicing again and about making music again. I had been in over my head. I couldn’t see what needed work because I was only seeing the results of not practicing.

The current piece I am working, and will be performing at the studio recital in December, is the first movement of the Romberg E Minor Sonata. There is nothing in this movement that should be beyond my technical ability. There are however some passages that require detail work - a willingness to focus on one or two measures at a time, and to only slowly add more measures. In other words, passage work.

The last line of the Romberg is all triplets with a few quarter notes at the end for the finale. The initial goal was just play just one measure of triplets - 12 notes - perfectly. I had to slow my tempo way down before I could play it correctly. For each incorrect attempt I played it correctly at least twice. The goal was to be able to play the entire passage 9 times out of 10 without any mistakes. Once I was reliably playing the passage I would speed it up. After a couple of practice sessions, I moved up to the previous section of triplets and repeated the process there.

Each practice session looked something like this:

  • Triplet passage work
    • Start with last set of triplets in the piece to refresh / warm up
    • Only move to previous set of triplets if current set is flowing smoothly
    • Stop between each playing of a passage to understand what worked and what didn’t work
      • E.g., I tend to lift fingers that aren’t actively stopping a string - “flying fingers” is something that isn’t working.
    • Add metronome - use it to increase tempo in small increments
  • Intonation work
    • Using The Swan I’ve been working on intonation. No rhythm, no tempo, just long slow, full bow length notes held while watching the tuner.
    • Start with the G, and when it is in tune every time I raise my hand, then add the F#. Then shift to the B. And so forth
  • Sight Reading Christmas Carols
    • A few days ago I discovered and bought a set of six Christmas carols arranged for cello. Having something lighter to play, something to make music with, is essential. These pieces are not technically challenging, and I know what they are supposed to sound like.

I also have been playing mandolin by ear, sounding out melodies and even playing parts of the Bach Cello Suites. Having an instrument that I am learning to play by ear has been immensely helpful. Plus it’s fun to play.

I have set out some goals for my practicing. I want to practice at least as long as my lessons are, each day. Or 40-45 minutes every day. Longer on the weekends when I have more time. I’m using focused passage work to contain my efforts on manageable, attainable improvements. No more playing the whole piece (incorrectly) several times and calling that practice. I’m focusing on repeated playing of passages to improve my mental stamina. And I am using new-to-me literature for sight reading and additional passage work.

The biggest change has been in my attitude and approach to practicing. It is no longer something “I have to do” or something I feel like I “should” do. It is something I want to do. My practice times have increased from 15 or 20 minutes a day to 40 - 60 minutes a day. I haven’t missed a day in 24 days now (granted, some of those were prior to the change that happened 11 days ago). There has been a marked improvement in my progress in the Romberg, and there has been a marked difference in the musicality of my practice. I am no longer going through the motions, I am making music now.

If I had to sum all of this up in one of two sentences, I would say that I have identified what I value in practice (or want to value) and taken steps to focus on those values. I’ve made a practicing lifestyle change.

It feels good to be making music purposefully again.

⇪ The Swan

This is my current new piece. It’s long been on my bucket list of cello pieces I want to be able to play.