September 11, 2019
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For just over two years now I have ignored this site, allowing it to languish, and wither away. I’m
still playing the cello, still learning, and still exploring music. I just haven’t been motivated to
write about it.
About 6 months ago I bought myself an inexpensive mandolin. Using some videos on YouTube and playing
by ear, I’ve been slowly teaching myself to play. Mandolins are also tuned in 5th, which is handy
coming from the cello, but their strings are G-D-A-E. I can play most of Suzuki Cello book 1 and 2
on the mandolin, and I’ve taught myself a few tunes by ear. It has been a completely new approach to
music, and one that I am enjoying.
And about a month ago I started learning piano. My wife has been teaching piano for decades and she
has been helping me with my music since I started cello almost ten years ago. I want to improve my
note reading, my sense of pulse, and my understanding of how rhythms fit on top of a pulse. So I’m
spending 30-40 minutes two or three times a week with her, at the piano, learning how to play.
If you had told me ten years ago that I would be playing not only cello, but also mandolin and a
little piano, I would not have believed you. I’d always wanted to play cello, and I’m glad that
dream has, and continues, to come true. Adding two more instruments makes me feel even more like a
real musician. Which is pretty cool.
All of which to say, I hope to be writing here more often. Not just once every couple of years.
March 09, 2019
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For the most part I’ve been playing the mandolin by ear. I did pull out my Suzuki cello book 1 and played through several of the pieces there. On my own I figured out how to play “Amazing Grace” and lately I’ve been working on “Scotland the Brave”.
I was able to get perhaps 80% of “Scotland the Brave” on my own. Finally I hunted up a tab sheet for mandolin for that tune. What was interesting to me was how the version in my head is slightly different than the actual tune. Or at least this version of tune. Folk music is given to variations and this tune is no exception.
This is the first time I’ve used a tab sheet for mandolin. Or any instrument for that matter. It has the normal music notation (in treble clef - which I don’t yet read) and then it has a representation of the four strings with fret numbers running parallel to the music. What is odd about this is seeing a “5” on the sheet but playing the note with your 3rd finger.
I’ve been playing the cello since late 2009 and I still find memorizing a piece difficult. Frankly I don’t even try anymore. With the mandolin (a total of eight days now) I already have three (albeit short) piece memorized. Learning to play the tune by ear really reinforces the intervals between the notes. You hear immediately that the note is sour or incorrect. The trick is then finding the correct note. My hope is that as I gain experience playing by ear, that my interval recognition ability will improve, making it easier to know what the next note ought to be.
- Amazing Grace (in C)
- Cripple Creek (in G)
- Scotland the Brave ( in C)
- Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
- Schalf Kindlein Schlaf
March 05, 2019
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Yesterday I learned how to play “Cripple Creek” in the key of G major. Not only that, after getting it on the Mandolin, I repeated the process on my cello and on my electric cello.
The electric cello has five strings, C - G - D - A - E, so it shares four strings (albeit an octave lower). My acoustic cello has four strings, C - G - D - A, so I transposed the piece from G major to C major. It also works nicely in F major.
What fills me with satisfaction about learning “Cripple Creek” is how many of the music theory puzzle pieces I’ve had in my head that now fit together. Something about learning the piece largely by ear completely alters the way I think about it in my head. This morning if I hum the melody I can visualize each finger placement. Moreover, I can name the pitches, and I have a pretty good grasp on the intervals between them. All without any sheet music.
This feel so good. I wanted to learn Mandolin because I though they looked interesting, and had a pleasing sound. I had no idea that learning to play by ear was going to have such a powerful effect on my Violoncello playing too.
March 03, 2019
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One of the videos I watched on MandoLessons talked about how to play scales using something called “four finger closed position.”
Four finger closed position or FFcP is a fingering pattern that allows you to play any scale. My music theory understanding is incomplete, but as I understand it, this pattern works on the mandolin for two reasons. One, the strings are tuned a 5th apart from each other, and two, it is played diatonically. That is to say, each fret is one half step higher than the preceding one.
If you put your first finger (your fore finger) on the 7th fret on the G-string you’ll play a D. If you skip a fret and place your second finger on the 9th fret you’ll sound an E. Skipping a fret again, putting your third finger on the 11th fret plays an F#. Placing the pinkie or 4th finger on the 12th fret plays a G (one octave higher than the open G string itself). This finger pattern duplicates the whole step - whole step - half step at the beginning of a major scale.
The second half of a major scale also follows the whole step - whole step - half step pattern. The first note of the second half of the scale is a whole step higher than the 4th note of the first half. Which makes the major scale pattern look like this:
whole - whole - half - whole - whole - whole - half
In the case of a D major scale the names for these scale degrees are
D - E - F# - G - A - B - C# - D
After playing the first 4 scale degrees: G (fret 7) - A (fret 9) - B (fret 11) - C (fret 12), you move your hand over one string to the D-string, and play on the same 4 frets. Since the strings are a 5th apart, the D-string 7th fret is a 5th higher than the 7th fret G-string note, or an A. Skipping up to the 9th fret nets a B. The 11th fret sounds as a C#. And finally we reach the 8th scale degree, D, on the 12 fret.
The whole pattern looks like this:
fret: 7 - 9 - 11 - 12
**G-string**: D - E - F# - G
**D-String**: A - B - C# - D
This pattern can be started on any fret, on any of the G, D, or A strings, and it will result in a major scale. This pattern also works on the cello, violin, and viola. You leave behind the relative safety of open strings, but it nicely unlocks the relationship between neighboring strings that are tuned a fifth apart.
On my cello, which is played chromactically rather than diatonically, the stretch between your fingers as you play whole - whole - half requires that you move your hand - particularly in the lower positions. Even so, it opened up my grasp of how the scale degrees on neighboring strings relate to each other.
March 03, 2019
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A few months ago I watched a couple “how to play mandolin” videos on YouTube. I like the size of the instrument, and I like its sound. For such a small cavity it produces a rich full sound. On Friday, two days ago, I went to the local music store to see if the leased mandolins. They don’t. But they did have a relatively inexpensive mandolin for sale.
$140 later I left the store with a Savannah model SA-110 mandolin, a leather strap, and a handful of picks.
I spent the evening alternately watching more YouTube videos and trying out the mandolin.
On day two, Saturday, I played around with the mandolin some more. I like that it is tuned in perfect 5ths, just like my cello. The cello has C - G - D - A for string tunings, while the mandolin is one 5th higher with G - D - A - E string tunings. The double strings for each note add a surprising amount of resonance to the sound.
My favorite “how to” site so far has been MandoLessons. The lessons are short and to the point. The accompanying YouTube channel, also called MandoLessons is filled with videos. I’ve only scratched the surface of what Baron Collins-Hill offers on his site, but I’m already comfortable with playing my new mandolin.
My intention with the mandolin is to learn to play by ear rather than through some method book. I think (hope) that will reinforce the music knowledge I already have from playing the cello.
August 22, 2017
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Ever since I started watching The Piano Guys I’ve wanted to have an electric cello. The NS Design advertisements in Strings magazine always caught my eye, and after reading some reviews and watching this Bach G Major Suite Sarabande video I decided this was the electric cello for me.
NS Design has two electric cello models, the CR and the NXT. The CR has a pre-amp built into the instrument while the NXT is passive only. The CR comes in 4-, 5-, or 6-string models, while the NXT offers either a 4- or 5-string cello. The CR is roughly twice as expensive as the NXT.
Three years ago I bought a black NXT5, 5-string cello and added the Cello End-Pin Stand (CEPS). I also bought a high E-string as the factory setup is F - C - G - D - A, and I wanted C - G - D - A - E. Finally I purchased a Peavey Max Series Bass Amplifier so my new cello would make sound.
NXT5, 5-string Cello
I selected the 5-string cello for no reason other than it was an option. My limited knowledge of cello literature tells me that the 6th Bach cello suite would benefit from a 5th string, but I am not likely to take on that piece any time soon. Having the E-string will introduce new fingering options. Having two instruments that have a fundamental differnce like this will force me to improve as a musician.
The NXT5 that I bought from Amazon cost $1,699. The neck and body are solid maple, and it has an ebony fingerboard. The peg box has worm-gear tuners with a 12:1 ratio eliminating the need for fine tuners. The pickups are polar directional piezo crystals.
The fit and finish on my NXT5 is excellent. The color is uniform with no blemishes. All of the fittings, edges, and corners are smooth. The cello has a nice heft to it when you pick it up. At 4 pounds, without the included tripod stand or the optional CEPS, it weights about 2.6 pounds less than my acoustic cello. The end-pin stand adds 2.2 pounds so a “traditional” setup weighs 6.2 pounds.
The tuners work very well, but with the addition of the 5th string the placement of each tuner is different from an acoustic instrument. The cello comes setup with these strings: F - C - G - D - A. Since there isn’t any traditional cello literature written below C2 (the C-string) I ordered this D’Addario NS Electric Cello Single High E String from Amazon. More on swapping the strings in a little bit.
The cello has two knobs and a toggle switch. The upper knob adjusts the instrument’s volume. Turning the knob fully clockwise it clicks into a bypass position. In bypass the volume and tone control are eliminated entirely, allowing for the fullest tone and output level. The lower knob is a tone control for the treble range. The toggle switch lets you choose between arco or pizzicato modes. Pizzicato mode allows for smooth attack and long decay. Arco allows for massive attack and a relatively faster decay.
The NXT Cello Instructions indicate that due to the high output impedance of the cello, most electric guitar amps will not suffice. Instead you should get a bass amp. After a visit to the local guitar shop I ended up testing and then getting a Peavey Max Series Max 110 Combo Bass Amplifier.
I don’t know anything about guitar amps, but the Peavey I have does a good job with the NXT. To be
honest, once I got the bass, mid, and treble settings adjusted, and the gain set, the only button I
use is the power button. The dealer sold me a 10 foot patch cord, that has a 90° angle at one end.
This allows the plug in the back of the cello to not stick out. In my living room I have the volume
set to 1 or maybe a shade higher. With some felt pads on one side of the amp, and the amp laying
over on that side, it makes a decent stand for my CD player and stereo amplifier. If people see it
at all, it looks like a speaker - which it is.
It is possible to play the NXT without any amplification. The stings make a faint but discernable
sound. I have taken the cello without the amp on a couple road trips, and practiced in my hotel
room. Unfortunately the instrument is just long enough that a hard sided case large enough to hold
it and a bow would not be carry on luggage on a plane. It would have to be checked. NS Design does
sell a hard sided case that would serve this purpose, but it’s very expensive, something like $800.
- NXT5 Cello $1699
- NS Design Cello End-Pin Stand (CEPS) $299
- D’Addario NS Electric Cello High E String $22.28
- Peavey Max 110 Bass Combo Amplifier $199
- 10’ Instrument cable $19.99
$ 2,239.27 (without taxes or shipping/handling charges)
###Re-stringing to C-G-D-A-E
With the D’Addario E-string in hand I set out to re-string my cello from the factory F-C-G-D-A to C-G-D-A-E. So that I would never have more than one string off the cello at a time I started by removing the A-string and putting the new E-String in its place. There was a lot of extra string at the peg end, so much so that after I had it on and tuned I debated taking it off and shortening it. However my eagerness to finish the re-stringing caused me to ignore the excessive winding on the peg and move on to the D-string/A-string swap. After removing the D-string and threading the A-string through the tail-end of the cello I discovered that the factory had trimmed the excess string. The A-string wasn’t long enough to reach any other peg but the one it had originally been on.
The A-string side of the peg-box has three tuners, which from the factory held the (from bottom to top) A-string, the D-string, and the G-string. The other side of the peg-box held the (again, bottom to top) F-string and C-string. All of the factory installed strings had been trimmed to reach their peg perfectly. After considering this for a few moments I decided to put the new E-string on the upper peg on the three-peg side of the box. This allowed me to leave the A-string on the lower peg on that side, and put the D-string on the middle peg. The C-string moved to the lower peg on the two-peg side, with the G-string taking the upper spot.
While tightening the G-string on it new peg, the tail end of the string unraveled leaving me temporarily upset. Until I remembered that I have two old sets of strings from my acoustic cello that I keep as spares against string breakage. I grabbed one of my spare G-strings and put it on the new cello.
With all 5 stings in place and reasonably tight I set about tuning each string. I prefer violin temperment over even and with ClearTune up and running on my phone I cautiously started in tuning the E-string. E4 is surprising high and therefore requires a lot of tension. So much so that I stood to the side as I turned the tuner in half-turn increments.
Once I had all 5 strings in tune I quickly checked each one again. Unlike my acoustic cello, where major tuning of one strings tends to throw out neighboring strings that were previously in tune, the NXT didn’t lose much tune in the process.
The pegs are considerably smaller than acoustic cello pegs, and therefore pulling the string through and trimming it before tightening was essential. The 12:1 ratio of the tuners helps as they are both peg and fine tuner. Not having to work with traditional pegs to roughly tune and then fine tuners to finish was nice.
The 90° angle where the string comes through the body of the cello and heads toward the bridge puts a lot of stress on the strings. I believe the broken G-string was a result of not reusing the kink in the string but rather bending it another way inadvertently. Since I don’t plan on re-stringing again any time soon this shouldn’t be an issue, but someone who wanted to change their setup frequently would be wise to be careful with threading the string through the body so that the previous bend was reused rather than bent again.
###Playing the NXT5
The sound of the cello is surprisingly good. It’s not the same tone quality as an acoustic
instrument, but it isn’t completely alien sounding either. The $200 amplifier I purchased does a
very good job of producing lots of sound. I’ve never had the volume above perhaps 2 on the 1-10
scale. Of course I’m sitting right next to it in my practice area. Someday I’ll drag it out on the
deck and see what 10 sounds like.
The strings speak quickly and with very little effort. The decay in sound lasts a long time. Having
reference marks on the fingerboard makes it easier to find some finger positions. Since the NXT5
doesn’t have a traditional body, the neck doesn’t change shape at 4th position. There is a tiny
little brass bump in the neck for your thumb, as an indicator of 4th position. At first I tended to
over shoot this marker, but with practice I’ve gotten better about shifting just far enough.
Having an extra string changes the geometry of the instrument. The strings are slightly closer
together than they are on my acoustic cello. It is very easy to catch a neighboring string with your
bow. Also, I have to retrain my mind to understand that the A-string is now #2 and not #1. At first
these subtle differences were very frustrating and I started to think I should have purchased a 4
string electric cello. Over time I have gotten more used to the NXT5 and I am able to play it
without too much difficulty now.
##Tripod Stand versus Cello Endpin Stand
If you just but the NXT you get a tripod stand. This is great for storing the cello, and you can
play the cello while it is on the tripod, but not comfortably. The cello endpin stand, which I
bought as an extra, allows for a more natural playing style. However, storing the cello between
practice sessions with the CEPS on is cumbersome. There’s no way to stand it up or lay it down. For
a long time I resorted to taking the CEPS off and putting the cello back on the tripod to store it.
This made practicing with the electric cello less enjoyable and so I didn’t use it very much.
Recently I saw a posting online about guitar holders and bought a Hercules Stands Wallmount Guitar
Hanger. The grip on it is large enough to
accommodate the NXT5. With careful placement on the wall I am able to stand my NXT up and have it
gripped at the next and have it’s weight supported by the end pin on the floor. Now I just reach
over and pick up the cello and start playing. When I’m done I can stand it up in the grip again. The
downward pull of the cello on the grip causes the ears to close and keeps the cello securely in
place. Having this wall mount has greatly increased my ease of playing the electric cello.
Last summer I took it with me to Cellospeak and let everyone (who wanted to) try it. The reviews
were generally good, and the people who did play it were delighted with how it sounded and how easy
it was to adapt to. I continue to play around with it. I use it for scales, as the fingerboard
markings help me to find the correct position after shifts or in extensions. After getting the scale
in my ear on the electric cello, I switch to the acoustic and find that I can play the scale more
fluidly than I would have without the electric warm up. Thanks to the Hercules wall mount I am
playing it more frequently now, and my bow control and left hand shaping are improving due to the
tighter geometry of the strings. Over time this will make my acoustic playing better too.
Would I buy it again? Yes. Although I might opt for the 4 string model – simply to have something
that matched my other instrument. Having an electric cello along side your acoustic cello is a bit
like having a motorcycle along side your car. Both provide transportation, but in a very different
way, requiring different aspects of the same driving skills. Playing the NXT forces me to pay
attention to different aspects of my cello playing technique, which will eventually result in better
July 13, 2016
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For some time my practice has been unsatisfying; I feel as if I am not making any progress. Pieces
that I can play one night are gone technically the next night. I’ve been struggling with Suzuki book
6 for over a year now.
I fear that I have reached a technique cul-de-sac. I need to correct several aspects of my technique
otherwise I’m not going to advance much further.
Toward that end I am going to start over in a way. Between my schedule and my teacher’s schedule I
won’t have another lesson now until late August - call it six weeks. I’m going to start with book
one of the Sussmannshaus Cello series, and work my way through every piece, every exercise, every
page. And then book two and then book three. My focus will be on correcting all the little things I
do now in my Suzuki studies that are preventing me from advancing.
A by-no-means complete list:
There are two parts to this. One I pull my fingers way, way, way too far off the fingerboard when
they aren’t stopping a string. This wastes time and it distorts the shape of my hand, which leads to
poor intonation among other things. Two, I tend to only have the finger necessary down. For example,
if I’m playing an F# on the D string with my 3rd finger, often as not, that’s the only finger on a
string. All the others are waving at the audience.
Instead of using my arm and shoulder to pull my fingers into the fingerboard, I squeeze with my
thumb. Sometimes hard enough to make my thumb ache. A clenched hand isn’t mobile. Not only does it
make my hand sore, it prevents me from playing fluidly and quickly.
In extensions I tend to curl my fore-finger making the note it’s playing sharp.
I let my hand shape collapse, losing intonation and hand position between notes
##Floaty Little Bowing Finger
My right hand shape suffers at times too. Most visible is my little finger floating around off the
##Straight Bowing Thumb
At times my bowing thumb is straight rather than curved. This make my bow less responsive and harder
The reason I am going to use the Sussmannshaud books is that I’ve never played any of those pieces.
I don’t have any muscle memory to overcome, and no expectations for the pieces from prior
experience. To this day I can’t properly play “Happy Farmer” from book 1. The hundreds of times I
played it incorrectly have firmly cemented it into my fingers. Using a different method’s initial
books will give me material that is simple enough to play that I can focus on my technique.
I want to build a good, natural, pain-freee techinque so that I can play the pieces I want to play to
the best of my ability. Until I rebuild my technique I fear that I’ll continue to be frustrated and
unmotivated, and moreoever, that I’ll never be able to play pieces much beyond where I am today.
January 25, 2016
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Your teach assigns you a new piece, the Courante from Bach 3rd Cello Suite say, and you start to
practice it at home.
The first few attempts are pretty bad. You can’t even really hear the melody. Finally you resort to
ignoring the rhythm, playing half notes for everything. Doing this allows you to understand the left
hand movements. Here a shift, there an extension, at this point bar two strings with your fore
With the rough blocking in place you add in the rhythm and it starts to sound like a piece of music.
Slowly, carefully, you keep adding measures and phrases on to the tail end of what you can play.
After a few nights it starts to sound like the recording. Albeit much slower than the recording, but
still recognizable as the 3rd Suite Courante. Woo-hoo, you’ve learned a new piece.
Only you haven’t.
You’ve discovered all the parts of the piece, and can hold some subset of them in your playing if
you focus. A subset, but not the whole thing yet. Rhythm and slurs and nicely bouncy but somewhat poorly intonated.
Intonation nailed down cold, but no consistent tempo.
Starting a new piece is fun and exciting. Finishing a new piece is plain hard work. The work of
discovery and figuring out at the start of a new piece is vastly different than the work of polish
and mastery that comes in the middle stages.
At first you are mindful of one thing at a time - half notes to hear the tones of the piece. Then
the printed rhythm without slurs, grace notes, or any dynamics to get the melody. Each layer of the
piece is added individually. Once you have all the layers assembled, you have to shift mental gears.
You have to find a way to make the piece a part of you so you can play it without thinking about it.
In Karate-do we talk of mushin or the mind of no mind. Watch an adult tie their shoes sometime.
The motions are swift, economical, sure, and not thought about consciously. A practiced typist
doesn’t think about each letter, they form words and phrases fluidly and gracefully. Their hands and
fingers know what to do with out being guided every step of the way.
I’ve come to the realization that completing a piece requires a bit of mushin. I need to be able to
play the notes without thinking about them. The movements of my arms, hands, and fingers need to be
flowing, fluid, graceful, economical, and sure - all without my consciously thinking about it.
To reach that stage of playing requires a different mindset than learning the mechanics of the
piece. This transition from mechanical playing to organic music making is where I get bogged down.
My mechanical self wants to get all the notes correct - correct intonation at the correct time with
the correct dynamic and so on. This interferes with producing music organically. I need to learn to
trust that I can play the piece and focus on making music. And that focus needs to be relaxed,
broad, and encompassing, not narrow, nit-picky, and precise.
I know that this organic music making is possible. I can and do play organically, but usually pieces of
music that I’ve played for a very long time. My hope is to shorten the incubation period so that I
can finish a piece is less time, with less struggle.
July 31, 2015
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Today was the final day of Cellospeak 2015. It has been an incredible week. It is going to take me a long time to digest and take in all the information I got in my lessons, in my technique classes, and from the music that we played together. I came here with no expectations because I didn’t know what to expect. And I have been blown away by the atmosphere and by the sense of community. There are over 60 cellists here between the faculty and the students and everyone of them is supportive and encouraging.
The camp culminated with a presentation of the music each of the four skill groups has been preparing all week. Beginner, elementary, intermediate, and advanced all played between two and four pieces, and then we all played a couple pieces together. The faculty once again thrilled us with two more superb pieces, including a multi-part rendition of “Hall of the Mountain King” that was stunning.
Sibylle and I are already talking about coming back here next year. This is truly a unique setting and a unique camp for adult cellists. I am very happy that we got to come here. And I am looking forward to coming again.
July 30, 2015
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Today I had my final Cellospeak lesson, learned a little about Tai Chi and cello, practiced pieces for tomorrow’s presentation and saw yet another superb recital from students and faculty alike.
##Pulse and Rhythm
Kris and Marion continued their wonderful workshop on rhythm and pulse. As a cellist who has struggled with internalizing the concepts behind pulse and rhythm and bow rhythm, I have found their ideas to be enlightening and very helpful. Conducting yourself while tonguing the rhythm is a very powerful learning technique.
##Elementary technique and musicianship
We spent a lot of time preparing the “Pavan” for tomorrow’s presentation. Gary, the resident conductor, stopped by our session and led us through the piece a few times, and also through the “Cello Song” and “Shenandoah”. What the organizers did is kind of interesting. Each student has different parts for different pieces. You may be the 1st cello part for one piece, and the 3rd for another. That way you have some pieces that are challenging and some that are more within your comfort zone.
Where this causes a bit of a wrinkle is seating arrangements. While the people around you have the same set of parts as you, the 1st section or the 4th section moves around the room as we play different pieces.
The was a brief presentation late this afternoon on tai chi and cello playing. Like all martial arts, tai chi focuses on balance and movement. Cello playing requires balance and movement. It was interesting to sit and slowly rock to one side or the other while miming a up bow or down bow. Focusing on how your body moves and where tension or lack of movement might be in the way.
For my final lessons Alan and I worked on the Bourrées from suite 3 of the Bach Cello Suites. Earlier in the week we had briefly looked at the first Bourrée and talked a little about breathing and thinking of a circle when playing chords. Today we looked at the second half of the first Bourrée, then at the second Bourrée, and finally at the first half of the first Bourrée. Alan focused a lot on the phrasing of the movements. The Henle edition I have often times breaks the longer phrases up in to shorter ones through the indicated bowings. Alan wants the sound to swell as the notes go up in pitch and to fade as the pitch comes back down. When the upward (or downward) passage has multiple bow direction changes it is hard to keep an even increase or decrease in the dynamic.
We also worked some on how I am holing the bow, particularly for up bows. He rotates his hand toward the tip of the bow on up bows. His arm moves first and the hand trails after propelling the bow. This gives him better weight control on the bow hair. We also worked on bow speed. When the passage is moving upward and you want to increase the sound you need to use a lot less bow initially so that you have plenty of bow left for increased bow speed as the intensity builds. Adding variations in the bow speed is like adding another ball to a juggling pattern. At first you drop all the balls. It’ll take me some practice to incorporate varied bow weights and speeds to add nuance to my Bach.
Tonight’s recital was once again incredible. The student pieces were beautifully presented and sometimes quite emotional. The faculty pieces were sublime.
After the recital there was a presentation honoring Dorothy Amarandos for her vision and perseverance creating Cellospeak and guiding it for 15 years.