This summer, some students and people I know are doing very cool things. Here is installment #1, from Nancy, one of the hardest working students I have ever had the pleasure of teaching. You should hear the Brahms sonata on this gal. Here are her notes from her seminar in Ithaca.

She writes:

Nancy Goes to Ithaca

June 5, 2008 Day 0

I’m in the airport now, through security, with only carry-on luggage. I have my tall Americano and my bottle of water. It is an hour and a half before take-off, so I’m early. With LA morning traffic, I had to leave plenty of time. It’s alright. I have a good Neal Stephenson novel (Snow Crash) and my iPod nano.

My youngest son (age 15) will be driven to his final exams today and tomorrow by a classmate’s parent. I have parked my older son’s Honda Civic at the airport for the weekend. He and my husband are at work. I anticipate that my family will be enjoying some fast food experiences for the next few days. They are quite capable of cooking for themselves, but I believe that they won’t.

I am headed to Ithaca, NY on US Airways via Philadelphia. I’m on my way to attend the 2008 New Directions Cello Festival (NDCF) To quote from the website, “The the New Directions Cello Festival provides a forum for the exchange of music and ideas in the field of non-classical and alternative cello.” There will be many other cellists to meet, performances to hear and workshops to attend. Why am I going?

I think every cellist, every person in fact has something that he or she systematically avoids acknowledging, the proverbial “elephant in the living room”. For me it has been my utter inability to improvise on my cello. Some musicians get to know their instruments and play creatively from the first introduction. Some have such a strong instinct for musical improvisation that they don’t learn to read music and find it easier to just “fake it”. I have known pianists, singers and guitarists that play very well, yet can’t read a line of music. Others, like myself, are virtually slaves to the printed score. My approach to music has always been more cerebral than instinctive. So now, at the age of 47, I am ready to wrestle with this demon. In my bag are my copy of the Bach Suites, a few other pieces I am working on, some duets, my rosin, a practice mute, a portable music stand, which, apparently, I can carry onto the plane, and my gizmo to keep my endpin from slipping. (Are all the different designs still called rockstops?). A “better quality” rental cello should be waiting for me at the festival. I’ll let you know how the rental works out.

Still June 5, 2008- in Ithaca

I got lucky and scored a free ride from the airport in Ithaca. I managed to glom onto some musicians who will perform at the festival (The James Hoskins Trio). Chris White, the festival’s director, kindly permitted me to ride with them to Ithaca College. I checked into my dorm room, but I won’t get my rental cello until tomorrow at 11:00 AM. At first I was disappointed, but it turned out for the best. I went to one of the common rooms to listen in on a jam session. I would have felt nervous with a cello of my own. As it was I sat back and enjoyed listening. I am inspired but not sure I can do it myself.

June 6, 2008 Day 1

I am writing this at the end of the day, a very long day. I suspect that I am a significantly changed person. When the storm settles in my head, we will see.

Back home (after the festival)

I am tempted to pretend that what follows was written while still at the festival, and write it as a series of bogus journal entries. But I am a terrible liar, and what would be the point? My days were fully occupied with meeting people, participating in workshops, unbelievably fabulous evening concerts, and jam sessions. I performed a truncated version of my daily walk on the first day and never even set foot in the gym. Except for an excellent dinner one night at The Moosewood Restaurant, time taken for meals seemed like an inconvenience. No, I did not continue with detailed journal entries. But yes, I am a significantly changed person. At the end of all of this, I will explain how and why I am different, and how that will affect my cello playing.

First I want to tell you a little more about the festival. The rented cello was really quite good. I would say it was a higher quality student cello. Chinese-made of solid wood (I don’t know what kind). There were no severe wolf tones. I was able to use the fourth position on the C and G strings. The A and D strings sounded a bit bland and lifeless, but for my purposes it was fine. My rental was provided by Race Orchestral Strings, Spencer, NY. I didn’t hear anyone complaining about their rental cello. It was wonderful not to worry about my own cello on the airplane. I didn’t need the music stand or any music. This festival was about improvisation. There wasn’t much reading done and there was little time for my regular practice routine, so didn’t need the practice mute either. I was glad to have the rosin and the rockstop.

I won’t recount every workshop that I attended, but in the first one, led by Sera Smolen, she effectively calmed our anxious minds. She told us there were no mistakes, and convinced us to be nice to ourselves. In this workshop I had my first experience improvising. All 18 of us played a drone or a rhythm while we went around the circle and each of us took a turn improvising. The good news is I did alright. I enjoyed it, and it felt different from reading music.

Sera Smolen is the one who brought up the study done at John’s Hopkins University, for which musicians were placed in an MRI machine with a plastic keyboard and asked to play with and without improvisation. I passed this on to Emily, so I’ll let her tell you all about it. The gist of it is that the blood flow within our brains when we improvise is quite different from when we read music.

To be in the continuous presence of so many cellists was a thrill. There aren’t all that many events exclusively for cello, so this festival is quite special. For any given workshop there were anywhere from 14 to 20 cellos in a room at a time, most often playing together. Each day there was a “Big Band” rehearsal in which all 60 or so cellos were free to participate. The band was entirely of cellos playing compositions, specifically for cello in 4 or 5 parts. About 35 cellos were in the first rehearsal. I don’t know how many cellists played the final concert, because I, unfortunately, missed it. Next year I will definitely add a day to my trip so that I don’t miss the final events.

So, what did I take home?

I have learned something about myself. I am, apparently, a visual learner. If I were unkind, I would say I was some kind of REtard. But, I’ll be nice. I have a sort of a learning disability. I don’t think I was born with it, necessarily. I believe that the way that I have played since the age of nine has kept me from training my ear, at all. Let’s go back to where I mentioned that I had never improvised before. Some of you may have thought of that as an exaggeration. Because there is always the doodling before a rehearsal or concert and the playing around with your cello alone at home, right? No. I don’t doodle. I haven’t known how to doodle. And it doesn’t often occur to me to just play around with sounds on my cello. I don’t know, I think when I was a kid, I played a few glissandos and the
music director scolded me for disrupting the class. So, being the rule-follower that I was, I stopped. I play the cello but never play with the cello.

One of the other participants at the festival (Barry from Brooklyn) suggested to me that I try to memorize my pieces so that I could train my ear better. I always wondered why my fellow musicians could play from memory orchestral parts that we hadn’t worked on in months. I have never been able to remember anything that I play. Even things that I have played for 30 years (Bach Suites for example), I can play by memory only the parts that I have consciously tried to memorize. Other cellists, I am discovering, will have a piece memorized automatically after playing it for a while, some after only a few readings. I will never remember a piece just because I played it a lot, no really, never. I often do not even have the first note memorized. I have never had a teacher who required me to memorize pieces and I have never taken an ear training course. I am beginning to understand that I have not been hearing the music when I play.

So, what am I going to do about this? The good news is that I know I can improve. When I put my headphones on at the airport after three days at the festival, my eyes welled up because the experience of just listening to music was so enhanced over what it had been pre-festival. I have far to go, so I expect a steep learning curve indeed.

For now my new practice plan is: 1) warm up with more scales and arpeggios and make up my own exercises rather than just read through etudes; 2) play around with chords and modes; 3) consciously work at memorizing everything that I play, so I at least spend some time focused on the sound of the music rather than the appearance; 4) doodle doodle doooodle doodley doodle doodledoodledoodledoodledooooeldoledooooelodoodlenoodledoodoledoodledoo. I’m going to play with my cello.

Any other suggestions will be gratefully accepted. Happy celloing.

Contributed by: Nancy

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5 Responses

  1. Thanks so much for posting this. I was hoping to go to this festival myself, but family issues intervened. I have attended a couple of hour-long improvisation workshops, which I have enjoyed immensely, I do enjoy doodling, and my teacher requires me to memorize everything, but I am not a natural memorizer or learner-by-ear or improviser, and can relate well to Nancy’s comments, and find them inspiring.

  2. This was very interesting to read. I can so relate to being a visual learner and struggle to memorize. I’m not required to memorize but I’d like to be free of the music so I could work on other aspects. Improve. I watched my son learn this on his sax. It’s a very interesting process. One thing I’ve picked up from my teacher is to experiment with sounds; near the bridge, faster, slower bows, etc. It’s helped me with sound. But improve on the cello…that will take a leap for me but I’m inspired as well!

  3. Thank you for your comments.
    I find that when I put my mind to it, it isn’t difficult for me to memmorize, it just never would happen by itself. I need to pay close attention. I am hoping that this extra effort will help me focus on the sound of the notes and on the intervals, and off of the written page. I am also finding that I like the way I sound when I play from memory.
    Nancy P.

  4. I’m so upset with myself for not making it to this, since it was in NY for the first time in years 🙁

    Money though … can only afford 1 music festival a summer right now … and even that barely … I hope it’s in NY next year, b/c I will more than definitely go if it is…

    Seems so cool, and improv=incredibly awesome!

  5. Great post! I generally end up memorizing things when I practice it a lot…but I will make it a point from now on to put it to memory. I do believe that you have more energy to focus on sound if you’re not having to read music.

    I recently started doodling on the cello when I started to play with some non-classical guitarists. It was a huge challenge to me as I felt lost without music. It is getting a lot easier every time I do it though so I think I will spend a few minutes each day doodling. I think it’s important to experiment freely with your instrument.

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