"Music just the beginning"

Exploring El Sistema - Tue, 2015-10-27 10:00
The student musicians of Yakima Music en Accion, the after-school program aimed at local at-risk kids, made the program’s director cry earlier this year. They were at a potluck lunch hosted by one of the program’s teachers and the YAMA kids were asked to write one-word answers to complete the... Sistema Fellows Program


Tumblr - Tue, 2015-10-27 07:25

Just published!

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Just published!

Note to self

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Note to self


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Sistema Tulsa teaches lessons beyond music

Jose-Luis Estrada - Mon, 2015-10-12 14:44

By JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer

Excerpt  / Read More

The purpose of El Sistema, Hernandez-Estrada said, “is to use music, to use our culture, as the vehicle to raise up a new generation of achievers and give them the tools they need to succeed. “All instruction is done in ensembles, and we meet five days a week, so the instruction is intensive,” Hernandez-Estrada said. “The idea is to develop a sense of discipline and focus, as well as the ability to work accurately and to work well with others.

Magical Evening of Music with Wynton Marsalis

Jose-Luis Estrada - Mon, 2015-10-12 01:05

Those who attended the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s concert experienced a world class musical event. Wynton Marsalis and the orchestra members all demonstrated outstanding composing, arranging and jazz performance skills to a full Tulsa Performing Arts Center crowd. The concert was a benefit for Sistema Tulsa, the social change through music education program that began here last month to help Tulsa students.

I had the opportunity to offer a welcome message and introduce the musicians before their performance. After the concert, Mr. Marsalis graciously spent time with some of the students. Special thanks goes to the Brannin Family Foundation for their generosity in underwriting the excellent concert.

Embodied Music®: the Feldenkrais Method for Musicians

Cello Bello Blog - Mon, 2012-05-14 13:03

Before discussing what the Feldenkrais method is and how it can help you make better music without injuring yourself, let me start by asking a few questions.

Have you ever observed how very young children respond to music – with rhythmic movement, with sounds, with all sorts of other movements? Do you remember how you felt as a child, when you wanted to make music? Do you ever feel something akin to ecstasy when you hear a piece of a performance you really love? Is the sense of ecstasy only a thought or is it a feeling also in your body? Where in yourself do you feel it? Do you feel the rhythm? Can you feel that sometimes music makes you feel light and sometimes heavy, sometimes it is a swaying feeling and sometimes you want to jump? Sometimes tall and wide when the sound fills up the universe and sometimes all stops and there is just a minimal movement, like very quiet waters?

Do you realize that all these states have to do with your body, with different muscular states and a different organization of the skeleton? That your muscles feel different when you feel speed, and different when you feel swaying? What would you think if I told you that the feeling in your body of a particular phrase will create just the right muscle tone needed to play the phrase – not more and not less? Would you consider the thought that ignoring the physical feeling of music might contribute to injury and frustration?

Why do many of us lose that embodied feeling of music we had when we were children? Is it possible to keep the ecstasy of music alive through the whole process of acquiring the techniques to express it? And not only to keep it alive, but use it to find the right movements to express it? I constantly hear from students, after our lesson, variations on this phrase: “Wow, I remember now why I wanted to do it in the first place. I forgot!” The spontaneity and unity of hearing, doing and listening, is suddenly available again and the music is a pleasure to make, even when it needs improvement. Quiet, simple breathing resumes and the sense of the body’s weight returns. It is a moment of relief even to very accomplished players.

When one remembers this natural feeing of music and realizes how much of it is dormant, the next question is how to reclaim it.

The Feldenkrais method provides tools which use the language of movement to do just this. Dr. Feldenkrais created thousands of movement lessons which address every movement needed to live and to play. As a result, injuries are prevented and alleviated and one discovers new options of sounds which in turns enrich the musical imagination.

After many years of working with musicians and realizing how little information and help they get from their own body, I developed a way, which I call “Embodied Music”, to apply the Feldenkrais Method to musicians.

I use four formats in teaching:

1. Group movement lessons
2. Private sessions where I work with my hands, addressing specific problems of a student, sometimes with and sometimes without the instrument.
3. Master Classes
4. Workshops, combining all formats.

In the next installment, I will explain the tools and the theory used to help you express your music without hurting yourself.  In the last installment I will direct you through a series of movements so you can experience the efficacy of this Method.

Raising the Arms Pt. 2

Cello Bello Blog - Mon, 2012-05-07 13:33

A wheel needs a central point of contact, an axis, in order to turn and spin. One never loses touch with one’s central point – the spine – as one moves through life. But society today has lost that core. It has no idea where it is going.
- Svami Purna

When I was well into my studies as a young cellist, I became fascinated with the question: How does one raise the arms to play? My naive mind wondered: is there a wrong way and a right way, and how does one distinguish between the two?  I read a great many books on cello technique and for years I asked this question of my teachers. It seemed to me to be a very important gesture that most people took for granted, and my teachers, with one exception, never discussed it, except very generally to illustrate: ‘do it like this’.  But where did ‘this’ originate? Where did the energy come from and how was it to be directed in this fundamental act of preparing to play?

When I began training as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, I came face to face with a basic tenet of the work: the act of raising the arms is central to all one’s activities and depends upon the entire coordination of the body, not only the arms. I felt as if I had finally come home.

I mentioned in the last installment the following quotations from F.M. Alexander:

Stiffened necks and arms of people of today are outward signs of the imperfect development and lack of coordination of the muscular system of the back and spine.

Arms and necks are stiffened in performing actions which properly call for the perfect coordination of the muscular mechanisms of the back.

To understand the meaning of these words, we are asked to take a step back—to what precedes the raising of the arms—and that means coming into quiet and taking stock of the state of one’s head/neck and back relationship, what Alexander called the ‘Primary Control’. If the neck is tight, if the head is not balancing freely on top of the spine, if the back is either rigid or collapsed, what hope have we of raising the arms and using them freely in whatever we do, let alone playing the cello?

Let’s begin by looking at the connection of the arms to the source of their power, the back and yes, the legs too! The moment you think of reaching up or out with the arm, the equilibrium reactions are stimulated. Information is sent to the calf, hamstring, and abdominal muscles to organize the anti-gravity response to start working. The long muscles of the back (the extensors) engage to stabilize the trunk and to deliver the power to the limbs. So both the trunk and pelvis are involved in the preparation for using the arms freely. If you cannot use trunk and pelvis properly, you cannot use the arms well.

In the work of the Alexander Technique, the head/neck/back relationship is primary and the limbs are secondary; the former determines the efficacy of the latter.  We cultivate the power of the back in order to use the limbs freely.  Once the back is in its place, what we call back and up, rather than pushing or collapsing forward and downward, then we turn our attention to how the arms can be raised. To learn to keep the mind focused on what is primary when raising the arms is a huge challenge for the brain.

Amongst musicians, the arm joint (I refer here to the ‘ball and socket joint’–the ball of the upper arm bone which sits in the socket formed by the juncture of the collar bone and the shoulder blade), is one of the most misunderstood parts of the body. When I ask my students where they think their arm joint is, they usually point to a non-existent joint in the crease of their sleeve top. When I point to the place along the outer arm, indicating that this joint actually lies about 1 ½ inches down from the shoulder girdle, they are invariably surprised.

Tightening the neck, pushing forward or collapsing the lower back and raising the shoulder girdle to raise the arm are three of the most common faults, even amongst professional musicians and teachers of other instruments. To learn to use what Alexander called the ‘lifter muscles’—the latissimus dorsi or the large long muscles that wrap along each side of the back—and to allow the arm to rotate in the socket by sending the elbow away from the shoulder, rather than contracting it inward, contributes to a free, floating arm which is light, very mobile and which can transmit the power of the back, the primary energy supplier.

It can take quite a revision of our thinking to acknowledge that the arms don’t make the effort; they simply transmit the power supplied by the back. They are the agents of the spine and must be quiet and ‘empty’ in order to receive this power. Furthermore, when they are well-supported by the huge, long muscles of the back, they are not heavy, nor do they ever need to be made heavy to produce sound.  Making the arms feel heavy to relax them is one of the great myths of cello playing and usually involves collapse of the spinal column, or what we call in Alexander work ‘pulling down’.

My Alexander teacher often quotes his great teacher’s saying: ‘Let the spine light up the fingertips.’  The energy must flow like water from the source to the destination, in our case, the string.

Playing Audition Excerpts: Yes, the Devil’s in Them

Cello Bello Blog - Wed, 2012-05-02 17:24

Although the collection of excerpts on an audition repertoire list may seem arbitrary, each one has a purpose: giving the audition candidate an opportunity to demonstrate certain things about his or her playing and artistry. Audition success involves showing a command of certain basic elements—such as rhythm, dynamics, intonation and articulations—as well as conveying a nuanced understanding of the music and the composer. A well crafted audition list will include excerpts that emphasize each of these elements, and a candidate’s ability to demonstrate control and understanding of them will determine his or her chance for success.

Let’s put these goals into concrete terms using a common cello audition excerpt as an illustration: the opening of the second movement of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2:

Brahms Second Symphony, 2nd Mvt.








The bar-by-bar discussion that follows is by no means intended to imply that these are the only ways to think about this music. Rather, it is to illustrate one type and level of thinking that can lead to a successful audition performance. Ultimately, each of us should form our own ideas through exploration, with small details being carefully considered and then absorbed into the larger picture. Some of the comments below have to do with making what is printed on the page clearly audible to the listener, which sometimes is no small task. Other comments involve thinking beyond what is printed.

Some preliminary statements about this excerpt:

What are the top priorities here? Beautiful and nuanced sound, seamless legato, and elegant phrasing.

If you aim for the right sonic and musical qualities first, the best tempo will usually find itself. Resist choosing a tempo first and then fitting the music into it. Remember that the slower the tempo gets, the more difficult it will become to play long phrases successfully.

Printed dynamics, phrasings, and other markings should be very clear to the listener, but subtly inflecting a phrase even when no dynamic is printed is not only smart for an audition, it’s good musicianship.

Although this discussion does not specifically address vibrato, it should be understood that the desirable vibrato is one that (a) doesn’t stop during finger changes and shifts and (b) can be varied to enhance your musical aims. Moments of poco (or even senza) vibrato could conceivably be used effectively in this excerpt, but these decisions must be made thoughtfully and the sounds prepared carefully. Nothing in this excerpt happens suddenly.

Bars 1 – 2

Your sound must be free and open. Make an appropriate preparatory motion to begin playing so you aren’t starting from a physically static place.

Don’t push the limits of the instrument here—for that matter, don’t ever do it. This is not the loudest you will play in this excerpt. What does poco forte mean? Define it in relation to the louder dynamics that will come later.

Should you divide the opening slurs into more than one bow stroke? The answer (both here and everywhere) depends on whether you can make a beautiful, free sound in the right dynamic without dividing the slur. If you do break the slur, do so as imperceptibly as possible. Should you start up bow or down bow? Either can work, and aurally it should make absolutely no difference.

This phrase has contour, so it must have inflection. Many players phrase away at the end of the first slur, which is nice, but then begin the second slur louder and do exactly the same thing again—even though the ending harmony is completely different the second time. How about beginning the second slur where the first leaves off and then warming into the end of the second slur, to coincide with the first B major chord of the movement?

Bar 3

The last beat of bar 2 must sound like a pickup (even though you must use the bow more quickly), so its relationship to the following downbeat is clear.

The exact bowing in this bar is less important than that you play the phrase, not your chosen bowing. Coupling two notes together is common. This is a good bowing if well executed, but your ears must demand that each note goes in its proper place in the phrase, with no unwanted accents or inconsistent articulations. The musical line goes down from the downbeat, so it is nice to phrase it down.

Bar 4

It is imperative to avoid unwanted emphases on beats 2 and 3. Playing very smoothly here ensures that you don’t upstage the swell in the next bar (which should be noticeably different from anything played so far).

Bar 5

There is a lot to think about in this bar. Many bowings can work. Make the swell gradual, and not to the B, which frequently gets jabbed either because it’s the highest note or because of inelegant bow use.

Give careful thought to the type of audible connection—if any—that you want between the D# and the B. Then choose your fingering based on that. Too often, a player will go with the first fingering that works and become stuck with whatever type of slide results from it.

The most sudden dynamic and color change in the entire excerpt happens in this bar. Where? On the E. I have heard many an audition candidate sit on the E with unchanging tone, then suddenly play softer on the C#. The E is the gateway from one world of sound (and the height of the swell) to another. It must begin to change right away and lead us to a completely different sound color.

Bars 6 – 7

Show beautiful soft sound and real legato. Using the A string in bar 7 is fine if it’s done in a way that doesn’t accentuate the A string’s brightness.

You must shift at some point, but downward “shmears” are seldom attractive musically. Every shift you make should be either expressive or inaudible. In these bars, go for inaudible, meaning artful use of the bow to play legato while still making allowances so shifts aren’t heard.

Bars 8 – 9

The two upward shifts take place as a part of the longest single crescendo in the excerpt, not to mention that they end on different notes. Give the feeling, as a singer would, that the second one reaches higher, taking a little more musical “effort.” As mentioned, choose your fingering carefully. Which type of shift you make (and whether you shift at all, since crossing from the D string is an option) has an enormous effect on whether you sound like you are transcending the instrument or not.

Where is the top of the crescendo? Brahms is a bit vague with his markings, but it seems to want go to the downbeat of bar 10. If you aren’t careful, the B in bar 9 gets suddenly louder, so it sounds like the phrase goal and leaves no room to continue to bar 10. Pacing this crescendo evenly for two full bars is difficult—but it’s what the composer wrote.

Bars 10 – 11

The downbeat of bar 10 may be the loudest you play in this excerpt. Thinking backward, your sound at the opening must be gauged so that it doesn’t compete with the sound you’ll use at bar 10. After such a long crescendo, the diminuendo is quite quick. How low does it go? That’s up to you, based on the surrounding musical events. Bar 11 begins with the same two notes as bar 10, but the swell is much quicker—so perhaps it doesn’t come up as high. The small swells in these bars must be interpreted in the context of the larger phrase, and all swells do not have to be created equal—even those that look the same on paper.

Bars 12 – 13

Let the sound grow freely through beat 2 of bar 12. This is not a moment for white-hot intensity—nothing in this excerpt is. Since the cellos stop being the primary voice at the “poco forte” marking in the middle of the bar, it is less than you have just been playing. Crashing down on the F# does not give the impression that you understand the changing role of the cello line in the music.

Bar 14

The fast notes must be heard, but they must also be smooth and not seem suddenly active so they disrupt the general sense of broadness in the music. Get started on time so you can spread the quickest notes out to their full value.

There are many possible fingerings for this passage. The most obvious fingerings all involve shifting during the fast notes. I looked for an alternative and ultimately chose a solution for myself that is a little outside-the-box: from the downbeat, 2 1 2 4 4 (on the G natural). This fingering may not work for every hand, but it does allow the shifting to be done before and after the quick notes, not in the middle. I mention this mainly to drive home the point that we will only sound our best after thinking carefully about all the fingering options for a given passage.

Bars 15 – 17

Don’t play too softly in 15, to leave room for diminuendo. Keep the espressivo quality going all the way to the end, carefully listening as you bring the last note to silence.


Cello Bello Blog - Thu, 2012-04-26 17:35

A few days ago I was on the Symphony Hall stage, playing Brahms’s A German Requiem in concert.  While playing the second movement, I started thinking about what I was going to make for dinner the following night. The last time I cooked it, I thought, it came out a little dry. Maybe this time I should…

But wait a second, I was playing one of my favorite pieces in one of the world’s best halls, with a great orchestra and a great conductor, how could I not be completely absorbed in what I was doing? Was I the only one on stage whose mind was wandering, and if not – did anyone in the audience notice? I was aware that I was a part of a great concert, and the audience seemed to think so too. What was going on? I was playing everything just fine, but I wasn’t really there, and becoming aware of it made me feel like I’m not doing what I’m supposed to.

We try very hard to be “in the zone” when we perform, but is it really realistic to expect ourselves to always be there? In a professional setting you have to perform a lot. This year, for example, I will have played about 170 concerts with the orchestra, plus a good number of chamber music concerts. As much as I can try, it’s certain that I won’t be as involved as I’d like to in quite a few of them.  So how do we as performers deal with that?

For one thing, we shouldn’t take it too hard when it happens. We all know how easy it is to start beating ourselves up for being distracted, and as a result get more and more distracted. Better to just acknowledge what’s happening without judgment and just go on.

More important is the matter of how we prepare and practice. Young cellists often practice their notes carefully, and expect the inspiration of the moment to take care of the rest. We simply cannot rely on that – we owe it to our audience to give the music the expression we want to give it whether or not we’re “feeling it” at the moment. When we practice, we should be aware of the expression we want to show in the music, and be specific about how we achieve it with our instrument. This is where technique meets musicianship and where it matters most.

So don’t worry about being out of the zone sometime, I would bet that it happens even to the best of us. But do work on making that variable matter as little as possible by knowing exactly what you want to say musically and how to make it happen technically.  If anything, it will make the times when you are fully present and fully involved in what you’re doing even more satisfying and memorable.

Raising the Arms

Cello Bello Blog - Mon, 2012-04-23 17:34

You are a marvel. You are unique. In all the years that have passed there has never been another child like you. Your legs, your arms, your clever fingers, the way you move. You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel.
- Pablo Casals

Pablo Casals, ever aware of the miracle of life and of how gesture can be informed with thought and feeling, could elicit from his cello or from his orchestra sounds that could penetrate the heart. To watch him moving his arms as he played or conducted was to witness the reaching forth from his inner being to the outer world.

Arms are conductors of the energy within.  They bear the fruits of our thought in action, they take our hands to the very place we wish to touch or hold; they make it possible for the fingers to express our simplest and our deepest intentions as musicians.

Watching the arms is a clue to the state of a person’s thought—they can reveal tensions, anxieties, or emotional distress (at a time of loss, the arms and hands tell the inner story and seek out others instinctively to receive support). In a charismatic speaker or performer, the arms can act as a compass, defining the magnitude of a phrase or an idea and holding the attention of the audience through the tempo of their movement in space.  The way a musician enters the stage, either swinging or holding his/her arms, ready to embrace or ready to fight—is detected at a subliminal level by the audience. As the performer warms to the audience, the arms loosen and the connection is established between player and listener.  Fear contracts, fight braces, but love expands.

The first gesture we learn as players is to take hold of the instrument that fascinates us.  I remember once meeting a four year old Chinese boy in Beijing who had been playing the cello less than a year.  He could hardly wait for his father to remove the case from his 1/8 size cello, pulling and tugging to help; once out, he grabbed the instrument faster than a squirrel on a nut. His arms told me more than any words could that he just loved playing his cello.

Indian and Persian musicians in training must first learn what it is to touch their instrument, as touch is symbolic of the reverence and respect accorded their chosen medium of spiritual transmission.  The instrument is at once inanimate and animate; its life is awakened by the touch of the musician who opens to and is touched by the divine powers expressed through the music.

Raising the arms is a simple movement, one we hardly give thought to, and yet it is the rare cellist in whom the arms and wrists are free.  Just the opposite in fact. Mostly one sees arms that are doing the work of the back, trying to produce the energy needed to play. The true masters of any instrument, not only the cello, demonstrate to us that free arms are the expressive agents of the soul.

This installment therefore opens the question of how we make this fundamental gesture from which all else follows.  FM Alexander noted in his writings the following words which sum up many of the problems musicians face in their work:

Stiffened necks and arms of people of today are outward signs of the imperfect development and lack of coordination of the muscular system of the back and spine.

Arms and necks are stiffened in performing actions which properly call for the perfect coordination of the muscular mechanisms of the back.

The Alexander Technique is one way of learning to acknowledge — to come to experience in our bodies — how much the arms and hands overdo.  They are the slaves of an overactive and wasteful mind continually exerting too much energy in all directions.

In the teaching of the Alexander Technique, the first step is the practice of inward quietness, without which we cannot develop the sensitivity to notice how and where we are overdoing.  Becoming quiet and inwardly still enables us gradually to become aware of these interferences.

My students often are surprised by the discovery that they are ‘holding onto’ their arms or legs when they had no idea they were doing so.  As we ascend levels in the work, this discovery recurs to a finer and finer degree.

Musicians are generally not prepared to accept that their unproductive habits do not originate with the instrument.  Their patterns of overdoing—their manner of giving attention to their work – are formed by all their activities, by the way they live, music being the claim on most of their time and energy.  This ‘manner of the Use of the Self’, as FM Alexander called it, underlies all our reactions and holds the key to changing our habits at the cello. It is a long process of ‘undoing’ these ways of thinking.

Tak-Sîm Pt. 2

Cello Bello Blog - Wed, 2012-04-18 09:44

Here in Part Two of my discussion on Tak-Sîm by Alireza Farhang, I am going to focus on his application on various extended cello techniques. On this topic, I found his approach to be quite fascinating and one that I am especially excited to share with everyone here in the cello community.

The piece begins with an audio trigger that I execute by pressing on a foot pedal. The trigger is a low, ambient sound that is sonically enhanced when I play a tremolo on the stick of the bow thus creating an almost a breathless quality.

Although a relatively simple technique, for this technique I would suggest using what I call a “guilt free” bow. The reason is because there is a large crescendo at the tail end of the note. This requires a great deal of bow pressure, beyond what I would feel comfortable doing on a decent bow. So what is a “guilt free” bow you ask? For me this is a bow that is not worth very much money and one that you don’t mind wacking around a bit. I have two. One is wooden that I playfully call “the club” and the other is a carbon fiber bow made in China. Both actually sound pretty good and can bounce pretty well.

At this point I would like to comment on the fact that Alireza did something that is unfortunately all too rare in the world of composition. It is true that in his quartet he asks all of us to do many things that we do not normally do. That said, he also did his homework. Alireza actually went out and got a hold of a cello and experimented to find various sounds on the instrument. So when I would say to him, “this is not playable” he would actually respond “you do it like this”. For this I have to give him a great deal of credit. Surprisingly enough, this is only the second time that i have ever had this type of experience working with a composer. And both times i have found that I have discovered new ways of creating sound. My guess is that this is probably due to the fact that a composer does not go in with a set idea of how sound is created on a cello. I would encourage all composers to try this sometime.

 It is mainly near the end of the piece that Alireza unleashes his arsenal of extended cello techniques. In fact, the entire last 5 minutes or so is one big cello solo. The solo begins with a high double stop tremolo that rises up until you finally reach the bridge with your left hand. But you do not stop there! You continue tremoloing on the bridge creating a pitchless fuzz until you allow the bow to finally emerge on the far side of the bridge creating a dissonant chord. Again, you do not stop there! The tremolo continues down the cello to the point where the strings touch the tail piece. OK, now you hit a stop sign: fine tuners. So after taking a breath, you finish the phrase with a tremolo on the tail piece.

Next secton: bow the end pin. Whenever I bow the end pin I usually get a high harmonic. But as a result of his experimentation he knew a way to achieve a different sound. He asked for me to play a very low pitch which required a great deal of pressure. This is not an easy sound to make…and not very easy to control either!

And after a quick scordatura from C to B, Alireza next asks the cellist to play a tremolo between two harmonics located above the fingerboard in “rosin land”. As many of you already know, harmonics in this territory are pretty fussy. When I asked Alireza about them, he simply said, “I want the audience to feel your struggle”. Thanks, Dude.

But all of this leads to the solo’s most expressive moment. It is a melody played with left hand pizzicato meant to mimmic the sound of a setar. This melody is accompanied by sul ponticello tremolo and alternating between varied pitched and unpitched harmonics. This is a really beautiful sonic effect and a great moment in the music.

So how does a composer come to this point to ask a musician to do so much extreme extended technique. I cannot answer for all composers. But in Alirezah’s case the inspiration is actually completely musical. In his program notes, he writes: “The idea came to me in Autumn 2009 during a seminar at Columbia University”, recalls Alireza Farhang. “A young Turkish composer living in New York played a recording of some traditional Turkish music performed on a solo instrument. After the piece finished, he asked the audience to identify the instrument. The general opinion was that it could only have been a traditional Turkish instrument. This seemed right because everything about the sound, style, and intonation all sounded Turkish…nobody could guess that it was actually a cello! I then realized how the style, the intonation, the intervals, the articulations, all of the various qualities of holding a note, can change the character of an instrument and it’s identity. Thus was born Tak-Sîm.”

Competitions ≠ Success [A Student Perspective]

Cello Bello Blog - Sun, 2012-04-08 20:52

Not all competitions are created equal. There are good ones and bad ones, and good and bad reasons for entering. Many kids are raised to be competitive, both musically and in school. Kids can feel pressure to do competitions from parents, teachers and peers. Sometimes it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking success can only be measured by winning competitions and that a career in music and admission to a good school are impossible without numerous wins.

Competitions are good for many things, but they should not define success. They often consist of just one performance, on one particular day; success is something you achieve over many years through work and dedication. Since most competitions, at the most, will be three rounds over a short period of time, it is a mistake to believe you are successful or unsuccessful just because you won or lost. Many truly outstanding musicians have lost competitions because of a bad day, when in reality, they are better overall musicians than the winners. People shouldn’t beat themselves up over a loss, because, if you look at the big picture, it doesn’t make that much of a difference.

For me, part of the reason I enter competitions is for practice motivation. When preparing for a competition, I find I am able to focus and learn things faster. Like an audition, its an environment that I and many others struggle with, and so it is just good experience to perform in front of people.

I also find that sometimes the judges’ comments, whether formal or informal, help me improve my playing. Not all competitions offer this though, and when they do not make  judges comments available, you just play and are sent away with no knowledge of why you lost.

Find out as much as you can about a particular competition before entering and decide whether you really think it will be a worthwhile experience. Many competitions consist of just playing and leaving, with a winner announced via email at the end of the day. It can be a very dehumanizing experience, so be prepared!

The most notable exception to this that I have taken part in was the Sphinx Competition, which was a high-quality, multi-day experience. The judges gave detailed comments and were happy to talk afterwards to the participants. There were master-classes and lectures as well. Everyone in the organization cared about not only finding a winner, but also helping and impacting the musical development of all participants in a meaningful way. I made many connections and friends during my week at Sphinx. Sphinx is an organization with a very defined mission and a model competition.

By now, I think I’ve made it clear that I don’t believe in competitions defining musical accomplishment, or in doing the ones where there isn’t something to be learned. Sure, it’s a huge ego boost to win and losing can sometimes lead to a lot of productive soul searching, but its not for everyone, they also have the potential to be really negative,  and there are plenty of other ways to succeed in the field of music. But you can learn and grow from the good ones,  so all students should probably do a few just for the experience of playing in a stressful, critical environment.

Competitions can be a tool to focus and improve your playing, but they should not be used to define your success or failure.

What’s the Passcode?

Cello Bello Blog - Wed, 2012-03-21 20:25

In the reader chats I’ve hosted on this website, certain discussion topics make frequent appearances.  One of those topics, a question I hear often from students and other amateur musicians, is: “How do you practice?”  It’s easy to see why.  The assumption is that professional musicians must be great, or at least successful, practicers, and that insights into the habits of accomplished musicians should provide valuable information about how to improve and make the best use of practice time.

While I am always happy to share information about my own practicing, I always make an important qualification: practice is a personal thing.  There is no one way to practice, no secret passcode to gain entry to the clubhouse of good cello playing or success in the music profession.  You must design practicing around your individual needs.  Student musicians can, and should, do this in consultation with their teachers.

Nevertheless, it is possible to speak about what is generally desirable in practice regardless of your level of study.  While good practice can be defined in countless viable ways, here’s one to start with:  Successful practice is work—yes, work—that helps you identify the sources of your individual problems so that you can solve them in a way that makes you aware of the most basic principles that underlie all good musicianship and instrumental playing.

It is possible to achieve results through practice while still being wildly inefficient with your use of practice time.  For instance, learning one particular shift in one particular phrase in one particular piece is not a broadly useful achievement, unless you connect it to the larger aim of internalizing the elements common to all well-executed shifts.

It is also possible to practice to your own strengths and fail to directly address any of your weaknesses.  We’ve all done it: playing through a section of music that we already have well under our fingers will always, in its way, be more pleasurable than delving into thorny, unfamiliar territory where the progress can seem much slower.  (Of course, playing through something has a valuable place in the learning process, but perhaps not as often as we think.)

When I ask my own students about their practice habits, I usually hear about how their time is divided among a warm-up (scales, arpeggios, long tones, and other exercises), etudes, and repertoire.  It is rare that I hear anyone mention deliberately making time for what I call unstructured practice.  At some point when I was in music school, I was sitting in front of a practice room mirror and just began playing whatever came to my mind.  Watching my hands, posture, and motions in the mirror, I quickly realized there was some value in practicing this way, and began to include it in my daily routine with immediately positive results.  With or without a practice mirror, it was during this part of my practicing that I began to make important basic realizations about how I was connecting myself physically to the cello, where I was blocking myself with tension, when I was breathing (or not), and how applying different physical motions to the cello produced different results in sound.  In instrumental playing, there is a strong correlation among things that look good, things that feel good, and things that sound goodand the contrary.  I have found it easier to develop an awareness of these connections outside the context of difficult repertoire (or any repertoire at all), and recommend this type of practice to practically any instrumentalist.

Here are a few take-away statements and questions: good practice skills can be taught and learned.  Practice is about your relationship with yourself, and sometimes your teacher, as well.  There are many ways to practice successfully.  How honest are you able to be with yourself about what your ears hear?  Do you know how you really want to sound?  (If not, can you really expect your hands to begin to produce those sounds?)  What constitutes the greater achievement: learning a difficult new piece as quickly as possible with “old” habits or taking longer to study a simpler piece with a greater understanding of finesse and fluidity in your playing?

Next time: having done the last few blog entries on general topics, I’ll focus on a very specific, nuts-and-bolts discussion of one of the most often-studied orchestral excerpts in the cello repertoire.

Ready, Set, Stop! – A Different Kind of Preparation

Cello Bello Blog - Tue, 2012-03-13 14:24

It is what you have been doing in preparation that counts when it comes to making movements. -F.M. Alexander

In all my years of musical training I was shown many important aspects of cello technique, which included movements associated with the bow and left hand—what I call the ‘ready-set-go’ school. Your teacher explains, you listen and watch, and then you do… and then you do some more of this work in the practice room until the movements are learned.

I only became aware of the profound importance of another, entirely different form of preparation when I began training as an Alexander Technique teacher. The beauty and simplicity of it took my breath away. Many years later now, as I work with students, some of them express the same incredulity. How can the energies within the body travel upwards, up along the spine, as it descends in space? What is this extraordinary power of Up against gravity and why don’t we musicians know about this first, before all else? It makes the work of the limbs –both the arms and legs—seem effortless. When the spinal column is lengthening in movement, we are in the lap of grace itself.

It is simple but not easy, as my teachers always warned me. And how right they were! The principle itself is simple: when we allow the neck to release tension, the head will move delicately forward and ‘up’ of the spine, which causes the lengthening of the spine and the widening of the back. Learning to live its essence is the hardest thing I have ever come up against.

Alexander called his discovery of this principle the Primary Control of the use of the self. He made this discovery gradually and incrementally. He first noticed that he was pulling his head back and down to initiate a movement. It wasn’t obvious and it took many attempts at self-observation, comparing ordinary speaking with his more intensive stage voice, before he realised that his habit was with him all the time, whether on stage or off. For performers his work is revelatory. If a problem appears on stage, can it just be stage fright? Could the roots of the habit be much deeper than we know, manifesting at their maximum when we are under the most pressure, but there all the same in our everyday life—just not as noticeable?

The preparation that most of us make to move is almost universal nowadays. As the thought of moving comes to us, we are unaware of how we prepare by tightening the neck and pulling the head back and down into the spine. The freedom and grace of the spinal column is instantly compromised. It happens wordlessly, soundlessly, thousands of times a day. A thought triggers a habit.

So how to tackle this beast called habit which has us in its soundless grip? There are no direct ways, as Alexander discovered. We can neither command ourselves nor try to do something different. Our habits will get the better of us simply because those old movement patterns are stored in the deep brain structures; the patterns have become automatic, activated in milliseconds. Thought=action.

That’s where the new way of working comes in. In the beginning, my teachers did not allow me to entertain the idea of moving nor to prepare for it. This function of the nervous system is called inhibition—non-doing or stopping—allowing the nervous system to come into a state of quiet, not intending or wanting to do anything. For speed queens like me, this was nearly impossible. But that is what true learning is: going for the impossible, nothing less.

It takes years of work to be able to stop and to direct the flow of energy differently within the body before the inner movement begins to determine the outer movement. We can either compress our spines to descend into a chair or go up along the spine to do the same, allowing for that graceful extension of the spinal column. In fact, with every move we make, we can either pull down on ourselves or go up. One of my Alexander teachers, an erstwhile cellist, used to call it the ‘pitch of the body’. Her expression gave new meaning to the words ‘in tune with Nature.’


Cello Bello Blog - Mon, 2012-02-27 17:14

In my next few blog posts I am going to take a temporary detour from our discussion regarding the K-Bow in order to talk about a new work that my quartet recently premiered in Paris at the Cité de la Musique. The piece is by Alireza Farhang, an Iranian composer currently residing in Paris. The work, entitled Tak-Sîm, was commissioned by IRCAM (the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics and Music).

In past blogs I have spent a fair amount of time talking about the integration of technology and extended cello techniques into performance. My desire to discuss this piece comes from the fact that in my opinion this particular composition successfully integrates both concepts. In his own words, the composer’s objective was to transmit the intonation of Persian music into the instrumental parts as well as in the electronic elements. In order to do this he analyzed melodies played by a famous Iranian Setâr player, Ahmad Ebâdi, then he made a sort of harmonic structure into which the instrumental and electronic parts were both composed.

Here is a link to a video that shows much of the work that we did together in putting the piece together:


The above rehearsals were all done without the use of electronics. Although the use of technology is a large part of this type of work, I find that it is always important to have the opportunity to work with the composer in an acoustic setting in order to iron out any instrumental and ensemble issues. Without this time you run the risk of holding up future rehearsal time.

Alireza Farhang uses a petty hefty dose of electronics in this composition. In what way, do you ask? In his own words, about 90% of the work was written using the software OpenMusic. OpenMusic is an object-oriented visual programming environment based on CommonLisp/CLOS. It provides libraries and editors that make it a powerful environment for music composition. It can also be used for teaching functional and object programming. The colorful soundscape of the work is all synthesized sound that Farhang created using OMChroma, which is a library within the OpenMusic environment. Here is what they say on the OMChroma website:

OMChroma: High-level Control Structures for Sound Synthesis.

OMChroma is a compositonal framework integrated in OpenMusic adapted from composer Marco Stroppa’s Chroma system. OMChroma uses a matrix representations as control structures and provides powerful high-level procedures for the design and exploration of sound synthesis processes.

OMChroma is distributed as an external OM library by the IRCAM forum.

Participants / Contributors: Jean Bresson, Carlos Agon, Marco Stroppa (Musikhochschule Stuttgart), Serge Lemouton.

Using this software, there is some real time treatment of the instrumental sound. It’s sort of like sampling which is then transformed according to various parameters such as transposition or thickness of the texture. The sound designer has the possibility of working with these parameters while following along with the score.

And if things weren’t getting complex enough, we also used foot pedals in order to trigger soundscapes and to manipulate our sounds live. The sound files were triggered and controlled using the software Max/MSP. Max/MSP is a visual programming language for music and multimedia. I have performed a myriad of compositions that have used Max as it’s platform. This software is AMAZING because you can do virtually anything you want with it. The range of possibilities is absolutely astounding. That said, it is also infuriatingly squirrelly and I cannot tell you how many sound checks have come to a screeching halt because of a seemingly minute issue with the way a piece is set up within the software.

In my next blog post I will discuss some of the actual extended cello techniques that I used in performance and I will also discuss the premier itself.

Passing It On

Cello Bello Blog - Mon, 2012-02-20 13:43

A few weeks back, I was having a post-concert drink with my friend and colleague Joshua Gindele, cellist of the Miro Quartet, and the conversation turned to teaching. Though we are both associated with ensembles that perform dozens of concerts every season, teaching the cello is an important component of both of our musical lives. (Josh teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, and I teach at DePaul University.)

Discussions on the general relationship between performing and teaching often give rise to interesting questions, some without straightforward answers. Many performers teach even though the skill sets required for good teaching and good performing are far from identical. If great teaching is something that is learned, when and how are the skills acquired? If a performer is a big star with high name recognition, do some people assume — perhaps wrongly — that the person is a good teacher? (Our answer: yes.) Might a college-level institution hire a star performer to attract students, while the star’s teaching skills — or lack thereof — are of secondary importance? (Ideally no, but unfortunately yes.) Is it possible to define good (or successful) and bad (or unsuccessful) teaching in any objective way? Are good teachers routinely encouraged and promoted, and vice versa? Assuming that most people would not gravitate to teaching if they felt they were bad at it, does this mean most people who teach believe they are good at it? One of my teachers, Janos Starker, may have put it best, if charitably: ‘perhaps there is no such thing as bad teaching, only incomplete teaching…’

The most basic question, however, may be: why do I teach? I have a full-time job as a performer, so teaching is mainly a matter of choice, not necessity. I enjoy interacting with students, connecting with them, figuring out what their needs are and how they learn best, and helping them to realize their unique potential and achieve their goals. And what teacher doesn’t relish those moments when we know we’ve truly reached someone? We see the gleam in the student’s eye as they raise their awareness or take their skills to the next level. Teaching is a great learning experience, and there is no substitute for the challenge of developing finely-honed skills in both verbal description and instrumental demonstration. But for me, none of these things really addresses the question, why? They are meaningful things, to be sure, but they aren’t exactly why I teach.

For those of us who believe we’ve been fortunate to have had really great teachers, a strong sense of responsibility can lead to a desire to pass valuable information and traditions on to future generations of musicians. Music is one of the very few disciplines where becoming proficient at a high level requires a close apprenticeship with another individual. Though people try, it is impossible to learn to play the cello at a high level solely from reading technique books or studying online videos. These tools can play a supplemental role at the proper time in a student’s development, but the core of the way we learn is working closely with someone who knows more about the subject than we do. We all need the guidance of someone who can watch and listen with critical eyes and ears, giving us very immediate, individual feedback. This one-on-one instruction forms the basis of most serious instrumental music study and is quite unique when compared to other fields.

Because the music world is relatively small, many of us don’t have to trace our educational lineage too far back to find direct connections to some of the legendary figures in our field. My teachers in college and graduate school were Paul Katz and Janos Starker, my cello “fathers”. Mr. Katz studied with Mr. Starker too, and also with Gregor Piatigorsky, Gabor Rejto, and Bernard Greenhouse, my cello “grandfathers”. Mr. Starker studied with Adolf Schiffer, who was one of the last proteges of — David Popper. Popper as my cello “great-grandfather”? Pretty cool.

When I was younger, busy with practicing and the many other concerns of student and young professional life, I didn’t dwell too much on these questions. But as with everything, time provides perspective. Though both my college and graduate school teachers are still teaching, my generation is becoming largely responsible for passing on the traditions of our chosen discipline to those who are where we were twenty years ago. It honors the roles of our cello “ancestors” and helps ensure that the next generation will have the wisdom and tools they’ll need to carry on when their time comes.

This, come to think of it, is why I teach.

“So you think you know?” Part II

Cello Bello Blog - Sun, 2012-02-12 19:25

Sensory appreciation conditions conception; you can’t know a thing by an instrument that is wrong.” -F.M. Alexander.

Our body-mind could be called our home. We live in it from the inside, looking out at the world. It provides our orientation, our focus, our sense of what is right and wrong, up and down, around us, beneath us and above us. All day long we are encountering and interacting with the world; stimuli are filtering through our senses and being evaluated against past experience. The question raised within us after only a few lessons in the Alexander Technique is the same one that F.M. Alexander grappled with for nine years as he searched for answers to the mis-use of his voice: What am I doing and how can I know that I do what I think I am doing? In other words: how reliable are my sensory feedback mechanisms?

In my first Alexander lessons, my teacher used to say: come out of your head and into your body. Let the sensations of your body come into play. I was so accustomed to evaluating a movement rationally—through logic and intellect—that the actual sensation of myself was one step removed. Often I did not realise that my arm or my neck was holding on. I seemed unable to discern levels of tension, let alone subtle, unwanted preparation for movement.

Alexander called this capacity to sense our ‘sensory register’ or ‘sensory appreciation’. In the early stages of the work, we begin to discover just how ‘off the scale’ we are in our capacity to sense subtle inner movement, the flow of energy along the spine, the freeing of limbs, the lengthening and widening that emerge out of lessening contraction throughout the body. We often encounter something even more bewildering in a lesson– being told by a teacher that we are actually doing the very opposite of what we think we are doing.

As the lessons progress, we may have the occasional experience of rightness, which has little to do with activity on our part. On the contrary, it comes by doing less. Through repeated experiences at the hands of a good teacher, the native intelligence of the body-mind re-awakens, as though it had been asleep for many years. The sleep is the state of tension which we have maintained unawares…we don’t know that we are holding on here and there and everywhere.

What is this native intelligence, and its companion— reliable sensory awareness— and how can we promote its presence in ourselves? My teacher used to say that it cannot be known directly and the moment we strive for it, it is gone. It is there for us in stillness and when we are not trying to do. Through years of proper work—whether it be the Alexander Technique or any discipline which understands and respects the principle of non-doing—our sensory awareness can be honed to recognize interference: the pushing, straining, and making counter-productive effort that negate this body-mind intelligence. Little by little we come to harmonize with that upward flow of energy along the spine. What we intend and what Nature intends for us begin to coincide on a conscious level.

A New Look at Sight-reading (Part 3)

Cello Bello Blog - Fri, 2012-02-03 11:36

Successful sight-readers move deftly around within a rigid hierarchy of tasks (“the Levels”).  They’re like fencers, thinking ahead, anticipating the threats and challenges in the music, and adapting what they do on a measure-by-measure basis.  They keep to the hierarchy, adding the next Level only when the lower ones are completely under control; experienced players do not jeopardize the ensemble by fumbling at a Level they can’t handle properly.

Thus, effective sight-reading training is about understanding these Levels to the point where you can apply and adjust them instinctively, automatically.  As I’ve said, it’s a different kind of thinking, almost like playing a different instrument.  For most people, the most difficult concept to wrap your head around is that finding the actual pitches comes last.  Simply chasing notes will quickly lead to disaster when sight-reading within a group.  You have to apply a different mental template, where it’s about something bigger than just those dots on the page.

Of course, the more technique you have, the more difficult music you can handle.  But as sight-reading is a separate skill, it can be immediately improved with specialized work, whatever your level.  In a nutshell, successful sight-reading requires three things at all times: (1) counting, (2) looking ahead, and (3) prioritizing.  Counting and looking ahead are self-evident; it’s the prioritizing where things get interesting.  To do it right, the hierarchy of tasks must be applied in strict order, as follows:

Level I: Keep a steady pulse and maintain your place in the music (visually, if nothing else).  Meter, tempo, and pulse are paramount.  (“The most necessary, most difficult, and principal thing in music is time” — Mozart to his father).  And your first responsibility is to your colleagues, who are depending on you to play in such a way as to allow them to get through their parts successfully.  So if you can do nothing else, play just the rhythmic skeleton, keep the basic time, follow your music along visually, and resume full playing as soon as you can without disruption.  Sacrifice what you must, but never act as a drag on the ensemble; the tempo might not be comfortable, but few things are more irritating than having someone play as though with continually-applied brakes.

So whatever you do play must always fit within the pulse of the music.  If you executed every detail of a given measure to perfection, but required an extra 16th-note’s worth of time to do so, you have failed.  When a storm hits, the bar-lines are your friends; abandon all else and hold onto them!  Everything is secondary to maintaining the pulse; violation of this imperative will almost certainly lead to a breakdown of the ensemble.

“Maintaining the pulse” is more subtle and difficult than simply counting; indeed, if you count without listening you will harm the group.  It means integrating others’ playing (which may well be inexact) into your counting.  It requires intelligent and interactive listening to what’s going on around you, and assimilation of that rhythmic activity into your internal pulse.  Playing in “perfect time” to your own beat without regard to your partners will swiftly lead to a breakdown of the ensemble. (Always remain alert, though, for a ritard, accelerando, or other marking that alters the pulse.)

The best way to master this Level (and indeed music-making in general) is to mark the pulse physically, somewhere in your body.  My teacher, Janos Starker, said that whenever you play anything, some muscle somewhere, between the top of your head and your little toe, must contract in time to the music.  It could be any muscle, however small or unobtrusive, but it must mark time comfortably and steadily.  Everything you play then “rides” on this internal pulse.  (And it must be an internal pulse; no one wants to see or hear you tapping your foot.)

Lastly, be sure you’re clear on “roadmap” issues in the music, such as repeat signs, 1st and 2d endings, da capos, and fermatas.  Roadmap mishaps will always lead to a halt in the proceedings, but are easily avoidable with just a cursory scan.  Consult with colleagues about which repeats will be taken, and take note of all the spots your eyes will need to jump somewhere.  Watch and listen at fermatas; either follow or lead!

Level II: Play correct rhythms.  If the pulse is solid, your next task is to render the rhythms precisely.  The more complex the passage, the more important it is that the rhythm be accurate.  A wrong (or dropped) note simply means the harmony sounds funny for a moment; it usually won’t affect anyone else’s playing.  But a wrong rhythm can derail the entire ensemble even if the underlying pulse is steady.

Typical trouble spots you should look out for before undertaking to sight-read a piece include:·

  • Tied notes.  A very common tendency (even in familiar music) is that the note following a tied-over note is often played too early.  It’s important that you both “feel” the tied-over note, and release it slightly, like an apostrophe; this way the next note will be on time.·
  • Dotted rhythms.  The same tendency applies here; the note after the dot often comes too early.  Try to feel the subdivision represented by the dot(s), and be sure that you arrive on the next beat on time.  It’s better that short notes just before a beat come late rather than early (as long as the beat’s on time!).·
  •  Syncopations.  Syncopations are, in essence, a series of tied notes and, again, it is vital that you feel all the beats that are elided.  Indeed, you must feel them extra strongly since you’re not playing them.
  • Changing divisions.  Watch out for “math” problems.  Rhythms can often break down at junctures between triple and duple patterns.  In complicated licks, make sure you can visually spot where each beat falls in the measure

  • Meter and tempo changes.  While you might not know exactly what’s in store at these points, at least note where they are ahead of time.  When you get to them, be on your toes and ready to make whatever adjustment is needed.
  • Rests.  This is no time to relax.  Count them out as carefully as notes.  If a rapid figure begins with a short rest (say, the first of four 16th-notes), the note after the rest usually tends to be late.  When you have a rest longer than a few beats, it’s an opportunity to scan farther ahead.  But keep counting while doing so!!

These issues will usually jump out at you as you scan through a part before playing it, and you should take a moment to sing or tap a tricky rhythm to yourself before starting.  If you flip a page and a nasty lick comes at you completely on the fly, you should momentarily retrench back to Level I (play only what you can, while maintaining the pulse and your place).

If the passage is very fast, this might require leaving out one or more notes, repeating a note as a “place-holder,” or perhaps just playing an open string.  What some call “faking” is a legitimate and even admirable application of the Levels in their correct order, with the needs of the ensemble taking precedence over the “needs” of the individual player (who wants to hit all the notes).

Even for a player of modest abilities, it’s fairly unusual that a rhythm cannot be sight-read, assuming you’re playing a piece that’s technically within reach.  Rather, it’s the rhythm plus the notes that tangles us up.  The correct approach is to focus on rendering the rhythms precisely and in time, and getting only what notes are feasible along the way.  Remember, wrong/dropped notes are far less disruptive to the ensemble than wrong/dropped rhythms.

The nodus of string playing is in the coordination of two entirely different tasks between the hands.  It is a cross we bear alone; pianists and woodwind players of course need great ambidexterity, but their fingers are performing the same basic action.  With us, the interplay between the bow and left hand is almost impossibly complicated; rhythm can come solely from the left hand, solely from the right, or (most often) through a combined action between the two.  A run of steady 8th-notes becomes much harder in an asymmetrical bowing pattern (3+1, two-slurred/two-separate, etc.).  But again, the Prime Directive is to never lose time; so if you need to simplify a bowing pattern to stay on track, don’t hesitate.

Accomplishing Level II thus requires the complete understanding (and practice) of the dictum that correct rhythms take precedence over everything except the basic pulse.  This adjustment is counter-intuitive and quite difficult for most people, but until it is made, sight-reading will remain frustrating for the individual and for any group with which he/she plays.

Level III: The notes (finally!).  If the passage is one for which the first two Levels are not problematic, then you can focus on the pitches.  In your initial glance, obviously, look at the key signature, but try also to determine the mode (e.g., D major or B minor).  Think through (or even quickly mime) both scale and arpeggio fingerings for that key, especially if it’s one you’re not generally conversant with.  Next, scan for accidentals.  If there’s a sudden thicket of them, try to figure out if it’s a chromatic passage or whether the key has simply changed.  (In the latter case, the passage could actually be easier than if the key signature was in effect.)

Developing one’s abilities on this Level involves an unconscious process of storing and recognizing more and more patterns.  Over time, you will develop a “database” of common melodic and accompanimental figures, which you will begin to match to the music in front of you.  There is a syntax to the music of each style period, particularly for bass lines, and when you come upon a familiar pattern, you shouldn’t need to read every note.

Instead, with practice, you will gradually learn to process notes in clumps rather than one at a time.  For just one example, diminished-7th harmonies often contain both flats and sharps in the same chord.  Once you begin to recognize the chord in an arpeggiated figure, you need only check where it starts and ends, and then plug in a standard fingering.

But what of those passages that don’t fall into any existing patterns, such as one finds in so much music from the 20th century onward?  Here, the mental process you must acquire over time is what I call the “visualization of grids.”

Each note you play should be broken down into a 3-part datum: (1) the pitch, (2) the string you’re on, and (3) the finger you’re using.  Each datum should then call up a mental “grid” of 19 notes — the fingered notes which are available to you at that instant.  At any given moment the hand can cover five notes on each string (four fingers plus one extension), giving you 20; subtracting the one you’re playing gets you 19.  So, for example, if you’re playing Eb on the G-string with your 3d finger, you have the following notes available on the C-string: F, Gb/F#, G, G#/Ab, A.  On the A-string, you have D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb.  And so forth.

The best sight-readers are those who can call up the complete, correct grid instantaneously on each note.  If the next note you need is not on that grid, you figure out the most efficient shift needed to get to it.  Fingerboard geography is complicated, but it is finite (at least in the lower positions).  If you actively try to develop the visualization of grids in everything you play, your sight-reading will improve steadily.

This system is in contrast to the more traditional “position” approach.  The concept of “third position” can be taught so as to encompass the visualization of grids, but it’s just extra mental baggage.  Better to focus on the grids and available notes.  This is not to say that each note is an island unto itself; of course we mentally clump them together into positions.  But the positions are the tail, not the dog.

So although rhythmic groupings must be kept in mind no matter what (per Level II), advanced sight-readers also create a mental “overlay” of which notes belong together.  Try to spot the notes on which you’ll have to shift, and to which finger.  Watch out for scale patterns with gaps in them.  But above all, make sure that a sudden tricky passage doesn’t make you neglect the first two Levels.

Bonus points: Character and dynamics.  The Levels at which you’re operating will be constantly changing according to circumstances.  But through it all, you should always try to convey the overall character of what’s in front of you.  Even if the passage is so difficult that you’re relegated to Level I, you can still notice that it’s pp, or that the notes should be staccato.


To recap a little bit, good sight-reading requires more than accurate counting and playing; you must keep your ears open at all times and process what you’re hearing.  Someone else in the ensemble might be playing a difficult lick that’s about to come your way, and getting it in the ear ahead of time (even with flaws) puts you ahead of the game.  Even more importantly, not everyone in an ensemble will be equally adept at managing the different Levels (if they even know about them), and attentive playing from you could be a group’s salvation.

Back in the 1960’s, there was a safe-driving ad campaign on television whose slogan was “Watch Out For The Other Guy”  — the point being that it was not enough to simply follow the rules of the road yourself, but that you had to allow for others out there who weren’t.  The same applies here.  As an ensemble cellist you will frequently find yourself playing a fairly simple repetitive rhythm while the upper voices wrestle with something more florid and difficult.  There is a fine line between maintaining a beat that the others can depend on and insisting on metronomic perfection as if in isolation.

Remember, the success of the group trumps all.  If a subtle adjustment from you will keep things together, you should make it, and discuss the issue later.  But this can’t happen if you’re focused solely on yourself.  Always relate your part to what’s going on around you, and if you’re the one struggling with a hard lick, listen for the rhythmic voice and hang on!

The foregoing was taken from an introduction I wrote for a reprint edition of a wonderful early 20th-century French text, “500 Sight-reading Exercises For Cello,” by Armand Parent and Vincent D’Indy.  As per its title, the book contains 500 short (3-line), gradually-more-difficult exercises in all styles, keys, tempi, etc.  I know of nothing comparable out there in scope and usefulness.  The rest of my intro relates to the actual exercises in the book, and is thus not of much use in a general blog.  But the book is available at www.cellos2go.com.