Some weather related event updates:

Tumblr - Mon, 2016-02-08 13:41

Dominique Eade’s faculty recital – this recital is going to be rescheduled for a later date (not yet confirmed).

NEC Opera – regretfully, tonight’s performance has been cancelled; however, we are actively working to confirm another performance in the theater.

Student Piano Recital (Yishai Rubin) – this recital is going to be rescheduled for a later date.

Guitar Masterclass (Grisha Goryachev) – this class has been rescheduled for Thursday February 11.

Natasha Brofsky Studio recital – this concert will go on as scheduled in Brown Hall.

The Jordan Hall building will remain open for the evening hours for practicing

Happy Snowday!

Tumblr - Mon, 2016-02-08 09:30

Happy Snowday!

NEC is closed

Tumblr - Mon, 2016-02-08 08:38

Due to the impending winter storm, NEC will be closed today, Monday, 8 February 2016; all classes, lessons, and rehearsals are cancelled, and all offices are closed. The Jordan Hall building will remain open for practicing - the SB Building and 295 Huntington Avenue will not be accessible.

We will send another update no later than 12:30 pm today about tonight’s activities both at NEC and at the Cutler Majestic Theater. Please be safe and use great caution if traveling today. Thank you.

100 Cello Warm-ups and Exercises Blog 19: Cello Geography -Part 5: Thumb Position and the Upper Registers

Cello Bello Blog - Mon, 2016-02-08 02:00

Blogs #15 and #16 discussed the geography of the lower regions of the cello. In sorting out the “latitude” and “longitude” in this part of the instrument the main organizing principle is the knowledge and use of positions. We identify the positions by the location of the first finger on the string up through Seventh position, with “normal” and “extended” variants throughout. When the first finger is playing the A in seventh position on the A string the thumb is still behind the neck – so this is still considered neck position. Seventh position is a significant place on the cello, because it divides the string into two equal parts, and as a result we find the A harmonic there as well.

After seventh position, the thumb is used as a finger up on the fingerboard. (It can also be used on the fingerboard in the lower part of the cello, and is employed there very often for octaves, double stops and special fingerings, even in literature as far back as Boccherini and Haydn.) When the thumb is up on the fingerboard we call it thumb position. I described the basic outline of the thumb in thumb position in Blog #18 (the “inny and the outy”, the C-shape, the Perfect Fourth between the thumb and the third finger, etc.)

The organizing principles of geography in thumb position are different from those of the neck region. We don’t identify positions in the upper part of the cello. Instead, there are three important techniques for understanding location and for navigating around in the cello’s upper regions.

1. Using nodes and other fixed points for reference

2. Measuring distances:

a) understanding and using intervals

b) the “Configuration of the Hand” across string

3. Using the basic thumb position, as described above, and organizing   the finger spacing with tetrachords

1. Using nodes for reference

We use the harmonic nodes on the cello in the upper positions as a fixed reference in our GPS system to locate where we are. Most cellists are aware of the second harmonic, because that is often used to help tune the instrument. For example, on the A string the second harmonic is the A in seventh position, which divides the string in two parts. (The first harmonic is actually the open string; the second harmonic is also called the first overtone – but rather than confusing things further I will just refer to these as harmonics!). The 3rd harmonic on the A string is the E that divides the string into three parts. The 4th harmonic is the A that divides the string into four parts, and the 5th harmonic is the C# that divides the string into five parts.

Below is a simple chart that shows the most important harmonic nodes. The view here is looking down the cello towards the bridge (bottom up). There are many more harmonics on the string than indicated, but these are the most important nodes to use as points of reference. Naturally these harmonics repeat themselves in mirror image going up the string (but we don’t need them right now for this discussion about thumb position). We need to practice finding these nodes using muscle memory with a certain amount of rote practicing, so that we can locate them easily. The 3rd, 4th and 5th harmonics should become as easily accessible as the 2ndharmonic.

Another piece of information that is useful is to know is what note is right at the end of your fingerboard. Usually it is an F or F#, though depending on the length of your fingerboard it could range from an E to a G.

Once you know where the harmonic nodes are, or knowing what the note is when you put your finger right on the edge of the fingerboard, you can find other notes around by using the second method mentioned above:

2a. Measuring distances – understanding and using intervals

The second important system for understanding the geography of the instrument is to know the distances between notes in different parts of the fingerboard. Basically we measure distances from the node to a note, or from one note to the next. Our unit of measurement is the interval. Unlike the piano, where the distance between half steps remains constant through all 7+ octaves, on the cello a half step (or any interval) gets smaller as you go up the string. This is why it is so important to do scales and arpeggios in all keys in the upper part of the cello – to know and feel the distance of a whole step or a half step, or a minor third or a perfect fourth all over the cello.

Since the basic thumb position involves a perfect fourth between the thumb and third finger, it is important to do exercises for sensitizing this distance all over the cello. A great warmup is to do the Feuillard thumb position scales (#26) and the arpeggios (#27) in every key:

Practicing octaves is important for the same reason, since the octave shape across strings in thumb position is the same as a perfect fourth on one string. Similarly, it is great to practice artificial harmonics to maintain the P4 hand position on one string. So, practicing artificial harmonics is a great way to reinforce octaves, and vice versa. And both are great for maintaining the all-important relationship between the thumb and third finger.

It is critical for cellists to know the sound and spacing of the intervals all over the cello, both on one string and across strings. I like to do whole tone scales and chromatic scales to focus on whole steps and half step distances up the cello.  

    Two other warm-up exercises that I like to do are great to focus on intervals and distances going up a string: an octotonic scale (alternating whole and half steps), and a diminished seventh arpeggio with a replacement fingering to sensitize the distance of the ascending and descending minor thirds.  

Once the intervals are clearly understood, and the hand “knows” the distances in different parts of the cello, we can use this information to find notes related to the nodes.

2b. Configuration of the Hand

Knowing the intervals and distances on one string is vital in understanding the geography of the upper part of the cello. But one still needs to know how notes relate across the strings. For this it is important to understand the intervals that are created when you play two notes on two neighboring strings. I address this with a system that I call the “Configuration of the Hand”, in which we explore all the combinations of the fingers across two strings. Here is a chart with all the combinations of the fingers for playing different intervals. Notice that the fingerings are reversible for fourths and sixths, and for thirds and sevenths (in reading the fingerings, the first number is for the finger is on the lower string, the second number is for the finger on the higher string. For example, 3-1 means 3rd finger on the D string and 1st finger on the A string, producing a P4).  


It is important to know these fingering combinations for playing across strings in the upper part of the cello.

3. Tetrachords

 As discussed previously, it is important that the basic thumb position is stable and consistent. In other words:

  • the octave or P4 relationship between the thumb and 3rd finger must be clear and the intonation solid
  • the “inny and the outy” shape of the thumb must be consistent
  • there should be a C-shape between the thumb and the first finger so that the knuckles are not squashed down
  • the fingers should be round
  • and the fingers should be strong enough so that joints don’t collapse.

The next important step in creating a usable thumb position is figuring out the spacing between the other fingers within the octave (or P4) frame. Since we can play four notes with the four fingers in thumb position (using thumb, 1,2,3) it is useful to identify the various possibilities as tetrachords (four note groupings), giving them names. The most common tetrachords are:

Major:                           W      W      h

Minor:                           W      h       W

Modal (Phrygian):      h       W      W

Octotonic:                     h       W      h

(W=whole step; h=half-step; A=Augmented 2nd)

 Notice the relationship of the first three to the Marys that were discussed in an earlier Blog (#17) – the intervals from the bottom up are the same. All of them are named after the scales that they initiate. The Harmonic Minor Tetrachord is used in minor scales, with an Augmented Second between the 2nd and 3rd fingers:

Harmonic Minor:         h       A       h

We also have Tetrachords in which the interval between the thumb and the 3rdfinger is bigger or smaller than our standard octave or P4. For example the Chromatic Tetrachord, the Lydian Tetrachord (named after scales that begin this way). The Gypsy Tetrachord, and two others are used less often in western music, but they do occur and it is useful to practice them.

Chromatic:                       h       h       h

Lydian (whole tone):   W      W      W

Gypsy:                                W      h       A

                                             W      h       h

                                             h       h       W


I find it helpful to do a variety of different scales in thumb position, recognizing that scales are made up of two tetrachords. In the following chart I present some of the many possibilities of scale systems using thumb position tetrachords. The first three are symmetrical scales, with the same tetrachord on both strings. The others use a variety of combinations of tetrachords. They should be practiced in all keys going up the cello. The ( w ) or (h) in the middle column indicates the interval (whole step or half step) between the third finger and the thumb as we cross strings. In the Locrian, Whole Tone and Octotonic scales the thumb has to move back a half-step during the string crossing. In the Octotonic scale we need to use the 4th finger as well.

Of course sometimes the interval between the thumb and 3rd finger will be much bigger than a P4 (as in the examples of the Locrian, Whole Tone and Octotonic scales above) – often we may need a 5th or a 6th. In playing 10ths across the string, such as in the Haydn D-major concerto, we are playing a distance of a 6th on the top string between the thumb and third fingers, or an octave between the thumb and first finger across the string. Any interval is possible between the thumb and the third finger on the same string, up to (or perhaps more than) an octave. This will be discussed next Blog on the Alexanian exercises.

Analyzing passages in the repertoire using Tetrachords can be very useful. For example, in this passage from the 3rd movement of the Saint-Saens Concerto we can see that there are groupings of Major Tetrachords, Minor Tetrachords, Octotonic Tetrachords and Modal (Phrygian) Tetrachords. The numbers in this example show the fingering patterns; the colored lines show the tetrachords (not the bowings).

In the second half of this passage the thumb works like a percussive finger, lifting each time it moves back. More about this in the next blog (#20) with exercises by Alexanian for the moveable thumb.

Looking to the future

Exploring El Sistema - Fri, 2016-02-05 14:59
While much of the rest of the East Coast was busy shoveling out from the major snowstorm, twenty Sistema Fellows reunited for a weekend in Boston last month. This was an opportunity for us, all alumni of New England Conservatory’s Sistema Fellows Program, to share our individual experiences since the... Sistema Fellows Program

Breaking | Norwegian Air Announce New Violin-Friendly Cabin Policy

Cello Bello Blog - Thu, 2016-02-04 23:11

Reprinted from The Violin Channel February 4, 2016

Read this wonderful news from the Violin Channel and then go and sign the petition insisting  that WestJet Airlines also adopt Industry standards for accommodating musical instruments. Together we can make a difference – Thank you!

Norwegian Air has today announced a new official cabin-baggage policy – allowing violins and violas to be brought onboard as hand luggage.

The policy change comes after an expose was posted on The Violin Channel on January 20th – which to date has received over 160,000 page views, and more than 400 comments, 3000 social media shares and 15,000 Facebook likes.

“We understand that sometimes you’ll want to bring your instrument with you onboard … if you’re traveling with a larger instrument, such as a violin or a viola, then you can bring this instead of a carry-on bag,” the new policy has officially stated.

“If your instrument’s bigger than 90cm x 35cm x 20cm and you’d like it to travel in the cabin, you must book a separate seat for this,” the new rules have outlined.

The social media furor erupted after an incident in Copenhagen on January 19th where Principal Second Violinist with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Ari Vilhjamsson was informed his violin, valued at over 200,000 EUR (US $220,000) ‘must without exception be stowed in the cargo’.

The Violin Channel’s October 2nd, 2014 coverage of Air Canada’s inconsistent viola policy received over 4000 social media shares, 200,000 page views and 33,000 Facebook likes – leading to the airline also promptly readdressing their stance.

Power to the people.

El Sistema for Choruses

Exploring El Sistema - Sat, 2016-01-30 22:29
The qualities central to the El Sistema way—including working in underserved communities, intense focus, high expectations, and joyful learning—are also key aspects of many children and youth choral programs that do not identify as "El Sistema-inspired"… But Grogan and other founders say that El Sistema-inspired choral programs are different in... Sistema Fellows Program

El Sistema: Music for Social Change

Exploring El Sistema - Sat, 2016-01-30 22:19
"This collection of essays, edited by Christine Witkowski [Sistema Fellow '10], offers practical information for those seeking knowledge, inspiration or guidance for adapting El Sistema to widely diverse settings, particularly within the USA. This book explores the voices and experiences of teachers, leaders, parents, and experts from related fields with... Sistema Fellows Program

Kidznotes 2015 annual report

Exploring El Sistema - Sat, 2016-01-30 22:10
"Since 2009, enrollment has grown dramatically from 60 to 330 children who participate, and next year we are poised to take Kidznotes [founded by Katie Wyatt, Sistema Fellow '10] to the next level. In the 2016-17 school year our goal is to serve 500 kids, expanding our enrollment by 200... Sistema Fellows Program

The Ensemble, February edition

Exploring El Sistema - Sat, 2016-01-30 21:58
The February edition of Tricia Tunstall and Eric Booth's publication chronicling the emerging field of El Sistema-inspired activity in the US and beyond is found here. Sistema Fellows Program

Synchrony and Musicality Project

Exploring El Sistema - Sat, 2016-01-30 21:39
Jonathan Govias (Sistema Fellow '10) invites your participation in an El Sistema-related research project investigating the non-verbal interactions of chamber musicians. The study is comprised of of eighteen audio excerpts, none more than about a minute long, to rate on three different criteria. It takes no more than thirty minutes... Sistema Fellows Program

Fishbowl conversation photos

Exploring El Sistema - Thu, 2016-01-28 01:04
Photos by Alejandro Lazo Sistema Fellows Program

Sistema Fellows Program reunion

Exploring El Sistema - Thu, 2016-01-28 01:01
Photos by Alejandro Lazo Sistema Fellows Program

Exploring Colombia's Youth Music Initiatives

Avi Mehta's Blog - Sun, 2016-01-10 11:09
Prior to arriving in Colombia this past summer, I had numerous preconceived ideas of what to expect based on my previous trips to Venezuela. Given their proximity on the map, similar heritage, and testimonies by numerous visitors, I came away from my three-week trip realizing that Colombia was a country headed in a very different direction from its neighbor, both in their development of society and El Sistema.
            With tourism thriving and a rough history with drugs mostly in its past, each of the four cities I visited in Colombia were unique. I packed for weather ranging from 40—90 degrees as the changes in climate and landscape were as diverse as the Sistema-inspired programs I visited.  
My trip started in Medellin, a very large city bustling with traffic, mountainous views, perfect temperatures, and stunning properties. The youth instrumental programs in Medellin are run by an organization called La Red, which serves students in over 30 neighborhoods and schools throughout the city. Funded by the city government, the program serves both affluent and underserved areas—a unique concept in Medellin, where lots of effort has been placed on equalizing the playing field between residents with a varied levels of income. I was introduced to two schools in La Red by two of my former Boston colleagues, Rebecca Levi (Sistema Fellow ’10) and Claudia Garcia. When visiting the programs, we witnessed a less intense, but more creative approach to music making. Each program showcases a different type of ensemble, caters to all ages, and also provides instruction in music literacy. For instance, In Claudia’s nucleo, a theatre teacher taught a class on how to use their body’s to communicate and build trust within an ensemble. When visiting the wind ensemble in another part of the city, the ages of the students ranged from 12—22.
            After a quick vacation in the popular city of Cartagena, my next stop was Santa Marta, a warm, tropical, costal city on the Caribbean. Another former Boston colleague, Antonio Berdugo, hosted me as we spent our time hosting seminarios with students in Cajamag, a private organization that uses public funding to serve youth in the area. The music program is only a small branch of the organization, which leads to an insufficient quantity on resources, limiting their ability to grow artistically. This was a huge contrast to Venezuela’s national Sistema, which is able to offer more support and resources to their teachers, helping them  improve the musical level of their program. The students in Santa Marta, of course, were fantastic to work with and displayed enthusiasm and hospitality that made rehearsals in the intense heat totally enjoyable.
            The final leg of my trip was in Bogota, Colombia’s capital city situated at over 8,000ft, where the temperature stays in the 50’s year around. I had a wonderful time working with the musicians of the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of Batuta, the largest music for social change organization in the country. Given their flagship status, my first instinct was to compare their Metropolitan Youth Orchestra with the leading youth orchestras in Venezuela. However, given that the organization has branches in fewer cities, focuses more on fundamental musical training rather than orchestra training, and has been around for only just over 20 years, I realized that the leading “Sistema’s” in both countries are quite distinct. The lack of one governing organization throughout the country made it more difficult to achieve the standardized resources, which has led to so much artistic success in Venezuela. However, the more localized approach to building a Sistema in each city, rather than to form a national system has yielded some flexibility is allowing for each city to have numerous organizations create their own programs and customize their approach to each community.
            The difference in infrastructures in Colombia and Venezuela was certainly unexpected at first. While Venezuela has clearly invested much of its resources into developing a national system of youth orchestras that serves as many youth as possible, Colombia had a feel much closer to that of the United States and Europe--separate organizations created localized programs without much outside leadership. The clear commonality between the two South American countries was the children, who were eager, passionate, and relentless in their pursuit of music education, which instilled the joy that will motivate me to plan my next trip to South America soon. 
For a video containing photos, rehearsal footage, and student testimonies from my trip to Colombia, please see the video below!

Briefly on Senior Year

Penguin - Mon, 2015-11-02 16:58
by ELIZABETH WENDT 4th Year – BM Voice     Another year full of excitement is budding here at NEC. For me, this year is unlike any other…It’s my senior year! I honestly thought that this day would never come – that it would be forever before I would have to face the idea of moving […]

The NEC Team

Penguin - Mon, 2015-11-02 16:48
by ALEX STENING 2nd Year – MM French Horn     For those of you returning to Boston and NEC, welcome back! And for those who are starting their first year, welcome to the team! Last year, I remember sitting in Jordan Hall with the pipe organ towering above and being surrounded by a sea of students […]

Composers in the Kitchen

Penguin - Mon, 2015-11-02 16:40
By SARAH ATWOOD 2nd Year – MM Violin       Rumor has it that Niccolo Paganini was a virtuoso in the kitchen, as well as onstage. He has a famous ravioli recipe to prove it. Although Jean Sibelius did not compose during the latter part of his life, he did take the time to concoct […]