Monthly Archives: December 2015

Cello lesson: more composing

Over this last week I figured out a better way to hold my cello: lower on my chest, and at a more gentle incline.  It’s like magic; suddenly I’m not hitting extra strings anymore, and bowing is easier because (as Luna put it) “you have gravity working for you.”  Amazing how one little thing — like, three inches, in this case — can make such a huge difference!

Luna was pleased with my progress over the last week.  1.12 “Andantino” is now finished, having finally met with her approval (mostly because I’m no longer hitting extra strings!), 1.14 “Etude” is now finished, also because of the extra string thing.  I’m still doing 1.13 “Rigadoon” for vibrato practice — and I’ve moved up from pre-vibrato to the real thing this week, although it’s going to take a lot of practice to master — and I’m doing 1.15 “The Happy Farmer.”  It has some weird bowing that’s a bit tricky, but I think I’ll have it worked out by next week’s lesson.  She had said it was hard; I don’t think it really is, as long as I’ve got the rhythm right in my head.  (She said an earlier piece.. was it “May Song”?… was hard because of the rhythm too, but that part of it wasn’t hard at all.)  It’s got a short bit that repeats twice, and the B part is short too.  AABA and the song is done.  So I just need to memorize those bits and practice the weird bowing.

(Luna told me only one of her students has started memorizing stuff, and he’s almost a whole book ahead of me.  I feel a bit chuffed about that.)

Then we got to the composing part.  She wanted us to play the bass and melody together.  We messed around with it, she wrote it down properly on the staff, we messed around a little more, and figured out the bass part needs alteration.  (Well, either the melody or bass does; I want to keep the melody the way it is.)  Luna asked me if I’d named it.  Hadn’t even occurred to me.  Now I realize why classical composers name things the way they do; I have no fucking clue what to call it except “Composition No. 1 in D.”  Anyway, next week we’re going to record it, and I’ll post it to share if I like the way it turns out.  It was so weird to have her deferring to me about the transcription, rewriting the notes to match what I had in my head.  For next week I’m writing the sheet music myself after I change the bass part.  Although I think that, to make things easier, I’m going to write out the melody and then match the bass to it based on each measure.

By the way, she said she was surprised at how advanced my piece was; she was expecting more like drones for my bass part.  To use D&D levels as an analogy, if Bach is level 90 than I am level 2 where she was expecting level 1.

Speaking of Bach, I get to play a minuet of his soon. Squee!  Luna told me (before we started working on my composition) that it’s her favorite piece in this book.  I told her Bach and Vivaldi are my favorite composers.  Turns out Vivaldi is her favorite too.  I told her about Ofra Harnoy recording all of his cello concertos in one multi-disc CD set.  She mentioned Du Pre, and I said I liked her Elgar, and Luna gave me this look and said, “You know, that piece isn’t that hard.  It’s got some high parts, but it’s pretty slow.”  My first thought: “OMG GROWNUP MUSIC!” Second thought: “And I can see how much worse I am than Du Pre!”  Heh.

As we were packing up I asked her if she ever listened to the Violent Femmes.  She said they’re her favorite band.  I brought it up because the way the bass is the lead instrument is exactly what I have in my head for what I want to do, musically: low notes as melody.  She totally got it.  (She, like me, owns a bass guitar, but it didn’t really take for either of us.  We’re both planning to sell ours when we get around to it.)  And, actually, the piece I composed is all on the bottom two strings except for one note, an open D.  I suspect there won’t be any A string notes in my future pieces, either.  Or at least not many.

It’s strange to have her be so happy about my little composition.  It’s so very basic, but I guess she wants to be encouraging.  Maybe it’ll sound good as a duet…

I don’t think I like my job anymore.

I’ve had a few working meetings with my co-workers, and they all keep misgendering me.  It’s dreadful.  The really funny part? They’re all liberal hippie types. But they’re privileged liberals: white, cisgender, heterosexual, and not poor. They think they’re all enlightened and shit. But every single meeting is misgendering. Except my boss, although he’s clueless about how to fix it.  Seriously, when I told him today that I’m not attending the meetings anymore because of it (and would prefer to meet with him alone), he asked if he could have me attend the meeting by speakerphone so we could all discuss it.  That was both baffling and insulting.  The last meeting I went to, he announced in front of my co-workers that he’s sending everyone to sensitivity training because they talked about it (behind my back) and decided they want to improve.  That’s great, but he did it right in front of the people who were causing the problems.  It was humiliating.

The thing is, normally I don’t care what strangers call me; I know who I am, and I’m happy not being the manliest man on the planet, but these are people I spend hours with, and it makes me question myself even though logically I know it’s not right. Am I that girly? Does it mean I’m not trans enough? Like I said, I know logically that these thoughts are stupid, but I can’t help but think them. And it’s affecting my ability to do the job, and it’s also sent me into a bad bout of depression. Not cool.  I don’t want to quit, I believe in the project we’re doing together, but it’s making me really unhappy.  Maybe I should just quit…

Cello lesson: composing 101

Fucking awesome lesson today!  It’s been two weeks since the last one.  I was depressed as fuck last week…  Anyway.

When Luna (new nickname for my teacher, from her BBS handle back in the day — we were on the same one in the early 90’s) got here, she told me as we were setting up that my ability to play by ear is “superb.”  She tried teaching a couple of her other students (almost all of whom are farther along in the Suzuki books than me) to play by ear, and the results were pretty bad.  She said a couple more complimentary things, I forget what, but I thanked her and couldn’t help grinning like an idiot over the compliments.

We started with the C arpeggio from last week.  Then we did 1.12 “Andantino” again; I’ve been doing this one for a few weeks because I’m having a really hard time doing staccato, but today she taught me a visualization to do for the bowing and it helped a lot.

The real fun started when she had me play “Away in a Manger,” which is what she’d taught me by ear last week.  I had completely forgotten it but figured it out again in one go.  Then she asked about my playing along with recorded music.  I told her I’d learned Nick Cave’s “The Ship Song,” which she’d never heard. So I played the recording (the Live Seeds version, which is my favorite), and as she listened she started figuring out the tune herself.  The thing is, though, she wasn’t doing what I was doing, where I’d been playing along with the vocals.  She played the bass part.  Then she started explaining how a lot of pop/rock songs are predictable, and it wound up turning into a discussion of music theory and 1-4-5 chords.  She told me that with my ear I should be good at composing.  She wants me to compose a bass line for next week’s lesson, and then she’ll improvise over it.  Then she had me improvise over a bass line she played.  It was really, really simple stuff, her playing the lower two strings very slowly while I tested out what sounded right on the upper two.  It was delightful, actually.  And she wants me to be the one playing over my recorded bass part next week.  So I’m composing a two-part piece!

Then we went back to the regular lesson stuff.  I said I was having trouble with the etude #7 she’d given me (photocopied on loose paper, not Suzuki).  She started playing through it, and about 8 notes in I told her to stop, because that’s where the problem was, because it sounded so fucking dissonant.  Her (paraphrased) response: “It’s your ear again.  Etudes are purely technical; you’ll have to grit your teeth and bear it.” She had me play some of it, and I got it.  It still sounds dreadful, but now that I know it’s supposed to sound that way, it’s easier.  And actually, my bowing overall suddenly became better.  A couple of months ago I wrote about it was like having a switch flipped in my brain that suddenly made me sound a million times better.  Well, the switch flipped again mid-lesson and I sound even better.

We ran through 1.13 “Rigadoon”, my first vibrato piece.  She seemed surprised at how well I managed the vibrato, and that a couple of the notes were “beautiful.”  It’s the first time she’s ever told me something I did sounded beautiful.  My silly grin came back.

At the end she made some remark about the #7 etude, and I said that the Suzuki etudes were easier, because they’re more melodic.  I played it through a couple of times using the sheet music, then started playing it by memory and she immediately commented on how much better I sounded.  She had me do it with short double notes (two for every one in the book) and she told me that sounded even better.  She’s decided that I need to do as much from memory as possible from here on out.  So I think that before I play a piece I’m familiar with, I’ll skim the sheet music to make sure I remember it and then focus on playing without it.  I can totally do that.

So yeah, another great lesson.  Oh, and I sent Luna to YouTube to look up Lindsey Stirling and songs from Steven Universe.  Hope she likes both!

Cello lesson #?

I’ve stopped blogging about every lesson, but this one made me super happy.  I told my teacher via email a few days ago that I’d been working on Christmas carols, so I could play for my family a bit during the holidays.  I mentioned that once I got the first few notes down I could do it by ear, without looking at the music.  So we did The First Noel without the sheet music; I’d played it a couple of times with the music, days ago, but she told me the key and tonic note and I did it from memory.  Then she turned around so I couldn’t see her playing, and she did Away in a Manger.  Which I then proceeded to replicate almost immediately just from figuring it out by ear.  She was impressed.  I’ve always been pretty good at figuring out music by ear, and it was nice to have her confirm that.  Part of my homework for the week is to play along with some recorded music I like without looking up the score for it.

We also figured out that I’m a much better cellist when I’m not looking at the sheet music.  When I’m reading notes I stop paying attention to what my hands are doing.  I played a piece from Suzuki (1.12 “Andantino”) from memory, and sounded a million times better.  And then we started working on the 1.14 etude and I was able to play parts I’d memorized even better with my eyes closed.  If I’m not looking at anything I’m more aware of what my hands/body are doing, and how I sound.

When I was starting to learn cello, I made the comment that the muscle memory would be like when I learned to spin yarn.  Apparently that was more accurate than I’d thought at the time.  When I spin, I mess up if I watch my fingers.  It’s easier to do it with my eyes closed, or, as I got better, while looking at other things.  I need to play more with my eyes closed, and as my body gets better at playing from touch only then I’ll be able to read the sheet music more easily.

I told my teacher that I’m one of those people who can’t watch a movie if there’s subtitles on it.  I have to read the words, if they’re there.  Sheet music is kinda doing the same thing to me.  I can’t pay attention to the playing because I’m too busy reading.  So yeah, I’m going to do a lot of stuff by ear this week, preferably with my eyes closed.  I need more body awareness, and this really seems to help.

Other things from the lesson:

— I’m doing… I guess you could call it “pre-vibrato.”  There’s a piece (1.13 “Rigadoon”) that I’m playing with exaggerated vibrato motions on the half notes.  I’m doing it right, she said, and she’s pleased that I’m leading with my forearm instead of doing it from just my fingers (which is the wrong way).  I’m to work on this more.  More muscle memory!

— I was also assigned my first arpeggio, which is cool.  C/E/G.  I did not ask if there’s a name for it; all I know is that it’s thirds going up from low C.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned here that I’m now doing three weeks of hour-long lessons and skipping the fourth week entirely.  I originally thought about alternating between half-hour lessons and hour lessons, but half-hour lessons don’t allow us to dig into the technical stuff too much.  They’re rushed.  I’d rather have three good lessons than two good ones and two rushed ones.  Teacher’s totally happy with it.

After the lesson was over I started trying to figure out songs off my phone.  My problem is that I tend to focus on the vocals rather than the music underneath them.  But I can do a bit of Nick Cave’s “The Ship Song” now, some of the Pet Shop Boys’ “Always on My Mind” (which is, IIRC, in a different key than the original), and some of Bush’s “Glycerine” (because hey, it’s got a cello bit in it).  I played the theme from Angel (off YouTube, not on my cello) and told my teacher I have the score and want to learn it; she said she can teach me, but that it requires a position change, and I haven’t learned any yet.  So I told her it can wait a bit.

I wonder if I can figure out Cello Fury’s “Nightfall” by ear.  I’m going to go try!