1-4-2018 Wellingborough, UK
It’s Easter Sunday, and having decamped from the drowning-in-mud campsite at Grendon, we are at a motorway Hotel. I am using my metal mega mute, and have the television on, to avoid bothering my neighbours. It’s a programme about the Easter Story, and bizarrely, the Scottish presenter is singing Away in a Manger. This makes it quite hard to hear the cello clearly.
Today I am tackling the fifth line of Dotzauer; I decide to limit myself to this line, even though the sequential pattern which begins halfway through the line continues to the next line. It’s good to set up things one day, and employ them again the next day. The line starts with a whole note (semibreve) and a series of half notes (minims), all of which are apparently to be played with a full bow, except the last minim, more of which later. The first thing is to remind myself when I’m playing a whole-bow down bow, to extend my arm to the right, with the wrist concave. The second thing is to drop my right shoulder at the frog consciously. There is something very satisfying, physically in moving from one extreme to the other, especially if it results in an even bow.
I decide that I will add one note to this line, but at the beginning, so that I start with a whole-note down bow, and then move to a second one, up bow. Starting here raises a difficulty not seen in this study up to this point: a string crossing with a string in between, in this case, from the C string to the D string, without touching the G in between. I find I need to feel the movement with the fingers on the bow, partly because this will warn me, before I make the error of moving the central string, but more because I can feel the leverage in the bow as it moves from one string to the string two above. The last two fingers on the bow act as a counterweight, as the arm goes up to reach for the D string. Later in the same line, there is a similar movement, leaping from a C on the G string to a C on the A string. In this case the feeling of the fingers on the bow as a counterweight is even stronger.
With my new set of ears, I can hear that I am failing to keep all of the notes lengths consistent; I have to be careful of chopping them off, particularly if they are notes which don’t feel good under the bow. I need to think melodically, and give the series of crotchets a shape and a direction.
I am having difficulty with intonation across the strings, that is to say, when I use the same finger, in the same position, to play a note on a neighbouring string, that is, a note a fifth above or below. I haven’t worked out yet whether this is because I am interfering as I cross the string, or if it’s because I need to adjust slightly when I do so. One thing which I have realised in the last few months, since I returned to playing seriously, is that often when I need a note which is, for example, an octave above an open string, that if I cross-check and find that the two do not match, it is less often because I have ‘hit’ the note wrong, than because the strings are very slightly out of tune. This is simultaneously a relief and a frustration to me; a relief, because it tells me that my ears do not, in general, deceive me, and a frustration because possibly the greatest single source of stress in me, when I gave up playing the cello all those years ago, was when my intonation seemed bad. My whole body would scrunch up and tense up at the sound of poor intonation. It has cost me dearly.
I am still getting noise at the beginning of a bow change, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I need to tame it, but it can help bring out the tone. I have already discovered, when rehearsing for my exam, that the slight edge on the front of the note gave the cello useful projection when playing with the piano. Still, I want to tame it, so that I have control of it, so more work is needed. The issue is partly one of coordinating the left hand and the bow. This needs more investigation. Sometimes this noise can be harnessed for musical purposes or can have a musical solution. I can use the noise for emphasis, or to imply energy, or, I can solve the problem by phrasing in such a way as to place emphasis on those notes. Either way, I need to find a good solution for the prominence of the sound of the open A string, when crossing from below. It is too strident. Something needs to be done to match the tone of this note to the stopped note.
I’m finding that my first position left hand position is not entirely reliable. I think I’m moving between my former high elbow position and my newer, elbow lower position. The latter works better, but shifting between them is definitely problematic!
One of the challenges in the beginning of this line is with bowing strategy. The first half of this line is all long notes, and the bowing instruction gives full bow for whole notes and full bows for half notes. Then suddenly, one of the loudest notes in the phrase, with only half the bow, in the upper half, the end of a crescendo! This is bowing that takes planning: one can’t just come up with a musical idea, and follow it. Then the length of these notes at this tempo (which at the moment is rather slow) brings awareness of another issue. When I play the long C-sharp, after the whole note D, I can hear how the tone is compromised under the little finger, and then, in the following note, under the first finger, which is reaching back rather awkwardly. The note doesn’t resonate clearly, because the string is sort of squashed. I need to find a way to get the weight of the hand over these fingers, when these notes sound.
Even with the television on, I am starting to become aware of a whole series of extraneous noises that I make when I am playing: one happens when playing long notes; I dip the hand without thinking, so that I touch the neighbouring string. Another is during string crossing with a change of direction of bow: I catch the next string briefly with the bow still going in the direction of the previous note.
Another question this section has raised for me, is ‘How long is a full bow?’ I suspect that when playing in the past, I have been using something like the inner ¾ of the bow, and rarely, actually, playing at the extreme ends. And further again, the issue of where we play in the bow: we think we spend a lot of time playing in the middle, but for me, at least, this not true. I tend to play just below the middle, maybe half-way between the middle and the frog.
Meanwhile the Easter programme has morphed into a full-blown Easter service, and the singing is truly interfering with my concentration. Besides, the van is packed and it is ready to go. I wonder where I’ll be practising tomorrow?