3-4-2018 Standlake, UK
‘She would be in nobody’s way, you know’ – Lady Catherine De Burgh, Pride and Prejudice
I am in the ‘Information Room’ at Lincoln Farm Park campsite, which is a better option than the games room, with its flashing lights and pinball machines, and less of an attraction to the campsite youth. It sounds distinctly Orwellian, but it is in fact the place one goes to pick up leaflets about the surrounding area, or to peruse maps, or borrow a book, or throw a dart (not sure what is informative about that). The other slightly Orwellian aspect is the chairs, which were not designed with a cellist in mind. If I perch on the front as I usually would, the whole thing topples forward, so I’m forced to take a slightly lower, slightly more reclined seat that I usually would. I feel at a distinct disadvantage.
The first difficulty in today’s line of Dotzauer is that of playing forte in the middle of the bow. It feels like there just isn’t quite enough leverage. I am compensating by using rather more bow, but I’m not sure if this is the correct solution, and it takes a lot of control, and fades the minute I am not concentrating on it. Another possible solution is to play nearer the bridge, risking the scratchiness that I have discussed before. It is not as easy to do on this cello as on my good cello, because whereas on the good cello I get a marked improvement in tone and power nearer the bridge, on this cello, Old Scratchy, the difference is not as stark; I don’t get the feedback I need to convince me that I’m on the right track. Listening back to the recording of yesterday’s practice, however I am struck by the fact that although my preference for comfort, power, and I thought, control, is to play between the middle of the bow and the frog, it’s one of the places where I control sound the worst.
The sequential passages show to me that there is still a lack of confidence when reaching for the fourth above the open string with the fourth finger. Why should this be? I suspect a combination of having the left elbow slightly too high about the floor, and just enough doubt to put me off placing it consistently. I need to relax the hand so that is it neither clutching nor stretching, especially now that I have (not here, but at home) a cello that is the right size for me. A little practice of this every day would be in order. A few descending scales in the first position, for example.
Another very rudimentary problem I am having in first position is finding where exactly the C is on the A string. I don’t seem to have any difficulty hitting an F on the D string, or a B-flat on the G that I am happy with, but this C eludes me, perhaps because I was previously very concerned about the pitch of the B. I spend a few minutes matching it to the lowest string, and to the G string, and the D. And listening to the inside of the cello for a ‘sweet’ response that one doesn’t get when the note is ever so slightly out; half of good tone is in fact good intonation, because the instrument sounds differently when the notes are truly in tune. The difference is again much more extreme on my good cello, but even on Old scratchy, it’s palpable.
The fact that even when they are in tune, and resonating well, they all resonate slightly differently is a further issue when trying to match the tones of each note. Perhaps one needs to think of getting the nearest possible place on the spectrum, rather than identical tone.
In the Bach I am learning (Sonata No. 1 in G, not to be confused with Suite No. 1 in G!), however, I have a different tone matching problem. Coming down from the high notes in thumb position to fourth position, I lose, on this cello at least, the high tension that I had the upper notes. It goes down by step, so it is very obvious. I notice that I am in fact, changing the bow, moving it towards me as the left hand comes down, and that is at least half the reason the power is disappearing. Also the fact that I move from separate bows in thumb position to two notes to a bow in fourth means that I need more bow, to compensate. It’s possible that I am also subconsciously lightening the bow as I change position, due to anxiety about intonation on arrival at the G. This is another very ‘easy to find’ note which has started to elude me lately. The key to this is that once I’m happy with one of these Gs, I need to make sure that subsequent ones match, for example, the G in bar 13 needs to match the ones in bar 12. Another issue around this G is the need to ensure clarity, moving from the fourth to the third finger F-sharp. Somehow using the fourth finger to the third is a weak movement, and it is hard to coordinate it enough to make it sound clear.
The issue with the bow moving away from the bridge as I lower the pitch has to do with a subconscious dropping of everything (although, because we play the cello upside-down, the bow is actually moving higher, in space). I find there is a parallel when I start working on the first movement of Boellmann’s Sonata, Opus 40. My old habit of dipping the right arm and touching the string below the one on which I am playing seems to happen when the pitch is descending. Almost as if my subconscious mind thinks I could lower the pitch with the bow. Interesting and weird, but easily rectified, now that I am conscious of it.
I am beginning to tire by the end of these practices, as it is some years since I had the opportunity to practise for more than ninety minutes. I need to reverse the order that I practise the various works, and to invert the movements of those works as well. Otherwise I short-change the Couperin Piéces en Concert, which I am practising last. I would have ideally liked to have gone to 3 hours for today’s practice, but the effort of pushing down the strings on this problematic old cello, where the strings are so far above the bridge has defeated me. I am starting to feel a strain in my left forearm.
Later in the day, after the combined muscle strain of a run, and intensive practice on Old Scratchy the Cello, plus a frustrating afternoon completing two blog entries, and then losing them due to connectivity problems, it is a relief and reward to dive into the pool in the later afternoon. It’s unnaturally quiet, just one or two other campers swimming, despite a rainy day outside, but the recording on a loop of hits from the seventies makes for a slightly surreal experience. It probably does me good to stop thinking about Bach for a bit, anyway.