4 April 2018 Standlake, Oxfordshire
‘He thought he heard a noise – Ha!’ W.S. Gilbert, Pirates of Penzance, Act 2
It’s freezing in the information shed this morning, and I am wearing an enormous thickly-lined jumper, loose enough to allow my elbows to bend, but a problem nonetheless, because with my arm disappearing into the jumper, I am still having to consciously remind myself not to play with a slightly collapsed wrist in the left hand, and if I rely on feel alone, I will go a few bars before I realise, and get too comfortable with the ‘wrong’ feeling. On the other hand, playing with freezing fingers is helpful in a way: I am painfully aware of each time that my left hand fingers tip the neighbouring string. I should do this once a month, just for the exercise…
I warm up with a D Major scale, taking particular care of the second octave, as I am still concerned about the fourth finger, in first position, and then launch into the opening movement of the Bach Sonata.
One big issue I am having in this Bach is with shifts, many of which of necessity are from finger to the same finger, without the slightest element of slide. This was already an issue for me in my exam, even with early twentieth-century French and English salon music. Although this as a sound is permissible in that repertoire, I don’t like having them where I would really prefer not to, due to a lack of technique. One of my pet peeves in conducting is when people allow things that they don’t really want from the music, due to an inability to get what they actually do want. The problem is endemic in conducting, where so many have little or no technical control. Sometimes even those who are ‘trained’ have a limited technical skill set. Imagine this in an instrumentalist. A professional soloist who can’t make the bow work correctly in the opening of the Beethoven violin concerto!
People sometimes think of a conductor as a sort of sheep dog, who needs to control a bunch of unwieldy sheep, which if not tightly organised externally will run amok. Nothing could be further from the truth. Musicians on the whole, naturally play well together, with good ensemble, and on the whole, all present in the orchestra or on the podium want to do well, want to make the piece work, together. The person who the conductor needs to be able to control is her-/his-self. Without a fine degree of physical control, the conductor will not be able to get precisely the musical result she or he wants, and will therefore have to resort to fudging some of the musical corners, the transitions, either of speed or dynamics, certain rhythms, sometimes even the ensemble. The problem with this fudging, is that if it happens regularly, it will dull the conductor’s ear. They will no longer hear the lumps in the sustained notes or the crescendos, the unevenness in the diminuendos, the fact that the woodwind do not enter together precisely, when playing a chord together. The next thing that happens is that if that conductor works regularly with the same group, the players themselves may have their own ears dulled, or may imperceptibly lower their standards, because it’s hard to maintain the self-esteem required to perform your best, when you feel that the director isn’t bothered either way. In the worst case scenario, the ears of the audience become similarly dulled, and if there are young musicians in the audience, the stage is potentially set for a knock-on effect down the musical generations of just not quite trying hard enough to be good enough. The dichotomy between technical control and musical expressiveness is, of course, entirely false. Only those with a supreme level of technical control will be able to express their musical vision absolutely, or get very close to what they want to express.
The answer in this instance is a surreptitious lightening of the bow, as one changes position. I spend a good deal of time this morning refining this movement.
A further issue I am having with this work, which is not relevant to the Dotzauer study, is that of landing in tune after a significant leap upwards, or downwards. This is one of those things I never learned to do, because in the early days of learning the cello the notes were always where my hand expected them to be, thus I was confident, thus it worked consistently. The solution, now that I must approach such things consciously, is partly in the jump-off. I find that if you want to land well in tune, then you need to make sure that the note you start out on is well in tune. I suppose this has to do with the perfect algorithm of pitch on a string instrument. The note above or below will be in a specific ratio to the starting note, thus if the starting note is wrong, it will effect the landing note. I think.
The other issue is in reducing the level of panic associated with the leap. In short, and paraphrasing Christopher Bunting (in his brilliant two-volume ‘Essay on the Craft of Cello Playing’https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/Essay-on-the-Craft-of-Cello-Playing-Vol-1-Prelude-Bowing-Coordination-by-Christopher-Bunting/9780952790228) freely, the anxiety about landing makes you mess with the arm as it moves, and therefore place it wrongly. I find the more you do this, the more you do it. Taking off from a note to known aural destination should have the certainly of watching a tennis player hit the ball, and knowing where it will land, without needing to ‘keep your eye on the ball’. If the information at the outset was correct, our subconscious will know what the answer will be.
Turning to Dotzauer, my line by line exploration of the etude is coming to an end, and I decide to tackle the last two lines together. They consist mostly of a series of crotchets in sequence, mostly to be played in the middle of the bow, with all of the issues that have come up previously of evenness, and string crossing, with the added bonus of string crossing over three strings, with a ‘silent’ string in the middle. Yet another problem is that at the very end, a full bow down-bow dotted minimum, taking you to the tip, followed by one crotchet in which one must end up at the frog. I partially solve this by taking the bow off the string and playing that midway crotchet closer to the frog.
In these two lines there is often an instruction to keep one or two fingers down, while playing the others, sometimes on different strings. Not something I do in general but it’s not a bad exercise. Today I notice that lot of the ‘beginning of the bow’ gunk is caused by the fact that I am trying to play the following note before either the right hand or the left hand is set up: the bow hand is still finishing the direction it was going, and the left-hand finger is just not ready. This is a major breakthrough. I feel like I knew this once, but it has been forgotten…
A trip to the bathroom is salutary at this point. The bathroom is the warmest place on the campsite, and I am able to soak my frozen fingers in warm water, then tuck them up the sleeves of this enormous jumper; they are much better to play on, when I get back to the Information Room.
I am now ready to start afresh on the interesting matter of changes of bow direction. I am trying to get a feel for what works both musically and in terms of tone (we can separate those two; when I was growing up as a flautist on the other side of the world, there was one teacher who produced a whole stable of players with a broad, rich tone, and slow, even vibrato, which most of them applied willy-nilly to every musical event, regardless of style, period, expressiveness etc.). Not only a feel, but an observation shows me the slightest lightening and slowing down of the bow, before the change. I start to play with this in a very mannered way, trying to taper off each note carefully, and get the fingers in place, before beginning the next one. It is lovely to do at a very steady speed, but will it work at faster tempos? Time will tell, and this is also something I wish to discuss with my teacher.
Doing this, I discover that I have come to the heart of the matter as to why the open strings suffer so much more from ‘initiation gunk’: they are simply so much more live that that slightest touch of bow in the wrong direction is amplified; the technique isn’t worse, but the effect is stronger.
This is also the key, of course, to another issue that these final two lines of the study raise, that of crossing to a string over another string, in either direction, without hitting the intervening string. The 4th, 5th and 6th last bars of the piece require this. One crossing from C on the G string to open A, and two leaping down from C on the A string to open G. I have recorded several attempts to do this without touching the middle string. The fact is, it’s not easy, but it’s a fabulous exercise.
I decide the issue of getting enough power in the penultimate accented descending arpeggio at the frog is a problem for another day. The interesting problem of bow changes pays straight over into the next thing I am going to work on; the second movement of Bach’s G major sonata: ‘Allegro ma non tanto’.
At the moment this is largely an exercise in planning fingering, and I am aware, having never learned positions properly, because I was playing over the whole compass of the instrument from the first time I picked one up, that I have benefitted greatly here from working slowly through Rick Mooney’s two books of Position Pieces (https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/Position-Pieces-for-Cello-by-Rick-Mooney-author/9780874877625). I love this kind of fingering exercise. I imagine it is like working through Sudoku puzzles. Certainly it is a mathematical process, with more than one solution to the problem, but only one or two that work really well.
When I start rehearsing the Allegro section of the first movement of the Boëllmann sonata, I come across another, new kind of ‘noise’ in the sound. Whenever I move back to put down the first finger, I seem to tap or flick the neighbouring string, so that it rings out an open D. Once I hear it initially, it seems to be everywhere. My new bionic ears are really coming into their own. I can only solve this by being very precise as to where on the string I place the first finger.
Bionic ears are all very well, but even at this level, it can actually be a problem to hear everything. One hears trees everywhere, and can’t hear the woods. This is also a problem for conductors: in order to conduct effectively, they must have a very strong idea of how they want a piece to sound, then they must listen to what they are actually hearing from the orchestra, and store each moment in the memory while they go on listening in the present, all the time comparing both tracks to their ideal version. The question is how to hold on to that original audial perfection, and not go mad, or lower standards when facing the contrast between what is being heard, and what has been dreamt of. There are also decisions to be made by all musical performers, as to how much they will emphasise the details, potentially magical moments, and how much they will emphasise the overall shape of the piece, and the sense that it is going somewhere. There has to be a payoff; you can’t give full attention to every moment, and hope to have a longer structure that holds together.
A similar balance needs to be struck in the phase I am at with this repertoire at this time. I am learning new pieces, so I need to decide how much time should be spent solving fingering, intonation, and bowing problems, and how much actually playing, in order to familiarise myself with the piece. At the moment I am tending towards the former, as I discovered in the preparation for my Intermediate Certificate exam, that it was very difficult to tidy up sloppy intonation, and to alter fingerings, when it got to the ‘polish’ phase.
I am having a very interesting time with this the Couperin Pièces en Concert. These are not originally works for cello, but were arranged for cello and string quartet by Paul Bazelaire, a perfomer, composer, professor of cello at the Paris Conservatoire in the mid-twentieth century, and a good friend of Pablo Casals. His fingerings imply a style which would be unusual for a modern performance of French Baroque music, which begs the question; what is the work here? Is it a work of the French eighteenth-century court or is it an twentieth-century work, incorporating themes from a French Baroque composers? I believe there will come a time when the ‘Authentic’ performance scene starts to take on arrangements and editions of early works by later performers as artefacts in their own right. One might perform not only Bach, but also, self-consciously, Galamian’s Bach, or Tortelier’s Bach. So I am inclined to experiment with Bazelaire’s fingerings, and the more romanticised style that they imply, inasmuch as they suit my own hands and technical preferences. I make a note to self to try to search out a recording of him performing them, and to refer to his own treatises on style and technique.
My main problem in the Sicilienne is not so much with the fingering, as with the bowing, which has been designed by a virtuoso, and sees me struggling at a slow tempo to play a descending scale in one bow, following a series of half-bars in single bows. The shifts are a problem however, as so very many fall within a bow, where a later professor might have opted to make the shifts with the bow changes, for clarity.
In the first movement, marked Gravement, I am mostly struggling to read the tiny and faintly printed fingerings, especially as the typeset includes a 1 which is very hard to distinguish from a 4. Now I’ve discovered the phantom tapping/plucking finger noise, I realise it’s everywhere. More work required to tame that wayward first finger. The music is glorious, however, every bar a gem, and I allow myself a little playing to finish the morning.