New Cello, New City

I was very casually looking to upgrade from Hans, my big German cello, when I met Jason Starkie, the award winning luthier based in Seattle. I met him through a fellow Oberlin grad (Hi, Brandon!) whose daughter I was teaching (Hi, June!) and he had me try some of his cellos. I ended up really liking one he made, so I asked if I could take it out on trial. Sadly, someone already had dibs and that person ended up buying it. The upside to that disappointment was that Jason started making me my own cello. I’ll say that again, because I can’t get over how cool that sounds: Jason Starkie made me my own cello. I got to pick out my favorite pieces of wood for the solid back, and pick the scroll and front pieces, too. I got to go into his shop and see Risso written on slabs of wood that would become my cello. I got to see the progress as he documented it on Facebook. When the cello was done, Jason brought it to my hurricane of an apartment (more on that later) so I could ask for tweaks, like a slimmer neck, calmer action, and a balance between D and G. It was a methodical process, especially when you compare it to the urgency and panic surrounding my purchase of Hans at the beginning of 2012.

July was fully bananas. It was two weeks at SYSO Summer Music Camp and packing in the evening. The day camp wrapped, I flew to Austin, TX to do training starting the next day with Rick Mooney for Suzuki Books 8, 9, and 10 and the Popper Etudes. After ten days of intensive training, I flew back to Seattle to pack up the POD nd clear out the apartment for the next day and a half.

And then I moved to Nashville. We scooped up the very confused animals and our desert island necessities (the new cello, some clothes, coffee making supplies) and then we embarked on a four day road trip to Nashville. The days were heroically long (14 hours for one of them!) and they involved a lot of schlepping animals and the cello in and out of AirBnBs and consuming questionable fast food, but we made. Just barely.

To the surprise of no one, Nashville’s pretty great. It’s hot as all get out, but that’s what happens when you move to the South at the beginning of August. The people are friendlier here than they are in Seattle and the food is as good without all the pretention. I’ve already got the teaching bug (it took less than a week!), so I hope my studio at Music City Strings Academy in Franklin gets chugging soon.

“Ghosty Bow” and Other Steps to Easy Playing

Laurence LesserOne of the trickiest parts of practice is effectively breaking down the difficulties into digestible bits. Lately, I’ve been having my students do what I call “ghosty bow”, where they move the bow just above the string while singing the music so as to practice bow changes without distractions from a funny note or a weird rhythm. Just today, I read an article from Laurence Lesser that suggests the same thing minus the funny name.

He’s full of good advice, like:

  • sing a musical line to hear where you naturally emphasize and back off
  • learn technique to make music more beautiful and natural, not to be a technician
  • link everyday, natural activities to motions on the cello. I especially appreciated the example of shifting from a high position to a low position.  Think about the motion of your hand when it goes from resting position to pointing at your nose and relate that hand/finger/forearm motion to your downshift.
  • notice the syllables you use to sing notes to inform your bow stroke and length

Happy practicing, everybody!

Playing By Ear

What are your thoughts on playing by ear? If you’d asked me that when I was in high school, I would have said it was dumb, mainly because I couldn’t do it to save my life. At Oberlin, I would have told you it was something I couldn’t do. Now, I think it’s a skill you can build that’s not barred off from any of us, especially if we’re playing the right instrument for us. Also, playing by ear makes our instrument an incredible source for personal expression in a much bigger way than interpreting a Bach Suite. Check out other thoughts here —

New Cello Resource

In doing some string research, I came upon this website :

If you’ve ever wondered about the basic cello set up in the instrument itself and in your body, this is the place. For instance, did you know that, “The best humidity for your cello depends on the prevailing humidity level when the cello was last glued together and/or set up. Cellos are generally most comfortable between 40% and 60% relative humidity. 30% is too low for comfort and 20% is hazardous.


“some cellists bear most of their weight down through one side of their bodies when playing: ‘This results in a corkscrew effect, twisting the spine as we move forwards with the right shoulder and backwards with the left.  Ideally the shoulders and pelvis should be in line with each other when playing.’”


Wolf notes website

Borrowed from Aitchison Mnatzaganian cello makers website

“The currently accepted explanation of the wolf note is that it is caused by the massive vibrations of the cello body associated with the cello’s simplest and most fundamental mode of vibration or resonance.

When we attempt to bow the cello at or near the note of this resonance (usually between E and G) we get feedback from the intense vibration of the cello body into the strings, disrupting the action of the bow on the string and causing the sound to die momentarily. However, as soon as the vibration dies down, the bow – which is still moving – re-activates the colossal vibration. This cycle of activation and disruption repeats several times per second, producing the oscillating ‘howling’ wolf note.”

So cool!

Flying with a Cello

This is the harrowing tale of Paul Katz, a professional cellist that was forced to check his priceless Guarneri cello after buying it a seat on the airplane. This is the stuff of nightmares!

On the Bow Hunt

When it comes to bows, I’ve never been that interested in makers, maintenance, or rosin. When my cello colleagues at Oberlin were trying bows between $900 and $3000, I thought they were insane. Then, about a month ago, when I accompanied my violinist friend to David Stone’s shop, my eyes opened for the first time to the huge difference a bow can make in the sounds you can draw from your cello.

I played with a handful of bows he had in stock and took one home to try for the week. At quartet rehearsal, my violist immediately noticed that my sound had a clarity and quickness that my old bow never had. Practicing became a lot more rewarding because I didn’t have to work so hard to get my lower strings to sound. The response was so much quicker with this new bow that it became clear that I needed to graduate. I’m still in the trial process with a couple of different bows – making a brash decision on an investment like this isn’t a great choice – but I’m excited to move on from my old crooked bow.

Once I find a bow, however, I will take much better care of it than I did my current bow. They ought to get rehaired at least twice a year and protected from serious climate changes. I’ve also started playing with much looser bow hair rather than cranking it to the point that the hair is rigid and straight. This gives me a much richer sound and preserves the bow’s structural integrity. I’m writing all of this so that a) you don’t make the same mistakes I made with my old bow and b) I’m accountable to all of you for taking my bow care seriously.

To read more about bows (from people who know a ton more than I do) read this article about Selecting a Bow or peruse the articles on David Stone’s website.



Steven Isserlis Wins

While I think all the cellists who have made names for themselves are wildly talented and admirable, there’s one cellist who keeps winning. Steven Isserlis plays every piece of music the way I want them to be played. He’s sensitive, particular about where he uses vibrato, dramatic with dynamics, a stickler about tone, and he takes his time in just the right places. The Bach Cello Suites are perfect in his hands. The Martinu Sonata sounds effortless. People always say that Rostropovich’s Dvorak’s Cello Concerto is the quintessential rendition, but after watching this video of Steven Isserlis, I think I have a new favorite. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

What is Practicing?

This article is such a good reminder of what should actually be happening in the practice room. Some of my favorite points:

1. “… the majority of folks practice rather mindlessly, either engaging in mere repetition (“practice this passage 10 times” or “practice this piece for 30 minutes”) or practicing on autopilot (that’s when we play through the piece until we hear something we don’t like, stop, repeat the passage again until it sounds better, and resume playing through the piece until we hear the next thing we aren’t satisfied with, at which point we begin this whole process over again).” It’s a “waste of time”, a confidence killer (since you don’t actually get consistently better when you practice this way), it’s a total chore and it doesn’t prepare you to perform.

2. Deliberate practice, on the other hand, is intentional, goal-oriented and experimental playing. Be clear about what you want to achieve in your practice session and, if you notice yourself drifting into mindless playing, stop, make a goal, and get creative about achieving that goal. What I like to tell my students is to make goals before they sit down to practice. This way, they have a mission to achieve rather than just an hour to fill with cello noise.

3. Practice “smarter, not harder”. If it feels like you’re banging your head against a wall when trying to learn a difficult passage, try something new. When one of my students was having a hard time getting beautiful tone while playing the Prelude to Bach’s 1st Suite, we experimented with what she should concentrate on before she started the piece. Get clever about getting what you want from your practice sessions.

4. Basically, “it doesn’t matter if we are talking about perfecting technique, or experimenting with different musical ideas. Any model which encourages smarter, more systematic, active thought, and clearly articulated goals will help cut down on wasted, ineffective practice time.” You’re not practicing (I hope!) to say you practiced; you’re practicing to sound and feel better on the cello. If you keep that intention, you’re well on your way to effective, feel-good practicing.

Feeling Inspired by Music

I just found this video of an old man who has been in a nursing home for ten years and is depressed and introverted and responds very little to other humans. By having him listen to music from his past, doctors have been able to chat with him and see a person who seemed so distant come alive again. It’s pretty amazing how deeply enmeshed music is in our psyche and it makes me grateful to have it in my life everyday.

I hope this perks up your day as much as it’s perked up mine!

The Story of Hans

I’ve had the same cello since January of 2000 and I lovingly named it “Baby”. It traveled the US on my various music adventures. We’ve lived in Seattle, Chicago, Ohio, Vermont and Massachusetts. In the process, Baby endured a lot of abuse from traveling and colder climes. While living in Chicago in the winter of 2010, I had Baby on my back in its soft gig case when I slipped on the ice, leaving a big crack up the front and a crack on the neck. I’d already wanted to move away from Chicago but this really sealed the deal. When I got Baby checked out, I was told the cracks were just cosmetic blemishes and that they weren’t a big deal.

Fast forward to Monday, January 16th, 2012. It’s cold (for Seattle) and I left Baby in the car after rehearsal and, when I picked her back up, I heard a LOT of noise coming from the case. When I got inside, I unveiled the damage: Baby’s neck finally snapped. When I took her into Carrabba’s the next day, I got the rough news that it would cost between $5000 and $7500 to replace a neck and my cello wouldn’t sound very good afterwards anyway.

Now comes the lovely turn of events. Carrabba just so happened to have a cello in my price range that sounded about a thousand times better than Baby. While I don’t recommend investing in an instrument so hastily, I needed a cello and this was a beauty. I got it. It’s beautiful and vocal and deep and I’m smitten. Upon investigation, I found out that my new cello was made in Germany, so I named it Hans after my most merciless cello teacher, Hans Jorgen Jensen. I’m hoping that a daily reminder of Hans will keep me practicing those arpeggios.

What lesson can we learn from this dramatic episode? Be good to your cello. Go the extra mile to make sure it doesn’t get too cold or too hot and don’t assume it will be 100% okay in a soft case. Treat your cello like the precious piece of art that it is and it will repay you by staying in one piece.