A brief account of Brenda K’s experience learning to play the cello – a brand-new instrument for her.  Even when starting with decades of experience as a violinist, it’s not quite as easy as one might think…. 

Listen while you read to “Majesty”, the track we’re recording “for real” now:

In early August, we acquired a cello.  It’s not as if we didn’t have more than enough instruments already, or had any money available to buy another one, or space to store something that large in our already way over-crammed house.  It came about as a fluke-y coincidence of an irresistible opportunity to get a decent instrument for a very reasonable price, and since Chi and I have been recently focusing on recording our increasingly extensive repertoire of original compositions, having a cello on hand to experiment with various arrangements would be very handy.

I have always liked the cello, but have only had a couple of opportunities to ever touch one – when a cellist friend of mine in the school orchestra and I would swap instruments and goof around for a few minutes during the break.  Needless to say, becoming proficient at playing an instrument that is completely different from what I am accustomed to would be no quick or easy undertaking.  And it’s not like I’m not overextended enough already….

Ok, so we took possession of this cello and brought him home one evening in early August.  Awesome!  We were greatly relieved to find that it did indeed fit inside the back cab of our truck, as it surely would have got banged up riding in the truck bed since it came with only a raincoat instead of a hard case.

The Panache Cats inspecting the new cello

Even little Laxmi (top left) came out to have a look

It’s rather like adopting a new pet – in this case, a big dog.  It needs its own secure space within the household, all sorts of species-appropriate accoutrements, and a trip to the vet to make sure all is well.  We’d be able to pick up the cello accoutrements at the cello vet, so at least we wouldn’t have to make an extra trip to the cello pet store.

Naturally, the first thing you want to do with a new doggie is grab the frisbee and the tennis ball and take him out in the backyard and play with him, so that is exactly what we did, only in the living room.  Even Chi had a go at it!  Being a dyed-in-the-wool orchestra cat on a bowed stringed instrument (fiddle) myself, I at least had half a clue about how to approach this matter, but all Chi could do since his string experience was with the guitar family, was imitate whatever he saw me doing, and I’m sure I didn’t provide the best role model.  During that process I lost no time discovering that although the cello and violin are both tuned in 5ths and played with a bow, and the mechanics of producing the sound are similar, that is where the resemblance abruptly ends.  I also found out that the cello is a serious “muscle instrument”, in that it takes considerable upper body and hand/finger strength to pull the sound out of the instrument – even more than the bass guitar (another big, heavy instrument)!

Dealing with a new species you’re not used to inevitably gives rise to a break-in period, which in this case entailed me devising a ritual set-up for playing the cello.  The cello can only be played sitting down, and it has a long, pointy rod at the end that hard, smooth floors are not very amenable too, so I had to figure out the most appropriate thing to sit on that would be the correct height with no obstructive arm-like appendages, and not a total pain in the ass to have to relocate from whatever part of the house it normally lives in to the designated cello practice spot, which we assigned to the living room, and something to remedy the problem of the endpin slipping all over the floor.  I designated the piano bench as the cello chair, and Chi came up with a brilliant solution for the other issue: rescue and repurpose the old bath mat he had just chucked out because it was starting to fall apart, took forever to dry, and shedded vast amounts of fluffy blue and white crap all over the drier and whatever was dried with it.  It worked perfectly, as it was just the right length to tuck under the front legs of the piano bench, and a good texture to dig the endpin into at the correct distance away!

Oh, Dear! This is quite different from the violin!

Ok, that’s better!

Once that was sorted out, I awkwardly took the raincoat off the cello, laid the instrument across my knees without dropping it, and extended the endpin to what I hoped was an appropriate length.  I then righted it and tried to hold it in some approximation of what I have observed during my many years as an orchestra player.  Next, I placed the bow across the strings and immediately discovered that it’s a considerably more awkward business to keep it at the correct contact point since I’m now dealing with the pull of gravity (as well as a heavier bow) due to the strings being at about a 80-degree angle relative to the floor, rather than the bow just lying over the strings more or less parallel to the floor as is the case with the violin.  I then struggled for a few minutes trying to find notes within a standard equal-tempered scale given the much wider spaces between the notes than I am accustomed to playing and dig in sufficiently with the bow at a series of angles I am totally unfamiliar with in order to produce some sort of music-like sound, and then gave up with my shoulders and right wrist aching.

Chi tried his hand at it, giving up on the bow almost immediately, and then managed to play a scale pizzicato (plucked) with considerably better intonation than I had with the bow.  I guess that makes sense given that his primary instrument is (electric) bass, although the tuning in 5ths threw him for a loop since the bass is tuned in 4ths.

Forget about the bow – that’s hopeless!

Also, as big dogs tend to be a bit loud, so it was with the cello, so we could only practice/play it during civilized hours and make sure all the doors and windows were closed (disgusting during the summer/early fall!!) in order to reduce our likelihood of becoming victims of multiple drive-by shootings.

The next order of business was to identify a place to store Mr. Cello where it would be safe from the ever-curious and rambunctious Panache Cats, and safely out of the way of routine household operations, yet still sufficiently accessible so as not to deter us from practicing it regularly.  It turned out that there was a cranny of just the right size between the TV/stereo armoire and the wall, so we cleaned it off (it is standard practice to dust a bowed stringed instrument off with a soft cloth after playing it because of the rosin powder that comes off the bow while playing) and put it to bed there until further notice.

Well, a few days later, Chi decided to bust out the cello and have another go at it during the day while I was away at the day job, and while attempting to tune it, he broke a string!  That accelerated the planned trip to the cello vet, so I made an appointment for us to take it in to Hans Weisshaar’s shop in Hollywood during lunch the next day.  The gentleman who helped us gave our cello a once-over, and determined that everything was pretty much as it should be, although the bow would benefit from getting rehaired (as its former owner had disclosed), and the grip was missing.  As far as species-appropriate accoutrements, we knew the cello needed proper housing, cello rosin for its about-to-be-newly-rehaired bow, and new strings, and quickly realized that again similar to a big dog, accoutrements for a big instrument tend to cost considerably more than those for their smaller brethren (i.e., a big dog kennel/bed/collar/leash/dishes/etc. is more expensive than a little one, and on and on).  I was surprised to learn that steel strings are the industry standard for the cello (as opposed to synthetic or gut core for the violin), and we bought a new set, plus an extra A string to replace the one that broke (Chi decided that it made no sense to put on really expensive new strings at a point when neither of us could so much as produce a decent sound with the instrument, never mind record anything with it!).  It happened that the Weisshaar shop had an extra “utility” case on hand that they used to use to transport their instruments, and they sold it to us for a very reasonable price.

Well friends and neighbors, I had a lot of work to do.  Where to begin?  At the beginning, of course!  Now this is the part everybody hates.  Actually, I don’t hate it – it’s a large part of what I’ve been doing my whole life, but everyone else does.  This is the reason why:

I searched online and found/downloaded a chart of the finger patterns for first position on the cello,
and then since I know less than nothing about cello pedagogy, commenced to blunder my way through the Carl Flesch Scale System for the violin, adapting it by trial and error and research to accommodate cello fingering, since drilling scales and arpeggios over and over is the only way I am familiar with to attain stable intonation on a fretless stringed instrument.
Learning how to do vibrato on a cello was another challenge altogether, as the mechanics of it are completely different from the violin.  I did some more poking around online, and after watching a few YouTube videos of varying approaches and levels of explanation, settled on The Vomit Exercises.  You’ll get it if you watch the video below.  I’m not about to try and explain it.

After drilling scales, arpeggios and vomit-y vibrato on a daily basis for a couple weeks or so, Chi suggested that we try a Panache piece together after he heard me struggling my way through one as I was practicing one day.  Here is the result of that endeavor:
Well, obviously I have a long way to go before I’ll be ready to record anything on this instrument, but at least that goal is starting to look attainable now!Other things that I have found challenging switching from violin to cello are:Bow distribution and smooth bow changes across strings.  The cello bow is shorter and heavier than the violin bow, and the angles to cross strings are quite a bit steeper, leaving me with less bow to work with and more territory to cover with it.  It is critical to master this in order to be able to play musically, even with perfect intonation.

Physical reference to the sound.  With the violin, the pitch gets higher as my left hand moves closer to my face traveling up the fingerboard, and the same thing happens as my right hand moves from the left side of my body to the right, i.e., the low notes are on the G-string, which is at the far left when the instrument is in playing position.  The opposite thing happens with the cello, i.e., the pitch gets higher as my left hand moves away from my face, and as my right hand travels across the strings from right to left.  That was much more confusing than the different tuning and fingering.  Tuning the instrument was also quite awkward and different from what I am used to dealing with.

Final note: this blog documents my progress in digesting two out of three massive learning curves simultaneously (in addition to figuring out how to embed all this media into a blog post on WordPress): becoming competent on a brand new instrument, editing video, and recording engineering.  The next blog will demonstrate my progress with the last item, and I expect to have at least a video up of a recording session with the cello in the near future.

Ok, this post and it’s agglomeration of embedded mega-labour-intensive media projects is finished at last…time to get back to the vomit exercises so I can record something decent already!
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