I’m having a lot of trouble dealing with the discrepancies between how my cello sounds to the one playing and to the one listening. There are a whole lot of funky tones that show up only when you are right behind the cello. “The Sound” as I have dubbed it (it’s not there if I turn the cello to the side!) The strings sound downright twangy when plucked, as if she belongs in a country song (again, this goes away when not behind her.) I can live with these somewhat. They’re annoying, but they aren’t the real problem.
I’m incredibly glad that my teacher assigned me this miserable task of practicing everything extremely close to the bridge, because during this process today I discovered something. Leaning over in front of the cello while playing, I realized that the tone I hear from behind is completely different. I’m not just talking about the weird things that show up, but rather the sound quality is the opposite of what I thought it was. For example, when my husband said that bowing close to the bridge sounded lighter, more energetic, clearer to him, he wasn’t kidding. From behind it sounds heavy, aggressive, ugly. But it’s actually not! I turned her to the side as best I could and still play, leaned my head over, and listened. Not only was “the sound” gone, but it actually sounded really pretty near the bridge! Too bad it sounds like shit when playing properly. This also goes in reverse. When bowing farther away from the bridge, it sounds light, airy, mellow from my perspective. From in front it sounds gritty, doesn’t project, much darker. Not the feeling I thought it was at all!
So my question is this: is this normal or should my cello have more of a direct correlation between what I’m hearing from behind and what people hear in front? If my cello is normal, then I guess I’ll just have to get used to playing things the opposite of how I actually want them to sound, but if it’s not I’d like to know so I can see if there’s something I can do about this.
I feel like she resists everything I’m trying to do with her. I fight her, but she just pushes back even harder. It’s better than it was — I can hear how on a different cello I might like what I’m doing. Still, it has taken all the fun out of cello. Fighting with her to produce what are invariably ugly sounds is just no good. John says it sounds good to him and that he still can’t hear what I’m talking about. Bowing closer to the bridge is heavy, tense, sluggish, but still too bright, of course, from my perspective. I ask him can’t you hear it??? but he says no, to him it sounds lighter, more brilliant, more energetic than bowing further away. Ugh. I’m glad it sounds pretty to my non-existent audience, but I’d really like for it not to sound bad to me. The way it sounds makes me feel so tense that my intonation turns to absolute crap and I’m spending all my time focusing on staying relaxed so I can make my shifts that I have nothing left over for anything else. I’m really confused why this is actually sounding better to the hubby.
On another note, the search for a group to play with continues. I’ve been referred all over the place to no avail, but today I e-mailed someone in Sac who I have been told has other adult students that want to form small chamber groups. Maybe this time something will come of it, although I’m expecting not. I do hope that I can get some sort of ensemble experience before my teacher tells me I’m good enough to join the orchestra at UC Davis. I would, however, find it hilarious if that ended up being my first ever ensemble experience.
It’s official: I have entered into an epic battle with my cello, one I am destined to lose. The only thing good that can be said is that the A string sounds just fine wherever I bow. Bright (okay, harsh — even my teacher said so) but I can live with it. However, C G & D are a bit more problematic. The sound I mentioned a while ago, which I describe as “sanding” and my luthier as “burbling” that I’ve just had to make peace with, gets exponentially amplified the closer to the bridge I bow. At an inch and a half away it starts sounding like a spitting/popping/crackling, much like a fire. Except that it in no way is relaxing or pretty or reminiscent of camping. The entire time I practiced this morning I felt like I was fighting the cello. I got tense, aggressive, mad with her. It didn’t help, but sadly it didn’t even hurt. It all just sounded like crap. I tried bowing open strings instead of practicing bits and pieces of songs or scales, but it still sounded just awful. I was beyond miserable. Then my husband walks in and tells me it all sounds just fine, that he can’t hear this sound that I’m talking about. Which is great that it’s not audible to someone in front of the cello, but it really sucks to be me right now. I’m really trying to practice this as wholeheartedly as possible so that I can rightfully complain to my teacher next weekend that this was the worst cello week ever and that my cello and I have engaged in a war that I cannot possibly win.
Today, while my mother-in-law spent 20 minutes grinding coffee, I realized that the sound of my cello, when bowing within about 2 inches from the bridge, is actually more harsh (and painful) sounding than said coffee grinder. This would be fine if I could avoid bowing in that 2 inch zone of ear-drum-rupturing brightness. Unfortunately, my teacher has caught on to this pattern of avoidance and has assigned me a task that may leave me deaf: I need to practice bowing each sub-phrase (however I choose to divide them) at different places along the string so that I can actively choose (instead of by default and avoidance) where I’m bowing. Somehow she’s convinced that for some parts of the songs I will actually choose to bow closer to the bridge. Except I’m thinking not likely, since the coffee grinder is less painful. And I’m not talking about “nasty” like Les was, I’m talking just plain old bright and painful no matter how prettily I bow. What’s even worse is the realization that I’ve been purposefully not working on this aspect of my technique because it’s so awful to listen to. This week should be fun. And by fun, I mean my cello will be lucky if I don’t remove my end pin and stab her with it.
I’ve been thinking over the last couple days, since I’ve been sick and not practicing much, about why I might be feeling so dissatisfied. I started thinking about when I started feeling so discontent, which seems to have shed a little light on things. I was feeling fine while I was utterly failing at the new song I’ve been working on. The OMG-HOW-THE-HECK-DOES-ANY-ONE-PLAY-THIS phase was great. Then the next day it was suddenly the oh-that’s-how-this-is-so-damn-easy-why-was-I-having-trouble-in-the-first-place. By the next day the piece was memorized and I had the dynamics and articulation worked out how I wanted them. Normally this process takes a few weeks, largely with lots of struggle to get through each stage. Normally it’s filled with tons of frustration and I feel like I’m fighting every step of the way. Now this song, that seemed far harder than any other I’d played at first try, turned out to be so terribly un-challenging. That’s why I feel so dissatisfied!
Now, I’m sure everybody else would just love a song that magically learns itself and is actually too easy, but for me one of the things that attracted me to this instrument was that I believed it to be inherently difficult. I’m not happy when things aren’t difficult. My mind needs something to obsess over, something that I can’t for the life of me understand how I (or anyone else) could learn. But, I don’t like purely intellectual pursuits. One of the reasons I wanted to play an instrument in the first place was the physicality of it. I could, if I felt like it, pursue any number of academic or purely intellectual subjects, but I get too antsy just thinking and doing nothing with my body. I like thinking spatially and in the real world, not just inside my head.
So back to what I was saying: I want difficultly. Lots and lots of difficulty with the cello. Actually, I don’t want difficulty. I want impossibility. Give me a song I can’t learn and I will be satisfied forever because I really don’t give up! I find myself so envious of my teacher’s other, more advanced, students who are working on much more advanced pieces that they’ve spent the last 6 months tackling. I always come in a few minutes before my lesson and hear the tail end of Eleanor working on Danse Rustique by W.H. Squire and always wish that I could be working on that piece instead of some random excerpt of a real piece out of stupid Feuillard.
Somehow the days of OMG I’M NEVER GOING TO FIGURE THIS OUT have turned into the days of meh it’ll take a couple days. SO NOT COOL!