Hello friends, and welcome to Spencer's Cello Practice Blog 2 Electric Boogaloo: Q1 wrap up edition. (Don't worry, I won't make this meme joke again, it only works for sequels 😉). We're setting OKRs, shipping MVPs, debugging memory fragmentation, optimizing CI pipelines, and--just kidding, we're making music!
To start with the big exciting stuff: this last Monday, 3/27 was the Pierce College Community Orchestra's Winter Concert! I'm so grateful that the college tech department was able to record (and even livestream!) the concert, which you can view in full below!
This was my first time performing with an orchestra since high school, and my first time performing cello (ever)! It was also Steven Moncado's debut as our volunteer conductor. I'm really so proud of the whole group, especially given that orchestra almost didn't even happen this quarter. (Our group starts around the 52 minute mark, but the South Sound Baroque Orchestra gave a great performance before us as well!) And to everyone who came, thank you so much! It means so much to me that y'all came or watched from home, and even the folks at Pierce running the livestream seemed pleasantly surprised with how much traffic the video got. So thank you again to everyone for supporting us!
I won't get too heavily into it, but the day after the concert, honestly I went through a pretty strong bout of "post-performance-depression." I don't remember going through this nearly as much in high school, if at all, so I really wasn't expecting it. I am so so proud of what I've accomplished, and I think the performance went as well as it possibly could have... but I guess something about getting older has made me more sensitive to when I might be losing something forever, like getting to play a certain piece of music, or with a certain group. I'm sure I would get a bit sad back in high school at the end of big events like spring trip, but I guess it was new to me to be so affected by a single performance. Reading up on it and talking about it with friends (and writing this post, even!) has helped, but I also learned an important lesson: take the day of AND the day after concerts off, if at all possible.
Of course most of the above was mostly emotional overreaction; I am so excited that the orchestra starts scheduled rehearsals again on Monday to start preparing for our next concert!
Oh, and in one other piece of exciting news... I started renting a new cello from the lovely folks at the Applebaum Violin Shop in Tacoma. I honestly don't think I can overstate how much of a difference it has made. The Amazon cello was absolutely perfect for proving that I was ready to take this seriously, and it gave me the sandbox to play on while waiting to get set up with a rental (which to be fair, did take a few weeks!) But ultimately I really do love the new instrument I have now. (And look how preeeeeeeetty....)
In writing this last paragraph, I have realized that I have committed the grave sin of not naming him yet! So after a quick brainstorming session with Daph, we've landed on Zavala. Please meet Zavala!
Now that srs business is out of the way, time for some reflection on my practice habits for the last few months. (That is what this whole project is supposed to be about, after all!)
It's been 59 days, or roughly 8 weeks and some change since the last post on 1/31. Since then...
The completionist in me wishes I had fewer missed days, but Daph and I have been pretty busy so far this year; some of these squares track an early morning session in a cabin on an island (no, really), an informal family rehearsal in Portland, and even a short practice session on the road, in an EV charger parking lot. I think realistically I am doing better than expected with daily practice--if anything, I probably should have taken a few more "days off" to let muscles recover in between earlier sessions while I was initally regaining flexibility, callouses and the like. On the other hand, I do think I could stand to spend more time practicing each day- though I'm not going to beat myself up over it given that I'm not playing professionally (...yet?!) and have a whole day job to tend to. Overall, I am happy that I feel like I am still growing and improving day to day, and I think I've done really well with practice habits so far. Right now, I'm hoping to stay steady with my practice habits, rather than trying to go hyperbolic I guess.
Getting a little more into the nitty-gritty of it... Suzuki book two has mostly stuck in the first two positions so far, with some tricky extensions here and there. The "extension roll" action in measure 17 of Bach's immediately recognizable Minuet No 3. still gives me some trouble, but this is one that every time I practice, I notice sounds better than the last time.
On the other hand, the pieces for orchestra don't care one lick that I'm still learning; parts of Capriol, Sicilienne, and Pavane go as high as 5th position. Maybe higher, I honestly don't know. Steven showed me how to get into thumb position, played each phrase for me a few times probably, and I (not necessarily consciously) memorized them by ear... and that has pretty much been that, so far. I haven't learned the theory behind these positions, and honestly I still can't even read tenor clef, errrrr, at all. Studying (both position familiarity AND non-treble clefs) is definitely somewhere I need to spend more focus. I am happy subscribing to the "fake it til ya make it" method for the pieces I need to (or even sit out / "act" for pieces I can't play at all), while Steven (and Suzuki) help me learn a more traditional theory path in parallel.
I think sometime in late February, I started practicing with youtube videos in headphones in the background. (I'll put links to my favorite version of each piece to practice to later.) I've found that playing alone is great for honing your own sound and intonation and "learning" musical phrases for the first time, but playing with a back track allows you to really "memorize" phrases better via loops, and can really help with the practice of "fitting the parts" together, which is probably equally important to individual sound for a performance. For example, if a piece has a long rest, say 8 measures plus a beat, I think for most musicians we will literally count out rest rhythms in our heads--1,2,3,4,1,2...(x8)..,3,4,1,PLAY--but only until we learn better "shapes" or "patterns" to use as cues in our heads. Counting rhythms is hard, but listening to music is easy! As a specific example, in the sheet music for Capriol, there are even some sections of rest where the viola part is shown--not because the cello section should play it, but because they should be listening for their cue to rejoin. I have to assume typesetters and arrangers do this because the full rest rhythm can be that difficult to mechanically count out in your head, and losing count once will leave you completely stranded. It's better in some cases then to instead listen for the parts around you to know your cue to come back in.
Anyways, that all was a really long way to say, I am going to try to spend about half of my practice time with a youtube back track. I actually think I am also going to put together some tools for youtube practice. For example, it's really frustrating when a recording on youtube doesn't have enough empty space at the beginning of the video for me to press the space bar and then get into playing position before the music has started. This will definitely get its own blog post, but I've actually already solved this by writing a tiny chrome extension that when clicked, waits a configurable amount of seconds before playing whatever youtube video you are on. I hope these kind of tools will be useful to the rest of the folks in the orchestra too (and beyond, even)! There will definitely be more to come on this later, and probably soon!