Movies Starring The Cello

I’m always game for a good movie with a compelling story line.  While volunteering for this year’s Atlanta Film Festival, I had a conversation with one of the patrons that got me thinking about movies that feature the cello.  If the cello is your thing, then below are some movies (or scenes) you might want to check out:

  • The Soloist (2009)

Untitled1This movie is based on the book, The Soloist by Steve Lopez, which is a true story about a child prodigy cellist named Nathaniel Ayers who developed schizophrenia while attending Julliard and later became homeless. Jamie Foxx plays Nathaniel Ayers and Robert Downey, Jr. plays the reporter Steve Lopez. Both of these men develop a profound relationship after Lopez hears Ayers playing the violin on the street and is able to get him a new cello and a cellist mentor.  This is an emotionally intense movie that will probably make you cry and smile as you follow this tragic yet brilliant cellist who had the misfortune of manifesting a severe mental illness in the prime of his life.

 

  • Take The Money and Run (1969)

Untitled2The cello only appears in the opening scenes of this Woody Allen movie, but those 2 appearances are very memorable and hilarious to me. ‘Take The Money and Run’ is a comedy satire about an inept criminal named Virgil Starkwell who takes cello lessons as a child and tries very hard at it even though his cello teacher doesn’t have anything good to say about him except that he loved his cello.

The interview with his cello teacher was probably the worst review one could ever give a student, but it was so funny that he made all of his disparaging comments with a straight face … ‘His cello playing was just terrible….. He would saw it back and forth and scratch the instrument to such a point that it would drive everyone who would listen to it absolutely insane… He had no conception of the instrument… He was blowing into it…. I think he stole to pay for his lessons, but he wouldn’t apply himself one iota.” I had to laugh. He said out loud what a lot of music teachers are probably thinking in their heads but would never have the nerve to say externally to their students or their parents. One scene shows the cello flying out of 2nd story window of the Starkwell household. Another scene shows Virgil rather humorously running with his chair and cello as he tries to keep up with the marching band and play at the same time. For me, that scene was worth the price of the download even though it was sad when the neighborhood bullies destroyed Virgil’s cello. The rest of the movie is funny in a dry humor sort of a way.

 

  • Hillary and Jackie (1998)

Untitled3And, of course, there is HILLARY AND JACKIE, which is supposed to be the story of sibling rivalry and dedication between Jacqueline du Pré (who was arguably one of the world’s greatest cellists) and her sister Hillary, who was a talented flute player. It must be mentioned that the truthfulness of this film has been vehemently challenged by Jacqueline’s teachers and others – even though it was based on conversations with her brother and sister. My cello teacher introduced me to some of Jacqueline du Pre’s recordings somewhere in the midst of my high school years. It was very inspiring to hear how great she willed herself to play even though her MS had taken away most of the feeling in her fingers.

 

 

  •  Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990) 

Untitled4The main character, Nina, is beside herself with grief after the passing of her boyfriend, Jamie, a cello player. While Nina is in deep despair, Jamie reappears as a cello playing ghost and the couple is temporarily reconciled. Nina is ecstatic, but Jamie has a heartbreakingly beautiful reason for returning. He’s actually trying to help Nina let go and move on with her life.   He turns up the heat, moves furniture around and invites his ghost friends over which gradually infuriates Nina and causes their relationship deteriorate.  She meets someone that she is attracted to but is hesitant to become involved with him due to Jamie’s continued presence. Nina continues to love Jamie but is conflicted by his actions. Jamie eventually decides to leave to allow her to move on. By the end of the film, we see that Jamie wanted to tarnish Nina’s idealized image of him so that she would feel free to move on.

  • Love In The Afternoon (1957)

This is an older romantic movie starring Audrey Hepburn as a young cellist femme fatale who gets herself caught up in a love triangle while trying to prevent her future love interest from murdering his cheating wife. Supposedly, Audrey did the basic cello playing herself.

These are just some of the movies whose cello features really piqued my interest. There are definitely others out there that I’m still planning to watch – starting with this list of recommendations below:

  • Gauche The Cellist, a 1934 short story by Japan’s Miyazawa Kenji
  • Micki and Maude (Blake Edwards, 1984. Starring Dudley Moore.)
  • If I Stay (2014)
  • The Living Daylights (1987)
  • A Song from the Heart (TV Movie 1999)
  • Departures (2008

 

Finding My Way As A Composer

After many years of trying, I finally found a little bit of success as a composer after 2 of my songs won some high profile awards last year.  I vividly remember that it was a real struggle for me to get started all of those years ago because I was at a complete loss the first time that I actually sat down and tried to force myself to create a masterpiece from nothing – considering that I hadn’t gone through any formal song writing training. During this particular time in my life, I happened to attend a panel discussion that was put together by the local Atlanta chapter of the Recording Academy. One of the panelists shared that the secret to his award winning success is that he intensely studied great songs written by great songwriters and then kept practicing his writing skills until he was able to create his own hit songs. This is the advice that gave me some direction and helped to propel me forward.

The first halfway decent song that I wrote was an instrumental that was part acoustic instruments and part digital software instrumentation created using my MIDI keyboard. It took me almost 2 months to get it all finished, which drained me mentally. I kept telling myself that I needed to find a much better approach because I couldn’t continue to spend 2 months on every song. That just wasn’t practical. I already had a copy of the Logic Pro software, which came with a demo project that had all the instrumentation and sound clips for the song ‘The Numbers Game’ by the group Thievery Corporation (see the image below).Untitled

I grabbed a pencil and some paper, and mapped out all of the instrumentation for each measure of the song. This became the template that I later tweaked to create my song ‘Metro Sonic Groove’. It took me considerably less time to finish that song because I had a plan to follow and could quickly structure my verses, choruses and the bridge. If you ever happen to listen to my first composition ‘Reflections at Sunset’ and my later composition ‘Metro Sonic Groove’, you will definitely hear the difference that it made in my production quality when I changed my approach and started off with a written plan. This approach may not work for everyone since all artists have their own creative genius that they have to find a way to tap into, but it’s something to try if you find yourself in a rut.

The first music composition award that I won last year was for my song ‘HeartBeat’. It won an Akademia Music Award for Best Ambient/Electronica song. That song came about after I entered a Mixathon48 music producer’s competition. I was sent 5 eight-measure audio files and had to create a full song around those audio stems. Unfortunately, I didn’t win that competition, so I decided to use the parts of the song that I legally owned to create another song which later became ‘HeartBeat’. At the time of the competition, I was studying and creating a project instrumentation template from Katy Perry’s song ‘Unconditionally’. I made some modifications to that template structure in order to come up with my final award-winning product.

The second music award that I won was for my orchestral arrangement of the Christmas tune ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’. I entered that song into a Radio Airplay contest, and it was selected as one of the Top 200 Holiday Songs of 2015. I made that Christmas arrangement from a project template that I created based on the television show Glee’s arrangement of the same song. I had to make some minor adjustments in that all of the vocal parts became acoustic cello or digital string parts, and that seemed to fit in well with my other instrumentation choices. I’m just happy that enough people liked it to vote it onto the top 200 list.

When it comes to music composition, there really isn’t a right or wrong way to do it. Every composer eventually has to find the right artistic expression that truly represents who they are. I know some composers who will only use acoustic instrumentation and some who prefer to create their songs digitally. Composers who are looking for commercial mainstream success may have to make different choices than someone who’s composing for personal gratification, but we all have to start somewhere. I hope that you find my experiences useful as you pursue your own musical dreams.

Software I’ve Used To Compose & Arrange

I would always get a good laugh when my musician friends from our church orchestra would talk about their harrowing tales of what they would have to go through in order to piece together a living as a working musician. For those of us who have decided not to teach in the school system, this is a very common reality.

I played in a string trio for a few years as one of my side jobs. As we started to build up a following, we also started getting a lot of requests to play music from contemporary artists such as Cold Play, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Foo Fighters, etc. There was one instance where I booked us a last minute job, so it became my responsibility to come up with 7 custom trio arrangements of pop and R&B songs within a week. The stress was very real when I found out that there wasn’t any pre-packaged music that I could buy anywhere to fulfill our client’s requests. After I calmed myself down, I had to scramble to find a solution. This is when I remembered that I had a free copy of the Finale NotePad software that came with the lesson books that I use with all of my beginner cello students. It was a mentally painful experience to become proficient with Finale NotePad in a few days while still creating professional arrangements that wouldn’t embarrass my trio mates to play in public. I don’t use this software as much these days since I have a score editor in my Logic Pro DAW (digital audio workstation), but it’s a great alternative when I need to get an arrangement done quickly and don’t want to create a whole new project in Logic to use the Score Editor.

When I first started using Finale, I would either use my keyboard to type the note name that I wanted to appear on the staff and then use the mouse to drag the note head to the correct octave, or I would just use my mouse to individually click on the lines and spaces to create a note. This turned out to be a painstaking and tedious process to go through. I now have a MIDI controller keyboard that I USB connect directly to my computer. The Finale software automatically recognizes my MIDI keyboard, so I don’t have to do any additional setup other than powering the keyboard on. This allows me to quickly play a passage on the keyboard, which then manifests itself immediately on the staff.

finale

 

Since I usually have a Logic Pro project open on my computer at any given time, that is usually the most convenient option for me to create an arrangement or composition. What I have to do is create a software instrument track and then record my MIDI note events using my MIDI keyboard (see the image below).logicsession

In this next image, you will see that the ‘Classic Electric Piano’ track is my software instrument track. Logic automatically defaulted to the ‘Classic Electric Piano’ software instrument on its own. The instrumentation can easily be changed by selecting a different option in the library window. After creating my software instrument track, I then click on the red circle in the top left hand corner to start recording the notes that I will be playing on my MIDI keyboard. The green region below contains my notes which can then be viewed on the staff in the score editor.LogicEditor

Yes, there are other programs out there that you can use to arrange and compose your music. This posting is definitely not meant to be an exhaustive discussion on the subject matter. Hopefully, you will find my experiences helpful as you make your own path through the music world.