Tips For Successful Ensemble Playing

Chamber Group **I originally wrote this article for the ‘Behind The Bridge’ D’Addario String Orchestral blog.

Many years ago, I and a few of my colleagues decided to form a string quartet for the purposes of performing at events around the metro Atlanta area.  After playing with the same musicians for a while, I started to instinctively know how my chamber mates would react to and interpret various musical passages.  I call this the ‘sweet spot’ of ensemble playing.  This is the point where you don’t have to always mechanically think about what you’re doing anymore but can rather feed off the energy of your cast of players.  In my opinion, your relationship with your ensemble requires a degree of trust and intimate knowledge of each other’s musical quirks, which is very similar to what you would experience in a relationship with your significant other.

As a contract musician, I don’t always get the luxury of playing with the same group of people all the time, so I find that I’m always adjusting my style of play to match the strengths and weaknesses of the musicians around me.  In a large orchestra setting, I usually feel like I can relax a little since the pressure isn’t on one person to present an artistic expression to the entire audience.  On the other hand, playing in a small ensemble where I have to carry my whole section as the only principal player is a whole other ball of wax that requires so much more focus and effort.  I was recently asked to join the in-house quartet of the Atlanta chapter of the Bach Society as their cellist in residence at the Southwest Fine Arts Center.  I was excited for the opportunity, but also very nervous since I’ve spent most of the past few years perfecting my solo cello act.  I decided to seek some professional help from Judith Cox who runs the chamber music intensive through the Atlanta Symphony community school.  She’s also a 1st violinist with the symphony.

Below are some helpful tips for anyone who currently plays in an established small ensemble or if you’re looking to join a chamber group one day in the future:

  • Respect the abilities and opinions of your colleagues. Everyone will have an opinion, which should be respected even if the group decides to go in a completely different direction.  Most people just want to know that their voice was heard and taken into consideration.
  • Study the music, and come to rehearsal with some ideas to try. You should look at a score and listen to a recording of the music (if you can find one) prior to rehearsal.  This will help you come up with some musical ideas to experiment with and will make your rehearsals so much more productive.
  • Talk openly and agree on what you all want the group to become. Everyone should agree up front on rehearsal schedules, performance schedules and goals for the group.  Whether you decide to treat the group as a hobby or a professional job, everyone needs to be aware of those expectations from the very beginning.
  • Learn how to give constructive criticism and sincere compliments. Your ensemble mates will be happier to play with you if you have a positive attitude.  You will also have a better experience as well.
  • Work as a group towards perfection. The group should work together to perfect phrasing, articulation, dynamics, intonation and balance.
  • Listen closely to what’s being played around you. You don’t want to trample over anyone’s solo nor should yours get lost in the fray either.  You should listen to your ensemble mates to make sure you’re matching intonation and articulations.  Instruments in the lower register may need to play out more so that the bass voice is audible.  You may want to have an independent listener sit in on your rehearsal and critique your instrumentation balance if you’re not sure about what you’re hearing while you’re playing.
  • Practice thoroughly at home before coming to rehearsal. All members of the group should make a conscious effort to learn all notes and rhythms at home during individual practice sessions.  The ensemble rehearsal is not the place to try and figure that out because it slows everybody down and takes time away from other music that needs to be looked at.
  • You may want to consider designating someone to lead rehearsals. This may help to make your rehearsals run smoother and more efficiently.  Everyone can still make suggestions about which passages they would like to work on, but the leader should make the final call about where the group should start and when the group should stop to make fixes.
  • Make sure to have a copy of the full score, a tuner, and a metronome present whenever you rehearse. A full score should be readily accessible so that everyone can see how all of the parts are supposed to fit together.
  • Try to run through the entire piece or movement before you leave rehearsal. After you’ve had a chance to fix mistakes, phrasing, articulation, etc., you should try to pull everything together in a final play through before you pack up.  This will help to reinforce what you’ve rehearsed.
  • Ensemble chairs at rehearsal should be set up in the same arrangement that you’re planning to use in live performance. Rehearsals train your ears to hear your music a certain way, and if you’re seated next to someone different on stage, it will most definitely throw your ears and performance off.

These are just a few suggestions that should be helpful to any musician no matter their level of experience.  As always, you should remember to have fun when you play!  Music is a gift that should be enjoyed by all.  Happy practicing!

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

 

What’s In My Cello Case

***This article was originally written for the D'Addario Orchestral Behind The Bridge Blog.

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When I’m out and about with my cello, there are a few key items that I almost always carry with me either in my case or bag. This is the checklist that I follow to make sure that I’m prepared for whichever musical activity I’m participating in.

  1. Cello and Bow – These two items are the most important of my essentials and are the first things that I check for before I leave home. I’ve never forgotten my cello before, but I have left my bow behind when I forgot to double check my practice stand. As a professional, that’s the type of mistake that I can’t afford to make anymore, but it does make me laugh now to remember how horrified I was to open my case right before a school concert to realize my bow was missing. Luckily, I was able to find a violinist who had a bow to spare.
  2. Tuner / Metronome – I like to use the tuner and metronome that are combined into one device. It’s more convenient and gives me one less thing to worry about packing. I use the tuner for my solo gigs and for tuning up my cello students. The metronome is a great practice tool for myself as well as my students during their lessons.
  3. Rosin – I use rosin on my bow every time I practice or perform. I find that a properly rosined bow makes things so much easier on my bowing arm because I don’t have to bear down as hard to get the sound quality that I want.
  4. Rockstop – Cellists and upright bass players need to use a rockstop to anchor their instruments so that they’re not sliding all over the floor while playing. I’ve used both disk rockstops and those with adjustable straps. I prefer the latter type because disk rockstops tend to lose their grip over time while the strap rockstop lasts forever since all you need is a chair leg to secure it.
  5. Pencils – From my early years of playing in orchestra, it was ingrained in my head that it’s considered unprofessional to write on your music in pen. That’s why I carry plenty of pencils for myself and others.
  6. Cloth – I use a clean, soft cloth to wipe the rosin and fingerprints from my instrument and bow when I’m finished playing. Removing rosin buildup and oils transferred from my fingers helps to preserve the varnish.
  7. Spare strings – Hopefully, you will never find yourself in a situation where one of your stings pops or fails at an inopportune moment, but it has happened to me one too many times for me not to be prepared now. What I sometimes do is install a new set of strings and then keep the old strings as my backups.
  8. Mute – I always keep my plastic mute handy in the event that my music or performance venue calls for it. I was really surprised when I was asked to tone it down at a wedding where I was hired to play on solo cello. The wedding planner had me positioned on a 2nd floor landing overlooking the cocktail hour below, and apparently, I was drowning out the party.
  9. Technical Etudes & Exercises – Since I don’t have a lot of down time to practice these days, I always keep my Popper Etudes and Feuillard exercise book with me so that when I do get a break, I can work on some technical exercises to keep my fingers sharp.
  10. Post-it Notes – I keep sticky notes around just in case I have to mark a passage that I want to look at later or if I have a very last minute set change that I need to remind myself of.
  11. Paper Clamps – During the spring and summer months, I get quite a few requests to play for outdoor weddings. When playing outside, I add some weight to my sheet music by placing the individual pages in the plastic sheet protectors, but sometimes that’s not enough if there’s a lot of wind. That’s when I pull out my paper clamps to hold my music down.
  12. Gig Book – This is just my black 3-ring binder that I use to organize my music for my gigs. After my clients decide on a playlist, I put everything in playing order in my binder so that I can move easily from song to song.
  13. Motivational Stickers – I keep stickers in my bag for my youngest cello and piano students. This is their reward for successfully completing their assignments and practice charts. It makes them feel great and keeps them motivated to continue practicing.