Author Archives: Brendan F

Amplifying the cello: Part 1

I haven’t tried to amplify an acoustic cello since around 2007, when I sprung for a Yamaha SVC-210 electric cello. Prior to switching to the electric cello, I was frustrated in my efforts to amplify my acoustic cello using the Fishman C-100 piezo: thin sound, boomy and with a tendency to feedback in the midrange. I added the Fishman Platinum Pro-EQ to my gear bag and that helped a little, but I was still unsatisfied. I was flying internationally frequently with the cello in 2007, and the capability of the SVC-210 to fold and fit in the aircraft coat closet sealed the deal.

Today however, I regularly have cello students who are interested in amplifying their acoustic instruments. These students aren’t likely to invest 3k in an electric cello, and need something that sounds good at a reasonable price point.

Trying to give some guidance, I see that since I last looked in 2007 there are several new players in the cello amplification field. Realist, Feather, Headway, AKG, and Shure. There are piezos, contact microphones, gooseneck condensers, built-in bridge pickups, and a mysterious new strap-like technology called “The Band”. Prices range from $5 to about $650 for amplification solutions, and that’s not including the cost of an EQ or preamp. Most of the solutions fall within the $100 – $220 range.

I see several electric cellists on youtube have review/unboxing videos of particular pickups, but I don’t see a good overview of all the options. Is a $250 Realist pickup really (sorry) 50x better than a $5 one? If there are differences, how are these differences measured? Which sounds better, a contact mic, a gooseneck condensor, or a piezo? How do these different technologies work? How do different amplification goals (sheer volume vs. accuracy of sonic reproduction) map onto the different amplification options?

To answer some of these questions I’ll use a combination of my ears and the expertise of a professional. I’ll reach out to Farsheed who is an electric and acoustic engineer, working at Soapbox Music and Shure Microphones.

I’ll begin at the low-cost end of the spectrum, with a $5 clip-on microphone off Amazon, and see how it sounds through my Emperor 2×12 speaker cabinet.

Is it Bix?

I’ll weigh in on the controversy: If it’s actually Andy Secrest as credited on the 1929 recording of Alabammy Snow, then Secrest was capable of an extraordinary Bix Beiderbecke imitation. That he was a good imitator is plausible — Secrest had after all been hired away from Jean Goldkette’s orchestra by Paul Whiteman precisely because of his ability to emulate Bix’s cornet playing. Bix’s health was failing and so Secrest was backing him up at both events and recording sessions. But was Secrest really *that* good an imitator? After weighing the evidence (af little) and using my ears (a lot), I’ve concluded it must be Bix.

You can begin a deep dive into Bixology here if you’re inclined. The debate about whose cornet can be heard on the 1929 side Alabammy Snow continues. See here for example.

I took a shallow dive into Bixology after listening to Alabammy Snow. All the musicians on the record are incredible: Trumbauer, Secrest (credited on cornet), even Quinn on guitar. The rhythm is locked in, the solos are full of character. The tune is short and sweet. It’s a real toe-tapper that feels very ‘Twenties’ to me.

To my ears, the cornet solos feature signature Bix elements: coy melodic ornamentation and glissandi, ‘in the pocket’ rhythmic feel, nuanced phrasing, articulation and dynamics, whole tone scale runs, and a a trademark Bix dom7 flat9 arpeggio that reaches up to the flat9 on the strong beat.

This cello tribute to Bix (or perhaps Secrest’s Bix?) features all the solos on Alabammy Snow. I tried to reproduce especially Bix’s glissandi, phrasing, dynamics and articulations as accurately as I could.

Transcription for cello available here:

Thinking about the rhythmic function of pizzicato in Nirvana’s Come As You Are

This was a tricky song to learn to sing and play at the same time. I probably first tried it on cello in 1995. I was able to apply a practicing breakthrough from my recent early jazz work to this song. The key is organizing the pizzicato rhythmically. Previously, I was using two fingers (1st and 2nd) to pizzicato “as it comes.” In other words the two right hand fingers simply alternate, regardless of the rhythmic function of the notes they are sounding. I learned however that it is better to assign the fingers a specific rhythmic function: 1st always plays downbeats, 2nd always plays weak beats, “on the and.” The change has helped with feel and rhythmic awareness when adding the syncopated vocal as sung by Kurt Cobain to a bassline.

Here’s a PDF for learning Come As You Are that includes a preparatory exercise to help organize the right hand pizzicato rhythmically.

In Bloom / Nirvana – Cello Cover

First attempt at this Nirvana tune on cello was probably in 7th or 8th grade, in 1994. This week I used the concept of interval complements to come back to this song, making it much simpler by reducing shifting. Arranging the tune with interval complements also allows my left hand to move beyond root position power chords, eliminating cramping of first finger and wrist and general exhaustion of the hand

Bow Hold Video Series

I’ve been meaning to make bow hold videos for beginning cello students ever since I began taking remote students. These videos will work well for both remote students and as a technique builder for in-person students. Following along the videos with your dowel or pencil at home is a great way to warm up at the beginning of your regular daily practice session.

The first video in the series is Cello Bow Hold Video #1: Pre-Dowel Exercises. These exercises help students form a mental archetype of a relaxed, agile and balanced hand, prior even to work with a dowel or a pencil. Practice Notes for the first four videos in the series are available for download here.

Videos 2-4 are available here:

Cello Bow Hold Video #2: Dowel + Caveman Exercises

Cello Bow Hold Video #3: Dowel + Knee Bow Hold Exercises

Cello Bow Hold Video #4: Dowel + Knee Bow Hold + Cello

The Saints — New Orleans Classic Jazz on Cello

I’ve been fascinated by the New Orleans Classic Jazz style since I heard it on my first trip to the city in 2005. The combo of instruments with their different musical roles is very interesting to listen to, but I find the clarinet in particular, and the way it weaves improvised counterpoint around the melody to be truly remarkable. I’ve always felt the clarinet role to be “magical” in the sense of being able to generate spontaneous harmonic lines. I’ve been trying to learn the style on cello this past year, and while I’ve by no means mastered it, I think I’m making progress! Here’s a little excerpt. Big thank you to Chloe Feoranzo for the clarinet lesson and super helpful practice tips, and jazz violinist Nora Germain for the encouragement!

Motivating Music Practice Through The Feel-Good Practicing Revolution #FGP

Earlier this week I read a social media post written by a cellist complaining about how difficult the cello is, and about how her practicing never seems to reliably lead to progress but instead to frustration. Relatable for me, and likely for many other cellists and musicians out there!

I replied by sharing a personal trick that I’ve learned from 33 years of cello playing: try to plan a second practice session every day, even if both sessions are super short. The reason? The second session almost always feels better than the first. Indeed, the first session can be brutal. My muscles feel stiff, and ignorant. But if I return to the cello in the evening, things feel much better. Perhaps my mind and fingers have been working on the music subconsciously throughout the day. My fingers feel good when I pick up the cello a second time, and I always have a much better experience.

But sharing this little tip got me thinking. There’s something much bigger here, and it relates to the problem of practicing. Why is it still such a monster? Why do so many of us struggle with it?

The “something much bigger” hit me today, during a lesson with a seventh grade student. She’s a talented young cellist, and also a fairly anxious perfectionist. She’s been struggling with practicing recently. We started talking about practicing, and I tried to put myself in her shoes, to imagine how practicing makes her feel. And that’s when it hit me: the whole problem is the way we musicians approach practicing. We approach it from a technical standpoint; our goal is always to improve something, master some new skill, or learn some new song or passage. What we generally *don’t* do is approach practicing from an affective, emotional standpoint — how it makes us feel.

So here’s what the Feel-Good Practicing Revolution is all about: every practice session *must* leave you feeling like a beast. You know that feeling when you’re playing music you know really well, and your fingers are just nailing the notes, and the rhythm is fully locked in, and it feels like the notes you’re playing on your instrument have become your personal theme song right in that moment? Yes, that’s the feeling that you need to plan to tap into *every* practicing session. Because if you don’t tap into that feeling, of course practicing feels like a drag! Especially if your next gig is a long way off (a problem with which we musicians are sadly all-too-familiar in 2021), you have, have, have to make sure your practice sessions include actual *playing* that leaves you feeling good.

This feeling of positivity will help motivate future practice. What’s more, neuroscience continues to emphasize the deep connections between emotion, learning and the brain. Feeling good literally helps us learn!

Of course, this is not to say you shouldn’t set technical goals, or work toward improving skills. But any such goals should be subordinated to the goal of feeling good.

So I suggested tapping into this positive feeling to my seventh grade student.

“I never have that feeling.” she responded flatly.

Taken aback, I replied, “But you love sight-reading! What about when you’re sight-reading?”

At this her face completely lit up. Huge smile. “Ohhhh yeahhhh!”

So that’s what she’s going to try — always including some sight-reading in her practicing sessions so she can leave the instrument feeling like a beast. We’ll see how it goes. I’m optimistic! Maybe better, now I’m looking forward to my own next practice session. It’ll definitely include some jamming along with backing tracks on Youtube. This always puts me in a good headspace, and makes me feel like a musical beast.

What ways of practicing, activities, exercises, or even specific pieces or songs could you include in your own practice sessions so that you always leave feeling good? Please share your ideas! Time to kick off the Feel-Good Practicing Revolution!

#FGP #feellikeabeast #playlikeabeast

simple music worth noting

I found myself this evening dodging Chicago traffic on the way home and listening to an Eddie South recording from the late 1920s of By The Shores Of Lake Minnetonka, a popular tune from the era with Native American derivation. Chicago-based bandleader and violinist Eddie South was a child prodigy of classical violin who switched to performing jazz and popular music in the 1920s when racism foreclosed career options for him either with a major orchestra or on the solo circuit. South became arguably the strongest jazz violinist who has ever lived. In an era when it was not uncommon for violinists to front dance bands, South’s technique sparkles, outshining early jazz age violin contemporaries George Morrison, Erskine Tate, and Carroll Dickerson, and even second generation luminaries Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli.

While driving and listening, I was struck with the elegance of Eddie South’s performance on the recording. While South adorns the tune gracefully, the underlying musical idea is very simple.

It is a wonderful thing when a performer is able to reduce all possible complexity to its simple essence.

And not just great musicians, but all great artists, great thinkers, and great athletes possess this ability. They are able to take a wealth of experience and distill from it something very basic.

It is important it is to pay close attention to the seemingly simple, especially when offered by those with great experience.

A second example that came to mind as I was driving was composer JS Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, which contemporary jazz musician Jon Batiste recently pointed out in an interview were written for children. While hardly easy to play, they present a musical idea known as counterpoint in its most basic form. The big idea of counterpoint is that a single piece of music can be composed of two simultaneous voices that are mutually interdependent, without one being subordinate to the other. Simple — like a good human relationship.

Another image that flashed to mind was Einstein at the chalkboard, indicating his little formula E=MC2

In music, the simple ideas are often worth noting.