Author Archives: Brendan F

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.

https://payhip.com/b/brEpY

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.

Minor Swing (Django/Grappelli)

Here’s a video playlist I made for the cellists in Knights of Jazz on learning the iconic gypsy jazz tune Minor Swing.

Trivia: Unsung heroes of the famous 1937 Paris recording of Minor Swing. Who played guitar? Who played bass?

Answer:

Joseph Reinhardt (Django’s brother) and Eugene Vees both played rhythm guitar. Louis Vola played bass.