Perfectly Not Perfect

It’s important to me that the studio be flexible. I like people to feel that they are playing in safe space; free to groan, grumble and gripe if need be. However, there is one word that is banned from use for everyone - including myself, perfect.

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First of all perfection is simply unattainable. It is also a word that is completely subjective. We don’t have the ability nor the time to achieve perfection. Most students, when asked, would tout perfection as a virtue, something that they could wear as a badge - but I see it as something that people actually hide behind. After all, if they are shooting for perfection how could they possibly expect to succeed? I can often see when a student has already made their decision that their piece/work is never going to be perfect, perhaps even satisfactory, so why put so much effort in? It’s a good excuse, a good cover up for what they are really feeling which is fear. Perfectionism masks the fear that we are just not good enough. Some people seem to find odd relief in not having to try. Writer Rebecca Stein reminds us that “So many of us believe in perfectionism, which ruins everything else, because the perfection is not only the enemy of the good, it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible and the fun.”

When we make the decision to put ourselves out there- to take a chance- it is nothing short of walking a tight rope of emotion. One slip, one mistake and off we go into the deep waters of insecurity. I often open a student recital by talking with the crowd of expectant parents, spouses, friends and neighbors and reminding them how brave this endeavor is; not just the performance but the trying.

I have a friend, Daniel Patrylak, who was the original first trumpet of the Eastman Brass Quintet, a superb musician and wonderful man. He once told Paul and I that he had never heard a perfect string performance. He wasn’t being critical of string players, he was simply conversing with us about the reality of things. Instead of feeling discouraged by this, we felt it was actually a gift. How empowering if we can play without the concern of perfection. It’s not going to happen so how about we just let that idea go and be all that we are capable of being?

Nothing is beyond criticism. No matter how much time we put into making something “perfect” there is someone who can find fault with it, so that very effort wastes our valuable time.

Playing music is never about how many notes are correct. It is about the performance as a whole. Vladimir Horowitz was coming off a long break in playing by performing a concert at Carnegie Hall. He began his very first piece by crashing down, dramatically of course, on the complete wrong chord. He went on to three standing ovations. After the concert a music critic asked Mr. Horowitz how he felt about making the blunder. Without pause Horowitz answered “Do you want perfect or do you want Horowitz?”

I say Horowitz every single time.

 

Melissa Perley

Learning From Teaching

In my studio I spend an inordinate amount of time turned to face my students so that I can not only hear but watch them play. I’m looking for correct body posture, hand position, relaxed muscles and the all-important breathing. It seems counter to logic but it is amazing how many people forget to breathe when playing. I find I need to give a little elbow nudge once in a while, often eliciting a quick, full breath not unlike a snorting snore sound. Mainly I’m looking to be sure that players are at ease, that their bodies are as comfortable as they can be in the middle of an intellectual and athletic task. That can all fall under the umbrella of “correctness.” I’m looking to see that they are playing “correctly”.

One of my teenage students whom I have been working with since he was in grade school and is now in early high school came to a lesson the other day. He took out his cello, set everything up, tuned and proceeded to put the cello slightly out of his lap. I sat down, arranged his notebook, took a drink of water and gestured for him to pull the cello up higher into the “correct” position. Each time, each week this happened and all was well in our world.

Only this week he balked. Call it hormones, call it defiance or call it bravery but he balked at my wordless signal. So, being a genius, I changed the signal from wordless to verbal. Balk number two. This time he turned toward me and asked “why?”

It seemed simple enough to explain; if the cello is sitting too low in your lap, your hands are not going to reach the upper positions easily, and the soundpoint of your bow will want to fall too close to the fingerboard. Traditionally, depending on the cellist, the C peg should sit somewhere on an arc that begins at the back of the base of your neck and ends somewhere behind your left ear. I even finished that explanation with a tiny flourish- it was that simple!

Again….”Why?”- only this time he showed me that, although the cello sat lower on his body, the peg fell on this arc and he felt he could reach the upper positions quite easily. And this was comfortable for him anatomically.

I defaulted back to hand signals, he brought it up slightly and we finished the lesson.

However, the lesson stuck with me and presented a dilemma: what if “correct” could be subjective based on a person’s anatomy, or even personal preference? In the “correct” methodology is there still room for uniqueness? No one argues with the brilliance of Yo-Yo Ma but not everyone agrees with his hand positions.

It made me think about how change can come about if we don’t ever allow things to change, or at least bend.

I would like to be the person who listens to what people have to say. To not feel that I have every answer to every question and to be respectful of our differences as well as our similarities. Perhaps a young cellist can show us a new path.

When Emmett came back the following week he took out his cello, set everything up, tuned and, before positioning his cello, looked over at me. I sat down, arranged his notebook, took a drink of water and looked right back at him. We began a dialogue about “why.”

And for now, his cello is not too high, not too low- but just right - for him.

Melissa Perley

Balance

There is a challenge for every cellist as she begins to traverse the path from early to mid level player. Most students begin their study with their hands in first position- aka- “the block”- The block helps with the understanding of hand position for whole and half steps. Because I like to minimize stress on the hands, it is my goal to move students out of the block as soon as their understanding is solid. Herein lies the challenge; it seems I put you into the block simply to move you out of the block!

Movement away from the block involves the introduction of vibrato. I like to talk about the physical aspects of vibration but also discuss the necessity of patience with the whole process. Vibrato is like a free-wheeling party guest - you can invite her but you can't predict when she will arrive. Working on vibrato can produce tension which, interestingly, is the anti-vibrato. Too much stress and the hand is not free to move and you will tend to create more of a tremor than vibrato. If you are working on this or any new technique and begin to feel aggravation, it is always best to put the cello down and take a break. When the desire to throw your bow abates - you are ready to return to work.

As you become more advanced in vibration technique, the notes that you are not vibrating will become more noticeable. When working in the block your hand stayed in that position, the balance point being the center of your hand. Now that you are vibrating finger to finger you want to have your balance point be over the finger being vibrated. Most of the center fingers are easily balanced, however, the first and fourth fingers are notoriously imbalanced. Moving away from the block naturally creates anxiety about moving your hand “free form”- understandably we feel safer with our hand in the block, the position that we first begin in. It is now that I begin to introduce the idea that your hand is always in motion. It may not be visible but flexibility in our left and right hand becomes more and more important as we begin to work with more difficult music.

Vibrato itself introduces more relaxation into the hand. If you work slowly through vibrating each finger you find that if you are able to focus on the offending imbalanced first and fourth fingers you are able to “over balance” the fingers by exaggerating their position for a while. For example, when you are truly balanced on the fourth finger the balance point will be on the fourth knuckle and, rather than keeping the finger leaning toward the others - exaggerate its lean away from the other fingers in the vibrating arc. It won't be necessary forever but will help to keep us aware of the need for flex in our hand.

When practicing it remains important to really listen to your playing. The ease of recording on phones makes hearing your intonation and vibration much more possible. It can be a painful part of practice but it is invaluable. Is your vibration moving in a wave motion from note to note or are there notes that stick out because they aren't being vibrated? If so, you can bet that there is imbalance in your hand.

It is scary to release your hand, to gather your fingers into vibration and moving rather than reaching. But there is no freedom like a released hand. One that has the flexibility to “go to” the notes. The balance in our hand allows us to be more exacting in landing our notes and, once there, to make small adjustments instantly as needed.

In our hands, as in our lives - balance is key.

 

Melissa Perley

Bittersweet

Paul and I stepped off the elevator and wandered down the hall looking for the correct apartment. We’d landed in NYC just hours earlier. I knocked softly and Jacob opened the door. After we’d spoken for a while he left the room and returned with his cello, the reason we had come.

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I noticed he kept a tight grip on the instrument as he talked with us about the technical part of its history. I mentioned that it must be difficult to sell the cello that he’d had since he was a child. “Not really,” pause, “I hate this cello.” Silence. Our quiet seemed to open up the box where the truth was living. His eyes filled as he told us about the hours his father had forced him to practice. Relentless years of criticism, frustration and rage. He had not had the courage to get rid of the instrument until after his father’s death. However, as we reached for the cello to begin packing it up, it seemed difficult for him to release it. His beautiful instrument sat quietly, keeping his secrets, loyal to the end. There was true relief in us walking out with it, but there was also true sadness.

The cello landed at Barbara’s home on Friday. She opened her door and squealed at the sight of the massive box. She had been waiting for this day, for this instrument.

Her emails could barely contain her joy. “MH and I are getting to know each other...” “The cello has been so patient with me...”

When we contact the woman who placed this cello on consignment with us she is thrilled that it has found a new home. Her emails can barely contain her relief that her old friend is safe and being played once again.

Paul and I are the matchmakers. We bring home the cellos of your mothers, grandfathers and the failed experiments of your children. Stories filled with symphonies, immigrant crossings and stardom, of accidents, suicides and failure.

People need attic space, to be rid of clutter, to move on and, people need money. The instruments rest here for a while, standing among friends, waiting:

  • For the college student who has taken a loan to buy the cello.
  • For the adult who played as a child but gave it up. Until today.
  • For the beaming teenager with the slightly nervous, but smiling, parents.
  • It is what we do and we are honored by the task.

Brian was happy I called him to tell him that we’d sold his cello. He wanted to know all about it’s new life but then was quiet for a moment, “I’ve had that cello since I was a child, took it everywhere, so I’m happy, but I’m also sad, do you know what I mean?”

We do.

Melissa

The Journey

Recently we needed to be in New York to have a cello bow evaluated for a sale. Our first thought was to hop on a plane. Immediate thought number two was expense. Another option, which we have taken many times, was to drive. We love a good road trip, hours to catch up with each other, the freedom of unlimited bathroom stops, the great road snacks. Then our final option, the train. This option, while not without cost, seemed a no-brainer to Paul who has loved trains since he was a little boy. So we made the drive to the Rutland station to catch an express train to the city.

We clamor on board whacking our suitcases on every other seat as we maneuver down the isle. I should note that travel, on the whole, seems to put me into another time dimension altogether. The minute we get into an airport my heart begins to race and I feel the need to run…. everywhere. I race to get coffee, zoom into the bathroom and breathlessly grab a magazine for the trip. I sprint back to our gate only to find Paul dozing in the waiting area since we have another 2 hours before we fly.

Our scheduled train departure is 8:00 AM and, sure enough, exactly at 8:00 I feel a lurch and we begin to move. In travel mode, I quickly gather my possessions around me. Three books which require reading glasses, so regular glasses get safely, but speedily, stuffed into their case. I check my credit cards several times to be sure there is good access in case I feel the sudden (obviously) urge to nosh.

We begin rolling and I find myself leaning against the glass watching the world chug past. Train tracks are actually behind everything. The path that we are taking seems to put the utilitarian side of things toward us: people have taken time to renovate the front of buildings but tend to leave the backs untouched. Looking at the rickety back stairways leading to old porches, it seems as if the laundry swinging on the lines is waving to us as we travel by. Crooked sheds, stuffed behind modern facades give us a glimpse into other decades. I can almost see my lanky, high school age father making lay-ups in the net-less hoops leaning off the wooden garages.We see the back doors of large businesses. The places where they keep the industrial size garbage bins, and the picnic tables where the staff sits, smokes and watches us watch them.

The morning sun warms the glass where my forehead rests. If I close my eyes into the warmth, even for a second, I am sound asleep. The rocking of the train is primal and my body remembers it.

This train travels along the Hudson River and soon I’m gazing at ice chunks swirling around small patches of open water. I see lighthouse after lighthouse perched on piled stones. Small but sturdy in their offering of protection. Because we are on the Hudson and not too far outside the city we are voyeurs to the backs of huge abandoned houses. Paint peeling from the gingerbread decorating the roof line. Enough left of them to help us imagine their ornate stories, enough left of their stairs to the river that we understand the privilege.

Barges calmly stomp their way through the ice, unflappable in their steely determination. I can see a deck hand scurrying to a task - strange to see him in a wool hat and gloves on a ship.

Someone comes around to collect tickets. They make friendly banter with us about the cold then tip their train hat as they pass by. Time changed only by the scanner for your tickets instead of the punch- much to Paul’s dismay.

My books sit next to me untouched. Paul mentions heading to the food car for some lunch and I lazily offer up my order but never break my gaze out the window. Quickly nearing New York I find that the slow and steady rhythm has been deceptive.

We pack away our unused books as we come into Penn Station. We remain relaxed in our seats entering the darkness of the tunnel.

And here we are in New York. I recognize that I would have made it to this place had I chosen to travel in any of the other means available. What has mattered on this trip is that I’ve realized that the journey, not unlike the journey of learning the cello, has been as important as the destination.

Melissa Perley

More Than Notes

It's Ella's time to shine. She has been studying with me since she was in fourth grade and is now a high school junior. She sits in her weekly lesson ready, if not willing, to discuss her piece for the winter recital.

Normally my theory on choosing repertoire is to choose music that reflects new found ability of the student as well as some of their personality. This has worked pretty well although I have found that Ella has cajoled me into letting her play a duet a few more times than I'd like. There are two reasons this happened, one: having four sons, I do understand that high school students often have too much on their plates. Two: I am a sucker.

This season as we sit down for the discussion I silently hand her the Brahms E minor Sonata. She takes it, looks at it, looks at me and sets it on the stand. I literally watch the wheels turning behind her eyes. “Are you kidding?” “No.” I answer.

Early in high school Ella would do all of the things I asked of her but not much more. Her parents had helped her purchase a beautiful older cello and there was a definite sense of obligation in her study. But as she rounded out of her sophomore year things began to change. She auditioned and was accepted at the Apple Hill music camp: she found that she knew more than she thought and, better still, it mattered to her that she did. Suddenly playing the cello made her even more special.

Handing her the Brahms was handing her a challenge. That day she looked at me, understood, and accepted that challenge.

Getting the notes came fairly soon, I knew that would not be where the difficulty would lie. Once we had the bones of the piece in place the work began. We had many discussions about the back story of the music. history has it that Brahms was living in Robert and Clara Schumann’s home, and shortly afterward helped Clara with her many children when Robert was confined to a mental health facility. During that time, possibly before, he fell desperately in love with her. The E minor reflects that desperation. It is a beautiful cry of pain.

What I had to do was try to help Ella to connect to the music, to the story, to Brahms. I was asking her to internalize the notes on the page and bring forth her interpretation of what Brahms was saying to her. Letting the cello tell the tale.

Adult students often struggle with the desire to make everything perfect, hitting every note being the ultimate goal. In doing that they often forget to tap into their experiences in order to really make the music speak. And kids simply don't have a lot of experience to tap into.

Something I often write in notebooks about playing a piece is “Tell me the story”- This became my mantra to Ella.

At first things like the recapitulation seemed simply like repetition to her. She would, dutifully, bring the main theme back with the exact same expression she had used before the painful watershed in the middle of the movement. What really changed things for her was adding the piano. Before going with an accompanist I sent her the piano part to play with from her computer. I asked her to put recordings of the piece into the background of her daily life, to listen but not really listen.

At her lesson some weeks before the recital I had Lynette, our accompanist, come to the studio to rehearse the piece with her. As they began to play together, began to feel the way one was moving around the other, Ella started to really hear what Brahms had been whispering into her ear.  Paul calls this moment “warming to the piece” it is the point when you can, literally, watch someone relax into feeling. To let go of the “have-to's” and just play.

At the recital Ella rehearsed with Lynette and made a few comments to me about being glad to be done with the piece. Somehow it was a relief to know she had not completely let go of being a teenager.

As her page turner I sat beside her as she began that most haunting of melodies. At the beginning she was totally performing, doing what she had learned to do from me and then she began to warm to the music and it was transforming to her, for me.

Ella was pleased with her performance, she could even give me that, but what she couldn't say, but what I know for sure, was that she had taken up the challenge I had thrown down and succeeded not only in getting the notes, but telling us the story.

 

Melissa Perley

Gypsy

Sitting on the stage during the sound check I shield my eyes and look out into the lights to see where Paul and Josh are sitting. I laugh with Tom, the clarinetist, questioning the likelihood of good intonation from a silver flute resting on the cold floor under his chair.

I’m not really concerned about the fact that I’m tethered to my amp by the tiny microphone stuffed between my strings. My concern really lies in the relationship of the feet of my bench to the edge of the small stage. There seems to be a real possibility that I could be moving with the music and simply disappear off the side of the platform. This thought takes up so much of my attention that, in deciding to make that one last trip to the bathroom, I stand, cello in hand, and begin to step down from the stage, turning first directly toward my amp. The feedback is fast and furious. Think high pitched car alarm.

My first performance as a gypsy cellist begins with shouts of “Melissa, sit down!!”

Fortunately the rest goes much better. We start the set and the amplification of the cello is perfect. The audience is able to hear the cello lines and, better still, so am I. It is the first time I have been miked for performance. I was quite uncertain of how I’d feel about it all but even in testing the amp in the store I realized the positive benefit was how really hearing yourself helps with everything from pitch to vibration. Small details are much easier to pick up (pardon the pun): I find myself wondering how the Arensky piano trio would sound amplified….

It was/is new territory for me as a strictly classically trained cellist. I think I was so nervous about anything improvisational that I wasn’t able to fully see/hear the possibilities for true learning and growth.

Playing that night, it was clear to me that what I had been learning was much more about listening than about improvising or adapting to a new style of music.

As we wove the melodies around each other I felt that being out of what I perceived as my element made me more conscious of how my part fit with the other musicians’ and I was able to enjoy “playing” in a completely new way. Reminding me that real growth is only possible through struggle, and with the risk of failure and falling off the stage present.

 

Melissa Perley

Metronome

Sitting down to practice I look at my music and can hear the notes in my head, I bring the bow to the strings and begin- only to find that, while the notes in my head are correct, the rhythm is squiffy. septuplets and sixteenths and duplets and triplets...these are a few of my favorite things….I need the Doctor. Dr. Beat that is, my metronome.

metronome.jpg

When you are beginning to study an instrument the introduction of the metronome is both a benchmark and a catastrophe. It’s seemingly simple to clap along to quarter notes that aren’t moving too quickly- we do it at concerts with our hands AND feet. Yet being metronomic, by definition, is being exact. As we try to clap precisely with a downbeat we often find ourselves lagging...or speeding. I very clearly remember being at lessons as a child, watching the triangular wooden metronome sitting atop the piano. Hearing that distinct click with the added necessity of winding every so often. My teacher also had a ticking clock that often fell on the off beats of my metronome pulse making things even more confusing. Trying to clap to two separate rhythm sources while watching the clock for the lesson to be over was nearly impossible.

In making introductions between metronome and students I remind them that we are all hard wired for music; we live surrounded by pitches and day-to-day rhythms. The most consistent pulse of all being our own heartbeat. As important as logical thinking is, I ask that this is one area that you ‘feel’ rather than work through.

I find that the consistent sound can be rather meditative. I took a Eurythmic class and the instructor and I spent a lot of time sitting, eyes closed letting the steady pulses wash over us. After a time we would begin softly clapping- the task seemed so much easier after quietly “feeling” the beat.

Once someone is ready to begin metronome work I will assign a piece that is very simple, rhythm and note wise so that all that is required of the brain is to feel the pulse. I ask that each session begin with clapping of the rhythm, no bow or cello in hand. In dissecting music you are getting ready to play- notes and rhythm are of equal importance. Even if you have no idea what the piece in front of you sounds like- if you can clap it- you can play it.

For a while, once out of the studio, this clapping stuff is confusing. You are trying to clap eighth notes but they seem to be coming sooner than needed...and forget those sixteenths. Perhaps it would be easiest to practice without that thing for one more week?

The metronome is why I have tissues in the studio.

But once understanding kicks in...oh how things change. Suddenly everything is untangled by the metronome- he is consistent and never lies to you- he really is your friend! So now perhaps it would be easiest to practice with the metronome on for everything?

I’ve often thought how wonderful it would be to have a “life metronome” - a little black box that could hang around your neck- it’s sole function to explain and untangle everything.

Bet they’d sell it on Amazon.

Melissa

A Foreign Language

This past April Paul and I were sitting on an old trolley winding our way up a hill in Lisbon, Portugal. As I sat in the cracked leather seat, basking in the sun, a light breeze coming through the open window, I realized that I wasn’t able to understand one word that was being spoken around me.

This past August I walked into rehearsals for two bands that I am a new member of. They both rely on an eclectic grouping of people: many of the musicians play without written music. In discussions I realized that, once again, I wasn’t able to understand much of the language spoken.

Previous to my joining the groups we were all open about this language barrier. We discussed the fact that I wasn’t an accomplished improviser: from the age of six I had only studied music written on a page. This was ok with them because they could not read printed musical notes- all of us clinging to the things we knew.

As we began to explore our new relationships I found myself watching them use their ears more effectively than I have been- keying into subtle signals to know where they are in a phrase. Relying on the fact that everyone has been told how many times they would repeat something...why use a Del Segno?

All of the music, even traditional pieces, are composed or arranged by someone in the group. When I became part of the gypsy/flamenco group I walked into the rehearsal cello on my shoulder, stand in hand and my translator/composer right behind me. It was an agreement that Paul would help bridge the gap between us. Fortunately Paul has also been an accomplished guitarist. In discussions, the guitarists would say that we would be returning to the A major section. I would have it marked as measure 45. It worked.

 

One day I opened an email from a member of one group and he had sent a recording for me to listen to and work from. In the email he had written the note to be played and three slash marks following it. As I sat there I realized that he wanted the note played four times in that particular measure. To him that was indicated with slashes, to me they were quarter notes. I smiled as I read the rest of the email. He said “Melissa, can you understand this? If so...I believe we are beginning to speak the same language.”

Pushing myself out of my box is important; being in places where I don’t know where I’m headed, having to ask directions with my special kind of mime work, getting lost but then figuring it out, even deciphering coded musical emails.

Whether in another country or in a new genre, it’s good for me to remember that there are many ways to speak the same language.

 

Melissa Perley

How To Train Your Dragon

Emmett’s mom and I are good friends. At the end of our lunch together she mentions that he hasn’t been doing much practicing this summer- fair warning for his upcoming lesson.

Summer lessons are much looser than during the school year. I put out a schedule written grid-style (yes, on paper) and students can sign up for as many or as few lessons as they would like. The sign up sheet becomes a hub of activity as parents and students congregate. I never take personally the occasional remark from young student to scribing parent “Two? Are you kidding?”

The lessons themselves become a good opportunity to pass (some of) the mantle of control over. Normally lessons have a pattern to them and, even with input, I choose the repertoire. In the summer months I ask students to bring in music that they would like to play- caveat being it has to be within the range of their ability. That said, it gives me the chance to focus on their individual needs and wants.Ellen loves lyrical, familiar music, Chris craves straight-up classical, David wants to wrestle with Beethoven and Dotzauer and Jeff lightens up with some fiddling.

Emmett’s mom was right (mothers always are), not a whole lot of practicing going on. Emmett fights the good fight- wrong notes are “just a goof.” I smile and nod; it’s summer. There is swimming to do, gardens to help with and bikes to ride. My job is to keep Emmett motivated until he is self-motivated.

So, like sneaking broccoli onto the top of your kid’s pizza, I try to find way to keep him learning without too much pain.

Emmett loves film music- especially the fantasy genre. Paul had arranged “How to Train your Dragon” from the film with the same title- as a cello duet for a wedding we had been asked to play it in. I casually took it out at Emmett’s last lesson- wedged it between scales and etudes. He was thrilled. His face lit up, he grabbed his bow and asked if we could play it through together.

So excited that he never noticed it was written mainly in tenor clef or that there were four sharps in the key signature…..

Apparently there really is more than one way to train your dragon.

 

Melissa Perley

Vacation?

We are leaving on vacation for a week at a lake in Vermont. The important words are “for a week.”

Paul and I aren’t organized packers. We are rather haphazard in our approach to what pieces of our lives will go with us on vacation.

As a matter of principle; we only travel with carry-on sized bags. A bike trip to France is responsible for this habit; we dragged our own bikes, packed in enormous cardboard crates through several airports on our way to Paris. Paul is an avid cyclist and I love Paul, enough said. All of our possessions had been stuffed into four panniers that ride side-saddle on the bikes, they were then slid into the belly of the airplane. Three of those four panniers rode the carousel out of the plane in France...fortunately for me though, the shopping is not half-bad in Paris.

The day (okay hours) before our summer vacation, we are, literally, tossing things into the car. Two dog crates nest together nicely creating a beach bucket, of sorts, for a plethora of “stuff.” Unfortunately, the size of the dog crates leaves no room for the very dogs who use them.

And so...car two.

A lake vacation, for us, is defined by the amount of time we can fill by doing nothing. No emails, no TV, no telephones and no practice, unless….two very close friends - one being the violinist in my piano trio - are getting married on the last day of our vacation and ask us to play for their wedding.

And so...car two becomes filled with two cellos in cases, music stands, benches and, of course, music. Once the cellos take their rightful places in the car there remains very little space for anything else.

So, what if our son, who is enjoying this vacation with (on) us has his car sitting in the driveway?  Perfect spot for a week’s worth of groceries, loaded on the way out of town and, what a great opportunity for him to bond with two border collies!

We finally arrive at the lake house in our merry convoy only to spend as much time unpacking as we did packing.

The week prior to the trip it rained every single day- but the sun made it’s appearance on the first official day of our vacation. Clearly, nobody could argue with that day spent reading, picnicking and paddling-

No practice.

Day two is the fourth of July. Parade to attend and how about finding Vermont’s “best creamee?”

No practice.

I start caving on day three. I have to walk by the cellos on the way through the living room. They lie there, seemingly silent, but like the loon out on the water- I can hear their call, “Time to play...bet those calluses have all gone soft on you!”

Out come the stands, benches, music and those nagging instruments.

A little work on vacation in the name of love.

But, my bench is definitely facing the lake...even if it is through the window.

 

Melissa Perley

The Accompanist

Recital prep is all-consuming for months ahead of the scheduled event. In each recital there are players who work with a pianist and those who play duets or simply unaccompanied cello.

For this spring recital it happened that there were a lot of students wanting to work with a piano. Some are experienced at it, for others it is their maiden flight.

Finding someone to play with students is not easy: often I have wished there were a Match.com for students and pianists. Learning to play with other instruments, especially a piano, is challenging on it’s easiest days, and bear-like on others and makes me feel protective. Last season the piano at the venue where we rehearsed was horribly low in pitch. It required the cellists to tune down way below comfort level in order to meet the piano. One of my advanced students fiddled with the tuner to find what Hz the piano was at, wrestled with her wire stand (ultimately bending it into submission), adjusted and readjusted her stool then sat to begin. The lower sound of her instrument, coupled by the fact that we were in a church basement threw her. She glanced at the pianist, who smiled over the music, then looked up at me, who smiled from the corner, and began to play. Unfortunately as I watched her, immediately the tears began to run down her cheeks. I clamored out of my metal chair, Lynette knocked over her piano bench, each hurrying to comfort the distressed, yet still playing, teen cellist.

Everyone had two rehearsals in the studio with Lynette on our piano. She drove here six times in the two weeks proceeding the recital, each day arriving with an armful of music, sticky notes in an array of neon colors fanning out from the pages of the books. Each day I would put a different, small gift on the piano bench. The second day she looked at me, questioningly, about “another gift?” Although I had definitely crossed into the over-gifting category, it was the only way I could think of to express my gratitude.

One after the other, each player sat down in the same spot. Exactly where they could see her peripherally from their left eye. Students new to this process adjusted their music with shaking hands. They learned to look to her for the ‘ready’ but not before swinging to look to me for the ‘it’s going to be OK.’

We launched, we stopped, we clapped, we stomped, we added the third player- Mr. Metronome. Each time, every time, Lynette calmly smiled.

Audrey sat down and beautifully played through the Chopin Sonata Largo movement the very first time she tried. We all laughed and cheered. Lynette stood and clapped.

At the recital Paul and I dragged the small grand across the floor to be sure that the configuration that the students had been sitting in with the piano remained the same.

Lynnette entered, arms full of books, neon stickies gaily waving back and forth.

David sat down to play. He had, as had his trembling, told me that he was nervous. But, as we’d rehearsed, he focused on the gift of the music, filled his lungs with air, blew it all out and began. He used the big, whole bow that we talked about to get rid of excess nervous energy; he used a calm, low carriage and Mozart jumped out of his F holes. But, almost finished, his eyes shifted him to a line in the music completely unrelated to the one he had been playing and he momentarily stumbled, playing the incorrect line. Lynette glanced up from the piano, calmly smiled, threw that big net out underneath him and quietly, quickly and neatly caught him.

It was in that moment that I knew the very real difference between a pianist, and a pianist who is also an accompanist.

Melissa Perley

Who Says

The snow has made it's final retreat. Tulips, daffodils and crocuses, as promised when I tuck them in during the fall, circle the bird feeder.

Vermonters quickly lose their jackets and tip heads back in homage to the new warmth of the sun.

Skis are put away. Gardens turned over, the clods of dirt still cold under our fingers. In our anxiousness to put something under earth we race down to the plot with our hands full of tools, gloves and persistent peas.

Spring also means recital season has opened. Students have reluctantly, but carefully, chosen the pieces that they will work up to performance level.

Making these choices and working up the pieces seems to turn over the insecurity that lurks inside us all. Sometimes during a lesson, but often afterward, conversation turns to the challenge faced when we are revealing something about us that is new, something that even we may not have realized before. Many times these conversations are peppered with negative comments about the effort involved in studying; not being enough, having difficulty making “real music”, being too young, too old, too male.

At some point in our lives we seem to have been assigned our “roles.” That role might be about the expectations and goals of our parents, it might be based on the job that we have been working at our entire lives or it might simply be who we see in the mirror every morning. That assignment becomes how we define ourselves.

Why not change those definitions? Who says that we are only allowed to be one dimensional; have one job, one goal, one partner, one talent?

You can love theater and then study economics. You can work as a lawyer for twenty years and then become a painter. Be a mother AND a cellist.

In doing the herculean work of rolling ourselves over to reveal previously undiscovered parts of us, we just might find that there is something shiny about our underbelly.

What is important is that we are brave enough to take the chance on being all that we can be. To be defiant in the face of being kept in a role that makes others comfortable but us miserable. To know what it is that we want and to march, not walk, toward it.

This begins even before the first lesson; it begins with the first thought of taking one.

Art isn't an anecdote. It's the consciousness we bring to bear on our lives. (Cheryl Strayed)

 

Melissa Perley

The Street Map

Whenever I travel to Manhattan, I'm struck that, in spite of it's enormity, it is relatively easy to get around (I'm talking walking here). The avenues run up and down and the streets across. So, no matter how high I get, as long as I remember which way I am traveling, I can figure out how to get where I want to go.

In the studio there is often debate about what skill, of many, is most important in learning to play the cello. We talk about the importance of reading and the translation of that to the left hand- important. The bow, right hand, always ranks high in my book with its many subtle techniques and the color it provides to all playing-important again. But time after time we come to knowledge of the fingerboard- it gets the crown.

We begin using the position books once someone is shifting. The ability to shift your hand, with another finger, to another position on another string can't be undervalued. But, perhaps most valuable, is working on knowing your streets and avenues and which way they run.

One of my very favorite moments in teaching comes when I have given a student a piece that works quite a bit in the first four positions and it is new to them. We've discussed fingering but I've asked them to take the unfingered piece home and figure out where the editor is asking them to play given the fingering provided, and when that is not provided, decide where best to play to keep a quiet hand. They bring the piece back, it is carefully fingered with clear, big numbers. As they begin to play, there is an F sharp on the A string in fourth position that they have, correctly, fingered with their third finger. It is followed by a B, and each time they choose to slide their hand back to the B on the A string in first position and then zip back up the neck to the F sharp. When finished, and once they stop panting from the effort, I ask where else might they choose to play that B? If the answer doesn't come easily I'll have them name the notes in fourth position on each string- getting extra teaching bang for the buck. When they get to the D string they begin “A, B-flat....B..” They stop suddenly and grin at me as it all comes together- the B is directly across from the F sharp and played with the same finger making it faster, easier, quieter with their hand. We then talk about how the cello repeats itself in octaves and, as long as we are going in the same direction, the B will be directly across from the F sharp everywhere, every time.

Just as I know that if I am on Fifth Avenue and 81st street and go up one octave, I will be at 82nd street. If I travel on Fifth to 84th street I will, every time, get to the Metropolitan Museum to visit the Batta Strad.

The knowledge of what is across from what, the mastery of the fingerboard takes many hours of playing in all positions including those at the end of the fingerboard and is, in my opinion, essential to learning to play the cello and getting where you want to go.

 

Melissa Perley

 

Slava

Born Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich, nicknamed 'Slava', on March 27, 1927, the son and grandson of cellists became a noted cellist, pianist, conductor and political figure. Rostropovich became a symbol for struggle against oppression. A representative for the power of music.

He made his concert debut at age 13. Before he was 30 years old he had been awarded the State Stalin's prize in recognition of his numerous competition victories. He was close friends with Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten who all composed for the talented musician helping him to make his musical mark on the world.

However, it was his friendship with dissident writer Alexksandr Solzhenitsyn that began to make his mark as a powerful world political figure.

In 1969 Solzhenitsyn was wanted by Soviet authorities. Rostropovich and his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya made a plan to have Solzhenitsyn stay at their dacha outside of Moscow. When this was discovered, authorities were furious with the cellist. In retribution they banned Rostropovich from all international tours and even from performances within the Soviet Union. All of this reduced his income to only that from his teaching.

After years of punishment and argument with the government; Rostropovich, his family - consisting of his wife and two daughters - defected to the United States. Leonid Brezhnev immediately revoked his citizenship.

While he missed his friends, the home of his birth, he was free here and in 1977 became the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC. While in the United States Rostropovich toured, taught (one student being Jacqueline Dupre) made recordings and solidified his position as the best cellist of his time.

His activism for a free society continued. In 1989 Rostropovich sat quietly and played the Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suites in the rubble after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Gorbachev restored Rostropovich's citizenship in 1990 and he returned during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Back in his homeland he worked with Russian president Boris Yeltsin in the coup against hardline communism. In free Russia he began to speak out about political freedoms. He and his wife established the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich Foundation to improve the health care for all Russian children.

Slava was laid to rest in Moscow at age 80. Among the many awards and medals he had received were the Order of Service to the Fatherland medal of Russia, Presidential Medal of Freedom, (in the United States) and the Defender of Free Russia medal in 1993.

 

 

“The Ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”                          Martin Luther King Jr.

 

There is much to be learned from the past.

 

Melissa

The Possibilities

The tree is down, the ornaments boxed up and safely stored away until next year. And with it all goes the light. Although there is a satisfaction in the clean up, in the sudden starkness of the space, I miss the light. Having the luxury of working from home, during the last two weeks before the holiday the house remains lit throughout the day and evening. Each time I pass the living room I feel the warmth of the Christmas tree in full display.

But now it is full-on winter.

One of the things I love about living in Vermont is that we all understand that once we are surrounded by white, there is almost an insistence for some kind of group entertainment on the weekend evenings. There is story telling as listeners huddle around the wood stove centerpiece, there are art walks that fill the night sidewalks with people shuffling down the street in colorful, sleeping bag-like jackets: hats pulled down tight over their foreheads, their eyes the only visible flesh. And there is music.

We gravitate to musical events of all kinds. We love formal classical concerts and community coffee houses with the same intensity. Obviously we are drawn to the performances that include our friend, the second largest of the violin-family instruments.

It has long been a goal of mine to put the cello into musical situations where you might not expect it. Watching a street performance by a Didgeridoo player in Montreal filled me with the drive to play with that instrument. The goal is to use it, combined with other instruments for Klezmer, West African and other genres of music.

One of my students invited us to attend a performance at the Ripton (Vermont) Community Coffee House. The music, while mainly of the folk genre, is diverse. Performances are held in a wonderful building distinctly of New England architecture. We all clunked in wearing our winter, Frankenstein-inspired footwear, and settled into folding chairs facing a small stage. As we waited for the performance it was heartening to look around and see other concerts goers, faces pink with cold, dressed in thermal/flannel.

Harpeth Rising took the stage that first evening and we were truly treated to a cross section of musical genres. There was a violin, cello and banjo/guitar on stage. The group had arranged pieces for those instruments and it was wonderful to hear the cello join forces in places where it normally would have been relegated to the background. Interesting to hear how the electronic pick up on the cello enhanced the low strings and warmed up the top.

Last evening we returned to Ripton for The Brother Brothers performance. Adam and David Moss, identical twins and identically talented, brought their combined songwriting gifts to the stage. Instruments entwined, a five string violin, guitar and cello. David is the cellist and a prolific songwriter/composer. He fearlessly brings the cello to share the spotlight in several of the pieces played. Some written by him and others arranged for the instrument to be included.

Each time we leave a concert, once the heater in the car has made it comfortable enough to form words again, Paul and I spend the ride home excitedly talking about possible instrument configurations to include the cello, compositions that we heard that were inspiring and discussing where we can go to hear more.

This Christmas our family had talked a lot about giving gifts of experiences instead of more things to, ultimately, go into the landfill. Our son, Ethan gave us hockey tickets and season passes to Shelburne Farms filling two of our four seasons with fun.

Our youngest, Joshua, having listened to Didgeridoo rehearsals and sitting in on countless discussions of possible musical influences for compositions also gave us the gift of really listening to who we are by giving us tickets to Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal. A duo pairing the Kora, a twenty one string- lute- bridge- harp, used extensively in West Africa, and a cello. Music to be included will be African music and Bach Suites.

I wonder how Didgeridoo, a twenty one string-lute-bridge-harp AND a cello would work?

Ahh..the possibilities...

 

Melissa

Pop-Up

The Montpelier Chamber Orchestra, of which Paul is a founder, was just getting started on the last night of their fall concerts. They were finishing the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 8, playing to a full house, when the fire alarms started. Almost metronomically the alarms buzzed as the orchestra gamely played on. Since performance lives by the mantra “the show must go on”, it did as did the buzzing.

Finally, our son, Joshua, leaned over to me and, sotto voce, said “ I think we should get out of here....” Apparently others felt the same way as there was palpable beginnings of stirrings. The orchestra finished the movement and it was decided that we would all head outside into the brisk November evening to wait out whatever we were waiting out. Musicians grabbed their cases to keep their instruments safe to the exclusion of their coats. Once outside we laughed and chatted for a few minutes and then, as time passed, we got more silent and began rubbing our hands together in the chilly 40F.

Firetrucks arrived to cheers, we were certain we would be back in our sweater-covered seats momentarily.

Nope.

The concert space is housed in a beautiful, very old, college chapel. It's said to be haunted and I'm not sure there wasn't some of that in play that evening. Perhaps a mischievous music lover was watching out of the fourth story window, enjoying the chaos caused.

The concert was over before it began.

The MCO had just hired a new music director, Anne Decker. It was the first full concert of her new position: the very first night she had performed (or not) in the orchestra's home space. I felt slightly nauseous for her. I spotted her passing among the players and audience members as we stood outside. Laughing, cheerful and seemingly in control of the uncontrollable. She ended up standing on the edge of a granite fountain to make the impromptu announcement that the performance was canceled, how sorry she was and to say that she really did not have a solution, at this point.

However...a few days later orchestra members emails began to light up with her plan. She would like to know who would be available to perform a “pop up” concert for the city of Montpelier. One performance, one piece, the Beethoven.

On Tuesday evening, December 6 at 6:00 I walked into an vacated Main Street store just before the concert began. Members of the orchestra waved as I entered, some dressed in velvet tops and others in jeans and sneakers. Paul was bundled up in his winter coat and boots- fashion be damned. I picked a spot to stand and watched as audience members drifted in; couples holding hands, a daughter pushing her elderly mother in a wheelchair, a mom with a sleepy child slung over her shoulder. In an increasingly crowded space, everyone somehow found a place to light as Anne took the podium.

Once again she turned to face us, stick in hand, a smile on her face. She explained the situation and a bit about the piece. Her ponytail flipped as she spun to enthusiastically face the orchestra and off they went.

People tapped feet, babies bobbed in rhythm and the room filled with the orchestral sound.

It was then that the brilliance of this struck me. Before the music began you might have looked at the group of musicians and had no idea what kind of music they would be playing. Jacketed Paul might be a grunge band cellist for all you knew and that, exactly that, was part of the beauty of this performance because once they began even I, who knew what they were going to do, was surprised and completely delighted by the fact that it was classical music replacing the air in this empty building.

The orchestra and it's brand new, fearless leader, had given the city of Montpelier a wonderful gift at the perfect time of year.

It also gave the audience and the orchestra a real chance to see that Anne Decker had, indeed, come to play.

Melissa Perley

The Long Road

T'is the season of extolling virtues: kindness, generosity, faith. There are two virtues that I extol daily in my cello studio; patience and perseverance.

When a new student arrives for their first lesson they are filled with excitement. Cheeks flushed with anticipation.

Rental instrument in hand, pulled gingerly from it's padded snowsuit. It sets on it's single, wobbling, still shiny steel pin. Music book placed carefully on the stand, pages so new they refuse to stay open.

Poised to start, bow in hand, so ready......we begin the journey with my asking them to put the bow down.

Patience.

Many months later, a slightly more tattered etude book is laid on the stand. Discussion ensues about yet another scale. A few tears drop in frustration over an argument (another) with their metronome.

Who is that cursed little braided girl in the Suzuki book anyway?

“The importance is in laying the foundation,” I speak quietly

“If you can play it slowly, you can play it fast,”

The metronome is your friend”

“Connection, articulation, intonation...”

“Turn OFF YouTube.”

Perseverance.

We cruise through Suzuki I only to collide with “Happy Farmer.”  Hours spent understanding “the block” just in time to begin vibrating and forget it ever existed.

Twinkle, Rigadon, Marcello, Breval, The Swan, Tarantella....The road to excellence is full of potholes and badly named pieces.

If we remain on course, putting one foot in front of the other as we climb, metronome in hand, we will arrive at the top of our mountain.

Patience and Perseverance.

Mastery is, after all, staying on the path.

Black Monday

It begins like every other practice. I open with scales, paying attention to the detail of each note. I play them until I feel that the cello and I are in synch and ready to move forward.

Etude. Difficult work this week but I maneuver pretty well. I remove any outer layer I'm wearing as I begin to heat up. Before long I have a small heap of discards to include my watch, sweater and rings. My shoulders are loose and my body falls into a familiar, daily rhythm. I set aside the etude book and pull out the piece that I am working up.

I've made myself a promise that I will work backward in practicing repertoire. Most difficult comes first and so on. It means that my focus will be the most sharp on the most challenging work. As I begin to fatigue I get to play measures that are more familiar to me. Most days this works well. I finish practice sated and satisfied (mostly) but not today....

As I climb the mountain of fast scale work I notice that somewhere between last night and today my fingers have fattened up quite a bit. I thwack instead of pizz and, for good measure, I pick up several extra strings. This might be a good thing as the ones I intend to use don't seem to be working so why not throw in a few more for good measure? (who am I kidding- there are no good measures!)

Instead of slowing down, I speed up. Insisting that my hand and brain work in tandem. I should know that there is a reason that the brain is in charge. The more I push, the worse I play. In fact, I find that I am now beginning to practice the mistakes.

I flip the page with extra zest and the book falls to the floor. I look across the room and wonder if I could actually hit that far door with my bow if I heaved it hard enough. The only thing keeping it in my hand is the dollar sign.

Now if my student tells me about a similar practice I would patiently listen and calmly tell them that in this circumstance, you should “remain patient, step away from the cello for a while and come back when you are rested and less frustrated.” Even this voice in my head makes me want to punch myself in the face.

I drop the Alexander technique altogether and begin to practice the art of self sabotage. Look how bad I am - watch me get even worse.  I can, I really can.

All this and no sugar to blame.

Finally I firmly place the cello/traitor on it's stand. I slam the light switch off in my studio taking delight in leaving the instrument in the dark...like it has left me.

 I thought that once I had passed the gazillion hour mark the agony percentage would decrease and days like this would stop.

Tomorrow is another day...

 

Melissa Perley

Making Music

I'm sitting looking out the window pondering the fact that last weekend I was hiking up Mount Mansfield and this weekend I'm looking at snow on the ground in the third week of October.

I've chosen a seat next to the wood stove for daydreaming. It is one of the first fires of the season and the ping of the metal expanding and the warmth on my bare feet make it an irresistible perch.

In due time I will lumber back to the computer and begin to organize my teaching schedule for the upcoming week. The snow will have melted and the crunch of the leaves will return just in time for Halloween.

This past week Paul and I finished running a cello quartet, made up of some of our adult students, that had been Tuesday evenings for the past six weeks. The final evening was an open rehearsal for family and friends of players involved. The four cellists sat in a horseshoe facing the “audience” and played, for them, the pieces that we had worked up together. The goal of this ensemble was to offer students the opportunity to play with their peers in an organized, coached situation. Ensemble work is a completely different animal from lesson situations where you are sitting next to your teacher. The goal of this was to be able to focus, not only on the notes in front of you, but also on the people alongside you and what they are doing.

We spent a great deal of time identifying what player was carrying the melody, who had the job of supporting it and then discussing that when it is your line, “play out Jeff!” There was laughter over mistakes and cheers when there was success.

The evening of the open rehearsal was the culmination of those weeks of practice. We ran through the music, stopping and correcting. Paul conducted and I played in where I was needed. At the beginning I would sit in on various parts on each of the pieces but that final rehearsal It was only necessary for me to be in on one of them. The weeks of practice paid off. The group had learned how to blend their sound and create pieces that were cohesive even in the separateness of the parts. I sat back, resting my hands on the top of my cello and watched their faces; they were looking at each other and smiling, pride had replaced fear.

Later that evening I oversaw various emails flying back and forth between the quartet . Calls to come together again and to perhaps play a couple of those pieces at the winter recital?. I watched the screen but stayed out of the conversation. Like all growth experiences, the goal includes becoming more independent of the instructor.

Last week I had two early students overlap each other's lesson so as to play a duet together. I gave them each the music the prior week and had them come in prepared to play together. Other than dueting with me, it would be their first time making music with another instrument.

As they finagled the big bodies of the cellos into place, tightening end pins and bows and shuffling music onto their designated stands, there was nervous chatter. They didn't know each other with the exception of passing on the in and out path to their lessons. I stood in the corner and let them balance their space and then begin to play. At first they had trouble listening to the other rather while simply reading their own parts. We added our good friend, Mr. Metronome and things began to iron out. They started with only a few measures, then just the first line and finally, the entire piece. Big sighs of relief as the bows clunked back onto the stands. But as big are their smiles because they just cannot believe that they are making music!

I find lessons for us everywhere. Left like crumbs of bread for us to follow on our paths. In our everyday lives it is important for us to read our own parts but be always conscious of those around us because they too are following their individual rhythms.

Melissa