Balancing Brandenburg and Happy Farmer, or How I Got Into This Mess

And what a strange, crazy trip it’s been!

A cello friend asked how it was possible for me to be working on both Bburg (aka The First Movement of Brandenburg Concerto #5) and Happy Farmer (Suzuki 1). I realize that on the surface it might seem like driving a Formula One car with a learner’s permit (and it sorta feels like that some days).

The short answer: Slowly. Very slowly.

So why am I still in Suzuki 1 after almost two years?

1. I’m a total musical newbie. Dabbling with the E-bass in college was really learning a few Ani DiFranco tabs to play with my roommate. I get a LOT out of the really basic Suzuki 1 stuff. I still have lots of newbie “ah-ha” moments every week. Sight reading still feels like translating a foreign language (notes) into my familiar language (finger numbers) before with the added step of then translating the numbers into movement.

Having learned a second language, I know that there’s a big jump betwen that and actually beginning to think and speak (or in this case play) in that language without translating first.That slows me down a lot. But I’m confident that the ‘click’ moment will actually arrive someday completely on it’s own – much like my first dream in Spanish in which I understood every word. Ah-ha!

2. One of the things I struggle with and really want to improve at is memorization – so my teacher gives me extra time to work on getting it down “with my eyes closed,” before moving on.

3. I am a lesson de-railer: One of the reasons why I love my teacher is that I can ask her all kinds of crazy questions like: “what is that hand shaking thing that makes the crazy trembling sound that makes my heart flutter and how do I do that?” and “So all these notes under the rainbow, what’s that mean?” and “whats that ‘x’ before the 4 all about?” and instead of doing the “We’ll get to that later” brush off she actually stops and gives me an explanation, and teaches me an exercise or two before we move back to what we were working on.

Sometimes I’m really quick to realize something is over my head and we get back to the Brigadoon or Allegretto or French Folk Song. Other times I get fired up and we spend the rest of the lesson practicing the “wah-wah-wah” precursor to vibrato or talking about a piece of music that moved me (and why), or how breaking down body movement for a technique joint by joint and I walk away with another week of whatever I was working on before 🙂

I never feel like it’s wasted time though – even if I don’t get it at the time, it sinks into my brain somewhere and I pull up later when our conductor asks us to vibrato long notes, or to slur the notes as indicated, or where my F# has run off to. Has it made getting through Suzuki 1 take Fo-evah? Yes. But my delayed progression through Suzuki 1 seemed to come in handy when Bburg came crashing into my life 🙂

Fact: Brandenburg is pretty new to the scene – like 3 months ago it barged in demanding some string time. To be perfectly honest, it’s like a battle for the world domination every time I sit down with it. It’s pushed me harder and faster into things like slurs and half position and extensions than Suzuki has, for sure. I had to learn new tricks ahead of schedule SPECIFICALLY for Bburg (and Pavane and Satie, for that matter) I hardly consider myself having any mastery of them. Also, Bburg is the exception, not the rule. I probably “shouldn’t” be playing it at all. But you play with the hand (or the sheet music) you’re dealt. I have never been so challenged, intimidated and impressed with anything I’ve played. So of course, it’s been an incredible teacher.

I also play with an amazingly patient group of people. My orchestra is a small, beginner friendly, community string ensemble. No audition, remember! We are a collection of newbies and instrument newbies and a trio of amazing violinists (a teacher and two really accomplished hobbyists – I think Gita left a comment a while back) I have learned as much from them as Suzuki. We also have a most awesome conductor who has us play at a speed that might be slower than notated, but still encourages the newbies to keep up. It sounds better than allowing us to get dragged through flailing at full speed. I think we’re playing Brandenburg about three quarters speed notated. I still get left behind sometimes, but it makes a huge difference. The first time I heard Bburg at full tilt I almost passed out.

So yea, like I said, slowly. Most days, it feels I’m like driving a go-kart on a formula one track. Although, heck, even Michael Schumacher started out in a kart. And look where he ended up:


About Eddie

Watch what happens when you give a writer a cello.
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9 Responses to Balancing Brandenburg and Happy Farmer, or How I Got Into This Mess

  1. Cellophyte says:

    Thanks for the follow up. That was sweet of you to respond so fully. It’s always nice to hear about what other adults are going through.

    I think, perhaps, that you have me confused with “The Neophyte Cellist” . . . although I am indeed a neophyte cellist, having just passed the 1 year mark this month. I don’t have a blog; I just stalk all of the cello blogs. 

    I was a lesson de-railer as well.  Now I email my teacher when I have questions and try not to disrupt the flow as much. Every once in a while I’ll email a few issues to my teacher before the lesson, and she’ll conduct the lesson around those issues. I still ask questions, but I try to settle for quicker answers and then email follow up questions. I realized that I enjoyed my lessons more when I let her dictate the pace and content of the lessons.

    I’m also a music newbie. It definitely makes this more challenging. I’ve spent a large amount of time reading music theory books over the last year, and I acquired some ear training software to see if that can help.

    I believe you have much more patience than I do. I like the feeling of moving from piece to piece and book to book. I try not to fool myself into thinking that I’ve mastered something. Moving on to the next piece does not mean I don’t have to continue to work on whatever the last piece was trying to teach me. My biggest fear is that something will cause me not to love this as much as I do right now. I only move on when my teacher says it’s time. However, my concern is that slowing the pace of my progression through these books might cause my patience to wear thin, which in turn may lead me to lose the love.

    My teacher is currently out of town for several weeks, so she hooked me up with a colleague for several lessons while she’s gone. He has me starting the Minuet from Bach’s 1st Suite, which is both super exciting and intimidating. I’ve been thrown into the fire with some double stops and a trill. As you put it, I have never been so challenged, intimidated and impressed with anything I’ve played. I’ve enjoyed it way more than I expected. I think my brain can tell it’s playing something that has not been re-engineered for beginners. Perhaps that’s similar to how you’ve enjoyed your orchestral pieces.

    I wish we had a community orchestra nearby. I’ve looked, but there is nothing. The experience you’re getting playing with others is something I’m missing. When I eventually get around to chamber music, or whatever, I will have a steep learning curve. I think being in such an orchestra could also help me with some of the issues that come with performing. Here’s a video of my recital from a couple of weeks ago: (my daughter accompanied me on the piano, which was fun). I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I’d be leading up to my turn. However, as soon as I sat down I had a flood of adrenalin go through me, which led to some lovely hand tremors (you may have felt the vibrations). I made a couple of attempts at vibrato here and there, but the tremors just laughed at both me and my intonation attempts. I figured the whole audience could see my hands shaking. However, I was informed that it was not visible and I can’t really detect it on the video.

    Thanks for the blogging.

    • Yee says:

      Cellophyte… Good job on the recital…. I’m hoping to one day play duets with my daughter (violin) as well…

      Also, just curious… What ear training software are you trying out?

      • Cellophyte says:

        Thanks. It’s fun playing with your kid.

        I started using Ear Master Pro 5 a couple weeks ago. Unfortunately, that’s not really a long enough period of time to tell you if it’s worth the money or not.

      • Yee says:

        One of my longer term goals is to learn solfege (sight singing). It’s suppose to help a lot with recognizing intervals and playing new pieces. I’ll probably learn from my wife (choir director) one day when she teaches our daughters. She refuses to teach just me 🙂

    • Eddie says:

      HA! Thanks for catching that. I think the -phyte part threw me 🙂 I do get impatient sometimes, especially when it feels like I’ve been lingering on the edges of Suzuki 1 for months. I actually ordered books one and two at the same time, thinking I would be through them quickly, and sometimes it’s agonizing to see book two on the shelf after so long. Then I get to my lesson and fumble my way through Happy Farmer without the slurs and it’s a pretty good reality check. I’m so far from mastery it’s not funny – like you said, I never try to convince myself I’ve mastered something, and it is nice to move on. That said, I’ve been spending a lot of time breaking pieces down by measure to work on tone and train my ear, and that does slow down the progress a lot – and eat quickly through my hour of practice time a day.
      I like the idea of emailing questions in advance of your lesson, I might have to try that sometime.
      I love the recital video with your daughter, congrats! At dress rehearsal for the first orchestra performance my hands were shaking so bad i was doing involuntary vibrato the entire time. I can totally sympathize! And of course, from this perspective, you didn’t look nervous at all. Playing with others teaches so many things – but I wouldn’t trade it for more time working on the basics and foundation stuff solo, either.

      • Yee says:

        I don’t know when mastery will ever happen for me… I’ve been playing and replaying the same one or two suzuki pieces from book 1 as a warm up since forever. I keep thinking that it will sound better as I develop technically… Intonation is actually much better, but to me, it just doesn’t sound quite right. It’s one of those things where my teacher says we’re working on lots of things and eventually thing will come together. She’s my guide in this journey so I do trust her.

        I must say, it is interesting hearing about your’s and Cellophyte’s interactions with your respective teachers and then comparing it to my own….

        btw… I think you are going at a pretty good pace. You’ve covered lots of material not in Suzuki 1.

  2. Yee says:

    As a cello blog stalker, as well, I can say that reading about everyone’s experience have been extremely helpful…. I think slow progress is actually very good. I’ve read many bloggers who have rushed ahead and they post a couple of years in some of the items that they need to work on. Most of the items end up being things my teacher emphasized in this first year.

    Plus, I noticed that Suzuki doesn’t provide lots of exercises or pieces when it comes to some technical skills. My teacher had me play through countless pieces with regard to forward and backwards extensions. The same with slurs (reaching up to 12 notes per bow). Then we were finally able to start book 2. So I think there was a 2 or 3 month gap for me between books.

    I also can appreciate a slower pace. I actually started out wanting to learn as quickly as possible, but my teacher has me on a faster pace, with regard to new pieces. It to the point where I like the weeks when we have to cancel for one reason or another.

    • Cellophyte says:

      My teacher has augmented the Suzuki books with the Position Pieces book, which has helped immeasurably with shifting. She’s also added various exercies to help with different bowing techniques and string crossings. The extra exercises help a lot, and I still enjoy doing them. Hopefully, that feeling doesn’t go away.

      • Yee says:

        With my teacher, Suzuki is the supplemental material. I actually like the Suzuki pieces a lot though. Many of the other pieces she has me playing can be difficult at first since I have no idea how they are suppose to sound. I usually try looking on youtube. Sometimes I get lucky; others, not so much… Plus, they are usually harder technically than what’s in the Suzuki books…

        It’s funny since I sometimes complain to my wife that I don’t have enough time to work on some weak points of the music I’m playing. Or she’ll comment that I need to work more on the rhythm… But I’ll just run out of time to fix things and my teacher will move me to the next piece, after I play for her during the lesson. So even though I still enjoy playing, I feel rushed half the time. Not sure if that’s a good or bad thing….

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