Thursday, September 22, 2011

String Tension

Over the decades, I've lugged my horns around quite a bit and seen them get their modest share of dents, dings, scratches, etc. They're metal. They can be fixed. I tend not to stress about it too much (though I did have to put on my Exceptionally Angry voice the other night when my younger son whacked my euphonium with a yo-yo. A yo-yo, for chrissake!!).

It's a very different story, however, with my cello. I just don't have that comfort level. Wood is such a tempermental and unforgiving material. Something goes wrong and it often can't be undone. I see experienced string teachers and players handling instruments like they're some kind of big ol' sacks of taters or something. Not me. This thing is like a giant glass slipper. If I had an enormous felt pillow to lay my cello on, I would.

And this sense of a cello's delicacy isn't instinctive to me. It's learned. I had a cello shipped by UPS across the country. It arrived with a big crack in the back.

By far, my worst cello mishap: I set the cello down on a cello-stand and looked away too quickly. I turned back just in time to watch (in slow motion) as the instrument fell, face-forward, onto a concrete floor. The fingerboard popped right off and the scroll was kind of scuffed up. All things considered, it was a fairly inexpensive repair, but the image still sticks in my mind and fuels my nightmares.

The scariest part of cello's anatomy is the part I interact with the most: the strings. Again, my fears are learned. On an early attempt at string changing, I thought I was installing a D. It was really a G. Turn, turn, turn, turn, POP! Oh, that horrible cracking sound of a snapped string.

My neighbor recently had me fill her car tires with air. Her fear is that the tire is going to explode in her face under the pressure. THAT'S the feeling I get when turning a peg.

I was once tuning--not even changing a string. I was tuning the D string with the fine tuner--SNAP! The bridge snapped in half! I'm still puzzled as to how that even happened. The luthier who did that repair suggested that the bridge could have been ever-so-slightly misaligned. I guess. I sure didn't see the misalignment.

Just tuning the cello raises my blood pressure. That krk-krk-krk creaking as I struggle to turn the pegs. It's blood curdling. On my most recent string change--maybe 2 weeks ago--(Helicores on bottom, Larsons on top) I was meticulously careful. I took the advice that I thought I heard at a string shop--you don't want to force the peg in--it should just stay put from the way the string coils across the peg toward the inside of the pegbox. That advice seems to have worked. That and a little peg dope seem to have made for a rare, trouble-free string change. Incidentally, for me, the Larson/Helicore combo is by far the best string configuration I've tried. I had used that setup a few years ago, then tried a variety of other strings--nothing else came close.

Mandolin is not as scary to handle. I suppose it helps that my instrument cost me $40 and if the whole thing exploded I could by a new one with minimal impact to my checking account. Also, a set of strings costs me about nine bucks. A cello set is in the $150-200 range. The big danger with the mando is the blood letting that tends to occur. The top ends of those strings are lethal weapons. I haven't changed a set yet without spilling a few red drops.

Back in the early 90's I worked at IBM doing tech support. We had a project where we had to change a chip--I think it was a processor--deep inside the guts of ThinkPads. I probably did two- or three-hundred of those over the course of a few weeks. I also had so swap out memory cards all the time. In both cases, the first few times I did it, it was terrifying--pushing that fragile little item just until (and not beyond) you got that perfect click. After a while, I could do that work blindfolded without a care in the world. I'm hoping the hardware of a cello someday causes me equally little stress.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"It's All Right There In The Notes..."

At an orchestra rehearsal last week I think, the conductor scolded the group for messing with the tempos in the Allegretto from Beethoven's 7th. "It's all right there in the notes," she insisted.

It's all right there in the notes.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


A week or two I mentioned that I was auditioning to play cello in a community orchesra over in Princeton. The rehearsal and audition went fine and now I'm in an orchestra again. I couldn't be happier. The music is fun--definitely a challenge. The people are very friendly. And the conductor has high expectations for us and the ability to deliver on those expectations. Among the pieces we're playing is the slow movement from Beethoven's Seventh--easily my favorite movement from a Beethoven Symphony, and pretty high on my list of All-Time-Really-Great-Music. At the first rehearsal, I saw the copied music for the Beethoven--it started at page 6 or so and there was no title, so I started fumbling through the folder for pages 1-5 of whatever this was. Finally, after a few minutes, I actually looked at the notes and realized what it was. I was already quite excited to be starting this cello/orchestra thing--to find this movement from Beethoven in the folder was like winning some sort of cosmic lottery. Pretty sweet.

Playing in many bands over the years--and very few orchestras--I've never needed to get a tux before. Perhaps it's just tradition, but bands rarely seem to go in for that tux thing, while orchestras are crazy about it. The orchestra I played in in Maryland was populated with quite a few college students and I don't think they went the tuxedo route because they didn't want to put that burden on the young'uns. I played trombone in an orchestra once also (somehow fooled them into thinking I could play trombone half-decently), but there were quite a few students in that group too, so we went with regular suits there.

Bottom line: time to buy a tux. I've been working from home for quite a few years. Before that I was in a business casual environment for a while. And before THAT I was a suited salaryman. So it's been QUITE a few years since I've walked into any kind suit shop. I ended up going to a Men's Warehouse, and was in and out of there reasonably quickly all things considered--but I must say, that was quite a lot like buying a car. They shuffle you through, read you a long list of rules and clauses, make you sign something to acknowledge your name is in their computer correctly--the salesman goes into the back room to find a tailor and hands you off to her, making sure to whisper the part about you being a musician and needing some room to move around. Then he swoops in to negotiate delivery dates, then he hies you on over to the money guy to complete the messy financial transaction. Goodness. I must say the most enbarassing and endearing moment was when the cashier/data entry tech of this well-oiled-suit-and-tuxedo-juggernaut asked me my month of birth. "March," I said. I saw a panicked look in his eyes, then some counting on fingers, a scratch of the head. He stared at his computer screen, lost. Finally, I realized what was going on. "That would be 3," I whispered. "Oh, yeah--thanks," he said, breathing a sigh of relief and turning a little red. Tuxedo-Store Crisis averted.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Scope Creep

It's earlyish. The boys are asleep and I have the TV on with no sound. There's a line in "The Manchurian Candidate" (uh, yeah, the Frank Sinatra one, not the Denzel Washington one), where Laurence Harvey's character, Raymond Shaw, says to his new bride,
"My dear girl, have you ever noticed that the human race is divided into two distinct and irreconcilable groups: those that walk into rooms and automatically turn television sets on, and those that walk into rooms and automatically turn them off. The trouble is that they end up marrying each other."
Honestly, I'm not sure which camp I'm in. Sometimes I want to take a shotgun and blow the TV to bits, and other times I don't want to be in a room alone unless something is moving around on the screen.

So I just glanced up at the screen a little while ago and Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" is on--and the image that I happened to catch is this absolutely beautiful movie moment. It's the very end of the first act--Belle has been singing about how she doesn't fit in in her small town and how there must be more than "this provincial life" etc. The imagery is (deliberately, I assume) like the part in "Gone With the Wind," where Scarlett declares that she'll never be hungry again.

With those pictures in my head, it's time that I acknowledge that I've kind of pigeonholed myself with the whole Euphonium Plays Baroque Music thing. When I set up this blog, I added the description: "A Euphonium Player on a Mission to Learn and Record Telemann's 12 Fantasias for Unaccompanied Flute." A mission indeed--an incomplete one at that. But really--the Telemann...and the Rochut and the Bach--that's all good stuff, but, depending on the day of the week, or the week of the year, that's only a small chunk of my right-brain bandwidth. My day job has me hanging out an awful lot on the left side, and really, enough is too much already. There's quite a bit of non-euph music going on in and out of my studio these days--and that's all going to be very welcome here.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Video Post - Bach, Two-Part Invention #4

JS Bach, Two-Part Invention #4 (arr Andrew Spang). Copyright 2011, Jeff Lazar. All rights reserved.

Well, lookie actual don't see me posting one of those every day! Actually, I don't post much of anything every day... Oh well.

The nice folks over at Dave Werden's forum are doing an online recital thingie for forum members--I quick signed up to do a video since clearly I'm needing a little nudge to post stuff these days. This particular Invention is one that my friend Andy and I used to hit frequently enough on our regular Saturday morning duet sessions. I moved away from Maryland three years (plus maybe two weeks) ago, so I haven't played these (or pretty much any) euph/tuba duets in quite a while. Definitely the hardest part about leaving MD--I miss my Saturday duets.

The other hard part about moving away was that I had found a community orchestra that would accept me with my meager cello talents. Now, after three years of searching, I'm actually going to sit in at an orchestra rehearsal and audition this week. I have no idea if I'm wading in way over my head (though I suspect that's the case). But whatever--the worst thing that could happen is that I humiliate myself.