Category Archives: Cello

New Violin Doctor

Owlet has decided that violin lessons are interesting, and so she’s doing a couple of private ones with her violin teacher from camp in the afternoons. From what I saw yesterday, she works better one on one than in a group setting, which doesn’t surprise me at all, really.

The fingerboard popped off her violin last week, and since she’s interested enough to be doing private lessons, I needed to take it to a luthier — or, as I told her, a violin doctor — to be fixed. I went to a luthier about ten minutes away whom I’d never met before, but who had been highly recommended to me by a couple of string musicians in the area. I am trying to avoid going downtown, where the two other luthier shops I deal with are, since it is a nightmare of traffic and construction and detours and parking. And since I was taking her violin in, I figured I might as well take my cello in for its first checkup since I bought it about a decade ago. (Ssh. There have been no problems with it, and I can change strings on my own.)

He is awesome. His shop is one large open room, and he ran a thorough check on both instruments right there in front of me, explaining interesting things about them as he did. The reason Owlet’s fingerboard popped off the neck is because the curve of the fingerboard is opposite to that of the neck, so there is almost no surface to adhere. He showed me the different curvatures with his tools and it was fascinating. He needs to plane a bit off both to have a better match so he can glue it and it will stay. He’s also going to touch up the bridge to better match the fingerboard; he said it was a bit thick, too, and he suspected he knew what luthier it had come from, because each shop in Montreal has their own style of shaping bridges.

As soon as we took out my cello he said the neck seemed wide at the nut, but if it didn’t give me any problems like buzzing then it was just an interesting note. He explored the instrument, noting things here and there. The fingerboard has some bumps, but again, no buzzes so they’re fine. He correctly identified the luthier it had come from just by looking at the bridge (it’s like a fingerprint!) and he showed me that before it had been shipped someone had opened the top bout seams and shimmed the top block to correct the angle of the neck, which explains the tiny slices on the top under the neck and the accumulation of glue or resin around those seams. The adjustment even has a name, the New York neck reset. It was fascinating to learn about the history of my own instrument before it had even reached the shop who had sold it to me.

Anyway, he’s going to straighten the bridge and maybe reshape the curve a wee bit to better match the fingerboard; adjust the soundpost to heighten the resonance in the lower register and gentle the higher register; adjust the tailpiece for a better length of string between it and the bridge (I had no idea that distance was part of the mathematical string proportion magic like length between the bridge and nut is); and clean it (thank you, Mr Violin Doctor; I do what I can, but there are certain solvents you have that I do not). Oh, and he is going to fish out the little cork piece that fell off the top end of the endpin way back when I was pregnant and had to extend it as far as it could go. Thank goodness; it’s been rattling around for seven years.

I expected a lot more (an entire new bridge, at the least). His list of prices are a decade out of date and he still quoted me underneath them, throwing a bunch of little extra work that he kept saying “I’m not going to charge you for that” about. I said I’d happily pay the listed prices, but he waved his hand absently. I’ve never had such a casual, personal experience with a luthier before. I learned so much.

And on top of all that, my cello should be ready tomorrow. Owlet’s violin should be ready early next week. I am used to dropping instruments off and not seeing them for at least two weeks, often longer. Hurray!

General Music Roundup, December 2017 Edition

Sparky and I had our cello recital this past Sunday, and that went very well. It was a terrific programme. Sparky played a Bach minuet (which he crushed, a triumph after some rocky patches this fall) and I played a Kreisler Rondino that presented some stupid challenges that shouldn’t have been challenges, except my brain and fingers decided they were brick walls. But we each pulled it off. Our group pieces were lovely, too, and our studio mates all had excellent performances as well.

After an amazing fall concert with the Lakeshore Chamber Orchestra, I’ve had to decide to take the next concert off because of low energy levels, high workload, and insanely circuitous traffic rerouting while the Turcot interchange is being rebuilt. I can’t face a commute over ninety minutes long each way at the end of the day, plus a two-hour rehearsal in between; not in deep winter. This will be the first concert I have planned to miss since I started playing with the orchestra in the fall of 2001. (Dear gods, I have been playing with them for sixteen years. I had no idea till I did the math.) (Planned to miss is critical, here; I didn’t plan to miss the concert three weeks after Sparky was born, I just… had to.) (Third parenthetical interjection: That’s forty-seven orchestral concerts I have played!!! Not including the three I did with the Cantabile orchestra.)

I bought a new bow this fall, a high-end octagonal Brazilwood Knoll through The Sound Post in Toronto, because I could finally afford it (thank you, ridiculously busy freelance life). This bow has been overdue for about seven years; my previous wood bow had a cracked frog due to a toddler-related incident and had started to warp, so I was playing with the heavy German fibreglass bow that came with my new 7/8 in 2009. The Knoll is glorious. I have no idea how I played with the fibreglass for so long. It’s bouncy but strong, flexible but sturdy. I love it. And for something purchased online, with just the help from one of the specialists at the Sound Post… I feel so incredibly fortunate. They were technically out of stock, but he pulled this in from the Ottawa store where they weren’t using it and had it rehaired for me at no extra cost. He offered me the next level of bow at a price midway between this one and that (a very generous offer), but I wanted this specific bow for the faux whalebone wrapping; my fingers have been reacting badly to wire wrapping. So he made it happen.

Owlet began piano this fall, and is zooming along. It’s her thing, and I’m glad we encouraged her to do this instead of violin; the piano avoids frustrating intonation problems as long as you’re hitting the correct key. She’ll do her first recital in the spring, and is looking forward to it. Right now she can play a four-page version of Jingle Bells with relatively decent rhythm, and her teacher is delighted (and somewhat dazed, I think?) at how well she absorbs information and how quickly she’s progressing. It’s not from excess of practice, that’s for sure; we think she just has good musical memory. She’s the first non-Suzuki musician in the house, and as much as I like the Suzuki philosophy I think this teacher and this programme suit Owlet just fine.

On Christmas Concerts and School Music Programmes

Let’s talk about school concerts for a moment.

We joke about how they’re painful (oh, recorders; everyone has to go through that phase) and roll our eyes at the cheesiness, but you know what? They’re important. And I love them.

I just came home from Owlet’s holiday concert. It was smooth and energetic and well-organized; all the kids were focused and committed. It was terrific. They had multiple classes from different levels cooperating on their pieces, and it only lasted an hour as a result.

Those two music teachers, one from each branch of the school, worked ridiculously hard. It’s easy to teach an individual class something during their music block and have the kids perform it. It’s not so easy to coordinate three different classes from two different streams to do that.

These concerts — no, music classes in general — are important because kids learn stuff. Music is math. Music is following instructions. Music is learning how to take separate blocks of something and put them together to make something bigger. Music is learning to function as a larger group and co-operate toward a common goal. Music is problem-solving on a group level: how does my part fit in, how do I blend, how do I match my intonation to that of those around me? Music is focusing in a way that’s not quite the way you concentrate in an English or civics class. Music is taking turns. Music is respecting the people around you, listening when it’s someone else’s turn to play. Music is sharing with an audience.

School music class is often the only chance kids get to sing or dance or play an instrument. Our family is ridiculously fortunate in that we prioritize music and each kid gets lessons, but not all families have that opportunity or have a different priority. Investing in this at the school level offers students so much, and I am so grateful to the schools my kids attend for making sure music is still a focus among their other disciplines. With the cooperation of a local high school and by collecting freewill donations at the school concerts, Owlet’s school has acquired 60 alto recorders and a set of boomwhackers to add to the existing ukuleles, xylophones, and wind instruments since last year. I am thrilled that they continue to invest in their musical programme.

Sparky’s Cello


When we last left Sparky on his resumed cello journey in January after two and a half years of hiatus, he had just started playing on a borrowed cello that needed work. One thing led to another, and we didn’t get it into the shop till a couple of weeks ago.

Readers, it’s dead. The strings buzzing on the fingerboard had gotten worse, to the point where he couldn’t play anything with the first finger in first position on any string. We thought raising the nut would solve it, which is a pretty straightforward and relatively inexpensive fix. He was doing a fantastic job playing through the sour notes, but as we all know, a bad tool creates obstacles that require energy to work around that could be better invested. The luthier took a quick look at it and said there wasn’t much she could do. The neck was warped backward, and to bring the fingerboard down to playable level plus add the necessary scoop would thin it out to a point where it would be thinner than a violin fingerboard. It would be very delicate. On top of that, without the stabilizing strength of a proper fingerboard of the usual cello thickness, the neck could very easily start to warp the other way. In essence, she said she could do the repairs… it just wouldn’t be worth the money.

Sparky began trembling and tears started slipping down his face. He had somehow bonded with this thing, which was somewhat disturbing because it was borderline abusive to him. (Passive abusive, but whatever.) I think part of him worried that this was it, he’d have no cello and would have to stop after he’d made the decision to start again and really apply himself. When I thought about it later, I wondered if he had embraced the imperfections because they would limit him by necessity; he wouldn’t have to worry so hard about doing everything correctly because there would always be this imperfection inherent in the instrument that made him feel safer somehow, and less stressed. Or maybe he felt a kinship with the imperfection. I don’t know.

Anyway, he randomly teared up about it now and then about it over the next few days; no amount of reassurance seemed to get through to him. I pinged a Kijiji listing for a 3/4 cello in the city, made an appointment, and we went to see it this past Saturday after our lesson. The guy selling it was studying music at university; he had a zillion guitar cases in his room, and this little cello that had been his as a teenager. It looks like it has been in the wars; it was secondhand when he got it, and it has all the bangs and nicks a school instrument would have. It has a crack or two, one repaired and one in limbo, but nothing horrendous from what I could tell. The neck was straight (ha, I checked, trust me). It didn’t come with a bow, but I have a fiberglass 3/4 bow left over from my first cello he can use until we get a new one. And coincidentally, this one seems about the same age, with the same clunky style of endpin mine had and a really old similar canvas case (sized for a 4/4 and way too big).

We came home with it. It’s nothing spectacular, but it’s easy to play even in the high positions, and it makes all the sounds it’s supposed to make, which is definitely an improvement. I paid under what he had listed it for and still probably too much for it, but Sparky was starry-eyed, and the university kid was just terrific; and if he was studying music probably needed the money. I ordered a new set of strings (I think the set on it are cheap originals, yikes; they’re pretty dead) and a proper sized case. Sparky spent the first five minutes of his next practice session just blissfully playing the notes the last cello had choked. When I asked him what he was going to call this one, he said Oak. And he retroactively named the other one Buzz, which made me laugh.

Other than the limitations of the cello, he’s been doing great work. He’s progressing quickly through the pieces in the book, which I know is doing a lot for his self-confidence. At the rate he’s going, he’ll start the second book in the fall when lessons resume. He has chosen his recital piece (Rigadoon!), he works diligently on the hard bits of his part for the group pieces, and after I help him tune and review the homework notes I took during his lesson, I walk away and he directs his own practice. I’m proud of him. Hopefully with this new-to-him instrument, things will go even better.

Spring Concert Announcement

Half-metre of storm snow and impassable streets aside, it’s spring next week. And we are preparing a concert for you!

On Saturday 1 April 2017 at 19h30, the Lakeshore Chamber Orchestra will present a spring-themed concert, featuring Peter Purich as our invited violin soloist:

“Spring” from The Four Seasons – Vivaldi
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring – Delius
A Musical Joke – Mozart
Symphony no 1, “Spring” – Schumann

The concert will take place at our home base,  Valois United Church (70 Belmont Ave, Pointe-Claire, between King and Queen). Admission is $10, free for children 18 and under. The concerts usually last just about two hours, including the refreshment break. The address and map are on the church website. Children of all ages are very welcome.

We hope to see you there!

Back Into Things: School and Music Edition

We’re one week into school and such again now that it’s 2017. Both kids were really ready to go back after two and a half weeks off, both consciously (“I miss my kindergarten,” Owlet sighed one day) and unconsciously (my children do not do well without structure for long periods of time).

Getting back into the rhythm of things has had some challenges, however. Sparky was struggling with organization, time management, and self-confidence at the beginning of the school year, and with work and support he’d gotten to a point where it was all mostly okay. Time away threw him off, though. During his first week back I saw him doing homework every night and figured he had things under control. It turned out he was doing homework due for the next day and not the extra work he’s supposed to space out over the week so it doesn’t drown him on weekends, though. So this weekend he had to create an outline, rough draft, and polished typed draft of an expository essay, do twelve pages of French, and a pile of math. The essay should have been done in increments, and the French as well; the math was all assigned on Friday and would have been fine if all he had to do was finish typing the essay out and do a page or two of French. He also had to finish a PowerPoint presentation on postmodern architecture, but forgot the handwritten research at school and he couldn’t get hold of his partner all weekend, so I wrote a quick note and he’s planning to finish it at recess this morning. It was a rough weekend, but he handled it all, and we worked through some anxiety and talked about breaking seemingly huge tasks down and nibbling away at them.

He had less homework time than he otherwise might have, too, because this weekend he started cello lessons again after two and a half years off! He had an hour on Saturday morning, where his teacher was delighted to see him. They worked to adjust the new-to-us cello (which has Issues; it’s going to need a new bridge at the very least, a new full set of strings, and possibly the nut and/or the fingerboard replaned because there is a nasty buzzing in first position, on top of paying the family who owned it previously for it) and reviewed the piece he’d last done in concert. This would be Long Long Ago, the piece he’s pretty sure he messed up so badly on in concert that he decided to quit because it was all too stressful. He was assigned his next piece in pizzicato, and given his parts for the group pieces. And then Sunday afternoon was his first group class.

I’m fascinated by how enthusiastic he is. At break during the group class we were laughing about how no one likes to practise when he piped up, “I love it! I love to practise!” And I find it really interesting that it was watching the last recital that made him decide to start again because he wanted to be involved in them, since it was increasing stress associated with recitals that led him to stop. He was cheerful through the entire group class despite being lost most of the time, and didn’t get upset during his lesson when he couldn’t magically do things right. These two years off have really helped him develop a better understanding of what he should expect from himself.

Now instead of Sparky being upset he can’t do things right the first time, it’s Owlet. She is angry that her violin does not make beautiful music as soon as she picks it up. She resents that she has to pay attention and focus on what she’s being shown. I’m really looking forward to a time when I can actually register her for lessons, because again, it will be so much easier when it is not a parent teaching her. And I’m restricted this time by what I know and don’t know; with Sparky I knew how to guide his practise properly. With the violin, I’m one self-taught lesson ahead of Owlet, and I can only do things like teach her the names of the strings, where to place the bow on the string (no, not between the bridge and the tailpiece, between the bridge and the fingerboard please), and reteach her the names of notes on the staff. There are times when she sits and just plays it, fooling around with rhythm and dynamics, telling a story with the music, and that’s great; I wish she would do more of that and associate music time with exploration. But that expectation of perfection right off the bat is an obstacle at the moment. I’m not exactly sure how to help her past it yet.

We’ll see what this week brings.

Christmas Recital 2016

Our studio recital went blazingly well yesterday. I sat and knitted for the entire first forty minutes during everyone else’s soli, and you know, I think I may take a break from doing a solo every couple of years or so. It was so relaxing. I got to really appreciate everyone’s pieces more than I usually do because I wasn’t stressing, keeping feverish track of who was playing so as to ready myself to move up and take my place, or running fingering patterns on my right forearm. The four group pieces all went brilliantly. It’s such a joy to watch everyone get better and better, and to welcome new cellists.

Speaking thereof… guess who said he’d like to try cello again? I suspect watching the three other eleven-year-olds who joined right around the time he quit two years ago may have something to do with it. He’s older now, and I pointed out twenty minutes of practice a day would be his responsibility — I’m not going to argue with him about it — and he agreed. We’re working on autonomy, self organization, and socialization with other kids outside school, so this may slot in nicely. I get to tell my teacher this week at my next lesson.