Monthly Archives: January 2009

Oh my gosh! “Scrotum”!

The biggest cello news since last week’s revalation that we heard a recording while Yo-Yo Ma and company acted out their parts at President Obama’s inaguaration is  . . .

“Cello scrotum” is not a real medical condition!

I guess we’re all twelve-year-olds at heart:  there were six or seven links to stories about it in this morning’s Google Alert for “cello,” a colleague sent me a link, there’s an item posted on Cello Chat, and here I am writing about it.

The BBC site tells the story.  About thirty-five years ago, Elaine (now Baroness) Murphy, then a professor at a London hospital, and her husband read a report of “guitar nipple” (irritation supposedlin the British Medical Journal.  It stuck them as a probable hoax, and they wrote a letter to the editor of the Journal with what they thought was an even more obvious put-on:

Sir–Though I have not come across of “guitar nipple” as reported by Dr. P. Curtis (27 April, p. 226), I did once come across a case of “cello scrotum” caused by irritation from the body of the cello.  The patient in question was a professional musician and played in practice, rehearsal, or concert for several hours each day.–I am, etc.,

J.M. Murphy

Mr. Murphy, who now runs a brewery, and I assume was not practicing medicine in 1974, signed the letter lest it cause any problem for the now-Baroness.  To their surprise, the letter was published (my favorite part is the “I am, etc.”).  The Murphys now explain,

“Anyone who has ever watched a cello being played would realise the physical impossibility of our claim.

“Somewhat to our astonishment, the letter was published.”

The term worked its way into the medical literature nonetheless, with one astute writer suggesting that the irritation was most likey from contact with the chair.

Lots of people play cello “balls to the wall” (which turns out to be an avaiation turn having nothing to do with anatomy), but no matter how enthusiastic one is, you can’t play “balls to the cello.”  Unless you’re one heck of a contortionist.

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Bono on Sinatra

A couple of years ago when, teaching a course on the improvisation in western art music, I was comparing different versions of a Cole Porter song (don’t remember which one now) to different versions of a Monteverdi aria, to show how similar the differences are.  The kids who were outstanding jazz instrumentalists were pretty dismissive of both Sinatra and Tony Bennett, which stunned me, given how much mutual influence there was between jazz and Sinatra and the great respect most adult jazz musicians I know have for him.

Turns out Bono gets Sinatra, as demonstrated in this beautifully-written New York Times op-ed piece.  The scene: “a Dublin pub, around New Year’s.”

Interesting mood. The new Irish money has been gambled and lost; the Celtic Tiger’s tail is between its legs as builders and bankers laugh uneasy and hard at the last year, and swallow uneasy and hard at the new. There’s a voice on the speakers that wakes everyone out of the moment: it’s Frank Sinatra singing “My Way.” His ode to defiance is four decades old this year and everyone sings along for a lifetime of reasons. I am struck by the one quality his voice lacks: Sentimentality.

Is this knotted fist of a voice a clue to the next year? In the mist of uncertainty in your business life, your love life, your life life, why is Sinatra’s voice such a foghorn — such confidence in nervous times allowing you romance but knocking your rose-tinted glasses off your nose, if you get too carried away.

A call to believability.

A voice that says, “Don’t lie to me now.”

That says, “Baby, if there’s someone else, tell me now.”

Fabulous, not fabulist. Honesty to hang your hat on.

As the year rolls over (and with it many carousers), the emotion in the room tussles between hope and fear, expectation and trepidation. Wherever you end up, his voice takes you by the hand.

Read the rest of that article.  It’s great.

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On being a 50-year-old student

Ah, the first of the year!  Best wishes to the regular and occasional readers of this blog.  One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to get the blogroll on this new site transferred and updated from the old one on Blogspot.  Time management isn’t my biggest strength;  I get absorbed in something, lose track, etc., and the more mundane taks, like houscleaning, blogroll updating, etc., tend to get put off and off and off.  So sorry about that.  I had a small chunk of time and some mental energy to blog this morning;  it was either write this post or do blogroll updating, and I chose the former.

I mention Emily Stark’s blog [correction: as Emily pointed out in a comment, her last name is actually Wright; she authors the "Stark Raving Cello" blog, and while my creative imagination thinks it would be nice if it was the "Emily Stark Raving Cello Blog," she declined my suggestion to change her name] from time to time;  hers is my current favorite cello blog, because she posts so many interesting and stimulating suggestions.  Among other strengths, she writes from a point of view that makes clear she’s still growing and learning herself.  She shares what she knows, passes along great ideas, all while maintaining an Oprah-like ability ability to be someone we can all identify with.

Once you’ve graduated from your formal training and started a career as a teacher, it can be kind of lonely; feeling like you are expected to be an expert all the time.  Emily shares her expertise without a pretense of being infallible and all-knowing.

That’s such an important concept–we are all lifelong students of music and the cello, some more experienced than others, some having had a broader training than others, but still developing all apects of our playing.  Maybe some people at the very top of the profession experience things differently;  I doubt Yo-Yo is still working on his technique, at least in any substantial way.  On the other hand, I imagine Lynn Harrell still practices lots of scales and exercises–he was (in)famous for his huge amount of practicing as a young man and for his dedication to huge amounts of scale (and other technical practice.  Now I don’t know about Mr. Harrell, but I do know through third parties that Yo-Yo often solicits feedback and suggestions from others.

This brings up the issue of taking lessons once you’re a professional–especially a middle-aged professional.  A chamber group I play with recently had a two-hour coaching session with a legendary chamber music player.  I’m not naming names because I haven’t cleared this with anyone else in the group.  I found it a marvelous experience.  We met with him, and received many wonderful suggestions about the piece we’re preparing to record, and some well taken observations about places where one or the other of us wasn’t really listening to the others.  In my own case, there was a passage where I was so passionate–and, slightly anxious about just getting the notes in this particularly awkward section, that I was overpowering another instrument playing a line that should be more prominent than the one the cello plays at that point.

Now one thing that’s usually a strength of my chamber-music playing is that i really listen to and respond to my partners.  So I was kind of surprised to have it pointed out to me that in this particular passage I wasn’t doing that;  I was really blating away as a soloist.  Exactly what I needed to hear.  I wasn’t living up to my own ideals, but didn’t realize it.

I wasn’t embarrassed, either. I guess by age 50, I recognize I’m human, and can still inadvertently, unawaredly fall into one of these chamber-music pitfalls.  So I think it was great for us to have this experience.

We aren’t going to incorporate every interpretive suggestion we received of course;  we got some great ideas we will use, and, I think, a greater awareness of our ensemble dynamics from someone who really knows what he’s talking about.

So I think one of the things I want to do in this new year is to be more open to feedback on my playing, maybe even take a few lessons.  I used to think there was some shame in being, say, a 50-year-old professional and teacher and taking occasional lessons.  Why not?  I live near Indianapolis. Who’s a better quarterback than Peyton Manning?  But where would he be without Tony Dungy.

One last thought along these lines:  both in my “official” student years and in facilitating discussions in which my students critique each other’s playings, I’ve found that some of the lesser-skilled players make some of the most insightful comments.  I’m not sure where this fits in to this discussion, except to say that if you’re someone of limited experience with the cello, it doesn’t necessarily make your observations and opinions any less valuable than professionals.

Happy New Year, happy music making, and my sympathies to all going through the eternal frustrations of learning to play the cello (or anything else).

–Eric

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