Entering the Parallel Universe of Baroque Cello

I’ve experimented with playing Baroque cello on and off for some years now, but now I am taking it with new dedication. I’m not switching or diminishing my “modern” playing, just adding in something new. We’ve started a faculty Baroque ensemble at DePauw, rehearsing once a week. My ex-wife Allison, who is an incredible Baroque violinist, and our Interim dean Cleve Johnson, a music history professor who’s also a wonderful harpsichord and organ player, have dragged me into this, kicking and screaming.

I’m making a somewhat gradual transition. I’m still using a modern cello, simply tuned down, and a Baroque bow. I developed the ability many years ago to play without vibrato, and that comes in handy. And while I have learned how to play the cello without an endpin, I have decided to stick with it for now. Playing without an endpin, holding the cello between one’s calves, is the most anti-ergonomic thing I can imagine. I have the cello that low, but I’m using the endpin so I can keep my legs in a healthier position.

Even with these compormises, playing “Baroque” and “modern” in the same period of time is like trying to exist in parallel universes. The instrument looks so similar. But tune it down to a = 415 instead of A = 440, and use a different bow, and it is an (almost) altogether different beast. And then try to play with a harpsichord that is not tuned in equal temperament, and oy vay! It’s hard enough to play in tune dealing with one tuning system. But change the pitch level and the temperament, and the brain (at least mine) starts to short circuit. Really.

Today, though, was a breakthrough. For the first time since we began rehearsing regularly about five weeks ago, I felt fully comfortable in the lower-pitch universe. Until today, I kept tending to play sharp, instinctively trying to bring the pitch up to the A 440 level. But today, I felt totally at home in A 415. That was just a joy.


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