Kim Cook's Cello Studio
Penn State Cello Choir
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What does Allegro mean?
means “happy” in Italian. This term is frequently used to label a
“movement” of a piece. A movement is simply a complete section of
a larger piece. There may be 2, 3, 4, or 5 movements in a piece,
although a typical structure for classical music is three movements in
the order of fast-slow-fast. You might find Allegro-Adagio-Allegro on a
program. Allegro usually denotes a quick or lively tempo.
Adagio literally means at-ease, and can be interpreted as slow, or
comfortable tempo, not hurried. So these “tempo” markings,
although they do tell us a general range of the tempo, are much more
about character and mood. The fact that there is no right or
wrong tempo is a wonderful thing about music. When a composer
marks the music, he is trying to communicate a mood or emotion.
If you are happy and you feel upbeat, that’s how the music should feel
if it is called Allegro. Adagio can mean sad or happy, with a
What is a Concerto?
Is this a misprint for Concert? Why are some pieces labeled
Concerto and others Sonate or Symphony? A concerto is a solo
piece for an instrument with accompaniment by an orchestra. The most
popular and typical concertos are written for piano or violin with an
orchestra, however, a concerto can be written for any instrument with
an orchestral accompaniment. The solo instrument is usually given a
very difficult part with virtuosic lines to show off the beauty of the
instrument and the facility of the musician within the context of the
orchestral sound. There are exceptions to this such as a Concerto for
Orchestra. This means that the entire orchestra is being treated
as a virtuosic soloist, so it would be very demanding for all parts.
Most concertos of the “romantic period” (19th century) are made up of
three movements, Fast-Slow-Fast.
What does the conductor of an orchestra do?
he is, waving his arms above an orchestra! Why can’t the
instrumentalists play alone? A conductor is the leader and vital
force in an orchestral concert. He/she is responsible for
choosing the music, studying the music to provide insight and
inspiration and then communicating his ideas to the orchestral players
to form a convincing interpretation of the music. The conductor
is responsible for making sure that all the individual lines work
together so that everything fits in the right place, while allowing the
musicians to be expressive. As an audience member, you may
not be aware of all of the communication going on within a
concert. If someone misses an entrance, or a rhythm, it is up to
the conductor to get the orchestra back together. The greatest
conductors are the ones who are listening to every detail of the
music. With 75 musicians playing at once, many with different
parts, you can imagine that this is an incredible feat of
concentration. The conductor listens, gives cues and acknowledges
each solo line. The conductor has to know the music by memory,
because there is no time to be consulting the score while he is
listening in a concert. Being a conductor is one of the most
difficult and challenging roles for a musician.
Why do we play music by dead composers??
do we read plays by Shakespeare? Why do we preserve the paintings
of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo, or study the Mona Lisa by
Leonardo Da Vinci? Why indeed? Great works of music,
literature, and art have qualities that transcend time and place! They
still provide inspiration and meaning to individuals today. We
have many emotional and intellectual responses to sound that can't
really be measured. Hearing a piece by a great composer may make
you feel joyful, or help you work through feelings of sadness, or just
calm your soul. Test it out yourself! All you need is
some curiosity and an open mind. Try listening to the Ninth
Symphony by Beethoven. Or try the Messiah by Handel. Since
I am a cellist, one of my favorites is the C major Cello Quintet by
Schubert! (2 cellos, 2 violins, viola). The very best way
to hear music is to go to a local performance so that you can hear the
instruments live! Try your local symphony orchestra, and just let
yourself absorb the music. Try to imagine why this music was so moving
to people that it still survives today. Enjoy!
Whoops, I broke my “G” String! And other hazards of playing concerts.
performance does not come without its particular risks. A cellist
can be in the midst of an intensely emotional passage, when suddenly
“TWANG!” A string pops loose and you are forced to STOP, replace
the string and begin again. Alternatively, the endpin (a metal
rod at the base of the cello) can lose its grip in the floor and slide
forward (sometimes dragging you off the chair with it). Once,
when I was in high school, my endpin slipped in the middle of a
performance, forcing me to hold the cello precariously for the rest of
the sonata. After that, I went out and bought a metal file to sharpen
the endpin for every performance. I still use this regularly (but
every now and then the cello skitters off anyway). If your hand
gets too sweaty, you can lose the bow. Pablo Casals, the famous
Spanish cellist, lost his grip on the bow during his Vienna
debut. The bow flew out into the audience, and it had to be
passed back to him by the audience members. During a televised
concert by Yo Yo Ma, his chair slipped off the back of the cello
platform. Miraculously, he balanced on his legs until the chair
was pushed back into place. I was amazed by the coordination and
presence of mind that it took to recover from that.
the most embarrassing story that I’ve heard concerns cellist Zara
Nelsova. Her string of pearls broke in the middle of a
performance. Some of the pearls dropped into the cleavage of her
dress and others, one by one, dropped on the wood floor, creating a
wild percussive accompaniment. Sometimes interpreting music is
only half the battle!
Twenty-seven million dollars for a viola?
I went backstage after a string quartet concert at the Smithsonian
Institute, featuring the famous Stradivari violins, viola, and
cello. As I waited in line to talk to the musicians, the violist
came up to me and said: “Here, hold this viola. It is worth 27
million dollars”… As I gasped, I tried not to drop it, and then I
looked at the beautiful instrument; so beautifully carved, with inlaid
ivory and wood. Each of these instruments is hand carved from the
early 1700’s. They are antiques, beautifully made with the
highest craftsmanship, but they are most valued for the magnificent
sound qualities they have when played! Some violinmakers today
feel that Stradivari has never been surpassed in terms of tonal
excellence, design, and superiority of the workmanship. Scientists and
violinmakers alike are still trying to discover and recreate the
secrets of violinmaking at this time.
How much does an instrument
for students or professionals cost today? To buy a student
instrument today, the cost of a cello can range between $2,000 for a
starter instrument to $10,000 for a fine student instrument, to a high
quality professional instrument which can cost anywhere from $30,000 to
around six million. It’s not just the cello that is expensive. A
professional quality bow can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $100,000.
Music can be an expensive habit!
When is the time to clap in a classical music concert?
concertgoers are confused by the "etiquette" of clapping. You may try
to follow the program and wonder "Where are we? Is this Allegro or
Moderato?" Then you may just decide, "Oh well, I'll just wait to clap
until someone else does." Although tradition has established rules,
most musicians are thrilled to hear applause anytime, anywhere, so the
next time you attend a concert, if you feel excited and moved to clap,
please do! If you feel self concious about doing that, then watch the
musicians for your best cue. If they begin to stand and bow, then it
really is the time to clap.
Recently I heard a live performance
on the radio and after a lively movement I heard a lone clap -- frozen
after the person realized that no one else would be clapping. Most
musicians would be flattered and delighted by the "clap" that held so
much excitement and emotion.
Sometimes parents ask me what is the best age to learn an instrument?
I am not an expert in child development, my opinion is based on my
experience and friends in the profession. I think the best time
to start a child with music lessons is when a child shows interest in
learning to play an instrument. I asked to start piano lessons at
age six after I heard my sister practicing, and when I was nine, I took
up cello in the public school program in a summer string
workshop. One way to encourage children to develop an interest in
music is to take them to concerts. Did you know that the School
of Music at Penn State hosts over 350 concerts each year? Most
are either free or have a nominal charge. In almost any city that
has a university, you can find free concerts by students and faculty of
the music department. I also recommend showing children photos of
different instruments, and/or playing recordings of the sound of each
instrument. (Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf or Benjamin Britten’s
Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra are good options) Then let your
child help to choose which concert they would like to hear. An
orchestra concert is a good way to introduce a student to the many
different instruments. Many city orchestras have some kind of
children’s concerts, which are specifically designed to appeal to
Most professional musicians I know started at an early
age. Some studies of the brain have shown that before the age of
12, children have an easier time integrating the precise motor skills
that are necessary for playing a musical instrument. The most
important part of learning an instrument is to keep it fun, and to make
it an adventure!
Why (and how) do the violins play with their bows going the same direction in an orchestra?
may have noticed in an orchestra concert that the string players are
usually playing with their bows completely coordinated in the same
direction. It is almost like a choreographed ballet! Why do
they do this? Is it planned, or do they just naturally fall into these
patterns? To get a particular “articulation” (clarity or
accentuation of notes) it is desirable for every string player to use a
certain part of the bow. This helps to make the tone of each
player to blend together with the others and to create a synchronized,
uniform sound from the whole section. The concertmaster (first chair
violinist) is responsible for coordinating the markings for the bows in
the music. He meets with the conductor to discuss how best to
execute the conductor’s interpretation of the music. Then the
orchestra librarian transfers the markings into the music. The
symbols that we use to tell us when to play down-bow are simple -- a
square box without the bottom line designates a down-bow movement, and
a V indicates an up-bow.
How (and why) does an orchestra tune?
the beginning of each orchestra concert you will see the concertmaster
(first chair violinist) enter to tune the orchestra. He faces the
orchestra and asks the oboist to play an “A”. Is this just for
show, or is it really necessary? Why does the orchestra need to
“tune”? The instruments go out of tune because of changes in
temperature and humidity. All instruments have a different
reaction to the weather conditions. For example, when the
conditions are hot and dry, the pitch of the string instruments tend to
go flat. Likewise, with more humidity, the strings sound
sharper. These tendencies are related to the shrinking and expanding of
the wood of our instruments.
The concertmaster will ask for
three or four “A”s from the oboist. An oboe has a concentrated tone
that projects clearly, therefore it is easy to hear and for the other
instruments to match. The oboist sustains the “A”, and soon the
orchestra is bathing in what might sound like a cacophony of
sound. First he gives an “A” for the winds (flutes, clarinets,
bassoons, oboes). After they are finished tuning, the concertmaster
asks the oboist to give another “A” for the brass section (trumpets,
horns, trombones, tuba). The final “A” is for the string section.
Some orchestras give two “A”s for the string section, one for the lower
strings (cellos and basses) and one for the upper strings (violas and
violins). Since I am a cellist, I like to have the extra “A”. It
helps to ensure that my tuning is more accurate.
An “A” equals 440 hertz, or does it?
do we tune to an “A” that equals 440 hertz and what does this mean?
With hertz (Hz), we are defining the frequency of cycles (sound waves)
per second. When an “A” equals 440 Hz, it means that there
are 440 cycles per second. Thus, when you hear an “A” as equaling 440
Hz, it means that there are 440 sound waves vibrating your eardrum each
second. When the oboe plays the “A” at the beginning of an
orchestra concert, is it really 440? In 1939, an
international treaty was signed standardizing modern pitch at “A” = 440
Hz. Although this is a standard, it is not always strictly
adhered to. Orchestras today may tune to an “A” that is anywhere from
about 415 Hz (Baroque ensembles), to 442 Hz (many European orchestras)
to 444 Hz (the Boston Symphony). What difference does it make in
the sound? The lower the frequency, the lower the pitch and the
less bright the sound will be. This means that the strings are
less taut, and have more flexibility and warmth. For the higher
frequency, (up to 444 Hz), the sound is much brighter and more
resistant. Historically, pitch levels have risen gradually, perhaps as
a result of competing to produce a brighter or more "brilliant"
sound. In the School of Music at Penn State, as in most music
schools, we stick to the convention --we tune the “A” on our pianos to