Town Hall May 2020

Summary of Cellospeak Town Hall May 9, 2020

In the midst of the Covid-19 shutdown, Cellospeak held its first-ever Town Hall via Zoom on May 9, 2020, hosted by our Artistic Director, Bomin Collins. It was a smashing success. About 70 people registered, and at any one time we had over 50 people participating, from as far away as Washington, Florida, Arizona (100+ degrees), Maine (snow) and even Ireland! Everyone was happy to see each other’s faces and to have a chance to catch up. We also had significant participation from our wonderful faculty, including Marion Baker, Bob Battey, Nancy Baun, Louise Butler, Bomin Collins, Jihea Choi, Carl Donakowski, Kris Gilbert, and Irina Tikhonova.

Amazingly, a poll taken by Bomin at the start of the session revealed that, out of 46 people voting, 87% had been to a Cellospeak workshop, and 11% had not yet been to one! We hope those who have not yet experienced Cellospeak were inspired enough by what they saw and heard to want to attend a workshop in the future.  Everyone expressed a love of Cellospeak and the friends we have all made in this community.  We all miss each other very much!

In this summary, we review our wide-ranging discussion on how people are coping with  Covid-19 restrictions, how virtual lessons are filling the void, recommendations for apps enabling virtual accompaniment and/or virtual ensemble playing, new Cellospeak programs and virtual offerings, and how we can continue to keep our community connected.  This summary is full of links and specific suggestions, so enjoy!

Coping Stories

Bomin first asked how people were coping with the Covid-19 restrictions, and whether they were playing the cello more or less. Edward Fizdale and Saadia Griffith-Howard, who are working very hard from home, mentioned that unfortunately they now seem to have less time for the cello.  However, most others are making good use of more relaxed practice time and the opportunity to revisit technique and/or familiar pieces.

Vika Bendzius is spending more concentrated time focusing on subtleties of bowing technique. Martin Rosol has just finished Dotzauer Book 1 (having started it at age 13!) and is working on new repertoire, including the Faure Sicilienne. Grace Brockett is challenging herself to learn a new sonata. Madelyn Campbell is enjoying a hiatus from orchestra music and is going back to basics, studying from the Cellospeak “Chops” book, etudes and student repertoire such as the Breval Cello Sonata in C.  She said it was just fun and comforting.  Eileen Street also recommended revisiting any of the many versions of the Chops book technique lessons and pieces, which she thought were very educational and an endearing trip down memory lane.

Nancy Baun suggested that “comfort playing”- playing familiar and accessible pieces that “feel good”- helps with motivation.  She suggested taking the current player that you are now back to such pieces and experimenting with new fingerings etc., staying active without struggling. Nancy also recommended working with Bob Battey’s “Sight Reading Exercises for Cello.” Nicki Wiszneauckas is enjoying revisiting familiar repertoire, and is planning to experiment with a few others from her community orchestra taking turns over Zoom playing well-known pieces. She is also playing Celtic cello as well as the Irish tin whistle and flute!  Diana Wayburn is working on rhythm by taking free percussion classes online given by The Collective in New York. Lee Ann Deak is taking a different approach, working on MuseScore to create cello solos from her favorite music and also using Wondershare to edit videos of her community orchestra performances.

Others are coping by giving porch concerts.  Our April Notes highlighted porch concerts separately given by Irina Tikhonova and Sheryl SmithBomin mentioned that faculty members Ismar Gomes and Katlyn DeGraw also have just done porch concerts. She suggested that holding porch concerts playing pieces that you have a connection with and that are in your comfort zone (e.g., Bach, Breval, Popper, Dotzauer) can help you manage your own stress while also contributing beautiful and relaxing moments to your neighbors.

Of course, listening to great music is always a great de-stresser.  Bomin reminded people that a recording of Amy Butler’s beautiful original composition for electric cello “Hush, Now” is posted on the new Healing with Cello page on our website. There are many other beautiful and inspiring performances on YouTube.  Christine Stufflebeam suggested checking out Berklee College of Music virtual performances, as well as GroupMuse which is a social network that connects hosts and professional musicians and streams live house concerts from across the country for a modest fee.

Virtual Lessons

Many people are now taking “virtual” lessons via Facetime, Skype and Zoom.  Some people find virtual lessons harder and/or less satisfying than in-person lessons. But most find them better than nothing.  Irina recommended that lessons help keep people on track.  Bomin suggested that setting goals also helps to look forward to lessons and practice.

There were lots of comments about specific technology issues, particularly with sound reproduction.  Jean Daniel Chablais reported that the built-in mics on computers, phones and iPads are not very good. Built-in mics also are calibrated for the human voice and don’t reproduce cello sounds very well.  Jean Daniel and his teacher each use external plugin mics which come with an application that allows you to choose voice or instrument so that cello sounds, including harmonics, will be heard more accurately.  He suggested that such mics can be acquired on Amazon for between $30 and $200, depending on the desired quality.

Louise Butler agreed that sound is an issue.  She has purchased an Ultimate Ears Boom 3 bluetooth speaker.  That gets the sound a bit further away from the ears and enhances the sound to some degree.  It can be used with a computer, iPhone or iPad.  Paula Rothman has found that virtual lessons on Skype or Facetime work better on an iPhone because the wide-angle lens provides a better picture and the mic has better sound quality.

Carl Donakowski agreed that, for online lessons, the mic and sound on an iPhone is better than on a computer, although the screen is very small for a lesson. He has his students record themselves using their phone, then upload the recording to Dropbox so he can review it before the lesson. For the actual lesson, he will use an ethernet connection with the computer to provide a better connection than wifi, which can be slow with frequent delays and interruption.  He also noted that the use of a mute, even a practice mute, helps the cello sound more natural online.

Jihea Choi uses Zoom for student recitals.  She suggested that there are a variety of settings on Zoom that can improve sound quality (i.e., keeping original sound on; not automatically adjusting the microphone; and under Advanced Settings disabling: “suppress persistent background noise” and “suppress intermittent background noise”).   Carl agreed that these settings help solve the problem of sustained notes disappearing.

Virtual Accompaniments

Several participants had great recommendations for various mobile apps and other technologies that can be used to provide virtual accompaniments for cello pieces.  For example, the Tomplay app (for iPhone, iPad and Android), recommended by Paula, offers digitized scores for cello with accompaniments, and allows you to add your own annotations to the music, adjust the tempo of the accompaniment, and record yourself.  The app is $100 per year, but the initial 2 weeks are free.

Martin recommended Metronaut, another mobile app.  This one provides professional accompaniments, adjusts to your own tempo, scrolls the digital score as you play, records, and maintains statistics to help you improve.  It is free to download and use for a limited time every day.  You can also subscribe by week ($3.99), month ($9.99), year ($59.99) or by piece ($1.99).

Jihea mentioned that SmartMusic provides accompaniments for all Suzuki music.  The accompaniments cannot be downloaded, but can be played in the background. The price is $40/year for performers and $80/year for teachers.

Music Minus One also offers al la carte purchases of CDs with scores, accompaniments and performance notes for concertos, sonatas, quartets and trios.  Irina mentioned that accompaniments for cello solos are also available on YouTube.   Christine mentioned that her orchestra practices to videos YouTube videos, which permits manipulation of the tempo.

Virtual Ensembles

One of the things people miss the most about Cellospeak is playing with other people.  It is difficult to play with others in real time over Zoom or Facetime because of the inherent delays and interruptions.  But there are some workarounds.

Carl mentioned Jamkazam, a free social network platform that allows musicians to connect with others all over the country and play music together in real time from remote locations. It also supports online lessons. Sign up is free.  It is necessary to use headphones and an ethernet connection.

Jihea mentioned Acapella which facilitates the combination of individual recordings into a virtual performance.  However, a subscription is $50 per year and the app does have limitations and is not necessarily intuitive to use.

Both Paula and Christine mentioned the COVID Cello Project, run by Tony Rogers in Austin, Texas.  He creates edited recordings of virtual ensembles of cellists from all over the world.  He sends out the music and compiles the individual recordings into a performance. The latest one, posted on May 12, 2020 on YouTube, is a performance of Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen involving over 150 cellists from more than 23 countries.  Any cellist can participate in upcoming COVID Cello Project performances for a nominal fee!

Cellospeak is looking into various ways in which we might be able to organize virtual recitals or choir performances using some of these or other technologies.  Stay tuned!

Cellospeak Programs

Several people, including Jack Page and Grace mentioned how important Cellospeak is to their lives and that they hope it continues. Aileen Pisciotta assured the group that Cellospeak is still making plans for in-person workshops in 2021, though we want everyone to be safe and feel comfortable, and will monitor circumstances closely.  Bomin said that the cancellation of the 2020 workshops has actually created opportunities for Cellospeak to create other virtual offerings, such as instructional and/or Q&A webinars or Zoom sessions with faculty and possibly Zoom sectionals.  Specifically, Cellospeak is looking into ways that we can provide more value to people’s lives, including with Member Forums on our website that, among other things, will allow members to share information directly pose questions to our faculty, added content to our website Member Page, and “cello minus one” type instructional recordings of cello ensemble arrangements.

Bomin also asked the Town Hall what Cellospeak can do, in the absence of a workshop, to help people with their playing. On a second poll, 40 people voted for Cellospeak to focus on the following initiatives:

74%     Provide information or training on technique

67%     Make repertoire and/or practice suggestions

43%     Enable access to our faculty

43%     Provide practice opportunities

36%     Gather “playlists” of great cello performances

26%     Provide resources on how to care for your cello

12%     Help find a local teacher

12%     Other

The group generally agreed that there are numerous types of virtual offerings that the Cellospeak community would welcome. Jean Daniel reminded everyone that the Cellospeak experiences that people might be most interested in replacing virtually are: (1) technique teaching; (2) ensemble playing; (3) community connections; and (4) recitals.  Several people favored access to a Cellospeak discussion forum or Q&A sessions as well as “cello minus one” type ensemble recordings.  A number of participants also thought webinars and/or virtual workshops in technique would be very useful, though Paula cautioned about the need to address the technical limitations of providing such offerings over the internet.  Some of the particular issues people thought might be useful to cover in webinars, small group lessons, or virtual master classes included:

  • Bach cello suites
  • Fingering issues
  • How to approach different styles of music
  • Suggestions for solo pieces available for download
  • Trouble shooting on specific pieces
  • Vibrato
  • Arranging
  • Theory
  • Bowing
  • Composers
  • Tango playing
  • Repertoire
  • Use of different technologies for virtual playing
  • Purchasing cello, strings and accessories

Some people also offered content to share.  Martha Douglass mentioned a MiM educational video posted on YouTube by Jonah Kim on BeethovenBrian Forst, who had been one of Dorothy Amarandos’ original adult students in the 1990s, offered to share his composition “Waltzes for the Seasons” with Dorothy’s original markings, and promised to send it to Bomin. Aileen also mentioned that links to 5 one-hour videos of Dorothy Amarandos’ 2012 “Chops” technique classes will soon be posted on the Cellospeak Member Page.

Keeping the Community Connected

Finally, the group discussed what Cellospeak can do to keep the community connected. Ellen Belkin mentioned that the Cellospeak newsletters fill a big void, and urged that we continue to send them.  People generally really liked the opportunity to see each other and connect over Zoom.  Lee Ann suggested that Cellospeak schedule a regular time for such Zoom meetings, even just to socialize, and Bomin suggested that we would arrange something in the near future.

Barbara Stephenitch observed that Cellospeak has to find a way to get through 2020 financially since the revenues from the workshops will not be available to cover the costs of faculty and staff.  She suggested that people may respond well to being asked to donate a portion of the fee that they would have paid for the workshops.  Aileen thanked Barbara for the thought and indicated that contribution requests would be forthcoming.  She commented that Cellospeak is trying to be as frugal as possible, while also attempting to roll out new services and products that will help the organization as well as our faculty.  But she noted that contributions, as well as new and renewed memberships, will be very important to sustaining Cellospeak this year.  She encouraged people to renew their memberships (now at a reduced rate), and also to invite their friends to become members.  Bomin added that Cellospeak understands that a lot of people are in a difficult financial position right now, and that we are trying to be creative, but that whatever support people could provide to the organization would be most welcome.

The meeting closed as everyone was encouraged to send additional thoughts and comments at any time to info@cellospeak.org.

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