Moroccan biscuits

My journey back from Morocco was made difficult by the huge number of biscuits I had bought to present to the orchestra. Or rather my overflow bag – Dan’s! – was bulkier. But it was worth it.

The biscuits had not been improved by being kept in the fridge for three weeks, so I was a bit apologetic when I presented them to Christophe, your conductor. His plan was obviously to distribute them at the end, but they came into use earlier.

We were sight-reading some new music. It was not difficult, but the kids in the violin section were making heavy weather of it, in particular, T, a simply delightful boy of about ten. Normally he is all smiles, but as Christophe made him repeat a passage several times, he was unusually serious and I saw a tear on his cheek. Then it was all too much for him, and he collapsed, sobbing quietly.

One of the clarinettists, Nathalie, who is also a primary school teacher, swiftly took him out of the room and in a little while he returned, no longer weeping, though not yet his usual cheery self. I had been surprised at how badly he had been playing, but Nathalie told me later that half term holidays (longer here) mean that some children forget everything they knew before.

I signalled to T that he should help himself to the biscuits I had brought. He needed little prompting – and cheered up immediately. Indeed he crept back when Christophe was concentrating on the wind section and grabbed enough to hand out to the other children. Eventually Christophe got the message and distributed the boxes for everyone. I was so pleased that the biscuits had helped rescue T – as well as the other children finding sight-reading music too difficult.

At the end of our two-hour marathon, there were still quite a few biscuits left in two of the three boxes. Most members of the orchestra are adults, who were polite rather than greedy about the biscuits. I asked the kids if they would like to take the rest home. The girls, including Lilou, my delightful ten-year-old partner, carefully shared out one box and T (the only boy that day) enthusiastically took the other home.


It’s the end of the school year and over the past two weeks I have taken part in five auditions organised by the Ecole de Musique.

I think the term ‘audition’ rather than ‘concert’ is used to reflect the fact that these are seen as occasions for friends and family to hear what we have been working on. There is none of the formality or pursuit of perfection of a real concert.

That does not stop me having my usual performance nerves, which make me increasingly angry and frustrated. Why can’t I overcome that sense of panic? Some people have nerves before a concert and then seem to be able to put that behind them once they play the first note. I notice that is the case, for example, with our very competent percussionist. I, on the other hand, seem unable to focus on the task in hand: to concentrate above all on both the technical demands of a performance and the musicality.

The first audition, two weeks ago, was given by adult students at the Ecole. In the morning lesson I was pleased with the way I played the Allemande from Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suite I. So was my teacher, Anne. But come the evening, all those finer points that I had mastered went out of the window. Pah!

A few days later I performed the same piece before a smaller audience, with just the cellists performing. Same thing – not helped by playing without specs. I thought I had forgotten them, but at the end of the evening Anne found them on a table.

Then we had the end of term for ensembles. I was OK playing with the orchestra, but ill at ease again when I played in a trio. We were playing two dance pieces by memory with a certain degree of improvisation – not in my comfort zone. Some contributions were delightful: the students range in age from six to 80. Here are some of the youngest enjoying the limelight (more than me!).

This concert was in the auditorium of the Lycée which has an unforgiving acoustic, and the orchestra was not playing at its best. Two days later the orchestra performed again, during the Fete de La Musique (21 June – a big event here, with bands playing all over town). We were in the Temple, which has a forgiving acoustic (ie rather too much echo!0, the orchestra and conductor, Christophe, were much more at ease. We played well (for us) and enjoyed ourselves – even me.

Last night I played in a couple of pieces in another audition. One of the pieces was Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance. I keep telling people if they knew the words, they would be quite put off, but instead several like the music because they hear it at rugby matches!

Well, it’s all over for a year. If you discount the time off to have a hernia operation last autumn, I have almost managed a full year’s cello playing – the first time for six years! Now for the holiday work: I have to complete work on the Courante, which follows the Bach Allemande, and Anne has given me a whole lot of exercises and pieces to fill up the summer.

A year ago

Today a year ago was my first day in the Clinique in Ganges after having been rushed into hospital with a perforated duodenal ulcer.

What a nightmare that was. And it was the first of three health dramas: I was back in an ambulance six weeks later for what turned out to be an intestinal occlusion. Then in September I was back a third time, for an operation to have the occlusion and hernia fixed – side effects of the cancer treatment in 2015.

Charlotte, my lovely phsyio, was reminding me of this today. No wonder she and the GP are so firm that it is too early to contemplate having my arthritic knee replaced. Trouble is that the history with the duodenal ulcer means that all anti-inflammatories are banned, including products rubbed on locally.

The drama a year ago happened days after the Ecole de Musique’s orchestra accompanied two Chaplin films – a thoroughly enjoyable experience had I been feeling better – and two weeks before I was due to play a solo in the end of year concert.

That is another reason I have been remembering last year. I got an email when in Lisbon saying that that there would be an end of year concert for the cellists on 11th June and would I play the Bach Allemande which I performed in April again. I am now discovering how quickly I can forget a piece if I don’t play it every day. And yet another challenge for my bad case of ‘trace’ – performance nerves.

Le traque

Tuesday night I was fizzing with frustration. I was well prepared for the Ecole de Musique’s end of term concert, but then – comme d’habitude- my performance was ruined by nerves.

As soon as I had finished the Allemande from the first Cello Suite of Bach, I wanted to play it again – properly.

I am enjoying my lessons with the cello prof, Anne, and she is painstakingly working on all the ‘mauvaises habitudes’ I have picked up as a largely self taught player.  I have actually felt the improvement in my playing.Still very much a low level amateur, but better than a year ago.  It helps that my shoulder has also been less painful, allowing my bow arm to move better.

In the morning I played for Anne and she was pleased with many of the nuances and phrasing I had achieved. Then come the actual performance in the evening, and unfortunately I was first on stage and had not properly psyched myself up. Also, the spike holder slid slightly on the floor and I was playing in an awkward position.  Too late to adjust this once I had started.

Soooo annoying.  All those little details I had worked on were forgotten, intonation was not as good as it should have been and I stumbled on one or two of the passages that were a bit more tricky. Pah!

I’m relieved I was not the only one: the violinist, Elisabeth, with whom I will be playing a trio next term, had to stop twice because either she or the pianist lost the place.

This was a concert for the adult students and the general level was not bad.  It ended with some lively singing by a chorale class of 20 pupils.  I love the singing teacher, Sabine, who teaches and conducts using her whole body with energetic enthusiasm, as you can see from this last song in the audition.

Working at the cello

It is a year since I took up the cello again, after the two operations on my right shoulder. I was scarcely able to hold the bow, but as my surgeon said, playing the cello was an excellent form of rééducation, to regain the movement in my arm.

It has not been easy. It was very painful at first, and then of course, I had three dramatic health episodes last year, so effectively I only played for six months.

So imagine my pride in at last being able to play long notes on the bow. The mobility does seem to have improved with regular cello practice.(Albeit I don’t play for very long, to the horrified astonishment of my teacher, when I confessed two weeks ago that I reckoned half an hour a day was OK).

For my weekly lessons I have spent a month working on the first movement – the Prelude – of Bach’s first cello suite. I have played it before, but Anne, my teacher, threw me a new challenge by requiring a totally different pattern of bowing. I’m getting there, but it is not easy. In a fortnight I will move on to the second movement, Allemande.

Anne is helping me to correct all the bad technical habits I have picked up in those years of playing without a teacher. I just wish I had started playing the cello when I was younger. Stamina is definitely an issue and I am never quite sure how to fit my practice in early enough in the day, while I still have the energy.

Today I am really wilting, after a session of over two hours playing in the Ecole de Musique’s orchestra! The brass instrument teacher, Christophe, took over the orchestra at the start of term. I was initially sceptical, but he turns out to be a brilliant teacher-conductor.

He is very patient, taking things slowly at first, going over problematic passages, working on intonation (particularly in the cello section!), and drawing out of us an understanding of how to play, and to listen to the others. It is a mark of his success that although some of us are completely exhausted at the end, he has had our attention the entire time. People go out of the school afterwards enthusing about their morning.

The music is very simple: it is meant for beginners, reflecting the composition of the orchestra, with children of primary school age (where are the older children, I ask) and a lot of adults (not just pensioners). I am happy to be playing easy music, concentrating on my technique and helping the other cellists. I sit next to a delightful nine-year-old, who is going to be very good indeed. I feel it is fortunate I am there because one piece, an adaptation of the West Side Story themes, is more challenging than the other three cellists can’t handle some of it yet.

Not quite the same thing as playing in a trio or quartet as I used to, but still very satisfying.

A difficult week

Wow, over a week has passed since I last wrote.  This time has been dominated by my car.  Tuesday was a busy day – first the Bréau Christmas lunch for pensioners and then an afternoon of music rehearsals.

After a morning battling with the airport’s non-functioning system of booking a parking place for next week’s trip to the UK, I was late. I climbed into my car, turned the ignition and – nothing, The lights were on, so not a flat battery, but nothing turned over and during several attempts various warning messages flashed by. Oh dear, an electronic problem.

I got to the lunch, thanks to my friends Charles and Pierre.  (Didn’t enjoy it as I had a splitting headache and 96 pensioners packed into too small a space did not help.).

Then on to my first cello event, my lesson with Anne, driving an old car belonging to Charles and Pierre’s. In between this and my next appointment, I rushed round, talking to my insurers and others, establishing that getting my car to the garage in Montpellier could cost me over €200!

This did not help my next performance, with Jean Sebastian, the pianist – my last rehearsal before next month’s concert. Nor did my headache. Then before my final musical event – rehearsing with beginners for another ‘audition’ next week, I rang my garage.

Now why did I not do that earlier?  I discovered that I was still under a service contract, despite being into my second year of ownership, and that my car would be picked up and taken to Montpellier for free.  Phew!

So Wednesday morning a guy turned up with his lorry, got the car working, thus establishing there was a problem with the battery, but insisted that the electronics needed checking over as this failure was not normal. So I said goodbye to my little car, all set to see it again the following day.

Then I started to feel ill.  I realise now the headache had been the start.  By the evening it began to feel horribly like another occlusion.  I was not in a good place.  At midnight, in a calm moment, I packed my bag in anticipation of another trip to the clinic at Ganges.

Then I was sick, very sick, twice. And miraculously by 2am I felt things calming down. I managed to doze through the rest of the night and, amazing, in the morning I felt weak but better. Emergency averted, I hoped.  Just as well, as my next challenge was getting to medical appointments in Montpellier by the afternoon.

With my borrowed car (not fit for long journeys), I drove to le Vigan, took the bus to Montpellier (what a bargain – €1.60 for 70 km) and continued by tram and then on foot (in the pouring rain) to the Clinique St Jean. I was there to see an anaesthetist, in preparation for the thermocoagulation injection into my spine next month. Then on, still in freezing rain, to an appointment with a specialist physio, who measured my mobility before the event and will see me again after.

I had hoped to return in my car, but of course it was not ready, so back home by tram and bus. Actually it was a jolly occasion.  I sat at the front and one of my neighbours said as I entered “Ah, voici la violoncelliste”. She was a former councillor in le Vigan who used to attend our concerts regularly.  The woman next to me was also very cheery (I kept quiet when she enthused about the gilets jaunes). The driver joined in the conversations too.  I discovered his family have the magnificent old house at the far end of the Vieux Pont, the splendid romanesque bridge in le Vigan.

Thursday, after thankfully an uneventful night, I was back in the bus to Montpellier to collect my car.  This was a three hour journey – bus followed by two trams, so I was relieved to find that my car was indeed ready.  And even more relieved that I did not have to pay a penny.  (I don’t like the fact that the receptionist at this huge Mercedes and Smart garage greets me by name – I have had uncomfortably too many visits here in the last year.) Nobody could explain the electronic fault, but they replaced the battery, rebooted the electronics system and ran various tests.  I still love my car, despite its heavy reliance on electronics and potentially expensive bills in the future.

Oh and I forgot to mention that I had been ringing Lionel, my builder, regularly, chastising him for not coming to look at my roof leak. This week he came, apologetic for the long delay.  The crack in the cement at the top of the roof was found (caused he thought by the summer heat) and repaired, so hopefully all is now well.

Lionel had brought his team from a bigger job the other side of Ganges.  He said that there was now so little money available for building in the le Vigan area that he had had to move his business to places between Ganges and Montpellier.  Another worrying indicator that the economic life of our area is in jeopardy.

Now this weekend I must practise the cello to make up for the three days of not touching my instrument.

Scraping away

I can’t think of an appropriate equivalent to ‘fiddling’ (in a pejorative sense) to describe my unsatisfactory efforts on the cello. So maybe I will settle on ‘scraping’ and yesterday was a day spent scraping away.

In the morning I practised my Mendelssohn at home and felt quite pleased with myself at managing to play the two pages without stopping,  and ready for the afternoon at the Ecole de Musique.  Given I still cannot lift more than two kilos, my friend Christine comes at midday on Tuesdays to put my cello in the car.  Once at the école, people rush to help me, thank goodness.

My lesson with Anne went much better than last time.  She commented that it was clear that my right shoulder was getting more flexible, as I was coping better with the long slurred passages.  (These are particularly difficult for me on the A string – the one I play on the most – as it requires me to raise the arm more in the air than the lower strings.) I felt like commenting that the improvement was also the result of my putting in a bit more practice!

We then played some exercises involving shifting between some positions that I am not accustomed to.  For the benefit of non-players shifting positions is the way one moves the fingers of the left hand from one position to another on the same string. You do this, for example, in order to avoid playing an open string, which makes a different sound, to continue a passage on one string, or to be able to play higher and higher, on the A string in particular.

The most commonly used positions on the cello are 1st and 4th, so now I was practising, for example, jumping from the 2nd or 3rd to 5th. There is a whole technique to sliding up the hand (and not leaving the thumb behind) and not landing on the right note just by luck!  Basically it requires a good ear, good technique and lots of practise to train the brain where to shift up to.

Later in the afternoon I played the Mendelssohn with Jean Sebastian, the pianist.  That was a bit of a disaster.  I managed to get through the piece, but badly.  JS was very nice when he reported back to Anne, but I have to somehow make the Song sing with fluidity, rather than hear the evident attempts I’m making to hold onto the rhythm in syncopated passages! Two more weeks to get it right … …

My confidence was restored in the the final session, when I played with another adult pupil who is struggling to play in tune.  There I have a new challenge: Anne wants me to improvise on my line in a tune based on a Jewish prayer.  She plays a lot in bands playing jazz and modern music and is quite keen on improvisation.

I can see lots of the benefits of improvising  -to better communicate with other musicians, to truly listen to music rather than just playing the notes in front of you, to think ahead, to be creative – but it’s that bit I find scary.  I don’t think I’m creative.  We are playing this piece in the end of term session with beginners (the Mendelssohn is in the more advanced session) and Anne wants me to improvise in front of people.  No way!

Made in China

Last week I bought a cello bow.  I took back the carbon bow I had been playing on loan and asked M. Becker, the luthier, what else he had at the lower end of the cello bow range.

The carbon bow was definitely an improvement on my old bow, but it physically did not feel comfortable. M. Becker agreed: choice of bow is a complex mixture of what sort of music you are going to play, the character of individual cellos and what you find comfortable.

I was looking for something with a bit more weight and perhaps a wider range of sound qualities.  Ideally I should have brought along my cello, but this was too big a challenge physically, so I tried out two or three bows on M. Becker’s cellos.

Eventually I picked a wood rather than carbon bow, but with a huge feeling of guilt. The bow is made with Pernambuco wood, from South America, an endangered species, but still regarded as the best wood in the world for bows, with the right balance of flexibility yet strength. Apparently there is some sort of association of bow makers which is campaigning for a replanting program. I would gladly contribute to it, to assuage my guilt.

My bow cost 300€ and this is considered quite a reasonable sum. My hard up cello teacher has just bought hers for €800 and many professional players pay thousands.

I was taken aback to discover it was made in China, but it proved hard to find anything made in Europe in my price range.  M. Becker said that there were some excellent Chinese bow makers these days.  And besides, China has apparently stockpiled a significant part of the world’s supply of Pernambuco!

Anne, my teacher, was politely approving of the bow, though she clearly prefers (so do I) the slightly heavier weight of hers. As she said, I can always decide later to sell it and upgrade to a better one.

To recover from this purchase, I once again went to Alain’s for lunch, sitting at the table next to his kitchen, chatting to him as he prepared some excellent magnet de canard.

And now there are no more excuses for not getting my cello to sing out during my Mendelssohn piece. Oh yes there is one excuse – or rather explanation – le trac – my old enemy, performance nerves.I played really badly at my lesson with Anne, on Tuesday, and then with Jean Sebastian, the accompanist. I have a month in which to find a way not to lurch from one  dangerous passage to another.


Playing the cello again

It is over five months since the perforated ulcer put a dramatic stop to all music making. I am now resuming my cello playing, but it’s hard work.    The problematic right shoulder is still a major obstacle and a long period with no physiotherapy has not helped.

I am still limited to lifting a maximum of two kg (not much more than my handbag). But I have worked out a way to slide the cello off the spare bed (the spare room is doubling up as music room now), over my knee and into position in front of me.  And on Tuesdays (music day) I have arranged that my friend Christine will come and put the cello into the car for me. (At the music school there are plenty of people to get it up the stairs for me.)

I had my first lesson on Tuesday, playing  Mendelssohn’s ‘Song without Words’ which I been working on in the spring.  I think Anne, my teacher, is probably a bit tired of hearing it, but as I explained to her, the relentless passages of sustained bowing on the A string are a form of physiotherapy for my shoulder.  The aim is to not seize up with the effort of lifting my bow arm out so far. Anyhow, she wants me to play it in the end of term concert in December, so I have to arrange to practise it with the piano teacher (appositely called Jean Sebastian…) who will accompany me.

Before then I have to sort out what to do with my bow, which is pretty well at the end of its useful life – it was a cheap one I got for Jude when she was about 12. It is somewhat warped and now half bald. I have given it a hard life and it is to be given some respite by being rehaired.

On Thursday I chummed my friend, Dessa, to Montpellier and we started the day by taking my bow to the luthier (always a pleasure, as he is a nice man, a genuine craftsman, with a lovely first floor atelier, crammed with instruments, in a grand nineteenth century building with a splendid over the top marbled and mirrored entrance and magnificent staircase).

If I get a second bow, this old one can become my backup. Bows can be incredibly expensive – thousands rather than hundreds – and my level of playing does not justify a big investment.  So I discussed with M. Becker, the luthier, the relative merits of a carbon fibre bow rather than the traditional wood (ideally an expensive Brazilian wood called Pernambuco).  I get the impression that in the sub-thousand range I might get more quality for my bucks going for carbon.

M. Becker has lent me a cheap(ish) carbon bow to try out while he is repairing my bow.  When I first played it yesterday I was staggered by the difference: it is so much easier to get a good, strong sound.  Of course this could just be because mine was half bald.  I suspect if my playing ever improved (huh!) I would find the colours less subtle.  But meanwhile it has convinced me that I am definitely buying a new bow next week.

Dessa enjoyed her little visit into this world of musical instruments.  We then moved on to lunch at my favourite restaurant – outside, since we had not booked, but amazingly the rain held off until we had finished.  Then off for Dessa’s checkup with her (and my) surgeon, Marion Bertrand, who greeted me with great friendliness. And we rounded off our day at one of our favourite places, the Apple Centre, where Dessa bought the new iPad (yes, I’m envious).

Ciné concerts a success

Well, the two performances of the music composed by the school percussion teacher, Axel, went well.  There were some hiccups, but on the whole, bravo à nous.

In rehearsal I had thought the first was just a cacophony of sound, but I realised finally it was very clever, and synchronised well with the film, the Immigrant (so I am told, as we had our backs to the screen and still haven’t seen it).

The music for the Vagabond (continuing Axel’s theme of migration and immigration) was more conventional modern music and was so much better balanced in the cinema than in our rehearsals in a crowded room, where the brass and percussion dominated.

I did not play well on the second day as – apart from having forgotten to bring new batteries for the music stand lights – I was feeling feeling nauseous. Still, I felt well enough to celebrate with about 20 of the adult players in the cafe in the central place of le Vigan.  A very nice crowd, both teachers and fellow students.

The nausea, however, continues, competing with my back problems to keep me awake at night, as I don’t feel at all well.  I’m hanging in there till Thursday when I see my doctor and hope this is something minor and passing.

Meanwhile I had a good cello lesson today and made some progress in accurate zooming up to fifth position on the A string.  I need this if I am to play the Mendelssohn in tune on 26th June. The big question is still have I the strength and stamina to play the long notes with the right arm/shoulder.