Thursday thoughts

A few things I’m smiling about this week-

1-       Any time you can do Haydn symphonies in consecutive weeks, life is good. How is it that the even the classical music world doesn’t seem to realize just what a badass he was! His music is never what it seems- the simpler it sounds, the more ingenious it is. This week it is no. 59, the Fire Symphony. Nobody seems to know why it’s called the Fire Symphony, but we needed a fire symphony for the opening concert of our fiery symphony. My current plan is to make up a blatantly false story about the work for my pre-concert lecture. Attention world, musicological fraud is being planned even as these words are written

2-       Pendleton is place you can get things fixed. This town has the best tailor on the planet- someone who can fix anything, not just do the easy and profitable jobs. We also have a great leatherworks master craftsman named Claud Smith. His shop burned down in the fire last year, but he’s back in business and is currently working on my briefcase, which nobody in the UK seemed able to fix.

3-       Our principal percussionist and stage manger John continues to be a mensch. Having decided the orchestral sleigh bells sounded too much like Leroy Anderson, he’s gotten actual sleigh bells from an ACTUAL SLEIGH. They’re covered in horse hair and about 100 years old from the look of it, but they sound fantastic, and look way cooler than the bells on a stick you usually get.

4-       My long-suffering Pendleton cello is really playing well now, almost as good as ever and is completely recovered from the crappy repair job done on it last winter. I’m making myself a promise to play a lot more cello in my next decade than I did in this one.

This reminds me- a cellist in New Mexico emailed me last week asking for help with artificial harmonics. My advice- don’t ever play a piece with artificial harmonics!

Seriously, here’s what we’re all told about these when we first come across them… “You play the lower-notated pitch by pressing down firmly with your thumb, then touch the upper pitch, usually a fourth above, lightly with your fourth finger.” Here’s my trick….. Ignore everything they taught you. Play the lower pitch with your thumb as lightly as possible. If you use the fleshy part of the thumb, you don’t need to even push the string to the fingerboard. Then, don’t be too tickly with your fourth finger- make sure it’s wedded to a clear spot on the string. So, rather than a thumb that’s 100% down and a fourth finger that’s %1 down, go for a thumb that’s 51% down and a fourth finger that’s maybe %30 down. You’ll find you can shift much more easily and the hand doesn’t get tired and shake. Also, make sure your right wrist isn’t cocked back but straight so that the fourth finger doesn’t have to stretch.

Sorry non-cellists. Boring stuff!

What is making me not smile?

1-       The rather good new coffee house at Hamley’s (NOT as good as the old, incinerated Coffee Bean, and not nearly as good as Stump Town in Portland) has taken to playing god-awful corpo-country music very loudly all day, every day. Background “music,” how do I hate thee…..

2-       The keg of TG at one of the few places in town that serves it is off and probably won’t be changed before I go. People- I only get this beer for a few precious weeks every year!

3-       Schirmer…. 

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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1 comment on “Thursday thoughts”

  1. john wilson

    Yes…I used the orchestral sleigh bells during the first rehearsal…..but to me it sounded not at all like it fit with the color of the music…..more like waiting at the mall with your children to see Santa. Although they are a bit tricky to make speak in time the sound is indeed quite nice.

    Under severe threat of very personal and permanent injury I was able to borrow this harness bell set from the Nelson family….Thank You Sue!

    I still want to know what is that stuff that sprinkles out from inside the bells…………or maybe not, on second thought……

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