Actual physical objects made of stuff · Hollow Resonant Objects · Music · Non-Work

On picking up the cello again after 30 years

For most of the last 30 years I’ve had a cello sitting in a case in a corner of the flat, unplayed. I described myself as a lapsed cellist, former cellist, sort-of cello player when younger, someone who is just not really playing these days. Occasionally I would get the cello out and tune it. I knew that I wasn’t playing, but I never officially decided that I wasn’t going to play and should get rid of this rather inconvenient instrument.

I learned the cello in County Durham in the 80s where tuition and loaner instruments were available free to anyone at a state school. It was a remarkable offer. I had a good teacher (Jim Bickel) and liked him, and I enjoyed playing music, but I was a lazy and not very talented student.

I made it into the county youth orchestra, played in a few concerts—a highlight of my whole life, really—and was eventually over-promoted into the front desk. By that point I had my own cello and definitely called myself a cellist. When I went to university I took it with me, joined an orchestra, attended a few times, got distracted, found many other fun things to do, gradually stopped playing—and then my cello was stolen.

It wasn’t recovered, and although it was insured and wasn’t fancy, the prices of such instruments had gone up quite a lot in the few years since I got it. I was only able to replace it with a worse instrument that could sound OK at times but was quite a bit harder to play. I lost the love. And 30 years passed.

A book of scales for cello. My teacher added this note in April 1987 saying “If you are to do Grade V next term, you must have memorised all scales (Grades IV and V)”. I wonder whether I did.

Late last year I opened the case and found that the strings, bridge, and tailpiece had all fallen off. The wire that connected the tailpiece to the pin at the bottom (it’s called the tailgut, I learn) had snapped, having being stored at tension and no doubt knocked around at times. I replaced it, but the moment played on my conscience and shortly after that I finally sat down to try playing again, discovering of course that I no longer knew how.

That gave me energy and I began to practise properly, finding I enjoyed it far more than I had remembered. After a couple of months I’m still doing so quite seriously. It’s going to take me a long time to become as good as I was at 18. I might not make it. But that’s my goal.

Here’s some of what I’ve found so far.


I have a lot more patience for real work—for things that involve repetitive effort. I am enjoying effort. Studies, scales, bowing exercises. Ševčík, Feuillard, Popper, Dotzauer. Anything I would have resisted as tedious when younger. (Actually I did quite like Dotzauer back then, but I still never played anything of his that I hadn’t been specifically told to. No idea why I was so negative about Popper.)

A typewritten slip inserted into Feuillard’s “Daily Exercises” proposes a proper regular workout regime. I have no recollection of this and was absolutely not responsible.

Unfortunately I can’t apply much sustained effort. My fingers hurt even with an hour a day spent playing, which is not a lot. Getting a slightly thicker A-string (Thomastik Alphayue brand—they advertise it as a bit thicker for this reason) has helped. Hope I’m not too old to build up more strength reasonably quickly.

Speaking of fingers, they’re awfully slow. Left hand speed seems to be a big limitation at the moment. I can still type quickly, so I like to think things are not hopeless, though playing calls for a far more decisive combination of strong and fast than typing.


There are lots of things I never properly got to grips with first time around. I liked to nest in first and fourth positions and only came out on special occasions. I learned other specific fingerings for individual pieces, often to a level that seems daunting now, but I didn’t cope at all well with common stretches (e.g. 1-2-4 whole tones) and I didn’t have a good instinct for the geometry of the fingerboard and where intervals sit along and across strings. I just tried to get away with it through quick switches of position.

If I have a hope now of improving on the early me, this is where it ought to lie: spotting intervals across strings and moving to lower-effort fingerings naturally. I’m not all that hopeful but I can try.

The prelude of Bach’s third cello suite with annotations by my school friend Adam. Some of this book is annotated in his hand, some in mine. I can’t remember whether I borrowed this book from him, or he from me, or whether we each had a copy and got them mixed up at some point. (Adam, if it’s yours, sorry and you can have it back if you’d like.) The annotation reads “The four great pillars on which this building stands: two at its entrance, two at its exit – Casals”. I’ve no idea where the quote comes from, I haven’t been able to find it online.


Any tune, no matter how negligible, can become a proper earworm once you’ve played it a few dozen times.

It’s not just the notes, either. The timbre of the instrument itself gets stuck in my head, so my idle brain will dwell on one phrase after another from different pieces without noticing it has moved on. Certain intervals are intrinsically appealing as well, so I will mentally replay them and exchange them with similar moments from other pieces.

A cello lying on the floor by an empty chair

And although I love the timbre of the cello, it doesn’t half spike my tinnitus. I had never really thought of it as a loud instrument before. The mute makes surprisingly little difference—probably attenuates the wrong frequencies—but a soft earplug in the worse ear helps.

My instrument does have a pretty aggressive sound. I took it to a local cello repair shop to fix a rattle in the fingerboard, and while I was there I asked if there was anything else I should do to make sure it sounded as good as possible after 30 years out of service. They looked it up and down and said “I have to tell you, this is an extremely basic instrument.” I think that was their way of doing me a kindness by saying I shouldn’t try any expensive interventions, but it wasn’t a great feeling.

If I ever find myself in a position to spend more than a grand on a better cello, I’ll justify it by telling myself that the richer, smoother timbre will be easier on the tinnitus. It’s a health-and-safety matter.


Occasionally while playing something unusually smoothly I will catch myself thinking “oh yes! this is fucking magic!” — and then I instantly become like the centipede that realises it doesn’t know how it can possibly walk with all those legs and gets tangled up and falls over.

I love this annotation from my teacher in La Cinquantaine. “Tip – glide – jumbo jet – boomerang!”

I also have a nasty tendency to read ahead in the music. I’ve always been bad at memorisation—that might have been the first real sign I had as a child that I would never be a proper musician—and I rely too heavily on having music in front of me. Especially when things are going well, I’ll drift ahead and read either the notes or the fingerings from a different bar and start playing the wrong thing.

No matter how well I seem to have learned a piece one day, I will always mess it up within the first two bars the first time I play it the following day.

I have had a couple of pleasing rediscoveries. One is that it can be easier to play a piece more quickly. If you’re struggling with putting one thing after another, play it much faster but less energetically. Sketch it. This makes things easier and more impressive at the same time, which is such a fabulous win that it should be a rare and exciting one-off life-hack, but I think it’s just normal for our brains.

The other really nice discovery is that even when I’m really tired and stupid, too dopey to work, I can still enjoy practising. It doesn’t become frustrating, at least not through simple tiredness. I become a bit easier on myself, work a little less hard, perhaps play something mellower, and that’s pleasant, and just fine.

Music · Things that Are Gone


Here’s a playlist of good David Bowie songs that I had never heard until after he died last week.

Spotify playlist
YouTube links:
Dead Against It (1993)
Up The Hill Backwards (1980)
Move On (1979)
Dancing With The Big Boys (1984) (with Iggy Pop)
I Would Be Your Slave (2002)
Girl Loves Me (2016)
You’ve Been Around [Dangers 12″] (1993) (Jack Dangers remix)
Nite Flights (1993) (Scott Walker cover)
No Control (1995)
Bring Me The Disco King (2003)
I’m Deranged (1995)
5:15 The Angels Have Gone (2002)

Most of these came out after the peak of his popularity, but they aren’t obscure at all — I was just never a fan.

The first Bowie songs I remember hearing on the radio were Modern Love and Let’s Dance, both released in 1983 when I was eleven. I thought those two were fine, though they weren’t the sort of thing I liked to think I was into at the time. (I had a big Motörhead war-pig patch on my little denim jacket. Lemmy’s death was also the end of an era.)

A few years later, a cousin introduced me to some of the Spiders from Mars period songs like Rebel Rebel and Suffragette City. I was a bit puzzled because I thought I knew Bowie as a smooth, modern 80s-sounding chap. But I didn’t get the appeal either: too much like everything else from the early 70s. Rebel Rebel even sounded like the Stones, which was definitely my dad’s music.

Back in the real timeline of the 80s, Bowie was releasing Never Let Me Down, an album seen everywhere (one of several awful record covers) but seldom played, then launching the drearily adult Tin Machine.

His next album, Black Tie White Noise, didn’t come out until 1993, when I was briefly in Berlin as a student and mostly listening to industrial music and obscure things I read about in Usenet groups. If I had been aware that David Bowie had an album out, I would certainly have ignored it. By the time of 1997’s Earthling, a jungle-influenced album released a whole two years after peak jungle with a dreadful Cool Britannia cover, it felt socially impossible to admit to liking a Bowie song ever again. And that was pretty much the end of that.

There’s been a David Bowie album, collaboration, tour, or retrospective for almost every year of my life, and I’ve never taken more than a passing interest in any of them.

I was taken by surprise, then, by how emotional I felt about his death.


What did eventually make me notice David Bowie as a figure was the connection with Iggy Pop. I think Iggy is brilliant, and I’d been a bit of a fan for a while before I eventually twigged what it was that his most interesting stuff had in common. That made me aware of the famously dramatic and productive spell for those two in Berlin the late 70s (the only albums of Bowie’s that I ever actually bought are from this period) and also an opening to a bit of a web of interesting collaborations and influences.

(Going back during the past week and filling in a lot of the songs of Bowie’s that I’ve missed during the last few decades, it’s been particularly fun to hear Iggy Pop numbers, er, pop up all over the place. China Girl — always an Iggy song to me — is well known, but there are at least three other albums that recycle songs previously recorded by him, including a straight cover of the flop lead single from Iggy’s most foolish album. A sustained friendship.)


So something of the emotion for me has to do with all that Berlin stuff. There are two aspects to that. One is the grubbily romantic idea of “pressure-cooker” West Berlin, seen from a distance as a place of hideouts, drugs, spying, longing, separation, and any other melodrama that “we” could project onto it. I’m sure this version of the city was overstated for lyrical purposes, but it probably did exist to a degree. The Berlin that fascinated and frightened me in 1993 was already a very different city, and both versions are hardly visible in today’s shiny metropolis.

The other aspect is the notion that moving to a different town in a different country could give you a new life and make your past disappear, even for someone already so celebrated — that it could really be so simple. What makes that idea available here is that Bowie didn’t just go, but then produced such different work after going that it really could appear as if his past had not gone with him.

This impression of self-effacement alongside all the self-promotion, the ability to erase the past, is a very attractive one for a pop star, and it fits also with the amount of collaborative work Bowie did. From some of the videos you can imagine that he was never happier than when playing keyboards or doing tour production for Iggy, singing backing vocals in a one-off with Pink Floyd, or playing second fiddle to Freddie Mercury or Mick Jagger.

Holes in the Ground · Music

Performance Practice as Unanticipated Pit

Last Tuesday afternoon I went to the weekly meeting of my research group.

(But this isn’t a post about work.)

2013-06-04-294_1The weekly meetings have a rotating series of themes: this week’s was “Music Performance and Expression”. Accordingly, the first part of this meeting was a bit of a concert. To open the subject, Elaine Chew (piano) and Kat Agres (cello) played part of Brahms’ first cello sonata and talked about how players coordinate with one another.

As a lapsed cellist, though never of this standard, I found it surprisingly difficult to listen to. I was surprised by how surprisingly difficult I found it. I thought about leaving, and then I decided to put on a nice plain face.

The music itself is troubling, but I don’t think that’s all of it. I listen to a bit of cello music and I know this sonata moderately well. I don’t think I have any problem with something that is only a cello performance, no matter what the music.

It’s the analytical part I have trouble with. The closer the subject gets to analysis of how it is done, the more it raises difficult questions in me. I still work in a music-related field all day. Why did I stop playing any instruments? I used to enjoy ensemble performance. Should I be turning back toward it, or is this kind of sentimental response in me a hint that it was better to let it drift away?

Academics · Code · Computers · Music

Is music recommendation difficult?

My research department works on programming computers to analyse music.

In this field, researchers like to have some idea of whether a problem is naturally easy or difficult for humans.

For example, tapping along with the beat of a musical recording is usually easy, and it’s fairly instinctive—you don’t need much training to do it.

Identifying the instrument that is playing a solo section takes some context. (You need to learn what the instruments sound like.) But we seem well-equipped to do it once we’ve heard the possible instruments a few times.

Naming the key of a piece while listening to it is hard, or impossible, without training, but some listeners can do it easily when practised.

Tasks that a computer scientist might think of as “search problems”, such as identifying performances that are actually the same while disregarding background noise and other interference, tend to be difficult for humans no matter how much experience they have.

Ground truth

It matters to a researcher whether the problem they’re studying is easy or difficult for humans.  They need to be able to judge how successful their methods are, and to do that they need to have something to compare them with.  If a problem is straightforward for humans, then there’s no problem—they can just see how closely their results match those from normal people.

But if it’s a problem that humans find difficult too, that won’t work. Being as good as a human isn’t such a great result if you’re trying to do something humans are no good at.

Researchers use the term “ground truth” to refer to something they can evaluate their work against. The idea, of course, is that the ground truth is known to be true, and computer methods are supposed to approach it more or less closely depending on how good they are. (The term comes from satellite image sensing, where the ground truth is literally the set of objects on the ground that the satellite is trying to detect.)

Music recommendation

Can there be a human “ground truth” for music recommendation?

When it comes to suggesting music that a listener might like, based on the music they’ve apparently enjoyed in the past—should computers be trying to approach “human” reliability? How else should we decide whether a recommendation method is successful or not?

What do you think?

How good are you at recommending music to the people you know best?

Can a human recommend music to another human better than a computer ever could? Under what circumstances? What does “better” mean anyway?

Or should a computer be able to do better than a human? Why?

(I’m not looking for academically rigorous replies—I’m just trying to get more of an idea about the fuzzy human and emotional factors that research methods would have to contend with in practice.)