The cello as a percussion instrument

Romanian Garon
Romanian Gardon player (photo by Jack Campin)

This is going to be a quick post as I have to go teach this afternoon and then rehearse with the IU Southeast Orchestra tonight.  But I had come across what’s called a “pogo cello” just a bit ago.  The wikipedia entry for the instrument states:

The pogo cello was created in the 1950s in Brooklyn, New York by a chemist, Mack Perry, the husband of a music educator, Sylvia Perry. Perry patterned it after a similar instrument called a bumbass (boombas, boomba, or boom bass) also known as a stump fiddle (or stumpf fiddle). Pogocellos were manufactured in Brooklyn and Far Rockaway, New York and in New Jersey. The pogocello was sold in the United States for decades as a musical instrument for children, but many adults also bought them for themselves.

Pogocellos have been seen in marching bands in Iowa and in the Mummers’ parade in Philadelphia, PA on New Year’s Day. Similar instruments may be found today in Australia, Czechoslovakia and in Sweden (a Devil’s fiddle or Devil’s stick) and in other countries, for example at Oktoberfests. They have been played in blues, soul, bluegrass and other kinds of musical groups. Television show host, Garry Moore, played one on his show in the 1950s. Since 1975 the Gloucester Hornpipe and Clog Society, an American traditional music group which plays Celtic, French Canadian, Appalachian, nautical, and other kinds of folk music, has featured a pogocello made by woodcarver Rita Dunipace, and pogocello player David “Doc” Rosen.

A great video describing and demonstrating the instrument:

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Alternative Strings and the New Golden Age of String Playing

Alternative Strings
Julie Lyonn Lieberman’s Alternative Strings by Amadeus Press (2004)

For some time ASTA (American String Teacher’s Association) has been focusing on training string music teachers to develop Alternative String programs.  Last year I had decided that I need to formally join the organization (which I haven’t done yet but still intend on doing) so that I can be better informed about the programs, literature and techniques being created by those involved in the organization.

ASTA apparently has an “Alternative Styles Award competition” which I learned about after reading Rory Williams “Report from an ASTA Roundtable: ASTA roundtable finds alternative-styles education moving a step ahead—slowly” in the Strings magazine from the conference in Georgia in 2009.  Here’s what sparked my interest in the organization:

Vighnesh Viswanathan, 14, milled about the exhibit hall with his father and sister at the 2009 American String Teachers Association National Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. What set him apart from the several hundred teachers, dealers, and performers that visited that day in mid-March was not just his age, but his name badge, which proudly proclaimed “winner.”

“It’s for the Alternative Styles Awards competition,” he said, smiling from ear to ear.

One of 12 string players chosen out of 35 applicants, Viswanathan, of Westford, Massachusetts, won the Junior Division of the “Recognition of Established Traditions” category. His specialty: Carnatic (Indian) violin.

“He studies classical music, too,” his father says.

Viswanathan is part of a growing number of bilingual string players—those who can play both classical and alternative styles—who are seeking a well-rounded education. But nearly a decade after ASTA first embraced alternative styles as a viable pedagogy, the question remains whether teachers and institutions—from the elementary to the graduate level—can accommodate these students.

Continue reading “Alternative Strings and the New Golden Age of String Playing”

Sparrow Quartet R.I.P.

Sparrow Quartet
Sparrow Quartet

Yesterday I finally had the opportunity to see the wonderful Sparrow Quartet–and apparently not a second too soon as that concert was to be their last as a group. The group is an all-star cast of Americana/Bluegrass/Old-Time music: Abigail Washburn (banjo and voice); Béla Fleck (banjo); Casey Driessen (violin); and Ben Sollee (cello). As Carey and Ben embark on promoting their latest solo CDs with tours, it looks as if we’ll only have their recent cd and various bootleg youtube videos left to hear and see.

The Sparrow Quartet is, for all intents and purposes, a chamber ensemble. Some of their arrangements just aren’t necessarily pop-radio friendly. This is no criticism as their tunes just sparkle with energy and are incredibly interesting and entertaining. Also, their selection of the old and new (they also perform their own–or primarily Abigail’s–tunes) are a perfect balance between Presentation and Preservation (IMO, the two functions primary functions of any art music ensemble–more about this in a future post). This is, I believe, should be what all Classical (I understand the usage of “Classical” is a bit contentious, here) music ensembles should be striving for in a climate of dwindling audiences (and correspondingly, funds) and relatively static institutions (e.g. Symphony Orchestras, Opera companies, Stadium Rock shows).

I have to say that I really, really dug the Chinese tunes. I hope that at least Abby will continue to write more of her own and perform more Chinese folk music in the future.