Blog: Cutting Through the Noise

Blog of Cellist Joshua Roman

The Popper Project: Part One

The Popper Project. Even just saying makes me feel a range of emotions far beyond the norm. I get a little rush when I think about it - pure excitement about the idea of doing a "project". I also feel like a complete nerd... as a cellist who is geeking out about cello etudes. The shiver of energy also has a bit of trepidation - maintaining a practice schedule that allows for constant improvement, setting unedited recordings of very challenging music out for anyone to see (in particular cellists, who know these very well!), meeting my own goals and expectations...

But it feels good. It feels right. The Popper Project is exactly what I need right now. I've been asked many times about my motivations for starting on this wacky enterprise, and the answer is always "to make myself better at the cello". And to be sure, that's been primary the goal from the start, though I've realized and utilized other aspects of the project that are helpful as well.

The View from the Other Side of the Popper Project

The origin of the idea dates back quite a ways - while I was in school at the Cleveland Institute of Music studying with Richard Aaron I tore through a number of caprices and etudes. At one point he had the idea of producing a DVD of the Popper Etudes (known as "The High-School of Cello Playing") in high-def with multiple cameras etc., and by the time this idea fell by the wayside I had already worked up a good number of the etudes "just in case". As a result of exploring the etude performance/recording concept, I decided that the Piatti Caprices seemed like a good challenge and less of a time commitment, and I actually ended up performing all 12 of them on one of my school degree recitals, as well as playing them as a set a few other places around the Midwest.

So the seed was already there as earlier this year I was practicing and wanted to take a day just to make my way through a large and challenging work. After reading a couple of concertos I saw the folder I have my Popper Etudes in and thought it would be fun to read through all of them. Somewhere in the middle I realized how beneficial this was, and decided I should make it a part of my daily practicing. "What if I work them all up to a high level?" led to "What if I posted them online to force myself to take it very seriously?" and next thing I knew The Popper Project was born.

The original idea of recording and posting an etude a week seemed like a good way to make my practicing more effecient. However, as I actually began the project and realized I couldn't put other things on hold just to record Poppers, the postings soon fell behind. I also started to learn so much from the recording process that I would be recording an etude and just want to keep doing it over and over again, as each time important ideas, new and old, were further solidified in my playing. Quite addicting... and every Popper recording has given me more insight into practicing and performing other pieces. One of the most valuable things (besides playback and analysis) is the line of focus it creates. For me, recording is a performance, and it is much easier to feel the need to be "in the zone" the whole time, and this forces me to concentrate on the connection and focus from one section, phrase, or note to the following. This practicing for a performance as opposed to practicing for mistakes - expecting them and stopping every few measures - results in a more positive and creative experience.

Even so, recently I decided that it's time to add the time limit back in. I have to accept the fact that this might mean less refinement, but I've explored the depth of the practicing/recording process, and now it's time to see if I can distill it and make it more effecient. The goal now is to find the optimal balance of reflection and action. Yesterday I posted no. 13, and I would have loved to spend a few more days working it up and discovering new ways to think and play the etude, but in truth would I ever have been satisfied? No, at a certain point it's time to let go and move on or the process gets stuck as well. If by the end of the 40 I am to have the refinement I want, in the time constraints I set for myself, it's time to redistribute the challenge for a while.

So for those of you who follow The Popper Project, you can expect a much higher frequency of postings. And hopefully you will also see marked improvement through the etudes, this personal challenge for myself is out there for anyone to observe. This won't be the last blog post on the project, even though it's already longer than I intended there is so much more to say, and I haven't even gotten halfway through the Popper Etudes yet! I will write more about the specific things I'm learned at a later date, but I definitely wanted to start with some background. Thanks to all who have shown support, it makes the hours practicing alone feel less solitary for sure. Oh, and to address a debate that was brought to my attention on Popper Etude no. 6: I simply left two beats out by ending the chromatic pattern on E instead of F at the end of measure 58. Whoops! My bad. Maybe I shouldn't have had so much sour candy before recording ;) Will I repost? Maybe later, but there's other things in these etudes I'd like to go back and redo as well (including technical details like very poor mic quality on the early etudes, and a complete failure on no. 12 in Lexington when I plugged the mic into audio out instead of audio in)... for now that's not the primary goal of the project. Gotta get through them all first!

So again, thanks to all who follow and support my crazy and nerdy and super fun endeavor.

There's gotta be some joke in there about baby poopers, whoops I mean poppers... any suggestions?

Oh Beautiful Poppers - "Bound" with the Same Red Paper Sheaf I Used When it First Started Falling Apart Over a Decade Ago