Blog: Cutting Through the Noise

Blog of Cellist Joshua Roman
Rockin' Little Rock

Home sweet home. Wait, this is O’Hare again... and yet I recognize more shops around this gate than I do around any of the other places I’ve been in the last few months. If only I could do laundry here, too!

On the way back to New York from Arkansas, looking forward to a longer stretch at home where I can explore some of the ideas that have been ruminating and really focus on the Popper Project. Midge is still reeling from the unintended insult by a woman in near the security line at the first airport, who decided that instead of a cello, she was a "guitar with a gland problem". I tried to convince her that it wasn’t a big deal, that it was better than "hey, is that a coffin?", but it seems she’s going to be stubborn until I can coax some soothing Bach out of the strings later.

This trip was quite a lot of fun. I reconnected with some old school-friends who were in the Arkansas Symphony, and heard some great jazz in between rehearsals and the concerts, where we performed the Schumann Cello Concerto. That link will take you to a short video I made about the Schumann prior to the trip. Here's a link to a very interesting radio interview on UALR, the NPR affiliate in Little Rock. The conductor for the week was George Hanson, they are in a conductor search right now and he was visiting from his home with the Tucson Symphony.

I also took a photo during our visit to a local school, the Episcopal Collegiate School.

This Shot from the Stage at Episcopal Collegiate School

These kids were great, and listened attentively and participated with questions and answers during our 45 minute presentation. At the end I told them I wanted to take a photo with my iPhone to post on Facebook, and many of them have tagged themselves or their friends since the photo went up. I’ve been using Chase Jarvis’ camera filter application for the iPhone: Best Camera. It’s a lot of fun, very easy to use and has turned me into a big fan of taking pictures. I also wandered around downtown Little Rock several times, and saw the Market and some historical buildings as well as a pedestrian bridge which I crossed over into North Little Rock. The view was beautiful (lucky weather!) and I got some artsy photos out of it which I've posted on facebook.

This week look out for a cool surprise collaboration on the way, as well as more from the Popper Project. Before I leave, I was reminded with the whole mistaken-cello thing...

What did one casket say to the other casket? Is that you coffin?

A Footbridge Across the Arkansas River

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


I am often asked about my cello, Midge, and I'm very happy to play the beautiful instrument I have been loaned. She's a late 19th century Venetian cello by Giulio di Eugenio Degani (translate: Giulio Degani, son of Eugenio Degani). He started at a young age and made my cello when he was only 24! We fit very comfortably, Midge is tall and rather skinny, and has a very powerful and sweet sound. If you check out my blog post from Chicago you can follow the video links to see us playing Bach and more on Chicago tv stations.

Midge and I backstage, happy to be together

So you're probably wondering how she got the name Midge. Well, it wasn't easy to find out, and it took a lot of prodding. Her inside label actually says:

"Degani Giulio Di Eugenio

premiato con gran diploma d'onore in Milano e medeglia d'oro in Torino

Anno 1899 Fece in Venezia"

But I figured it would take too long to say all of that every time. So I made a list of all the possible names for a cello, and narrowed it down to five. Bella, Brunhilde and others were among the final possibilities. To finish the process I wrote the five on a piece of paper and kept it on the music stand for several weeks. It became increasingly obvious that the cello was responding better when I looked at "Midge". So there was no fighting it! Ironically, it turns out that the extremely generous purchasers of this fine instrument felt that her full name was "Dame Margaret", and "Midge" is a great nickname for said monicker. Fancy that.

The following is some historical background on Midge's maker and his father. I would like to thank Darnton and Hersh for providing the information and photos below.

Eugenio Degani

The central figure of the modern Venetian school of violin making, Eugenio Degani, was born in Montagnana (located in the province of Padua) in 1842. Eugenio Degani moved to Venice in 1888 after the death of his father, Domenico Degani, a documented violin maker whose works are apparently scarce. Eugenio's initial training was most likely with his father and his work would appear to have been influenced by another maker in Padua, Gaetano Chiocchi.

Eugenio Degani participated in a number of exhibitions receiving awards in Naples, Milan, Paris and a Diploma of Honor in London. He also trained many of the better known makers who worked in Venice in the first quarter of the 20th Century including Giovanni Schwarz, Ettore Siega and his son GiulioDegani.

Eugenio Degani's personal style is exemplified by cord-like edgework that is accentuated by purfling laid close to the edge, deeply carved scrolls with a thin volute and a beaded edge, a distinctive outline with a strong and consistent f-hole design, and varnish that ranges in color from brown to amber with hints of red, orange, or yellow in color. The purfling in many examples is fashioned in a "five-ply" manner with two white and three narrow black strips layered in alternation. This technical detail is also found in some instruments by Eugenio's son Giulio, and can be traced back to Gaetano Chiocchi. Eugenio Degani 's arching tends to be fairly low: flat enough for ample power with just enough arch overall to add color and flexibility to the tone. On the whole Eugenio's work is neat and consistent, and displays both a classic conception of instrument making and a freedom of individual spirit. EugenioDegani 's influence on his pupils in terms of style, form, and technical discipline is clearly manifest and it is easy to mistake a very fine example of an instrument by Schwartz or Siega, or particularly Giulio Degani for the work of Eugenio Degani.

Giulio Degani

Son and student of Eugenio Degani, Giulio was born in Montagnana 1875, worked in Venice until 1922 when he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. During his life he was awarded medals in various competitions including Turin in 1898 and 1911, and Milan in 1906. GiulioDegani died in Cincinnati in 1955

Both in terms of stylistic and technical features Giulio's work shows a definitive connection to his father's work and to the modern Venetian school over which his father had such a profound influence. In addition to the characteristic outline, and the design of the f-holes and scrolls, many of Giulio's earlier instruments display the cord-like edge work and  "five-ply" purfling that is commonly associated with the work of his father and at his best, Giulio Degani produced instruments the equal of those of Eugenio. Giulio Degani probably began his career by assisting his father in his workshop, gradually assuming critical roles in more important aspects of the work. In some Eugenio Degani instruments one can detect the work of Giulio in one aspect or another and in some periods the work of father and son is all but impossible to separate. Later instruments from Giulio Degani memorialize his evolution away from some of the more distinctive features of the work of his father: the cord-like edge is less pronounced, and the varnish while still retaining shades of brown is harder and thinner however these instruments still display the unmistakable Degani imprint. Late in his career, Giulio Degani became somewhat less consistent in his attention to technical details but from a tonal point of view his instruments are nearly always highly functional.

Between them, Eugenio and Giulio Degani were responsible for a considerable output of high quality violins, violas, and 'cellos. The successful combination of power and color make them desirable for concert use and the physical attractiveness of the work only adds to that desirability. Not surprisingly, the instruments of Eugenio and Giulio Degani are among the most sought after of the 20th century.


Oh yeah, before I forget, in case any of you are looking for a cello I came across this ad ;)

For sale: Cello, German, 19th century. Excellent condition. Recently tuned.

Good Ol' Lexington

Variations on a Rococo Theme by Tchaikovsky. A VERY different work from the previous week's Shostakovich Concerto. Not too much is shared mood-wise between these two Russian giants. This week was a lot of fun, I met many new people and also got to see an old friend as well as my Aunt Judy and Cousin Sarah, who came to see the Friday night concert. It was another orchestral debut - my first time with the Lexington Philharmonic. It is also the first season for their conductor,  Scott Terrell. The Maestro seemed to be working with the orchestra very well, and I was happy to have the opportunity to face the group during our first rehearsal in order to get a sense of the players' engagement. Throughout the week the details came together more and more, and by the time we got to the performance I felt that we were really able to let go and just have fun.

During the week there were also several interviews, and I was able to give a lecture/presentation for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Kentucky which was well attended by a very inquisitive group. On Thursday I met the professor of cello at Eastern Kentucky University, Nathan Jasinski - a bright young cellist who has many friends in common with myself. We headed to Richmond, KY where I gave a masterclass for his students and many of the other string students at the school.

In between all of this I hit up many of the downtown restaurants at the recommendation of Maestro Terrell. On in particular stood out: Stella's. At this good Kentucky one-room homestyle deli in the perfect yellow house a few blocks from my hotel, the food was all super-tasty but the big sell is something called "Mary Porter Pie". Apparently, Mary Porter was making a pie out of the church cookbook, and didn't realized that two of the pages were stuck together. The two different recipes mixed in a way that was too good not to repeat, and a legend as well as an amazing pie were born. I also got to try a good Indian restaurant and an Italian place (Bella Notte) that had calamari I won't soon forget. And of course, being in Kentucky, I had to have some Maker's Mark and plenty of Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale during the course of the week while the Maestro, new staff at the Phil and I went exchanged greetings from mutual friends and played connect-the-dots with our musician backgrounds.

My poor driver, an intern at UK, had to pick me up at 4:30 AM for the flight back to NY. I had the best delay ever - being a frequent flier on United paid off when our plane was held up for repairs and the most loyal customers were placed on another flight where Midge and I were upgraded to First Class! Of course, I slept the whole flight and missed enjoying all of the fancy privileges I was so happy about but I DID get to lean extra far back...

Now, a few days in NY with catching up, meetings and sheet music/clothes changing out before it's out to San Francisco to spend some time with my girlfriend and work on some interesting projects with composer friends out there. Exciting stuff that I will divulge when the time is right!

Oh, by the way, a traveling thought: Why does E.T. have such big eyes?

Because he saw his phone bill.


Midge enjoying the benefits of the frequent flier program. Extra bridge room in First Class!

A Week in Chicagoland

Sitting in the airport – O’Hare is a place I’ve come to know quite well, but this time I arrive almost two hours early for my flight! It’s a bit too crowded to practice at the gate, so I’m glad I have my laptop as a carry-on. I had a lot of fun this week in Chicago. It was surprisingly cold for October, but most of the activities I engage in are inside anyway, and the hotel room temperature knob and I have become fast friends. The level of intensity around the engagement was enough to keep the blood flowing at a good rate, too! There were television interviews on ABC 7 Chicago and Chicago Tonight (WTTW/PBS - where I performed Julie-O by Mark Summer as well as the Prelude from the 1st Suite by J.S. Bach) , along with the Sun-Times interview I had done before arriving in Chicago. Following the TV airing of Julie-O there was enough positive feedback that I ended up playing it as an encore after both nights’ performances, with the addition of J.S. Bach’s Sarabande from the 1st Suite on the second concert. Fun stuff!

The TV spots were done on the first day, and Kirk Muspratt (the conductor) and I had most of our discussion about the piece at the tv station in the lobby and dressing room, and then in the car on the way to the rehearsal in Glen Ellyn, where we basically went straight to the stage and started with the orchestra cold. This full-court press seemed not too out of character for the Maestro Dude, who is intensely passionate and known to stay up all hours of the night studying the historical context and intricacies of every part in the score. This fantastic drive was a good match for the "fork in brain" quality in the demented Shostakovich Concerto no. 1, and especially the second night the orchestra responded and brought across the irony and biting sarcasm in the piece. This drive also carried past the musical ideas into his approach with the audience. In fact, the whole orchestra is organized in a way designed to make the audience feel welcome. Not only does the Maestro speak from stage, but during intermission he joins players from the orchestra in mingling with the audience in the lobby. And after the show, there’s "Cookies with Kirk", all in all a very hands on experience.

It was very balanced week, media appearances, audience outreach and energetic musical endeavors. Thank you, New Philharmonic! Now, after an evening off in the Chicago area (including a visit to the Belgian Beer place Hopleaf), here I sit with Midge (my cello) in a familiar terminal, watching the airplane pull up to our gate. Next stop: Lexington!

Blurry Michigan Avenue at Night from my Fancy College of DuPage Car