If we think about the relationship between you and your instrument as a romance, practice can be seen as courtship. You’re getting to know about the cello, finding out about yourself, and making your intentions known. You want this…most ardently.
This part of the “small change, big results” series will use period drama pieces to illustrate (with English restraint) the next hallmark of excellent practice: being able to modulate between playing and actual practice.
Practice is no laughing matter. Look at Hugh Laurie’s reaction to the actress who played Umbridge in Harry Potter. This is how the cello sees you when you sit down to “practice” but all you do is play. It has no patience for your insolence, and it will go back to reading its newspaper while you faff about and waste time.
Practice and playing are qualitative terms. Neither happens because you declare yourself doing one or the other. Here are the differences:
When you play a passage:
- you run and repeat sections
- your mind’s eye may pinball around to a number of different things
- you are hearing yourself
- you may or may not stop when things get weird
- you may or may not slow down for more difficult sections
- you do not have a goal other than a wish to “sound good”
When you practice a passage:
- you have a specific goal that can be demonstrated, and is distilled down to the simplest technical element: So, not “I wanna sound good” but “Using the techniques described by my instructor, I will experiment with bow placement and pressure until the string crossing sounds smoother.” Not “I wanna play in tune” but “Using a tuner, I will pay the closest attention to my left hand technique, modifying the spaces between my fingers until they are more accurate.” If you don’t formulate these goals, what you’re doing is not practicing, but flailing. You may progress a bit, but only when luck is on your side. Luck is so rarely on our side. I did this for years, my friends. I feel your pain. In this next gif, I’m the Dowager Countess and you’re Lady Mary and we’re having a moment of solidarity. FEEL THE SOLIDARITY!
- you investigate, one at a time, aspects of your playing
- physical technique <—cough, cough COUGH
- tone quality
- rhythmic accuracy
- elements of finesse, such as even length notes and quality of attack
- relaxation and breathing
- phrasing, emoting, musicality
- you are running the passage at a speed at which you can actually play the notes. (if there is even one note that escapes you, the answer is NOT that you are a crappy cellist. It just means you need to slow the whole thing down until it’s in your hand.)
- your mind’s eye is focused on the quality of your efforts
- you are listening
Each of these bullet points could be a blog post in itself. In fact, if you search the archives of this site, I bet you’ll find that they already are. The most important thing to remember is that practice is an investigation, searching for weaknesses. You are not practicing if you are not actively seeking out problems and devising actionable solutions. The easiest way to enter practice mode is to simply slow down and use your inner freak-out detector to tell you how slow is slow enough. My recommendation is to play so slowly that you get the sense that no matter what happens, your blood pressure won’t go up. This is frequently glacial speed. Jurassic speed. Watching grass grow speed. Zen speed. Embrace it. It’s how I practice, and although I’m no Yo-Yo, I get around the cello pretty well. It works!
One quick note about playing. I’d like to advocate for your two modes to be practice and performance, skipping right over the mindlessness associated with playing. Performance has an entirely different set of characteristics to get good at:
- if you make a mistake, WHO CARES?! do not let errors contaminate the measures that come after them!
- you are playing along with what you hear in your head
- your mind’s eye is trained on your breathing and generating the emotive quality you’re after: as a beginner, that might just be “calm” or “solid”. Nothing wrong with that, young Jedi. You’ll get to full-blown Jane Austen level drama soon enough.
- yes I’m aware that I just ruined the continuity of the whole theme of this post with a Star Wars reference
- there is a spirit of freedom and fun- this is not the time to analyze
- this is an offering, and not about perfection. If we wanted to hear perfect music, we would listen to robots and computers drone on all day. The risk of playing an instrument is everything and nothing at all. As an amateur, no true harm can come of it, even if you ruined every note in front of every person who matters to you- unless you attach the significance of ego to it. Music is a gift, given freely. What a wonderful thing to share.
Keep practice and performance well separated! Then you can practice smarter, not longer or harder, without worrying about whether today will be the lucky day that something actually gets done. Now get out there, and practice! Really…really, really slowly. Possibly a thousand times.
The goal of this series is to provide you with several small changes in approach, presented one at a time, that will streamline and improve your practice process, while also reminding you that MXC* was perhaps the only worthwhile programming ever to air on SpikeTV.
Practicing can seem like an uphill battle. Even if you make progress one day, there seems to be no guarantee that it will be evident in your playing the next time you sit down to practice. Sometimes it feels like the more you play, the worse you sound.
You may even start asking questions like “Am I too lame to do this?”, “Are my hands just not able to physically play well?” and “Is my teacher asking me to do too much?” You can only fall flat on your face so many times before defeat sets in.
The first small change you can make in your practice is something I’ve talked about many times on this blog (here and here, for instance): paying attention to the physical aspects of your playing. This means focusing your mind’s eye on your hands, arms, breathing, posture, etc, instead of the jumble of finger numbers, pitch names and stock market ticker of manic nonsense that deprives you of any sense of peace while you play. Yes. That’s a guy in safari gear dancing with aliens and Godzilla. I’m telling you. It was an excellent show.
The other component of this shift in attention is clearly defining what should be physically happening. You may need to ask your instructor for specific advice here. Whatever they say, WRITE IT DOWN. These are the fundamentals, and the essence of technical facility on the instrument. Examples:
- shifting: arm generates the movement, thumb stays in line with the arm, hand stays compact/doesn’t extend, move with calm purpose, not urgency
- extending: fingers anchor through fingerboard, a sense of hanging or pulling backwards, no pronation of wrist, put the whole step between 1 and 2, don’t reach with 4, don’t grip with thumb or do that bizarre hitchhiker “look at my thumb 3 inches off the neck” business
- bow changes: movement comes from arm and flows through wrist and fingers…but wrist does NOT change the bow. breathing, playing in time, hold note full duration, even speed and pressure (unless change in dynamics is indicated), do not telegraph that a change is about to happen, shoulder neutral and relaxed, bow being drawn in a straight line, not at an angle.
Once you’ve delineated what should be happening, make sure you repeat the correct motion over and over again. When we get focused on hitting the note or getting an acceptable sound at all costs, we don’t perceive what we’re doing. Your attention tends to narrow and notice the what of playing: pitch, finger, bow direction, instead of the how. So sometimes you nail it. Other times it stinks. If you don’t know what your hands are doing, there’s no way to establish rules for what works and what doesn’t. In essence, you may be repeating notes, but your hands aren’t practicing anything. You effectively start fresh every repetition. Bleh.
Try to shift your approach to a more physical one for a while. The cello may seem like an academic pursuit, but don’t let your busy mind convince you it’s something done with the brain. Your body plays the cello. Best to pay attention to how that’s happening. Do that, and I bet your practice will…
*derived from Takeshi’s Castle!
Image: Carlos Serrao.
On a similar note to the previous post, I’m sure I’m not the only teacher who gets emails asking what people should do when they really want to play the cello but can’t afford a teacher. The Internet Cello Society is littered with these posts, and although my first inclination is to find the petitioner and smack them across the face with their own keyboard, I have to choose to believe that the question comes from a place of good intentions. Here’s what you need to know.
Why it is an insulting question to ask, especially of a community of professionals
The cello, like many wonderful and worthwhile pursuits, is very difficult to get good at. To attain even mildly crappy results, you have to work incredibly hard and spend the kind of time and money on the endeavor that makes you wonder if it’s even a legitimate goal. Playing the cello is like dancing en pointe in ballet. You can’t just buy a pair of Freeds and watch some videos of Misty Copeland- no matter how inspiring she is- and do anything except look a fool and break yourself.
The mechanics of the instrument are deceptively complicated. Natural human tendencies have to be curtailed and replaced with better instincts: hang instead of grip; breathe instead of gasp; slow instead of quick; qualitative instead of quantitative. Every self-taught student who enters my studio has a distorted pantomime of what the physicial act of playing the cello looks and feels like. A facile and sadly accurate axiom for these folks goes something like:
For every one self-taught week, six weeks of lessons are needed to unravel the habits and replace them with sustainable technique and approach.
It’s not like the piano or guitar, which can be self-taught injury-free with some reasonable expectation of success.
It’s an insulting question because:
- if there was a way to not bankrupt our parents on the way to becoming professionals, we would have really liked that
- if there was a way to do it without decades spent practicing, that would have been nice
- every professional cellist has had harrowing and difficult decisions to make in order to become successful
- getting good enough to teach the instrument requires sacrifice and discipline
- most professionals are humbled by the instrument and acknowledge that it is still very, very hard
So when someone rolls in and says “Yeah I love Bach but can’t afford lessons how can I self teach?” It takes some fairly profound restraint and a hefty dose of compassion not to reply:
- yeah, and I want to be an astronaut
- have fun sounding like a malfunctioning air compressor
- ooh! you found the shortcut! special you!
- do you have any idea who is reading this? how many cumulative hours of work you’re crapping on?
- go back to Reddit and stay there
- I hope I never see you in an alley, because I have worked my entire life at this. My body is held together by sinew, stitches, and Advil, and the cello tries to defeat me every day, but I persist, even though it would be wiser to give up this dream and enjoy the stability of nearly any other line of work. I do this because I have to, because it is in my soul, because it has inconveniently and permanently bent me into a shape they call cellist. I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to, and every day, the words of my teachers (and sometimes their teachers, too) echo in my head as I try to improve a little more, making myself a more suitable vessel for Bach, which I, too, love. You say you want to play the cello, but do you want to be a cellist? The experience of becoming one is not at all like what you have in mind. The bow takes years to feel like anything other than a clunky dead appendage, and the sound will punish and disappoint your ears. You will know the horror of a cello that costs less than $1000. You will become lightheaded when you realize a good set of strings costs a week’s pay, and that they will snap if you don’t install them just-so or betray you with false tone right out of the envelope. No refunds, of course. I’m not trying to discourage you, but rather give you some perspective so that you might have a chance to succeed. Becoming a cellist who can even attempt Bach is like anything else that requires insane physical and mental discipline. Think gymnast. Yogi. Ballet dancer. Formula 1 driver. Marksman. To even get marginally awful at these things asks so much of a person. And it asks that person to find another person to guide their progress. Casually asking a forum full of cellists how they can get to Bach without lessons is like asking an Olympic athlete how you can qualify for the games without a coach. It insults the people who have come before you, and it vastly underestimates the task.
You need a teacher. You have limited funds. I get it. Here are some ways to start the journey and not end up broke or broken.
Most of us got our start teaching early on. I would give lessons on campus for about 1/3 of what I charge now, on a sliding scale. The best part of taking from someone at this level is that they are right in the wheelhouse of their lesson-taking experience.
Call up your local college and ask if there’s a hot shot student who is interested in teaching or put an ad on the music department’s bulletin board. Don’t ask for free lessons- but you might get a pretty big discount.
I would totally barter for lessons right now. Massage therapists, dance or woodworking lessons, goods or other services. If you have something to offer, there may be a teacher who will work with you. It’s not going to be the high-end name-brand university professor, but you’d be surprised how many of my colleagues have some kind of arrangement like this for their students to partially or completely fund lessons. If you are respectful, your chances of success are much better.
My online lessons are certainly cheaper than in-studio, although it’s difficult as a beginner, because the quality of demonstration and correction are not as high as in-person. Also, latency in the connection makes it hard to play together. Feedback loops happen. C’est la vie. Still, it is SO MUCH better to have the input of an expert, even if for 15 minutes a week. If you go to Starbucks once or twice a week, those funds could likely buy two online lessons per month. Careful when you say you can’t afford lessons, Captain Lifestyle.
Services like TakeLessons
I’m not affiliated with them at all, but I know there are plenty of folks charging cheap rates for in-studio and online lessons. In DC, I’ve seen rates as low as $15 for a half an hour. Again: that’s two Starbucks runs. Make coffee at home, and you can afford some cello.
Enroll at Community College
Lessons are paid by the semester, and end up being a fraction of the cost that a weekly non-enrolled student would pay. To give you a sense of typical cost, I’ve seen small-town cellists asking as low as $30 per hour and big-city newcomers charging $45. You might find lower, but higher is definitely the general trend. Now look at what the semester costs and divide that figure by 12 (or however many weeks that school has).
Start strong, then do touch ups
This is what I recommend to my own beginners on a budget. Take a month or two of weekly lessons and then taper off to one or two a month. Practice is a rhythm, and excellent practice needs to be curated by a professional. If you can establish some of the foundation over the course of an intensive period of lessons and practice, you’re much more likely to succeed than if you try to get by on a trickle of information. Start strong, then do what you can, while still practicing and referring to lesson notes every time you sit down to play. No student ever masters what the instructor writes in the first month of notes during that first month. Those pages are like a well of goodness to drink from for years.
Go to camps if you can. Many of them offer scholarships (sometimes in exchange for working at the camp) or payment plans. These immersive experiences are like rocket fuel for your progress and focus. Sign up for SCOR!- which I am absolutely affiliated with- or other adult string geek-outs. There are more of them than you think, all over the US and abroad.
The real cost
Here is a lowball estimate of what my parents and I spent on my cello education, from ages 8-25:
a few cellos: $50,000
lessons, private: $75,000
extracurricular orchestras: $10,000
summer programs: $20,000
undergraduate education: $25,000
competitions, airfare: $5000
cello repairs (two broken necks, cracks, seams) and equipment (stands, strings, cases etc) : $20,000
sheet music: $5000
That’s $210,000, lowballing each and every figure. Note that private lessons are the single highest expense. This is because they are the single most important factor in succeeding as an instrumentalist. I’d rather have a not-great instrument and a great teacher than a million dollar cello and just average instruction.
Hope this helps. It’s tough love. Tough, yes. But love, too.
It can be argued that any reader/writer relationship revolves around a transaction. The writer offers an insight, or shares an experience, or somehow provides new context for something the reader is working through. The reader places value in what has been written. As a writer, I live for this transaction. Being useful is important to me. Maybe too important. I have been known to go beyond what is good for me to demonstrate my worth this way- staying in relationships too long, bending over backwards for an ungrateful employer, losing sight of my own true north from time to time.
For years, the Stark Raving Cello transaction was fairly reciprocal- an artifact of the post-and-comment format of blogging. I’d spend a day or two crafting a post based upon some cello-y success or failure (of my own, or from a lesson I’d taught), and then a day or two reading and responding to comments. Every SRCB post came from a deeply emotional place- even the technical posts about why your thumb is sore or how to nail a shift. This place was one of sublime empathy for the struggling adult student; it’s a source from which my lessons continue to draw today. Back then, I would frequently cite my own frailties and insecurities and feature some serious real talk about how professionals struggle with the same stuff students do- despite whatever their glamorous Facebook and Twitter feeds say.
The adult amateur musicians seemed to appreciate this perspective. I have over a thousand emails saved from people who have written to me saying everything from “Thanks for helping me- I can’t afford lessons and this was what I needed” to a few “I wanted to kill myself and what you said made me feel less alone.” It wasn’t all sunshine and cheer: I also received a few death threats, lots of gendered/misogynist/sexual commentary, and many condescending notes (including two YouTube diatribes) about how I have no business teaching the cello and that I am clearly not an expert.
This transaction is laden with expectation- some we don’t even know are there until they go unfulfilled.
I started this blog to be of service, but also to give myself a place to go to write about things that are meaningful to me. So I have posts about cats. Planes. Authenticity. Anxiety. Writing. The creative process.
And it seemed like everybody was fine so long as the vein I was opening offered some sort of useful takeaway. A moral to the story, a juicy tidbit, a sense of closure and satisfaction at the end of it all.
Everything changed when I started using this space to occasionally sort through the detritus of the last several years. People were resentful that the product was no longer helping them improve as musicians. Nevermind that the site has hundreds of posts and accompanying comments and downloadable resources. Nevermind that I’ve written multiple articles for teachers and students in Strings every month since 2008. SRCB has to be useful! Enough with this depressing self-indulgence.
The point has been made, and it strikes at the core of my insecurities. I figured that readers who had benefitted from my earlier posts would be there to catch me when I had nothing else to give, but it is demonstrable- there is no worth here unless I am somehow useful. This blog didn’t ascend to some pretty dizzying heights (one month in 2009 I had 60k visitors- not bad for an über niche no-ad site) because of my own humanity, but because the way I couched even my deepest fears somehow made readers feel better about themselves.
So I’ve all but stopped posting here. I changed the branding of the site to support my part-time writing efforts. I still live and breathe cello and teaching. It is my life’s work, and my calling. I’m still looking for substantive professorial work in the music world, but that, my friends, is a waiting game. Nobody retires any more. The pickings are slim- maybe because the work is just that good, maybe for slightly darker reasons, too.
This blog allowed me to build a base of support and travel the country doing what I love most in the world for several years. It’s astonishing, when you think about it. I am grateful to (nearly) every reader, especially those who stepped forward and helped me organize teaching tours and workshop appearances. It’s something I want to get back to, sooner than later. But this time, I will not kid myself about the nature of the transaction, and may adjust how far I go trying to demonstrate my value. It’s in that gesture, where actual worth, self worth, is proven.
I’ve been playing twice a day for about twenty minutes each sitting. It hurts afterward, but so does PT, so I figure as long as it doesn’t linger too long, I’m safe.
I savor every note, and am grateful for small victories.That’s it for now. The sun is shining and Rock Creek Park is calling.
Since my cello career is a bit up in the air, I’m trying out some new things. I’m brushing up on html and adding CSS via Code Academy to bolster my writing and copyediting skills. So far, so good: but I am miles behind people who are getting hired to do this stuff fluently.
I’ve long been enamored of home renovation and restoration, so yesterday I got to tag along on a home inspection. Like much of the industry, there are not many women doing this job. There seems to be a logical path to doing it professionally, and I could specialize in something that interests me (historic homes, for instance- they are complicated and many stay away from them) to make my niche. After riding along for one townhome inspection in Manassas, I’m not sure if it’s right for me, so I’m going again tomorrow. It’s not a final step, to be sure. What I think I’d like to do is respectful remodeling with a concentration on salvage/upcycling and efficiency. Next weekend, I’m taking a class on flooring and installing tile. It is strangely exciting.
I’m reading Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin, about a woman who was a successful writer in Boston who dropped everything and became a carpenter. Highly recommended and dangerously inspiring.
Here is actual video of me learning carpentry.
If my hand hadn’t crapped out, I think I would still be considering this jump. The thing about teaching is that being good at it does not earn you anything. Not respect, not money, not stability or opportunity- nothing. Being ethical is a liability. Being attached to outcomes only brings heartache. The ends haven’t met in years, and the degree I earned at the accepted behest of “common sense” has only drowned me in debt. And I’d nearly be okay with that if I felt like what I was doing was valued. Aside from a small group of private students and folks I encounter at workshops, it has been made abundantly clear that any instruction I offer- be it music history, cello, English composition or something else- could be done by anybody else, and probably for less.
I can’t keep operating at a loss, financially or spiritually. The clock is ticking on my time in DC. Although I’m not sure what the interval will be until the gleaming Potomac is in my rear view mirror, so until then, I have to make the most of it.
I’ve been largely resting my arm since February, playing with students and practicing in 20 minute increments. Although it hurt after each session, it would quickly fade and seemed receptive to the usual tendinitis protocol. Writing work has picked up, and of course, typing hurts, too. I’m trying to edit before I compose. You tell me if my tone is suddenly as wooden as it feels. Sorry about that.
I went to see a specialist last week. I described the pain, she took some x rays and then she did a bunch of physical tests. Push! Pull! Lift! Squeeze! “Does this hurt?”
Um, YES?!? 30 seconds later I was in tears as my entire left forearm, wrist, palm and fingers exploded in pain, worse than the initial cello-induced injury. What’s the point of resting if the diagnostic tests are going to set you back months? Now everything pisses my arm off. I’m sleeping in strange positions with pillows cradling my sorry appendage so it’s not too bent, not too straight, just like so.
The diagnosis: I have extensive wrist flexor tendinopathy and possible carpal tunnel syndrome. I’m set to start PT 3 times a week for 6 weeks starting in a few days. For now, I’ve been asked to wear a brace and hammer my kidneys with Motrin. I hate the brace. It’s uncomfortable, doesn’t reduce the pain and is a visual reminder of how dicey things are. In response, I have begun to wear red lipstick (again) because it makes me feel strong and maybe a little Parisian. Paris always makes things better.
Been playing a little bit- just a passage here and there with students. It still hurts and I am without a diagnosis, but can stagger through Go Tell Aunt Rhody and some Lee Duets, which is better than nothing.
Thank you for all of the kind comments, emails and text messages. I still feel like a rudderless ship, but I’d be nowhere without these gusts of support.
Lovely sailboat painting here.