book 2, we are go for liftoff

 

The second text is underway, slated to be something of a reverse how-to manual. I’m going to have some additional sections where experts (other teachers, psychologists, physicians) offer corroborating information, too- but will keep those close to the chest for now. My aim is to present a humorous and thorough exploration of the things intelligent, well-meaning students do that sabotage success, lead to injury, and contribute to misery- and of course, offer fixes for them. Yes, there will be stick figures. And yes, it will be written with greatest affection and respect for you few, brave souls who dare to practice art that is audible to the rest of the world.

Table of contents, 1/19/2016

TOC2

vintage srcb, part 4: help for a sore thumb

Originally posted 7 January 2008, as part of a series on the bow. Ah, the heady days of cello blogging! This is still an exercise I prescribe to develop the most relaxed bow grip possible, and one I practice, myself. 



Superstar of the cello blogging world, Gottagopractice kicked off the Bow Month celebration with this post. Go. Read. If you are not a regular reader of hers, you should be! I have taught this stuff for over a decade twenty years and I learn every time she posts.

A few things:

I posed this question to anyone who wanted to respond: Does your bow grip work?

I would say that her bow grip is working, and will work beautifully with the natural evolution that comes with dedication and the obviously good tuition she is receiving. One thing I would like to clarify is that my thumbnail is not, after looking at the photos, exactly parallel to the floor. An issue she has that every student of mine (and there have been hundreds by now) fights with is the temptation and sometimes the need, to grind one’s thumb into the frog. One way to alleviate this issue may seem like a good idea at first: increase the surface area of contact by either straightening the thumb, or rotate onto the broader, flat portion of the thumb tip. In the end, I find that this just sort of spreads the issue instead of resolves it. So here’s an exercise that I like to offer my students. As with most pillars of my teaching, it is what helped me break the painful habit of Thumb of Doom.

1) hold the stick of the bow with your left hand, with the bow resting on the string.

2) lightly, lightly barely assume your bow grip. Zero pressure. If your left hand were to let go of the stick, it would fall.

3) over the course of 30 seconds (which is longer than you might think) let the responsibility for the weight shift from your left to your right hand, until your left hand is able to fall by your side.

4) take one, slow, long down bow, maintaining that feather-light bow grip. Repeat on all 4 strings. I like to start on D or G, because they are wrist-neutral and don’t argue as much as the stubborn C and the reach of the A.

Once you are able to take multiple bows without any increase in thumb pressure, then try a scale, or portion of a scale this way. Think of the thumb as merely a gentle counterbalance to the front 4 fingers. All it does is keep the bow from folding into your palm. It’s your arm and wrist that do the labor. The hand just finesses it.

My favorite thing from her post was her teacher’s thought that, “hand motion is reactive, not generative”. Fantastic, and something to think about, all the way up your arm.

It’s hard to be at a fairly advanced level: the changes are subtle and laced with a mixture of habit and the fear that a fundamental change will move you backward. What’s good to keep in mind is that you can only move forward, even if that means trying something that doesn’t work. Being able to cross one more thing off of the “doesn’t work” list puts you further ahead than you might think.

vintage srcb, part 3: pinky pressure

Originally posted 9 January, 2008. This, and the next one, are two of the most popular posts on SRCB, according to the Google-mo-tron.

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Another darling of our community, CelloGirl has stress when it comes to her pinky joint. A portion of her comment reads,

“…Sore pinky joint. This one I struggle with quite a bit. I know that I seem to tense up my pinky finger so that it is almost straight. I’ve made a lot of adjustments to relax it – this works ok in scales, but when I start going through passages, my pinky finger will tend to straighten out and stiffen up my hand. Any suggestions?”

Now I am a bit of a rogue when it comes to this, and my approach is a sort of hybrid of what Ron Leonard taught me fused with the end result of watching a hell of a lot of footage of powerful, relaxed players. If you use the Emily Wright bow grip (and not all of my students do: if their grip works, I leave it alone), then the pinky is pretty much inert. When I am at the frog, it may rest on the stick, but the further out I go, the less presence my fingers have, particularly the pinky, on the bow. Often times we do crazy, strenuous things with our pinkies as we move away from the frog. It makes sense: the hand’s pressure is most directly telegraphed to the playing surface when the hand is right on top of the string. So as we draw a down bow, and the source of weight moves away from the point of contact, if nothing changes, the sound fades al niente. Some people try to prevent this by increasing the tension of the bow grip or maybe pushing down on the button with the tip of the pinky. What I suggest is in line with my general philosophy: Cello is hard enough! Let the large muscle groups do the hard work. Instead of giving the puny hand so much responsibility, use the weight, force, and torque generated by rotating onto the index finger to maintain or increase the level of pressure on the string. The further out in the bow you go, the more rotated onto that finger you are.

Here’s an exercise that demonstrates the general concept.

Sit at the cello with your bow on the D string, near the tip. Have a friend or teacher try to lift the bow from the string by looping a finger around the stick and pulling up. Fight them on this. You’ll immediately rotate onto the index finger to increase strength at that remote point of contact. And as you do that, your pinky will, if not come completely off the stick, make a significant gesture in that direction.

…and a pinky without a job is a relaxed pinky.

Another, slightly silly remedy for this is rubber banding the pinky and ring fingers together. At the very least it will raise awareness, at at best you can begin work to decrease the amount of work you’re asking that poor little guy to do.

One last note: during the course of working to change a habit that causes pain, make sure you’re taking good care of the finger/joint/whathaveyou in the meantime. Ice, heat, maybe some ibuprofen or arnica, and general gentle treatment so that you can reap the rewards of your more efficient, relaxed technique.

vintage SRCB, part 2: practice makes perfect, if you survive

Post originally published 12 June, 2007

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I wish I could send my adult students to music school, if only just for a week. Not to be inspired by the hours and hours of practice or the tide of talent that floods the halls every hour. No, I want them to witness the bizarre behavior of serious music students.

My adult hobbyists (who range from beginner to semiprofessional) silently suffer with the same ailments any earnest student is victim to: frustration, restlessness, hopelessness, cabin fever, negativity, euphoria, and the all pervasive ennui. Since most of them are lone practitioners, they have no idea that these things are not only the burden of all musicians, but are inherent to the learning process, and are good for creativity. I am of the belief that anything done superbly is an art. I also believe that the creative process is one borne of emotional upheaval, introspection, and perspective. So when we are students, trying to create art, we have to come up with some coping mechanisms and reminders in order to stoke the creative fire and avoid giving up entirely.

Coping mechanism #1: a sense of humor
When confronted by the combination of pressure (applied by yourself, or perhaps an upcoming audition or recital) and a passage of Bach that seems technically implausible for people who are cruelly limited to 5 fingers on the left hand, there are two options. The first involves a freeway overpass, no cops around, and the effects of gravity on a plummeting instrument. The second and less probation-causing choice is to muster the ability to laugh at the situation. This is not your ha, ha, clean joke laughter. This is more the maniacal, head back, profanity-to-the-sky sort of cackle that truly changes the vibe of your practice session. I always think of it as a conversation with the piece.

Bach: “That sounds awful, even here in the afterlife. You are crazy to even attempt something like this. Rostropovich just arrived up here, and he is very displeased with your playing.”

EW: “Oh, you think that’s crazy? Oh, I’ll SHOW you crazy, you bastard! I am going to harp on this passage until my fingers bleed! A HAHAAAAAAA…”

Don’t let your practice be anything but practice. You have to acknowledge that what you are doing is really difficult, and use some levity to allow you to persist without being a downer. A sense of humor is crucial.

Coping mechanism #2: Listen to other people practicing
This is something that you rarely get to do outside of music school. If you are already a professional, then chances are if you hear someone “warming up” or “practicing” they are really showing off and imagining themselves soloing with the Amsterdam Concertgebau. But when you’re in a conservatory environment, it’s nice to hear people who are highly skilled struggling with the same elements you have trouble with. I clearly remember doing this one summer at music camp, where the son of a famous cellist was also the principal cello in our orchestra. He had just won some major competition and had played Rococo with the Chicago Symphony. I sort of idolized this guy as a kid, and he definitely had major chops. I arrived 20 minutes early for my private lesson with his father, and heard something that sounded vaguely like a Bach Suite. It was all over the place, and you could tell that the poor sod in there was losing the battle with thumb position. How happy was I when Captain Cellopants Jr. came out, looking flushed and cursing wildly. It’s not that he made my cello practice sound any better, but it showed me that everybody has work to do. Later that summer, he performed the Bach spectacularly. Try attending a master class some time. It’s as close to listening in to another cellist practice as you can get without making campus security nervous. Have faith that you can rise from the ashes of crappy practice sessions.

Coping mechanism #3: Quit
I don’t mean quit! But spend a day away from the instrument. If you only practice a few days a week, take a few extra days off. (though, if you only play 3 days a week and wonder even a little bit why you’re not progressing much, you might want to get a clue.) Sometimes practice becomes something it’s not. It should be a meditation, a love letter to your devotion to the instrument. If it becomes a grudge match, a liability, or causes you ulcers, then you need to modify your approach. Taking some time off to miss the instrument is often the tonic for this common syndrome.

Coping mechanism #4: Cheat on your teacher
Taking a lesson from another teacher can spice up your practice AND give you a much needed kick in the ass. People who know me, especially my students, know that I call myself “the worst student ever”. I took lessons for years upon years with some of the finest cellists our fair country has to offer, and it was only after my own frustration reached its zenith did I begin to implement any of their suggestions. I was taking lessons with a woman in the UK, and though she was lovely, I was technically her superior. I was preparing for a competition and doing a world class job of murdering the Rococo Variations. My fourth finger was perpetually flat and my tendinitis was really acting up. She mentioned that I might want to rotate my left hand forward a little bit. Pah! She couldn’t even play Rococo! What could she tell me? And still the problem persisted. So, I, the genius of All Things Cello, decided that maybe rotating my left hand so that it was square to the fingerboard would help solve this problem. And of course it did. Just like Cathy, Ron, Hans, Andrew and Vic encouraged me to do. I went back, years later, and looked through the reams of notes from my 16 years of lessons, and began approaching my technique with a more critical eye. Now, if ever I am lucky enough to take a lesson, I listen. There are things to be learned in any lesson, and to deny them is to voluntarily decide to be a lesser instrumentalist.

Epilogue:
Remember that overpass? Here’s a story for those of who might nurse fantasies of annihilating your instrument, but can’t. Live vicariously through someone I knew in college:

It was jury time, and we were all fighting for practice rooms. Those of us foolish enough to actually attend our non-music classes were left with the late night practice sessions, usually starting at 9, and continuing until the security dudes kicked us out, sometime around 3. We became a sort of dysfunctional family, bumming cigarettes, sharing petrified vending machine tidbits, and commiserating in the breezeway for a few minutes every hour or two. I was down the hall from a horn player, who, for some reason, was going bonkers on Ein Heldenleben and its famous horn-killing excerpt. Each time he went for the penultimate note, he clammed. The lowest note was stellar, the highest rang like a bell. But this one note, midrange, common, banal: was missing. Kidnapped, I presumed, and taken to Bolivia. After about 15 minutes of steadily increasing aggro practice, I went into the hallway, with the intention of knocking and asking him to take a walk to the pizza place. Before I could get there, the door of his room flew open and a chair went skidding into the hallway, followed, unbelievably, by his horn. It sailed through the air, hit the chair and then the wall, before settling into an accordioned lump on the shiny laminate floor. This was a Conn 8D. A professional horn, and one of the more expensive models that students have access to. Though he regretted it while he was on the phone to his parents, I think what he did was a service to all who practice, seemingly in vain. We’ve all been there, and he did it. He lived the dream. It makes me smile whenever I hear Ein Heldenleben’s opening swell.

vintage SRCB, part 1: knowing the signs

Post originally published 28 April, 2009. 

 

Does this sound like you or anyone you know? Calloused hands, a closet full of full skirts and/or ‘comfy’ black pants, referring to people in strange code languages (“I was just thinking about GGP” “I can’t believe how long it’s been since I saw something new on CelloDonna’s page”) or long discussions about disarming the little voice inside your head?

You may have Dementia Violoncellis.

According to recent polling data, 1 in 64 bloggers is affected by this devastating disorder. Knowing the signs is the first step on the road to recovery. If you see yourself in one or more of the following examples, seek help immediately.

One of the common symptoms at onset is an obsession with bow technique, frequently resulting in attempts to do non-cello activities maintaining the grip that finally feels comfortable.


At midpoint, symptoms include a devotion to the “metronome”, which appears to be a relic of ancient times, pre-dating foot tapping and even conductors.

During times of travel, the madness becomes truly apparent as “cellists” consider stowing themselves in the hold of the plane so their instrument can relax in the cabin for transatlantic flight. Vegetarian meal, please.

Sufferers in dry climates may go to extreme measures trying to adequately humidify their instrument.

Female “cellists” sometimes take to hoarding, moving from sale to sale in search of the perfect long black gown or skirt, failing to realize that their cards are maxed and they have 26 long skirts already, which is why their cards are maxed in the first place.

In the final stages, people suffering from Dementia Violoncellis make a dramatic shift into infecting others with their disease, some even deluding themselves into writing how-to books on more efficiently declining into the mania, and encouraging those who were not inoculated as children to step ever deeper into the twisted world of Cello. Watch as they drone on for hours, referencing “Potter” “Popper” and “Starker”, which appear to be hallucinations caused by this terrifying disorder. Observe as the patient goes on at length about pronation.

A rare documented shot of the paralysis this sort of ranting causes. Be careful. Standing too close to an enthusiastic cellist may cause interest or a switch in instruments. Very dangerous.

music doctor

where's the concert

I still keep a paper calendar. Then, at the end of a year, no matter what sort of tire fire I’ve created, I can physically leaf through the months and see that I was doing stuff. Even if, like these past few months, stuff is less like swashbuckling and more like maintaining the car and bothering local cellists for advice on building my studio and finding the right literary agent.

November’s events were written in my favorite LePen color, oriental blue. Gopher game with Jason and Trish. Register cars/new plates. Interview 10:15 on the 4th. The 18th at 9:45; music doctor. I booked the appointment while driving to Lake Elmo airport, an uncontrolled field about 30 minutes out of the city whose tenants don’t seem to mind me clambering up the hill just short of the runway to watch the comings and goings. Music Doctor’s name escaped me, or I misheard it. I thought she’d said Paul Shafer. But that’s the guy from the Late Show, and I doubt I’m being seen by that dude.

I go to the airport and self-soothe to the sound of radial engines and the smoky chirp of planes landing. Whenever I move to a new place, I seek out the nearest GA field the way more sensible people would look for the nearest pharmacy or gas station. Watching planes brings me back to my 7-year-old self, who thought that life was going to be simply marvelous and knew that if you were patient, sometimes the pilots would wave at you or even wiggle the wings back and forth as they passed.

On the drive back from Lake Elmo, I began rehearsing what I would say to Music Doctor and the nurse.

Well, it’s not just my arm: I think there may be some back and neck involvement.  

I think that scale needs adjustment/These are 12 pound boots. 

Yes, I have tried ice and ibuprofen.  

It’s important to practice a cool and calm demeanor, which gets increasingly difficult as the years go on. The questions are the same, the same pokes and prods, the look of disinterest, being foisted onto a physical therapist with no actual diagnosis, and the best part: “It’s probably a good idea to stop playing the cello. Try something new!” Guffaw, guffaw, thousands of dollars a year, nice to know you. November 18th loomed large on the calendar, and I was only able to foster an academic kind of hope, my guts having long since given up the practice of emotional optimism in these matters.

November 11th, I received what looked like a very complicated lease from Music Doctor’s office. It was an in-depth health and well-being questionnaire, a request for all previous medical records, as well as detailed instructions on how to get to the office and what to bring to the appointment: health insurance, braces and other stuff, my cello.

This was only the second doctor who had asked to see me play.

November 18th, I arrived -as usual- pathologically early to the Courage Kenny offices. As I made my way through the halls, I got the familiar friendly heckling, “Hey, where’s the concert?” “Haha don’t you wish you played the violin” etc. Over the years, these well-intentioned jabs felt more like barbs. I wanted to yell back, “I don’t know if I’ll ever play again! Isn’t that funny? Isn’t that hilarious?”

The nurse saw me almost immediately, believed that my boots were unusually heavy, and winked as she said “Dr. Schaefer will be right in. Go ahead and warm up- he wants to see you in action.”

I unpacked and played for a few minutes. The instrument felt clumsy in my hands: I’d been playing minimally, at the behest of the last MD I’d seen in DC. The doc came in, and thankfully, he was not the guy from the Late Show. Instead, Dr. Paul Schaefer was a young-ish guy who confessed his roots in trombone performance and choral conducting before turning and saying “Let’s not get off topic. I need to know everything. All of it.”

So I told him everything. All of it.

It took about 70 minutes of brisk conversation and clarification. Who am I? What hurts? Does it ever feel better? Well of course you’re anxious: you’re a Type A who can’t do what they were born to do. You’re probably going crazy in there.

The tears welled in my eyes. Dr. Schaefer is the first doctor to look at me as a whole person, who didn’t penalize me for having a complicated injury and chronic pain, who had no time for any horseshit, and had clear and expansive ideas about a regimen for getting my playing career back. Step one was to start playing again. “You’re not going to make it worse, and you need to be a cellist again. It’s who you are.” So that day, I started playing in 10 minute chunks, twice a day. The next week would increase to 15 minute sessions. The next, 20. I’m up to about 30/35 minutes now. It hurts a bit, but it’s not worse, and I feel a little less like a sham. Not completely, of course- you can’t call yourself an academic if you don’t foster at least a little impostor syndrome.

Step two has been physical therapy, which involves intense evaluation and precise soft tissue release followed by stretches and muscle retraining at home. I’ve learned that my pain is much more about misuse of my physiology than overuse- although there is some of that, too. Over the course of several decades, my body has tried to accommodate the repeated subtle traumas it’s been subjected to, resulting in a left shoulder and ribcage that are considerably higher and more concave than the corresponding right side. My scalene muscles have tried to account for this by becoming stronger, pulling the shoulder even higher, pinching the clavicle against my top rib, which is already a bit on the high side. As a result, my nerves don’t glide through the thoracic opening, and the muscles on either side of my shoulder (lats, traps, scapula stuff, pecs, delts, biceps) have been working overtime, doing things they were never meant to do. Essentially, they’ve been under a small amount of additional stress constantly for most of my life, and the result is non-functional, painful muscles, tendons, and nerves. You should hear the sound the knots in my back make. I’m a walking trigger point.

I experienced several days of pain relief (for the first time since February!) right after my first appointment. After my second, I am getting fewer headaches and sleeping a little better. My third is tomorrow. Soon we’ll be starting Pilates for alignment and core training, and biofeedback with the cello to keep an eye on tension that may not be easy for me to perceive due to the diminished sensation on my left side.

For the first time in many years, I have a sense of optimism about recovering. Next time, I’d like to get into some of what I’ve learned in just these few short weeks, hold myself accountable by promising a bit of practice footage, and give some props to cellists Janet Horvath and Corinne Morris, who have both overcome tremendous injuries when all hope seemed lost.

Cello hope

I’m not sure when or where the concert will be, but it’s nice to be relieved of the certainty that there won’t be one. :)

 

the soul killers

soul killer

My singing voice is an embarrassment. It is undisciplined, narrow, pitchy, with a number of breaks that make carrying a tune something like driving a car with no second gear. It can be done, but to the obvious detriment of the mechanism and any bystanders. People look, but for the wrong reasons.

Still, for as long as I can remember, I have wanted to sing. In a band, in the car, in front of people, into a microphone, wherever. As a kid, I would sing and ask my mother how I sounded, and even she could not muster the fortitude to lie and describe the sound as pleasing. I got good at air guitar and real cello, but oh, how I always have wanted to sing, and sing well.

Sometime around 2003, I decided to take vocal lessons with a high profile “instructor to the stars”. Jeff was incredibly supportive and technical with me, giving specific advice that was scary as hell to follow. The breaks in my voice were not fixed points to get around, but rather like scar tissue in my habits- to be massaged away with uncomfortable corrective techniques. Some of these techniques were simply embarrassing, like singing through my nose to get used to moving the air in a more concentrated way without resorting to the fakery of head voice. Others were blessed relief, like his instruction to take sips of air instead of awkward gulps that would put pressure on all the wrong parts of my physiology and distort the pitch.

I dreaded every lesson, because he would always go right to where the problems were. I left each one feeling invincible, because he would always have answers for the problems. Perhaps the most meaningful lesson, one that I have reflected upon nearly every day since, revolved around the silent chorus of hateful people I like to bring to every situation where I have a real chance of failing at something that matters. The song I was working on has a series of large leaps that absolutely beg the voice to go to a place of weakness. Jeff kept pushing on me, correcting, encouraging, trying to make me laugh, and then I just stopped. I tried for another run through, but the tears were welling, and no sound came out. My voice is such shit. It’s bad. I’m bad, this is yet another symptom of my inherent badness, I deserve this bad voice because bad. Jeff said it sounded like I wasn’t really practicing much, and I told him I had no place to go where I couldn’t be heard. He said, “Practice in the car!” and I told him I was afraid people would laugh at me, even through windows. 

“Bah. Don’t let the Soul Killers get you down. They don’t matter. And while you’re at it, be nice to Her.”

“Who?” I asked.

“That girl, the one who is trying to learn how to sing.” He paused. “The things you’re saying in your head right now, all that nasty stuff…would you ever think those of another person? Would you ever say them?”

I blanched. “No, of course not.”

“Then don’t let the Soul Killers say them to you. They’re only in your mind. Next time you’re in traffic, I want you to sing to someone in the car next to you. Sing with your whole heart, risking everything, holding nothing back. This is the only way to confront them, and to win. ” 

I can’t tell you how many times since then I’ve encouraged my students this way, although I’ll admit that my own voice is harder to accept because its a part of me. Do not think I don’t see the magnitude of that caveat. Cello as proxy for self is a dangerous bargain. But the idea of confronting these voices is important, and worth practicing. Even if I don’t always triumph over the Soul Killers, they will never be as loud as they were that day in Jeff Allen’s studio. They may even win, but it will not be uncontested. 

Sing with your head up
With your eyes closed;
Not because you love the song,
Because you love to sing
Because you love to sing.

Veterans Day 2015

War is seldom justified, and guaranteed to result in at least as much inhumanity as politico-branded triumph and righteousness. On this Veterans Day, I do not celebrate war, or the mechanisms that cause it, nor the facile arguments about it. It would be disingenuous to do so, as an American, sitting safely in a warm apartment with a refrigerator full of food. Today I contemplate peace, and hope it finds its way into the thinking of those who would see fit to mint another generation of veterans.

Minneapolis

 

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So I moved to Minneapolis. My heart is still sore from leaving my DC students and colleagues (heck, I still miss my LA folks every. single. day.) but I’m immersing myself in the business at hand until the ache is less acute. For now, that business is teaching some wonderful young musicians at the Blake School, cultivating a private studio, and getting down to the nuts and bolts of putting together a follow-up text to AMCM, How To Be a Lousy Cellist in 17 Easy Steps. A working title, but you get the drift- it’s a humorous takedown of the habits that can make the cello harder than it has to be.

Other than that, it’s been a lot of hiking and writing, bumming around coffee houses and waiting for it to get cold. Not a bad start. More soon.

 

small change, big results 4, as illustrated by The Nightmare Before Christmas

The artistic endeavor seems like the kind of thing that should just flow. The story goes like this: big feels, inspiration strikes, she works late into the night in a torrent of creativity and as dawn breaks somewhere over the dimly-lit enclave …magical results.

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For the most part, the actual process could not be more different. Creativity and success in art are usually the result of a maniacal (and frequently inconvenient) set of habits and structured time.

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Here, read this: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. You’ll find that some of the most wildly creative and prolific people were downright regimented in the way they approached their work- and their study. Beethoven and his exactly 60 coffee beans, Maya Angelou in her hotel room with a 6:15am glass of fortified wine.

You can always tell when art is produced by someone who likes the idea of being an artist but has not meaningfully invested in the discipline of the thing. It’s crappy. Pretentious. Temporary. Toothless. Being an artist is like this insanely beautiful grief process, where you discover that you’re more holes than substance, there are so many people doing better work, and that the only certainty is mortality….

…so might as well AAAAA COMMIT TO LIVING IN THIS MOMENT THIS WILL BE THE MOST SINCERE AND WONDERFUL NOTE IF I DIE TRYING I WILL NEVER STOP PLAYING THIS NOTE THE PROCESS IS THE BEAUTY MY SOUL IS MADE OF LIGHT I NEED NOTHING I FEEL SOOOO ALIIIIIIIIVE

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This is the torrent that gets branded as what artists are like, but it only comes after developing the structure and curiosity to form a point of view and a set of goals designed to realize that point of view. This kind of discipline is rare. My theory is that art resides in all of us, as a part of our humanity, and that what must be taught is the respect for the craft and discipline of the process. Artists are everywhere: the rare thing is the intestinal fortitude required to be a vehicle for art.

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This installment of small change, big results is about structuring your practice, which is really about structuring your thinking. I’ve said it many times in any number of ways: having concrete goals is the only way to guarantee progress with regularity. You may improve just by throwing yourself at the thing and flailing around a bit, but without a framework, there’s no way to identify and repeat what works. If the task seems too big or the goals too broad, keep this in mind: you don’t have to come up with a genius level practice plan to benefit from having one. All you’re looking to do is scroll through variables and note what improves results and what doesn’t. Here’s an example of a mediocre structure that still gets the job done. Let’s assume you have about 40 minutes to practice.

Step 1: Choose a scale and two items.

Step 2: Slowly play through a passage that has some kind of problem. What’s a problem?

  • notes that are out of tune or hard to hit
  • sounds bad
  • can’t get it up to speed
  • has no emotional impact
  • makes your guts clench for no obvious reason

Step 3: Slowly play through the problem section using this flowchart (or any other one that you like- the important thing is that there is a method to scroll through your variables). Make declarative statements about what’s going on:

  • this sounds okay, but the quality of tone is not improving
  • my hand hurts when I ____________________
  • when I focus on my breathing and slow down, I get a result I like
  • when I focus on my bow, the left hand suffers
  • when I play pizzicato, the left hand problems vanish

Then take those statements and use them to assess what’s happening. The flowchart has these things built into them, and the answer is mostly “slow down”. Remember that when you work on one aspect of your playing, the other stuff is bound to suffer. Heck, go back and re-read this post about the physical approach to practice. 

Step 4: After about 10 minutes (which is a LONG time, if you’re practicing slowly with careful attention), move to your scale, remembering what was bothering you in the previous passage. Let’s say your tone goes to hell when it speeds up. Examine the same phenomenon in a new context. Go back to what the physical basics should be. Does it happen in an easy scale? Or only in Q-flat double sharp Phrygian minor? What does this mean?

Well, in this instance, it means that your left hand has not adequately passed over the section at a slow pace to absolve your right hand of sympathetic freak out. The answer is nearly always slow down. Been teaching cello 20 years and it’s a universal truth.

Step 5: Pull out the last item. Maybe it’s another piece, an orchestra part, an étude, a different section of the same piece, whatever. Great. Take whatever kernel you’ve gleaned from the other two examples and scroll through the physical variables paying the most myopic attention to it. What does this look like in practice? If we’re using the “right hand freaks out when left hand is challenged” theme:

  • turn on the recorder (that $%&#* is objective)
  • play through at whatever speed you like
  • play through at half that speed
  • play through at half half speed
  • what is the sound like? the experience? the feeling of being able to control things? tension?

Even if you end this session without an improved sound, the key is to walk away with insight and an awareness of your tendencies. This arms you to ask the right questions in lessons and gives you an axis about which to rotate the next time you practice.

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Another thing to consider is the regularity with which you practice. It’s much better to touch the instrument frequently for a moderate amount of time than to have a whopper of a session twice a week. The connections are just so much easier to make when the habit of practice is woven into your life, not some ornament twinkling randomly on your calendar. Practice is not special, it is essential. It does not feed the ego, it is a meditation on humility and non attachment. It is not done to arrive at some random endpoint of “good”, it is done to search out frailty and make progress- note the differences in trajectory.

If you have to get up early four days a week and put three mutes on your cello to get in 20 minutes before work without waking the neighbors, then do that. If you have to practice in the parking structure at work, do that. If you have to barter for an hour of daycare so you can take a bath, practice, and meditate, then do that. Figure it out. There is no way to become a fine cellist without practicing regularly, with a sense of purpose and determination. Practice is the process, and the art gets made when you’re in the weeds, totally lost in the details of the craft. Students who feverishly look around and ask “are we there yet” never get there. Obsession with the idea of of being a cellist distracts many well-meaning people from the structured dirty work required to be one.

Don’t chase after adulation or recognition.

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The path to being an artist is more like a walk alone so long that you stop being lonely because you have the moon to keep you company.

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You have everything you need to be whole.

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Don’t be haunted by old ideas and habits that have hurt you in the past.

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Be practicing. Be a cellist. Be a vehicle for art.

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What we’re really searching out is self-acceptance- an ongoing journey that others can walk with you, but not for you. It is an honor to be on the road together as imperfect, struggling musicians in the light of the lovely, lonely moon.