Creating a meditative state for your practice may sound like some kind of hippie crap or a fantasy, perhaps an urban legend. Too often, I find students fostering a mindset about practice that is akin to battle. You have to thrash the cello into submission. You want to beat yourself against the rocks. Kill the problems, attack the pieces.
No matter what your process is, the reality of improvement is much more like the wind carving a canyon over a millennium than an earthquake, revealing new things instantly, in heaving jolts.
The thing about a calm, measured practice is that you notice everything that’s happening, because it stills the maniacal explody brain in favor of an attentiveness to the physical aspects of playing- and when you notice what you’re doing and find that something changes (for better or worse), then you can modify your playing to do more (or less) of a particular thing. It’s less about being sharp and more about being an excellent and intentional observer.
So here are the general steps to get yourself there. If you aren’t sure how to actually practice, download the free PDFs and search the site for “practice”. It is perhaps the subject upon which I have written the most. It’s here. I promise.
1. Curate your environment to be as distraction-free as possible.
2. Move slowly, and with purpose as you unpack, pick up the bow, apply rosin, move the chair or stand, etc. Monitor your breathing and pay attention to your senses: this will prime your mind to remain more wholistically focused as you start to play.
3. Stay slow and gently breathe (long exhales are key) as you tune. Listen to your tone and check in on a few places: your feet, grounded and relaxed on the floor, your shoulders, soft, your elbows supple and heavy, your thumbs, easy and pliable on the neck and on the frog.
4. This is going to be, at first, a slow practice. Hone the ability to do several things at once (look at the music, monitor your technique, maintain breathing, critical listening) until it feels like one large gesture. As you improve your discipline, you will be able to play faster things while still maintaining a slow mind.
5. Last, and most importantly: go about this entire exercise without any expectations or feeling of attachment to the outcome. It is as crucial to be mentally disciplined as it is to be physically accurate. The ideal experience would proceed without any words running through your mind (“I don’t like this”, “I hope I don’t miss this note” “Yes! I hit the note!”) and instead is fully devoted to the tasks of listening hard and feeling your entire body in a state of cooperation and confidence. A reasonable in-between might be replacing negative or positive narratives with curious and open ones: “I wonder what will happen?” “I am listening” “I am open to changing”. Another might be finding a mantra to repeat, just to give your mind a little something to chew on while you learn to exist with less internal chatter. These might be: “Easy does it” “Gently, gently always”, “Listen hard and breathe soft”. If these sound silly to you, come up with your own!
Happy practicing, friends. 🙂