Originally published 12 June 2007. Near the end of this piece, I talk about resisting change and looking down on a teacher I had in London because she wasn’t up to speed on the Rococo Variations. I am still struck by how common it is for students to feel a sense of competition with instructors, which blinds them to their own learning process: trying prove yourself is a full time job. I should know! I underwent a radical transformation during my time in the UK: pulling the first layer of ego away (of course, revealing many, many more underneath!) and saw how destructive many of my instincts were. I’m coming to terms with the motivation behind these things: as a survivor of abuse and intense long-term bullying, I didn’t know how to contextualize my successes and the words of encouragement people would offer in my early twenties. I was so used to feeling worthless, so conditioned to feeling unloved and unsafe that I developed an unchecked arrogance in the absence of my most fervent detractors. I didn’t know there was middle ground—that one could be skilled and still learning—and I was desperate for more, always more, of this validation. A big takeaway: being a good cellist has nothing to do with being a good person. Do one, do both, but they are lines that run in parallel. There is no point at which they meet or depend on each other.
I wish I could send my adult students to music school, just for a week. Not simply to be inspired by the hours and hours of practice and high-level problem solving on display, although those things would surely be useful. What I really want is for them to witness the less glamorous side of the journey: the side that tempts even the most committed scholarship student to muse about quitting,
My adult students (who range from beginner to semiprofessional) silently suffer with the same ailments any earnest student falls victim to from time to time: frustration, restlessness, hopelessness, cabin fever, negativity, euphoria, 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, 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, from the afterlife: “That sounds awful. You are crazy to even attempt something like this. Rostropovich says that 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. Depending on the context, chances are if you hear someone “warming up” or “practicing” they are really showing off and imagining themselves soloing with the Amsterdam Concertgebau. 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 technical 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 sort of 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! 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 think on that point for a moment). 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, 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, she and I were closer to equals in terms of facility on the instrument. I was preparing for a competition and doing a world class job of murdering the Rococo Variations. My fourth finger was perpetually unreliable 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 looking at 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.
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 3am. 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 opening 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 increasingly aggro practice, I went into the hallway, with the intention of knocking on his door and taking 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. It makes me smile whenever I hear Ein Heldenleben’s opening swell.