Sometimes a change in perspective makes a long process more bearable. Enjoyable, even. I came to this realization a few days as I looked ahead with dread to the longest day of the year. I thought of the miserable summer to come, the triple digit days and only temporary relief from the searing temperatures that have me scurrying from shady spot to shady spot like some sort of cello-carrying beetle. Then it hit me. If it’s the longest day of the year, then we have already started our slide into autumn! That shift in paradigm helps me endure the Great Fireball in the Sky, because I know that each day brings him fewer opportunities to sizzle me with his rays. Changing the way I see summer has made a visceral, actual improvement in the quality of my life. Now check this out:

Many of my students are very successful people: actors, doctors, writers, business owners. You don’t have to be rich to be successful, but you do have to be driven and focused in a certain kind of way, and have expectations of yourself. These same qualities can turn inside out on you when faced with the 10,000 item long “to do” list that is learning an instrument. The attention to detail and goal oriented thinking that makes for excellence at a job now floods you with hopelessness when your hardest work seems to set you back, or you see some 11 year old wunderkind on YouTube annihilating the Popper study you’ve been fruitlessly working on for a year. I liken this to walking up to a huge picture and trying to tell what it is from 1 inch away. All you’re going to see are the pixels, which is not very useful (or fun).

I was talking to one of my students the other day and came up with the following: from far away, even a beginning student looks like an expert. As you practice and progress, the similarities can be seen from closer up, with more detail. It’s important to keep the larger picture in mind as you clean up and develop your technique. Much anguish comes from obsessing over the pixels. Try instead to back up until you see the similarities to your teacher or other advanced cellist, and then go to work on the next step, which might not be what you had in mind. Maybe it’s a shift in posture. Maybe you notice that your bow arm looks a little wooden. You can also see tendencies in attitude from a distance, so maybe you notice that expert cellists don’t apologize when they make a mistake, or restart a piece 5 times out of habit.

Lots of adult students surrender to the difficulty of the process but insist on going through it upstream, assembling a long list of details that they hope will look like a cellist at the end of the list. I say start with the broad end and then it’s just a refining process. So you get:

Step 1: Play the cello

Instead of:

Step 1: hold the bow like this

Step 2: watch that thumb

Step 3: left thumb too

Step 4: first finger, left hand, on the tip, stop tensing thumb

Step 5: breathe

Step 6: I am freaking our here why does this sound so bad who am I kidding

Step 7: drop shoulders

Step 9,325: double stops tuned from bottom note, flexibility across hand

Put all of those together and you get a neurosis, not a cellist. Detail work is necessary, but make sure you do it in the context of the larger picture, and that you are investing in the entire gesture, not just the mote that is that one teeny aspect of playing.

It’s not that a radial engine isn’t made up of thousands of parts that work together in a complicated way. It is. But the only way to assemble or work on it is to know how the whole thing is supposed to function in the larger sense. Otherwise, you could very well end up with a huge pile of nuts, bolts, rotors and gaskets. Sure, you can make a lot of things from those parts, but you have to know what you’re after in order for them to end up as anything but scrap.

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6 thoughts on “a new way to think about progress”

  1. I love this post. Maybe this is why I love playing the cello at a time when my focused, goal-oriented drive seems otherwise to have deserted me.

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  2. So I guess the question for me as a teacher is: how do I develop my students into cellists and not neuroses?

    Your last couple of posts have been really cool (well they always are…)

    Good luck surviving the heat!

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  3. You are on a roll Emily…can’t see the forest through the trees scenario…very well stated! When I began last year, I had to tell my first instructor exactly what my goals were – she did not ask – but it helped her develop a lesson plan for me that would quickly allow me to get a grasp of the basics and then begin the fine-tuning.

    @Mike – Below is what I expect from my instructors. It’s a tall order but I know it has paid off in dividends for my development. I hold myself accountable for reaching my goals – but I do hold my instructors responsible for creating an environment conducive to achieving them.

    1. Professionalism
    2. Consistency
    3. Willing to partner with me for mutual achievement of goals
    4. Willing to mentor me
    5. Proactive vs. Reactive
    6. Balance
    7. Honesty
    8. Can effectively demonstrate what she/he is teaching

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  4. Mike: I say mix it up. Here’s a typical scenario.

    Student comes in after the first week or three of work on a piece. After a scale, where (depending on whether I sense my student is up to it) I like to address one hand’s technical issues, I will have them play a large chunk of the piece. If it’s Schroeder, 1/3 of the page. I tell them to plow through and that I don’t care about mistakes, even mistakes in technique. As you know, chaining more than a few measures together is an accomplishment in itself.

    So then after I tell them the good stuff, I ask them to play it again and it’s there that I will stop on a given measure and we clinic it. Brute force repetition has a way of dismantling the inner critic, and after every rep, I’ll bark at them:

    flatter!

    breathe!

    better!

    wrist!

    good!

    go!

    It’s sort of like a drill sergeant approach, where the student doesn’t have the time to get into their head and feel much of anything except focus. We’re talking 20 run thrus, here. I play with them most of the reps.

    And here’s the cool thing: I’m correcting small elements of technique with my words, but the intensity of the repetition begins to shift the attention onto the larger gesture. It’s like holding a yoga pose for 90 seconds. At first you think about your feet and angles and breathing, and by the end you are the pose. Same here. I think it’s the repetition that holds the key in lessons, and in their home practice.

    After the crazy reps, I back them up a few measures and have them plow again, and see if we made progress. Even if they didn’t make miraculous change, it’s still cause for positive reinforcement. They are now 20 reps closer to getting it. And even if they miss it, it’s not wasted, because now they know what wrong feels like.

    I like to finish lessons with a duet that is a level easier than where the student is, as well. We’re in this to make music, after all, and music does not equal perfection. It’s intent. Instill in them that earthiness, and not only will they be much more receptive to correction and new information, but they will feel that they are cellists much sooner.

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  5. Muser: I could just die for wanting to give you a lesson or two. I thought this summer I would go to OshKosh and then do some Midwest clinics, but sooooomeone (who shall go unnamed, darling) is thinking we might need to postpone vacation plans. So if your family has an occasion to vacation on the west coast, consider the invitation open!

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  6. Again, I humbly disagree with Emily on a detail, which, I think though, goes along with her main point. I say, from a distance, you can tell the expert from the beginner. The way they sit, the way they bring the bow up to the strings, the look on their faces, how their shoulders open, … The experts got the macro motions working together. After my indefinite leave of absence from cello {when I can smile and relax again}, I want to feel that joy of motion, like running or skipping, or throwing a rock, or drawing a cello bow.

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