The way I see it, there is this thing, this Difficulty (capital D, for emphasis) to playing the cello. And it’s there; sitting, waiting, towering, looming, quivering.

Many a student has tried to devise strategies to get around this Difficulty.

Example A demonstrates that you cannot cover the Difficulty with laundry.

Example B depicts what happens when you try to use the Difficulty as a soccer ball.

Ah yes, example C: the student tries to talk her way out of the Difficulty, citing everything from a desire to play real music to my personal favorite, a challenge from YouTube. Yes, you can see a lot of things there. I once saw a monkey playing a pipe organ, but I don’t know if that sort of thing is the best item to base a technical challenge to one’s teacher on.

So you have a choice. The Difficulty is there. Finite, but impressive. Fairly successful students shoulder some of It at home, and then are faced with the remaining portion during their lessons. Students averse to battling the D on their own have a light home ethic, which tends to be more play than practice, and then have rather unpleasant lessons, if their teachers are worth their salt and keep focus on what the student needs*. Highly successful students are those who practice well and enjoy their lessons in a profound way. This begins a cycle of improvement and refinement in the quality of playing, practice, and tuition.

The magnificent William Pleeth described his lessons with Jacqueline DuPré as tennis matches. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something like, “It was wonderful to see. I would hit the ball to her, and she would hit it back twice as hard.” Something to remember is that you don’t have to get good at the D in order to have home-run quality lessons. You just have to sit in it, battle it, work on it. It is the work, not the individual achievement that gets you traction. Do the work and reap the reward of momentum.

* A good teacher can focus on the task and also account for the fact that one approach does not fit all. Some students need to change pieces or scale keys, or adjust some other aspect of the curriculum to manifest this improvement. In a belated response to MT’s comment:It is not an option to not have the answer, if one is a high level teacher. If a student is faltering for any reason except personal crisis, I need to continue crafting a good approach for them. The cello asks much of the student. The teacher must be a fearless guide, recognizing things that are destructive to the process and pushing on, even if it leads to the student realizing that the cello is not for them. The real trouble happens when a student is lead to believe that they are doing what is necessary to succeed because the teacher punts† during difficult spells when really, it’s time to run the ball.

† Ooh! Future Glossary post right there.

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8 Responses

  1. I suspect I will be seeing this leitmotif throughout your blog, at least through the end of football season. By contrast, I'm in baseball mode until the Phillies finish their postseason struggle.

    I can't contribute much in this area, since my football knowledge has been, interestingly enough, focused on teams whose QB tends to run the option. I'm guessing that's exactly what you're trying to avoid. You can't always make the decision at snap time. That's the equivalent of not practicing all week then sight-reading during the lesson. (not that I've EVER done that).

  2. The most successful season in USC history was all about the option: having Reggie and Lendale as wide out and running back certainly helped, though. 🙂 I hope the young guy is able to relax and let his talents shine. The option is so exciting!

    PS:I used to sight read my études, poorly, in lessons. The Difficulty was 100% in those painful sessions, I can tell you!

  3. [warning – this reply is totally not about the cello].

    The thing about the option is that your high injury risk is usually deferred until the NFL. Yes, it's possible to have one (or a few) great optioning season in college.

    But I digress. I might be a bit jaded after watching McNabb for so many seasons!

  4. Sorry to digress from the football 🙂
    Thanks for a great post! As a beginning student, I really dig this post and your philosophy on the lesson/practice 'D' balance. Right now it feels like EVERYTHING is a challenge, and I suppose that's the way it's supposed to feel – for quite a while, from what I'm hearing. However, I can definitely tell the difference in my lesson when I've been putting in the extra practice time at home and really PRACTICING (not just trying to play the song over and over).
    Thanks for putting words to the feeling. I appreciate your sense of humor – and the art was fun too!

  5. CC&: you are welcome! This would be a lonely blog without readers like you.

    Feel free to post non-football comments as often as you like. 😉

  6. I just came back to this, a year later, for some spiritual refreshment. Thinking about my D, and wondering if it's really a whole complex of Ds originating. So, it's sort of vaporous – not quite sure where to jump in first.

  7. Great post and so pertinent to me right now. My first lesson (as a complete beginner – no history of music at all) was about four weeks ago and I’m already experiencing my first slips in practice time (heavy work load at the moment). Tuesday’s lesson was blagged to an extent because of a lack of practice and I’d started to think about the balance between practice and lessons. Mostly I love it all, but I realise I’m going to struggle when paid work gets in the way if I don’t get a balance soon…

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