One of the hardest things about teaching kids is that you have to watch talent languish. I routinely run into situations where a student just turns off to the whole learning process but, thinking that I can be fooled, turns up the charm and tries to stall during the lesson or make excuses for failing at things that are well within their grasp. With the advent of my newly-energized (as if I wasn’t zesty enough) Galamian scale routine came a whole slew of scary stuff from some of my younger peeps. So far, I have a Hedger, a Gripper, and a Quitter. Ah well. Mimi warned us that the ones not cut out for it would “fire themselves”. The Hedger (very charming, likes to play but not practice, expert at stalling) was taken aback at how glaringly the new martelé bows combined with the trickery of the Galamian pattern showcased the gaping holes in her knowledge and technique. It is here that cellists are made or turned away. The cellist sees the gap and makes haste to fill it. The talent waster on the other hand, will find the experience of being shown their fault so disagreeable that they will do nearly anything to avoid facing the problem head-on. Most of the time, it is because the cello feels largely impossible. Just when one feels the slightest hint of ability, the teacher assaults you with another insult, reminding you that you are stupid and not very good at anything. Believe me, I understand! I spent a frustrating hour today working on vibrato fundamentals. And I was terrible! Not sure whether it’s something neurological or just an undisciplined left biceps, but I am right there with every student cellist, I promise. Back to the Hedge. I could sense that she was just about to cave into the despair, and I thought maybe a visual aid was in order to illustrate the whole situation, including why I insist on prescribing the Satanic Galamian Scales with Martelé of Doom. I told her that there is a place one gets to, after many years, where one can play what they want, just how they want, and it will sound beautiful and not be as hard as it feels today. There is only one thing, sitting right on top of that goal, towering like a mountain.

The mountain is made up entirely of scales and études, repeated more times than you can count. In fact, if you’re counting, you’re probably not doing enough. What’s important is that you keep doing them. You will not be good at them for a while. In fact, you will swear that they are making you worse and killing your love for the instrument. But I’m telling you, and so will any teacher with half a brain (I myself operate on about 3/8 of one and am doing pretty well) agree.

Painting a picture for the little Hedge seemed to loosen things up and sharpen her resolve. The unexpected cause for optimism comes strangely from the enormity of the task: yes, it’s a mountain. But even from the bottom, you can see the top.

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14 thoughts on “how to get good”

  1. So true! And I think it is important to emphasize as you have in the past that it is OK to sound bad. Some of the best students have a really hard time getting over that, since they constantly strive to sound the best they can and hardly anybody sounds good playing scales.

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  2. thanks for the encouragement! I find it hard to accept that my playing gets worse before it gets better. Patience is not one of my strengths 🙂

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  3. Oh, but that mountain is SO high sometimes. I was feeling so great and then went to my lesson and it all fell apart. I had to be reminded that the joy and frustration of the cello is that it's a learning process that NEVER ends. Thanks for your words Emily!

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  4. If you hadn't mentioned young players, I would assume the Hedger was me! I'm still struggling with the martele, if you can believe it. I understand it, but making my arms, elbows, wrists, hands and fingers obey is another story. I probably have whatever the kinesthetic version of autism is. (ask me about dance class and "opposition arms" someday). The good news is that my marteleian confusion is just absurd enough for me to keep practicing. Also, that I have found my heavy practice mute.

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  5. Rock on with your scales, Ladies! (and Blake, who took from Mr Galamian scales himself, Hans Jensen)

    As for you, NC, you're not a staller in lessons at all, although you are charming. Of course the martelé is difficult! It's only because I played my scales with them for eons that I can even remotely come close to demonstrating them. Plus, that class with Mimi was all martelé all the time (nearly). So I got to see a master teacher go at it for about 7 hours a day. That has a way of making the technique stick…which is why I am demonstrating a lot more for you guys. I know it seems like a drag, but bow technique is a feeling and a gesture that sometimes suffers from the words we try to describe it. I distinctly remember when my left hand technique changed: I pictured the way Ron's hand looked, and knew what it would feel like, then went after that feeling.

    Weird, eh?

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  6. I'm so overwhelmed by all the truth that I can't get any words to come out. I am so glad to have finally found a teacher who understands my kinesthetic needs (and you, too, Emily 🙂 My lessons now are all mimicry with side discussions about what it feels like, what comes first, etc. And then delight when the music emerges as a side effect!

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  7. I think this is true in a lot of cases. Particularly for someone that just seems to naturally pick things up quickly. When they hit a rock in the road, it's a little nip at the ol' ego. At this point the defensive charm drips from their plastic grins as they mentally repair the anguish of not being PERFECT. (not that I know anything at all about that or anything *ahem*)

    A good pep-talk from their teacher or others they look up to will often do the trick. Reminders that they don't have to be perfect, but if they put in the work they can achieve so much is extremely important.

    Oh, and thank you Emily for giving a similar pep-talk to my little charmer. ;o)

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  8. Oh yeah. And this isn't just about cello, is it? Because I really took this to heart in what I'm trying to achieve as well. Thanks!

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  9. I am convinced that kids see things in terms of "I am good", or "I am bad". "I can do this", or "I can't". And if the answer is "I can't", the no amount investment worth it because the ROI is zero.

    And unfortunately, thinking about your mountain analogy, it's not just a matter of walking up a steep slope and so long as you have energy you can make it. At some point, there's an ice chasm and you need your picks and gear. Too bad you're bone tired and cold.

    In terms of cello teaching, it's that thing that no matter how it's explained you just don't get it because it's physical and the teacher can't jump inside your mind to control your body for you.

    So, do whatever you can to convince the hedger that she can take the next step and be successful. It might be as simple as saying "I don't have the right explanation right now that works for you, and I'll ask around"

    We'd hate to see cello careers freeze to death on the mountain.

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  10. "I am convinced that kids see things in terms of "I am good", or "I am bad". "I can do this", or "I can't". And if the answer is "I can't", the no amount investment worth it because the ROI is zero."

    I think Michael is entirely right, and it applies to college students as well. I am so often afraid to hope that they will actually want to do the work and not treat it like it is an unreasonable imposition. I am so tired of pulling teeth!

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  11. That's a good point, since if you're going to be pulling teeth, you might as well have a DDS after your name and earn big bucks.

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  12. Martelé of Doom? You means just scales of pow… pow… pow…?

    I must be missing something. What's the big deal? I take it that this is something extra good to practice scales with, but why? What does it give me that detaché's click… click… click…. doesn't give me?

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