I have a relatively new student (13-ish, taking for about 6 months) who reminds me very much of myself at that age. H has a lot of energy, natural ability, and a tough time settling into lessons. Don’t get me wrong; she’s bright. In fact, she is so good at identifying concepts that she frequently finishes my sentences and then cites an anecdotal example to prove it. While perhaps entertaining, this voracious appetite for new information does not mean she applies the new concepts to her playing. In fact, it can hinder actual progress because her mind is too busy spinning the wheels to do much of anything else.

From our first lesson, I had two chief complaints: her thumbs were crushing both her bow and the neck of the cello, and please stop playing on the fingerboard. Over and over again, I issue requests, suggestions, rhetorical questions, even orders, to do this. On Saturday, she unpacked her cello and much to my dismay, the telltale rosin was caked in a 3 inch swath up onto her fingerboard. I tell all of my students that while professional cellists can and do play in these northerly locales, it’s better to play between the bridge and fingerboard. I tell them, “This is where tone lives. Only play where tone lives.”

Before she could even sit down, I asked her what she thought I was going to complain about. I think I saw her check her fingernail length before I spun her cello around and pointed to the white disaster on her strings. Because she takes criticism on the chin, she shrugged and said something to the effect of “Yeah, I need to work on that.”

“When?” I said.

“When is a good time to take my advice?”

“How long are you going to wait and what is it going to take for you to make this improvement? If you don’t want to improve, then keep playing up there.”

I won’t say that her eyes welled up, but the weather in the studio changed. Sure, she can take criticism well, but she wasn’t taking my critique and using it, she was using her survival instincts and deflecting it. Finally, with some pretty brutal honesty and a more stark line between teacher and student, she got it. I wiped the rosin off of her cello and said, “Let’s see if we can do better today.”

At the end of a good (but quiet) lesson, I told her that I didn’t mean to be unkind, and that life is short and cello is hard. My advice is only so she can improve, but she has to take every bit of counsel and implement it with the same intensity she lives the rest of her life with. She relaxed a little, and said that she understood, but I have had the “slap upside the head” lesson with many students who then don’t return, and that was a little glowing ember in the fire as I watched her leave.

I got a text from her dad later in the day saying that H had gotten a lot from the lesson, and that they’ll see me next week.

I am impressed. It takes a rare combination of character and soul for a teen to take criticism, feel its impact, run with it, and have the good nature to smile all the while. I don’t like to draw the sword very often, but it hurts me a little less when I see that it does its job well.

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6 Responses

  1. Indeed. Good for her.

    Did you see the article in the most recent Strad about tension leading to playing with opposing muscle tension leading to muscle shortening, and the tell-tale symptom of the bow creeping up the fingerboard? I found it to be revelatory.

  2. I have not yet read that, but I will. In addition, I have thought for years that what one hand does will cause the other to act in sympathy. The best way to reverse a muscle shortening habit on one side is to make sure you’re not forgetting to address the opposite one.

  3. This may sound utterly dumb, and, well, I was (am), but I didn’t know how to change my point-of-contact in the beginning. Like parallel parking, it took a while to get the hang of it, especially on downbows. On downbows, a low hand results in a high poc because the bow isn’t perpendicular. It’s counter-intuitive,. like trying to straighten out a U-Haul trailer while backing up. This was more prone to happen on the A string. Then, if I upbow-ed perpendicular to the string, the poc stayed high. Then another low-handed downbow raised the poc even more. Grrrrr — Frustrating!

    So one response is to tighten up the thumb and hand to twist that darn bow back down, but of course, that doesn’t work so well.

  4. Hi Emily,
    Although I’ve been reading your site for a couple months now, I haven’t bothered to leave a comment until now. First of all, I just wanted to say that I think you are fantastic, and that your posts on how to improve techique, practicing, and simply the approach to cello playing has given me inspiration to start practicing more and work harder during some of my cello slumps.

    The reason I wanted to post a comment with this particular post is because I’ve had that wake up call from a teacher I respect very much. I was about 12 or so, and not really serious about anything. My teacher was really patient about my lessons up until that point, but soon the pot reached boiling point. He stormed off and even refused payment for that lesson. I remember being mortified as well as complete shame, but from then on, I straightened up quite a bit. I think you do wonderful work, and your students are very lucky to have a teacher that cares enough not to shower them with undeserved praise.


  5. Celli: Thanks so much for the kind words! Helping cellists through slumps is a mission of mine. I went through a whole lot of them and nearly fell off the wagon entirely, so I am something of a slump expert. 🙂

    Although I understand the urge to storm off during a lesson, a teacher needs to be in better control than that. I have called a “time of death” during a lesson, and yes, have refused payment. But anything more dramatic adds a personal element that needs to be tread upon gently. As teachers, we have the opportunity to become mentors and guides. The students we take on have put themselves in a vulnerable position, admitting ignorance and needing patient guidance through very difficult and sometimes emotional terrain. If I know a student is not doing what’s necessary, I do a little bit of precise talking. I once told a student that teaching her was like pouring water into a glass with a hole in the bottom. I have told dozens of people that the cello is too expensive for the kind of effort they are putting forth. I have even left the studio and told a student that I will be back in 30 minutes, after they have practiced the prescribed exercise as assigned. But if I do those things, it is because I am interested in progress. If no progress is possible, I have to be the good guy and comport myself in a manner befitting the learning process, even if the work ethic of the student does not.

    It’s funny: the music world is full of strong personalities, and big gestures are rewarded as the stuff of anecdote and legend. I chuckle when I think about a professor of mine who threw his baton during a rehearsal; I ended up catching it. I can laugh because the rancor was not directed at me. I still love him as my dearest mentor, and I could not bear the thought that he would be disappointed in me, even 10 years after the fact. But I learned from him that day. Being passionate is essential to teaching, but losing your temper is a waste of that passion and dilutes your professionalism.

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