I have a long-term student who has been very up, very down, all over the map in terms of her dedication to the cello. Of late, prodded on by the Galamian scales with martelé that every one of my students is slaving away at, she has made a tremendous amount of progress. I can always tell when a student is practicing correctly because they make sophisticated mistakes instead of rudimentary ones. She was really doing the hard work, and it showed top-to-bottom in her playing, from note reading to the increasing smoothness of her bow changes.

Leaving a lesson a week or two ago, I was flagged down by her husband. He asked me how she was doing, and with my usual evangelical fervor, proceeded to spread the gospel of her progress. I had to work very hard not to let my mouth fall open when he began giving me pointers and sharing how dedicated she was to this other activity, and that perhaps if I was “mean like her other instructor” she would progress more to his liking.

My students who read this blog will attest that while I am generally cheerful and positive, I am no push over either. Especially when they have not been working to their potential or ignoring my instructions in favor of their own byzantine machinations. To hear this guy gripe about his wife’s lack of progress after a near miraculous transformation was hard for me to take, but I am not eager to involve myself in such complicated transactions. I left after a civil goodbye, haunted by the knowledge that I have many students with the same dynamic flowing through their homes.

Taking on the cello (or any other instrument) as an adult is not a trifle or vanity: it is, aside from its own massive worth, a brave statement of the refusal to stop chasing dreams, a confirmation of the value of your time, a daring exploration of every possible issue in the self-help area of your favorite bookstore. Sometimes family and friends are surprised by this sort of thing: it doesn’t conform to the view of you they have in mind, and see it as a threat. While I don’t advocate a life that ignores the needs of your loved ones (golf widows will attest to the detriments of that lifestyle), try not to let the caustic fumes of the people around you corrode your relationship with the cello. I find that it is a direct reflection of your relationship with yourself, and as a result, with everyone else.

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10 thoughts on “never good enough”

  1. I am speechless that anyone's spouse or SO would interfere in their relationship with their teacher like that. It's the height of arrogance and disrespect.

    I applaud your ability to remain civil. I have to wonder if her very-down periods are in direct (conscious or unconscious) response to her husband pushing her in some way. I know I dig my heels in when someone dictates what I ought to be doing, in their not-so-humble opinion.

    Wow. Wow,, that really riled me up. I am extremely fortunate in that my family has always been supportive of my decision to take up the cello as an adult. (Of course, it got back to me that my ex-fiance was going on to everyone about how he didn't understand why I was doing it, as I'd never be a professional. Way to misunderstand the point! I knew canceling the wedding was a good idea.)

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  2. He's like that. It's not the first time, either. The situation is quite complex, though. She has repeatedly said that she is playing in the hopes that one of her own children will pick it up when they get older.

    Since when do kids model their parents' hobbies as teenagers? Anyway, I don't know what that's all about, though I do have suspicions. So I just keep working with her in the hopes that she will recognize and perhaps be able to enjoy how hard she has worked.

    The things I see…

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  3. In the category of giving the "benefit of the doubt," shouldn't we remember that working on technique isn't necessarily pretty.

    From a lay person's view, her playing may very well seem to have taken a hit, because she isn't trying to sound good, she isn't playing easy "purty" stuff; she's working on form and technique, struggling with same scale notes over and over again, and, well, damn how it sounds, and for us, we know, that's ok.

    For the listener, well, it's not meant for the listener. Not yet, at least.

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  4. Nah. She sounds good.

    Like, really good. I actually think that's why he was all bothered. Her skill is starting to be more and more apparent!

    But for other folks, sure. Getting better requires sounding worse as one tries new and more difficult things. That's why new instruments are so gnarly, as opposed to other alleged hobbies. Take up ceramics, and the worst thing that happens is an ugly bowl. Take up dance, and you flail in silence. Take up the oboe, and animal control is called on suspicion of duck abuse.

    I hear ya, Terry! You playing those Galamian scales yet?

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  5. I practice Galamian scales sometimes. Ok, on occasion. But I did start on them long ago, before your blog, I'm sure. I got the info years ago from cello-academy.com. Very good demo by Hans Zentgraf, in my opinion.

    But, I dunno, for whatever reasons, I am much more regular on arpeggios than scales. I find them easier to adjust for whatever positions and keys I'm interested in working on. Recently I've returned to "Galamian" arpeggios, where the lowest note remains constant and the chord changes, like:

    i -VI Iaug5 vi I7/IV IV iv Isus4 I V7/-ii…

    But those darn augmented 5th chords can be pretty discouraging.

    But I'll go back to doing Galamian scales if you can tell me why I should do them Martele. Is that about making the bow easily able to pronounce consonants, like a human voice, at the beginning of each stroke, even at the tip? Should there be space between notes? One, or multiple notes per bow? And what about bow speed? Lots, or not so much?

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  6. OK, I'll bite:

    What exactly is a "Galamian" scale, and what are the benefits to practicing one?

    I see his book and I see that he goes up a third, then back down to the root, then back up. Is that what makes his system 'tick?'

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  7. Emily, allow me to start on this:

    It's the magic of 24. 24 notes to get to the top, and 24 notes to get back to the bottom.

    I can play the notes in 1-sies, 2-sies, 3-sies, 4-sies, 6-sies, 8-sies, 12-sies, and 24-sies (even 16-sies as a practical matter), and the pattern repeats itself so that I don't lose track.

    They're good for learning to play fast, for example. First I work on one long and one very short (double-dotted quarter and 165th). Then one short and one long (a 16th and double-dotted quarter). Then one long and two shorts (dotted quarter and two 16ths. Then one short, one long, and one short (16th, dotted quarter, and 16th). Then one long and three shorts (dotted quarter and three triplet 16ths). Then one short and one long and two shorts….

    So, eventually you get to the point where you can play the whole scale up and down in fast 16ths.

    But because of the way it repeats it also lends itself to becoming adept at bowing patterns, wherein you vary wich note to start the pattern on.

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  8. Michael – Ivan Galamian was a violinist who came up with a set of "acceleration exercises" which are in a way the violin equivalent of the Hanon exercises (on piano) … basically they're designed to help you play faster with different bowings quicker.

    The real benefit is that if you can play 64th notes at 60, you can do 32nd notes at 120 (b/c they're the same thing), etc … but basically, you're practicing doing quarters, 8ths, triplets, 16ths, 32nds & 64ths at every tempo.

    Another thing that could be useful is also practicing odd denominators – 5, 7 & 9 in particular.

    Does that make sense?

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  9. Thanks for picking up the slack, guys! I have been so busy. Another great facet of Galamian is that adding the 3 note tag at the beginning and end of a 3 octave scale makes the bowings of 3, 4, 6, 8, and 12 come out evenly,as you turn around with a new bow at the top and end up with the last note on its own bow. It makes sense to the ear. Also, in keys like D (and all of the "universal" fingerings) where you start with an extension, you have to reach for the extended shape right off the bat. You can't get up to nearly as much mischief with your left hand that way.

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