Yesterday, Jen had to take a little break because of a long-standing back issue (which does not benefit from tense cello playing, or any cello playing for that matter). So here’s her 2 cents worth. We have a lesson tomorrow, and we will dual-post what we cover.

I was definitely very tense when I picked up my instrument this afternoon. I started in with some nice open strings, moved on to my scales and didn’t seem to be accomplishing my relaxation as much as I’d hoped. I moved on to the piece and played it very much the same way as I had been during the previous practice. I started to get anxious because I was fed up with the sound so I decided to pull out the piece I played for my last recital. As soon as I started to play I felt like I completely regressed to where I was a week ago. Everything was tense: my shoulders, my thumbs, my back. Talk about muscle memory! It was so frustrating. I’ve never really set a goals for myself with the cello as far as time goes. I’ve never said to myself that I want to play at a certain level within 3 years, 5 years, etc. I’ve always just assumed that it is a very difficult instrument and that it would take as long as it takes. I just want to be able to make beautiful music for myself and for other people if possible. That’s all. I realized today that I do set smaller goals whether I realize it or not. I am anxious because I am anxious to make beautiful music. That’s what led me to pick up my last recital piece. I wanted to hear myself play something that sounded pleasing. And it wasn’t. I don’t think I have ever been satisfied with a piece I’ve played. I’ve had nice moments here and there but I don’t feel I’ve ever mastered a piece. Now I know I have come a long way because Emily tells me I have but it is really difficult to see when you are the one learning. I still feel like a brand new beginner in a lot of ways. How do you map your progress when your ear always expects more? I love this instrument and nothing would make me quit playing. I just need to be more patient with myself.

What do you think, Em? Is it just a bad day or do I need to change my whole mental approach to learning this instrument?
On a positive note, I did find that when I returned to the new piece I am learning, the tension disappeared again so there is progress in that.

Well, you came around in the end, but it’s the brain cycle that really does a number on you. It goes:

It’s X o’clock, need to practice


Bargaining (picking up an old piece)

More dissatisfaction

Lower lip begins to tremble and “life reflections”

I need a drink

I often remind my students that it’s like that old King-Fu test. In order to snatch the rock from the master’s hand, you have to stop being concerned with the rock. If you read GottaGoPractice’s blog, hopefully you haven’t missed the subtext to the title of her page. It says, “It’s all about the process.” This is where the rubber meets the road on that particular mindset. You have to kneel at the altar of the process and stay with it and not do checks for progress every 15 minutes. Like weight loss and brownies, you’ll only die of exasperation if you check on the status too many times. The big picture is big because it is painted over a series of weeks and months, which will fly by if you focus on the task or lag into infinity if you only think of the goal. In order to stay on track, I think maybe you need some Cello Articles of Faith:

Article #1: knocking the problem over the head 1,000 times will yield results. Don’t look for magic. Just address the issue over and over again and you will progress, because:

Article #2: it is not about being gifted or smart. There are plenty of morons who get really good at the cello. Maybe they get good because everything is hard for them, so they just apply the same nose-to-the grindstone ethic to the cello that they need for crossing streets, chewing with their mouths shut, and remembering to put their pants on before shoes. I was lavished with the titles of gifted and brilliant as a kid, and I was flattened by people who worked their asses off because talent and blah blah doesn’t get you too far. I happen to know that most adult beginners (and Jen is a supreme example of this) are good at a wide variety of things, so the cello is particularly punishing because it rarely lends itself to innate technical ability.

Article #3: unless you take time off, there are no backward steps. I am just filled with metaphor and simile today, so let’s keep it up: I think of being proficient at the cello as this 3 dimensional picture that one can observe from many angles and distances. One day, it looks like the details, the next it looks like widespread tendencies. But it’s all the same thing, just different aspects. So you pick up the cello and you’re really relaxed. That means that you’ve explored what relaxation feels like in spring, with a wildfire in Pomona, tomato soup for lunch, and Leo in Cancer. Tomorrow? Everything is different. The more angles you are presented with, the more likely you’ll be able to bob and weave with the changes life throws at you and your physiology. The key is to find what’s common to the experiences and to develop the thread that ties your whole playing experience together.

Article #4: What feels good will sound good. Even if it doesn’t at first.

If you hold these articles as true, and then apply them to your practice, you should gain the comfort of knowing that what you are going through IS the process. IS the norm. And if I can talk about this stuff at such length, and bloggers of all different strengths and abilities are chiming in, don’t you think that there is a way to muddle inelegantly through it? Just by persisting?

Then when you look back on this baptism by fire, the first time you are actually practicing the whole instrument and not just the notes, you will notice that there is definitely an elegance to simply nodding with patience and silently sharpening your resolve for another day of the Cello Life.

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  1. Also, I think, what looks good sounds good. If one only goes to LA Phil concerts, or the like: All-look-same. But, if one goes to a local church’s production of Handel or Brahms, or a community orchestra concert, one can easily see, somehow, that the 1st chair gal is better’n the 2nd chair, who’s better’n the 3rd chair, etc…

    Something there is in us, even the non-musician, that can detect differences in how a cellist moves, even we can’t describe it, and can see one player moves more better’n another.

    Must be magic or sump’n.

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