small change, big results 2: improving your practice, as illustrated by English period drama

If we think about the relationship between you and your instrument as a romance, practice can be seen as courtship. You’re getting to know about the cello, finding out about yourself, and making your intentions known. You want this…most ardentlydia dos namorados 1

This part of the “small change, big results” series will use period drama pieces to illustrate (with English restraint) the next hallmark of excellent practice: being able to modulate between playing and actual practice. 

Practice is no laughing matter. Look at Hugh Laurie’s reaction to the actress who played Umbridge in Harry Potter. This is how the cello sees you when you sit down to “practice” but all you do is play. It has no patience for your insolence, and it will go back to reading its newspaper while you faff about and waste time.


Practice and playing are qualitative terms. Neither happens because you declare yourself doing one or the other. Here are the differences:

When you play a passage:

  • you run and repeat sections
  • your mind’s eye may pinball around to a number of different things
  • you are hearing yourself
  • you may or may not stop when things get weird
  • you may or may not slow down for more difficult sections
  • you do not have a goal other than a wish to “sound good”

When you practice a passage:

  • you have a specific goal that can be demonstrated, and is distilled down to the simplest technical element: So, not “I wanna sound good” but “Using the techniques described by my instructor, I will experiment with bow placement and pressure until the string crossing sounds smoother.” Not “I wanna play in tune” but “Using a tuner, I will pay the closest attention to my left hand technique, modifying the spaces between my fingers until they are more accurate.” If you don’t formulate these goals, what you’re doing is not practicing, but flailing. You may progress a bit, but only when luck is on your side. Luck is so rarely on our side. I did this for years, my friends. I feel your pain. In this next gif, I’m the Dowager Countess and you’re Lady Mary and we’re having a moment of solidarity. FEEL THE SOLIDARITY!


more practice:

  • you investigate, one at a time, aspects of your playing
    • pitch
    • physical technique <—cough, cough COUGH
    • tone quality
    • rhythmic accuracy
    • elements of finesse, such as even length notes and quality of attack
    • relaxation and breathing
    • phrasing, emoting, musicality
  • you are running the passage at a speed at which you can actually play the notes. (if there is even one note that escapes you, the answer is NOT that you are a crappy cellist. It just means you need to slow the whole thing down until it’s in your hand.)
  • your mind’s eye is focused on the quality of your efforts
  • you are listening

Each of these bullet points could be a blog post in itself. In fact, if you search the archives of this site, I bet you’ll find that they already are. The most important thing to remember is that practice is an investigation, searching for weaknesses. You are not practicing if you are not actively seeking out problems and devising actionable solutions. The easiest way to enter practice mode is to simply slow down and use your inner freak-out detector to tell you how slow is slow enough. My recommendation is to play so slowly that you get the sense that no matter what happens, your blood pressure won’t go up. This is frequently glacial speed. Jurassic speed. Watching grass grow speed. Zen speed. Embrace it. It’s how I practice, and although I’m no Yo-Yo, I get around the cello pretty well. It works!



One quick note about playing. I’d like to advocate for your two modes to be practice and performance, skipping right over the mindlessness associated with playing. Performance has an entirely different set of characteristics to get good at:

  • if you make a mistake, WHO CARES?! do not let errors contaminate the measures that come after them!
  • you are playing along with what you hear in your head
  • your mind’s eye is trained on your breathing and generating the emotive quality you’re after: as a beginner, that might just be “calm” or “solid”. Nothing wrong with that, young Jedi. You’ll get to full-blown Jane Austen level drama soon enough.
  • yes I’m aware that I just ruined the continuity of the whole theme of this post with a Star Wars reference
  • there is a spirit of freedom and fun- this is not the time to analyze
  • this is an offering, and not about perfection. If we wanted to hear perfect music, we would listen to robots and computers drone on all day. The risk of playing an instrument is everything and nothing at all. As an amateur, no true harm can come of it, even if you ruined every note in front of every person who matters to you- unless you attach the significance of ego to it. Music is a gift, given freely. What a wonderful thing to share.

Keep practice and performance well separated! Then you can practice smarter, not longer or harder, without worrying about whether today will be the lucky day that something actually gets done. Now get out there, and practice! Really…really, really slowly. Possibly a thousand times.



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8 Responses

  1. I have enjoyed your blog many a time, but as a cellist AND a Jane Austen fanatic, this took me over the moon! Excellent points, and a brilliant analogy! 🙂

  2. Just read this by chance before I sat down to morning practice.
    Thank you for your clear and positive advice.
    I will be practising slowly this morning!

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