small change, big results 4, as illustrated by The Nightmare Before Christmas

The artistic endeavor seems like the kind of thing that should just flow. The story goes like this: big feels, inspiration strikes, she works late into the night in a torrent of creativity and as dawn breaks somewhere over the dimly-lit enclave …magical results.


For the most part, the actual process could not be more different. Creativity and success in art are usually the result of a maniacal (and frequently inconvenient) set of habits and structured time.


Here, read this: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. You’ll find that some of the most wildly creative and prolific people were downright regimented in the way they approached their work- and their study. Beethoven and his exactly 60 coffee beans, Maya Angelou in her hotel room with a 6:15am glass of fortified wine.

You can always tell when art is produced by someone who likes the idea of being an artist but has not meaningfully invested in the discipline of the thing. It’s crappy. Pretentious. Temporary. Toothless. Being an artist is like this insanely beautiful grief process, where you discover that you’re more holes than substance, there are so many people doing better work, and that the only certainty is mortality….



This is the torrent that gets branded as what artists are like, but it only comes after developing the structure and curiosity to form a point of view and a set of goals designed to realize that point of view. This kind of discipline is rare. My theory is that art resides in all of us, as a part of our humanity, and that what must be taught is the respect for the craft and discipline of the process. Artists are everywhere: the rare thing is the intestinal fortitude required to be a vehicle for art.


This installment of small change, big results is about structuring your practice, which is really about structuring your thinking. I’ve said it many times in any number of ways: having concrete goals is the only way to guarantee progress with regularity. You may improve just by throwing yourself at the thing and flailing around a bit, but without a framework, there’s no way to identify and repeat what works. If the task seems too big or the goals too broad, keep this in mind: you don’t have to come up with a genius level practice plan to benefit from having one. All you’re looking to do is scroll through variables and note what improves results and what doesn’t. Here’s an example of a mediocre structure that still gets the job done. Let’s assume you have about 40 minutes to practice.

Step 1: Choose a scale and two items.

Step 2: Slowly play through a passage that has some kind of problem. What’s a problem?

  • notes that are out of tune or hard to hit
  • sounds bad
  • can’t get it up to speed
  • has no emotional impact
  • makes your guts clench for no obvious reason

Step 3: Slowly play through the problem section using this flowchart (or any other one that you like- the important thing is that there is a method to scroll through your variables). Make declarative statements about what’s going on:

  • this sounds okay, but the quality of tone is not improving
  • my hand hurts when I ____________________
  • when I focus on my breathing and slow down, I get a result I like
  • when I focus on my bow, the left hand suffers
  • when I play pizzicato, the left hand problems vanish

Then take those statements and use them to assess what’s happening. The flowchart has these things built into them, and the answer is mostly “slow down”. Remember that when you work on one aspect of your playing, the other stuff is bound to suffer. Heck, go back and re-read this post about the physical approach to practice. 

Step 4: After about 10 minutes (which is a LONG time, if you’re practicing slowly with careful attention), move to your scale, remembering what was bothering you in the previous passage. Let’s say your tone goes to hell when it speeds up. Examine the same phenomenon in a new context. Go back to what the physical basics should be. Does it happen in an easy scale? Or only in Q-flat double sharp Phrygian minor? What does this mean?

Well, in this instance, it means that your left hand has not adequately passed over the section at a slow pace to absolve your right hand of sympathetic freak out. The answer is nearly always slow down. Been teaching cello 20 years and it’s a universal truth.

Step 5: Pull out the last item. Maybe it’s another piece, an orchestra part, an étude, a different section of the same piece, whatever. Great. Take whatever kernel you’ve gleaned from the other two examples and scroll through the physical variables paying the most myopic attention to it. What does this look like in practice? If we’re using the “right hand freaks out when left hand is challenged” theme:

  • turn on the recorder (that $%&#* is objective)
  • play through at whatever speed you like
  • play through at half that speed
  • play through at half half speed
  • what is the sound like? the experience? the feeling of being able to control things? tension?

Even if you end this session without an improved sound, the key is to walk away with insight and an awareness of your tendencies. This arms you to ask the right questions in lessons and gives you an axis about which to rotate the next time you practice.


Another thing to consider is the regularity with which you practice. It’s much better to touch the instrument frequently for a moderate amount of time than to have a whopper of a session twice a week. The connections are just so much easier to make when the habit of practice is woven into your life, not some ornament twinkling randomly on your calendar. Practice is not special, it is essential. It does not feed the ego, it is a meditation on humility and non attachment. It is not done to arrive at some random endpoint of “good”, it is done to search out frailty and make progress- note the differences in trajectory.

If you have to get up early four days a week and put three mutes on your cello to get in 20 minutes before work without waking the neighbors, then do that. If you have to practice in the parking structure at work, do that. If you have to barter for an hour of daycare so you can take a bath, practice, and meditate, then do that. Figure it out. There is no way to become a fine cellist without practicing regularly, with a sense of purpose and determination. Practice is the process, and the art gets made when you’re in the weeds, totally lost in the details of the craft. Students who feverishly look around and ask “are we there yet” never get there. Obsession with the idea of of being a cellist distracts many well-meaning people from the structured dirty work required to be one.

Don’t chase after adulation or recognition.


The path to being an artist is more like a walk alone so long that you stop being lonely because you have the moon to keep you company.


You have everything you need to be whole.


Don’t be haunted by old ideas and habits that have hurt you in the past.


Be practicing. Be a cellist. Be a vehicle for art.



What we’re really searching out is self-acceptance- an ongoing journey that others can walk with you, but not for you. It is an honor to be on the road together as imperfect, struggling musicians in the light of the lovely, lonely moon.

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9 Responses

  1. I can’t believe how much I’ve missed your writing!! I need to binge read this weekend. You are always an insightful and calming voice – like someone throwing me buoy when I am in those deep dark waters with the cello practice (happening right now in fact, 3 nights before a performance eeeek) Thanks! Much love. Let’s catch up soon!!

    1. Kim! I miss you so much. Do you know I went to Sandy Point beach (the one we found when you helped me find a place in MD) SO MANY TIMES when I lived there? Just moved to Minneapolis- when do I get to see you? xoxo

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