small change, big results: improving your practice, as illustrated by MXC

The goal of this series is to provide you with several small changes in approach, presented one at a time, that will streamline and improve your practice process, while also reminding you that MXC* was perhaps the only worthwhile programming ever to air on SpikeTV.

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Practicing can seem like an uphill battle. Even if you make progress one day, there seems to be no guarantee that it will be evident in your playing the next time you sit down to practice. Sometimes it feels like the more you play, the worse you sound.



You may even start asking questions like “Am I too lame to do this?”, “Are my hands just not able to physically play well?” and “Is my teacher asking me to do too much?” You can only fall flat on your face so many times before defeat sets in.



The first small change you can make in your practice is something I’ve talked about many times on this blog (here and here, for instance): paying attention to the physical aspects of your playing. This means focusing your mind’s eye on your hands, arms, breathing, posture, etc, instead of the jumble of finger numbers, pitch names and stock market ticker of manic nonsense that deprives you of any sense of peace while you play. Yes. That’s a guy in safari gear dancing with aliens and Godzilla. I’m telling you. It was an excellent show.


The other component of this shift in attention is clearly defining what should be physically happening. You may need to ask your instructor for specific advice here. Whatever they say, WRITE IT DOWN. These are the fundamentals, and the essence of technical facility on the instrument. Examples:

  • shifting: arm generates the movement, thumb stays in line with the arm, hand stays compact/doesn’t extend, move with calm purpose, not urgency
  • extending: fingers anchor through fingerboard, a sense of hanging or pulling backwards, no pronation of wrist, put the whole step between 1 and 2, don’t reach with 4, don’t grip with thumb or do that bizarre hitchhiker “look at my thumb 3 inches off the neck” business
  • bow changes: movement comes from arm and flows through wrist and fingers…but wrist does NOT change the bow. breathing, playing in time, hold note full duration, even speed and pressure (unless change in dynamics is indicated), do not telegraph that a change is about to happen, shoulder neutral and relaxed, bow being drawn in a straight line, not at an angle.

Once you’ve delineated what should be happening, make sure you repeat the correct motion over and over again. When we get focused on hitting the note or getting an acceptable sound at all costs, we don’t perceive what we’re doing. Your attention tends to narrow and notice the what of playing: pitch, finger, bow direction, instead of the how. So sometimes you nail it. Other times it stinks. If you don’t know what your hands are doing, there’s no way to establish rules for what works and what doesn’t. In essence, you may be repeating notes, but your hands aren’t practicing anything. You effectively start fresh every repetition. Bleh.



Try to shift your approach to a more physical one for a while. The cello may seem like an academic pursuit, but don’t let your busy mind convince you it’s something done with the brain. Your body plays the cello. Best to pay attention to how that’s happening. Do that, and I bet your practice will…

…stick. 🙂




*derived from Takeshi’s Castle!

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4 Responses

  1. I’d never heard of MXC, I’d never even heard of SpikeTV. But these gifs provide excellent emphasis to your wise advise.

  2. Thanks so much for this excellent resource Emily.

    You have no idea how helpful it is to an old, teacherless, brokendown air compressor soundalike!

    More Power to You!

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