The early stages of coming back from an injury or a long break can be like starting over, except that you have these remnants of knowledge, muscle memory, and expectation to tempt you right back into pain and frustration again by retracing old steps and bad habits. When you first pick up the cello again, chances are:

1) your muscles are not used to the position

2) your fingertips group like this 1……2 3…….4 instead of 1.. 2…3..4

3) you want to make that cello-y sound so you kill both thumbs

4) your booty hurts from sitting

5) the instrument feels big and awkward

6) emotional upheaval

When you’re a complete neophyte, you don’t have the weight of your previous achievements darkening your mood and hurrying your practice pace. There is always this sense of time lost when returning to the cello which leads to frantic, thoughtless playing. As I frequently point out, dear student: the long road IS the short cut. If you go crazy with a lot of flash and dazzle during your first few practice sessions, you’ll end up on the DL once again, if not for physical re-injury, for mental anguish. And then if you’re lucky, in 3 months the NSAIDs, shots, rest, and splints will allow you another chance to come back from physical insult again.

If you’re coming back from something else like budget-imposed cello leave, a rough patch in life, or (everyone’s favorite) a case of galloping ennui, you still need to be gentle on yourself, both physically and mentally. This gentleness has some bite to it in that you must be rigorous and disciplined. You cannot push yourself like you used to. Instead you must spend many hours building a better foundation that will make you as limber as you are strong. You must do the hardest thing we as humans are asked to do: change.

Before you begin, think of it this way: If you were to write a list of ways to make sure you hurt yourself on the cello, what would it look like? Now, how many of those things are bastions of your playing habits?

Exactly.

Here’s an example of a good 30 minute session that will ease your body back into the playing habit, and also meaningfully improve your abilities on the instrument.

1) Set up your practice space, with your instrument out of the case, bow rosined and tightened, cell phone off, glass of water nearby. Like wicca or yoga, this time should be a sort of invocation of intention, a moment of grounding and pause. It’s hard for me to address this with some of my fast-paced smarty students, because it’s a sort of hippie sentiment, and addresses frame of mind, not just “your hands go like this” and “ok, now onto the Haydn concerto.” And yet I insist that they drink the punch to a pretty large extent, because your hands move like they should when your mind isn’t ping-ponging between your list of things to do, random childhood moments, am I really happy in my relationship, mmm I sure like cookies, who invented mittens? etc. So just slow it down, and try to create the practice space before you actually sit down. Don’t make taking the cello out the thing you do right before you play. Do that in advance, then..

2) Sit. Just sit for a second, and see if you’re comfy. People above 5’5 should look for a slightly taller chair or sit on a wedge to open the angle of the knee in relation to the thigh. 80-90 degrees is pretty much ideal, as far as I have read and experienced.

3) Slowly (sloooowly!) pick up the cello and hear an A in your head. Check that with your tuner, maybe even hum the A. Best way to perfect pitch is to have a vocal reference for where the notes are. Also, humming makes sure you’re breathing. 🙂

4) Pick up the bow and rest it on the strings, and breathe here for 3 breaths.

5) C scale, 2 octaves, open string fingering, quarter note=48, half notes, single bows. Up and down twice. Each note deeper into the scale is gentler, less sudden, less important, less worried. Miss the note. Hit the note. Just keep going. This is a strictly physical warm up, we’ll fuss over intonation plenty later.

6) Now play your C scale and slur 2, moving the metronome (who is, by the way, your new best friend and excellent barometer of improvement) up to 60, quarter notes. If you hit a note out of tune, start over at the bottom with a beat in between to reset your bow. Over and over again, starting over again, noting what your tendencies are, but not lingering to feel bad about them. Notice the tension and then breathe through it to try to release that thumb or knuckle. If anything feels familiar, chances are you should investigate it for problems. I like to call this kind of repetitive practice “combing through”. Just keep going, until you have a few passes through that give you a better, relaxed result.

7) DO NOT at this point pick up the last piece you were working on. Instead, pick up a new one and work 8 measures at glacial speed. Each note, a statement unto itself. Each two notes, an excuse to sustain your bow. Each three become a handful, four, a gesture, five and six together, an efficient, relaxed unit. And repeat. One measure should take you 10-30 seconds to get through at this pace, depending on how densely packed it is.

8) C scale, slurring 2, up and down twice, with the metronome at 60, quarter notes.

9) Leave the metronome on, and see if you can play 10 beats to a bow on your open strings.

10) Loosen your bow slowly and put it on the stand, or behind you on the chair. Notice how you feel. Is the chair comfy at the end like it was at the beginning? What hurts? Don’t let any of this stuff slide. It’s the most stupid, seemingly innocuous twinge, tingle, or ache that can often lead to our most difficult to address injuries. Where’s your pulse? Let yourself have a long, sleepy exhale as you put your cello down, but don’t pack it. You’ll be back either later today (give yourself 2 hours off at least between half hour sessions) or early tomorrow. And you’ll do 8 more measures. The next day you’ll do 8 more, but repeat the C scale 4 times at the end. And so on.

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12 thoughts on “upon your return”

  1. Excellent advice, and pretty much what I have been doing, except… My scale is E Maj, and I am alternating pieces that I played 2 or 3 years ago with those I haven’t played before, no more than 10 minutes to a piece, which is the limit of my attention right now. I’m up to 45 minutes of relaxed playing without pain, and plan to stay there for this week, before beginning to build a second daily session next week.

    I love it when you give explicit advice. Oh, and I like the facelift, too.

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  2. GGP: So what is more relaxed? I’m sure it works from the brain down, but I am always interested in the physical phenomena behind it…

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  3. Relaxed playing happens when I am not so caught up in what note comes next that I can both play and simultaneously check in with my body and release any unnecessary tension I discover on my survey. Because after two months off everything sounds like crap – so I feel free to make playing feel good instead of sound good, and hope that it pays off in the long run! It’s starting to sound good already, though. The amount of resonance I am getting this week is wonderful.

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  4. Thank you for this wonderful, timely advice as I pick up my oboe again after a long bout of tendonitis…and for your beautifully written, wise comment on my blog. Both are deeply appreciated!

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  5. So, so good to hear from you, MC… I check your blog once a week, just in case. 🙂

    And T, your blog has already gotten into the hands of some people I know up at Stanford hospital. Pretty cool! Looking forward to hearing about your oboe adventures.

    e.

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  6. Emily, this was fantastic. I got my latest issue of Strings in the mail yesterday, and the back-to-practising article in it didn’t come close to the usefulness of this one. Thank you for this and for all your other posts! They’re so helpful. (Your hand-yoga post was reassuring — I’ve been doing exercises like that for a couple of years, so to read your recommendations and suggestions made me feel as if I’d gotten something really right!)

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  7. I'm returning to the cello after several decades and found your post useful. Took the cello out of its bag and was surprised that it's still playable… managed a C scale or two. It's now in the shop for about a grand worth of repairs (which I'm told is a good investment because the cello is even older than I am). Not sure where I'll go with this — I was a perennial last-chair player in school and community orchestras — but hope I can regain enough skill to join a community orchestra or find a quartet of duffers. Hope it's like riding a bicycle.

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  8. It took nearly two years after an almost 8 year hiatus before I was able to really do anything comparable to what I could do in the past.

    Old demons die hard!!

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  9. Thanks for this post, I'm looking forward to trying it out.
    I am in denial a bit – first study cellist at uni and then had 7 years off (got married, had a baby etc). Came back to it a year ago to start teaching and expected to pick up where I left off… er no.
    Struggling with my RH hurting after half a page, and as for practicing, I have lost all my discipline. Can't practice properly, just end up playing stuff through and then finding another piece to play through.
    I'll try your tips as a fresh starting point 🙂

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