vulcan mind-meld: a wish list for students from a teacher who really, really wants them to do well.



5 things I wish more adult students would do: 

1. Stay focused on whatever we’re working on in lessons. 

You would not believe how tough this is! I understand the inclination to want to patch every hole in your knowledge as you come upon it, but that’s a sure way to kill the momentum of a lesson. Think of it like painting a room white from a dark color. We’re going to do this in layers, stopping to tackle trouble spots as we find them. Trust in the process. All will be revealed. The speedy mind is the enemy of the learner.

2. Be willing to focus on something else besides where the notes are. 

The obsession with pitch is a killer. It can make addressing anything else impossible. It’s no good to hit every note in tune with unsustainable technique that savages your nerves and tendons and your bow is like an out of control windshield wiper. Be willing to shift your focus. Balance your approach and be patient with yourself.

3.  Watch a lot of cello playing. 

Especially useful if we’re stuck. Sometimes you just need to see the similarities between great players rather than have them verbally explained and demonstrated by your instructor. Take in the entire gesture and incorporate it into your practice. Play in front of a mirror and record yourself.

4. Read your notebook. 

And then take the advice in it. That’s what it’s for. Few of the directions are temporary: “keep shoulders neutral” was true on week two and it’s true now. When you page through, are there themes that repeat? I remember looking back in horror at all of my lesson notes and seeing ever increasing capital letters and frustrated underlining “SQUARE YOUR HAND TO THE FINGERBOARD” and similarly-intentioned pleas for me to stop killing my nerve. If your instructor doesn’t write as much as you’d like, ask for more or start writing notes for yourself.

5. Play with other people, play in front of other people.

In an orchestra, sure. But if that’s not viable, you can read duets or volunteer at a church, find a folk act who needs some long notes or try experimental pizzicato stylings at an open mic. Heck, even a sight reading buddy can bolster your confidence and commitment. It’s just part of being a musician, and it trains your ear and adds an element of fun and acceptance of the risk we all take by loving something that makes a bunch of noise. Play, and be heard.



5 things I wish more school-aged students would do:

1. Ask for elaboration if you don’t understand something.

Not everyone will respond to a first explanation with complete comprehension. It’s dense stuff and sometimes requires a few different angles to get it right. Asking questions shows that you are engaged in the process. If you don’t understand and then let it slide, those weak areas will weave themselves into your playing and become part of you!

2. Refrain from correcting me, you smart ass. 

Honest to God, I will whack you with this bow. Do you honestly think I don’t know how to read notes?

It’s bad manners and also shows detachment from the subject at hand. There should be an urgency to the lesson: How can I find that note? What does it sound like? What is the rhythm here? Am I doing all of the corrections I’m being asked to do? Do I understand what I’m being asked to do? Can I play what is in front of me?

Until you can answer all of those questions in the affirmative, with authority, keep your head in the game. The chance that I just called that whole note an eighth note is very slim. And if I did, it’s because I am old and you should be nice to me.


But I didn’t.

3. Listen to the pieces you’re working on.

Know them by heart. Have fun making up storylines or pictures that go along with the feeling of the music. Try and imitate what you hear. You are never to young or too much of a beginner to start honing these skills.

4. Be honest about your practice. 

I know how much you’ve practiced because, well,  I have ears. Don’t fib to yourself if you’ve been terrible in your practice and then look at me and say, “Yeah, I don’t get this.” You’re not a dummy. You will get it, but only with practice. As an aside, your ability is limitless if you really get into your practice. Nobody can whiz through lessons without putting in the time beforehand. That’s the weird thing about nearly everything worthwhile: the more serious you are about it in terms of the work you’re willing to do, the more fun it ends up being. True in music, true in sports, true in relationships. Take that to the bank.

5. Set goals. 

Even if you’re not going to be a music major, so long as you’re playing and practicing, you might as well be progressing along some organized path. Goals might be: memorize the scales with sharps in them, move up a chair or stand in orchestra, audition into an extracurricular ensemble, transcribe your favorite Jimmy Page solo, learn a Bach Suite. Give yourself a timeframe and then make small strides every day.



I wish these things for students not because they make my job easier, but because doing them makes learning easier. Hope it helps a little. If you have things to add, feel free to let us know!



That cheeky devil Spock, caught on film revealing his innermost feelings here. 

Share This Post!

8 Responses

  1. Here iis a trick for keeping a student’s attention and slowing them down: don’t tell them where you are headed.
    Say you need them to correct hand shape – have them play a trill with different hand shapes. Lead them around tbe block until they discover and tell you which is the best and why. It is much less tiring for everone and helps them focus on the one issue. Have them concentrate on the physical sensation of the hand as well as the sound quality. Having them close their eyes very good – this will keep their minds from running off on some other trail and keep them relaxed. Very often students are trying and failing to focus on too many things. Help make it simple.

  2. “2. Be willing to focus on something else besides where the notes are.”

    NO! I REFUSE! 🙂

    It’s just that bad intonation is so hideously painful, even to me as the lame n00b primate with the bow, that it makes me not even care about my bowing. I just want the noise to STAAAAAHHHP …

    The way I handle it is usually ot just go super-slow, so that my intonation clears up. Unfortunately, on a viola that means I get through about one line before my arm goes all pins-and-needles.

    1. Pat yourself on the back for hearing the intonation is off. It is a skill that takes time. The pins and needles thing doesn’t sound good – what does your teacher say?

      1. Just that it takes time and to relax. It’s a viola and I’ve got very little upper body strength is the problem. That’s the best part about playing piano, my primary instrument. Arms below the heart, very ergonomically friendly.

        1. Much as I love the viola, cello is a happier instrument ergonomically. And it can play so many roles! OK – enough. Ed Dusinberre of the Takacs Quartet says that without the viola the violins squeak and the cello rumbles.

          1. I considered cello for about six milliseconds, but vetoed it because I didn’t want to play yet another piece of furniture. And violins … no way was I going to allow an E string that close to my head. Viola was a nice compromise between small enough to pick up with one hand and low enough to make me happy. 🙂 I always say it’s like a violin but it sounds like Aretha Franklin.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on my website.