We’ve all been there: stuck sitting next to some kid at dinner, doing your best to appear kind and attentive, maybe even striking up a little conversation to pass the time. Inevitably, the kid will do something naughty like say something unkind, kick a sibling under the table, perhaps make a scale model of Mt. Kilimanjaro with the remnants of a nice meal. The parents will be so happy to have another adult minding their kid that you will either have to deal with it or, like me, you’ll be charged with stopping the offending behavior.

“Please don’t throw blueberry cobbler on my shirt.”


“Because it’s not polite, and I don’t like it.”


“Because this is Prada. Can you say Prada? Praaah-daaah.”


*strangling sounds*

One of the liabilities that comes with teaching adults is that some feel like they need to know why I’m asking them to do things. On the surface, it seems like an innocent quest for knowledge, when in fact it’s a fairly transparent way to articulate resistance to change.

“Why do this Galamian pattern?” (v. popular in recent weeks)

“Why martelé?” (also on the Greatest Hits list)

“Why Schroeder?”

“Why metronome?” (*insane cackling*)

I can’t blame my adult students for not having been brought up in the culture of lesson etiquette, and in fact I sympathize. Although it would have been unspeakably rude to ask why a particular method was being applied to my practice, I certainly groaned and questioned it loudly and frequently in my head when I was a student. And even that small inner resistance crippled my progress and tested the patience of the list of impressive names who attempted to penetrate my thick skull. What wasted time! As if my dotted rhythm would have been snappier or my left hand more flexible had I voiced my complaints!

I offer explanations for nearly every technical adjustment and habit I ask my students to cultivate. I offer it without being asked. But in the end, I can always tell who is going to show improvement in a week and who will come back, mysteriously ailing from a lack of comprehension, even though they are clearly smarter than I am, and probably could be a finer cellist with better practice.

It’s always the students who practice questioning the approach as opposed to simply practicing the approach who flounder. Always. Perhaps it is because they want to see the method behind the madness. Perhaps they don’t trust me because I have an exuberant teaching style. For many, it’s just a part of their personality; a defense mechanism. Regardless of the reason, I now have 15 years of personal experience with this phenomenon, and have yet to see someone who is an exception to the rule.

This is not a college class where you will gain the respect of corduroy†-wearing people with a barrage of challenges to the professor’s point of view. We know you’re clever, and it’s irrelevant. Save it for the crossword and Jeopardy. If brains were the deciding factor in instrumental success, it would be a very different kind of industry! (and not necessarily for the better) Realize also that good teachers are constantly working just as hard as you are (frustrations and all) to adapt to your needs. Our goal is the same as yours: to make the cello easier, more manageable, more natural, more fun. After all, that’s why we’ve stuck with it all these years. We’ve been exactly where you are, no matter where you are in your progress. Every teacher had a first week. A first shift. A thousand missed clef changes, a million coordination problems. We overcame those obstacles by enthusiastically dining on our teachers’ advice, improving because we repeated the task, not because we understood or appreciated the rationale behind it.

Despite my mock-surliness in this post, I truthfully maintain near infinite patience with students, even those who question me on a constant basis, although I do not humor them with answers every time. What’s funny is that the answer to every question, every grumble, is provided not once, but twice. Pay attention in your lessons. Remember what was going on right before the new technique (or whathaveyou) was introduced. That is your answer. That problem is why something needs to change. What you do with it is up to you, but you still have your answer. If you practice with the correction implicitly in mind, you will again be provided with the answer. If you resist the correction and practice instead with the question (why exactly am I doing this?) in mind, the result tends to be muted; masked by halfhearted change and frustration.

I’ll leave you with this. After every lesson except the very first one, your teacher can only shape what you bring to each successive lesson as a result of practice and retention of concepts introduced during instruction. The very best thing you can bring to a lesson is trust.

Trust that your teacher has your best interest in mind.

Trust in the face-value of the tasks at hand.

Trust that you are capable of being a magnificent cellist.

Trust the process.

Trust that you are not an exception.

† A fabric I happen to enjoy. Though I’m always afraid that I’m going to start a fire with my legs if I run whilst wearing cord pants.

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11 Responses

  1. Ouch! I sort of see myself in this post, so I must try to explain:

    I pepper my teacher with lots of questions about nearly every new technique. However, I don't think I am resisting anything. On the contrary I am intensely curious about this learning process, and I truly do want to understand where each new technique is taking me. Within weeks of starting the cello I was asking her why my Suzuki books didn't include some sort of discussion about what each new piece was intended to teach me.

    My teacher quickly adapted to my approach to learning and I think we have developed a pretty solid relationship. Other than a few metronome issues in my past [now resolved], I try very hard to follow each new direction from my teacher, and I try to remember to bring these back to my next lesson for any fine-tuning. But I still needt to know why…

    Just over ten years ago I was transferred to a job overseas and had to learn spanish ASAP. In my daily lessons from a spanish-speaking teacher who normally taught english, we had a constant dialogue back and forth, exploring the similarities and differences between our two languages. As someone who always had an interest in etymology [consider, for example, the relationship between 'tener' and '-tain'], my goal was to become more than a spanish-speaker, I wanted to be able to think creatively in spanish. At first my teacher was put off that I kept asking why, but she soon realized that my way of learning was working for me, and our exploration of words became a learning tool in itself.

    I have the same approach to learning the cello. I don't just want to be able to play reasonably well, I want to understand what I'm doing to get there.

  2. I guess part of my thought is that the less we distract ourselves with cerebral stuff, the faster the physical stuff falls into line.

    Also, I stated that I offer explanations for nearly everything. I meant that. It's not that I command such and such a scale from on high and hope the student bows to my wisdom. Rather, the commentary is a reaction to the students whose resistance to change stifles even their curiosity to try new things. There are a lot of them out there! I doubt that the guy whose blog set the standard for all of us Jackie Come Latelys is one of them.


  3. One has to wonder why someone who has come to the cello 'later in life' would be resistant to change or would lack the curiosity to try new things. Learning to play the cello requires us to change a lifetime of pre-existing hand-ear-brain-[and eye] coordinations.

    Maybe they are thinking that this all ought to be easier than it is, [doggone it!] and they are weary of having to tackle yet another level of technique [I've been there].

    And of course, for some people it's always "the teacher's fault" that it's so hard.


  4. I have experienced the same in my (limited) teaching experience. More as a student. Emily makes a very subtle distinction. It isn't that questioning is bad, it's that there is a good and a bad way of asking.

    I started getting good when I stopped questioning and started doing. Well, I didn't stop questioning. I stopped questioning my teacher and started questioning myself.

    Instead of asking my teacher, "What is the use of this annoying etude?" I started asking myself, "What am I not understanding? What is the kernel of knowledge contained in this exercise?" Then the scales, etudes and exercises became a puzzle. My goal was to figure out the secret. My teacher was Mr. Miagi and I was the Karate Kid. Popper Etudes equaled "Wax on, wax off".

    Sometimes the knowledge came easily, but 95% of the time it came only after hours, weeks or months of practice. Even if your teacher is good with words, it is impossible for a verbal explanation to capture completely the subtle physical motions of playing the instrument. Otherwise we'd all be learning from books. You have to figure a lot of it our yourself.

  5. You would not believe the questioning to which I was recently subjected. Seriously, you would be shocked and appalled. And no one in the room was even wearing corduroy!!!

  6. Back at NCI, last June, I had Rodney Farrar as the teacher for our warm-up group. While I don't think I asked him any questions, I don't remeber any of the students asking questions, Rodney certainly did ask questions of us. He made us think, and gave us some answers that I still think about.

    His class answered questions that I didn't exactly know I had. The full benefit is not immediate, I feel I am still benefiting from the handful of hours I spent in his group class, because it clarified certain things so well.

  7. Like a superhero, in comes Blake! Thanks for the back up. This post tortured me for days, but I suppose in continuing fashion, my life is not about what is easily said and done, but about what is really going on.

    Terry: that's just the thing. Being inquisitive is necessary, about what is key. I wonder if the teachers I had for just a few hours at some summer camp here or there know how frequently their thoughts aid my practice and teaching.

    Nicole: I suggest you get that student some cord overalls and have them run to test the "pants fire" theory. 😉

  8. I think in many ways, it seems to me after reading yoru post, that the cello teacher more closely resembles a martial arts teacher than a college professor.

    The most obvious is that the cello teacher is actually teaching a physical discipline, with moves that require repetition. And of course, there is also the inner spirit, which a particular art is trying to mold through this practice and discipline.

    Thus, the etiquette of the dojo may be a better model for this interaction than the etiquette of the classroom.

  9. I bring this up because I have Aikido class the same day as my cello lesson, and have been reflecting on the similarities between the two processes.

  10. Every time I do an extension using my second finger (instead of my pinky) to land that pesky F#, C#, G# or D#, I silently thank Emily.

  11. MT: *bows deeply*

    PDR: Thanks for that! Although I was likely doing the technique correctly, I owe Elizabeth Morrow some credit for being able to articulate it.

    What a nice way to start my day! I heart my readers.

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