Has it really been 6 months?!?!?

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Hi guys! Holy Cow! Somehow life got crazy and six months slipped by without me even signing on to my WordPress account! During this time I have gotten many new subscribers and a surprising number of comments. Not to mention the visitation to my blog is higher than it ever was while I was actively blogging! So, I thought it was time to start blogging again, to let everyone know what has been happening with me, and to respond back to all you awesome people who keep reading despite my lack of recent posts.

I am trying to think of where I was six months ago with the cello and it is hard. Every day that I practice I still think I am making no progress at all, that everything sounds just as awful as always. I think you guys all know about this problem. You’re so entrenched in what you are doing that it’s impossible to see the big picture, even when you try.

Laurène asked in a comment if I’d started vibrato yet. Goodness yes! A year and a half ago! This got me thinking about where my vibrato was six months ago. What a struggle it was!!! But now, it’s so natural that I don’t have to think about it! I hadn’t even noticed until now because it had become such a non-issue that I was freed up to think of other things instead of having to work so hard to achieve a mediocre vibrato. What a difference six months makes!

What else has happened? I am done with Feuillard. Finally! I miss it, to tell you the truth! What a wonderful book to learn from. I am working out of the Schroeder etude book. I also have been working for quite a while on a sonata by Breval. This one!

I had been wishing for so long to be working on a longer piece since that was never offered in Feuillard. I certainly got my wish. My teacher doesn’t ever let me just go through a piece and learn it quickly. Her instruction takes forever. Sometimes we won’t even work on it in lessons because she is refining some aspect of my technique (usually bowing) that she feels is holding back my performance of the piece as a whole. I got to perform the first part of the piece at a recital in December and will probably perform the whole thing at our next recital, which is usually in May.

Goodness, what else has happened? I took the second semester of music theory at the community college with the same awesome teacher I had for first semester. I decided not to take the third or fourth semester classes at this point because I’d gotten what I wanted out of the theory class – and more – which was to have a good foundation for what my teacher was talking about theory-wise in lessons. Also, the commute to class was getting a big cumbersome and I found it was eating away at time to practice. Plus, during these last six months, I’d gotten into cycling, got my first ever road bike, and have been busy bicycling my butt off! There is only so much time in the day and it’s impossible to fit in working, taking care of my mom, cello, class, cycling, and still have time for my husband! So, something had to give, and it was theory class.

For now, this is all. I am hoping to be a bit more active blogging, although I plan on updating every week or so rather than several times a week. Thanks again for all your readership!

A new cello philosophy courtesy of failblog.

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Yesterday I was poking around on Engrish Funny when I came across this wonderful fortune. I am always doing that which I cannot do in order that I may learn how to do it. This is exactly what I have been doing the last week or so with my cello practice. If I can’t do something, I do it anyway. By doing it anyway, I learn how to do it! Seriously. It works.

I was working on this piece that is all 8th notes, one note per bow, at 108bpm = quarter note. It was just waaaaaay too fast for me. I was failing at only 72bpm. So what did I do? I turned the metronome up to 120bpm and played straight through the piece. Did I make lots of mistakes? Yes. But I made sure to make them in time with the metronome and within the key signature. I played some really weird stuff, sure. But then I turned the metronome back down and it was well and truly fantastic.

By doing this for an entire week — simply doing things even if I can’t do them — I have completely revolutionized my playing. I can effortlessly play twice as fast as I used to be able to. My bow arm has been transformed into a thing of grace and fluidity. Even when playing short, fast staccato notes it is fluid and circular. My innate sense of musicality keeps shining through in spontaneous, unexpected, beautiful ways. (I actually gave myself chills today while I was playing and all I was playing was C major!)

I wish I could explain this in a way that made even a tiny bit of sense, because it seems nonsensical to tell you to do things that you can’t do. But that is exactly what I have been doing. The results have been astonishing. And the best part is that it has been fun. Really really fun. I’ve never had anywhere near this much fun playing cello. It’s exciting and relaxed. I know this seems contradictory, but it’s not. It’s just awesome.

So, if you want to learn how to do things that you can’t do, just do them anyway and you will learn.

The path of least resistance.

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One method of learning that I’m fond of is to work on whatever I seem to be learning well. I tend to wait to practice the things I’m struggling with and opt instead to work on whatever is coming most naturally. At some point I will have progressed with the “easier” thing enough that it’s no longer easier and the “hard” thing isn’t so hard anymore by comparison. Yes, sometimes it pays off to push through something that you are really struggling with. But I often find that by focusing on something else that my mind naturally loses resistance to learning whatever I was having difficulty with in the first place.

For example, in the Corelli Gavotte I was struggling greatly with the shifting. There are a lot of really crazy shifts (bigger than an octave!) and you don’t stay in the same position for more than two notes on a row. It’s all over the place and it’s impossible to have a frame of reference. It was slow and my intonation was only spot on when I accidentally shifted an entire half step short or long. It was just absolute garbage. But instead of working on my shifting I instead focused on musicality. What kind of dynamics did I want? What kind of articulation? How do I want each phrase to feel? Suddenly, once I was able to answer those questions and focus on musicality in my playing, the shifts became no-brainers.

Then the musicality still wasn’t musical enough for me. Sure, I crescendo-ed and decrescendo-ed in the right places, the articulation was what I wanted, but it didn’t feel the way I wanted it to. But instead of working on it, I worked on speeding it up. Not to the correct speed, but to faster than the correct speed. Can’t play it at the correct speed? My teacher told me to stop trying to build up to it because I will never get there. Just play it waaaay too fast, to the point where it falls apart completely. Then keep practicing it that way. It will get better. Then play it at the correct speed. Suddenly it’s quite easy and somewhere in the middle of all that I developed an intuitive feel for the musicality rather than approaching it from an intellectual perspective. Even when playing it so fast that there’s nothing left of my technique, the musicality is still there because it’s something that comes from within that can’t be gotten rid of.

Sometimes the most direct way of getting things done is by not doing the things you are working on. It’s fun that way. Our conventional ways of thinking tell us to work on whatever it is that needs improving, but then we end up in a war with our own minds. We fight, our minds fight back, then we fight harder, our minds become more rigid, and so on. I find that type of approach results in nothing but a long, frustrating plateau. So I simply don’t operate that way. I have faith in my own mind that I will learn about all aspects of cello playing no matter what the focus of my practice is.

I find it is often hard to do. After all, I want to make progress — lots of progress and quickly at that! But tackling things head-on just doesn’t work for me. One of the questions I strive to answer in my cello journey is how to learn faster. How do I get the most out of my practice time? How do I avoid hitting plateaus? How can I become a great cellist despite my late start? (Not “can I?” but “how can I?”) I think all of us who started late want to find solutions to these problems.

For me, one of the answers is to follow the path of least resistance. It doesn’t mean don’t practice. It doesn’t mean don’t work hard. It doesn’t mean to avoid the things you are least talented at. It means learning how to work with your own mind and its beastly nature. Where it is supple, mold it, train it, fill it with all things cello-y wherever it lets you. Where is is rigid, let it be, don’t fight it. How, then, will those “rigid” areas ever be trained? They will not always be so rigid, nor will the supple areas remain so. This is impermanence at its best. All that is required is knowing your own mind, which is something that anyone can do.

Finally, some fun with the cello again.

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I’m nearly done with the obnoxious etude section of the Feuillard book — just finishing up the last of them this week. I also have a new piece to work on (Yes, a piece!) which is a Gavotte by Corelli. I absolutely love it. It’s tons of fun and the crazy shifts are finally not feeling crazy and out of control, even the ones that are bigger than an octave. I understand now why the crazy difficult etudes came before this piece because without them I’d be totally lost. Now, however, this piece is just fun and I get to focus more on musicality because the technical skills were learned in the etudes.

That being said, I absolutely hated having nothing but etudes to work on for 2 months. It was torture to not have a single piece during that whole time. I certainly practiced a LOT less (about 1/3 of the amount I normally do) because I could only stand working on them for so long. I really do understand the value of them now (when they are appropriately assigned) for teaching new skills before learning a difficult piece. But nothing replaces the sheer joy of a piece that excites you every time you play it. (I also think it’s more enjoyable for the hubby to hear giggles and “This piece is so fun!!!” every few minutes instead of sighs and “Ohmygod this is awful!” every day.)

I’m also getting near the end of Feuillard — a short piece by Handel, a short piece by Harvelois, a couple etudes by Duport (blech!) and then 3 sonatas by Rombgerg. Then who knows what I’ll do next. My teacher has never taken anyone straight through Feuillard before, but has rather used it as a supplement to whatever the kiddos were working on for their school orchestras. So I’m not sure she has a plan either. Granted, at the slowed-down pace at which I’ve been learning this summer we may never have to figure out what to do next since it seems like I’ll never finish. But at least I’m finally working on real pieces again. :D

E-flat

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One of the things I have been working on this last week is an etude in E-flat. It’s really quite simple, but I’m failing miserably. My fingers have no idea where anything actually is in E-flat. Sure, I’ve played pieces in E-flat and they sounded as okay-ish as anything else I play, but this etude really requires my fingers themselves to know automatically where every single note should be in every single position on every single string. Unfortunately, my fingers seem to object to anything and everything in E-flat at the moment. They, in fact, prefer the hellish Dotzauer etudes to anything in E-flat. Which basically means I’m making almost no progress on yet another etude and it all just sounds like garbage. Blah!

Quick Update.

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So… it’s been a while! I’ve been moving, which has been chaotic. We still don’t have an internet connection and won’t until the 13th (stupid AT&T) so I still won’t get to post much until then. The good news is that I (finally) have my very own computer for the first time in forever (okay, so the last computer I got was for a HS grad present, which was only 10 years ago, but in computer terms it may as well be a fossil.)

With the insanity of the move I haven’t been able to practice nearly as much as I want to so my progress is slow. I’m working on yet another Dotzauer etude, which is, like the last one, excruciating but wonderful. It feels like it’ll take the rest of the summer to get it up to shape at the rate I’m going, but again, like the last one, I’ve learned an incredible amount from it. Usually I hate etudes, but I absolutely love Dotzauer’s. It’s kinda like sore muscles from working out. Sure it hurts like hell, but it also kinda feels good and I’m better off for it afterward.

Part of me is getting impatient about all these etudes I’ve been working on (no actual pieces at the moment) but that’s pretty much my fault because I have had so little time to practice. But, on the plus side I NOW HAVE MY VERY OWN LAPTOP! This may not be so exciting to the rest of you, but for me it is… I haven’t had my own computer in many years and had previously been using my husband’s old desktop that has been rebuilt three times over the last 11 years and absolutely every single piece of it is shot (well, okay, it still has about 2/3 of the case and two of the usb ports work and the power supply works but just gets a bit too hot.) The stupid thing took about a half an hour to start up (not kidding. I actually had time to brew coffee in the morning, fix it, and drink it while the computer booted up.) So today when my laptop told me that it took 73 seconds to boot and that it was too slow and I needed to optimize it, I actually laughed out loud. I’m rather unused to a functional computer, but am quite excited and hope to be using it to update this blog more frequently (once stupid AT&T decides to grant us access to the interwebz.) I’m also excited because having this computer means I will be able to buy the program I will need for next semester’s theory class and do all the ear training exercises at home instead of using the music department’s ancient computers that are actually worse than my husband’s old desktop (really, a computer *can* be worse than that and still turn on and do stuff, though I hesitate to say “function.”) And, since I have to leave super early to get into Sac before rush hour traffic, I will have a nice fancy computer to use while waiting for class to start. Yay!

Anyhow, hopefully more updates will come when I have my very own internet connection and have more time to do the thing I’m supposed to be blogging about.

Death By Dotzauer

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My teacher is currently on vacation for a couple weeks, which means that I asked her to give me plenty to do. She gave me a couple etudes by Dotzauer as part of what I need to be working on. Over the last week I have worked almost exclusively on just one of them because it the single most difficult piece I’ve encountered thus far. It looks simpler than it is and, at least for me, is impossible to play well. The first several days were spent questioning if I could actually get through the whole thing — I’ve never questioned being able to simple get through anything, even if I knew it would be horribly played! I finally had a breakthrough when I started trying to work through it end to front. So, the last half only makes me cringe about a third of the time, while the first half still makes me wish I were deaf. She said she didn’t expect me to manage to get through the two etudes and at this point I don’t intend to. I really just want to be able to play the first one without wanting to cry. So, I think I have found my (for now) impossible project: This etude right here! (Also, sorry it’s so blurry! The book is falling apart and I was using photo booth!)
Dotzauer Etude