1. I make excuses for not playing well. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy making sure I never use my age as an excuse for why I’m doing something horribly. There’s always a reason I’m doing something wrong that has nothing to do with my age. I’m good at that. What I’m not good at is recognizing when I’m making other excuses. My teacher’s teacher pointed out to me that I was using my stiff/tense thumbs and hands as an excuse, trying to justify why I was having so much trouble with extensions. The problem, she told me, isn’t my hands, it’s me — me trying to tell her why I can’t do these things. I need to get over this and just tell my thumbs to relax. I have to do this at all points in my playing because they don’t naturally relax and it will be hard for a very long time, but it’s what I have to do. Obstacles are not valid excuses for playing badly. There are no valid excuses for playing badly and I need to stop justify my bad playing. This was very hard to hear. Especially because this means that having been playing for only a year is not a valid excuse. I use that one a lot. Not having been taught something is a valid reason for not knowing something, but I’m perfectly capable of playing better than I do and the only reason I don’t is because I’m not implementing the good technique my teacher has taught me.
2. “Down” does not mean toward the center of the Earth. Ever. We learn early on that “up” on the fingerboard means down in relation to gravity and “down” means up in relation to gravity. It’s very confusing for a while, then we get used to it, and then we assume that we can go back to assuming we understand what our teacher means by “up” or “down” or “left” or “right” or “in” or “out” or any other form of directionality. That’s a very very very foolish thing to do. I learned this weekend that when my teacher wants me to sink my left hand into the fingerboard, it means perpendicular to the fingerboard and using my back muscles. It does not mean relaxing everything and letting my weight sink toward the center of Earth. I need to be relaxed, but I need to engage the muscles that rotate my arm back. This results in good sound; sinking my weight toward the center of the Earth does not. I assumed I knew what she meant my sinking down, but I did not and the only person I made an ass out of was me. I assumed the same thing about the mechanics of my bow arm and now realize I’ve been using the wrong set of muscles the whole time. Playing cello is akin to Super Mario Galaxy for Wii: gravity can and will flip on you at any moment so be prepared to change your point reference as needed. Down is relative, not toward the center of the Earth.
3. My left arm should stay in a plane. My teacher has always talked about the left arm and wrist and hand staying in a line. Her teacher talked about them being in a plane. She showed me this really crazy video of some guy I can’t remember the name of. I’ll have to find it for you guys some time. His left arm seemed to exist in the first, second, and fourth dimensions. It was the most beautifully fluid thing I’ve ever seen. If you’d told me this without seeing the video, I would imagine it as stiff. It’s not. She had me work on it at the lesson and my shifting, extensions, and vibrato are all about 20 times better, just from reexamining the geometry of my left arm. This happened because she asked me to show her my vibrato, which I did. It was worse than usual, which was a blessing, I think. She gave me such a different approach that it resulted in me re-imagining the mechanics of the entire left side of my body. Even she was impressed with the results.
4. It’s okay if I drop my bow. My teacher told me this awesome story about having a relaxed bow hand. She was at a rehearsal for one of her school orchestras and as she finished the piece, her bow went flying out of her hand. The conductor’s response? At least we know you’re relaxed. When I was practicing yesterday I realized I am absolutely terrified of dropping my bow. It’s going to break, I’ll hurt my cello with it, whatever. It makes me panic. So I hold on with a death grip. And try to relax at the same time. Total disaster. With all the things I’ve been working on since the lesson with my teacher’s teacher I’ve actually been relaxing my hand and wrist and arm. Yesterday I dropped my bow. Twice. I keep telling myself this is good, even if I hurt the bow or cello. I need to over-relax for a while first and then work on relaxing less once that’s comfortable. Relaxed flying bows are good; angry flying bows are not. This shall be my new motto.
5. I’m too attached to intonation. Good: my teacher’s teacher, who has perfect pitch, was impressed with my intonation. Bad: maintaining my good intonation at the expense of everything else. Practicing isn’t necessarily supposed to sound good. I have to stop thinking about intonation so much. If I’m working on something else it’s okay to focus on that and have crappy intonation on occasion. Being in tune isn’t the only thing that makes music beautiful and fixating on the thing that’s easiest for me doesn’t help me learn. My “need” to always have good intonation is another one of my excuses for not making progress on other aspects of my playing.
6. My arms are connected to the rest of my body by my back. This goes back to what I said about “down.” I’ve been using the wrong muscles, the ones on the sides of my ribs, to connect my arms to the rest of my body. Changing this as I mentioned above results in pretty sounds. Hopefully you’re using the right set of muscles. Not sure? Ask your teacher. Repeatedly. Until you’re playing sounds pretty. Then keep asking anyway. Assuming you don’t know is nearly always a safe bet; Engaging the wrong muscles while playing is never a safe bet. Using the right muscles has made me more relaxed and fluid. Occasionally I even sound good now. (Did I really just say that??)
7. “Playing cello is like a math equation.”Yes, this really is a quote. My teacher told me this a couple weeks ago and I laughed at her. I didn’t really understand it then. I thought I did, but I really didn’t. Then I went into her teacher with extension problems and ended up walking out of there realizing it was my stiff bow arm, wrist, and hand that were resulting in the tension in my left thumb that was causing me difficulty extending. It’s not always the case that the root of a particular problem is on the other side of the body, but it can be. It is, however, always the case that if you have tension on one side it will translate to tension on the other side. Anything wrong on one side will be wrong on the other. Engaging with the wrong muscles on the right but think you’re doing it correctly on the left? I’d bet you pretty much anything you’re doing wrong on both sides. Playing cello really is a math equation. Our minds can’t separate the two sides all that well. Remember learning to rub your belly and pat your head at the same time as a kid? I don’t know about you, but I ended up with mussed up hair and a bonked-on belly for a while before I learned to do it right. Cello is just about the most complicated version of that game that I can think of. If you notice something wrong on one side, check the equivalent thing on the other side.
The last two days have been filled with so many realizations and so much progress that I am truly astonished. My own husband, who avoids listening to me so he can actually hear progress the on rare occasions he actually hears me play, told me I sound about 20 times better. The progress is not linear; I revert back to my old ways easily. Sometimes I have to play for 15 seconds and take a break for 60, then repeat, just so I can relax and play the way I now know I’m capable of. I have so many questions now about technique that I can’t imagine how I’ll ever ask them all, let alone have them answered, in this lifetime.
My husband was right about the difficulties of the last few weeks: it was all leading up to a breakthrough (or twenty.) I don’t think it would have happened without visiting my teacher’s old teacher. I’m lucky to be learning from someone who is okay enough with not knowing how to help a student that she is willing to take her student to someone who can. Take, not send. She was there too, to learn how to teach. Today’s lesson was great. We worked on bowing. I asked questions, more than I can remember. For the first time ever all she wanted was for her to answer every question I could think to ask her. The result? For the first time ever I thought my playing was beautiful. Not improved or expressing what I wanted or having some aspect that I enjoyed. Beautiful. I enjoyed my playing, not just the sound of my cello or the song or my dynamics. Changing bow direction? Smooth, fluid, rich. Staccato bowing? Expressive with the dynamics I intended. For the first time I was able to make myself feel the emotion I was wanting to create rather than just the idea of the feeling.
Was it perfect? No. Could I improve? Lots. Will I always sound this good? No. Will I always be this happy with my playing? No.
But for the first time ever I actually liked how I sounded. For the first time ever I actually sounded the way I was hoping to sound. For the first time ever the sounds that came out of my cello were beautiful.