Practice Time, Part 2


I wrote some time ago about practice time and what that’s like for me. Now, the way I practice seems to be evolving on a daily basis and I’ve been having to let go of many of the ideas I have around practicing because they just aren’t working for me. There are a lot of experts out there on both teaching and learning. They all seem to have strong opinions on just what effective practicing looks like, how much of it can or should be done and what it takes to learn the skills we’re trying to acquire. After much trial and error, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to trust my own instincts and listen to what my teacher tells me to do. I’ve had the last 27 years to understand the ways in which I learn the best. If I don’t know how to work with my own mind when acquiring new skills, all the expert advice in the world isn’t going to help me. Likewise, my teacher has been working with me for the past year and her advice for practicing has always been spot on. It’s ever-changing as she watches me learn and struggle at various stages in this journey, but everything she has told me has always been exactly what I needed to make the next leap forward. The most effective practice comes from letting go of the many preconceptions about practicing and listening to the advice of the only two people who are truly qualified to tell me what to do: me and my teacher.

The 10,000 Hour Problem
People take this very literally, as if it’s a milestone to be achieved. It’s like we’re all trying to log enough hours to get to that point and only then will we be good enough. We turn it into an attitude of more-is-better and wind up reinforcing bad habits, injuring ourselves, and acquiring a resentment of this instrument we love so very much, just so we can get closer to this arbitrary finish line. What I think should be taken from the 10,000-hours-for-mastery concept is that it takes a heck of a lot of time and work before we will be proficient players. If every person in the world took up cello and practiced for 10,000 hours, each person would be at a different place compared to all the others. Likewise, if we set some arbitrary level of ability as a goal, it would take each person a different number of hours practicing to get there. Practicing more doesn’t always lead to better results.

So How Do I Practice Anyway?
My teacher is a big fan of breaks. Lots of breaks. Long breaks. As in: tune the cello, take a break, bow open strings for 5 minutes, take a break for ten minutes, warm up left hand for 5 minutes, do some yoga, practice bowing sans cello, make some tea, combine left and right hand (finally) for 5 minutes, have a snack, etc. When she first told me to practice this way I thought she was crazy. How then heck am I going to get anything accomplished? I wondered. I tried it, unsuccessfully. I convinced myself I was doing it right: after all, I was stopping playing cello for 5 or ten minutes at a time. What I wasn’t doing was relaxing; I was finding something else productive to do while I wasn’t doing anything with the cello.

My more recent practice sessions have been shorter and have hardly contained any practicing at all, yet I have heard more improvement from start to finish than I used to hear in two weeks. During one recent practice session I would bow open strings for about 30 seconds before taking a break. I would start out taking a few deep breaths, holding the bow with the tip pointed up and rolling the bow around between my thumb and fingers. Still relaxed? Yes. Okay, I can go on. I use my left hand to place the bow on string so I don’t tense my right hand. Still relaxed? Yes! Start with short, slow legato bows. It doesn’t sound the way I want it to, so I start to mentally tense. I’m frustrated because it sounded SO much better yesterday. Today it sounds so bad I’m about to cry. Time for a break. Set the bow down and just breathe for a while so the mental tension doesn’t turn into physical tension. I tell myself it’s okay if it sounds bad; what’s important is that I’m keeping everything relaxed. I start over again and it sounds a bit better this time, but I quickly realize my wrist is a little stiff. I set the bow down and breathe a minute. Before picking the bow back up I practice bowing with nothing in my hand. I realize it’s still a little tender from the injury I got at work last week. I work on undoing the tension bit by bit and the motion starts to look like seaweed swaying in water, never still, always smooth, no resistance. My wrist no loner hurts. Is this what my teacher’s teacher meant when she said if you’re doing it right you can play all day long and finish more relaxed than when you started? At the very least the pain in my wrist is gone. I pick up the bow, roll in in my fingers, place it on the string, roll it between my fingers some more. I start bowing and it sounds so much better. Then the bow starts to fall out of my hand and I panic. STOP. I set the bow down, breath for a minute, then remind myself it’s okay if I drop the bow, that this is good I’ve finally figured out how to relax this much. I start again, still dropping the bow and reminding myself that being this relaxed was the plan. By this point I’ve moved on to the other strings. G and D sound best, but C and A are better and more relaxed than they had been even if they aren’t fabulous, so we’ll call this a successful warm-up. It took an hour and included maybe 10 minutes of actual playing, but I’ve accomplished a lot: not being tense. Time for a break

I like to make myself hot chocolate on my breaks. It’s hot, so I stay warm, and it’s chocolate and chocolate is, well, chocolate. All is right with the world. I highly recommend chocolate for breaks.

I start up again with the left hand, no bow, perhaps fingering 2 octave C major so I’m not shifting or extending. Then finger G major so there’s just a single shift, super easy. Then maybe F major since there’s one extension and one shift for two octaves. Then I’ll take a break and wrap my fingers around the mug of hot chocolate. Then I’ll stretch those fingers gently. Feeling good? Yes! Time to actually drink some of that hot chocolate! Then perhaps some open string bowing for a minute. More hot chocolate. Time to play a scale: 2 octave C major, 4 notes per bow. Wow that sounds awful! Okay, breathe. Where are the problems? String changes! Okay, time to bow open strings again. Break for hot chocolate. Stretch fingers. Combine bow and left hand again. Okay, not bad. Okay, it probably is still bad, but it’s better than it was, which I’ve decided is the new definition of awesome. This continues on for some time until I’m satisfied with the level of playing. Another hour has gone by, this time with maybe 15 or 20 minutes of practicing.

Time for another longer break: food! Sated tummies make for happy brains!

So, I actually have songs I’m supposed to work on. Sicilian is first up. First sub-phrase. I’m kind terrified (okay, not kinda. I’m cringing in anticipation.) Stop (before starting.) Breathe! I play it. That was pretty! I’m a little disappointed that my wrist isn’t as fluid as it was while playing open bows, but it’s not completely stiff, which is something like a major miracle. I take it sub-phrase by sub-phrase so I can check in with myself frequently. I find some problems I don’t know how to solve, so I resolve to ask my teacher. I stop practicing it because there’s no sense in practicing something I know is incorrect.

So, I move on to the Gavotte by Couperin. I love this song! But, it has mostly staccato bows and all my bowing exercises have been legato. I go for it anyway, and it sounds about 20 times better than it did a week ago. The implementation of my desired dynamics is surprisingly easy. I realize I am in far more control of my bowing than I ever imagined I would be. Fun! Okay, so it still doesn’t sound as pretty as when my teacher plays it. But I can hear how it might be in the future.

Time spent practicing: 3-4 hours. Time spent actually playing: about an hour. Amount accomplished: more than I’d accomplish in month of straight playing for 3-4 hours a day.


21 responses »

  1. I kinda do something similar, but I just dont have the 3 hours per day to spread an hour over. So I’ve settled into something like 5 mins warm up scales, 2 mins break, 10 mins piece 1, 2 mins break, 10 mins piece 2 etc etc.

    I try to have a piece that’s new, one that’s ‘getting there’ and one that’s from a few weeks ago. If I run out (yeah right) then I go back a few pages and use a piece that I can play happily, but could do with some polish or look at the next piece in the book.

    Say in the new piece, if I get to a section that just isn’t working after all doing all the usual like sloooowing down on the metronome, playing left hand only, bow only etc, then I move onto one of the other pieces. In between I slot in some more scales just to break up the pieces and to clear my head. Once I’ve worked through all of the pieces I go back to the first one and repeat the whole process.

    On other days, I just play scales and arpeggios. I’m a bit of a scale nerd, I love my scales! And a simple arpeggio gives me a whole heap of stuff to work on. I also use exercises like those on Ethan Winers page.

    Wow, this comment’s kinda turned into a post. I’ve hijakced your blog again!

  2. You wanna see hijacked, look at my post Revelations! I’ve also been known to hijack a few posts myself. I’ve managed to write a few novels in reply to some of Jon Silpayamanant’s posts if you wander over to his blog. All in all, a good thing, I think.

    I don’t always have that much time, but I often do. Not every day is like the one described above, but more than half are. If I don’t have that much time, I still practice in kinda the same way because straight through practicing tends to result in sounding worse by the end. On days where I have very little time I ask myself what one thing is that I think I can make the most progress on and just work on that one skill. That way, even if I haven’t worked on much, what I did get to yields results. I’ve had some crazy weeks where I’ve maybe gotten in half an hour for only 4 days of the week and feel horrible about how little I’ve practiced. But if all four of those practice sessions were used to effectively improve one skill or one phrase my teacher sees the results and is thrilled. I’ll often pick the easier things to improve in those cases, but they still need to be improved upon, so it’s only *sorta* like cheating. Then when I have more time I work on the harder stuff.

  3. The 10,000 hours “rule” is probably WAY overstated! I think that because of Malcolm Gladwell’s current popularity so many classically trained musicians have referenced that without really understanding the implications.

    In the end, different people will have different success with different techniques.

    BTW–did you edit this post? I seem to recall it being shorter when I skimmed it earlier today (or rather, yesterday) in between lessons.

    I am really enjoying your responses, Elysia–it is really giving me much food for thought on my journey in teaching. And though I may be a bit more unorthodox than many of my colleagues, I think that’s a good thing–and you have really helped me look at some issues differently (or to look at some issues I thought I had thoroughly exhausted in a new light–and that is a good thing, and one of the reasons I “subscribed” to your (as well as others’) blogs.

    If I knew everything about teaching the cello (or even playing it, for that matter) I would have no reason connecting with other cellists!!

      • So my grandfather, who loves to reference the 10,000 hour rule, sent me an e-mail the other day telling me that with all the practice I’ve done I only have 15,458 hours left. Awesome typo (I hope) because the implications of it are so applicable to life in general — sometimes the harder you work at something the farther away you get from your goal.

  4. Maybe I just really skimmed your post far too quickly! I do sometimes forget the time zone differences too–it has been some time since I’ve blogged regularly, or been a member of blog communities!

    Well, many of the issues surrounding adult beginners. Despite my advice to check out the cello chat forums, I do understand that so many of the classically trained cellist use their own idiosyncratic ‘education’ as a basis for how anyone should learn how to play the cello.

    But what was particularly striking–and especially as I’m interested in how environments can shape development–I hadn’t really thought much about the issue that traditional music education is SO very much geared towards children. Which is surprising, since one of my very favorite researchers, Terrence Deacon, who wrote the very important (in my opinion) texts refuting the determinism regarding language acquisition (summarized in his book, The Symbolic Species), very much discussed how language has evolved so that it could easily be learned by children.

    Which has nothing at all to do with any particular language’s purported pre-eminence so much as it has to do with what language is privileged because of how the “system” is set up for its easy “transmission.”

    In other words-you’ve helped me ( and this applies to all the adult beginners though you’ve really helped to spur my thoughts) to realize that the educational environment is just not particularly suitable for adult learners in general, much less in music.

    I’d had a sense of that fact just from all I’ve read from adult beginners–and especially from how “professionals” interact with beginners (not all of them, but many) –in particular their admonishments for any adult beginner’s more ambitious goals for themselves.

    Ultimately, learning isn’t just about the interaction between teacher and student—it is as much about the teacher’s expectations of a student and the student’s expectations of what the teacher (an environment) can support as anything else. And though I’ve gotten an intuitive sense of this fact from all that I’ve experienced and read (both online from subject reports as well as from actual studies related to the topic) reading your comments have really helped to solidify what I’ve suspected for some time–and for that I thank you!

  5. Jon,
    Interesting comment about professionals’ “admonishment” of beginner’s ambitious goals. I love the word choice — it implies that these professionals see beginners as children who need to be told how things are and not as fellow adults who happen to want to learn a new skill. Was your choice of words intentional?

    But back to beginners’ ambitious goals… I’ve totally avoided telling anyone musical how much I’d really love to eventually get a formal education, largely because of what I *thought* were irrational fears about how people would react to that desire. I suppose those fears aren’t so irrational after all! There’s nothing worse than someone really accomplished trying to make you feel about five years old. Even though my teacher is really wonderful, I’ve never expressed my desire to play in an orchestra to her. I’ve never even told her I’m taking a theory class at one of the local community colleges! And I took a class last semester too! I also let my professor assume I’m far more advanced than I am because it maintains her respect of me. I think she assumes I’m in my late teens/early 20’s trying to get an AA and transfer to a university. Which is fine, except that it means I can’t really ask her for help/advice on how the community college system can best serve me.

    So… what in the world can be done about this? I have no idea what I can do on my part other than keep learning, never give up, and take every opportunity I get. What can you do as an educator? Is there anything you can tell me (and others) as a student on how to navigate this child-centered educational mess? I really loved that language has evolved for children to be able to learn it effectively. Cello teaching has likewise evolved to teach children effectively. My teacher started me on Suzuki like she does other students, but it was seriously not right for me. She recognized this and switched me to Feuillard, which I LOVE. Interestingly, the kiddos HATE the book and seen to struggle learning from it until late high school. I’ve heard almost everyone of her students under 15 make some sort of exclamation about how much they hate it. And the adults always love Feuillard. Thoughts?

  6. By Feuillard do you mean,_Louis_R.) ?

    In what way did you not get on with Suzuki?

    My teacher has been really supportive of me looking for a group saying how much fun it is playing with others. She’s even offered to help with any pieces I get stuck on. Perhaps you should just come clean with yours; come out of the closet as it were about your ambitions?

    On the subject of us adults, something I’ve noticed is that my teacher expects more from me than what appears to be acceptable (judging by youtube) of children. The music in some of the videos of kids just wouldn’t cut it if that’s what I played like. And this is a good thing. It means, well to me, that she understands I am not a child and those finer points are not wasted and worth the extra effort on both our parts.

    The result of this is that although I’m still only on book 1, I sound somewhat more musical than perhaps a child after 9 months of lessons. I hope 🙂

  7. Suzuki vs Feuillard–I would suspect that some, if not many, adults might be a little put off by the musical repertoire choices in the Suzuki curriculum. And you’ll find that with many of the older (by older here, I mean really ancient) method books, they were often designed by “professional” cellists to aid already skilled music amateurs as well as beginners. It was a very different musical climate than what we have now where music training has become relatively industrialized. The running joke is to sometimes talk about music schools as being musician factories.

    So yes, Cello teaching has evolved to teach children rather efficiently–the methods, the texts, the early string orchestras in schools, the youth symphonies, the summer music camps–all are geared towards that idea of child musician training for a career track in music.

    It works well–in fact, it works too well since now we have more musicians but not enough demand.

    You mentioned that most of the community orchestras in your area are nearly at a comparable level to the Sacramento Philharmonic–there’s a reason for this. Many regional and community orchestras are being filled by recent graduates from music schools and become basically an adult training ground for them to keep their chops up until they win a coveted position with an Orchestra that will pay them.

    If you’re doing this for your own enjoyment and not worried about making a living at it then no problem. I’m sure you’ll eventually find a group to play with and your skills will get wherever they need to at whatever pace you set yourself to–but if you want to turn the cello into some kind of breadmaker, well–many orthodoxed classically trained musicians are finding it more and more difficult to do so.

    I suppose a lot depends on what you really want from the cello. I’ve given a number of talks over the years for both University level and k-12 level kids, mostly emphasizing how saturated the US is with classically trained musicians while explaining what alternatives exist for the enterprising musician. Mostly, with my own students, I actually actively ask what they want to do with the cello, or where they see themselves with it (if at all) after they graduate from high school, or college (depending on the age). Often, they’re not even sure themselves, which is fine.

    I think the system is slowly changing–and it may not change soon enough for some folks (like you). You might try to talk to your cello teacher first before bringing it up to any of your college professors. Just talk about your options and find out if there are some other resources out there like the other community orchestra you mentioned where the playing level might be a better training ground for you.

    @Neophyte I think in many ways adults can learn many basics more quickly than children and I think anyone who has any experience teaching adults realize this and might have that expectation.

  8. Les-
    I mean this book:

    Suzuki was largely boring to me. She’d give me a couple songs to work on and I’d come back next lesson with those as good as they’d be for where I was at, plus I’d have worked on 3 others with dynamics and articulation and she’d having nothing more to really teach me about them. The only thing I liked about Suzuki 1 were the Bach minuets at the end. She tried me on the Feuillard book, which I found far more challenging. I found that the pieces pointed out my faults far more obviously to me, which made me want to work harder on fundamentals. The Suzuki pieces also had smaller steps between them, whereas the Feuillard often has giant leaps. While I often think I will NEVER get past a piece, I’m much more challenged and this motivates me to learn. The other advantage to Feuillard is that every piece is a cello duet. Learning to harmonize with my teacher has probably been the most valuable aspect of this book and I think it’s one of the reasons my ear is far more advanced than anyone expected it to be at this point. Also, at the beginning of every “lesson” in Feuillard, there are exercises relevant to the song. Sort of built-in etudes customized to what you need to learn at the moment. It’s pretty cool. I know Suzuki gets harder as it goes on, but my teacher saw my frustration and I love Feuillard.

    • Suzuki is somewhat slow. I’d like pieces that I can get stuck into (or stuck on) of more than 8 or 12 bars. But up until a couple of months ago, I barely found the time to get through 1 or 2 pieces a fortnight.

      My group gives me other challenges to work on too esp. since next week I’m joining the big boys in the main orchestra. *Panic*

      • Remember that the whole point of you joining the orchestra is to learn, and learning involves some amount of failure. So, if you don’t goof once or twice, you’re doing something wrong!

        I look forward to reading about your adventures in the orchestra and I (and all of us on the interwebz) think what you’re doing is totally awesome!

        So, until I find a group to play with, make some mistakes for me 😉

  9. Oh–and I forgot your other question–“admonishments”

    Yes, I meant it exactly that way. Pick any thread at the cello chat forum where someone asks a technical question and you can see it in action. I’ve been around classically trained musicians enough to understand how some of them feel about ‘outsiders’–and basically it is just that. Ingroup/Outgroup behavior typical of any kind of community.

    Not that all of them are like that, of course, but the ones who admonish seem to relish it!

  10. Jon,

    Regarding your question of what I really want to do with the cello, I think I will have to write an entire blog post pertaining to the subject. Although the short answer is I don’t know — if I manage to get myself involved in music in a greater capacity than private lessons I think I could have more of an idea, but until I’ve actually tried anything, I really can’t tell you. I can tell you I love Baroque music. It’s my favorite to play and to listen to. Before cello I didn’t even listen to orchestral music. Ever. I chose cello despite the music I knew that was written for it. Cello changed me and I’m sure that as I gain in ability and experience I’m sure I will continue to change, so even if I gave you an answer, it would change in the future. Hm. Longer answer than I expected!

    And I know some people like the ones you are talking about. They are the ones who labeled me as tone deaf while I was in school and the ones who told me I was the worst person in my elementary school band (it was mandatory.)

  11. Finishing previous comment:

    I know many people like this, which is why I almost never tell anyone I play cello. There’s even a guy at the music shop is like this and he’s supposed to get me to buy stuff from him. Horrible business strategy if you ask me!

    I have a couple coworkers, one who has a masters in music performance, the other is an opera singer, who are like this. They often loudly tell all of us that they were going to make a joke but realized it was a music joke and only music people would get it, so they aren’t going to bother telling it. Or they will talk endlessly about this or that performance, particularly about whomever they deem isn’t worthy of their particular role are part. They’ll go on about their own experiences for eons while frequently looking at the rest of us and saying something like “oh you guys wouldn’t get this because you don’t know this opera/musical/composer/whatever.”

    I don’t even think these people are aware they come off as elitist is the really interesting part. They’ve been groomed to be this way by the educational system they spent so much time in. What’s interesting is that most of us could actually participate in their conversations if we wanted to, we just don’t care to participate in snobbery.

    I knew a lot of people like them in high school who always made a point to let me know I was inferior to them for not being able to sing or play an instrument. Interestingly, one of the reasons I chose to play cello is because I thought I was naturally untalented at music. I wanted something challenging, and I thought picking something I had no talent at would be a good way to be challenged. So maybe people’s put-downs were a good thing because otherwise I wouldn’t have wanted to learn an instrument.

  12. Yes, it’s sad that we humans like to have our cliques. Or, I kinda like how Rebecca Hartke puts it–classical musicians are like a tribe and you have to have the right ‘markings’ to be a member of it and if you stray too far from the expected tribal behavior you risk being excommunicated from the tribe.

    In some ways, I think those folks who have to work hardest at something may appreciate the thing more than someone who has a natural talent for it, or who have all the connections and resources handed to them on a silver platter!

  13. On the other hand, the people I’ve met who are more on the fringe tend to be happier and make much deeper, meaningful connections with fellow musicians. Sometimes people who have natural talent and connections are happy, wonderful people, but it stems from who they are and trying to use music to connect with people and better the world. It’s why Yo-Yo Ma is so successful. He’s done the most fabulous job of bringing people — both musicians and non-musicians — together and making the world a nicer place to live in. Without his innate talent and connections he couldn’t have done that. But, he couldn’t have done that without his kindness and compassion also.

    Really, I think it’s just kindness and compassion that matter. I’m sure there are many not so fab musicians who have done the same thing, at least on a smaller scale.

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