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.