The Cello Isn’t Inherently Difficult. Really.


A couple days ago I was reading through a post by Jon Silpayamanant when something he said really struck me in a very fundamental way:

This is sort of what I meant by choosing to acquire the skill to play the Dvořák Cello Concerto rather than implicitly blaming the piece (or the composer/author) for it’s “essential” difficulty. The Dvořák’s purported “difficulty” is just the reader’s commentary on her own relation to the text.

I feel like this states it so well that I don’t really have anything to add to it (but obviously I’m going to try.)

Every time I encounter something new with the cello, which happens all the time, I tend to label it as “difficult.” In fact, one of the biggest reasons that I chose this instrument was its inherent “difficulty.” Each song or scale or technique gets labeled as “difficult” when I first encounter it. Then, at some point I’ve progressed enough and developed enough skill that prior pieces are labeled as “easy” such as in the case of Twinkle Twinkle. A year ago, however, it was labeled as “impossible” (I was still plucking and bowing separately!) It went from impossible to difficult to somewhat doable to pretty easy to wondering how I ever could have thought it was so hard. So, like Jon said, whatever label we give something is a reflection of our own abilities, not of the piece itself.

Which brings me back to the cello itself — this strange wooden box that I wanted to learn to play because it was “difficult.” (Really, that actually ranked above liking the sound of it during my decision-making process.) I’ve spent the last year almost half afraid of this impossible to learn instrument. No matter how much progress I’ve made, my relationship with and my attitude toward the cello has stayed the same: it’s hard to play and I’m thus not not likely to ever be good at playing it. I’ve spent many many many practice sessions frustrated over the inherent impossible-ness of the cello and wishing that I’d either picked an “easier” instrument or that the cello just wasn’t so infuriatingly “difficult.” Maybe the rest of you have already seen the connection here, but it took me two days to really internalize this: It’s not the damn cello that’s difficult!

By this, I mean that the cello isn’t a difficult instrument. Truly, it isn’t. There’s nothing inherently impossible about it. Realizing this caused a kinda of fundamental shift in how I relate to the cello and how I approach practice. Today, as usual, I was getting frustrated about something that was “difficult” during my practice. The frustration was growing, the tension was building, and I was about ready to walk away and call it quits for the day when I realized that there was nothing inherently difficult about what I was doing. Just because I couldn’t do it well didn’t make it inherently difficult to do and realizing this made the frustration and tension disappear instantly. Previously, when I was viewing what I was doing as having some sort of inherent difficultly, I gave myself permission to feel frustrated about it. It was out of my control that it was hard, after all. The cello or the piece or whatever was an obstacle to be overcome and it was easy to feel angry and discouraged during practice sessions when I couldn’t accomplish what I wanted to.

Realizing that this isn’t inherently hard was one of the most liberating moments I’ve ever had while practicing. There’s absolutely no reason to feel frustrated because the piece isn’t hard. Rather, I just haven’t learned to play it the way I want to (yet!) So, realizing that what I was working on wasn’t “difficult,” I very easily went through the process of figuring out what was wrong, why, how to fix it, and implementing the solutions. I was able to do this with the entire piece in less time that it used to take me to work on one problem spot and the song now sounds as good as my pieces normally sound after three or four weeks of practice (and it was my new piece for the week!) Thinking this is hard created so much mental tension and used up so much of my effort that it was inhibiting how fast I could learn. Getting rid of that mental tension that I’d stopped even noticing was there is just about the most awesome thing ever. 😀

21 responses »

  1. Hehe. I spelled “it’s” wrong.

    My whole undergraduate thesis was based on looking at the ethics of performance from that viewpoint. I should try to find a draft of it (the final paper was lost) and post it at my website or something.

    Actually, I should develop it further–I often use that viewpoint with my students–for example, they’ll say they can’t play something and I’ll say to them :well, at some point in time in the many times you’ve practiced or played this, you’ve probably managed to get each and every note right–the trick is to get them all right and in the right order and at the right time.”

    Sometimes it just takes looking at things differently to “get it” — sort of like that parable of the three blin men and the elephant!

    Glad you made some break-through progress but never forget this:

    Much of practicing is focussed on learning a specific piece – either something you are performing at a specific time in the future, or an etude for your lesson, or the piece you’re playing in band or orchestra. You are working on the specific problems or techniques that that piece requires. Of course you are working in as efficient a way as possible, and at the end of your practice period you can play the passage or piece you were working on, which is great.

    Practicing a piece gets you better at playing that piece, but using your warmup effectively gets you better at PLAYING THE OBOE, which obviously will then translate to every new piece you encounter. The better your baseline oboe playing, the easier you will find each new challenge, and all of your practicing can become more efficient because you don’t have to waste time relearning a Db major scale every time one comes up in your music. Or how to slur smoothly. Or how to work through a passage of mixed articulation.

    Jennet Ingle puts it so succinctly!! Basically I think you’ve just learned a technique to get you past your mental stumbling block–and that’s just going to help you play the cello better in general rather than getting better at a piece at a time!!

  2. Haha! Like I’d forget that! I spend most of my time not playing my pieces at all! Most of it is on foundational work, such as open bowing, scales, etudes, and various other exercises. There are often days when I spend hours on exercises because I’m frustrated with my baseline abilities and don’t work on pieces at all. Actually, that’s what most of my days are like. I probably wouldn’t work on pieces at all if my teacher didn’t insist on it. At one point she yelled at me to stop spending so much time on scales and exercises. 😀 Instead I kept practicing them the same amount of time and added on extra time to work on my pieces! Today I finally got where I wanted, after hours every day of working on them, with my 8 note per bow 2 octave A harm. min. and B flat maj. scales: I solved all the problems I could find until I found one that I observed the cause of but couldn’t find a solution to. Well, actually those scales are what made me want to go back into the luthier for more set up adjustment, but for now we’ll call those problems “fixed.” I got to where my teacher wants me to get with everything: I’ve solved every problem I could hear, understand, and find a solution to. She now refuses to answer questions unless I’ve done everything in my power first. 🙂 If she thinks I can figure out a solution, she won’t tell me. Have I mentioned I totally ❤ her?

  3. Haha–yes, you mentioned that a time or two! Well, just keep on doing what you’re doing–sometimes it just takes time for some technique to “stick”–it’s that Flow thing Dr. C talks about–you’ve finally internalized what you’ve been laboring over to the point now you can stop thinking about possible frustration and just focus on learning. 😉

  4. It has truly amazed me just how frustrated I’ve managed to get myself over this instrument. Nothing else has gotten me so worked up in my life (not even my mother when I was a teenager!) Perhaps because learning to play is an act of constantly changing one’s self. At least for me it’s a constant process of self-examination, which is done for hours a day, and can be very very brutal. But my desire for playing the cello well is far greater than my desire to hold on to my many neuroses. So, the work is done no matter how much I might try to resist.

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  6. It’s like that Zen story:

    The scholar had an extensive background in Buddhist Studies and was an expert on the Nirvana Sutra. He came to study with the master and after making the customary bows, asked her to teach him Zen. Then, he began to talk about his extensive doctrinal background and rambled on and on about the many sutras he had studied.

    The master listened patiently and then began to make tea. When it was ready, she poured the tea into the scholar’s cup until it began to overflow and run all over the floor. The scholar saw what was happening and shouted, “Stop, stop! The cup is full; you can’t get anymore in.”

    The master stopped pouring and said: “You are like this cup; you are full of ideas about Buddha’s Way. You come and ask for teaching, but your cup is full; I can’t put anything in. Before I can teach you, you’ll have to empty your cup.”

    You’ve just managed to empty your cup a bit–got rid of some knowledge/beliefs that just weren’t useful anymore!

    • See, I was thinking I just made my cup bigger! I can, however, delude myself into thinking I emptied it a bit. 😛 It’s not there is less BS going on inside my head, it’s that I’m finding it utterly irrelevant right now. My head’s chattering away per usual, but I find it no longer has the same hold on me that it used to. At least with practicing. For now. 😀

      • The irony is that you got this insight from a blog post about silly geekery literary criticism of Kill Bill. Isn’t life full of oddities? 😛

        On the contrary–I think there might be less bullshit going on–all the nagging doubts, for example. That’s the problem with us humans, we can only hold so many things in our immediate consciousness–any more and we hit what Cognitive scientists refer to as Cognitive load and our ability to absorb and retain things is compromised because of the heightened levels of stress and all the hormonal changes that happens as a result of that!

        • The bullshit still exists in my head, I promise! I just really don’t care about it anymore. Then it just sorta retreats. It’s there, always waiting to rear its ugly head, which is does often. It just don’t affect me like it used to.

          And yes, life is odd sometimes. I like it that way. 😀

          • hehe–that’s the first lesson of meditation–to notice all the things going through the mind and just learn to not be attached to them. They’ll still come back from time to time, but they no longer have a hold on you. It’s not really so much emptying your cup as it is realizing that the cup no longer has a hold on the tea so it’s free to fill up with anything else.

            I still fight it myself sometimes!

            • Oy. Me and meditation. I think I need to just give up on it for this lifetime. It creeps into my life in other less direct ways anyway. I can’t avoid it, but seeking it out fails miserably. There’s some Zen saying that you actually get farther away from enlightenment when you start a meditation practice and that it takes years to get back to where you were at before you started. My current solution seems to be to just not start again! 😛

              • haha–that’s the classic Zen stance–before starting meditation, mountains are mountains and men are men; while meditating things are confused, mountains are no longer mountains and men are no longer men; after meditation, mountains are again mountains and men are again men. What’s the difference between before and after meditation? None–your feet are just a little higher off the ground after!

                I think one of the reasons I don’t spend as much time actively meditating is precisely because I’ve found it can creep into normal everyday activities!!

  7. For me, the cello isn’t difficult; the problem is the instrument between my ears.

    Seriously, all instruments have their difficulties, although they manifest themselves at different times in the learning process.

    The cello is challenging enough to be a lifelong pursuit, but you’re right that we should not let ourselves be intimidated by this four stringed nonlinear oscillator.

    • For me, what I was talking about in the whole post was largely that obnoxious instrument between my ears. The idea that the cello is inherently difficult had been creating so many mental obstacles without me realizing it!

  8. Great stuff.

    “But my desire for playing the cello well is far greater than my desire to hold on to my many neuroses.” This is why I have succeded thus far. I think this is an equation on par with any I learned in science.

  9. I love your realization here, and the feeling of liberation that comes from it. Congrats ! And here’s wishing you even more breakthroughs and more beauty on your cello journey. Thanks for sharing it with us. 🙂

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