I’m writing this in response to a comment by Yee on my post The Cello Diet. Actually, it’s in response to my response to his comment, but typing that out hurts my head, so we’ll just say I’m responding to Yee. The topic of progress and how fast it happens seems to crop up a lot, so I thought I’d write about it here since it’s a big part of my every day life.
Since I have no recordings of myself, you’ll just have to assume that when I tell you that everyone who has heard me play says I’m making ridiculously fast progress, that I’m telling the truth and these other people know what they’re talking about. (Or you can assume that I totally suck and am being arrogant instead, which is perfectly alright by me.) I still think I sound like crap, but my opinions about myself are generally inaccurate. So, I’ll just have to assume that what everyone is telling me is correct and that I’m learning more quickly than is “normal” (I don’t really believe there is a normal, but for the sake of this post we’ll assume there is.)
Again, assuming that I’m learning faster than “normal” (you’re free to think I’m not) the question is then what have I done to learn quickly?
I want to start off by saying I didn’t always learn quickly. In fact, I was so damn slow in the beginning that I was embarrassed to tell anyone I played cello. I didn’t even get to Twinkle Twinkle until four months into playing. It took me almost that length of time to even understand what a major scale was and my first couple months were spend entirely on the D string. I’d never learned anything so slowly in my life and I’d never spent so much time failing to comprehend something that I was making every effort to understand.
And then came the day that my teacher introduced me to these wonderful things called articulation and dynamics. Two days before my first recital, she wanted me to go home and work on various applications of articulation, although with set dynamics. I was addicted. I’d never been so fascinated by anything in my entire life. After the recital was over, I spent the next five days until my next lesson working on the next five songs in Suzuki trying out different articulation and dynamics on each until I came up with something I liked. My half an hour a day of practicing turned into 3 hours a day of practicing. My fingertips turned into giant red blisters, but I kept on playing. I’d wake up the next day with them still swollen and red, but I’d keep playing anyway. I’d be near tears, but I kept going because nothing had ever been as imperative as figuring out dynamics and articulation for these songs. When I went to that next lesson, she loved what I’d done and said it was time to move on. Each week I’d learn three times what she’d ask of me until she finally switched me to Feuillard, which was more challenging and I couldn’t really move on without her help.
So my first answer to the question of how to learn quickly is that it is necessary to become unhealthily obsessed with playing cello.
Now, fast forward to about 6 months later, and we end up with my teacher getting in on the efficiency game, which I talked about a bit in my post A New Approach. One of the big themes of my lessons and of my practice sessions is how to make my practice time more efficient. My teacher’s goal seems to be to free up some time in my day so I can have a life outside of cello. (I laugh at the idea of having a life outside cello and want to be more efficient just so I can learn more in the same amount of time.)
What I talked about in that post was my teacher teaching me to be my own teacher. This basically consists of the following:
1. Identifying the problem — I’m hearing something ugly, so what is it exactly that I’m hearing?
2. Figuring out why this ugly sound is happening. What am I doing that is causing this?
3. Coming up with something to do other than what I was doing that was making the ugly sound. How can I play this differently? What exercises can I do to help me figure this out?
4. Implementing my solution. Sometimes my solution fails, so I go back and start over again, until I come up with something that solves the problem.
The key to efficiency is that I’ve gotten really fast at this. It turns out that most of what’s wrong in my playing I actually already know how to fix. The same problems tend to crop up over and over, and they tend to have the same solutions over and over again. Instead of my teacher pointing them out every lesson, I point them out to myself a thousand times a day.
So, in short, assuming I’m learning faster than some arbitrary “normal,” the way I do this is by being unhealthily obsessed with the cello and by being my own teacher. Granted, you’re free to assume I totally suck at playing cello and that everything I said was complete bullshit, which is pretty much how I feel about everything I just wrote a large part of the time. Hopefully, though, someone found some little bit of that helpful or is at least having a good laugh at me. 😀
P.S. Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring is SO much fun to play! More on that another day!