The Method To My Madness (Assuming I Don’t Actually Suck At Playing Cello.)


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. šŸ˜€

P.S. Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring is SO much fun to play! More on that another day!

16 responses »

  1. Pingback: The Rubinstein Method To Our Madness « The Neophyte Cellist

  2. Thank you so much for your detailed response….

    You happen to be the first cello blogger I somewhat identify with. Limited or no musical background to start and somewhat obsessive compulsive. My wife says I’m OCD šŸ™‚

    I noticed that lots of beginning cellists will try to push ahead really quickly then will plateau because of deficiencies in their technique. But you seem don’t seem to be having that problem yet. Maybe because of your slow start? I actually wish my teacher would slow down a bit. I think my rhythm, or lack of, is actually holding me back some, but my teacher keeps pushing ahead before I can fix things to my liking….

    btw… I started in July of last year so hopefully, things will start clicking for me like it has for you…. Sometime soon please!

  3. Nah, the slow start was just my mind fighting me and not wanting to think in such a drastically different way than it ever had before. I also wasn’t practicing much back then, maybe half hour 5 days a week. I think one thing that has helped is that I’m always on the lookout for what I’m doing wrong or if I could be practicing differently. I know that just because this way of learning is working for me really well right now it doesn’t mean it always will. I expect that as I evolve as a cellist, that my approach to learning will evolve as well. I spend a lot of time trying to get creative and think of new ways to approach practicing and music in general.

    As for my relationship with my teacher, she doesn’t push me. She expects a lot of me, yes, but ultimately I’m responsible for pushing myself. I have always aimed to do more than she wants, even if she’s irritated that I went ahead on something. So even if she gives me something impossible to accomplish, I’ll do that and more just to make sure I can. It sounds kinda silly, but I feel like it’s my responsibility to challenge her as a teacher and challenge myself as a student. If I were to rely upon her for the direction and speed of my musical life, I’d be very unhappy and not make as much progress as I’d like. Her goal and my goal is to make her role as irrelevant to my progress as much as is possible.

    July, oh, that’s only 7 months. I was terrible at 7 months! And I hadn’t even learned extensions yet or 1/2 position or really anything outside the keys of D, C or G! It was actually around 7 months that things picked up like crazy for me. About a week before the 7 month mark my teacher ripped off my stickers and informed me I was going to have to do everything by ear. Oh, and I was going to start on 4th position too. And shifting. All by ear. Those were the two most difficult weeks of practicing ever, but it kinda gave me a jump start.

    • Technique, technique, technique…

      That’s what I’m sort of obsessed with. I constantly try to identify what’s optimal for me. My teacher in this regard is great. She lays out the ground rules but lets me experiment with what’s best. Plus, I also scour the net at times when I move to the next technique or am modifying an existing one; and she’s very open to discussing any technical variations from her own.

      For example, my teacher, in the last lessons, pointed out a problem with my bowing. I wasn’t staying as perpendicular to the D string as I need to be to produce a nicer tone. She showed me the correct angle, but I knew the cause is really how I roll from string to string. So I’ve been trying to keep my hand and forearm at the same level for all strings. But that’s my own analysis and my own solution. Cause one thing I learned about the cello is that every one has technical variations and there is no absolute correct way. Also technique shouldn’t be static… I use to do forward extensions with a slight pronation of my left hand to be able to reach; but as my hand stretched out, I found it more efficient to keep my hand totally square for the extension so I made the change myself.

      I think my teacher pushes ahead with new material because she might suspect that I would obsessively keep playing the same for weeks if she didn’t move on…

      Rhythmically, I still need lots of work… I can play in rhythm if I hear the piece I’m playing which is why the susuki pieces are great. But if it’s just from the sheet music, it’s much more difficult for me. Any suggestions there?

  4. Can you please walk through an example of this when you have time:

    1. Identifying the problem ā€” Iā€™m hearing something ugly, so what is it exactly that Iā€™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.

      • I find that practicing in front of a mirror is invaluable. Lots of problems are obvious (like my bowing), but there are usually too many things to fix at once at this stage. So most things get deferred till later or until my instructor says I need to work on it. I always try to think of the Pablo Casals’ quote that “Beautiful playing is beautiful to look at.”

        Identifying problems for me is usually visual. Aural happens now too, but I can’t tell why yet just by listening. To fix, I just would experiment with doing things differently; but that’s a hit or miss endeavor. So I’m with Cellophyte… Please expound šŸ™‚

        • Mirrors are good. I have super short arms and at the tip have to have it at a purposefully wrong angle to compensate. As a result, I’ve had to spend an inordinate amount of time practicing how to get my bow back at a correct angle from an incorrect one. Useful skill since it’s easy to wind up with the bow in the wrong place in the middle of a song.

          As for identifying problems visually v. aurally, I only started allowing myself to do things visually after I trained myself to be able to do them aurally. For example, when my teacher took my stickers off, I realized I couldn’t hear when my notes were in tune, so I practiced with drones. What does my E sound like? I didn’t know, but I can put a drone on and find it that way. I figured if I couldn’t hear unisons and octaves, I had no business learning cello. I would sit and play a single note until I knew what it sounded like. Sometimes I thought I’d go crazy because I would spend half an hour playing each note of a one octave scale until I could remember how it sounded in my head. But by the end of practicing that way, I could find each note on my cello sans drone (I’d check with my tuner.) It was slow and miserable at times, especially because I’d make myself close my eyes for practicing with the drones, but it was well worth it. Being able to hear if something was exactly in tune or not wasn’t something that came naturally at all for me — I had to work really hard for it — and there are certain notes that I can’t seem to get straight. I always forget what G#/A-flat sounds like and I’m always convinced that Cs are much lower than they actually are and have to compensate for that. So sometimes I’ll just sit there and play each C I know how to play over and over and over, checking that it’s in tune, just so I can get that note in my head. If I’m having particular trouble with intonation on a single note in a song, I sit there playing it over and over and over until I can hear it in my head still. I also don’t let myself look at my fingers when I’m trying to adjust my finger up and down to find a note because I want to have a physical memory of where the note is more than a visual memory.

          • Just curious, do you leave your drone on the whole time you are playing your piece as a reference note?

            I’m still not at your aural level. Although I don’t use tape and I don’t look at my hands while playing, I still use pencil marks. I can usually tell by ear when I’m out of tune and I will stop sometimes to check. Usually I use the marks to help me to keep my hand balanced. I check that when I’m done playing my piece or passage, that they are where I expect them to be. Also, my left hand is still at the stretching phase. As my hand slowly acquires a wider spread to better accommodate a square left hand position, this usually introduces some drift if I’m use to, for example, max’ing out a stretch to do an extension.

            I would have thought my left hand would have max’ed out by now, but it’s still slowly getting wider although I’m not really trying to get it any wider than it is now.

            Thanks for your verbose comments…

            • No, I don’t use it while playing my piece. Too confusing. Using them during scales is helpful though, just to hear what P1,4,5,8 and M2,3,6,7 sound like (ie. playing a D drone for practicing D major.) One of the big things I do is that if I hear something wrong I stop right then and there (except with sight reading.) I correct each problem as I come to it instead of going on, because that tends to create and reinforce bad habits if I do that instead.

              My left hand will always be in the stretching phase. My teacher says that I have the least flexible hands she’s ever seen, but I can still play regardless. It has much more to do with keeping my thumbs relaxed than being able to stretch actively.

              • This is a great site, if you haven’t found it yet…


                My teacher likes him too as they both studied with the same instructor. In one of his videos, he actually advocates using a drone while playing. I think it’s suppose to be helpful with 3 notes – the reference note and maybe perfect 4ths or 5ths (I’m not a theory guy šŸ™‚ ) I think he mentions the intervals in the video as well… I think you are suppose to get some harmonics with the other notes when you hear them with the reference note.

                I’ve been pretty luck with regard to my hands. On the small side, but I can still do a double extension. I also have a somewhat unorthodox left thumb position to help with extensions too. David Finckel also talks about it briefly in one of his videos. He said to free up your thumb to get a better stretch – that is, to pull it out from behind the neck. So I play with my left thumb sort of like Victor Sazer says… Almost like typing on a keyboard when I’m playing. I play with my left thumb standing up totally on its tip along where the fingerboard meets the neck. Teacher says it’s ok as long as I don’t have tension.

                • Interesting technique with the thumb. For my extensions I actually start with moving thumb and the second finger follows, which works for how my body is built. I’ll check out the site. Thanks.

                  • A number of professional cellists reference that site as a great resource since he’s a renown solist who’s publicly sharing his knowledge in this way. It’s sort of interesting when I bring up differences in technique from what my instructor advocates. About half the time, I do as my instructor says and the other half, I will follow Finckel’s advice. For example, Finckel likes a tight bow while my instructor likes more flex. I like more flex too… Finckel has this idea of shifting as having an arc to the shift such that it’s like shooting a basketball. He argues that it provides an extra dimension which makes it easier to hit your target; whereas my instructor likes just a slide. In this case, I go with Finckel as it helps me to visualize the shift.

                    It’s a great resource… I would think any good instructor would welcome technical discussions and would be open to their student exploring variations from what they are teaching.

      • Many thanks. I practice every day. I love practicing. However, I know that I’m an inefficient practicisisisiser and that more efficient and disciplined practice would greatly aid my playing.

  5. Pingback: How to be your own teacher.* « The Adult Beginner

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