How to be your own teacher.*


A couple people have asked me to elaborate on the following, which was in my post The Method To My Madness:

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.

People wanted examples of what I mean by this, so I will start with a simple one octave one note per bow G major scale. We start out with our open string G. It’s in tune (assuming you tuned properly beforehand, which is a whole other issue) but you’re not happy with it. It sounds crunchy when you engage the string, and you’d really like it to sound pretty, not crunchy. So, you’ve already done step one, identifying what’s wrong.

Step two is asking yourself why this is happening. In this case, I ask myself what muscles I’m using to begin the motion of the bow. If it’s crunching, I’m likely to be actively pressing the bow into the string and using the muscles along the sides of my ribs, my arms, my shoulder, my neck, and even clenching the bow with my hand. All of this is also very tense.

So we come to step three, where I ask myself what should I be doing and what can I do differently? I need to relax, first of all. In fact, I set my cello down and close my eyes and take a few deep breaths until I’m feeling a bit calmer. Then I think about what muscles should be engaged and what parts of my body are doing what. The bulk of the motion with the bow should be coming from the back, with my shoulder, neck, arm, wrist, and hand very relaxed. In fact, I should almost be dropping the bow I’m so relaxed. Also, as I bow and go from the frog to the middle to the tip, my hand and wrist will need to change position (which I’m not sure how to describe in words! Sorry!) so I will need to play extra attention to that.

Now I’m really at part four point zero because there are a number of steps to part four. I’m going to keep my cello on the ground and just work with the bow. I hold it up with my left hand so I make a ring and it’s just resting there. I start out by checking my bow hold and that all my fingers are in the right position and are relaxed. I’m not clenching and the bow is just hanging and resting on the ring I made with my left hand. I start out practice bowing at the frog, making sure I have a nice fluid wrist, which my teacher describes as looking like seaweed swaying in water. I double check that the motion is originating in my back and that my muscles are very relaxed still. Once I’ve accomplished that, I start bowing with the middle of the bow doing the same thing, but making sure I start to pronate a bit in the middle and that my elbow is coming up and out. Then I do the same thing at the tip. I’m fully pronated and my elbow is as high as it should go (not above shoulder, though.) I practice bowing using the whole bow now, making sure I’m keeping my hand relaxed, my wrist is supple, and the motion is coming from my back. It should be fluid and smooth and like seaweed swaying in the ocean currents.

Now that I’ve accomplished this, it’s time for step four point five: applying this to the cello. I pick up the cello and let the bow rest gently on the G string. I’m not putting any pressure on it nor am I engaging any muscles at this point. I take a few deep breaths to make sure I’m still relaxed and I go through the same exercises I did without the cello, as I described above. By the end I can hardly hear when I change directions with the bow, I’m relaxed, and the sound is beautiful.

Now I’m going to add on a step five, which is actually the most crucial part of these steps: I need to repeat to myself what I just did. This way, when I encounter the same problem again, I can go through an already memorized set of steps, which is much faster. So, I heard an ugly crunching when I engaged the bow. This happened because I was tense and using the wrong muscles. I identified which muscles I needed to use instead, which is really just my back, and purposefully took time out to relax myself. I practiced this better technique using just the bow without cello so I didn’t have to worry about sound or if the bow was really engaging or anything else. Then I applied the technique I practiced to actually bowing my open G. In the end my bowing was fluid and graceful and direction changes were hardly audible.

Now you’re probably wondering how the heck you will ever accomplish anything practicing this way. After all, this took probably an hour to work through (at least that’s how it was for me when I first started practicing this way.) But what’s really cool is that you have an easy way to work through the same problem when you encounter it elsewhere. If open G was sounding crunchy, I bet A, B, C, D, E, F#, and the next G were too! Now, they should all ring beautifully instead of sounding crunchy and dull. Practicing this will make every single note you play sound better. If in the middle of a song you notice a crunching, you can check that you are doing the same wrong things, practicing doing them right for a few minutes, and then the problem will go away.

Now we will continue with the next note of our G major scale: A. The first thing we notice is that it doesn’t sound crunchy. Fantastic, but we realize that we have no idea if it’s in tune or we realize that it’s definitely NOT in tune. Step one done! Step two: this is happening because we have no idea what an A should sound like. Now what? Step three! Put on some cello drones (seriously, download them from iTunes.) Step four point zero: push play on the A and play along with it. Slide your finger up and down around where A should be. Learn what flat and sharp and in tune all sound like with your A drone. Step four point five: now that you’ve been listening to that stupid A for half an hour, you remember what it sounds like. So, you try to find it without the drone and you suddenly go AHA! THAT’S AN A! Really, once you’ve been working on it like that, it becomes obvious if you’re in tune or not. Also, when you think you have it right, check it. If it’s wrong, work with the drone a bit more. You likely won’t remember tomorrow what an A sounds like, but today you do and it will take you less time tomorrow to re-learn it. Step five: Repeat what you jut did. Also, how can this apply to more than just this? Well, one out of twelve pitches that you have to play will be an A and you now know a lot better what it sounds like and how to find it. You also know how to learn to hear the other pitches.

Now we are working again on our G major scale. G sounds fab, A sounds fab, now we get to B. It sounds bad because it’s out of tune and crunchy, but we know how to work on it. Cool! Same with C. Then open D, then E then F# then G again. Then backwards. It’s sounding pretty fantastic. Except you notice this long awkward pause between the C and open D. Ugh. Oh, hey, we just did step one. This lag is happening because we are trying to make that C the same length as the other notes and not accommodating for the fact that the string crossing takes time too. So now we have our step three: stop the C just a hair short. The cello will keep ringing anyway and no one will notice. That way we start our D right on time. Step four: We try it and it sounds better. We turn on the metronome and double check that we really are starting each note at the right time. Cool! No awkward pause! We stayed in time with the metronome! Step five: repeat these steps back to ourselves. Where else can this apply? shifting! Shifting takes time in a similar way, and we have to stop the last note a little early in order to start the next note on time. Cool!

I hope this helped. I’m not the best at describing technique with words and I was trying to make this a simpler technique so it would be more accessible. I wanted to just show what the process was like, not really the technique itself. For those who wanted me to do this, please as if you need clarification.

*Please note that this does NOT eliminate the need for weekly lessons from a flesh and blood teacher!


5 responses »

  1. Thanks for taking the time to post that. I appreciate it.

    So, basically you expect me to act like an adult. That’s awfully unrealistic. 🙂

    I’ve either been too lazy to stop and figure out what the exact problem and fix is, or I tell myself that I don’t have enough time because I have other things on which to work. The latter can sometimes be true. However, I need to decide whether to be average at everything or go deeper on a smaller number of tasks and become much better.

    I spend a lot of time practicing every day. I “work” on problems. However, I know that I don’t REALLY spend the time to break down EXACTLY what’s going on and how to fix it. I frequently substitute repetitions for thinking.

    Among other issues, I’ve been having trouble applying vibrato to pieces that I can otherwise play well. I get tense and I have a hard time playing notes in tune and in rhythm when I play with vibrato.

    So . . . I made myself follow the outline you described, including: much stopping and restarting when I tense up, repeating passages where I get out of tune in a much slower tempo, etc. Long story, short – it has helped a lot. I decided to just ignore all the other things on my cello to-do list and focused just on this problem. It definitely makes a big difference. It’s obviously not “fixed” yet. However, I can tell that I will make consistent progress if I use my brain, hold myself accountable and be honest with myself about what I’m actually doing.

    Hopefully, I can continue to make myself do this. Thanks again for the insight.

    • Ha! Yeah, acting like an adult. It’s hard. It was pretty terrifying when my teacher expected it of me, but I feel like my learning has kept accelerating since then, so it’s worth it.

      Yes, the next part. Excuses. I posted about those somewhere. Um, here: Believe it or not, going deeper into fundamental techniques will make you better at every single piece you play, so you really should do it!

      About the vibrato: Do it anyway, even if it sounds horrendous. I was having the same problem you were having and then I realized that I was using the problem as an excuse not to do it. Just do it no matter how it sounds and don’t worry about it. Once you stop worrying, it gets better almost exponentially.

      Glad it helped! You have to be relentless with yourself. There’s no point at which things are “fixed” because no matter how good you are you can always be better (even Pablo Casals insisted on practicing hours a day until he died because he said he kept hearing improvement.)

      It’s hard to act as your own teacher, but the results speak for themselves and become addictive. I choose to use that addiction to my advantage. Today, for example, after writing this post I decided to work on open C bowing because there were some things I was unhappy with, and discovered this whole world of manipulating overtones that I couldn’t even hear before. It was pretty amazing and motivates me to do this more often. Then I was working on my Haydn piece and it turned out I was unconsciously manipulating the overtones on ALL my notes in the piece and it sounded really awesome. So, working on fundamentals will ooze its way into all aspects of your playing.

  2. I love that you describe the motion of the arm/wrist in bowing as “like seaweed swaying in the ocean currents!”
    The first time I saw my teacher play (which was not for a good few weeks in, as he rarely does actually demonstrate with the instrument) I was mesmerized — and sea grasses was exactly what I thought of too! I even wrote a poem about it at the time (–and writing poems is not generally something I do — so let that fact speak for both the wonder of that moment, and my skills as poet :-).

    I was totally inspired by you and the focus you describe here when I was practicing this evening (albeit only for a half hour or so…). Thanks! (I think you should be as proud as the blog as inspirational force as of your cello playing itself!) 🙂

    • Actually, I wasn’t the one who described the motion as being like seaweed. It’s apparently part of some method of teaching (Greenhouse I think) that my teacher and her teacher constantly talk about. It was a very helpful visual for me, though.

      I’m happy you find my blog inspirational. 😀 Never thought anyone would (actually, I expected it to just be me talking to myself on the internet about my cello craziness with no one reading it!)

  3. Pingback: Another BIC Day « The Neophyte Cellist

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