The path of least resistance.

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One method of learning that I’m fond of is to work on whatever I seem to be learning well. I tend to wait to practice the things I’m struggling with and opt instead to work on whatever is coming most naturally. At some point I will have progressed with the “easier” thing enough that it’s no longer easier and the “hard” thing isn’t so hard anymore by comparison. Yes, sometimes it pays off to push through something that you are really struggling with. But I often find that by focusing on something else that my mind naturally loses resistance to learning whatever I was having difficulty with in the first place.

For example, in the Corelli Gavotte I was struggling greatly with the shifting. There are a lot of really crazy shifts (bigger than an octave!) and you don’t stay in the same position for more than two notes on a row. It’s all over the place and it’s impossible to have a frame of reference. It was slow and my intonation was only spot on when I accidentally shifted an entire half step short or long. It was just absolute garbage. But instead of working on my shifting I instead focused on musicality. What kind of dynamics did I want? What kind of articulation? How do I want each phrase to feel? Suddenly, once I was able to answer those questions and focus on musicality in my playing, the shifts became no-brainers.

Then the musicality still wasn’t musical enough for me. Sure, I crescendo-ed and decrescendo-ed in the right places, the articulation was what I wanted, but it didn’t feel the way I wanted it to. But instead of working on it, I worked on speeding it up. Not to the correct speed, but to faster than the correct speed. Can’t play it at the correct speed? My teacher told me to stop trying to build up to it because I will never get there. Just play it waaaay too fast, to the point where it falls apart completely. Then keep practicing it that way. It will get better. Then play it at the correct speed. Suddenly it’s quite easy and somewhere in the middle of all that I developed an intuitive feel for the musicality rather than approaching it from an intellectual perspective. Even when playing it so fast that there’s nothing left of my technique, the musicality is still there because it’s something that comes from within that can’t be gotten rid of.

Sometimes the most direct way of getting things done is by not doing the things you are working on. It’s fun that way. Our conventional ways of thinking tell us to work on whatever it is that needs improving, but then we end up in a war with our own minds. We fight, our minds fight back, then we fight harder, our minds become more rigid, and so on. I find that type of approach results in nothing but a long, frustrating plateau. So I simply don’t operate that way. I have faith in my own mind that I will learn about all aspects of cello playing no matter what the focus of my practice is.

I find it is often hard to do. After all, I want to make progress — lots of progress and quickly at that! But tackling things head-on just doesn’t work for me. One of the questions I strive to answer in my cello journey is how to learn faster. How do I get the most out of my practice time? How do I avoid hitting plateaus? How can I become a great cellist despite my late start? (Not “can I?” but “how can I?”) I think all of us who started late want to find solutions to these problems.

For me, one of the answers is to follow the path of least resistance. It doesn’t mean don’t practice. It doesn’t mean don’t work hard. It doesn’t mean to avoid the things you are least talented at. It means learning how to work with your own mind and its beastly nature. Where it is supple, mold it, train it, fill it with all things cello-y wherever it lets you. Where is is rigid, let it be, don’t fight it. How, then, will those “rigid” areas ever be trained? They will not always be so rigid, nor will the supple areas remain so. This is impermanence at its best. All that is required is knowing your own mind, which is something that anyone can do.

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One response »

  1. I love this post! I’m going to try some of your suggestions with my skating and the cello because what you say here makes a lot of sense. Good luck to you and thanks!

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