Tips for Avoiding RSI
There is no getting away from the fact that an effective practice schedule must include scales, technical exercises and studies. At face value these are boring, repetitive and lacking in any aesthetic value. The good news is that with the correct approach, none of the other adjectives will matter to you; only the good results.
There are also potential problems associated with repetitive exercises which many cellists will be familiar with. RSI or repetitive strain injury is every musician’s enemy – worse for some than for others. Whether you are prone to RSI or not, you can rest assured that a consistently incorrect approach to practising and playing will lead to injury in one form or another and for some musicians that can spell the end of their playing career. On the brighter side, being aware of this danger is an important step towards preventing it from happening.
From my experience based on the valuable advice my college teacher gave me and subsequent professional playing and teaching, the following three tips are indispensible when it comes to developing technique without developing injuries.
1. Choose your exercises according to the demands of your current repertoire
The whole point of developing the best technique we can is to be able to play challenging repertoire effortlessly. We want our focus can be on expressing the music, not managing the difficulty. Take time to study the pieces you are working on away from your instrument and identify the areas you know you’ll struggle with, or that you know other cellists tend to struggle with. Analyse those technical difficulties: do they relate to the bow or the left hand? Have you encountered them in previous repertoire you have played or are they new to you? If new, it is essential that you get your teacher to show you how to approach them and suggest what material you can use to practise and develop the technique in question. Avoid immersing yourself in the piece before you feel comfortable with the new technique – you will only frustrate yourself and grow tired of the piece if you keep hitting a brick wall in certain parts.
Also take time to analyse the keys covered in the piece, and identify any arpeggios, scales and diminished or dominant 7ths that occur. If you can’t play them from memory with a sensible fingering pattern, there’s a very good chance you’ll stumble when you encounter them in the piece. The same applies to difficult rhythm patterns and irregular time signatures, both of which can be applied to scales with great results.
Feuillard’s Daily Exercises has a complete section dedicated to scales and arpeggios and all of their variants across the entire range of the cello with alternate and uniform fingering patterns. I have found this section to be an invaluable resource for familiarising myself with the entire geography of the instrument as well as being completely comfortable playing in remote keys and reading difficult accidentals. For those of you who thought scales and arpeggios could go out the window once you passed your grade 8 exam, think again! They are the fundamental basis of everything you play – whether it’s a concerto or a cello part in a symphony.
Many editions also offer valuable advice about the finer points of the piece, but these are more often to do with interpretation and should be consulted when you’ve settled on your supplementary exercises.
Finally, the Bärenreiter edition of Popper’s High School of Cello Playing comes with a text volume which gives an overview of the studies as a whole, a more detailed overview of each study, and a list of repertoire that each study resembles in technical challenges. Although the repertoire lists are by no means exhaustive, they are extremely useful and encourage the player to think of more pieces to add to each list.
2. Avoid the “no pain no gain” approach
We musicians all have a tendency to get overzealous in our attempts to better ourselves, and all too often we end up convincing ourselves that physical pain is a natural and necessary part of becoming a good player. Nothing could be further from the truth. If what you’re doing hurts you, you haven’t found the best way to do it. In everything that we do, we need to find the most energy efficient way to do it, constantly watching out for unwanted tension creeping in. This often occurs when we get impatient with slow practice.
However frustrating you find it practising at a slow and controlled tempo, you have to give your mind and body the opportunity to learn each movement specific to the technique you’re studying. You wouldn’t attempt tightrope walking without a considerable amount of training and guidance, would you? This may seem a silly analogy as the prospect of attempting the latter without really knowing how to do it is physically dangerous. Attempting a technical exercise at a faster pace than you’re capable of may not be life threatening but it can and often will lead to pain or injury.
Avoid exercises that are obviously beyond your physical reach. I have encountered advanced exercise volumes devised by cellists whose hands were obviously considerably bigger than mine. Short of magically growing my hands I will never be able to play this without considerable discomfort so I avoid them. The same applies to certain studies and repertoire.
It is important to distinguish between technical weaknesses which can be overcome and technical impossibilities which are best left alone. The cello is gifted with such a vast and diverse repertoire that not being able to play a few pieces due to physical limitations is really not something to feel downcast about.
3. Know what each exercise is for
It is often perfectly clear what exercises are for – either because they are accompanied by the composer’s or editor’s notes, or because they cover an easy to identify technique. But this cannot be said for all exercises, and even those that come with descriptions are not always straight forward when it comes to executing them correctly. A good example is spiccato and sautillé bowing. Simply knowing that an exercise is aimed at improving one of these types of bowing is not enough if you’re unsure of the actual execution or the differences between the two bowing types, which are often confused. If you’re ever unsure, ask your teacher and try to find literature relating to the volume of exercises you’re working on from specialist magazines, journals or books.
This is even more important when it comes to studies, as they often cover more than one aspect of technique which may not be immediately apparent. As already mentioned, many editions come with comprehensive notes by the composer or editor, and these are always worth reading before starting work on any of the studies.
In conclusion, technical exercises, although potentially a double-edged sword, are an essential part of your practice diet and if used well, make up the building blocks of a solid, well-rounded technique that can be relied upon in as many settings and circumstances as possible. Technical exercises should not be seen as a separate entity, but rather as a means to facilitate your musicality and to promote physically balanced, relaxed technique.
Every developing cellist who longs to play the great repertoire for our instrument–whether to a packed auditorium or simply in the quiet comfort of their practice room–knows that getting there is a long hard journey with no short cuts and many hurdles along the way. We reach a point in our development where we begin to develop a personal voice through our instrument and start to realise that the importance of knowing our scales and arpeggios reaches far beyond a tedious exercise in keeping our teacher or examiner relatively happy. It is generally at this point in our journey that we begin to appreciate the importance of thorough daily practice.
This new mind set is one of the most important steps any musician can take in their musical development. It is also the point at which many musicians become frustrated and lose interest or give up playing altogether. The most common reason for this is spending hours practising and not making the desired progress.
Developing a truly effective practice regime takes time and a certain amount of experimentation to find what works best for each individual, but there are a few guidelines that will always get you off to a good start.
1. Know your weaknesses
In my previous article, “Tips for Avoiding RSI” I discussed the importance of using technical exercises and studies as material to support and aid your study of cello repertoire. Constant self assessment is equally important and often one of the more difficult and frustrating parts of playing the cello, or any other instrument for that matter. If I had a pound for all the times I sat down to a nice session of vanity practising – cherry picking scales, exercises and pieces that I knew I could play well – I’d own a strad by now. We all do it and it’s hardly surprising. Learning to play an instrument to anything beyond an intermediate level means that you are constantly opening yourself to criticism from your teacher, your peers, examiners and audiences. Every now and again it does us good to sit down and remind ourselves what we do well.
But not so often that we lose sight of what we need to work on and end up stagnating in our development. Finding the right exercises to work on is entirely dependent on identifying technical weaknesses and understanding what is required to work on these weaknesses.
Whilst it is extremely important to be honest with yourself about what you’re not that good at, beware of becoming overwhelmed. Remember that this type of learning is a lifelong process and without a patient, focussed practice routine you’ll only slow down or grind to a halt. Remember also that identifying a weak area is not an exercise in self flagellation, but a positive step towards crossing it off your list.
The most frequent technical shortcomings I see in my more advanced students tend to be elemental issues such as string crosses, shifts and a lack of forward planning with the bow. Although the symptoms are often alike, the causes of these problems can vary and require a certain amount of analysis from both the teacher and the student to get to the route of the problem.
2. Know the benefits of going back to the basics
Regardless of how advanced you might be you can always benefit from revisiting more basic techniques. One thing I realised in hindsight about my development as a cellist, was that the steeper my learning curve got, the more I focussed on the most difficult aspects, often at the expense of things as basic as drawing the bow parallel to the bridge or allowing tension to build up in my left hand. The fact is, if the basics aren’t working well, there’s no chance of mastering anything more challenging.
There is an outstanding series of method books for the cello by Folkmar Längin called “Praktischer Lehrgang fur das Violoncellospiel”. It consists of five volumes which cover every basic aspect of cello technique from open strings to thumb position and beyond. Although there is no English translation available for these books, the exercises are extremely well written with excellent excerpts from cello studies and repertoire as well as arrangements of folk tunes and well-known classical repertoire for other instruments. Furthermore, the method is the most thorough and best organised I have ever encountered, and as a teacher I’ve spent a great deal of my time examining and trying out every method I can get my hands on. The fact that these books are written for cello students of any age also means that they are a much better source for older advanced cellists to use as technique refreshers as they are not covered in illustrations and large print notation aimed at younger learners.
3. Don’t be disheartened when your progress slows down
Even with the most focussed and attentive practice methods, progress often doesn’t follow an upward trend and can be governed as much by factors outside of your musical life as it is by those within. It’s frustrating when there is no discernable improvement in your playing – especially when you’re under a lot of pressure to learn difficult repertoire and show results. These two things are also often linked: the more stress you’re experiencing, the more distracted you’re likely to be. You may also find yourself somewhat more susceptible to fatigue and tension, neither of which will do your overall progress any favours.
There is no magic fix for times like these, but it pays to remember that when you’re already under a lot of pressure that you can’t do anything about, it’s best not to add to it by forcing yourself to practise when you’re not physically up to it. More often than not, 3 hours broken up into 3 or 4 sessions will get better results than 8 manic hours with insufficient breaks and subsequently failing concentration. We’re often told not to watch the clock when we practice so that we don’t end up simply “putting in time”. Good advice for sure, but there are times when it pays to set your alarm clock to tell you when to stop and have a break.
Most importantly, remember that these frustrating times in your career may come up from time to time, but they’re never permanent and are quite often followed by a burst of enlightenment and progress that is equally intense.
The rest is very much up to you. Practising is the essential tool for developing your musical and instrumental ability and it pays to remember that it is not a ready-made tool. Learning to practice well is an integral part of learning to play. It requires equal measures of discipline, organisation and self-awareness, and will teach you as much about yourself as your instrument.
© D C Cello Studio