Effective Practising: Making the Most of Your Time

Whether you’re studying music and devoting many hours to practising and playing, or a keen amateur with a full time day job, a family and very limited time to practise, it really is essential that you use your available time as productively as possible.

Making the Most of Your Time

I remember my music college days, when many of the first year students (myself included) suffered from a terrible condition: eight-hours-a-day syndrome. When we weren’t in classes, we could all be found in our practice rooms furiously hammering the most challenging studies, sonatas and concertos in our repertoire, desperately trying to outplay each other. Every now and then one of us would stumble out of a practice room looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights, and outside you would always come across a couple of us nervously chain-smoking and discussing the terrifying notion of our lessons – only two or three days away. Very few of us were spending quality time locked behind those sound-proofed double-doors. We were far more focused on “doing time”, and being able to proudly boast about the seven or eight hours we’d spent turning ourselves into nervous wrecks.

Not long after I started at music college, my teacher made what I thought was a radical and utterly ridiculous statement: that it was not possible to put in more than four genuine hours of practice a day. The rest, she said, was just playing. That can’t be right, I thought: everyone here seems to practice for at least six hours a day. And they all seem to be practising – going through their Kreutzer and Popper studies in minute detail, repeating the same two bars for anything up to an hour at a time. Surely that was practising? It must be, because the students who took that approach were very good, and very intimidating. If it worked for them, I was determined it was going to work for me too! By the last quarter of my first year I was rewarded for my manic practice routine – not with the effortless, impressive technique I had expected it  would produce, but with persistent and painful tendinitis. Being inclined towards and surrounded by melodramatic attitudes, I took myself off to doctors, physiotherapists, homeopaths and counselling. Cortisone injections, therapeutic massage, herbal remedies, sage advice: some brought temporary relief, some nearly convinced me that the problem had disappeared and some made not the slightest difference. For the next year I was plagued with injury, finding myself unable to play for weeks and sometimes months at a time. It wasn’t until I started thinking back to my teacher’s wise words about practice and considering what she really meant that I started to overcome my tendinitis. It wasn’t simply a matter of cutting back on the number of hours I spent in my practice room. I began to realise that I needed to get a lot more forensic about what was wrong with my technique, and stop bucking against my teacher’s insistence that certain fundamental techniques such as my bow hold, my posture and how I held my instrument needed serious attention.

At the other end of the spectrum are those aspiring cellists whose time is taken up with a challenging career (not connected to playing the cello) and often also a busy family and social life. It’s hard enough finding an hour in the week to squeeze in a cello lesson, so where on earth is that hour a day for cello practice going to come from? Many of my students face this problem and it is often a source of frustration for them. They sheepishly tell me how little practice they’ve managed this week as they unpack and tune up their cellos. While all of these students have very different lives: different careers, different working hours, different family commitments; they all tend to have one thing in common: they admit to sitting vacantly in front of the telly most evenings when they know they could be using some of that time to practise. I understand why they don’t: I’ve had my own brief experience with the nine-to-five corporate lifestyle, and I remember how  exhausted I felt at the end of my working day. I spent many of my evenings half-asleep or snoring in front of the TV, and at times my cello was like a distant memory. I realised that getting into a regular practice routine required me to set aside time for my cello that was sacred. No matter how tired I thought I was, no matter how much I thought I wanted to watch a certain program, however pressing my need to take myself off to my local for a pint seemed, for that time my cello needed to be the undisputed priority. It was difficult at first – like trying to get back into an exercise routine after a holiday of relaxation and culinary indulgence. But after a couple of weeks I found myself looking forward to my sessions, even when I felt bone-weary to start with. I was feeling a positive difference in my playing and I felt energised by the time I had tuned my cello and begun warming up. It didn’t work absolutely every night, and I also learnt to tell the difference between feeling superficially tired and being so exhausted that it was better to call it quits.

Changing my understanding of what practising means saved me from giving up on playing the cello on more than one occasion. The psychological and emotional aspects of this transformation, as fascinating as I find them, are a topic for an entirely new article. For now let’s focus on what makes a practice session truly productive. I’ve already discussed the importance of warming up, and in that article I touched on the benefit of using warm-up exercises that serve to improve fundamental techniques such as sound, bow control and vibrato as well as getting us physically prepared for a practice session. Once your warm-up is complete, these are useful points to consider in terms of how to structure the rest of your session:

  • In the pieces you’re playing, what are the main technical challenges? Don’t just think about the bars that tend to trip you up and settle for playing them over and over again. While repetition certainly can be a valuable learning tool, it only works when you know what you’re repeating and why. Analyse what happens in those troublesome bars: are there unexpected string crosses? Is there a position change you’re struggling with? Perhaps there are complex events for both the bow and the left hand and you’re struggling to co-ordinate them. Whatever your conclusions, find some exercises and studies that focus on these technical challenges.
  • If you play in an orchestra or chamber group, what aspects of your playing do you think holds you back the most in this activity? Perhaps you’d like to improve your vibrato, or you freeze every time you see a trill above a note. Whatever the technical shortcoming, there’s an exercise for it. Make a list of the things you’d like to improve and ask your teacher to help you find suitable exercises and studies. Remember that in order to give your body the chance to learn the necessary movements that each technique involves, you need to work SLOWLY at first.
  • If you’re planning to spend your session working on one of your pieces, think back to the last time you played it. Were you able to play the whole piece at the recommended tempo or did you find yourself slowing down in the sections you find more challenging? If you’re slowing down in parts, you need to bring the overall tempo down relative to those sections. You’ll also do well to spend more time working on the tricky sections and less time playing through the bits you’re more confident with. As obvious as this sounds, it’s a common issue and worth mentioning. When I get my students to think back on what they spent most of their practice hours on, they often realise that it was the sections they felt more confident with rather than those that they knew were giving them trouble. This is not to say that no time should be dedicated to playing pieces you know you can play well – it’s a good boost to your confidence and generally good for the soul. But pay attention to just how much time you spend doing this and try to balance your sessions with good developmental work.
  • Don’t forget to cool down and stretch at the end of your session.

I’ll be writing more about this soon.

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© D C Cello Studio 2011

Effective Practising: Warming Up

Practice makes perfect? Well, that really depends on the quality of the practice sessions. We all know that without practice there is no progress – playing a musical instrument is a never-ending learning curve. But we also know how hugely frustrating it is when we’re putting in hours of hard work and feeling a distinct lack of progress, or perhaps even a sense of one step forward three steps back. If this is the case, the first thing you need to examine very closely is how you practise. It’s a sad fact that many teachers offer outstanding advice and wisdom in lessons but forget to teach their students how to practise. For some students there is little need to focus on the art of practising, but for most of us it is not a natural skill. And the more time we spend doing something incorrectly, the harder it becomes to undo the damage.

So what makes a good practice session? Quite simply, it is time spent reinforcing and ideally improving on a technique, a section of a study or even half a bar of a piece. How is this achieved? That really depends on you as an individual and how you learn best. But fortunately there a few constant rules that apply to everyone regardless of skill level or personality type.

Warming Up

You wouldn’t start any kind of physical exercise or sports session without warming up, so why should your cello practice session be any different? Just because you’re spending the session sitting down doesn’t mean you wont be engaging in intense physical activity. Those new to cello playing may not be doing anything acrobatic on the instrument just yet, but they will be using muscle groups in ways that they are not accustomed to. More advanced players find themselves performing complex physical tasks which depend on the muscles being warm. You’re just as likely to injure yourself by launching into complicated, blindingly fast scale and arpeggio exercises as you engaging in any intense physical activity such as running or dancing without warming your muscles up first.

Warming up can be done just as effectively away from your instrument as it can doing dedicated warm-up exercises on the cello. During the cold winter months warming your hands before getting down to any serious playing is essential and can be achieved by doing gentle finger exercises in a basin of warm water or whilst wearing thermal gloves. The following exercises are great for getting the blood flowing to the fingertips:

  • Alternate between making a fist (not too tight) and stretching the fingers out
  • Flicking each finger against the thumb
  • Gently squeezing juggling balls or anything of similar size and malleability
  • Hold a squash ball in the palm of your hand and gently push each finger against the ball

Balancing and breathing exercises are an excellent way to get your body in the ideal state for playing. As cellists we easily forget the importance of regular deep breathing when we play and all too often unwittingly hold our breath when we’re wrestling with difficult passages or new techniques. Soon the shoulders become tight and hunched, and nothing good can come of that. Breathing exercises for singers are perfect and easily found all over the Net. Combining slow controlled breathing with simple balancing exercises is a great way to focus on posture and finding our centre of gravity, without which all playing is severely limited. When I say simple, I mean simple. Don’t feel that you need to consult advanced pilates, yoga or martial art manuals. Standing on one leg for a few seconds, then switching legs and repeating the exercise attempting to increase the time spent balancing on each leg. Having a mirror in front of you will help you to ensure that you are standing tall, keeping your shoulders relaxed and square, and your head on top of your spine (as opposed to inclined or slightly in front of your spine). You can also step things up a little by gently swinging your arms to and fro, ensuring that they move freely with no restriction in any of the joints.

Warms-ups on the cello should engage both left and right hand, but not necessarily at the same time. It is perfectly acceptable to begin with bow warm-ups on open strings, or bow exercises without the cello itself (a fine example of this is on the very first page of Christopher Bunting’s Portfolio of Cello Exercises Book 1). Using a metronome to time bow strokes and maintain discipline is something I can’t recommend enough. Not only is it an important means of keeping your exercises precise, it also helps to develop a keen sense of timing and speed in your bow technique, which will make all the difference in your search for a beautiful and artistic sound. Again, I refer you to the first page of Bunting’s Portfolio Book 1: the bowing regime. I’ve had a job and a half convincing my students to make this dry, seemingly dull approach to bowing part of their daily warm-ups. But those who have succumbed to my endless nagging have come back beaming, especially once they have been doing it for weeks or more and begun to feel and hear the difference it makes to their playing. It makes sense to find warm-up exercises that serve more purpose than simply waking up the muscles and getting the blood flowing to the extremities. I guarantee that the bowing regime does just that, and I strongly recommend reading Bunting’s Essay on the Craft of ‘Cello-Playing for a detailed description on approaching the exercises. Of course the left hand needs warming up just as much as the bow arm does, and should also be given a gentle wake up rather than overly demanding exercises. I find the trilling exercises (number 1) in Feuillard’s Daily Exercises for Cello to do the job very nicely. For the purpose of warming up I ignore the fast variations and stick to the quaver exercises, which I do on all strings and in all of the neck positions. Again, the metronome is crucial as a means of keeping the finger work steady and balanced, preventing any urge to speed up. I find it equally beneficial replacing trills with slow timed vibrato on each finger, each string, and in each position – either working through the neck positions or through the mid-positions (5th to 7th).

Not only should your warm-up session perform the obvious task of warming the muscles and getting you physically prepared for a good practice session, it should relax you physically and mentally, helping you to focus your mind on what you wish to accomplish in the following 40 – 60 minutes. The amount of time you spend warming up depends on how long you plan to practise for, and how demanding your practice material is. I recommend a minimum of ten minutes for your first hour long session of the day; and at least five minutes for each subsequent session.

© D C Cello Studio

Essay on the Craft of ‘Cello-Playing by Christopher Bunting: A Short Review

An essential read for any serious cellist or cello teacher. Christopher Bunting (1924 – 2005) was a world-renowned cellist and pedagogue whose methods and compositions have become an integral part of the cello-verse. He singled himself out as a teacher with his deeply intellectual and holistic approach to the learning process, stressing the importance of the psychological influence over the physical act of playing in each individual.

Essay on the Craft of ‘Cello-Playing goes into great detail on the psychology of playing, offering a great deal of food for thought and encouraging each cellist to closely examine his or her emotional and intellectual workings in order to assess why they encounter certain (well-known) physical hurdles on the instrument, and work out how to overcome them. Bunting clearly didn’t believe in short-cuts, and his playing was certainly a testament to this fact. Described by the Daily Telegraph as “a Master” and Die Welt as having “highly developed musical comprehension, prodigious technique and outstanding artistry”, we are left in no doubt as to what incredibly good hands we’re in from the first word to the last.

Christopher Bunting was by many accounts an intense and inspiring teachr with a fertile musical imagination and a dry sense of humour, all of which is evident and comes across rather beautifully in his writing. Expect silly puns at unexpected moments along with fabulous analogies and comparisons that put difficult concepts into sharp perspective.

Essay on the Craft of ‘Cello-Playing is more than a treatise on playing the cello, and also contains imaginative and hugely helpful exercises (many of which feature in the much more condensed Portfolio of Cello Exercises) with detailed explanations on what each is for, and how best to approach it.

Not an easy read, being fairly dense and packed with a remarkable amount of information and thought, but I can’t recommend it enough. Persevere if you find it heavy-going at first!

© D C Cello Studio

Developing Cello Technique


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.


Tips for Getting the Most out of Your Practice Routine 

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

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