What’s Stopping Me from Practising?

We all have different levels of motivation, and these can vary a great deal according to circumstances such as the time of day, emotional well-being, physical well-being and workload. If you’re the type of person who has the right combination of organisation and drive to keep your practice routine regular and effective, you probably don’t need to read this. If you’re anything like me you’ll have times when your practice routine is smooth and enriching, and times when opening your cello case seems like a challenge on a par with climbing a mountain. I believe everyone has the odd day like this, and it is important to allow ourselves a bit of time off when we simply don’t have the stamina and concentration necessary to practise well instead of dragging ourselves through a frustrating and unprofitable practice session or feeling guilty about missing a session.

When we encounter days, weeks or even months of sporadic practising and low motivation it is important to make every effort to understand why, and to find ways to reignite the spark. Throughout my career I have encountered bad patches where I feel as if I’ve run out of steam. I’ve seen it happen to many of my students at some point too – sadly some of them were unable to get back into a progressive routine and decided to call it quits. I’ve also had my fair share who were on the brink of giving up and after regaining their inspiration, were back on track and better able to cope with future dips in their motivation.

Since there are many potential reasons for loosing motivation to practise, and it’s often difficult to determine the cause straight away, you might find these questions helpful:

1. What am I working towards?

This always tends to vary quite a lot for young progressing cellists: there are orchestra auditions, seating auditions, recitals, competitions and exams to name but a few of the challenges that feature in a young musician’s busy schedule. If one of these is looming ahead and you’re feeling reticent about practising even though you know you still have work to do perfecting those tricky sections, perhaps your fear of the event is getting in the way of your progress. It helps to remind yourself that no matter how scary and life-changing that audition, recital or exam might seem, it’s only one of many milestones along the way. Try to think beyond the event itself: what piece do you hope to be learning in six months’ time? Or remind yourself of previous performances that have gone well for you: think about how you felt and what your routine was like in the weeks before the performance.

Perhaps your problem is the opposite of this. You may feel that all you’re practising for is your lessons, and that your teacher has not given you any milestones to work towards. This can be a major cause of losing motivation and even interest in playing your instrument. Speak to your teacher about it! Perhaps when you started out you specified that you were not interested in playing exams and just wanted to learn for fun. It is fine to change your mind about this, but your teacher is not a mind-reader and will not put you forward for potentially stressful playing opportunities or challenges if he/ she thinks that you don’t want to.

2. What have I been struggling with in my recent practice sessions?

I have often found that when something just isn’t improving from one session to the next I start to feel despondent about my playing in general and I have seen this in other cellists too. Of course some things take longer to get to grips with than others, and those of us with a less patient temperament may simply be expecting too much too soon. But when a technical issue constantly puts a blemish on the repertoire you’re working on, it can be incredibly frustrating and demotivating. If you’re taking lessons you will no doubt have discussed it with your teacher, who will hopefully be exploring new ways for you to approach and understand the problem. Remember that you should also take some responsibility for your learning process. Your teacher sees you once a week or less and cannot be there to guide you every time you sit down to play or practise. You need to be your own teacher outside of your lessons, and when you hit a brick wall you should do what any good teacher would do: read as much as you can on the subject and ask other cellists for advice. Look for footage of great cellists containing the technique you’re struggling with and watch it over and over again. If possible, watch it in slow motion, or pause it at crucial points to observe the player’s posture and balance. Bring your observations to your lesson and discuss them with your teacher so that between you, you can come up with a new ways to learn and master a challenging technique. This problem-solving approach can be a wonderful means of reigniting that magical spark as it always leads to discoveries – not only about your playing and practising habits, but also about yourself.

3. Am I struggling to motivate myself elsewhere?

We all face those periods of low ebb where we feel exhausted all the time, struggle to concentrate for longer than five minutes at a time and generally need a holiday. If getting away for a few relaxing days isn’t an option, try “micro-holidays”: go for walks, take time out to watch your favourite film and try getting earlier nights. You’ll know best what helps you to relax and when you need to rethink your daily routine.

4. Is my instrument holding me back?

Is your instrument in need of a fresh set-up or even an upgrade? It is often said that only a poor workman blames his tools and sometimes that is very true where musicians are concerned. I once worked with a conductor who fined any member of the orchestra (in his preferred currency of a pint) who dared blame a mistake on their instrument. But if you’re playing on a cello with a poor set-up, a warped or balding bow, or an inferior instrument that simply doesn’t stand up to the technical demands of your repertoire it is more than fair to blame your tools. As an example: a cello with excessively high string to fingerboard action is the worst enemy to left hand technique, especially for smaller hands. If you’re fighting with your cello every time you try to play it, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be looking forward to your next practice session.

There are many other factors that can and do influence how we feel about practising. Some of these are covered in my earlier posts on this subject: Effective Practising – Warming up, Making the Most of Your Time, and Tips for Cooling Down. This and the previous posts by no means cover the entire topic. I recommend The Advancing Cellist’s Handbook by Benjamin Whitcomb as a comprehensive guide to practising for intermediate cellists.

Did you find this post useful? Please consider making a donation.

© D C Cello Studio 2011

 

The Race to Grade 8: a Cautionary Tale for Teachers and Students

I was browsing a forum for classical music students the other day. My eye was caught by a thread entitled something like this: “What is the shortest time you can take to get to grade 8?” At first I was annoyed at the silliness of such a question. I was about to write an admonishing response, telling him how ridiculous he was to be so obsessed with racing toward a relatively meaningless qualification when he should be focusing on how to become the best he could at expressing himself on his instrument. But then I thought about myself at that age – around fifteen.

In my mid-teens I was fiercely ambitious and deeply dissatisfied at not yet having passed my grade 8 cello exam with distinction. I had only been playing the cello for around five years, but had already managed to perform Bruch’s Kol Nidrei (rather messily) at the local Youth Concerto Festival, and was regularly taking repertoire far beyond my ability to my lessons and nagging my teacher to let me play it: the Saint Saens Concerto No. 1; the Lalo Concerto; both Haydn Concertos and more. I wore him down and he let me take on the Saint Saens. I can honestly say I put a brand new spin on it, and not in a good way! I used eye-wateringly bad fingering patterns throughout – especially in the double-stop passage. My tempi were all over the place and bore no resemblance whatsoever to the score directions; dictated instead by my technical inadequacies, which were numerous and getting worse rather than better with my hours of hacking away at music beyond my reach rather than working on my weaknesses.

I eventually abandoned the Saint Saens Concerto: by the time I got to the third movement even I had to admit defeat. I never touched that concerto again except in a few sessions in my practice room many years later, when I would set down a pile of my favourite pieces next to my chair and systematically read through bits and pieces of them. But I certainly didn’t stop taking on repertoire that required much better chops than I had in those days. I wasn’t alone either. There were several cellists in my age group at the music school I attended, and the competition between us was stiff to say the least. We all played in the regional and national youth orchestras together, and the annual seating auditions were a tense, unpleasant affair. This was typical behaviour for young people of our age, and perhaps it was a valuable introduction to the fiercely competitive and political nature of the world we were planning to enter. Part of the problem was that our teachers were no better, and in hindsight seemed a little too focused on who had the most advanced students; whose students had played the most challenging repertoire and whose students had the most achievements behind them. Amongst those achievements of course, should be the coveted certificate proclaiming Grade 8 Passed with Distinction. This meant that we were never discouraged from our competitive behaviour – far from it in fact.

I played my Grade 8 exam at seventeen and by some unfathomable miracle, managed to scrape a distinction for it. I played the Allemande from Bach’s Third Suite in C; the second movement from the Lalo Cello Concerto and an arranged piece by Hindemith called Meditation. Each of those pieces was a struggle to perform with the accurate performance of certain sections always a matter of hoping for the best but expecting the worst. I remember coming out of the exam room in a state, having barely managed to avoid crying during the exam itself. I was convinced that I would achieve a low pass at best, and during the agonising wait for my results began to have rather sensible thoughts about slowing down and paying more attention to my desperately unreliable technique. Then the certificate arrived in the post and lo and behold: it was a distinction! All thoughts about sensible and necessary technical practice went straight out of the window and once again as my ego expanded beyond its previous inflated size I began to think of myself as a performer of great and terrifying repertoire.

When I arrived at music college around six months later I felt ready to conquer the classical music world. I was going to enter and win all of the major music competitions, play in all of the concerto festivals and make my way abroad on some fabulous music scholarship. I hadn’t bargained for the fact that my teacher – one of the most sought after in the country – had attracted a frightening number of cellists from all over the country, many of whom had been given a far more disciplined grounding than I. I was now a very insignificant fish in a much bigger sea. Furthermore, she did not suffer fools gladly and was certainly not going to indulge over-inflated egos in need of a reality check.

I recall my first lesson with her as if it was yesterday. I needed to prepare a piece to play for her, and I decided to play it safe with something I had learned three years previously and played many times since: Vocalise by Rachmaninov. I gave my customary emotionally over-the-top performance with much face-pulling and moving about. Instead of the flattery I had come to expect at the end of it, she gave me the brutally honest and detailed feedback I was to become accustomed to from her. Although I failed to see it at the time, it was in fact very encouraging, and essentially told me that I had raw talent and musicality in abundance, but that my technique was really in need of an overhaul. I was a little put out – if she thought my technique seemed insufficient on a piece like the Vocalise, what would she have said about my rendition of the Lalo Concerto? I was going to become more than a little put out as a battle of wills ensued. Of course many of you already know this part of the story as I touched on it in my previous post about efficient practising. At the risk of boring you with tails of my youthful foolishness, I shall continue this story as it relates directly to the point I wish to make in this post.

It went like this: I – still flush with the success of my distinction and a few other orchestral and performance achievements that year – was in no mood to be told that I needed to go back to basics in order to develop better and more reliable habits. My teacher, by no means confronted with the first upstart of her career, put her foot down firmly and used my attempts at proving her wrong to prove me wrong instead. I would bring something like Beethoven No.3, Op.69 to the lesson, and crash spectacularly within the first twenty-four bars. I would then mutter about how much better it was working in my practice room and have another few unsuccessful goes at it. Then she would calmly and patiently explain why things weren’t working. She would turn the focus of the lesson to working on whichever aspects of technique had shown up as weak. Then she would provide me with relevant studies or exercises which would inevitably end up at the bottom of a neglected pile of books in my practice room. It was about six months into my first year at music college when she handed me a study I had played sometime in my early teens. It was a very sensible approach to working on my spiccato bowing without having to focus too much on tricky notes, keys or upper register playing. Unfortunately I didn’t see it that way at the time, instead taking it as a personal insult. Surely such elementary studies were far beneath me?! I didn’t do much to conceal my indignation, and my teacher quite understandably began to lose patience with me. How she had managed to be quite so patient up until that point is anybody’s guess.

At the same time I was starting to experience prolonged bouts of muscle soreness, tennis elbow and tendinitis. I was also beginning to realise that I really wasn’t all that. I was on the back desk of the college orchestra cello section, I was not getting invited to play in chamber groups and I knew that I was surrounded by musicians – not just my fellow cellists – who were a great deal more accomplished than I was. A slow and painful process eventually lead to me overcoming my RSI issues and changing my mindset so that I began to listen to and apply what my wise teacher told me. More than a decade later I am still enjoying the benefits of her wisdom, and I hope that my students are too.

The moral of this story is, quite simply, don’t be hasty. Aiming to pass Grade 8 is a fine goal and a satisfying one to work towards. But it isn’t the be-all and end-all of musical achievements. It doesn’t imply that you have reached cellistic genius. It is no guarantee that you have truly mastered the technique required to play the pieces you chose. If you’re a teacher, exciting as it is to see your students reach Grade 8 level, you will do them far more good in the long-term if their focus is more on becoming a musician than passing exams. All it really means is that you’re no longer a beginner.

Did you find this post useful? Please consider making a donation.

© D C Cello Studio 2011

Order or download my latest electronica-cello feast, Cellotronics

Tips for Cooling Down After Practice

In the same way that a vigorous exercise session needs to be followed with cooling down and stretching, the same goes for a practice session – especially a demanding one. Cooling down and stretching are just as important as warming up for injury prevention. Where the function of warming up is to prepare the body and mind for a strenuous practice session, Cooling down should gradually step down practice activity, returning your body to a pre-practice state. A gentle stretching routine after cooling down will also help your muscles to recover after intense activity, but over-stretching can have the opposite effect.

There are many different ways to slowly reduce your level of activity as you wind down your practice session. I have always found the following suggestions to be very satisfactory:

  • A selection of scales which decreases in tempo, bowing complexity and range
  • Three short studies that you are familiar with of moderate to light difficulty – each played under tempo with a metronome, starting with the most difficult and finishing with the easiest
  • Three short pieces as above
  • A selection from the piece or study you worked on during your session played 3 – 4 times at a slower tempo each time

At the end of your cool down session, which should take around ten minutes, stand up and stretch your arms above your head as you would just after waking up. Stretching is a fairly instinctive activity: you’ll know which muscles feel most in need of it. Generally the wrists, forearms, shoulders and neck benefit from gentle stretching movements. But as already mentioned, gentle is the keyword here. If you notice tension building in any of your muscles during your practice session, standing up to stretch and breathe deeply and slowly for a few minutes is a very good idea. While it is perfectly normal to experience tension or even aches and pains while working on demanding repertoire or new techniques, it should not be perceived as part of the technique but rather as a message from your body asking you to find a more efficient way of performing the task. Beware of entering into a “no-pain-no-gain” approach. You’ve heard me say it before and you’ll no doubt hear me say it again!

Did you find this post useful? Please consider making a donation.

© D C Cello Studio 2011

Order or download my latest electronica-cello feast, Cellotronics

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 sure 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, homoeopaths and counselling. Quaterzone 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.

Did you find this post useful? Please consider making a donation.

© D C Cello Studio 2011

Order or download my latest electronica-cello feast, Cellotronics

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

Order or download my latest electronica-cello feast, Cellotronics