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.

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© D C Cello Studio 2011

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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!

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© D C Cello Studio 2011

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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.

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Holding the Bow

There’s that undesirable word again: hold. In this case it can’t be supplemented with anything else, because in order to get the bow from a resting position to the cello we have no choice but to hold it. Furthermore, we continue to hold it (if as gently as possible) once it is on the string. What we need to avoid right from the start is that urge to grip the bow, pushing the thumb against the frog and squeezing against the thumb with the fingers. Most people who pick up the bow for the first time without any instruction from a teacher or experienced player will approach it as an everyday task, closing the hand firmly around the frog without considering the impact this physical action has on the mobility of the wrist and even the elbow joint. This is not a problem when picking up a coffee mug, opening a door or opening a jar. All of these actions are over in seconds and often require a short burst of strength. But if we maintain that level of tension in the hand and forearm for a longer duration we soon start to feel it. Furthermore, the fluid movements required of the entire arm for producing good, well-controlled sound on the cello will simply not happen if there is excess, unyielding tension in any of the muscles.

It is not my intention to provide an overly prescriptive description of where to place each finger on the bow. There are many different schools of thought on this subject, and many readers will already have been given very detailed and specific instruction on it. All cellists settle on something that works best for them depending on the size and shape of their hands along with what they’ve been taught. Not only can it be desperately confusing when you’ve learnt one thing and someone comes along suggesting you do something quite different, I believe it shifts the focus from the important points of using the correct muscles, keeping the joints mobile and learning about fluid, balanced motion to battling with reshaping your hand and fingers, potentially building up the very tension you need to avoid.

I do, however have a few basic but useful tips regarding your hand. Firstly, you need to look for a natural shape which allows for free, independent movement of your fingers and thumb. Let your hand hang loosely in front of you, palm and fingers facing downwards. Your thumb should be roughly behind your index finger. If you gently bend its first joint, the right corner of the thumb tip will be opposite the middle finger, which is where it will be most comfortable and flexible when holding the bow. Secondly, you need to be aware of and maintain sensitivity in each finger. As bow technique develops and the cellist works on what will become his signature sound, the sensitivity of his fingers plays a major role in making subtle changes and articulations.

To become used to the idea of letting the bow hang out of the fingers rather than gripping it, it is very useful to practice with something of roughly equal width and weight, but much shorter length such as a marker pen, small bottle or container. Find the same natural relaxed hand shape (ensuring that the entire arm is engaged but relaxed and the shoulder is not pulling up) and place the object lightly between the fingers. There will be sufficient resistance between the fingers and object to prevent it from falling, but not so much that the fingers cannot feel its weight. Maintaining a relaxed shoulder and supporting the arm from the muscles around the shoulder blade (the infraspinatus muscles – see image a below) and in the chest (the pectoralis muscles or pecs – see image b below), practice drawing a straight line in front of you using the second joints of your fingers. You should start with your arm at your side and your hand slightly to the left of your shoulder; and finish with your elbow joint more-or-less straightened. At no point should your shoulder come up. Getting used to this movement, thinking in straight lines and using the arm as a fluid unit will make life a lot less daunting when you first take the bow in hand and draw it across the string. It will also help you to overcome your very natural first instinct to grasp the bow rather than letting it rest on the string.

An additional factor adding to the desire to grip the bow tightly is the understandable notion that one can’t get sound out of the cello without pressing the bow onto the string, which would require a strong grip. Many novice cellists use this approach with or without guidance to the contrary from their teachers. It serves them well enough – sometimes for several years. But they will always get to that painful turning point where they realise their bow technique can no longer progress, and they have to re-learn how to use the bow. I was one of those cellists, and it was not until I got to Music College, seven years after my first cello lessons, that I took that painful, time-consuming and hugely frustrating U-turn in my technical approach. I don’t recommend it!

So how is it possible to get anything other than a whispery, insubstantial sound without pressing the bow into the string? The answer is simple, but takes time to put into practice: arm weight and leverage. When we start a down-bow the weight of the arm is on top of the string, making it easy to apply as much or little as we want. As we draw the bow across the string, that weight moves further and further away, making it necessary for the arm to act as a lever in order to maintain the same amount of friction between the bow hair and string. The entire movement is driven by the infraspinatus and pectoralis muscles, which support the entire arm and make it possible to maintain a loose hold on the bow from frog to tip. This is another reason why I emphasised the importance of free movement in the hips in my seat and support articles. Being able to move the torso from the hips makes it possible for the body to stay balanced on the point of contact, or point of friction between bow and string. A skilled cellist practically dances around this point with well-co-ordinated, fluid movements.

Finally, it really helps to think of the bow as an extension of your arm. You may well have heard this before: many teachers find it a useful way to get their students to blend instrument, bow and body. Observe how much amazing movement is possible in each of your joints. Think of the join between your hand and the frog as another of those beautiful, flexible joints that enable us to use our bodies in diverse ways.

a)

Infraspinatus Muscle

b)

Pectoralis Major Muscle

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Supporting Your Cello

I specifically chose the word “supporting” rather than “holding” in the title of this section, and you may be wondering why. The simple reason is that holding things often implies grasping or clutching, neither of which promote pain-free, balanced technique. Most people playing the cello for the first few times notice an overwhelming tendency to hold it by squeezing their knees against it and using one or both of their hands to steady it. By creating an accurate mental image and understanding of how to interact with your cello from the earliest possible stage, you have a much better chance of laying a solid foundation for great cello technique.

Now that you’ve explored your ideal sitting posture and the concept of balancing on your seat, you’re ready to bring your cello into the equation. Your first task is to pull out and fasten the spike, and you’ll want to know precisely how long it ought to be. The answer is annoying, but get used to it because you’ll be hearing it a lot in response to pertinent questions about playing the cello: It depends. You see, it’s not only your height that will influence the length of your spike; it’s the length of your legs, your torso, your arms and your seat. Then there is the terribly inexact science of personal preference, which will take a while to discover. As a rough guide: when you are sitting with your cello, the C tuning peg (the lower right-hand peg) should be level with or just behind your left ear. If you feel as if the cello is pushing you backwards and it seems to hobble around just above your knees rather than rest between them, the spike is too long. Conversely if the angle of the instrument is too vertical, the spike is too short. You will find yourself experimenting with different lengths for a while in the early stages. When you have found a length that works for you, use a permanent marker to make a small mark on the spike. This will avoid wasting time lengthening and shortening it before you can settle into your practice sessions.

As I have already pointed out, your cello should rest against you, supported by your posture as opposed to gripped and held in place. By placing your feet roughly in line with your hips and turning your toes out, you will find that your knees can fall further apart without creating any tension in your thighs. This also creates more surface area for the lower half of the cello to rest against and ensures that the instrument won’t move about as soon as any weight is applied to it from the bow or left hand. It helps to think of creating a nest with your legs for the cello to lie in – well supported but not squeezed or gripped. The left hand side of the cello should be slightly higher so that the A string is turned inwards towards the bow or plucking hand. The lower ends of the C-bouts (the c-shaped curves forming the cello’s narrow “waist”) should be just above or at the top of your knees. Placing your left foot slightly in front of your left foot will help to achieve the subtle angle necessary for comfortable bow technique. The upper end of the cello body should rest very lightly against your sternum; the bulk of the instrument’s weight being supported by your knees. An excellent and very simple way to test whether your cello’s weight is correctly distributed is to lean slightly backwards away from the instrument. If it follows you and stays against your chest, you haven’t quite created that nest it needs between your knees. If the cello stays where it is and feels secure, you’ve got it! Now check the mobility in your hips: you should be able to turn your upper body around by a few degrees to either side from the hips. Make sure you’re not just twisting your shoulders and upper back – it needs to be your entire torso.

To help you make your cello part of your body space as you sit with it as opposed to an external and rather awkward object, put both arms around it and give it a hug – even if it makes you feel a little silly. You need to bond with the instrument physically, mentally and emotionally. The latter two happen with time and practice, but won’t happen without the former.

© D C Cello Studio

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