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.

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© D C Cello Studio 2011


The Real Cost of Budget Cellos

Buying your first cello – whether for your child or yourself – is a tricky business. Twenty years ago the problem was the distinct lack of choice in the budget price range. Nowadays there are more budget cello brands than you can shake a stick at, each claiming to sound like an instrument worth a great deal more than its retail price. Add to this the fact that the average buyer’s concept of budget prices varies a great deal and the price of a single brand and model can vary by as much as £150 and you’ve entered a minefield. After years of assisting my beginner students with the purchase of their first instrument, I have some valuable advice to share with players, parents and teachers.

If you have a set budget for buying a cello you might be surprised (and annoyed) to find out that the cost rarely ends with the purchase of the instrument. I’m not talking about long-term costs such as string replacements, instrument maintenance and bow re-hairs either. The reason basic student instruments cost so little is generally because they cost very little to make. This means that corners are cut and production values leave much to be desired. I have never seen a brand new instrument in the lowest price range (up to £400) that didn’t need several crucial adjustments to get it into a playable state, often costing more than the instrument itself. To illustrate this point, here’s a case study of one of my students, who bought herself a cello before looking for a teacher.

She had wanted to take cello lessons for years, and had sensibly waited until her job allowed her the financial and time flexibility before buying an instrument and committing to lessons. Given how long she had waited for this opportunity and how much she wanted it, she knew it was more than a passing fancy and decided that she might as well buy a cello rather than rent one. She was pleasantly surprised when she went online to find out how little she could have her very own cello for. What was more, delivery was guaranteed the day after she paid for it, and only cost an additional £5. That was settled then: she had found a cello advertised as “perfect for beginner to advanced players” which came with a “reliable brazilwood bow” and a lightweight hard case apparently worth considerably more when sold as a separate unit – all for an amazing £175.

Her cello arrived the following day as promised, but she was a little taken aback when she opened the case for the first time: it didn’t look much like any cello she had ever seen because the instrument was shipped with the bridge flat and the retailers had failed to inform her at any time during her transaction that they were going to do this. Well, it was a very reasonable price after all, so she didn’t rush to the phone to complain about it. Instead she rummaged through the packaging to see whether any instructions had been included for getting the cello into a playable state. Sure enough, she found a single sheet explaining that the cello was shipped this way to prevent damage and assuring her that setting up the bridge was a very simple matter of aligning the feet with the nicks in the F holes and tightening the strings using the tuning pegs until there was sufficient pressure to keep it in place.

Things only went downhill from there. She stood the bridge up and began attempting to tighten the strings as directed. This was far from easy: the pegs kept slipping and the bridge wouldn’t stay put. Eventually she managed to tighten two out of the four strings enough to keep the bridge in place, but it was now far from aligned with the nicks in the F holes. When she tried tuning the third string, it snapped and one of the tightened strings unravelled as the peg jumped out again. The bridge collapsed leaving a fairly large scratch on the cello. At this point she decided that this was clearly not a job for a novice regardless of how easy the instructions insisted it was.

When she rang me up to discuss lessons she told me all about her flat-pack cello and my heart sank: I was familiar with the brand and she was not the first of my students to make this nightmarish purchase. I advised her to bring the cello to me as soon as possible so that I could have a look and see whether it could be set up or sent back to the retailer. By the time she brought it to me the soundpost had fallen and the instrument was so far from playable I suggested that she send it back and get a refund or replacement. We called the shop then and there, but were told that since she had already set it up and damaged it in the process the money-back guarantee was now void. Despite a heated conversation between me and various employees there was no persuading them to offer even a reduced refund.

So it was off to my trusty luthier to see what he could do to make this problematic piece of plywood resemble a cello. After working his magic and keeping costs as low as he could, my student had a cello she could use for taking lessons and practise on. These were the essential adjustments and repairs:

Bridge: refit feet; adjust bridge height and thickness – £25

Topnut: re-shape to correct string height, intonation and avoid premature string breakages – £15

A string: replace – £10

Soundpost: refit – £15

Saddle (ebony bottom nut): refit – £20

Tuning pegs: improve fitting – £20

Additional improvements were made, which might not have been essential but made the instrument considerably less unpleasant to play and listen to. If they hadn’t been done at this time, they would certainly have become necessary at a later date. They were as follows:

Fingerboard: shoot and re-ebonise – £50

Strings: replace D, G and C with D’Addario Prelude – £35

Fill and touch-in scratch on top – £10

So, another £200 later she had spent a total of £375 on a laminated wood (i.e. plywood) cello with a resale value of no more than 60% of the original purchase price. Given the cello’s serious limitations she would most likely be considering an upgrade within three years. She also found herself needing a better bow after only six months of lessons. The bow included in the outfit was best described as disposable: it shed its hair at a staggering rate and looked more like a weapon when tightened. Add another £150 to the bill. At least the new bow would be suitable for a lot longer than the cello. Had she known this could happen, she would have rented a cello after all, or bought a much better quality cello to begin with.

The above list of repairs and adjustments is very typical for cellos at the lowest end of the price scale. What about more expensive student instruments – do they offer better value for money? I’m afraid the answer to that question is a bit fuzzy. It depends on where you buy the instrument from (i.e. Ebay, other online outlets, musical instrument superstores or specialist musical instrument shops or workshops) and also on what level of instrument it claims to be. Prices will vary according to where you buy the instrument from as will its playability. The lowest prices are often found on Ebay, where there are literally hundreds of musical instrument retailers. The majority of these will not sell you a professionally set up cello and are likely to ship with the bridge flat. This is not necessarily a problem, so long as you find a luthier to perform a basic setup at least which will cost in the region of £50. It is also imperative that you know what you are buying before making an online purchase. The following tips should help you to make a more informed decision:

§  Do your research and ask for professional opinions from cello teachers on whichever brand you’re thinking of buying. The same applies to any other online seller or music superstore.

§  Do not let yourself be persuaded to set up a cello yourself no matter how easy the salesperson or website tells you it is. It really is a job for a professional and is most likely to lead to a damaged instrument when attempted by an amateur.

§  Smaller specialist stringed instrument retailers tend to be more expensive, but also offer the benefit of a workshop and trained in-house luthier who will set the instrument up to the buyer’s specifications. A beginner will not have any idea of how they wish their instrument to be set up, but a teacher, professional player or advanced amateur will be able to make informed recommendations.

§  If the instrument is in the lowest price bracket, check to see who else stocks it. Beware of bargain basement outlets whose emphasis is on their incredibly low prices rather than their expertise in the field of musical instruments (which is normally non-existent). These sellers simply import the very cheapest instruments China has to offer which reputable resellers won’t touch.

§  Beware of the following sales pitches when the price is below £250:

o    “Worth considerably more” (often a much higher RRP is quoted: a quick Google search will show the same make of instrument with varying price tags but nothing approaching the alleged RRP)

o    “Ideal for beginners and advanced players” (ask any advanced or professional player if they’d touch one of these cellos with a barge pole…)

o    “Beautifully finished” (unless you consider a chunk of wood for a bridge, a poorly cut topnut, a cheap plastic tailpiece with fine-tuners that don’t turn properly and a wonky fingerboard to be beautiful)

o    “Ebonised fingerboard and tuning pegs” (this means the wood used for these parts is something inferior to and much softer than ebony stained black to look like ebony)

From my experience, it is cellos in the mid price range that are the most dependable. They all require a few minor tweaks, but nothing like the catalogue of errors that come with the cheapest cellos. Then we have the “deluxe” models: always considerably more expensive than the mid range, generally more impressive to look at, but all too often no better in genuine quality than the mid range. Makers have tricks to make average instruments appear superior: the most common one being artificially created flame. In case you’re wondering, flame is the pattern found in maple, the wood used for the back and sides of stringed instruments. The better quality the maple, the more densely flames the back and sides will be. However, flame can be created with varnish, making plain wood look spectacular to the untrained eye. Other tricks include adding shiny bells and whistles to the pegs, end button and spike to make the cello look posh. These additions make no difference whatsoever to the quality or value of the instrument and often drive the price up exponentially. This is not true of all student instruments in the upper price range, so if you’re considering splashing out on a good cello be sure to have an advisor other than the salesperson on hand.

So there it is: the veritable minefield that is cello buying. These are the main points to remember: do your research, get advice from a professional, and beware of being a fool for a bargain. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

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© D C Cello Studio 2011

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