Teaching Music: Calling versus Business

Today did not start well. I hadn’t even taken my first sip of tea before I noticed an unread text message on my phone from one of my new students. I knew what it was going to be about. Nonetheless, I opened it and was faced with a lengthy excuse for why she would not be able to make her lesson scheduled for 10 am. I felt the temperature of my blood threatening to reach boiling point, and decided not to reply until I had finished my first cup of tea. This was in the hope that I would feel less inclined to send a message that would make a sailor blush. There are further reasons for why I should react quite so explosively to a cancelled lesson, but they are not important or ultimately what this post is about.

You see, this particular irritation has happened in the middle of what I can only describe as a major reassessment of my role as a teacher and the business I am running. It highlights issues that private teachers (not only in the field of music) face the world over. This is only one of the many issues we wrestle with in our day-to-day professional lives. Other transgressions sure to raise my blood pressure include late or missed payments, failure to practise, and constantly changing what should be a regular lesson time. Some of these problems create financial discomfort, while others are frustrating to my pedagogical sensibilities. In other words, some students can be bad for business while others can be bad for our professional progress. Here I should point out that such students are always in the minority. The majority of people who make the investment in private lessons for themselves or their children do so out of a genuine desire to learn, or to enrich the educational and personal development of their children.

However, it only takes a few time-wasters to cause a disproportionate amount of frustration and stress. At the earlier stage of one’s career, the notion of terminating lessons is unthinkable unless it’s the student doing the terminating, and that’s never easy to accept. This was certainly my perspective when I was building my practice and really needed more students, not fewer. But thinking back, there was never a “problem” student who didn’t end up quitting their lessons within one year of starting. I might have saved myself a good deal of that frustration and stress if I had shown them the door as soon as I realised that they weren’t going to be long-term prospects. One of the reasons I never did (apart from the obvious fear of reducing my earnings) was the voice of my idealistic inner teacher, which told me I could inspire them to become committed cello students with persistence and the exploration of every possible avenue. I am pleased to say that I haven’t lost that nagging voice. I believe it is a very important aspect of what makes me a good teacher. Everyone who embarks on the journey of learning to play an instrument experiences periods of self doubt and despondency. At times like these they need a teacher who recognises what they’re experiencing and refuses to let their self doubt win. Fifteen years after giving my very first cello lesson I have learned to determine when to embrace the idealistic inner teacher voice and when to listen to my business head, which has taken some time to find its voice.

When I began teaching professionally my philosophy was that anyone – no matter what age, background or experience – could learn to play the cello if they really wanted to. Fifteen years later my philosophy remains the same, but I have learned that a person who decides to take cello lessons isn’t always a person who really wants to play the cello. I used to think that only young children who were forced into music lessons fell into that category. I have since learned that the most enthusiastic adult beginners can lose interest very quickly, and the most unwilling young beginners can turn into passionate players. You can never really tell from first impressions.

What I have also come to realise in my gradual epiphany, is that I am running a business which makes up a significant percentage of my overall income as a musician. That may sound like a feeble epiphany, since any freelance activity in which money is charged for a professional service is a business. But we musicians are not known for having business heads. We work in a nebulous, subjective and ever-changing industry which is notoriously difficult to succeed in. Qualifications, while often required depending on which avenue we choose, do not make us musicians in the way that they make doctors, accountants or lawyers. So we enter our field with gnawing doubt and uncertainty, never convinced we’re good enough to do what we do and always convinced that we shouldn’t charge too much for fear of being arrogant or simply being laughed out of the room. It takes a while to shake those feelings and some never do. But the sooner you realise that your students (the bad apples aside) keep coming back to their lessons because they have confidence in what you do, the better. When you realise that, you’ll realise that there is nothing wrong with telling people you’re good at what you do, and nothing wrong with expecting a certain level of commitment and respect from your students. If they have no respect for your business and the value of what you are doing for them, it is unlikely that they will have any respect for your expertise. Would a lawyer or an accountant take on such a client?

You might be wondering about the content of my reply to the hungover student. I told her to get well soon, and that I looked forward to hearing back from her on Wednesday. Does that negate everything I have just written? No. There has to be a certain amount of leeway. She has two strikes, but she has also shown real enthusiasm. She has only just begun and she knows exactly what my expectations are because I have explained them and given them to her (and every other student I teach) in writing. I still see in her the potential that I see in all of my new students. Should she strike again, she’ll have to find another teacher, and perhaps she’ll treat that teacher with a little more respect when she realises that we’re not mugs who were born yesterday. And she may turn out to be a very capable amateur musician under my guidance. I hope it’s the latter, but I’ve made peace with the fact that not every student who comes through my door will turn into a joyful story to add to my memoires.

© D C Cello Studio

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Detailed Diagrams for Extended First Position

Backward Stretch

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Forward Stretch

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© D C Cello Studio 2012

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.

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© D C Cello Studio 2011

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Mastering Simultaneous Shifting and String-Crossing on the Cello

String crossing and shifting are two fundamental techniques that present stumbling points on their own. Put them together and they can become an unfortunate blemish in an otherwise good performance. Without the necessary co-ordination between the left and right sides which are performing different physical tasks and a thorough understanding of the positions visited, this particular technique will lack good tone and accuracy of rhythm and intonation. Amazingly, it is all too often skimmed over by teachers who assume that if their students are reasonably capable of each individual technique they will easily be able to combine them. Just because I can easily pat my head and rub my belly doesn’t necessarily mean I can perform both actions simultaneously!

The first step towards mastering any technique is to understand why it exists and what it will enable you to do. The simultaneous string-cross and shift presents itself in two particular situations. The first of these and typically the first time we encounter the technique in our study of the cello is when we play in more remote keys which eliminate the use of some or all of the open strings. The second is when we need to avoid open strings in order to play sustained passages with consistent tone and vibrato or to avoid awkward string crossing in faster passages. One of the great advantages of being able to manage this technique well is the significant increase in potential fingering patterns that become available, which means that we have a much better and more varied sound palette at our disposal.

Most of us first encounter the need to shift and cross in scales: most notably, E Major. However students who play with orchestras frequently come across techniques they have not yet covered in their lessons and this is often one of them. To me it has always made sense to introduce the technique earlier on – while the neck positions are being studied – using home key scales such as F and D majors (two octaves) thus giving the student and early introduction to alternate fingering patterns and making remote keys far less daunting to play and sight-read. All it takes to comfortably manage a piece, study or exercise in a key with four or more sharps or flats is a sensible fingering pattern and the instinct to determine where extended positions are required – a simple matter of knowing where you are in the given scale.

I believe the reason it is easier to learn scales such as D or F majors with fingering patterns that avoid open strings is simply that they are already familiar territory. Furthermore, there are open string targets available to test intonation along the way. Any student who has been introduced to the first four positions on the cello should be comfortable with major keys containing up to three sharps and two flats, and minor keys with two flats and one sharp. They will also have covered extended positions; and string-crossing* is one of the first techniques we are introduced to on the cello. By combining these techniques we can introduce the valuable technique of simultaneous shifting and string crossing to avoid open strings.

Below are two versions of the scale of F major (two octaves); the first with conventional fingering and the second with a fingering pattern that avoids open strings and happens to be identical to the conventional fingering of E major (two octaves), thus making F major an ideal means of preparing for E major.

In the second fingering pattern, each string cross coincides with a position change. Most students find this confusing at first because with the exception of the shift from first to fourth position on the D string, backward shifts lead to a higher pitch in the ascending scale and visa-versa in the descending scale. So to grow accustomed to this counter-intuitive event, the following exercise can be practised until the left hand knows precisely how to move from one group of notes to the next.

Once you’ve mastered this exercise, you should be able to play the new F major fingering pattern fluently with no obvious gaps at the string crosses. Don’t rush: if you can’t play it slowly, there’s no reason why you’d be able to play it three or four times faster! Learning new shifts and fingering patterns, along with hearing the pitch you’re aiming for before playing it takes time and careful, well-planned practice.

The next step is to apply the F major exercise to the scale of E major as follows.

*The fact that it remains one of the most important and subtly difficult techniques to master is another article entirely!

© D C Cello Studio

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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

© D C Cello Studio

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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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Are You Sitting Comfortably?

You may well be tempted to skip past this section and get straight down to the business of holding and playing your cello. After all, everyone knows how to sit don’t they? It’s one of the very first things we learn to do with our bodies, which means that we’ve had plenty of practice! But we’ve had just as much time to apply all the bad physical habits we pick up along the way, such as slouching, arching the back and forgetting our centre of gravity. Even those whose activities include the likes of martial arts or ballet – both of which focus heavily on posture and balance – can easily forget all of those valuable lessons when sitting in class or at a computer. So it is certainly worth following guidelines and actively observing our seated posture before picking up the cello.

First, we should discuss the height of your chair. A chair that is either too high or too low can cause a great deal of tension throughout the body which will only increase when you attempt to hold and play your cello. The ideal height enables an angle slightly larger than 90 degrees between the abdomen and thigh. The seat of your chair should be flat and firm. Some cellists prefer a seat with a slight forward incline (with the front of the seat lower than the back). This type of seat is also endorsed by many physiotherapists and practitioners of Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais Method because it encourages the upper body to lean forward towards the cello. However it takes getting used to and is not a recommendation I would make for beginners. To be avoided at all costs is the bucket seat, commonly found in schools and public halls and enemy number one of the human posture. Likewise any seat with a backward incline or excessively soft cushion should not be used. For anyone 5 foot or taller, an adjustable piano or keyboard bench is ideal. For those shorter than this, a child’s chair with a flat seat will do, so long as the angle between the abdomen and thigh is correct.

Balance is crucial. Many of my students look baffled when I tell them this – how difficult can it be to balance on a chair? Well, not at all difficult, but unfortunately it’s just as easy to sit with poor balance and unless we can tell the difference, we’re more inclined towards the latter. To begin with, it is best to sit towards the front of the seat, and to sit on the bones of your buttocks. Feet should always be flat on the floor, and should always be in a position that allows you to stand up without having to move them. Considering that you’ll need space between your knees for the cello to rest comfortably, you’ll need to place your feet a small distance apart from each other. Turning them outwards will allow your knees to fall further apart from each other than your feet, which in turn creates plenty of surface area from above the knees down to the calves for the cello to rest against. A good cello posture always implies motion, as if you were about to get up from your chair and walk in fluid motions. To enhance this it helps to incline your upper body slightly forward from your hips. Feel your weight going straight into your seat through the bones in your buttocks and don’t try to hold your upper body in any particular position. Swing your arms backwards and forwards to ensure that they move freely and easily. Now test the mobility in your hips by turning your entire upper body to the left then to the right. If you’re feeling the urge to do the Time Warp, leave the room and take a cold shower.

Finally, your neck should be tension-free and your head should be on top of your body, not in front of it. Remember this when you have your cello in hand and feel tempted to peer at your bow or left hand. It is easy to forget just how heavy the head is. When it’s hanging in front of the body it will create unwanted tension in the neck and back. A well aligned body, with the head balanced at the top of the spinal cord, allowance for the natural curvature of the spine and no “blockage” in any of the joints will feel light and will perform inordinately better than a misaligned body.
© D C Cello Studio

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