Tips for Making the Most of Your Cello Practice 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.