Reboot (959 Hours)

People respond to injuries in a number of ways. My own personal response has always been to get analytical and search for a solution. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s just a waiting game. The general rule for injuries though is to avoid them at all costs. Injuries have a way of multiplying themselves. In fact the surest predictor of a future injury is having preexisting injuries. Whether this is due to a general lack of toughness or a consistent set of bad habits, I do not know. But I have come to learn to trust expert opinions on this topic rather experimenting with dynamite.

Given my recent bout of cello related injuries, my teacher proposed an idea that dropped a rope ladder down into the well in which my practice sessions have fallen. While she is pleased with my “rapid” progress, she also noted that I am her only student that suffers from these kinds of unusual injuries – which points to practice volume as a culprit.  To keep the proverbial “well” from becoming a “cliff”, she is suggesting stepping back from the 20+ hour practice week and dialing things down to a slower, steadier, and safer pace. Since bad form tends to exacerbate the injurious effects of overtraining, she also suggested that we spend a whole lesson breaking down my bow stroke to it’s elements. As it turns out, the list of things I was doing wrong is too long to post here in any detail, however I will post a brief list of the broad categories:

  1. Exaggerated Wrist flexion/extension at frog and tip
  2. Pinky Finger was resting on tip rather than the knuckle between the last two joints
  3. Fingers were too rigid rather than extending loosely near the tip and rolling in near the frog
  4. Joints were locking up during a bow stoke rather than flowing into the proper alignment
  5. Shoulder would elevate with the elbow
  6. Relying too heavily on the Pinky finger to unweight the bow
  7. General inconsistency in bow form, as opposed to using a specific bow grip, contact point, and bow section to get a specific tone color.

I have rather narrow long mirrors in my practice room, so I rearranged them to better see my right hand throughout the entire bow stroke. This was an eye opening experience and everything my teacher observed was confirmed during my two hour practice session. The upside is that even though my rehabilitated bow stroke was like an unfolding lawn chair, and bad habits persisted, there was little or no wrist pain during the entire practice session. I can only hope that I haven’t ingrained bad habits beyond the point of no return. I can already feel that there is a great deal of potential for increased control with the correct bow technique, but right now it almost feels like I’m holding the bow for the first time.

My teacher suggested I try these exercises to re-acclimate myself to the proper way to hold the bow.  I had originally worried that these exercises might have been the vehicle for my wrist injury, but no, it was simply a shoddy bow grip all along, and the medicine is also the diagnostic tool that determined there was a problem that need addressing.  Thanks to CelloDiary for posting these wonderful exercises!

Minimizing Discontinuities (953 Hours)

A few days ago I began developing the early stages of tendonitis in my right hand “bow” wrist. Having some experience with more vigorous training schedules, I know the reason for this hiccup in my practice schedule is my violation of a cardinal rule in training. Whenever you increase the intensity, it’s wise to simultaneously decrease the volume. Double Stops can be intense on the left hand, so I was keeping a close watch on it, relaxing and taking breaks as necessary. However, I neglected to observe what was happening in my right hand, and even spent my “rest breaks” doing bow dexterity exercises! I am currently remedying the muscle strain with problem with gentle shiatsu massages, stretching, ice packs, and sleeping wrist braces. To keep myself occupied during this period of reduced practicing, I would like to take a moment and write a post about the pitfalls of overtraining as a musician…

Shin’ichi Suzuki (1898-1998) once said that you only need to practice on the days that you eat. In this age of plenty, that’s likely to be 365 days a year. However, it has also been said that musicians are “athletes of the small muscles”. Any musician who intends to do serious training would profit from exploring the analogous training regimens for other athletic endeavors. Fortunately, in the process of training for triathlons in my 20s, I learned some valuable information about human anatomy & exercise physiology including balancing efficiency, intensity, nutrition, and rest. It is intuitive to imagine that training itself will increase your fitness, but this is not exactly what happens in the body. Exercise is a stressor which actually decreases fitness, first by using up the energy stored in your muscles (glycogen), then by depleting your other energy & electrolyte reserves, and finally by causing tiny tears in your muscle fibers. All of these effects combine to weaken the muscle’s ability to contract forcefully. If you continue beyond this point, your muscles will begin to tighten & then cramp up as a warning that further exertion will result in lasting injury (tendonitis, ligament tears, pulled muscles, etc). Increasing fitness is something that ONLY happens during rest periods (eg during sleep & days off). So the process for increasing fitness is cyclical in nature and has two components: the first is to break the body down (training), and the second is to build it up (rest). Neglect either one of these components and you could end up getting weaker, slower, clumsier, and more prone to serious injury.

Everyone’s body is different, and so the stress load involved in playing the cello (or any instrument) will be different for everyone. Even if you take all the proper precautions, there are no guarantees of avoiding an injury. That being said, I will list a few guide lines for body awareness that I use to avoid the precursors of injuries (tension, straining, and over exertion).

  1. Remember to Breathe – seems simple enough, but this is surprising easy to forget to do. This is also the first step in maintaining focused relaxation.
  2. Relax Your Thumbs – it’s virtually impossible to have tense hands when your thumb muscles are relaxed, and reducing excess tension will not only better your technique, it will also reduce the risk of injury.
  3. Use the Minimum Force – remember Newtons 2nd Law: Your instrument can’t push back on you any harder than you are squeezing on it
  4. Warm Up – stretching is not warming up. Take some time before your practice to get your blood pumping, jog in place, wiggle your fingers, do relaxed scales, bow dexterity drills, etc. Running your forearms under hot water is also an efficient way to prep your muscles for a work out.
  5. Stretch – gentle stretching is a great thing to do once your blood is flowing and your muscles are warm. It’s best to save “deeper” stretches after practice as a “cool-down.” However, stretching before a practice session with cold muscles can be dangerous and even introduce tension and strains.
  6. Take Plenty of Breaks – don’t wait until your muscles get tired and cramp up, take frequent mini breaks instead. Your brain and your hands will thank you. This is a good time to take in water and simple carbs to keep your energy and willpower up
  7. Pain Isn’t Normal – don’t ignore any burning, aching, pinching, tearing, throbbing, tingling, or numbness. Playing cello isn’t effortless, but it should never be painful. Stop playing immediately, and if you can’t figure out the problem without hurting yourself more, then wait till you can consult your teacher and/or a doctor. The earlier you stop & search for a solution, the more simple and quick that solution will be, the simplest being a good nights rest.
  8. Sleep – without adequate rest our brains and bodies cannot function properly for learning. In fact, not getting sufficient rest can put the same stress load on a body as a heavy workout. Chronic insomnia also has pretty nasty effects on memory formation, ability to focus, and can even decrease brain volume (ie cause dementia) if persistent.
  9. Balance Your Load – if you increase the intensity of your practice routine by introducing challenging new technique (extensions, double stops, energetic bowing techniques, etc), you should decrease the volume of your practice time to keep the overall physical stress load from spiking
  10. Ease Back Into It – in the event of an injury, don’t rush headlong back into your routine. Notch it up slowly and always, always, always, listen to your body.
  11. Rest on Your Rest Day – it’s typical in our busy multi-tasking lives to want to pack your rest time with activity to try and make up for any lost time on other priorities. If possible, try to make DOING NOTHING AT ALL a priority during your rest days. At least nothing that involves using your hands very much.
  12. Watch for Mental Fatigue – if at the end of a long practice you feel your passion for the cello waning, then you are probably suffering from ego-depletion and you are need of a rest day to avoid burnout and injury. This sensation is technically a form of temporary depression that is a direct result of overtraining. Take one Day off, and you will feel that siren song calling from your cello case again. You will also be more physically refreshed and mentally alert, and thus more efficient in the practice room.

Nothing will shorten your practice routine faster than holding on to excess tension, it is also the quickest road to injury. If you have a problem with relaxation, I recommend taking a class on yoga/tai chi or simply going for a nice walk. You might also find my post on inserting rest notes helpful since it is the most efficient route I’ve found toward ensuring relaxed playing for hours on end.

The Secret Life of Etudes (947 Hours)

Even thinly disguised by the romantic French word for musical studies, my enthusiasm for Etudes has always mirrored my eagerness for “vegetables” or “homework.”  So whenever I find an etude that manages to straddle the border between the sensuously sweet and the densely nutritious, I savor the moments I have with it in the practice room.  This week I have found such a one in the Schröder etude 34 (aka Dotzauer 120, no 5), a beautiful meditation on double stops (two string harmonies).

 As you can see from the video above, double stops can be extremely lovely things when well executed.  They are also somewhat dreaded by new (and even mature) cellist because any intonation or bowing issues are magnified when you bring two strings into the equation.  For starters, being off by more than a few hair widths on either note will make the combination sound like two cats on a hot August night.  This is further complicated by the unique characteristics of each Cello (and the hands of the player) because parallel fingerings on adjacent strings are not precisely parallel, but rather can be staggered by game-changing millimeters.  This can be clearly observed when double stopping two strings with a single finger.   By now you may be realizing that the beginners tape on your fingerboard was really more of a general suggestion than a precise measurement!  If this weren’t enough, there is also the issue of the strings requiring different pressures to play cleanly (just as in string crossings) so you end up monitoring the pressure on the lighter string by pivoting on the heavier string as a fulcrum.  Going from tip to frog makes this even more interesting since uneven bow pressure can make the pitches waver even when the fingerings are accurate.

Yikes!  If this seems like quite a lot to think about, then you’re right.  It most definitely is.  Which is probably why double stops, despite their potential for beauty, are not all that common in cello music.  Why torture yourself by playing two strings when playing a duet is so much fun?   Well for one thing, the inherent difficulty of double stops makes them of tremendous educational value: ear training for intervals, fingerboard geography, intonation, hearing two distinct notes played simultaneously, enhanced bow sensitivity.  This is just the short list of stuff you can pick up in the early stages of learning them, and that by itself is a gold mine of tactile cello lore.

My “discovery” of this relatively simple Dotzauer etude reminds me of the story how the Bach Cello Suites almost disappeared into academic obscurity.  These jewels in the crown of cello repertoire were once regarded by those who knew of them as mere “etudes”, only played in the confinement of solitary practice rooms, until 1889 when a fateful young teenager named Pablo Casals discovered an old copy moldering in a thrift shop in Barcelona.  The first to perform them in public since their composition in (1717-1723), Casals transformed these studies into the international treasures that they are today, thus rescuing them from the dustbin of history.

I find this story compelling and inspirational because it challenges me to see the true beauty in what might otherwise be mistaken for the mundane.  I picked up this wonderfully singing instrument because I wanted to unlock a voice capable of expressing the part of myself that is beyond the articulation of mere words, and I see now that in order to do so I must first learn to tease out the beauty from the even the most unlikeliest of places.  Find ways to express even subtle moods where little or no emotional content is readily apparent: etudes, scales, even simple melodies and technical exercises.  Like the much maligned number Zero (upon which rests the creation of all modern Mathematics and thus Science) there is a Taoist saying that an empty vessel has the most potential for being filled.

I will end this entry with a selection from my favorite promoter of Etudes: Joshua Roman and his famous Popper Project with the spritely Etude No. 40.

Embrace the Null Space (935 Hours)

There is a tendency when we look at a familiar piece of music to see it as a single contiguous object, rather than as a series of moments, each one flowing into the next. However when we look at a new piece of music, especially one with unfamiliar note transitions, something magical happens in our brains. We are forced to disengage our autopilot, slow down, and forge new neural pathways to an untilled plot of mental real estate. Once we find that note, even if the transition is not very clean or accurate, our instinct is to move forward and begin conquering to the next series of notes.

Unfortunately, if an awkward transition between any notes remains neglected, something rather untidy and unmagical begins to take root in our minds. Each time we play that passage, we accumulate a set of awkward sensations that get reinforced through repetition. This now predictable awkwardness turns into disconcerting thoughts, feelings, and judgements so we tune them out as best we can to “focus on the music” and in the process, the transition between the notes gets fuzzier and increasingly chaotic. The result of such practice habits can be disastrous during a performance where unconscious hiccups become magnified as tunnel vision kicks in and our instincts take over.

The best way that I’ve found to banish these subconscious gremlins is to insert a series of rest beats inbetween each note transition in a new piece, and put the section (usually just two notes) on a metronome loop, repeating the transitions over and over again. The rest beats are the key to this exercise because they give the mind time to calculate and the body time to relax and find a graceful path to the next note. Every mistake is an opportunity to examine what can go wrong, and then make a positive reinforcing correction on the next loop. Its important to avoid the temptation to fix the problem mid-loop, or else you’ll be ingraining “note hunting” habits. These are especially heinous because not only do they result in mealy technique, poor intonation, and messy bow-starts, but in a performance setting, the unsteady sounds they produce are often much more apparent to the audience than to the musician.

The reason this rest note exercise seems to work is very similar to the principles of micro muscle movements taught in tai chi. To go fast, you must first go slow. The slower you go, the more information your muscles and nerves have to work with, and the more time you have to declench that vulcan death grip on the fingerboard! Likewise, the more rest beats between the notes, the easier, smoother, and more relaxed your note transitions will ultimately be. I have gone as high as three rest notes. Try it on a short piece of unfamiliar music. You will be amazed when your fingers begin to be drawn, as if by magnetism, to the exact right spot with each metronome click. Once you experience this magical feeling, then you are only just beginning to get a benefit of repetition. To get the full benefit, you will need to wear a mental grove in that string by reinforcing the accurate motions on a daily basis.

This practice technique is so useful and effective that I now devote the first hour (or more) of my practice sessions to this kind of exercise. It’s essentially like scale work, but with an emphasis on accuracy rather than tone. There are similar exercises that I do for tone, but that will be for a future post!

The Endless Ladder (920 Hours)

Yesterday I reached a milestone in my practice: Suzuki Cello School, Book 4!  After 15 months and 920 hours of playing the cello like a man possessed (& some 500+ hours on research), I have arrived at, in my teacher’s words, the beginning of the beginning.  It certainly feels like a milestone because within the pages of this next season of cello are the first forays into the Bach Cello Suites: Minuets I and II from BWV 1007.  This is what I have been waiting for since I fell in love with the Cello as a teenager through the Prelude of that same masterwork!

In many ways reaching this point is finally where I feel justified in taking the time to begin blogging my efforts.  Up till now, the focus has been on “woodshedding” technique in the practice room, and making progress to the point where I feel confident playing in front of strangers.  New revelations after giving my 2nd recital have led me to the concrete proof that practice volume does not equate to a great performance but rather merely the potential for it.  I will be posting more on the topic of the neurobiology & mental aspects of musicianship, but for now let us simply say that this blog is also meant to be part of expanding my performance experience.

My first humble YouTube video, my 2nd adult recital, and now book 4.  This is almost a champagne moment, but since I’m more of a beer snob and writing this on a lunch break, let us instead celebrate with a remembrance of the wisdom of the last of the great 20th century cellists…

A master class with Janos Starker (1924-2013) in which he compares advancing on the cello to an endless ladder with no limit.  Others have compared it to a mountain with no summit.  With this wisdom in mind, rather than simply attempting to crest a 10,000 hour mountain, I will be focusing on the journey one step at a time with a clear understanding the first 10,000 hours is just another beginning.

Tilting at Windmills (915 Hours)


The proper age at which to begin musical study is somewhat shrouded in mythos. The composer Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967) was famous for saying that the training of a musician should begin nine months before the birth of the mother.  While it is clear that those who begin young have a significant head start, I tend to subscribe to the view that passion & curiosity are the more critical components of success since persistence or even initial interest is hardly guaranteed by situation of birth. For those who dedicate their lives to musical study a little later in life, achievement is very much possible, however the breadth and depth of the gap between late bloomers and their wunderkind peers has yet to be objectively measured. Historically, late beginner students lost access to advanced musical training once they aged out of the system, however the internet is increasingly the great equalizer in this regard, and music teachers are slowly opening their doors & minds to the potential of adult learners and digitizing their vast stores of knowledge. Still, much of the progress that adults make remains stunted due to constraints on freedom that come with adult responsibilities. The typical musical sojourn last ~2 years before ambition becomes ambivalence once the true distance to the mountain top is realized. This is far too short a timespan to know the limits of an adult learner. Partly out of scientific curiosity and partly out of my love for music, I have decided to embark on a 10 year -10,000 hour journey to explore and demonstrate what is really possible for a dedicated adult learner on one of the most difficult instruments to master in western music: the Cello.

The secondary and perhaps more important goaI of this blog will be to document the concrete steps such a journey entails. Scientific information about the path to musical mastery remains largely obscure, and advanced knowledge is still passed down by the traditional osmosis from teacher to student like closely guarded family recipes. The first tentative steps are uniquely terra incognita because most teachers were also child students. Much of the early learning process in then lost from memory to the dark recesess of inarticulate youth. The only well known study on the subject of obtaining mastery (by K. Anders Ericsson) was popularized with some controversy via Malcom Gladwell’s now famous 10,000 hour rule, which poses the dangerous idea that genius is really hard work & passion in disguise. Never one to look down my nose at lofty notions, I am actually quite inspired by the premise that the major barrier between myself and Yo Yo Ma is a mere ten thousand hours of practice. Therefore I’m starting with the assumption (or quixotic delusion?) that the only true limits are time, dedication, and whatever modicum of unrefined talent I am imbued with. Proceeding forward from there, I will be shinning a bright light upon the trials, tedium, elightenment, and exultation contained within a 10,000 hour journey into the realm of the possible.

In this blog, we will examine:

1) the process of learning

2) the elements of good technique

3) effective & efficient practice methods

4) the fundamentals of musicianship

5) how being a musician impacts the mind

6) the nature of sound & music