A Quantum of Harvey (1027 Hours)

Human Cochlea (Auditory Inner Ear)

A while ago I purchased some workbooks from Cassia Harvey on amazon in order to beef up my library of left hand finger exercises. The books were originally recommended to me by an academic source concerning the topic of adult cello students, and I read of several teachers who had found that the series made up for many of the deficits in the Suzuki and associated Method books and had led to breakthroughs and more rapid advances in struggling students. Never one to turn down a glowing book recommendation, I made a few forays into the beginner and intermediate books and saw that they had some very nice utility, but eventually the demands of my practice schedule compelled me to put this extra-curricular activity aside for the moment and focus on the material from in my weekly lessons. That is until recently, when I read a new and somewhat controversial blog post at the Bulletproof Musician about shaking up your repetitive practice routine with a random interval technique, and I was prompted to reexamine several cherished beliefs.  I had serious doubts about the benefit of this technique, especially in the case of beginners like myself because repetition seems like a necessary way of ingraining the muscle memory required to play this mercurial & nuanced instrument.

I still think there is certainly merit to the repetition technique and its ability to wear a grove in the mind’s ear, but after looking at the neuroscience on the topic and being somewhat convinced that my previous comfortable assumptions were in error, I decided to give randomness a try. I didn’t use any distinct methodology because the training effect on one person is a one-way non repeatable experiment with no control group. I just selected random measures from pieces and never repeated any one more than a few times before moving on.  After several days of this, I can report that it seems to be fairly effective, and at least as effective as doing many linear repetitions. In fact, while I feel less comfortable with my pieces, I can tell that shifting during sight reading already feels easier and more accurate (verified by tuner). And even though my Suzuki pieces “feel” less familiar, I can tell I am playing each note with greater ease and technical proficiency than I might have with straight repetition in the same time period.

Initially, I was worried that doing less than 5-10 repetions would cause my inner ear’s tuning to fail to latch on to the tone, but there seems to be some cumulative effect of hearing a bunch of relative intervals that warms up the ear at least as effectively as repetition. I think it has to do with the harmonic resonance of overtones reinforcing each other the same way they do in a chord or to a lesser degree in a scale. This is amazing because it points to growth in working memory for hearing relative (and even short term absolute) pitch. Anyone familiar with the double slit experiment in quantum mechanics may realize there is a similarity here between single electrons causing interference patterns and notes causing you to essentially remember “harmonies” even though the notes are seperated by minutes and even hours… Its kind of mind blowing.

Anyway, getting back to my original point, I discovered something similar to this kind of randomization in the books by Cassia Harvey, but its methodically intentional. She sets up her scales in a rhythmically, melodically, and harmonically “randomized” pattern that is both intuitive enough to sight read and yet nearly impossible to memorize or get comfortable with. I am very good at memorizing pages of music just by ear and by feel, but this material is some how randomized rythmically and melodically so that you can anticipate the next the note, but it still defies any attempts at comfort or zoning out in mindless repetitions. Her fingerings on these scales combine ear training, with shifting, and scale/fingerboard geography. The rhythmical variations are also designed to help you break past mental speed barriers in shifting, of which I have many! Her material is an exceedingly rich vein that makes spending 90 minutes on scales seem to fly by and yet be far more profitable than doing simple scales or arpeggios.

I realize this post probably reads like a Cassia Harvey ad, so for clarity, I am not affliated with Cassia Harvey in any way. I just read an unrelated masters thesis on adult cello education in the digital age earlier this year and her name came up in the sited sources. Btw, the book I am getting the most out right now is her two octave book.

Taking Stock (1,000 Hours!)

Since I just hit the mile stone of practicing for a cumulative 1,000 hours on the cello last night, it seems like a good moment to look back and assess the status of the journey so far.  After all, the point of this project isn’t simply to log hours, but to really think and plan with measurable goals and structured & focused practice routines designed to meet them.   A good example of this kind of mile stone setting is the list of goals my teacher help me design at the beginning of 2013 for the next 12 months (and beyond).  It was short & ambitious list:

  1. Learn one 3-octave scale per month, until I have all twelve major scales memorized
  2. Work on shifting (1st thru 4th positions)
  3. Improve intonation
  4. Work on Tone & bow technique
  5. Finish Suzuki Book 4
  6. Memorize 1 piece
  7. Work on Vibrato

Due to some injury related setbacks, I am a little bit behind on my scales.  As of October, I have 8 major scales memorized (C, G, D, A, E, B, F, & Bb).   So I am behind by 1 month – not too bad!   Technically, I am very familiar with Cminor too since it is prominently featured in Suzuki book 3, which is really Eb Major, so actually I’m still sort of on schedule.  As for shifting, I have probably done all the shifts between positions 1-4 many thousands of times each, and while my shifting isn’t perfect by any stretch, it is infinitely more reliable than it was 9 months ago.  My intonation has also improved dramatically since I can now clearly hear the difference between a note that is 10 cents off pitch, and when I started I could only reliably detect a difference of 30 cents.   Btw, this doesn’t mean that I play perfectly in tune to within 10 cents all the time, it just means that if someone plays a 440hz A, and then immediately plays a 442.6Hz A, I will know they’re were a little different.   9 months ago, I could only tell the difference between 440 and 448.   Smart phone pitch pipe apps (like Cleartune) are wonderful tools for measuring & developing this kind of sensitivity.   Unfortunately, it took a wrist injury and nerve damage to show me how sloppy, tense, & contorted my bow technique has been.   However, doing anything that is wrong (like tensing up, pressing, contorting, or waggling) causes instant feedback in the form of very real pain, so I am slowly discovering ways to play loudly, clearly, and with a more sensitive and sweeter tone that requires very little muscular effort while maintaining a very neutral anatomy.   Now it feels like the bow is fairly solidly in my hand, but I am holding it lightly enough that it could be wrestled away by a small child or a larcenous squirrel.   Once I heal, my teacher has some (non-Suzuki) challenging duets lined up, so combined with the injury setbacks, I will probably finish Suzuki Book 4 in Jan 2014.   I have memorized several pieces of music from Book 3, and my vibrato is much more relaxed and fluid on all fingers and in positions 1 through 6, though it is still somewhat stiff and tense in first position.     All told, I feel very good about this list and the progress I have made this year.  In all honesty, I thought it would take me several years to get to this point on Cello Mountain.  It’s probably a good time to refine the goals on that list into something more specific and measurable, and also to look more deeply into what learning techniques and practice elements were the most effective.