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.

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6 thoughts on “Taking Stock (1,000 Hours!)

  1. cellodiary says:

    Congratulations on hitting the 1000 hour landmark! Your progress is remarkable (even more remarkable that you’ve achieved all of this with injuries to contend with). I’m just coming up to my one year anniversary and you’ve inspired me to put together a list of goals for my second year of cello – thank you.

    • I have a lot of experience with managing injuries, various therapeudic methods, and speeding up the healing process, otherwise I would be in serious trouble continuing practice. Congratulations on your celloversary, and good luck with your list, I hope you can share it too!

  2. GeminiCello says:

    WOW!!! Seriously… WOW!!! 🙂 You’ve made some amazing strides in your playing in just a year!!! CONGRATULATIONS!!!

    So what’s your secret in learning vibrato?? 😉

    • Thank you! Vibrato was something I started working on when I was still just beginning to learn 1st position so Ive had some time to practice. There really is no secret, mostly lots of time and picking good exercises that break up the motions so you can learn to apply supple finger pressure without tensing up or sliding all over the place. I used about 5 different drills on Abigail McHough’s youtube channel and practiced them both with and without a cello for 30-60 min a day for a few weeks until I got one finger to work, then I generalized to the other fingers. It seemed impossible to control at first, or to relax enough to keep the whole cello from vibrating and still get enough pressure to anchor the finger, but now I dont think about it any more – I just do it automatically on any note that feels right. Just remeber to relax your thumb, pull gently with your back muscles, and focus on rotating the shoulder socket rather than twisting the wrist. The wrist motion is passive in the neck positions, and the tip of your elbow should be fairly stationary.

      • GeminiCello says:

        I wish someone would have told me to start learning vibrato on my own when I started learning first position! Seriously!
        I think the idea that the shape of your hand will eventually need to be able to shift, vibrate and go into thumb position should be learned early on to make sure fingers are flexible or whatever, instead of learning a position and getting so fixated on getting the correct note or whatever and then making your hand fit to what your supposed to be playing!

        So, if you were working on vibrating and first position at the same time, you probably intuitively chose a hand shape that was most efficient and comfortable to vibrate? That would have saved me so much time…

        I think I’m going to have to copy you and start learning 3 octave scales on my own. 😉

  3. Thats pretty much exactly how my thought process went. I developed the feel of my grip with all of those elements in mind, and made changes accordingly, and eventually settled on something like the relaxed approach similar to the Cello Proffesor’s rolling technique, but less “rolly”. You are very insightful, btw! Its like you were peaking in my cello journal, or reading my mind.

    If youre going to attempt three octave scales, I highly recommend adult supervision. There are several tricks to make it easier, and bad habits on the avoid list that could make shfting and vibrato more difficult later on. Its a bit scary at first, but the notes are really the same as the notes on the neck, it just feels weird at first because the notes are bunched up, the hand is flatter, the elbow is up like an exposed chicken wing, and the bowing elements all change too. Other than that its a piece of cake …pfffft.

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