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.

Injury Update (972 Hours)

Just a quick entry here to verify that my recent wrist injury was the direct result of carpal tunnel syndrome. I had encountered this problem in my left hand previously and took effective measures to address the problem. CTS is caused by pressure on the nerves (the medial and ulnar in my case) that pass through a narrow boney tunnels in the wrist & elbow. The pressure is caused by inflammation of the tendons that share space in those narrow tunnels. The inflammation and pressure is exacerbated by:

  1. Overuse
  2. Bending the wrist beyond 30 degrees from the neutral position
  3. Overrotation (supination/pronation) of the wrist (instead of lifting the elbow on downbows)
  4. Tense muscles anywhere from the neck, shoulder, upper arm, or forearms
  5. Prolonged postures that elongate the nerves (which extend from the side of neck through the shoulder and down the back of the arm)

The first one on the list (overuse, aka “repetitive motion”) is usually the one that gets the most credit, however the endurance of the human body can be dramatically increased when you follow proper form combined with active relaxation techniques & good hydration. Having addressed #2, #3, and most of #4 with my teacher’s guidance, I was still experiencing frustrating tingling and numbness after only two hours of practice yesterday. As I was intently looking down at the bow dancing on the string trying to make a solid contact for a tricky double stop decrecendo from tip to frog, it dawned on me that I had been violating the 5th item all night long! Since the nerves in the hand are rooted at the spinal column at the neck, by tilting my head to look down at the strings I was actually shortening the chain of nerves leading from my neck to my hand! Immediately I lifted my head, stacked the bones supporting my head to relax the neck muscles, and kept my eyes focused on the image in my practice room mirror. Almost instantaneously I felt the pressure in my wrists subside and blood and sensation began creeping back into my fingers on both hands. I was able to continue practice for almost a full hour after that and was only forced to quit from normal muscle fatigue.

In tonight’s practice session, having more completely addressed all 5 items on that list, I was able to go 2.5 focused hours with minimal discomfort.  I am counting this as a victory considering I began playing while exhausted and accompanied by a throbbing headache which made focusing on my problematic form more challenging.   I think what this situation needs now is ongoing vigilance, gentle CTS specific stretches, ample hydration, ice, and a good deal of rest.

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.