From the Heart (1977 Hours)


The Recital

During my first year of learning the cello, I read some sage advice that a new musician should start their performing career with music that is at least a couple degrees easier than the most challenging piece they are currently learning.  I cannot attest to the truth of this suggestion because during the 2.5 years that I have been playing the cello, every single performance has been with music that is beyond the edge of my current abilities.  As a result, all of my performance preparations have been imparted with a heightened degree of urgency and significance.  This last recital was no exception in which I played my heart out to the tune of the Sarabande of the first suite, a movement that is written in the style of a slow, sensual, and spiritual Spanish dance.

The Sarabandes are some of my absolute favorites from the Bach Cello Suites because they are all so deeply moving and span a wide range of intense and meditative emotions.   The mood of each can also seem to change dramatically depending on how they are played.   To my ears, the Sarabande from the 1st suite feels like waves of passion, a sublime sense of nurtured longing that is as rooted and ephemeral as a well tended garden, like a summer love that lasts for decades growing stronger with each year, constantly renewed with a quiet sustaining energy – like the sensuous rousing of a lover waking from a deep and restful sleep.  As is always the case with music, words fail, but these are the images in my head that I am attempting to convey when I am in the practice room.

The technical aspects of the piece include a multitude of shifts, asymmetric bowing, sostenuto bowing over challenging string crossings and double stops, harmonics, 8th and 16th note vibrato, legato bowing during shifts over string crossings, and many harmonious and dissonant doubles stops and chords – including one fairly tricky dominant 7 chord.  In addition to these items, there is also the intangible challenge of performing such an iconic piece with whatever musicality and expression that my novice skill can muster.

Perhaps everyone who plays from the Bach Suites feels some hesitation at presenting these masterpieces through the narrow lens of their current ability.  But by that same logic, having played for only a couple years, I realize that no single performance can be seen as final verdict.   For this particular performance, the dominant thought on my mind was simply a desire not to utterly disappoint my teacher.  It has felt like she is taking something of a chance by teaching me these Suite movements (which are so important to every cellist), and also by allowing me to actually perform them with so little experience.  Perhaps it was my near-addiction to practice that convinced her to leap forward with this material.

In any case, I am happy to say that for my current level of skill, the performance could hardly have gone better than it did, and I hope it was sufficient to justify my teacher’s hopes for my potential and eventual growth.  While I was under the powerful narcotic of stage anxiety/excitement and very likely unable to fully hear what I was doing, my teacher reported that my performance was the best she had ever heard me play it.   Another more advanced student noted that my double stops sounded “perfect” which was a huge relief to hear objectively.  To my own untrustworthy ears, it sounded at least as technically accurate as my best practice session, and my only regret was that it lacked whatever emotional dimension I can arouse when I am alone with my thoughts.  This was probably because all of my emotional energy was being spent trying to keep some semblance of composure and focus.

A significant part of the reason for this success story was based on some timely and wonderful insight from a wise musician on the cello forums that implanted the encouraging idea that a performance could actually exceed anything achieved in a practice room due to the heightened focus and energy being on stage affords.  All things considered, this turned out to be the case for me last Sunday as the room was filled with kind and encouraging eyes and it also didn’t hurt that I truly wanted to share what I had learned about a piece that feels very personal to me.

As always, I was quite nervous and keyed up despite my reportedly calm outward appearance, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t also a little sad when the piece was finished and felt a certain sense of loss when it was time to leave the stage.  This was quite a difference from prior performances where I practically leapt out of my chair and ran off stage in cathartic relief.   Now, I find that I am actually looking forward to the next performance not just as a stressful trial by fire, but also as another opportunity to share what I have learned, and perhaps also to share something more personal about myself through the language of music.

Right now I am just a babbling baby cellist who is playing with words of which I barely comprehend their full meaning.  In next year, one of my goals will be to learn to speak clearly and with purpose, and perhaps also to begin to grasp the narrative structure of music so that one day I can begin to tell musical stories that might actually hold the attention of a skeptical and unfamiliar audience.   Ambitious goals much?   Well for now, I’ll stick to forming complete musical sentences…


Other Interesting Developments

As I mentioned before, the Sarabande is a piece with many dissonant and harmonious double stops as well as chords.  The range of notes extends well into the lower registers of the Cello.  After four months and roughly 120 hours of practicing this single piece, the wood on my Cello has opened up significantly, particularly in the bass.   Perhaps this is from the energetic bowing on the C and G strings, and perhaps some part of it comes from the complex interplay of competing overtone frequencies resonating throughout the wood.  In any case, the C2 and D3 fundamental tones on the open strings are now much stronger, whereas prior to this time period, they were almost completely undetectable on my spectroscopic tuner.  I hope this trend continues since my student cello began its life with an emphasis on the brighter overtones and often sounded almost like a violin or viola.   Now it sounds distinctively more cello-like, though it still pales in comparison to anything above a student quality instrument.


Temporal Relativism (1668 Hours)

In a recent article in the NY Times, a meta-analysis of 88 scientific papers on deliberate practice found that only 21% of the difference in performance between musicians was due to the number of hours they had practiced.   This would seem to call into question the entire democratizing premise of this blog (that anyone can achieve a certain level of mastery after 10,000 hours), and begs the question of what is causing the remaining 79% of performance difference?  The Times article claims that the difference is “talent” but the scientific paper it quotes actually states that the 79% is an unknown quantity.

Since the study was a “meta analysis” looking at a large number of studies, it can only show that variations within a group of people may depend on other factors besides the number of hours practiced.  It is important to remember that variation in an individual’s performance still depends entirely on the amount and quality of practice they put in.   In other words:  no matter how “talented” a person may be, you can’t get to Carnegie Hall without putting in 1000’s of hours of practice.   The exact number of hours to achieve “mastery” will vary from person to person, but there is a critical mass of hours for both the musically gifted and the musically challenged.

That being said…. it is also immediately clear that not every ability is influenced by practice.  Some traits & abilities are binary: you either have them or you don’t.  Most of these binary qualities can be learned or acquired, but are not significantly affected by practice.  Other skills are progressive: they exist on a continuous range and can be improved incrementally with practice.  Mastery of any musical instrument is a combination of binary and progressive skills & resources.  Having certain binary attributes can accelerate the benefit you get from practice because these binary skills influence not only the way you practice, but also help determine your comprehension of that practice.

Examples of Binary Traits:

  • perfect pitch
  • musical literacy
  • possessing passion/drive
  • knowing music theory
  • knowing good form
  • efficient practice routines
  • having a positive attitude
  • having a GOOD teacher
  • access to a quality instrument
  • owning a practice microphone
  • exposure to specific composers
  • working memory
  • understanding the biology of learning
  • understanding of basic physics
  • vocabulary

Examples of Progressive Skills:

Most of these binary traits and progressive skills are deeply linked together.  The NY Times study merely demonstrates that 21% of musical performance results from the small portion of progressive skills that are independent of binary traits.  In other words, only 1/5 of the skill gap within a group of musicians is from practice-based skills alone.  This does not invalidate the so-called “10,000 rule”, since thousands of hours of practice are still required for mastery.  It simply means that 10,000 hours is a rough estimate, and the benefit of each hour spent in the practice room increases dramatically with the acquisition of more binary traits.   Some people may call these prerequisites “talent.”  However only two items on the list are accidents of birth (Perfect Pitch & Working Memory), so I choose to call the sum of these binary traits: preparation.

Interdependence (1315 Hours)


Sifting through the detritus of 2013 and the wisdom imparted by successes and failures of the prior year, the month of January is usually one of reflection and sober optimism for growth, advancement, and in some cases healing.   In my case, this reflection took nearly the entire month of January, and finally resulted in a list of “cello resolutions” for 2014.  What took so long?  Well, my initial lists were bogged down with details and nuances that would have resulted in unfocused and unproductive practice sessions.  So in an effort to refine the focus of my studies, I narrowed it down to a scant 10 technical skills and 6 musicianship skills.   I tried to make it shorter, but alas, my ambition has once again outstripped common sense wisdom.  To simplify the situation, I decided to write out a short definition for each of these skills so they could be organized by shared characteristics for more efficient practice.   Perhaps not surprisingly, the definitions revealed how interdependent these skills are, so that a deficiency in one would lead to a limitation in another.   Likewise, improving in one area should create new possibilities in mastering other skill sets!   The skills are listed below along with the set of related technical & musicianship skills listed by number/letter in parentheses (). 

I have printed this list and put in the cover of my cello workbook, so I can review it before each practice session in order to plan my goals for that day.

Technical Skills:

1) Double Stops & Chords – Playing two notes simultaneously with good tone quality,intonation, and relaxation (2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9)
2) String Crossing – Switching between two strings while maintaining the contact point, tone quality, left hand position, and rhythm (4, 7, 9)
3) Finger Spacing – The ability of the left hand to feel the position of the notes before they are played (4, 6, 8)
4) Intonation/Relative Pitch  – The ability of the ear to anticipate the pitch of the notes before they are played (A, F)
5) Playing Faster – Increasing the tempo without sacrificing rhythm, tone quality, or musicality (2, 3, 6, 7, 8, F)
6) Relaxation – The ability to recognize sources of tension and then release it quickly, fully, and dynamically (A)
7) Rhythm, Counting & Timing – Giving notes their proper length according to the tempo and pulse (2, 6, 8, F)
8) Shifting – the ability of the entire body (mostly left arm) to feel the position of the notes and the distance between them along the string  (4, 6, A)
9) Tonalization – Manipulating the friction of the bow on the string via speed, pressure, and contact point to produce a sound as distinct as a human voice (4, 6, 7, A)
10) Vibrato – wavering the pitch of the note by relaxing the left hand as much as possible (3, 4, 6, 7, 8)

Musicianship Skills:

A) Confidence/Game Face – Believing in the ability to rise to a challenge, releasing mistakes quickly, focusing on the task at hand.  Keeping a poker face in the instance of performance mishaps.
B) Ensembles – Playing with other musicians while maintaining proper timing, intonation, tonalization, and dynamics (4, 7, 9)
C) Performance – Sharing current progress with an audience either live or via YouTube, once per month (A)
D) Analyze Music Theory of Bach’s Suites – Using knowledge of music theory & “musical geometry” to gain a deeper understanding of Bach’s genius and insight into how to play the Suites
E) Perform two movements of Suite no 1 – Learn the Minuets I&II and the Prelude from the first Suite with enough proficiency for competent performance (A)
F) Sight Reading – Being able to accurately render notes, in proper time, pitch, articulation, etc by reading faster than a given tempo. (4, 7)

I’ll be starting in a quartet in mid April, I’m currently working on the Bach Minuets I & II from suite no.1, and I will be posting a video in the next week or so from the end of Suzuki Book 4 (most likely Tchaikovsky’s Chanson Triste).  So I am well on my way to achieving my musicianship goals for 2014!  The technique goals are ongoing, and I’m sure I’ll be refining that list continually as the year goes on and my understanding of the fundamentals deepens.  

To all of my fellow musicians (and anyone who is trying to learn something new!) I wish you great success in the coming year!!