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!!



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!