Practicing Cello

A comment on one of my posts asked whether I have any tips for more efficient practicing. Maybe a few, yeah. I don’t follow my own tips all the time, but here they are:

  1. Warm up before you tackle tough passages. I’m an old guy, so it takes me ten minutes to warm up.
  2. Take breaks. After playing for 30 to 45 minutes (at most), get up and walk around. Good for the brain, good for the muscles.
  3. If it hurts, you’re doing it wrong. Talk to your teacher about any consistent pain you encounter while playing.
  4. Practice difficult passages SLOOOOWWWLY. Because the bow has a finite length, this may mean breaking up long slurs. That’s okay — learn the left hand first, and add the bowing only when the left hand is secure.
  5. Use a metronome.
  6. When learning a piece that’s a full page or longer, there should be days when you start your practice session with the last few phrases and then work backwards. If you don’t do this, you’ll always play the first part better than the last part, because you’ll have played it so much more.
  7. Practice in two modes: Isolating and drilling the trouble spots, and playing from start to finish without stopping. Both are necessary.
  8. Use a full-length mirror to watch your hand and arm movement. Also your torso orientation. Also the angle of your bow and the point at which the bow contacts the string. Video is good too.
  9. When you think you’ve learned a piece, try recording it. A recorder is merciless: It will reveal flaws you never knew were there.
  10. Scales and arpeggios are boring but useful. They’re useful for shifting precision, for bowing precision, for intonation, and so on.
  11. Advanced students should practice thumb position up and down the neck in a given scale each day. For instance, today is A major. Start with the thumb on D on the A string and play an A major scale across three strings. Then move the thumb up to E and play an A major scale. Then move the thumb up to F# and, again, play an A major scale. Continue upward. Then come back down. When you’ve mastered this in all keys, try playing a scale in thirds using the thumb and 2nd finger.
  12. Get the Schroeder books and learn the etudes. The Lee Melodic Studies are good too.

Finally — it’s important to remember that your hand does not know the difference between a right note or phrase and a wrong one. If you repeatedly make the same mistake, your hand will quite cheerfully learn to make that mistake every time you play the piece!

The only way to get rid of a persistent mistake is to practice the phrase over and over perfectly. Playing it correctly once doesn’t count. If you fix the mistake once, congratulate yourself, and move on, the mistake will probably come back the next time you play that passage. My own rule of thumb is, if I can play a passage in a mistake-free manner three times in a row, I’ve probably conquered the mistake. Five times in a row would be better.

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