Practicing Cello

I've been learning how to play cello over the past couple of years. Having a good method for practicing is very important. Most of your time on cello is in individual practice. Of course there are also one-on-one lessons with a teacher, as well as listening to and watching other performances. But how you practice is pivotal to whether you are spinning your wheels or making real progress.

I just played in a group recital. It was my first public performance in years, and it went really well. I attribute equal shares of credit to quality instruction and quality practice. Here, I'll talk about the elements of what I believe make good practice. But all the practice in the world won't do much for you unless you know what you're aiming for, and have an experienced guide to help you make course corrections.

Back when I used to play horn, I had sort of stalled in my progress, but received a bit of insight from a horn professor, Thomas Bacon. This insight transformed how I approached practice, and enabled me to make much more progress. The gist is:

Accept where you are. Start where you are. There's nothing wrong with where you are. This is your starting point. Make incremental progress in a single facet at a time.

Take it to your easy place. This means, don't slop through something that's way too difficult for you. As a couple of examples, If the passage is too fast for you, slow it down to a speed that accessible, even if it's 1/3 the target speed, then slowly increase to the point where you're right on the edge of it being too fast. If it's too high for you, take it down into a comfortable range, whether it's down a third, a fifth, or an octave. Get it to sound good there, then gradually raise it until you're on the edge of what's difficult again.

A theme I came away from all of that with was: repeat things the way you want them to be. If you repeat quality tone, steadiness, pitch, and style, then that is what gets etched in your muscle memory. If you repeat something that's off, over and over, that's what gets reinforced.

The other theme I came away with was to remove variables, and work on only one variable at a time.

So much repetition. There is repetition in finished music, which gives it its flow and beauty. And that repetition is multiplied in practice. Here are the final elements, and where I spent most of my time over the past 10 months or so, in no particular order:

  • Working out small isolated sections
  • Connecting those sections with adjacent sections
  • Complete run-throughs, mistakes & all, without stopping

So there's the initial introduction to a piece. The sound of that is always super rough and bumpy and sounds terrible. Nothing wrong with that. It's 100% new and unfamiliar.

One or two more times through the piece or passage, and you can identify the easier sections and the harder sections. So far, I've gotten a good start by getting familiar with the easier sections. This gives me a good foothold into the piece, and serves as something to anchor the rest of the piece around. It also gives me a bit of a confidence boost. ("Hey this sounds good already! I can do this!")

Then I start tackling the harder sections, taking them to my easy place. If the difficult thing is a shift, I'll think about it in several different ways. Do it as written. Do the same shift, but different fingers. Do it on a different string. Once that much becomes consistent, add the preceding note to the segment and repeat that several times. Then add another preceding note. Then one or two following notes, and so on. When it starts to sound rough again, I back it back down to just the shift. There's lots of repetition in this detail work.

Extending that process, I work backwards and forwards until I can play longer sections. And with repetition, get the tempo where it should be. Depending on the piece, this process takes weeks or months. I will still check in daily by doing a run-through to see what still needs attention and to stay oriented to the piece as a whole.

We end up at the point of playing the complete piece. When all of the segments are in order, we start putting them together in a finished performance. It always feels different, starting at the beginning, and playing all the way through to the end, with no stops. So that entire piece must be practiced like that. You can't stop in a performance, so you need to practice not stopping.

To polish that off, the other thing that's unique about a performance, compared to practice, is starting the piece. In a performance, you wait backstage, then walk out on stage, announce the piece, take your position, start playing, and you don't stop until the piece is done. So this whole sequence of getting to the point of starting the piece also must be practiced. I practiced that like this: stand up, walk around, sit down, play the first few notes of the piece, repeat.

I think that pretty much wraps up my thought process and practice method I've been using recently. I hope you find it helpful too.