Don't Choke the Cello!

Left hand technique can be a tricky subject. Cellists who are new to the instrument often find themselves squeezing the neck of their cellos between the fingers and the thumb. This can create all sorts of problems that include an inability to shift smoothly and in tune. As many of my students are finding themselves in this predicament, I felt this would be a good place to talk about how we can avoid "choking the cello." The sensation you should be aiming for is almost like a hanging off of the fingerboard, similar to the sensation of hanging on a set of monkey bars at the playground. The weight of our bodies is perfectly adequate to hold down each string, without the thumb! Now, this does not mean the thumb has no job and can just hang free and be lazy. The thumb is our place keeper when extending, and serves to keep our left hand balanced. When a cellist reaches a point where he or she can play without squeezing (assuming this cellist is playing in tune), it is time to graduate to vibrato.....also known as that "shaky thing." But while we are on this subject, can we all agree to quit calling it the "shaky thing"?? :))

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A big shout out to these string camp cuties. I pushed them hard last week and they met the challenge with grace and gusto!

Iron Sharpens Iron

Most of us have heard the idiom that "iron sharpens iron," and if you are a cello student of mine you have probably heard me say this more than once. Now before you open a new tab to Google fact check me, yes I am aware that during this modern age of science, typically iron is not actually used to sharpen itself. However, it will still remain one of my favorites for this reason:

Musicians often need accountability in order to achieve their goals. For many of my students, just the fact that they have to play each week for me when I may or may not have had my afternoon coffee is motivation enough. But for others, competition and positive peer pressure is more inspiring. This past February I decided to create a visual way for my students to not only keep tabs on their own progress, but on each others' progress as well. In my studio is now a dry erase board with each student's name, assignment, and the date it was assigned in a list form. Each cellist can now see what their colleagues are working on and how long it takes each one to learn a new piece of music. Although they have so lovingly nicknamed it the "Shame Board," the differences I've seen in their speeds of progress is pretty drastic. It seems to have helped create a kind of cello community, where we all can have positive effects on each other. Here are some ideas to help multiply your opportunities to encounter people that challenge you to be a better musician: participate in a music ensemble, go see a concert, find a practice buddy, or just befriend someone who is good at being awesome. It will rub off! 

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Practicing with Technology

"I'm not a fan of this video homework stuff Ms Joy. This gives you two opportunities a week to tell me I suck and I am only paying you for one...." 
- Belle (15 yr old cello student studying with me 6 years. If in my cello studio witticisms were a John Wayne film, she would be the fastest gun in the West)

This past semester I decided to start assigning my young cellists video homework. Each week they take home an assignment that must be recorded on their phones/iPads and emailed or texted to mine. Although this has not been my most popular ingenious idea, it has been one of my most effective. Musicians spend a whole lot of time with their instruments each day, and this makes it very easy to press the cruise control button (or autopilot setting if you will) when you have scheduled blocks of time for practice sessions. Using video to record their playing, and then critiquing it, helps the student and even the professional set specific goals for their practice so that precious minutes and hours are not wasted. I find that in my own practicing, making use of this technology has not only improved my cello playing, but it has significantly sped up the rate in which I learn new music and increased the length of time in which I can stay 100% concentrated. Now despite what my students might imagine, I do not assign them recording homework so that I can listen to their beautiful playing on my Sunday afternoons ;) My goal is that they watch themselves throughout the week and learn to be their own teachers, perfecting every measure and every note. I find that this can also have the added benefit of dealing with performance anxiety. When students watch themselves on recorded tape play a certain difficult passage several times throughout the week, it gives them the added assurance that they can be successful the next time they tackle it: whether it is in front of an audience or just a very picky cello teacher. 

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Statistical Practice

I have always heard it said that musicians tend to be great at math. In my own case I have not found that to be true. Math was not a subject that I struggled with in school, but neither did I enjoy it or excel in that department. However, recently I had an epiphany about applying statistics to my own practicing and encouraging my students to do the same. As a musician, it is just not adequate to practice a passage until it is perfect. My reasoning is that if you have played and replayed a passage say 10 times, and on the tenth time you ace it, then that means those other 9 times have set you up for an approximate 90% chance of error on the next run through. The more we improve as musicians, the more we need to flip that ratio. For my students I ask that they walk into their performances with their most difficult passages ready to go with a 90% or higher chance of success. Again, if that means that if they play two measures on loop 100 times, that 90 of those times they nailed it. Having just completed our spring recitals at the Grace Notes School of Music, I've seen a huge change in the confidence and accuracy of their performances. Statistics has given them something solid to hang their hats on.