The Four Noble Truths of Practice:
- All failure is caused by a lack of concentration
- Stress and frustration are a lack of concentration
- Purposelessness is a lack of concentration
- Practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent
One of the biggest hurdles in becoming a musician is learning how to practice.
To paint a familiar picture..
You grind your teeth and groan, committing yourself to one final crack at your solo. Playing it the third time through, you think, “this time, I will play perfectly!” The first few measures go well, and you nail that difficult shift, and wonder what is for dinner. Also, what was that look Suzie gave you today? Did that mean anything? Was she trying to tell you something with her eyes? Can you talk with your eyes? What if human beings didn’t have mouths and could only communicate with their eyes? How would we eat? Can you absorb food through your-
Oh. The piece is over. Was it perfect? You don’t know. You aren’t even really sure at this point how you played through the whole thing without even watching the music. You could try again… or you could just take, like, a five minute break and play Fallout 4. Just five minutes won’t hurt, right?
And, alas, you are surprised when you don’t see any improvement after 3 weeks.
Okay, I will try to keep this short. You have a life. Cello probably isn’t your only interest, so if you are going to practice, don’t waste any time. Below I have outlined the most common practice problems and how to mitigate them.
Getting Started: Personally, I find this to be the most difficult task. If you have a particularly busy day, set a timer for your practice so that you are not distracted by watching the clock. Make sure you have water nearby, and that the room you are in is at a comfortable temperature. Turn off your phone! That tweet can wait- I promise.
Purpose: Even if you only have 15 minutes to practice, you can get a lot done provided that you keep a clear purpose. I love to have small post-it notes on hand to jot down notes for tomorrow’s practice so that I know what to work on. Post-it notes are also helpful to keep you focused on just a few measures. Put one at the beginning and at the end of the section you want to drill- this will force you to stick to this passage until you have accomplished your goal. Mindlessly running through pieces is your worst enemy. Find your weakness, and make a plan to fix it.
Using your tools: If you were taking a math test and were given the option to use a calculator, would you? Of course! The same thing goes with a metronome. They can be difficult to get used to, but when you learn how to use one properly, it will improve the efficiency and accuracy of your practice tenfold. Likewise, use a drone for tuning difficult passages.
Physicality: Believe it or not, playing cello is very similar to playing a sport. You should warm up before you play and stretch afterwards to avoid injuries. I highly encourage a weekly practice of something like ballet, yoga, or hip-hop dance. Not only will this keep you limber and help protect you from injury, but activities that make you use very specific muscles will give you a better understanding of how your body works, and therefore, how employ the best technique possible.
Finally, don’t let practice become a chore. You may not love it every day, but make sure you are not hating it. Find pieces you enjoy playing, and remind yourself often why you decided to work at this. Remember, if it was easy, everyone would do it.