Category Archives: practice techniques

Tai Chi Cha Cha and the Left-Hand Pizz Stress Challenge

(Or just give me a Xanax with a scotch on the rocks.)

So first the universe said to me, “and you will greatly expand your left-hand pizzicato skills this week.”

Last week and into this scores have been arriving via email for this coming Sunday’s 7:30 PM International Street Cannibals Tai Chi Cha Cha (how could you miss that?) concert at St. Mark’s in the Bowery in Manhattan.  (The New York one.  We probably have an Indiana one somewhere, along with our own Brazil and Poland.) It’s Fall Break, a whole week, at DePauw, and, having played on two of the Cannibals concerts while on sabbatical in New York last winter/spring, I invited myself to play in this one.  So I’m flying up there in the morning.

Two of the pieces have lots of left hand pizzicato.  If you’re not a string player, pizzicato is the fancy-pants Italian word for plucking.  (Classical musicians still use Italian terminology with each other because in the the 1600s opera started in Italy and became really popular.) 95% or more of the time we pluck with the right hand, the one that holds the bow.  But sometimes we are playing a note, or notes, with the bow and pluck other strings with the left hand, which is also holding down a string or strings.  This is just about as difficult as it sounds.  Maybe a bit more, especially if you haven’t done a lot of it for a while.

One of these pieces almost put me over the edge yesterday.  I can’t play this a voice said somewhere in me.  Keep calm answered another.  First learn the slightly awkward double stops and then figure out how to add in the pizzicatos. 

Took a break.  Laid down on the couch and Figaro, one of my cats, plopped down on my belly.  “Help!” I posted on Facebook.  “I took a practice break and now there’s a cat on my belly and I can’t get up.”  A friend added a comment to the effect that cat therapy is good for the playing.  Eventually the cat moved on, I got up, and returned to the cello.

Just did everything in  s  l  o  w    m  o t  i  o  n.

Very, very calmly.

My thoughts went quickly to Dale Stuckenbruck, the wonderful violinist (and musical saw player) who was my RA when I was a 16-year-old high school junior at the North Carolina Schoolof the Arts.  Dale would help me practice, bless him, and he taught me more about practicing (calmly, intelligently, methodically, and focused) than anyone else.  Thank you, Dale! (Isn’t that great . . . we can still be learning from our earlier mentors 35 years later?)

It’s going to be alright, it turns out. Just have to work out the choreography–which finger will pluck which string when.  And then it will speed up on its own. (And it just occurred to me that I’m practicing in tai chi-like slow motion for the Tai Chi Cha Cha concert.  Neat, huh?)

So that was handled.

Then the universe said, and you will be humbled.

I made a quick trip to the DePauw recording studio this afternoon, to record the Prelude and Gigue of the Bach G Major Suite for a doctor friend who is making some educational videos and needs some music for them.  Oh, I’ve played these movements a zillion times, it will be a piece of cake.  Ha!  As I listened to the playback of the takes, I kept thinking, man, I’d like to give this guy a lesson!  We’ve got something useable, and I may like it better a year from now, but I really need to do a lot more recording of myself. Holy fuck, this music is amazing and needs something more than me winging it.

OK, now back to practicing that left-hand pizzicato.



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Filed under International Street Cannibals, North Carolina School of the Arts, practice techniques, sabbatical journal

Practicing: Longitude, Latitude, and Calm Slow Motion

Just finished today’s first practice session (I have time today for two or possibly three).

Warmed up with one-finger scales, broken thirds, octaves, etc.  I love playing with one (left) finger as a warm-up activity.  Physically, it is very gentle and helps get the blood flowing.  More than that, when I’m sliding around on the fingerboard with just one finger, aural (auditory) control is essential–you just can’t play without it.  One finger “stuff”–another way to put it is glissando exercises–is a very effective way to establish the the internal-hearing-directing-physical-movement brain circuitry.

I’m very big on position exercises, too.  The one-finger slurping around led into some double-stop exercises in particular positions, all inspired by the exercises in Starker’s An Organized Method of String Playing.  The exercises in that book are designed to develop awareness of and skill in playing in each position.

Position exercises are the way we learn the various latitudes of the the fingerboard;  one-finger shifting exercises develop skill in navigating the longitudes.  (Hey, I can’t be the first person to use a latitude/longitude metaphor for learning the fingerboard, but a quick Google search doesn’t show anyone using it for bowed-string instrument pedagogy.)

I’ve been doing these exercises for years, and they still help. No matter what our playing level and years of experience, the circuits in our brain (and whatever literal muscle memories may actually exist) need reinforcement to be maintained. And we can still grow new ones.  I’m just about finished listening to the audiobook version of The Talent Code, in which Daniel Coyle links brain research to successful practice/training methods, and it’s absolutely fascinating.  More about it in a future post.  What has impressed me so much is how the research explains why/how certain practice techniques work so well.  It all has to do with developing neural connections wrapped in myelin.

One of the exciting things is that even though it becomes a slower process as we age, we can still develop new brain circuits at any age, and hence develop new skills. I’ve certainly been finding that to be the case;  in the last few years, my comfort in the high-ends of the fingerboard has increased a lot as I’ve done various exercises, particularly position exercises, up there.

Since I’m familiar with the exercises I was doing, I was also able to give intermittent attention to the fluidity of my bow arm and the “straightness” of my bow stroke.

Then I went into some very slow, very calm practicing of the third movement of the Schumann Concerto, which I am relearning.  When I first started it, my mind was filled with “IT’S SO F***ING HARD” sorts of thoughts.  Long ago I was taught that we have to let go of those thoughts, or a piece will remain “f***ing hard” forever.  Slow, easy, without worry.  Hearing the sounds and visualizing the motions first.  Calmly correcting errors, then repeating correctly.  Lots and lots, in my case, of releasing anxiety.  And, of course, as I develop a solid aural concept, visualization of the motions, mental calmness, and practice correction, even the most seemingly awkward passages become controllable.  Confidence moves in where the fear used to be.

A productive session.

(It’s been forever and a day since I last posted, so no promises regarding future consistency. )


Filed under Janos Starker, one-finger exercises, practice techniques

This could be worse–I could be preparing an orchestra audition

Emily Wright, in the midst of describing her preparing-for-an-audition practice routine, suggests “don’t ever get old, kids,” and I must say I agree.  This shingles-recovery fatigue thing is a bitch.  In the last few days I’ve felt at times what it must be like to be old.  Almost no energy, finding it hard to move, wanting someone to wait on me (if only there were someone), alone, bored, worried.  Sunday night I had dinner at my mother’s (which I cooked) and after dinner I sat at the head of the table, where my dad used to sit, my back hurting (oh, yeah, I threw it out on Sunday), feeling totally out of energy, not quite able to move, while other people cleared dishes and whatnot.  This is how life must have felt for Dad most of the time, I thought.  Monday and Tuesday and even this morning I felt like I might not ever recover, and my imagination went crazy.

Meanwhile, Emily is preparing (very thoroughly, it seems from her post) for an orchestra audition.  She has my total sympathy.  I hated preparing for orchestra auditions back before Mr. Greenhouse steered me into college teaching, and once I got a college job that was the end of my attempts to enter the full-time orchestra world, which didn’t feel like a good fit anyway.  (Among other things, I love to talk and having a long-term gig where they pay you to talk about playing the cello is pretty sweet.  And, for some strange reason, conductors don’t like members of the orchestra to talk a lot.)

The only time I ever developed any physical problems before middle age was preparing for orchestra auditions.  I’d think I’d be doing everything right, taking breaks, etc., but I’d get a burning sensation in one of my trapezius muscles. Learning difficult orchestra parts in a short time, with the attendant I-need-to-get-a-job-because-I’m-a-broke-grad-student tension, was a killer.  Meanwhile I was teaching other people how to play with minimal tension!  Ah, life’s ironies.

Finally today I’m feeling better.  I managed to walk the two blocks to the DePauw School of Music office–after which I needed to sit down.  Then I went on to the Post Office, to Jerry’s Foreign Auto to pay Jerry for changing the oil in Mom’s car, then a few more blocks to 3-D Tire, where they’d put a new tire on my son’s car.

I drove home, rested for an hour, and then played the cello for 45 minutes or so.  It felt good.

Emily tells us that after a break (involving a tennis ball, a heating pad, and a limited amount of cookies), she “then come[s] back and run[s] the whole set, at tempo, for the love of the thing. Why else do we do this, right?”

For the love of it, of course. That’s what I did today but didn’t do back in my orchestra audition-prep youth.   As is often the case, Ms. Wright is, once again, right.

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Filed under auditions, Emily Wright, fatigue, practice techniques

Popper, slowly

Lots of us out in the the online cello world are more than a little impressed–and in some cases, inspired–by whiz-kid Joshua Roman’s Popper Etude YouTube project.  He’s posting one of the 40 “High School of Cello Playing” etudes about every week, seemingly effortlessly dashing them off, playing them musically and from memory (up through #6 as of now).  OK, Mr. Roman is 25 and won the Seattle Symphony principal cello seat at 22.  I’ve heard that he’s leaving the orchestra to concentrate on his solo and chamber gigs, but that’s not confirmed on his website.  To us middle-aged folks, 25 is a kid, and Joshua is a whiz, however old he is.  (And as one Cello Chat poster put it, he looks 15 in his videos.)

Meanwhile, classes and exams are over, the DePauw seniors have commenced their new lives (see, that’s why they call those graduation ceremonies “commencements”), the others have gone home for the summer, and I have time to really practice. (Evidently that’s a sign that one really is a cellist–vacation comes and your first reaction is, “Oh boy, I can practice a lot!)

So I’m embarking on my own Joshua-inspired Popper Project–to restudy the ones I actually learned as a student, and to learn the ones I managed to avoid.  It’s, well, humbling.  I want to get them up to a level where they’re YouTube-worthy, and record them with some comments (especially for my own students) on what I found helpful in practicing them.

Something in me thinks I should be able to just sit down and rattle them off, flawlessly.  We all have these self-critical monsters inside us, some more so than others.  Mine can be very nasty. I am getting better and better at dealing with those dwelling in me.

At this point, I’m playing through the first eleven each day, working in depth on a few (I’ve been adding one or two a day).  And guess what really works?  Keeping calm, telling the monster to shut the heck up, practicing slowly and easily, hearing each note before I play it, and visualizing my hand on the fingerboard before I put a finger down (or up, or slide it somewhere).

One of the great things about slow, easy practice is that you can do it musically.  I used to think that to play with physical ease one had to play without feeling, because emotion can trigger physical tension.  As I teen I got myself into a situation where I could play calmly, efficiently, and very boringly (is that a word?), but if I played expressively, if I surrendered to my emotions, I was a tense and often very out-of-tune mess.

I could go on and on, and will soon.  The cello, and Mr. Popper, are calling me back.


Filed under Joshua Roman, Popper Etudes, practice techniques