Frigid temperatures can bring lethargy and winter blues along with a lull in motivation to practice, so I wanted to post some articles and videos that may rekindle your cello flame!
Do you have any thoughts to share about your successes or struggles with practice? Let me know in the comments section below!
And lastly, here's a gift from me and my cello quartet to you:
Hope you have a wonderful holiday and happy new year!
If you would like more information on what extended techniques are and how to do them, click HERE for a basic list with explanations (and each technique's actual name. Sadly, "creaks" and "squeaks" are not the official names, but they should be!).
Still want more? Check out these articles that delve more deeply into the dark realm of extended techniques:
And a treat...
Last week my cello quartet had an educational concert at Spivey Hall, and after explaining a few common extended techniques (such as bowing behind the bridge, snap pizzicato, harmonics, ponticello, and body tapping) we played my Halloween mashup, Toil and Treble for the first time ever!
We were not allowed to film any of our concert, but here's a video of the piece that we made this week to share with you:
Did you notice all the extended techniques we used?
It does sound a bit risqué, but I am trying to refer to learning to play the cello after you have become a fully mature human being (I'm still waiting to achieve this status, hence all my "adult cello" jokes).
It's one of the most rewarding and intriguing (some of my students might prefer to substitute the word "frustrating" here) endeavors I have ever been involved in. And it is not for the faint of heart.
Learning the cello as an adult takes some serious guts!
I began playing when I was 10 years old after seeing the James Bond movie, The Living Daylights. (Most of my students already know this story, but click HERE if you don't). Though I technically began cello as a child, I did have to relearn much of my technique when I got to college, so I am no stranger to the humiliating task of having to retrain inefficient or sloppy habits.
But still, learning the cello FROM SCRATCH as an adult is a whole different ball game.
I think about this adult vs. child issue nearly every day, since about half my studio is made up of people of all ages who began practicing the cello as a grown-up.
One of my adult students recently sent me a link to an article that she said had helped her immensely:
In the Express Lane: Learning the Cello as an Adult, by Ethan Winer.
I immediately read it, loved it, and wanted to share it with you as soon as possible, so here's an excerpted passage from the introduction:
I began playing the cello at the age of 43, and at the time considered myself fortunate to undertake this admittedly large project as an adult. As an adult I didn't have to contend with the trauma of outgrowing an instrument. I'd also played other instruments (electric guitar, Fender bass, some piano), and already understood how music "works." Perhaps most important, I had a determination to succeed that few children possess.
But starting as an adult also has unique drawbacks. Playing endless variations of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" is hardly interesting to someone who's studied musical scores and performed publicly. Worse, I knew how good music is supposed to be played, and my early efforts were not even close. Beginner children don't know how bad they sound, and thus are not so easily discouraged! Having played blues lead guitar for many years I knew what it felt like to be in control of an instrument - to play with feeling and conviction. I really hated being demoted to mediocre status as a beginner on the cello, and wanted to get past that phase as quickly as possible. What I hoped would be an enjoyable pastime soon evolved into an obsession to become proficient as quickly as possible that now occupies three or four hours of each day.
In the five years since I began playing the cello I've made a number of observations that I believe other adult beginners and intermediate players - especially those who are ambitious and are willing to work hard - will find useful. Like Sergeant Joe Friday on the TV show Dragnet, I have always been a seeker of "just the facts." I'm not interested in guesses, half-baked opinions, or anything that can't be substantiated. The facts I wanted to know are 1) What skills are needed to become an accomplished cellist, and 2) How do I get there in the shortest amount of time?
Read the rest of his article to find out what he prescribes to help the adult student progress quickly: http://ethanwiner.com/adultbeg.html
For your convenience, I have condensed all the exercises he has sprinkled throughout his explanation into an organized three-page warm-up. Feel free to print these out and add them to your practice routine. I highly recommend doing so!
Thanks Janet, for sending me this article.
And thanks to Ethan Winer!
I like to climb trees.
Wow, that is definitely a Nan Sequitur! I thought this blog is about cello...
I'm just saying, that's probably something you didn't know about me. I like to work out, but mostly by doing things that are fun for me: gardening, home improvement projects, dancing...tree climbing.
That's nice, Nan, but what does this have to do with cello?
Hang on, I'm getting there!
Lately, I have wanted to do more than a headstand, so I signed up for Chris Salvato's FREE 28-day HANDstand Challenge.
Are you trying to get us to buy something?
No, I promise I am not advertising for this guy! (Even if I were, the Handstand Challenge materials are free.) I was just looking around on the internet for some fun bodyweight exercises to do and was instantly taken in by Chris's positive attitude and helpful advice on consistent practicing and its role in developing a new and challenging skill...
And of course I had to draw connections to the wonderful world of cello and the difficulties we all face with finding the time and motivation to practice.
The limiting factor for handstands, as with cello playing , is consistent practice of the skill.
In other words, what holds us back from making progress with either of these activities is NOT how old we are, how talented we are, or how passionate we are.
It's usually all about not "finding" the time to practice.
Now, we all know that despite how busy our lives can be, there is Always Room 4 Cello! The hardest part is getting the cello out of the case... and then keeping a regular schedule of practice.
Consistency is key
Now for the real challenge: CONSISTENCY! There are three things you can do to help you keep up with your practice, and I have organized them with this mnemonic acronymn to help us all remember:
A is for Anchor
This is something that I already encourage my students to do, but could never express clearly! (Thanks to Chris for clarity on this subject!)
In order to remember to practice, it is helpful to attach your cello time to another required daily event, such as enjoying your morning coffee, arriving home from school or work, getting out of bed in the morning, or going to bed at night.
This is called anchoring.
You can place a reminder near the place where that event occurs to help motivate you.
Soon it will become a habit and you will simply associate that activity with your cello work!
C is for Chart
T is for Two-rule
There will be days when it is impossible for you to have any time with your cello. When that occurs, you should try 5 minutes of mental practice, which includes activities like marking your music, listening to recordings of the piece you are working on, singing your piece, or going through the bowings, fingerings, or dynamics of that piece in your mind.
That stuff counts! Mark a big check for that day if you get some mental practice done!
But what if I have such a messed up day that I can't manage any mental practice either? What then?
If and when that happens, just mark an O for the day and remember the Two-rule:
Make sure you don't miss two days in a row!
This is so important because it gives you an action to take when this unavoidable problem arises. Instead of wasting time beating yourself up and identifying yourself as a failure, you can think of what you will do tomorrow.
This way one missed day isn't a big deal!
So many times in my life, a glitch in perfection like this has been so demoralizing. At these times, I try to remember:
Perfect is the enemy of good.
...and you will be well on your way to making your cello practice (if not handstands!) a consistent part of your life!
Instead, the left hand will look like the picture above, with the middle two fingers that tend to stay together. You can probably see why I named this particular problem, "Barbie Fingers."
Three steps to halfsteps
That ring finger isn't going anywhere! I'd say that is pretty enslaving.
There's good news here. We don't have to let this physical and neurological oddity get in our way! It IS possible to free ourselves from this force.
Well, not entirely... But enough to make our fingers into the half step dancers we want them to be!
STEP ONE: Stretch!
Using a hard surface, or your right hand, gently push the fingers of your left hand apart in what looks to be an upside-down Vulcan salute.
Hold for 15 to 30 seconds, then relax. Repeat five times.
Do this daily and it will slowly loosen the physical connection between the two fingers. Who knows? You might also enjoy the added benefit of attracting Trekkies.
STEP TWO: Isolate
Slowly play each of the following exercises on your cello. Repeat each measure as many times as you need to. These might not be easy to execute at first, but keep trying. It will get better!
STEP THREE: Listen and adjust
Try the following musical example on your cello. Listen carefully to the intervals. Try to make the notes with the upward arrows higher and the ones with the downward arrows lower in pitch. This will help your hand get used to the bigger spacing required between the second and third fingers.
EXTRA HELP: Martha has an excellent book that helped me work through my Barbie finger issue. It is called, The Road to Secure Intonation in the Neck Positions and you can order it HERE. I highly recommend it, as most of my exercises here are based on what I learned from her.
The improvement in the spacing of the fingers of your left hand won't happen overnight, of course. Simply knowing that this problem exists can help so much... but if you also follow these three steps, you will be well on your way to being a Barbie-free cellist!
Here's a fun cello duet I arranged for a Celli performance at Ladyfest Atlanta this past March. Below is a video of the live performance Jessica Messere and I did at the Mammal Gallery.
Just wanted to share with you a new solo piece I wrote, based on the tune Pure Imagination. I recorded a video performance of it too (below) so you can hear it and see how to execute some of the technical parts. Enjoy!
"But I SHOULD be able to play without warming up!"
One of my students was disappointed in a recent performance that she had given cold turkey.
"No way," I found myself shaking my head. " You must always warm up first. You can't expect your hands to be able to go from zero to concerto like that!"
I couldn't believe these words were coming out of my mouth. I have never been a big proponent of warming up.
When I was a young person, Martha constantly reminded me that I needed to warm up. She even wrote an entire book about it (which I highly recommend!). But, as with many wisdoms she shared with me back in the day, I had to learn it on my own (I have some kind of problem with doing what people tell me to do sometimes. Even if they are exactly right! See my previous blog post: Saying Nay to the Naysayers and you'll get a better idea of what I am talking about).
So on my best warm up days, I would hastily wade through a D major left hand pizzicato scale (see below).
And that's it.
It was better than nothing. But it wasn't enough. And there were many rough performances back then that I can see now were at least partially due to having cold arms and hands.
If only I had made sure that warming up was a part of my practice and performance routine. Like Brian Magnus who says,
"A daily warm-up routine is important at the start of a practice session. Jumping right in to difficult music can cause tension, and frustration when your hands don't seem to be working right."
(See Brian's excellent post on practicing, which includes a section on warm ups.)
It has become even more clear as I have gotten older. Nowadays, I know I can't play well until I have a little slow and easy time with my cello. I have finally learned!
But it didn't really hit me that I needed to teach my students how to warm up until very recently. I have been watching my older students suffer. Arthritis and bursitis wreak havoc on their joints and I desperately want to help ease the pain.
Don't forget the bow
The bow hand needs attention as well, of course.
I love to begin each day with slow bows on my open strings at the bridge. It wakes up your bow hand gradually and doesn't ask too much of it at the start. It can also help your cello sound better!
When I first experimented with warming up (in college, of course), I would be in the practice room at 7 am droning on my open strings. This was in the era before my tour of Brazil when I was introduced to coffee for the first time, so there I was trying to warm up at the crack of dawn without any kind of caffeine to help.
Needless to say, a few times I jolted awake to find I had fallen asleep playing my open strings!
Check out this really fun bow warm up page : http://www.stringedtech.com/2013/02/02/bow-warm-up-exercises/
With these invigorating bow games, I guarantee you won't fall asleep during your warm up!
Besides helping ease your body into cello mode in a gentle way, warming up can also prevent playing injuries due to repetitive strain such as tendonitis, and carpal tunnel syndrome. ( I even got something called cubital tunnel syndrome! Luckily, it went away pretty easily, but I still stretch my arms diligently to keep it at bay.)
Cellist Emily Wright knows a thing or two about the injuries one can incur by playing cello. A recent blog post of hers about her injuries that prevent her from playing was so moving and sad. In this post there was a basic plea to all of us:
"So if your teacher tells you your hand is too tense, that the way you’re using your body will cause injury, is only a short term fix, or is unsustainable: please take it seriously, while you still have the option to play without pain. I would give anything to go back and do it all differently if I could."
I am passionate about ergonomic technique as well, but the most important thing we can do to prevent injury is develop a warm up routine and stick to it.
The bottom line
You're going to need some stretching, some bow exercises, some left hand finger motions... All of these must be a part of your warm up routine.
But you don't want to spend all of your valuable practice time just waking up your muscles and joints!
So, to fill the need for a short but effective recipe for warm ups, I have devised an exercise sheet that will take only about 10 minutes of your time. The best part is that any cellist at any age and any level can use it!
Feel free to modify it to fit your needs!
If you want this warm up sheet but can't print it from here, just contact me and I'll be glad to email you a PDF of it!
Learn from a pro
Watch Johnannes Moser and his approach to warming up before playing his cello:
And leave a comment to let me know how you like to warm up!
It's the stuff our nightmares are made of...
But tuning with your pegs doesn't have to be scary. Arm yourself with these tips and face your fear.
You can handle it!