There I am, a teenager, preparing for a solo performance, and my piece sounds horrible. Each time I play it, a new thing goes wrong. It seems to be falling apart the more I play it. I can't understand why. I am "practicing" it how i was taught--it should get better. But it's not.
I start thinking that I must just suck at cello. That's not a helpful feeling to experience while getting ready to play for judges.
Many of my students are gearing up for a recital this Sunday, and I have been working hard to ensure that they are not experiencing the gut-wrenching helplessness that I described above.
After 8 years of spinning my wheels with my practice techniques, I started studying with Martha Gerschefski. She slowly and patiently showed me the way to empower myself with effective practice.
Here's what I learned and what I try to instill in my students with broken-record-like repetition:
FIGHT THE URGE TO PLAY THROUGH YOUR PIECE OVER AND OVER!
When a concert looms in your future, you will be tempted to run through your piece constantly. It seems to be a natural instinct. I had it. You have it. Everyone, when left to their own devices, wants to do that.
You must fight this impulse because it is the worst thing you can do! You will find that, instead of getting better, your piece starts slowly disintegrating. Mistakes and problem areas do not get the attention they need to be "fixed," and they just perpetuate themselves.
You can allow yourself a run-through once per day for assessment purposes and to practice performing, but that's it. No more than that.
PRACTICE AS IF YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN THE PIECE BEFORE!
What I heard shocked me so much that I still remember it an embarrassingly-large number of years later.
There were no phrases being sculpted and imbued with passion. There was no playing of phrases at all. What I heard was a set of two notes being repeated over and over again. Then another snippet repeated slowly.
Over and over again.
What about test driving your piece?!
If any of you have heard Andres Diaz play, you know this man knows what he is doing with the cello. It turns out he was doing exactly what should be done in the practice room--at any stage of learning a piece! I just didn't know it yet.
- FIND THE SCARY SPOTS: Maybe you know where they are already--but in case you haven't pinpointed them, start a run-through and stop immediately when there is something that doesn't go how you would like. Don't play to the end or you will forget where it was (or at least i always did!). Repeat this step all the way through the piece until you have identified all the problem areas. (Beware the mistakes that "have never happened before." Do not dismiss them as one-time mistakes. Any time you miss something, think of that "flub" as the only way your body can tell you that it doesn't understand how to execute something and you need to train it a little more).
- DIAGNOSE EXACTLY WHAT THE PROBLEM IS: Play the measure or small set of notes slowly. Examine them. Play them slowly as many times as you need to figure it out. Ask yourself, why is this not working right? Figure out the problem. Is the bow missing a string crossing? Is the left hand not comfortable with a shift? Keep in mind that if you do not diagnose the EXACT problem, it will not ever get better. Just playing it again and again does nothing. You must figure out what the problem is. In my practice, I do this by asking questions. What is going on here? What does my body not understand? (I find it really helps to personify your physical self as a different thing you are trying to communicate with and train. Do not expect that just because you know something in your mind it will translate to the correct action.)
- IMPLEMENT A RETRAINING STRATEGY: Once you get the problem figured out, develop a gameplan for fixing the problem. An uncomfortable shift needs mindful repetition, slurring from bottom to top note and back, always while you are listening for good intonation--possibly with a drone on one of the notes to keep you in tune as you move back and forth. Repeat until the shift feels easy. Try with the regular bowing then. If it isn't easy, it needs MORE repetition. If your bow is acting up, mindful, slow open string work will help. Try to play a small area with no left hand--just the bow, so that you are training it by itself with no left hand stealing your attention. Get it to feel comfortable with the open strings (remember this should be just a small set of notes) then try with left hand slowly. Repeat many times--again, until it feels comfortable. Then you can start putting it into context. Add more notes before the area. Then after the area. If it ever gets difficult again, go back to slow easy treatment. Remember: if you "flub" or things don't feel easy, your body is communicating to you that it needs more training. You must listen to it and go back and train the motion even more. Figure out what your body needs from you, its only coach.
- MAINTAIN THE TRAINING: All through the time you are practicing a piece (no matter how many months), most of your time needs to be devoted to this type of training. If a section has EVER been a problem, it will be again--unless you preemptively practice it as a possible trouble spot every day. So, address all the technical problems with this mindful training everyday. With each day's play-through, you can find more areas of concern--add them to your list of areas to work on the next time.
If you practice this way, you will find that your worries are relieved bit by bit. Difficult passages get easier! But this takes discipline--the repetition can be extremely tedious. However, if you are always approaching practice with an idea of how to make your performance easier, it can become something that is incredibly meaningful and relaxing--like you are constructing a wonderful gift of confidence and ease to give to your future self.