Being Better Than You Have To Be

What do I think is the hardest thing about playing the cello in public?

Getting from note to note in tune, in time, with a good sound, and in a manner both determined by expressiveness and contributing to expressiveness.

(Oh, is that all?)

Sometimes getting from note to note is relatively easy. Other times, it isn’t. We all know where the hard bits are, those spots that are high-pitched, or full of awkward double stops, or frenetically fast, or extremely slow, or hard to tune, or hard to coordinate, or all of the above. 

The real question is why we keep messing them up in performance even when we’ve practised them repeatedly. The painful answer is usually that we haven’t practised them in a failsafe manner. We might have repeated them a lot, but chances are we’ve “glossed over” the source of the problem without really sorting out how to get from point A to point B under pressure.

Last week, after I published an essay on stage fright on my personal website, a reader shared how he overcame his own anxiety--by unshakably mastering what he had to do so that he was secure in the knowledge that if something went amiss in performance, he could handle it.

This is a great point. I’d take it one step further. In practice, we should be even better than a master, so that if stage fright strikes to the point of lessening our capacities, we can still play like a master.

To do this, let’s assemble some tools. I call these the “cellist’s best friends.” You’ll need a drone device, a recording device, and a metronome. More on those later.

Next, let’s set a goal. This doesn’t have to be “sound like Yo Yo Ma.” A more reasonable one might be “Learn the run at the beginning of the Schumann Concerto so that I can always play it in tempo with every note in tune.” (See page 95-98 of Cello Practice, Cello Performance for my preparatory etude for this concerto.) 

The practice methods we’re about to use work best in the early stages of learning repertoire to pre-empt ever having a trouble spot. By breaking difficult sections down into short excerpts, we can figure out intermediary steps for seamlessly getting from place to place. You also can use these methods to relearn a passage that you habitually stumble over, though this takes longer than learning it right the first time. (For an accessible scientific explanation of why, read The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.)

Step One: Tuning, One Note At A Time

Let’s turn on an E drone at a volume of around 70 decibels, i.e. a bit louder than the volume of your playing. You want it to be pretty loud so that you can "play into" the resonance.

Now let’s work on a passage from the standard repertoire. I’ve chosen a tricky spot in the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6. (The fingerings suggested are my own, but the exercise will work with any fingering.)

 Johann Sebastian Bach, Suite No. 6 in D Major BWV 1012,  Prelude,    mm. 67-69

Johann Sebastian Bach, Suite No. 6 in D Major BWV 1012, Prelude, mm. 67-69

We’re going to build this up one more note at a time, stopping on each subsequent note to make sure we’re still perfectly in tune relative to the drone.

 Miranda Wilson, preparatory etude for mm. 67-68 of Bach's  Prelude  from Suite No. 6 in D Major, BWV 1012

Miranda Wilson, preparatory etude for mm. 67-68 of Bach's Prelude from Suite No. 6 in D Major, BWV 1012

Repeat each measure 10-20 times accurately before moving on to the next measure, where we’ll add one more note. Caution: this won’t work if you allow yourself to play any of the notes out of tune. If you keep hitting a note out of tune, go back to the previous measure and work on getting the previous notes right so that you can figure out why getting to the next one doesn’t work. You’ll only play accurately in performance if you’re always accurate in practice.

Step Two: Troubleshoot With Self-Recordings

Things won’t always go perfectly. Take a hard look (and a hard listen) at what you’re doing on video. Using your phone, take several short selfie videos from different angles and watch them frame-by-frame to analyze problems.

Factors you should consider include, but aren’t limited to: 

Drone practice should be part of your daily workout. But turn off the drone from time to time too, and notice how much your intonation has improved. When you work on relative pitch, you build muscle memory too, and your body remembers how it feels to play in tune.

Step Three: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

In the first stages of note-crunching a hard passage like this one from Bach’s Sixth Prelude, it’s fine to play considerably under your goal tempo so that you can sort out the logistics of how you’re going to move from place to place accurately. But in general, I’m not a fan of habitually playing very slow, at least not as a cure-all. Slow practice has its place, of course, but we need to get hard passages up to tempo as soon as possible in the learning process, because tempo affects our choices of fingerings, bowings, articulations, and more.

Let’s say the goal tempo for the Bach is dotted quarter = 120. So we’ll start at half tempo (60 bpm) and practice the passage until it’s fluent and perfectly in tune. Now, put the metronome at 70. It may or may not feel like a bit of a scramble, but work for a while to figure out how it feels. Now put the metronome back 5 clicks to 65, and notice how easy this is now. Next, go forward another 10 clicks, back another 5, forward another 10 and so on until you reach 120.

You just taught yourself to play faster using a method that’s far more efficient and effective than the old-school, inch-it-upwards method.

Now, keep working on this until you can play the passage fluently at 140, or 150. That is, faster than it “needs” to be.

Finally, take it back to the hypothetical goal of 120, and hey presto, it’s easy because you’ve trained yourself to be better than you need to be.

(As you get closer to a first performance of new repertoire, you should keep the metronome at the goal tempo so that it sticks in your memory.)

Other Ideas For Being Better Than You Have To Be

  • At the opposite end of the tempo spectrum, if you’re playing an extremely slow piece such as Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, where you have to play very long note values at quarter note = 100, try practising it at quarter note = 80, adjusting your arm weight, contact point, and bow speed accordingly. Many of a have the tendency to run out of bow in performance, often getting the dreaded shakes in the process. This method trains you to pull the bow more slowly than you need to so you can “split the difference” when you’re nervous.
  • Get better than you need to be at a passage in arpeggiated chords by adding double stops to ensure that your hand shaping and thumb placement are perfectly correct. Click here to download a free PDF of some more preparatory etudes I wrote for Bach's D Major Prelude

Conclusion

If you want difficult spots to flow smoothly in performance, you have to practise them mindfully. What happens in performance directly reflects what has happened in practice. If you regularly stumble over a spot when you perform it for other people, chances are you’ve skipped over it in the practice room without truly understanding what conditions must be in place for it to be failsafe.

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Notes on equipment

  • Drone: I really like the Cello Drones CD by Marcia Sloane on my stereo because it brings out the second overtone as well as the fundamental. There are many drone apps, but if you’re using a mobile device, make sure you plug in speakers to get the drone loud enough. If the drone is too quiet, you have to play with a weak tone to hear it, and all you’ll be teaching yourself then is how to play with a weak tone. (You can measure decibels with any number of free smartphone apps.)
  • Recording device: the video cameras on most smartphones are perfectly adequate for the practice room. You may also want to invest in a phone tripod. This one has worked well for my Samsung and Nexus phones. 
  • For occasions that demand a better picture and sound quality, I also use a Zoom video camera.
  • Metronome: I use Dr. Beat in my studio, but when I'm on the road I use the Tonal Energy Tuner, a multipurpose app that also has a drone function and a number of other fantastic things.