The Twin Goals of Practice

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By Miranda Wilson

“How should I practise?” This is the most frequently asked question of cellists at all levels. It’s far more common than “How many hours a day should I practise?”, because we all know the answer to that one: that is, as many hours as we want to, need to, and can feasibly devote without neglecting our human needs and human responsibilities.

I devoted most of my book, Cello Practice, Cello Performance, to strategies for quality practice that works toward a performance goal, and in doing so I made the assumption that the reader had a lot of practice time. Throughout the chapters, I suggested methods for the most efficient uses of our bodies in the service of expressive interpretation. Today, I want to follow up on these with some perspective about planning and purpose in the practice room.

The real question isn’t about how to practise. It’s about what practice is for.

On the most basic level, the answer to this question is that practice is supposed to make you better. Therefore, every practice session must work on producing and re-producing sounds that will compel a listener to keep listening. Every cellist has their own specific goals and structures for practice, and that’s great. But good practice needs only two broad goals. I call them the twin goals. If you use them — searchingly and mindfully — every time you practise, you’ll improve.

  • Fundamentals. The fundamental building brick of music-making is your sound. Intonation is an inextricable part of sound. Vibration, however you augment it or don’t augment it, is part of sound. This is why practice must always encompass the basic movements that go into the service of expression.

  • Musicianship, without which there is no point in making music. We must read and know and comprehend full scores so that we can accurately render pitch, rhythm, and form — in other words, the small- and large-scale architectures of what we’re trying to express.

All cellists who practise using twin goals will get better. Some cellists have more practice time than others, so it’s only logical that those who practise more using these twin goals will get better than those who practise less. If you have an important recital or audition coming up, of course you’ll practise more. If you’re recovering from an injury and attempting to change your fundamental movements, you’ll practise less. And that’s OK. The twin goals make even a five-minute practice session worthwhile.

There are some occasions when we cannot work on both skills in practice. Sometimes we may be without a cello — whether it’s on vacation, or because of injury — but we can still sit with a score and increase musicianship that way.

There are occasions when we have neither a cello nor a score, but if we’re determined nothing can deter us from practising. Even trapped in a plane seat on a long-haul flight, lying in a hospital bed, or — God forbid — in prison, a musician can practice by virtue of memory and imagination. There is evidence that musician prisoners held captive for several years can avoid breakdown by obsessively going over and over the motions of playing an instrument in their minds, by thinking so hard about musical scores that given a pencil and staff paper, they could write down a full symphony from memory.

I find this incredibly powerful. Music and memory and hope are what makes this all worthwhile. Music consoles us, energizes us, keeps us alive.