How to Practice

Practicing is an art learned over time.  The instruction through seminars and private lessons, which is offered by Deborah Johnston can advance your efficiency in achieving focused practice techniques and habits.  With her assistance, you can achieve remarkable day-to-day advancement in the musician’s art.  The lessons and seminars are available to cellists, but any instrumentalist — especially string players — can benefit immensely from this instruction.  Here, we offer some introductory material to whet your appetite for more.

Here’s what Deb has to say:

If you are having private cello lessons, this usually means that you are under the guidance of your teacher for only one hour or so per week.  Many of my students have joked about taking me, their teacher, home with them in order that I supervise their practice sessions.  Helping my students learn how to practice well on their own is a huge part of my job.  As a young professional cellist it was imperative to learn how to achieve results of ever increasing quality as quickly as possible.

My advice to my students is based on years as an aspiring student myself, and decades as a professional cellist and teacher.  I have come to know and continue to learn, what works and what doesn’t work.

I will let you in on a little secret:  My whole lifetime I have been privileged to be able to do what I love as my job!

Environment Matters

It might be easy to lose motivation to get down to cello practice if you do not have a regular, comfortable and private place in which to work free of disturbance.  Turn off your phone, doorbell, husband/brother/baby sister or thoughts of tomorrow’s biology exam, your urgent shopping list, the argument you had with your employer, or anything else which will disturb your concentration.

Although playing for fun or sight reading new pieces is healthy and pleasurable, make sure you have a rough plan for your serious practice session:  What do you want to achieve by the end of it?  How long do you plan to practice?

Once you start, never work for more than 45 minutes without a mini-break, even if that only means walking around the room twice.

Repetition-Repetition-Repetition-Repetition-Repetition-Repetition-Repetition… (You get the idea)

I’m afraid it’s true:  Practice really does make perfect.

But here is the proviso:  Most folks will not isolate the specific problem.  Much time is wasted in going over all the notes or measures which went really well in the first place.  Meanwhile, the bad shift, wrong rhythm, or the one out of tune note has not been isolated and fixed.  (Remember, if you have played something wrong five times in a row, you have practiced it wrong five times in a row.)

It is an exciting challenge to develop the habit of first going straight to the most problematic areas in a piece or your playing in general.  To do this requires real personal honesty, humility and patience.  How much more pleasant to bask in the warm glow of achievement over everything you can already play without any real difficulty!  The great news is that once you have “fixed” the biggest problems in a single measure or an entire piece, the whole measure or piece can be well played.

Why Practice Every Day?

Playing the cello is a much more complex activity than it first appears to be.  First off, music is a physical activity.  Like any good athlete, training becomes an important daily habit and pleasure necessary to success.  But music demands so much of us:  Rhythm, pitch, very precise motor movement, large muscle movement (the bow arm), super concentration and mental flexibility.  Then add to this the magic ingredients of phrasing, style, interpretation, a myriad of possible changes in sonority, musical direction and dynamics.

The honing of all these skills is something akin to athletic training while simultaneously taking an SAT or MENSA test.  Of course, for all who have discovered just how much sheer innocent fun and joy it can be, it may become almost impossible to tear us away from the instrument.  (And just wait until we talk about the joys of playing chamber music!)

Every regular practice session yields some small success.  So doing it every day is a great idea.  For the purpose of self expression, your goal is to make the cello an extension of yourself, so handling it regularly breeds comfort, familiarity and an ever-increasing skill level.

So why are you reading this rather than pummelling away on that three octave E Flat Harmonic Minor scale, or Bach Prelude No. 1 on your cello?


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