Tuesday, August 01, 2006



We learn to play the cello in a non-discrete manner. We don't master each skill step-by-step, instead improvement is gradual and (to all appearances) never fully complete. So how do we measure these skills? In the Suzuki world, at least, we appear to measure ourselves by what piece we are working on.

In the ICS forum, Cello Chat, so many of the newer players identify themselves by what Suzuki book they are working on (or sometimes, which piece). [Others talk about what grade they are at (apparently some sort of European system, which sets out various pieces and technical skills for each level).] Sometimes a poster will say they are in Suzuki Book 4 after only six months (although a few have described spending two years in Book 3, or whatever). These fast-trackers are usually met with a lot of doubt and sometimes thinly disguised scorn.

How could anyone master all the skills presented in so short a period of time? Can they actually play all the pieces in these books, at tempo, with clarity, precision and beauty? If so, bravo! If not, why are they pushing so quickly? Do they think they will become better players sooner?

I guess it is believable that some students can pick up a new piece and play it through more or less accurately by sight-reading, if that piece is within (or even just above, maybe) their current skill range. But there are so many basic muscle skills that have to be mastered; muscle memories that have to be imprinted; placements of arms, hands, and fingers that have to be worked out; finger changes and bowing strokes that have to be learned. Repetition, repetition, repetition: the only way I know to master the cello. The Suzuki method is carefully designed to teach these things, by working through the pieces one by one (at a macro level, I guess, the learning is stepwise, it's just that we don't necessarily become experts before moving on; often we have to work on them for months before we become any good at them).

In the end, though, skill mastery is in the ear of the beholder. Most of us rely on our teachers to guide us along, to continually direct our attention to our deficiencies with tips and advice on how to improve them. (I wonder how people who have no teacher handle this?) Still, at what point do our teachers give up trying to help us improve a particular point and just accept that we aren't going to get any better at this or that skill, that it's "good enough". And start moving on.

I have read more than a few posts in Cello Chat by mid-level students who describe starting up with a new teacher (for whatever reason - relocation, schedule conflicts, etc.) who immediately take them back one or two "books" and start over at a much earlier level. I'm guessing these teachers aren't yet willing to accept their previous social promotions, at least until they've tried to work on improving these skills themselves.

So, if I report that I've "just begun Book 2", what does that mean? Clearly I'm still in the very early stages of learning the cello, just beginning to work on shifting into second position, still struggling with slurs and string changes, still working on mastering the staccato. However, this doesn't describe my problems with those first nine notes in Bach's Minuet #2, or my struggles with holding the dotted quarter notes in The Happy Farmer for their full count, or my occasional failure to get the B-C-D, B-C-D combination right in Rigadoon.

Has my teacher socially promoted me on these? I don't think so. On my part, I haven't stopped working on them. I haven't put them aside. I still play these challenges daily (except for the mini-vacation I'm taking from the Minuet). I am still improving on these.

But now I've come back to my original question. How do we measure the progress of a cello student? What is good? Who decides? I'm nowhere near accomplished enough to be able to say one cellist's performance is better than another's. Heck, I'm only just beginning to be able to tell the difference, and quite imperfectly at that. How do I know if I'm any good?

Is my teacher just humoring me? I guess it is largely depending on my goals at the time. Obviously, if I wanted to become a concert soloist, I would hope my teacher (after seriously trying to convince me that I was crazy) would be pushing me pretty hard to perfect each point along the way. However, since my goals aren't that lofty, I'm assuming she's continually assessing me against the vague and rather ill-defined goals that I have set out. Based on that, I assume she will not be pressing for perfection at any level. The degree of acceptablity is probably going to be a flexible and moving target as I move along. Obviously, too, since my lessons are two weeks apart, she would be in a great position to make incremental assessments of my progress.

Midnight Sun Trio

The Kenai Peninsula Orchestra is hosting its Summer Music Festival, which includes a series of luncheon concerts. Today, I had the pleasure of listening to an hour of the Midnight Sun Trio playing at "Charlotte's Restaurant" in Kenai. Two violins and a cello, apparently college-aged, they were quite talented and seemed to have fun together.

I was disappointed that the lunch crowd didn't show much respect by keeping quiet (or at least muting their conversations). From what I could tell, less than a half dozen of us were there to hear the music, the rest of the crowd was there for lunch and may or may not have appreciated the music as background for their own conversations. I really wanted to stand up and say a word or two about courtesy, but realized that it wouldn't do any good, and would just make people angry - and probably embarrass the musicians. I guess that is one of the crosses performing musicians have to bear.

I am looking forward to several more luncheon concerts, as well as a few more formal presentations in concert settings. I am hopeful some of the other venues will be a little more supportive of the musicians.

Grades are European, but Canada uses the system as well. You're asked to prepare a few pieces (depends on the grade), and you play them in front of an examiner. They ask you for some scales and arpeggios in different styles, and then you have to do some sight reading. You also have to listen to them play some notes, and tell them what they are.

It's stressful, but you have a good idea of where someone is at musically when they tell which grade they're working on.

I know the discussion you're talking about - I can see where she's coming from in terms of wanting to be further along. When you play a different instrument well, it's so frustrating to be stuck at a beginner level on another one. She probably has rushed herself a bit, but you just can't escape the learning curve.

I've made a bit of peace with that frustration. Hopefully she will too.
Sometimes you just need some time away from a certain technique, even if you haven't yet mastered it. Then after a little while, you go back, and suddenly it's easier! It's not a very linear process. After 20 years of playing, I still have to practice shifts and double-stops and all those things I "learned" long ago. :)
Thanks, Erin and Jennifer, for taking the time to comment on my rambling attempts to make sense of the cello. I have followed both of your blogs for some time now; and I am always fascinated to see others discuss their relationship with their instruments.

Brava to you Erin for joining an orchestra so soon after starting the cello. Do/did you play your flute in any similar orchestral setting? Even if such a group were available locally, I don't think I'd even approach them for another year or so (although I do look forward to our next group recital, because of the opportunity to play with others.)

Yes, sometimes (like the day before rehearsal, today!) I question my sanity for joining this orchestra so early. I know I need the motivation of playing with other people though, so I'm well aware it's a necessity for me to keep on track.

For flute, I played in school a lot, concert bands, jazz band (played saxophone there actually), pit orchestras for amateur musicals (that was everything from piccolo to every saxophone from baritone to soprano) and in small chamber ensembles for random conferences, and some solo with accompaniment for gallery opening type stuff. I did perform with our school orchestra when they needed some woodwinds, but I hardly practised with them, just once before performance.

The orchestra I joined is very very mellow and quite accepting of everyone learning. They take you even if you've never played music, there are tutors who will teach you from day 1. I'm currently playing with a chamber subset that are people who are a bit more experienced, but not a lot. I think I'm over my head a bit, but I'm making a go of it anyway.
Well, as time goes by I'm coming to the conclusion that a lot of it is discrete learning (I posted about that on CBN). It's just that the elements we learn are so inter-related, if you don't understand one element, the whole thing fall down. It's something that really hasn't occurred to me until the last few months (I'm at the 3 and 1/2 year point. Has it been that long? Sheesh, it's gone by fast).

It seems to me the good teachers are especially good at diagnosing what the not-yet-learned elements are. Ah, but the best teachers teach the student how to diagnose the yet-to-be-learned element.
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