Friday, November 28, 2008


Three Years

Today marks three years since I drove up to Anchorage on a whim and rented a cello. I had planned to give it a few months just in case this was nothing more than a passing phase. Within days I was completely hooked; and started thinking about taking formal lessons. It didn't take long before I began looking for my own cello to replace the crappy plywood rental. By the time my new Jay-Haide a l'ancienne cello arrived in late February I think I finally began to appreciate the magnitude of the challenge I'd taken on. Now, 2,300 hours of practicing later, I still see myself as a novice with so much more to learn.

This all takes so much self-control. It's hard setting aside two to three hours a day, every day, and not succumbing to all the other temptations that seem to spring up. There have been many days when I felt like skipping it "just this one time". But (almost) every time I've managed to convince myself to get everything out and get started. The hardest part, after the setup and tuning, always seems to be those first ten minutes of warmup - doing those long bow strokes on the open strings and then starting in on the scales. Somewhere in doing those scales, I lose track of time and I find myself fully immersed in the process, concentrating on the quality of each sound and the accuracy of each note. Two hours pass rapidly as I work on my lessons. Usually I'll stop at that point, but once in a while I'll turn to something different and lose myself for another half an hour or more, before I have to give up in exhaustion.

Progress has been slow and uneven. Some techniques come rather quickly, while others continue to elude me even after hundreds of repetitions. Once in a while one of those impossible segments just "pops" in. This week after months of working on those Breval string crossings, they finally came out right. What a rush that was - the best part was this happened during a lesson! Most of my progress has been achingly slow and mostly unmeasurable (to me), but some of that progress has been these types of "jumps".

I've come to understand certain things about myself these past few years as I struggle with my cello: humility, patience, persistence, endurance, denial, laziness, fear, frustration, anger, boredom (and so on). Studying the cello has helped me find and expand some of the strengths in myself and to chip away at some of those failings. I think I've overcome a lot of my self-doubts. I do know where I've improved, for the most part. I think I understand what learning methods work for me and what don't seem to work, and I admit it still takes me a while, sometimes, to acknowledge certain deficiencies in technique and apply myself to the painstaking work needed to fix them. On the other hand, I have no illusions of how much more I have to learn, and I think I know where I'm still not ready to go, yet.

One thing that I'm quite sure about - I am fully invested emotionally in what I'm doing, and I have no intention of slowing down or deviating from this path I'm on. I have no idea what else I'll be doing a year from now, but I know I'll still be studying the cello.

This also marks three years for this blog. Today's entry is #458. I only posted 95 entries in the past year. For some reason blogging has become more and more complicated...

Progress Report on Year 3 Goals and New Goals for Year 4

These are the goals I listed one year ago for my third year of cello playing. Some of them, as I quickly figured out, are actually long-term goals. As I've discussed so frequently, being able to measure these goals is not that simple. Finishing a lesson book doesn't necessarily mean I don't still need to continue improving each one. It might be more realistic to look at these as skills I want to improve each successive year.

Learn vibrato - I am doing drills daily; I've started playing a few scales with vibrato; and I'm getting closer to being able to actually use it while playing;

Finish Suzuki Book 3
- I finished this last summer; but I'm not satisfied with many of the pieces, so I've been working to refine them, one-by-one;

Improve bow hold
- I'm practicing the "paint brush" hold, using my wrist and shifting balance on up vs. down bow;

Relax bowing arm
- I've had some improvement; this will be a permanent goal - always room for improvement;

Improve sight-reading skills
- Well, just a little; especially since I've started working on the etudes;

Improve intonation
- I am better at this at home than during lessons(?); this is clearly a permanent goal;

Develop an awareness and control of breathing
- Not much progress yet;

Start playing in the "upper" positions
- I've started playing a few phrases in 5th with some forays into 7th, also scales;

Learn thumb position
- I'll probably start this somewhere in the coming year (?);

Tenor clef
- This comes at the end of Book 4;

Experiment with the electronic cello
- Not much progress;

Practice 1,000 hours in Year #3 (working on that 10,000-hour goal)
- I practiced about 850 hours in the last year, for a total of 2,300 hrs;

Growth with the Central Peninsula Youth and Community (strings) Orchestra
- To date we've given 11 performances of varying types; this group varies in size and experience from season to season; for the most part, I find it challenging but within reach;

Growth with Cellocracy
- To date we've given 8 performances including a really successful performance in October; and we have at least three Christmas gigs scheduled;

Join the Redoubt Chamber Orchestra (eventually)
- I sat in two times in October, but I decided I was not ready to join them yet, maybe next year...;

Join the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra (some day)
- this is a long, long-term goal.

(NEW) Complete 2/3 of Position Etude Book

(NEW) Complete 1/2 of Mooney's Double-Stops Book

(NEW) Rhythm studies - Clapping exercises from Music Theory book

(NEW) Play faster with accuracy

(NEW) Relax while playing (goes with breathing)

(NEW) Increase stamina (goes with relaxing)

(NEW) Improve overall quality of sound (goes with intonation, bow control)

(NEW) Music theory - Understand the structure of music (in progress)

(NEW) Improvisation

Thanks for your blog. It´s interesting to read all your feelings with your cello. I am learning too.
Phew. What a list. And all those practice hours! I came today looking for inspiration and I found it. I am trying to determine my own next year's goals and I needed some ideas.

Was there a reason you set 10,000 hours as one of your longest-term goals? (You probably explained elsewhere on this site but perhaps you could point me toward it.) I think Malcolm Gladwell's new book, which I haven't read, talks about that number as an essential mastery number in many areas.
This is definitely the place to come for cello inspiration!

Way to go, Guanaco!
I haven't read Gladwell's book yet, either. There was a lot of discussion in some of the music blogs about his 10,000 hour theory when it was first published. Assuming I can keep up my current practice schedule, I'll reach that mark in just nine more years. :)
Congratulations on your third year. Your blog is an inspiration and where I come when i start thinking about throwing in the towel. Thanks!
It sounds to me like you're doing a wonderful job learning the world's most beautiful musical instrument, and it's even better to read that you still enjoy it despite occasional frustrations. Thanks so much for writing about your experience.
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