Tuesday, December 08, 2009


Trying to Refocus

Over the past couple months I've spent way too much time fretting about what I can't (yet) do rather than face up to the long slow learning process in front of me. This negativity has led to a whole lot of abruptly terminated practice sessions. [It's been many years since I took out my frustrations on whatever inanimate object was at "fault" - I remember long ago slinging a cheap plastic circular saw way off into the woods after failing to produce a half-way decent bevel on a 2x6 framing piece.] Obviously I respect my cello enough to not do anything stupid like that, even though I won't deny that a tiny part of me has been tempted.

I've spent a lot of time this past week trying to convince myself not to quit - just sell the cellos and move on... Why put up with all the aggravation?

I've been here before, of course, but this time it's been pretty tough. The trouble is that this all comes after a positive sense of growth over the spring and summer, followed by several months trying to get ready for that Halloween concert. At first I was really flattered to be invited to sit in with the orchestra. But although I devoted an awful lot of time trying to learn the music and get them up to speed, in the end, the concerts were not an enjoyable experience. Whether it was due to excessive perfectionism or simply a heightened self-consciousness about displaying my abilities (and lack of), I just wasn't able to relax and have fun. After that I bailed on the upcoming Christmas concert, and quickly found myself in a spiral of critical introspection.

So why, then, am I doing this? All of a sudden nothing sounds good, my intonation is sloppy, my timing is off, my speed sucks, and my sight-reading is worse than ever.

Today, I took just one piece (one of the Bach Minuets in Suzuki 4) and worked through it measure-by-measure, first pizzicato then bowed, starting slow and playing it over and over, each time increasing the metronome by a notch. It was not a perfect practice session, but I hope assume it will pay off eventually. Tomorrow is my next lesson...

My erhu arrived in the mail today. I was able to spend just a few minutes trying it out - poor Matilda, she howled on every note.

I have been playing the mandolin for about the same amount of time as you've been playing the cello and all fall I was in the same place you write about here. The anger, the feeling overwhelmed, the desire to quit. I think this is part and parcel of the learning process. For me, realizing the normality and almost inevitability of my frustration helped me get beyond it, mostly. And I got most of that realization from reading your blog. So, thanks, and keep on playing. Play for yourself; play to enjoy the process of playing, without worrying about "getting better". Just keep playing.
I hope you don't quit! The beginners who look up to you need you!
Thank you for your 'encouraging' comments; although they may be an expression of frustration for you, as a beginning cellist (I hesitate to even use the word - this is my third year of lessons) they help me to see that my meager progress is not a sign of 'basic inability' but rather homage to the difficulty in learning to play such a wonderful instrument!
I have a true story for you:

I still have to work on my intonation. My bow will still skate from time to time. Cello is hard. :)

I'll give you two things to think about going forward.

1) the cello reflects us. I don't know if the negativity is because of the cello, but rather part of a cycle. I find that if I am already negative and not open to dealing with it, then my sound is not rewarding, the physical experience of playing is not good, and then I feel even worse. And although I would never take anything out on the cello, there is a page in my favorite edition of the 5th Suite with a hole in it from a sharp whack from a bow.

2) As you progress, your standards go up. What was once acceptable is not good enough for the more sophisticated ear. Not only that, but if you're not really mindful about your technique, it is completely possible to have a great sounding session one day and a lousy one the next. How? If you do something great accidentally then it's hard to reproduce. That's why practice should be about the details. If you are aware of your technique, then when the sound suddenly tanks or becomes crystal clear "tonalization" heaven, you can see it's because you did x, y, or z.

Don't give up. Just add this experience to the landscape of your cello life. It makes it deeper, richer, to suffer with it sometimes. Practice for me! I'm going to be out of commission with this dang surgery for at least a month. I'd give anything for a magically healed ulnar nerve.
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