There are thousands of years of wisdom that we can borrow from to keep our cellozilla mojo flowing smoothly. Stretching, breathing techniques, proper posture and setup, and slow, careful approach to practicing are all ways to make your cello experience a happy and productive one.
Stretches are a great way to keep you limber and less prone to injury. I’ve described a few stretches on my other website. I don’t recommend that you stretch much until you’ve warmed up with slow scales to get the blood flowing—then, take a break and stretch some. Never over-stretch to a point of discomfort or pain; always move slowly and easily into any stretches you do. It’s always a good idea to stretch again when you finish practicing, even for a few minutes. Check out this Stretches video for some examples.
Breathing—always a good idea, right? How we breathe when we’re playing is pretty important; we want to avoid catching our breath as we play, and there are techniques you can do to learn to keep the breath flowing. I describe a few techniques I learned from Karen Tuttle in michaelreynoldscello.com/the-complete-cellist/, and my Breathing video shows a few examples of how to integrate good breathing techniques into your playing. Open strings, scales and slow Bach are great mediums for breathing integration.
Posture and setup
How you sit has an enormous effect on everything you do. It’s important to cultivate a posture that allows your cellozilla mojo to flow smoothly, keep your body in balance, and allow the breath to move freely. Good posture has a great effect on the setup of your arms; check out my Posture and setup video for some ideas.
How to Practice
How to practice is a big subject, but here are a few adages and ideas that can help.
- If you want to learn something quickly, practice it slowly.
- When you’re first learning something, try really hard to never make a mistake—mistakes are the first thing your muscle memory remembers. Slow is good!
- When you learn something slowly, you’re developing what I’d call good cello Tai Chi—everything is moving fluidly, smoothly and in good balance. This will help build a performance that will stand up to any challenges by Cellozilla!
- If you do make a mistake, stop and fix it 5 times (at least), then go back a bar or so and go through it to make sure your muscle memory has been updated. Then go back several more bars and run it over (I call this the “roadkill” technique).
- Approach technical issues through scales, bowing variations and rhythmic variations. Sometimes it takes attack from several angles to subdue Cellozilla.
- Do some work with no vibrato to be sure you have good intonation and left hand balance (and then do some work with vibrato on every note—if it’s slow enough—to avoid a stop-start vibrato).
- Memorize small sections, to help develop your listening skills (and better memory). Important: when you memorize, work up slowly to avoid injecting mistakes into your muscle memory.
A story here: Leonard Rose once told me that when he practiced a concerto, he would start at the beginning, play it through, and if he made a mistake, even on the last note, he’d go back—all the way to the beginning! Now that’s a true Cellozilla…
Bach is a great teacher for learning how to practice. Some ideas:
- First practice a section very slowly to attack intonation, tone, bow distribution and to think about phrasing—all at once.
- Do some intonation work like I describe in the intonation section of Scales and Arpeggios, where you line up each note (when possible) with an open string through fourths or octaves. Also check any fourths in the hand, lined up with open strings.
- Always be thinking about bow distribution—the great violinist Joseph Silverstein calls the bow your bank account; you’re always saving and spending bow. Slow scale work is a great way to get money into your bow bank. Contact point, bow angle and bow speed are all things to pay close attention to for many reasons—your bow bank account, good tone production, and musical character to name a few.