North Carolina Cello Society Fall Practicing Workshop "All about Practicing".
by Jane Salemson.
Hosted by Brent Wissick at UNC-Chapel Hill, panelists, teachers and students of all ages convened together for a fun and very informative afternoon. It was all in a very relaxed atmosphere so that everyone felt comfortable reading through music and asking questions of the panelists. After an hour or so of Cello choir music from Brahms' Canons, to Red Rose Rag, Vertigogh, Thunderer Sousa and "Heartache" by Max Reger, it was the turn of panelists Susan Gardner, Debbie Davis, Doris Powers, Alex Ezerman, Tim Holley and Brent Wissick. Each panelist had a different slant on practicing techniques, so we all were the recipients of many ideas for mulling them over and tailoring those that fit our individual needs. Debbie says "a new concept (to me, at least) was the term, "proprioception," a concept which figured strongly in Dr. Alex Ezerman's presentation. Here is the Wikipedia definition (in part): "Proprioception...is the sense of the relative position of one's own parts of the body and strength ... perceptual information about joint position and movement"...
Here is Dr. Timothy Holley's precis of his presentation.
Dr. Timothy Holley, North Carolina Central University (NCCU)
Title: Thoughts on Practicing…While Learning…A New Solo Cello Work…
Introduction: “Habit, Posture and Technique”
Our fingers and hands have natural habits that develop into our postural formation; the study of cello technique is the investigation of our respective hand and finger habits, and the ways in which our digital habits develop at the instrument over time.
The Main Topic, and its connection to practicing: Learning a new work…that no one has played before…ever:
This “process” of editing, learning and practicing actually unfolds in at least three (3) stages (and these stages take more than one run-through!!): a. the “fumble read” through the work, one short section at a time; b. the investigation of the writing, and its technical challenges for either the left hand or the bow; c. Larger challenges, such as the development of “ear and finger memory”, rhythmic and melodic phrasing, and the consideration of alternate means of “playing the same notes but making different music at the same time.”
Dr. Doris Powers Director, UNC Introductory Chamber Music Program, June 4, 2008
APPROACHING STRING QUARTET PRACTICE
Adapted for North Carolina Cello Society Blog, October 17, 2017
EFFECTIVE PRACTICE ROUTINE
• Play through a movement.
o As you play, remember and make note of the rough places that need work.
▪ For example, A to B, or mm. 15 to 20
o Make a practice list of “rough places.”
• Begin practice session with Rough Place #1
o Using a score, practice the instrumental parts that are similar.
▪ For example, depending on how the piece is written at that point, rehearse the passage several times with combinations of players, such as:
vln 1 and cello, orvln 1 and vla, or
vln 2 and viola, orvln 1, vln 2, vla, etc.
o Then when the passage goes well, all players join in playing the passage CORRECTLY three consecutive times.
▪ Now, if you mess up at any point along the way, set your counter back to one !!!
▪ Repeat (and repeat and repeat!) until you play the passage CORRECTLY three consecutive times.
o After mastering the task of playing correctly three times, then play a larger section including before and after the Rough Place #1,
• Move on to “woodshedding” Rough Place #2 following the same procedure as for Rough Place #1. And so on.
Ervin Schiffer (1932-2014), Hungarian-born violist and pedagogue, introduced and used this routine during the more than 20 summers he coached at UNC’s Adult Chamber Music Workshop. He served for many years as Professor of Viola, Royal Conservatory of Brussels, and was a highly regarded chamber musician (Haydn Quartet, Tahor Quartet) and coach throughout Europe (Morges International Summer Master Classes).
G O A L S
• Each player needs to know his/her part in relation to all the other parts.
• Listening to a recording and studying a score serve as invaluable resources.
o Mark important cues in your part—in pencil.
• When playing, listen to all the parts while playing your own part.
• Solve intonation problems by playing and holding each note from the lowest sounding note (cello?) to the highest sounding note (violin 1?).
• The cellist serves as the foundation of the quartet, and is responsible for holding a steady tempo without rushing. The cellist is also the gate keeper for establishing correct pitch upon which the other players build their intonation.
• Pay attention to a composer’s expressions and articulations. Score study is a wonderful tool for spotting special moments. Surprising harmonies can be a call for an interpretive change, as does an unusual inclusion, perhaps the repetition of a motive just before the Development and the Recapitulation, serving as a call for a major structural change. Most important, shape a movement or a work’s flow of feelings in a fashion that touches the hearts of the listeners. Students, amateurs, and professionals can all walk down this interpretive path in varying extents.
“The very existence of music is wonderful, I might even say miraculous. Its domain is between thought and phenomena. Like a twilight mediator, it hovers between spirit and matter, related to both, yet differing from each. It is spirit, but it is spirit subject to the measurement of time. It is matter, but it is matter that can dispense with space.”--Heinrich Heine (1797 - 1856), German poet
Dr. Alex Ezerman - Associate Professor of Cello, UNC-G School of Music.
Do Prodigies have a Sixth Sense?
In kindergarten, we are all taught about the five senses, but there is a sixth sense that is of particular importance to string players. Proprioception is the sense of where our body parts are in space, and the force that they are applying. When we think of “physical talent” it seems mysterious – why can the rare individual learn an instrument so quickly? It seems almost supernatural. The secret is their excellent proprioception. Think how easy it would be to learn a string instrument if you could perfectly recreate a motion, find a location in space after only a few attempts, or if you were acutely aware of tension, and sought to avoid it right from the beginning. Of course, most of us are not gifted in this way. Or are we?
Our senses are not fixed attributes; they can be changed, trained and radically improved through deliberate practice. Think of the sense of touch developed to read braille, or the heightened color awareness of artists, and of course the way that musicians develop and refine their ability to listen!
So how do we train our proprioception? It starts with awareness; simply reframing it as a discrete sense that can be improved begins the process. You are no longer practicing an instrument; you are practicing feeling what your body is doing. Instead of hitting a shift, you are remembering what it feels like to have your arm in that location. When you draw the bow, you are tuning in to the grace and smoothness of an effortless movement. Away from the instrument, practice recalling the physical sensation of playing as specifically as you can. The key is where you place your attention. When you cultivate an open and relaxed awareness of feeling, instead of a laser focus on doing, you are improving your proprioception.
SHIFTING: HOME AND AWAY
There are two components for a successful shift; the sliding motion of the arm, and the establishment of the new position in the hand. When practicing a shift, string players often focus exclusively on repeating the movement of the arm, gradually homing in on the desired target like a heat seeking missile, until they have finally hit the note. They then congratulate themselves on a job well done and move on to the next practice activity. This results in a practice session where they may have missed the shift many more times than not, even with good focus and high standards. The next day, they are frustrated to learn that the shift is no better. In fact, a cellist may practice a shift hundreds, or even thousands of times over the years, and find that it is still very inconsistent. This makes sense, as they are practicing the wrong skill! They are practicing how to find the note through the shifting process, rather than establishing a sense of location on the instrument that is comfortable and familiar. In fact, the typical shifting practice of most students teaches them the exact opposite – they must leave the established and familiar position, reaching into the unknown with fear of missing. Even as a cellist becomes experienced and accomplished, the residue of this is evident; tension during the shift, tight vibrato after, and general inconsistency. Is there a way to practice shifts that avoids this pitfall? Yes!
The first step is to establish a sense of “home” in the target position. This means that it is physically and emotionally comfortable and familiar. The best model for this sensation is how we feel about first position. We have spent years playing there, and naturally, it is our favorite place – it feels comfortable and we certainly do not fear it. Luckily, we can learn to transpose that sensation rather more quickly to other positions. The key is to understand that a position is more than just a place for our hand; it is a state of body and mind. Spend time in the target position and make it friendly; breath, relax, get as comfortable as you can. In short, make yourself at home.
2. Homes have addresses
We need to give each position and hand shape an address, an identity. This occurs as the brain has many different kinds of sensory and intellectual information combined in one idea or symbol. Think of every way to conceive the position: note names, pitch sounds, position name, hand shape, and the physical sensation are the most important. Make all of these elements vivid and clear to yourself – try saying them out loud, take your hand away and imagine it is still there, imagine playing the notes and seeing the note names float out of the cello. Tie it all together, and you have made your position a real thing, a home with an address.
3. Go Away!
When you leave your house to get the mail, do you sometimes find yourself back inside with the mail in hand, without remembering anything about the trip back? Returning home is a thoughtless (in a good way!) automatic procedure. Do the same with your new “home” position. Just briefly slide away and return without thought – try to feel through the process without analysis. It is important not to try (insert Yoda quote here). This can be the biggest challenge – after all, most students have practiced shifts for years, and *know* that their arm is not to be trusted! If the hand can’t find the position, review steps one and two briefly, and do it again. This may also be the time to check your shifting motion.
4. The Shifting Highway
Our “Highway” here is the fingerboard. The idea is to find one smooth motion that covers the entire instrument. Every shift is a smaller portion of this movement. Start with a round hand “car”, finger pads on the string, thumb on string, at the far end of the fingerboard. Do not hold the strings down – just lightly rest the weight of the hand. Relax shoulders. Slide the hand down the string, maintaining the same approximate elbow height. The forearm should graze the shoulder of the cello. Allow the thumb to slip off past the body of the cello. Reverse directions, with a very relaxed shoulder and rounded hand. Repeat on each string several times. This should create a good benchmark for your elbow level, and a smooth shifting movement. The speed limit on the highway is your bow speed! Never shift faster than your bow is moving (or get a ticket!).
5. Highway ramps
The highway shows us a generic elbow level that is good for navigating the instrument, but it is fine to exit the highway when you are going to be “home” for a while. The key is to make a smooth exit on and off. Bring the elbow up to the level of the highway before initiating the shift (later, this can be part of the shifting movement). This way, all shifting is part of the same movement. There are often details to be resolved e.g. what is the thumb doing going in and out of 5th through 7th position, but these depend on context.
6. Back home
After successfully repeating step three several times, it is time to begin to examine the context of the actual shift, as required in the passage. It is important to refer to steps one through five occasionally throughout the process. The basic idea is to gradually move to “reality”, but always starting from the target. This should result in many more successful shifts than missed shifts, though it is important to stay relaxed and let mistakes happen, rather than practicing in too much thinking and control. Here is one possible practice session.
This practice method is not a quick fix! It will still require multiple sessions to really make a difference. However, it will have much better results much sooner, will carry over from piece to piece much better, and allow the student to advance much more quickly if used consistently over a year or two.
Emotions and Learning 3 archeology
Many learned skills contain old emotional associations. Perhaps we were afraid of a shift when we faced it for the first time - we flinched and our body tightened, we held our breath - we assumed a fear posture (arms pulling to the sides, head down, legs and stomach tight). Then we repeated the skill with those physical qualities. The physical characteristics of the emotion became imbedded in the learned skill. Over time we became more comfortable, and were able to shed most of the obvious physical signs - but the flinch and the feeling of uncertainty is still affecting our consistency in subtle ways.
Emotions and physical characteristics are a two way street - the emotion triggers the body, and the body triggers the emotions. Even years later, that relationship is buried within our physical approach to the skill - it is very hard to dislodge, because it is self-reinforcing - a thousand repetitions has concealed it under layers of familiarity, but a careful observer can see the physical signs of fear. I call this emotional archeology, and we all need to become archeologists of our own technical/emotional past. It is not just fear - humans physically react to the unfamiliar, frustration, effort and discomfort with many of the same physical characteristics as fear, and typically, all these states are encountered as we expand our skill. But there is something about classical training which exaggerates this issue - perhaps it is the perfectionism modelled by our teacher, the harsh self-assessment, the instant audio feedback. Whatever the cause, the awareness of this phenomena is important for becoming a better, happier player.
To visit the practice room without a visit from the ghosts of ancient experience pulling us back in time, we need to "re-parent" our practicing. For example, find the position you want to shift to, and practice feeling good there; find the warm emotions of comfort, familiarity and balance and create a model for yourself that connects your physical being to these emotions. When you begin to practice the shift, aim for this feeling instead of the note! Suspend any negative or judgmental reactions, and use "home and away" practicing. With a little bit of experimentation, you will be able to succeed internally and externally!
Serendipitous bonus regarding practicing: Michael Haber, who gave such a worthwhile master class for the cello society at NC State in 2016, has sent links to two articles he wrote on the subject of practicing. Please take the time to read these when you can. They are well-written, interesting, practical and insightful.
Yo-Yo Ma on Intonation, Practice and the role of music in our lives.
Fingerboard Calisthenics: 5 Keys to a Musician’s Training Regimen
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