Practicing not Playing

August 07, 2012

The first downhill skiing experience I had was in the middle 1980s at Winter Park Resort in Colorado. My best friend and I were learning, largely on our own that year, how to ski. Winter Park had (probably still has) a huge children's ski program. The mountain was littered with pint-sized skiers. I spent a great deal of my time falling that day. While there was a very gentle meadow for us beginner's to practice on the "easiest" way down the mountain involved a fairly steep (to me) slope to navigate. I remember falling a lot on the way to lunch and at the end of the afternoon.

I also remember that all these little kids never seemed to fall. They didn't even have ski poles. Just adorably short skis and brightly colored ski outfits. They would wobble and bounce and never fall down. They didn't have enough mass to go very fast and their center of gravity was pretty close to the ground. It was mildly humiliating to be spread eagle on the snow after crossing ski tips or something and have a herd of these little ski machines use you as a pylon.

Later I learned that once children reach the age of 12 or so they need to learn to ski differently. As children they turn their whole body to face the direction their skis are pointed. Adults keep their upper body pointed down the fall line (straight down the slope) while their lower body pivots to point the skis across the fall line. Since I started as an adult I have no idea how hard it is to make this transition from childhood skiing to adult skiing.

In my mind I liken the initial practice patterns learned through the Suzuki method to childhood skiing. You listen to pieces, some of which you already know the melody to, and then imitate them on your cello or viola or violin. You aren't practicing as much as you are playing. The orchestra pieces I am now spending all my practice time on are adult skiing pieces. Adult double black diamond skiing pieces.

There is no just sitting down and playing them. I don't even know what they are supposed to sound like. Even the Somewhere over the Rainbow arrangement we are playing isn't terribly recognizable through the cello accompaniment. I have hunted up YouTube videos of all the pieces I am learning but those are of a full orchestra playing. I can hear the piece as a whole but I can't hear just the cello part.

I am struggling and frustrated with my practice these days as a result. Last night I finally figured out that it is the transition from what I'll call "Suzuki playing to practice" to legitimate adult music practice that is frustrating. I'm intellectual enough and self-aware enough to know that I can't just sit down and play through these pieces, I have to break them down into small pieces and gradually assemble the pieces into a whole. Even when I'm focused on a one or two measure window I can't just play. I have to find ways to practice - to learn - the music.

In some cases I have to invent practice drills to improve some aspect of my cello playing in order to be able to tackle a passage in one of my pieces. For example, several of the pieces have what I call a scale-wise pattern -- notes arranged in either an ascending or descending scale pattern. Often times these passages use the shortest note values in the piece - sixteenth notes in a sea of quarter and eight notes. Playing a rapid scale pattern isn't easy for me. I develop too much tension in my left hand by pressing the thumb against the neck of the cello. I need to relax my hand in order to free the fingers up to play faster. Trying to improve my finger speed while practicing the piece doesn't work. Instead I need to set the piece aside and practice a scale to improve my left hand skill.

Finding a practice drill for scale-wise patterns is fairly obvious. Finding drills for complex rhythmic patterns or double stop passages or pizzicato to arco or vise-versa is harder. Taking the more difficult passages of my pieces a measure at a time is one key to success. Being able to step back and analyze the music to see patterns or needed techniques is another essential step.

I think the Suzuki method is great as far as it goes, but I can see clearly now that it can cripple as much as it can enable. Coming to rely upon the audio CD and mimicry will only get you so far. There will come a day when you have to leave the bunny slopes behind, pick up a set of ski poles and set off down an advanced, tree filled, mogul covered slope.

I've temporarily left the Suzuki beginner slope behind and taken a lift up to the top of the mountain where the only ways down are black diamond runs. If I take my time, examine each piece for its complexity and figure out how to master that complexity I'll complete the piece without too many tumbles along the way. Rushing ahead will only lead to disaster.

Author's profile picture

Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.