The Method: Practice Practicing
The best way to learn an instrument is the way we learn to speak a language: by listening, watching, and mimicking. And the best way to teach an instrument is to teach people to listen, watch, and mimic. With younger children, this means “Simon Says” and “Not-a-Mirror” games. We break down the technical aspects of cello playing into tiny steps that we repeat until they become as natural as saying “the” (not so easy when you think about it!).
With older children and adults, the same basic principles apply: break down the task, get each movement “into the body,” and repeat the growing sequence of movements until it feels natural.
I also enlist older students’ self-knowledge and analytical abilities. What makes this shift hard? What element of the movement do you need to isolate and get comfortable with? The student who can ask and answer these questions while practicing at home is no longer simply carrying out a teacher’s instructions; he or she is stepping into a new confidence and expressive freedom.
Why “Don’t” Doesn’t Work
Suppose your teacher sounds like this:
- Don’t lift your shoulder.
- Don’t drop your elbow too far.
- Okay, but now your wrist is too high, and don’t grip so hard. You’re getting tense.
- Good, now don’t rush those triplets…
And so forth. Don’ts create an obstacle course. They focus your energy on the inhibition of “wrong” movements and push you into a figurative (and sometimes actual) posture of duck and recoil. This may eventually lead to “correct” playing, but it doesn’t lead to music making.
Much more effective is to teach technique as a set of tools–e.g., to get more power at the tip of the bow, pronate your right hand. If it’s a question of rhythm, I might demonstrate the passage. Or sing it while the student taps the beat. Or ask the student to sing it.
Goal: A Talking Cello
Music is a form of communication, just like speech. We want to feel each phrase as a rhetorical gesture–a tilt of the head, a sweep of the arm, a cry of delight, a query, a sob, an elaboration, a teasing, a grumbling, a yearning, an experience of wonder. My goal as a teacher is to help aspiring cellists find this full range of expression.