The Art of Cello Practice by Chris Hoyle

Chris Hoyle, Head of Strings at the Royal Northern College of Music, has been giving specialist lectures about practice for many years and we’re very grateful to him for sharing his inspiration and insight here in a special extended guest article for News for Cellists

Chris Hoyle

‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.’   (Aristotle)

Have you ever wondered what proportion of your playing time is spent performing rather than practising?  Amazingly, we probably spend just 2% of our playing time engaged in public performance compared to 98% practising.  Audiences only ever experience this musical tip of the iceberg, while underneath the water lies the mountain-like structure of the iceberg’s full mass, which corresponds to all those hours we work unseen by others.  As students and professionals, we dedicate a lot of thought to the art of performance and those crucial hours spent on stage, but we need to give at least as much thought – if not more − to the 98% of our time that we spend practising: the means by which we get achieve our goal as performing musicians.

I’ve heard many working musicians describe having less and less time available for practice during their professional careers, due to the varied pressures of family and working life.  Many look back on their student days as the period when they had the most available time for calm, considered practice.  As I write this article during lockdown, here during this challenging moment in history, we have an opportunity to focus on our instrumental development in a way that may not happen again.  We can turn the discipline of practice into a creative art form of its own, now we have this extra time to focus.  In this short article, I can’t give you a one-size-fits-all strategy, but I hope to offer food for thought and encourage you to question what you already do.

Young musicians often ask me how much they should practise each day.  Most readers will be familiar with Dr Ericsson’s 10,000-hour rule and whilst we do need to commit to working hard, experience has taught me that our rate of improvement is not necessarily proportional to the number of hours we invest in practice.

Mental practice

‘If you can dance, sing or think the music better than you play it, then you can move more quickly towards your goals.’   Henning Kraggerud, RNCM International Chair in Violin.

Before talking about practice in a traditional sense, it’s helpful to consider which other activities count as practice, even if you’re not touching your instrument.  For example, does reading the score of your work and memorising your music count as practice?  To my mind, yes!  How about reading about music and performance style (history, biographies, letters)?  Absolutely!  One book that inspired Paul Tortelier was Les Cathédrales de France by Auguste Rodin.  Is such reading practice? Yes!  After all, it’s our minds, not our hands, that lead the way in interpreting our music.  Valuable work away from the instrument also includes learning the piano part, understanding the harmonies, singing your repertoire and crafting your interpretation.  These are examples of mental practice, which is a vitally important aspect of our work and worthy of a separate article.

Smart practice

‘Practice with your fingers and you need all day.  Practice with your mind and you will do as much in 1.5 hours.’  Leopold Auer, teacher of Nathan Milstein.

From Auer’s perspective, it’s not just about practising longer, but practising smarter!  It’s about achieving as much in 2 hours as another person achieves in 4 hours: spending less time but doing more highly productive practice.

Here’s what Yo Ya Ma says: ‘I have never practised very much. When I was in high school, I only practised about two hours a day. I once practised for four hours a day for a whole month and was exhilarated. “My God,” I thought, “I’ve actually done that!” Since I don’t like to work hard, I’ve had to become efficient in my practising. I was lucky that, thanks to my father, I had a tremendously good foundation. It’s the concentration that counts. I hated it, but it paid off because I can take a piece today – of 20-25 minutes – and probably learn it in two weeks by working two to three hours a day. This isn’t talent – I’m not extraordinarily gifted in that respect. It comes from the amount of time I’ve put in to doing this kind of thing.’ From an interview in the Strad Magazine December 2016.

Smart practice is primarily a vibrant thought process where every second counts.  This means applying true mental agility to everything we do: the why, the how, the objective listening skills, the problem-solving processes and the artistic vision.

Purposeful practice

Here’s a quote from Juilliard trained violinist and psychologist Noa Kageyama that I came across in Matthew Syed’s excellent book, Bounce, which describes the power of purposeful practice.  It’s a book that I recommend to all our students at the RNCM.

‘Deliberate, or mindful,l practice is a systematic and highly structured activity, that is, for lack of a better word, “scientific”. Instead of mindless trial and error, it is an active and thoughtful process of hypothesis testing where we relentlessly seek solutions to clearly defined problems.’  Noa Kageyama

As musicians, we need to assess which element of our performance we’re trying to improve, then work out which steps we need to take to achieve our goals, in order to know why we’re doing what we’re doing.  By contrast, many of us are guilty of mindless practice – going through the motions, employing a trial and error approach, and quickly correcting faults in order to move on.  Does practice like this really make perfect?  Sadly, I believe that there are people practising right now who are getting worse!  With their minds switched off, they are just strengthening their bad habits.  Whatever we repeatedly do, good or bad, we turn into a habit.  Practice makes permanent!  And that’s a health warning!

Guide to practising

  1. Consider your blueprint
  2. Play, listening objectively
  3. Appraise.  Identify an area/aspect to be improved
  4. Devise a mechanism for working at this problem i.e. be a problem solver
  5. Do this patiently and apply it thoughtfully.
  6. Play again
  7. Listen and re-assess.  Has the above strategy worked?
  8. If ‘no’, either continue with same approach or devise another method. If ‘yes’ play the section again and identify a different aspect to be improved

1:   Consider your blueprint

Mental preparation is essential in order to establish a blueprint for your playing.  What are you aiming for in your playing?  What’s your vision? Feed yourself from as many musical and artistic sources as possible: attend concerts when possible, hear ‘everyone who’s anyone,’ listen to recordings and watch videos of great players.  I don’t in any way suggest that we clone others’ playing or interpretations, but rather, that we plant examples of fine artistry in our minds.  If you want to be a good writer, they say, you must read widely.  It’s the same for musicians.  We need to create our own personal interpretation of a piece and I believe the best way to do this is to work away from your instrument in the early stages so that your head, not your hands, dictates how to express the piece. Sing the music, rather than allowing your hands to suggest an easy solution or interpretation.

Evolve your interpretation: study the score, imagine the characters, contours and colours.  Look at the architecture of the work in terms of the harmonies, the highs and lows and the emotional spectrum.  What tone quality are you aiming for? When I studied with Alexander Baillie, I was encouraged to write ‘big, warm tone’ over large sections of one piece.  That was the template which I was working towards at that time and in that piece of repertoire.  Imagine the tone colours and textures you’re working towards in the various episodes of your repertoire.  Might it be a fragile voile fabric or a rich velvet?  I encourage my students to visualise the belly of their instrument vibrating – so they are more inclined to play freely and allow sound to radiate.

2. Play, listening objectively. One crucial skill to acquire is that of listening to yourself objectively and critically, so you can begin to become your own teacher. As musicians we need to be both subjective and objective.  Play with commitment, but also listen, as though you were out in the audience.

Leon Fleischer, an American pianist described as ‘the pianistic find of the century’, suggested that a performing musician should divide himself into three persons:

Person A looks at the score and tries to understand what it’s all about (that’s the blueprint we were just thinking about).
Person B tries to express this content with the instrument.
Person C is out in the audience, listening and reporting back as to whether Person A’s concepts are actually coming across. Person C is the hardest to develop: that’s the part of you giving live, objective feedback, which leads us to the next point:

3. Appraise: this is the outcome of the critical listening, above – your Person C. Objective feedback is essential for productive practice.  We need to identify what’s wrong in order to get better. This phase is sometimes called ‘conscious incompetence’.  If you don’t know what your immediate goal is, how can you achieve it?   Don’t just play it again and resolve to ‘try harder’!

Helpful ways to appraise yourself objectively include making an audio or video recording of yourself (both are quick and easy to do on your phone) or playing in front of a mirror that reveals your posture and basic technique.  In these ways, you’re taking the role of your teacher, being that external set of ears and eyes during your practice.  During lockdown I’ve asked my students to send me videos and as well as sending them my comments, I ask them, to critique their own playing, using their videos.

Now that you have listened and appraised, define the problems and give them names.  Which aspect have you chosen to work on: tidiness, tuning, evenness, a big shift, your sense of line, your bow articulation, variety of vibrato, tonal colour, musical drama, your musical story-telling powers?  Identify one aspect to be improved.

4. Devise a mechanism for working at this problem – or, as Kageyama says,relentlessly seek solutions to clearly defined problems.’  At this point, you need lateral thinking skills, code-breaking powers and good imagination.  These are the key tools for real practice.  Consider what method to employ in order to tackle each problem.  Remember that there is never just one formula for tackling each problem!  What makes our lives as practising musicians so interesting is the opportunity to be both disciplined and creative in our work.

I once had the opportunity to ask a top chef about his secrets of success.  He explained how 90% of a truly great meal is about using the very best ingredients.  This encouraged me to think about our development as string players and how we can refine each “ingredient” so that we when we bring them together, we have the best chance of presenting delightful, exquisite, sumptuous music!  What are the key ingredients of your playing that you might wish to refine: heel bow changes, suppleness in vibrato?

In this short article, its only possible to suggest a few practice mechanisms, but here goes:

Practice mechanisms to improve tidiness.  Let’s imagine that in your most recent run through of a piece, one particular passage was prone to slips and untidiness.  In this instance, tidiness is the name of the issue you’ve decided to work on and the mechanism you’ve chosen for working at this problem is slow practice.  Adrienne Schroeder (Power Piano Teacher) writes, ‘My parents–who are both musicians– used to say, “Slow practice for fast results.” As much as I hated it as a kid, it’s true!’  Find a slow-enough tempo that allows you to play the passage evenly and with total control.  Take out the emotional heat and give yourself the time and mental space to achieve versions that are clean, even, in tune and well-articulated.  At this slow speed, repeatedly play ‘perfect’ versions.  In sport, this process is sometimes called ‘grooving’.  Once the passage is clean and tidy at the slow speed, then make slight increases to the tempo, ensuring that you never increase the tempo until it is “perfect” at the slower one.

This process works well for preparing movements of solo Bach, your slow versions allowing you to execute the music with ultimate control, articulation, and craftsmanship.  Begin to add the characteristics of the full-speed version: use the same part of the bow, the same architecture and attention to phrase-ends.  However, note that at slower speeds, off-the-string bow strokes may need to become on-the-string.  Over a period of days and weeks, make gradual increases to the tempo, ensuring that you never leave one tempo until the performance is concert-ready at that tempo.  Quality remains the constant in this process and it’s a method that, I gather, Heinrich Schiff employed in his own teaching and playing.

Another practice mechanism for tackling the issue of tidiness is: play up-to-speed, but in tiny fragments:   In this instance, take a small group of notes, perhaps just 4 or 5, but give yourself about 10 seconds of thinking time between repetitions.  This allows you to retain your mental posture and to picture the short burst of notes you’re about to play.

Practice mechanisms for improving intonation. 

Play without vibrato.

Change the dynamic to a clear, unforced single forte so that your instrument resonates freely.  (It’s unhelpful to play either ff or pp when working on intonation.)

Play legato, practising off-the-string sections on the string.  Similarly, change pizzicato passages to arco.

Play slowly. Modify the rhythm, changing short note values for longer ones, enabling you to register and correct each note.

Use opportunities to pause and cross-check individual notes with your open strings, checking your perfect intervals, unisons, 4ths, 5ths and octaves.

Next, rather than stopping to check note by note, find a relevant small group of notes you can repeat in a circle so the final note can lead back to the first note.  Repeat this small cycle of notes without stopping, each time registering which note was out of tune and how it needs to be corrected.  On each “circuit” adjust the note(s) that troubled you on the previous time around.  In this way, there’s a sense of flow, closer to real performance, rather than the somewhat static process of lining up one note at a time, as in the cross-checking version above.  However, I should say that great intonation starts with our ears and with our ongoing aural training.  You can’t train your fingers until you’ve sharpened your ears!

Practice mechanisms for improving phrasing.  You have formed your musical goal or blueprint by reading the music, seeing the contours on the page, feeling the harmonic tensions and by singing the piece (either out loud or in your mind).  However, when you appraised your performance, the music might have been somewhat flat, or subject to the individual qualities of down-bows and up-bows i.e. down-bow diminuendi and up-bow crescendi.

Here are a couple of mechanisms for helping you to phrase more skilfully: Play more slowly than the desired tempo in order to make the passage more difficult. At this slower speed, make a conscious effort to create the musical shapes you have in mind.  When you return to Tempo 1, the overarching shapes should be easier to portray.  Play the phrase more quickly than Tempo 1 in order to gain an overview of the passage.  In this way, you can get a clearer understanding of the contours and the sense of flow.  William Pleeth describes this process well in the chapter on ‘The Ingredients of Architecture’ in his excellent book, The Cello.

Without a metronome, indulge yourself in exaggerating the ebb and flow and the dynamic range, in the style of Puccini.  Be daring, even self-indulgent and test your expressive limits!  By contrast, use a metronome in order to give your performance underlying strength.  Work with the metronome in crotchets, then in minims, then in semibreves in order to allow breathing space, rubati and timing subtleties within a structured framework.

5. Apply this practice mechanism thoughtfully and patiently.

In brief, take your time and practise calmly.  Don’t be like a terrier wrestling with a bone!

Remain poised and allow yourself a few seconds to think, between repetitions, so that you can give each effort your full concentration.  As a student, I remember the repeated screams of frustration from someone practising in the next-door room to mine.  One day the screams turned into whimpering as he broke both his foot and the wardrobe door!  By contrast, imagine a scientist in a laboratory, calmly assessing which experiments have worked and which not.  Practice should be a thoughtful process, patiently testing various methods until we achieve a breakthrough.

6. Play again Having examined and practised individual components, it’s time to re-assemble the phrase. Enjoy running the passage a couple of times.

7. Listen and re-assess.

Has your strategy for improving the chosen aspect worked?

8. If ‘No’, either continue with the same approach (you may have chosen a perfectly suitable practice technique, but it might just need more time), or devise another method (As above, there are several ways of addressing a problem.) If ‘Yes’, play the section again and identify a different aspect to be improved.

The above plan is certainly formulaic!  I hope that, at the very least, it helps to list some of the processes of conscientious work in practice.  Over time, it becomes less (dare I say) pedantic, as one area flows naturally into another.  However, this plan comes with a caveat: it represents only one way of working rather than the way.

Valuable aspects of practising that I haven’t covered in this article are: for example, warming up, learning from scale practice, a healthy attitude to the study book, sight reading and improvising.

My colleague Henk Guittart, RNCM International Tutor in Strings Performance and Pedagogy, recommends using a daily mix of: 1) revisiting old repertoire (for consolidation and reworking), 2) material which you are working on now, 3) new material (pieces of well-known music for your instrument which you haven’t touched yet, as well as music which you don’t know at all for sight reading and quick study practice).

Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud is a great advocate of improvising within practice time, believing it to be a great liberator of all creative processes.  He advocates playing some songs which have meant something to you since childhood and suggests trying to let yourself be totally free for 10 minutes every day without trying anything other than just enjoying the moment, both physically and spiritually.

Since practising, rather than performing, occupies most of our time as musicians, we need to have a happy relationship with it, in order to enjoy a lifelong love of playing on our own and in ensembles.  With the right approach, disciplined practice can be creative, fulfilling and even exhilarating – an art form in its own right!

© Chris Hoyle 2020

You can read more about Chris Hoyle’s work as Head of Strings at the RNCM here:

References:

Noa Hageyama’s excellent article about practice:  https://lifehacker.com/a-better-way-to-practice-5939374

https://bulletproofmusician.com/about/

Bounce: the Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice by Matthew Syed  I recommend this book to all our students at the RNCM.

Interview with Leon Fleisher: ‘The danger, in Mr. Fleisher’s opinion, is “mindless repetition,” and he uses his teaching as an occasion to warn the next generation. “Whatever you do with your fingers and your hands must be in the service of an idea,” he said, “an ideal that you hear in your head before you play. If before you put the key down for a single note, unless you have a goal for that note, it’s an accident.”  Mr. Fleisher describes the performer as three people in one: “Person A hears before they play. They have to have this ideal in their inner ear of what they’re going to try and realize. Person B actually puts the keys down, plays and tries to manifest what Person A hears. Person C sits a little bit apart and listens. And if what C hears is not what A intended, C tells B to adjust to get closer to what A wanted. And this goes on with every note you play, no matter how fast you’re playing. It’s a simultaneous process that advances horizontally. When it works, when it all meshes, it’s a state of ecstasy.”’ NY Times 10 June 2007 https://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/10/arts/music/10brub.html

Henning Kraggerud.  There’s a good interview with Henning Kraggerud on violinist.com where he says: “Up to this day, I start every day by improvising for about 20 minutes,” he said. “One of the reasons I do this is I want the path from thought to output to be instant…. And if I need to work on some basic technical thing, I still do that as an improvisation. It’s much more fun!”  violinist.com February 2017