In which I am learning how to become a slightly less lousy musician
Every so often my cello teacher throws a new piece of music at me. "It's for the concert," he said this time. "A cello quartet. We'll get you, and ..." and here he listed three other aspiring cellists he teaches on his fingers. "It should be great."
Yeah, it should be.
We had the concert and I came away discouraged. The first part of the piece (Tchaikowsky's Evening Hymn) was fine. Halfway through, though, it stopped being slow and moody and became fast and moody. And the beginning of the whole fast bit depended on the second cello to carry it off.
And, yes, the second cello would be me.
I practiced that piece for four weeks, and even as I walked into the performance I knew it was going to be touch and go as to whether the fast bit was going to be 'fast and in tune' or 'fast and out of tune.' In my practice times, it came out pretty evenly. Fifty fifty. Sometimes I nailed it. The other times I didn't. And there didn't seem to be anything I could do about it, except hope and pray to the gods of tuning luck that they came through for me.
I did everything beautifully until the fast bit, and then, let's just say, there were more than a few dodgy notes. And they were coming from my cello.
There really is nothing worse than listening to beginner strings players who are out of tune, unless, perhaps it's being the person who is playing out of tune. I hate knowing that I'm the cause of those raised shoulders and slightly panicked expressions that everyone's trying to hide. Will she make it? Dang. No, she won't. Yeowch.
So I came home a bit discouraged. Actually, more than a bit discouraged. Quite discouraged. I had played sloppily, with no certainty that I was going to get the run right at all. The whole thing was dodgy and out of control.
One of the reasons I decided to take up the cello at the age of (cough) *muffle* forty-something *muffle* (cough) - which is a whole new instrument for me - rather than revisiting the piano or the trumpet, both of which I learned as a child, was because I have never been satisfied with the way I played either of them. I'm sloppy, with no certainty that I'm hitting the right notes. Nailing a piece and getting it right has never a given for me. At any point I could do something jarring and unforeseen. My musicianship up to this point has been dodgy and out of control.
"If I learn something totally new, all over again, from a really, really good teacher, and make sure I do it properly, I should get it right this time," I theorized to myself, back two years ago when I began. And then, this week, we had the Tchaikovsky and I realised: the problem wasn't the piano or the trumpet, or the age I learned them at, or the teachers I had.
The problem is me.
I play tentatively. I don't own it. I'm not certain. I waver too much.
Misery. Quit now. It's hopeless. You need a whole different personality if you're ever going to be any good. Or you need to just accept that this is how good you're ever going to be. I had two days of wallowing around in my own muck trying to think of ways to be more 'grounded' as I played, or accepting of my mediocrity which is of course rubbish, because if I was ever going to be more 'grounded' or accepting in my personality, it would have happened by now.
Then, Tuesday morning wheeled around again and my teacher turned up, bright eyed and bushy tailed. The first thing he said to me was, "I think the other night went well, don't you?"
I made a face and he laughed. "You're a glass half empty person."
The second thing he said was, "You know - your vibrato action is exactly right. It's coming along beautifully."
(Cue small, happy, figurative birds dancing and chirping around my hair and landing merrily on my shoulders. I've been working (and crying) on that vibrato for six full months, going back over and over the basic action, gritting my teeth every time.)
The third thing he said was, "So. The arpeggios. Have you been practicing the build up method that I showed you for the tuning? There's nothing like it for training the fingers and building your ear."
And that's when I figuratively smacked myself in the head. Everything had suddenly become very clear.
I have everything I need to be a good cello player. Already. It's here. I don't have to develop another personality. (Most of the time I quite like my own.) And I don't have to give up and settle for being mediocre either.
My teacher, every week, gives me amazing advice on how to practice so that I break down the problems, single out the solutions and build the skills back up again. If I'm struggling with vibrato, he makes it simpler for me and gives me one back and forth action to practice for the week, until I get it right. If fingering is an issue, we work on intermediate notes and sliding more slowly until I get it right. He's taught me how to do what he calls 'cross-slurring' so that the fingering becomes solid and in tune, and I get it right. If my bowing is getting dodgy, I practice on open strings, focusing on the bow, until I get it right.
There is literally not one single problem I have had with the cello that my teacher has not had an answer or a technique or a 'try this' for. And each time I have done them, I have gotten it right.
Here is the problem: Too often, I don't do it. I don't practice using his solutions. To pull everything apart seems too hard, or too complicated, or maybe it would take too long. So I do things the way I've always done them. Instead of practicing the solutions, I practice my 'problems' over and over again.
And they never get sorted out.
Oh, cello, cello, dear cello. There are so many life lessons to learn from you. The one I shall take this week is this: if the same old problems keep returning, don't give up or run away, but also, don't settle or try and change your personality. Instead, go back to the wisdom and instruction you know is right. Break things down, analyse, dissect, evaluate. And practice - but effectively - the skills and qualities you need to do things differently.
This verse from the Bible says the same kind of thing: 'His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.' 2 Peter 1:3. We've got what we need. We just need to use it and practice it.