When the biggest challenge is to do “nothing”

It always interesting to discover what element of a piece is going to be particularly challenging. Sometimes it’s obvious – like the counting in Rigadoon (one-e-and-a-two-e, say what?!) or crossing strings or a shift but most of the time it sneaks up on me after I find myself repeatedly stumbling over a note (or couple of notes or an entire measure).

photo by mmlolek on Flickr

Earlier this evening I spent about an hour working over an etude with a measure that behaves somewhat like that one uneven step in a staircase; tripping me up every time I get to it. After I’d spent all of practice time Friday (hour and a half) with the Etude, breaking down the etude measure for measure and then building it back up again, I expected some improvment. Still, the stumble. The problem with this particular measure kept eluding me. It’s deceptively simple scale-like decent followed by four notes that are proving about as deadly to me as walking and chewing gum. I would slow it down, adding a note at a time, but every time I started to add a little speed, or tried to play the entire line – bam! Faceplant.

Rather than get all bent out of shape, I put down the cello and bow and just looked at the music, running the notes through my mind, making the approximate sounds and tapping out the fingering on my shin. (Do you know that when you’re seated, the shin bone makes an excellent fingerboard proxy. It gives less than the thigh and the forearm.) I unfocused my eyes and just looked at the whole piece, and then it became clear.

In the whole etude, this is the one measure where I have to leave a finger behind (my index finger) (E) play a lower note (C)and come back to it (E) then go up (G). I hit the E (1st/index finger – D string), drop down to C (fourth/pinkie finger G-string), but when I get back to that E, my fingers are looking for something to “do” and one of two things happen: I hit the G (fourth finger D string) early and get totally discombobulated, or get off tempo and get totally discombobulated.

Trouble is, there is nothing to do – I’m already there and ready – all i have to do is stay on time and play the note. It sounds simple, it’s not like independent finger motion is a new concept, but for some reason the idea that my left hand doesn’t have to ‘do’ anything at that moment (because it’s already there) just short circuits my brain and, faceplant. In this case more it’s efficient to leave first finger on E, reach for C with the fourth and then play the E again.

To return to the stairs analogy; it’s actually akin to thinking there’s a step when really there is none. Ever done expecting a curb and their is none? Your body gets all ready to adjust to the step and you wind up tripping over your own feet.

Turns out *I* am a doer. I am looking for some action to take or move to make at every possible moment. I love to-do lists and multitasking and crossing items off the to-do list. I can’t just sit and watch a movie; it’s the perfect time to also make dinner, unload the dishwasher, sew some curtains, wrap presents and/or fold laundry. I’d rather take one big trip from car to the house than three little ones, even if it means precariously balancing groceries and cello while I pause for the mail. I am a one-trip wonder: wonder at how many things I can get done in one trip. When it comes to the cello, I was seeing a note change and assuming there was some fingering movement necessary.

I’m a firm believer that within every challenge is a gift, teaching me something about myself i may not have been conscious of and offering me an opportunity to change/adapt/grow if what I’m doing isn’t working.

The challenge in this piece is learning when to move and when to sit still: essentially, to do nothing. Sure I could move my entire hand for each note every time, but with that strategy, I’ll be playing nursery rhymes and folk songs till the cows come home. What I’m learning playing the cello is that sometimes doing less is more.


About Eddie

Watch what happens when you give a writer a cello.
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6 Responses to When the biggest challenge is to do “nothing”

  1. The Neophyte Cellist says:

    I remember going through exactly the same. My teacher spent a while getting me to think about when I need to bring all my fingers and when I need to leave them behind. It does come – eventually ๐Ÿ™‚

    Are you using Suzuki? Which pieces are you doing at the moment?

  2. Eddie says:

    That’s good to know!

    In some ways this feels like a rather elementary challenge *blushing* for a second year student.

    I feel like we talked about this quite a bit at some point (probably before my big break) and I know it’s come up in other pieces. In this case it snuck up on me (i’lll avoid inserting another version of the stair analogy here ๐Ÿ™‚ ) and so i was surprised when I realized THAT was what all the trouble was. Also, I think in this case, I’m used to leaving fingers down to play notes “up” EFGA etc… but playing notes “down” is a bit of a different animal. Does that make sense?

    Yes, my teacher does use Suzuki method – however I’m moving pretty slowly through the first book. I get the impression she likes to mix it up for the adult students. For example, I also do pieces out of Schroeder’s 170 Foundation studies (which i love because they’re more appealing to me melodically) and “popular” music “Scarborough Fair” “Sunrise, Sunset” “Come what May.”

    I get the impression that she marches the kids through Suzuki pretty exclusively but with adults she’s more interested in finding pieces that are also interesting to us while teaching the necessary technique. We also get more scales (1-2 a week) and other exercises (shifting, vibrato) Or maybe this is just what she does for her short attention span, overachieving Gemini students, er me? It works for me because I’m kind of all over the place interest wise (have you guessed?) so I always have something to practice, even if I’m feeling bored with Zuki.

    Long story short, in this case the piece this post is about is Etude from Suzuki 1 ๐Ÿ™‚


  3. The Neophyte Cellist says:

    #14? I think that was the turning point on ‘leaving fingers behind’ and, for the bow, ‘not fully going to a string cos you’re coming back again’

    Do you play with a metronome? That was also one of the ‘ah-ha’ moments around that time, esp. for that piece. I โค my metronome now ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Eddie says:

    You got it – #14. It’s a interesting exercise in remaining light on one’s toes(fingertips) I’m finding that a lot of times i “over commit” to a string, usually by putting too much pressure on the neck with my thumb and essentially reducing the ability of my fingers to move swiftly to the next string/shift. Sound familiar? I’ve been focusing on stopping myself when i feel that thumb clench up and relaxing before proceeding. The notes sound much more lively (less crunched) but it’s a total work in progress.

    I โค the metronome. It took me a while to understand the value of using one, but I'm totally hooked. I try to keep notes as I work a piece up to "goal" speed with how many bpm my practice session begins and ends on. Usually I can see some progress, over a couple of days if not a single session.

    The built in one on my tuner is pretty shrill, but I have an app on my phone that has a much more pleasing – yet noticeable – sound. My teacher has this great old-school metronome (You know the ones that look like a little wooden pyramid) and the sound it makes is so soothing. I'd love to get one of those some day.

  5. The Neophyte Cellist says:

    Yep, squeeeeeze the life out of the neck! I often catch myself either doing that to the neck or the bow. Chillax…chillax…

    My metronome is a wittner taktell piccolo. Had it since I was about 7 when I had guitar lessons. Originally it was ivory coloured plastic but it’s all faded to old skool yelllow now. I adore that little plastic box. I’ve also got one on my phone that’s cool because it emphasies the downbeat, but nothing beats the wittner.

    Did you see the cat vs metronome vid on youtube?

    • Eddie says:

      Yes, and when I first started playing with a metronome I felt a lot like the little orange cat that can’t stop twitching at every tick.
      It took a while to relax and see the metronome as a valuable tool, not an insistent demand (play, play, play)

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