Lesson Day: The Case of the Vanishing Slurs

If today’s lesson was the sidewalk, slurs would be the curb I miss stepping off only to land awkwardly on my heel, teeth rattling against each other as I try to regain my balance and my footing. Apparently, I’ve been ignoring slurs the same way I miss that curb while crossing the street deep in conversation.

Okay actually I’ve been convincing myself that I’m doing them, when in fact – as Kaia pointed out today during Happy Farmer – I’m not. I’m just mowing right through them as if they were separate notes. Not only do I not realize it. I’ve been THINKING I’M DOING THEM PROPERLY.

No, I am not kidding.

A brief pause, for the two people in the universe who come to this blog and don’t happen to be A)cellists, B)musicians of some kind, or C) people who have heard me kvetch about the cello long enough to know what I’m talking about. When I say slur, I’m not talking bad words. Slur is lovely bit of musical notation (an arced line over a series of notes) that indicates notes are to be played a specific way. It looks like this:

See the little curved line = slur. Notes under the little curved line should be played while the bow moving in a single direction. AKA, one should not change direction with each note under the little curved line.

Why? Because the composer said so. There’s actually a really good reason: the way it sounds. I’ll save you the trip to Google and steal this succinct definition from fellow cello blogger Mark at Solfège :

“On cello (and I assume other stringed instruments) a slur indicates that the notes should all be played with a single movement of the bow. As my teacher put it, changing bow direction creates a consonant, it cuts off the sound however briefly. A slur, or notes played with a single continuous bow movement create a vowel sound. The two techniques combined allow the cello to articulate music.”

(lovely definition!)

Now that we’re all on the same page: I want to make it clear that I totally understand the concept of slurs – I’ve actually watched myself in the mirror during practice articulating the notes within a slur. And YET somehow between my first practice sessions when I’m really keeping an eye on every little thing and today’s little Happy Farmer rude awakening, I let the slurs – well, vanish.

This is one of those things that makes me feel slightly delusional. How does one convince oneself that an something is happening when it’s actually not? To put it another way: how does one miss something (a notation) that’s in plain sight?

But I did a little research and the fact is, human beings do this kind of thing all the time. We’re not as great at multi-tasking as we’d like to think. In fact, we really good at missing a details when we’re concentrating on something else. Ever heard of the “invisible gorilla” experiment?

“What this experiment shows is that when we’re paying attention to something, basically doing a task that demands our attention…we can seriously overestimate our ability to do other tasks at the same time and especially to notice and handle unexpected or surprising things. We think that we’re going to notice unexpected things that come into our field of view and we think we’re going to pay attention to the things we should pay attention to, but in fact, when we’re focused on one task, we’re noticing and paying attention to a lot less than we really think.” More

Phew, not delusional! But I have to be more diligent in my practice. Since so many other aspects of playing the cello have not yet reached the muscle memory level, my brain still has to think and translate what I’m seeing to playing – and it’s still a lot to do at once. For one, I’m not reading far enough ahead of where I’m playing so the slur often catches me off guard. Once I start adding tone, and counting and note lengths, apparently the slur tends to be the one unexpected or surprising thing that I just miss coming every time.

When the student is ready, the teacher will come. Just in time, I have a great finger strengthening exercise to work on that involves long slurs and I will dig up a couple of old scale exercises that also practice slurs (add-a-note!) I spent about an hour after my lesson today working with Happy Farmer again – this time breaking it down and focusing on seeing the notes (sometimes at the expense of staying on time, I confess) with the goal of having it fully memorized by next week.

I’m also breaking out the highlighter for my sheet music – I like to think of it as painting that “sneaky” curb yellow.


About Eddie

Watch what happens when you give a writer a cello.
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4 Responses to Lesson Day: The Case of the Vanishing Slurs

  1. Mark Nichols says:

    Slurs and hooked bowing took me a long time to incorporate. After the nice back and forth rhythm of bowing individual notes, switching to slurs was hard. Switching to hooked bowing was very hard.

    “Happy Farmer” was the first piece that I really struggled with. I spent weeks trying to get the bowing done correctly. Once I got it at a physical level it started to make sense mentally too. One thing I did that helped was to play my scales with slurs, and then with hooked bowing. I didn’t have to think about the scale musically, so I could focus just on the bowing technique.

    Thanks for the link!

    • eddie says:

      You’re welcome! That was such a great definition – it totally wowed me the writer – couldn’t resist borrowing it. I’m looking forward to hearing how your intensive with your teacher goes this summer, he sounds pretty awesome.

      Thanks for the slur and hooked bowing practice tip!

  2. Cellophyte says:

    I’ve definitely done this before.

    For those of us less familiar with your journey, could you please expound on how you’re working both on Brandeburg and Happy Farmer at the same time?

    Love your blog.

    • Eddie says:

      Aw, thanks! There have been times when blogging about playing cello keeps me playing the cello, so it’s nice to know that this isn’t all in my head 🙂

      The short answer to your question is: slowly. very slowly.

      Promise I’m not being cheeky – I started a reply, but it turned into a blog post. I promise I’ll answer that in depth, stay tuned!

      hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work I go!

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