Jennie Khan

Freelance Cellist and Teacher

Jennie Khan is an Auckland based cellist and cello teacher. She has a variety of experience performing both here and in Europe and has been teaching students of all ages for many years.

Are you paying attention?

Continuing on with the theme of practice, as we get back into work and school for the year it is the perfect time to start developing good habits... or renew the good habits that have been let slide over the holidays.

The key to successful and productive practice is routine and quality. I'm not talking about the quality of the playing but rather the quality of the practice.

Sticking to a regular practice routine is important in that, for one thing, if there are long gaps between your practice sessions it's a bit like taking one step forward, two steps back, as you forget what you were doing last time, and certainly your muscles have forgotten what they learnt.
Apart from that though, a regular routine helps keep you motivated, it becomes part of your day, something that generally you should look forward to. And by practising regularly, you achieve a great deal more, and can see, or rather hear, the improvements in your playing.

Quality is a slightly more abstract concept when it comes to practice. Unless you are practising something in totally the wrong way, for example playing the wrong notes, I think almost any practice is of some value. But certainly some ways of practising are more effective than others.

It is important to really pay attention, at all times. As I have said in the previous post, when your concentration starts to fade it's probably time to stop.
When practising any instrument there are many things to think about: Notes, intonation, rhythm, dynamics, form, tone, phrasing etc...... it is hard to be thinking about them all at once. So to help keep our heads from overloading, focus on one thing at a time. It might be a big shift, some odd intervals, a passage of fast notes, or very slow notes, or it might be all of these; break it down into smaller chunks.

Perhaps quite a strict regime, but if you did follow this chart, you would get good fast!

Perhaps quite a strict regime, but if you did follow this chart, you would get good fast!

  • The shift or unusual intervals needs slow practice for intonation. Listen to a recording or play the notes on the piano of just that section, until it is set in your head. Really listen to the notes that you are playing. Sometimes, if you are really paying attention, bending the note slightly sharp then flat can help settle the true note into your ear. Once the intonation is solid, then start refining the sound, making sure the tone and dynamics are right. You might find that after adding dynamics you might need to work on the intonation again.
  • For fast passages, once you have nutted out the intonation, start building up the speed. This really does require vigilant use of a metronome. Start slow, it seems obvious but you would be surprised, slow means slow, take the speed that you feel you can play it and reduce it by 5-10 notches. Now it's just repetition, gradually increasing the speed a few notches at a time (only when you have mastered the passage at the slower speed). You may find that you hit a wall at a certain speed, that's ok, you will gradually push it up further over time. 
    Practising with a dotted rhythm, and then the reverse rhythm is often very helpful in conjunction with the metronome.

These are just 2 examples of ways to practice specific elements or passages. Both involve much repetition and attention to detail. And that can be applied to all practice. The 3 time rule is also a good thing to stick by: to get something perfect 3 times in a row, is actually harder than it sounds, so you keep working it until you do.

The last thing I want to mention which I feel often gets neglected in favour of everything I have mentioned above, is the physical. Being aware of physical stance, posture, how you are using your hands, arms, face, is as important as the rest. You can't do the rest effectively without using your body in the right way. Pay attention to how it feels to produce the notes, do you have the right balance and weight in your arms for example, are you sitting (or standing) correctly. Notice how it feels when you get the notes right, not just how it sounds, it will make it easier to replicate next time.

This all seems like a lot of hard work I guess, and learning an instrument is, hard work, but also fun and rewarding and many other things besides. And remember you don't have to do it all at once. As I mentioned before, regular small practises are going to get you further than the occasional marathon. Alternate between the detailed practice and playing through  (it keeps you in context of the bigger picture, and is usually more fun) and when time allows devote yourself to a big session.

Keep your goals in mind and remember nothing really worthwhile is particularly easy.


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