How to Have a Productive Practice Session:

Thoughts and Strategies from Cellospeak Faculty

We often look forward to practicing the cello; however, no one really wants to practice all day! We have many other life activities that are important to us and we could end up injuring ourselves if we overdo our practicing. In our relatively short private lessons we receive guidance about what we need to change or adjust.

Yet it is during the relatively longer solo practice sessions that we implement our teachers’ suggestions to make us better cellists. To that end, here are a few practice ideas and techniques that have been discussed during our summer workshops.

It is helpful to remember that“practicing” means “simplifying.” Since we often cannot sight-read a piece as is, we simplify the harder parts so that we can start to play it in an easier version. As we gain familiarity, we re-introduce the complexities of the music as written until we can play it as intended by its composer.

Slow Practice
Everyone already knows that they should practice a passage slowly at first, but often our eagerness to play a new piece and our desire to quickly meet our internal expectations push us to practice near or at tempo. Playing slowly simplifies the music by giving you more time to prepare for the upcoming notes and eliminating some mistakes. Every mistake you can prevent, you’ll save practice time because you won’t need to spend time correcting and unlearning the mishap.

Slow Motion Practice
Ever had a shift that wasn’t consistently in tune and that sounded more clumsy than elegant? Try practicing the shift between two notes by itself at a super slow tempo. This allows you to examine the details of the shift. Ask yourself questions such as the following:

  • What preparation can be done before the shift so that the shift itself is simpler?
  • What finger keeps the string down during the shift?
  • When do I bring my thumb up when shifting into thumb position?
  • What does it feel like to add vibrato as soon as I arrive at the new note?

Slow motion practice can be invaluable for examining short but complex time frames including shifts, bow changes, string crossings, and the like.

Metronome Practice

We have all been told to practice with a metronome and for many different reasons. One of these reasons is that the metronome’s persistent clicking can prevent us from stopping at each imperfection we detect. As musicians we work hard to minimize mistakes but we also need to learn the art of recovering from errors. Developing recovery skills helps us share our music more successfully.

Run/Walk Practice
Let’s say you have an extended and challenging run of 16th notes. Instead of playing it all at one tempo from beginning to end over and over again, try playing it in a run/walk rhythm. Play the first group of four 16th notes plus one more note as fast as you can (run). Then take as big a break as you want to prepare for the second group of 16th notes (walk). Afterwards, repeating the last note from before, play the second group of 16th notes plus one note as fast as you can (run). Continue this rhythmic pattern to the end of the passage. Use this rhythm or make up one of your own. This way you practice most of the notes at tempo and you will find it easier to play from beginning to end. Click here to listen to an example of run/walk practice.

Tonguing Practice
If you are up against a tricky rhythm, you can “tongue” the rhythm by using a syllable such as “Da” out loud to speak the rhythm. You don’t have to sing the pitches, although you can if you want! While tonguing the rhythm on the page, keep the pulse by steadily clapping or tapping your hands or feet. When tonguing the rhythm becomes accurate and repeatable, you are ready to try playing it again.

Note by Note Practice
To acquaint yourself with specific notes on the cello, you can play the relevant musical passage without the composer’s intended rhythm or specified bowing. Play each note, regardless of its written rhythmic value, as a slow quarter note with whatever bowing feels comfortable. At first this seems difficult because you want to play the passage with the rhythm you’ve heard; if you persevere, though, you will find this technique extremely helpful, particularly at the early stages of learning a piece.

Air Bowing Practice

Air bowing is the antithesis of “note by note” practicing. In this technique you don’t care where the notes are on the instrument; you only care that your bow goes in the correct direction and that you keep the rhythm. There are many ways to air bow. You can go up and down in the air, you can rest the wood of the bow on your left upper arm in a modified violin position or you can make a circle around the wood of your bow with your left thumb and second finger and push and pull the bow through the circle. Whichever technique you use, you will want to bow in the correct direction and tongue the rhythm at the same time. You will find that you often can air bow a piece at tempo almost immediately, so it is a great help getting a piece up to speed. Use it on your Bach suites, which have complicated bowing combinations. You will be surprised how this technique can simplify a stubborn passage.

Semi-Memorization Practice
We don’t have time to memorize everything we play; that would just take too much time. However, we can partially memorize a phrase that is difficult, thereby making it easier to read when we encounter it in a rehearsal or a performance. Try memorizing a measure or two of a tricky passage to see if it helps.

Fingering Tapping Practice

Gently tap the fingering of a tricky passage on the shoulder of your cello. When the next note is the same finger as the previous, you’ll have to lift that finger to reiterate it. This ensures you know what finger to use for every note without using helpful cues such as pitch. As you speed up a passage to its intended tempo, you’ll need to rely more and more heavily on your muscle memory. Developing the muscle memory of a passage gives us additional confidence and makes a faster tempo possible.

Our pursuit isn’t to practice all day but to play cello with and for others! We want to progress quickly so we can increase our audience’s enjoyment and play a broader repertoire. We’ve chosen to discuss a handful of practice techniques in this article, but there are many, many more. Hopefully one or two of the techniques discussed here will find their way into your practice sessions and will help make your practice sessions more efficient and rewarding. Happy Practicing!