You’ve taken lessons.  You’ve practiced.  Now it’s time for the dreaded recital.  You don’t want to do this because you are worried that you’ll make mistakes, and people will snicker.  Essentially, crash and burn.

On the other hand, you DO want to do this.  You’ve taken lessons.  You’ve practiced.  You want to display your progress.  Deep breath.  You may make mistakes but no one will snicker.  If they’re smart, they’ll be proud for you that you’ve taken this step, while they’re still in the audience.

I have a friend who recently had his recital.  He worked hard, practiced, studied the music.   He said it went ok and proceeded to give an in depth analysis of his feelings and progress through the event, step by step.  It was all quite interesting.  He puts lots of thought into whatever he does.  What really stood out to me was when he said he had chosen a piece that was difficult and he was really working on perfecting it up to the last second.  He said “…from now on, for the sake of performance, I need to know a piece cold three months before, as opposed to “working on it” three months before.”

This makes such good sense!  The notes typically come first.  Learning the spacings,  the shifts, and the left hand positions are the starting points.  If you have a piece where you’ve already mastered the left hand work, you can really focus on making MUSIC with the right hand and the bow.  Learning to taper those last beautiful notes in the phrase.  Adding accents where appropriate.  Crescendos up the arpeggios and decrescendos down.  Really make those pianos quite different from the fortes.

It doesn’t even need to be for a recital.  It’s for fun. Take a piece where you know the left hand well and add the real beauty with the right hand.  You’ll surprise yourself.


I am playing Ravel’s “Pavane” in orchestra.  It’s slow and  lovely and not terribly difficult.  I’m doing well until I get to the part where we’re playing pizzicato:

Strumming slowly and vibrating the top note.  It’s all working fine until I get to the last chord.  There’s an F sharp and I stop.  I’ve been happily playing by one finger on one note and barring two notes.  It works well when the two notes are in the same place on 2 strings, as in the 4th measure.  I barre the A-E with my one and play the C with my 2.  Now I have to play an F sharp, C and A.  I need to use 3 fingers.  It’s not difficult.  The trick is in the finger choreography.  I have to instruct my fingers, one finger at a time, where it is to go and when.   I have to determine which finger goes first and practice the motion  once I decide on the best and easiest way to get where I want to go.  Once this is done and I’ve practiced the motion many times, it feels natural and comfortable.    I sometimes forget that my fingers aren’t proficient at moving around the fingerboard.  They certainly are not as proficient as my brain.  I mean, I knew what those notes were and where they were on the instrument.  Why didn’t my fingers know too?   They just aren’t that smart and they need to be instructed.  I sometimes expect too much from them.   When they’ve had the choreography shown to them and they get a chance to rehearse, then they have learned and they know what to do.  It all works so well.


Are you a beginner cellist? Or just feeling like a beginner since you played 10 (or 20, or 30) years ago and took off some time to have a life?  You aren’t alone.  There are many cellists who start at 30, 40, 50 (me!), or later and find enormous pleasure in the pursuit of this extraordinary challenge.   In the same vein, there are many who played as youngsters for a few years who put down their instrument, only to be called back to it later in life.

Welcome or welcome back!  Now you are joining an orchestra (or cello choir, or  chamber group) and nervous about your entrance.  Here are some ideas to make it easier.

Be prepared.  You’ll feel better if you start off with the essentials.  Your instrument and bow, a rock stop, a stand, a pencil, rosin,  and maybe a stand light.   You’ll probably be handed a stack of music which looks impossible and you’ll be ready to bolt.  Don’t do it.  Be brave.

Look over the music.  Look at the key signature and time signature.  These are starting points for all your music.  If you see 3 sharps and you aren’t used to the key of A major, look around for all the G’s and mark them with a sharp so you’ll have a reminder.   The time signature tells you how many beats in the measure and what type of note gets one beat, so peruse the music.  If you’re playing 4/4, mentally count the beats- one for a quarter note or “one and two and…” for eighth notes.  It helps to have the rhythm going in your head.

Now make it easy on yourself.  You don’t have to play every note.  In fact, it’s good practice to play the first note of a measure (or a group of notes) and keep your eyes moving so you don’t get lost.  It’s a great skill to have and one that will be used throughout your cello life.   If you miss a note, no worries.  There are lots more.  Just keep your eyes moving and jump back in.   No one is paying attention to you because everyone is working as you are to play the music.

Finally, breathe.  Keep breathing.  It seems obvious, but when you tense up you may hold your breath and we all know breathing is good for you and your music.

Come back next session and you’ll find that you’re enjoying the music, the camaraderie, and your progress.  Welcome to making music with friends!

I just read this on an email from one of so many I receive: “Stop sabotaging your efforts with a self-defeating outlook and stay motivated to reach your goals with these effective techniques. The internal dialogue you have with yourself can make or break your success.”

We all do it.  Tell ourselves we’re not good enough.  We don’t belong in this group/orchestra/quartet/etc.   So read that quote above once more.  First of all, you have to have goals or you can’t sabotage them.  Do you have specific, quantitative goals?  I’ve always said “I want to sound like a cellist” but that’s incredibly vague and non-specific.  You have to be able to measure your progress in some way.  Often it’s the level of the music you’re playing, thus the Suzuki progression of books is one measure.   It could also be going from paralyzed at your first recital to feeling relaxed in your orchestra concert.   It could be unable to sight read at all to being a bit more comfortable with sight reading and learning to keep going even when you goof.  We all goof.  Even the pros.  Certainly the students!

So set some goals.  Something you can really look at in time and say, YES I did it.  Or No, not there yet, but this is what I need to do.  Your teacher can help, or your inner-teacher.  As adults, we have this.  Or we’re learning to listen to ourselves and trying new things.  The point is that your inner dialogue is useless to your progress unless you fill it with positive, motivating, uplifting words.  Try to eliminate the ones that don’t move you forward and your growth is undeniable.


Do you live near a university with a music program? One that has a community music school? One that cares about adult amateur musicians as well as young (soon-to-be-professionals) students?

I just returned from the Adult String Weekend at the University of Alabama.  This is the 7th year for the event and I’ve been going since the start, as have many of the string players who go to participate, meet old friends and make new friends.  It’s a wonderful weekend of playing in orchestra, chamber groups, and having special sessions on anything from  technique to fiddling.   Not only is it led by an incredible team of professional, caring music teachers, but we get the benefit of the string majors at the school.  Our conductor is a man who understands that adult amateurs are not professional and we are not music majors.  We are there because we have a passion to play music with others.  We aren’t the best, we make mistakes, but we’re learning and growing and it’s fabulous!

This is one good looking, musical, happy group! (Count those cellos!)
So if you’re anywhere near the University of Alabama next August, you are invited to join us!  If not, I urge you to find a college, meet with the music directors, and create an Adult String Weekend.   You can even make your own T-shirt! 

A wonderful reader of this blog wrote to me, “It is interesting that you mentioned muscle memory in your discussion. Heard it several times also during ASW [Adult String Weekend- more on this in the next post]. I am aware of muscle memory, but never had the thought that muscles are smart.”

So I’m no expert and I don’t think that muscles have brains.  But there is something in the muscles that create “motor memory”.   Per Wikipedia, “When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems. ”

As it’s said in Wiki, “Overall, long-term musical fine motor training allows for complex actions to be performed at a lower level of movement control, monitoring, selection, attention, and timing. This leaves room for musicians to focus attention synchronously elsewhere, such as on the artistic aspect of the performance, without having to consciously control one’s fine motor actions.

Without going into a lot of discussion on the physiology of how it all works, let’s just agree that it does work.  Repetition of a movement (shifting from one note to another and back again, for example) will create the muscle memory and you’ll be able to do the shift without a lot of thinking about it.  So you can actually go on to play the next beautiful note!   And that’s what we’re after.


I spend lots of time in first position.  I think it’s good to do that, to be comfortable, since we spend so much time there.  But there are times when you have to get out of that comfort zone and move up the fingerboard.

For one thing, there are notes up there (or down there, depending on your perspective[ I call it up since the notes go higher]) that can’t be played unless you move up the fingerboard.   So it helps to know where the notes are.  Here’s a pic that gives you a visual:

The only thing I don’t like about this pictures is that it neglects that fact that the space between fingers gets smaller as you move up the fingerboard.  But you knew that.

One reason I like the cello so much is that you can often find the same note on 2 or 3 different strings so you have options about playing a passage.  Choice is a nice thing.   So how do you get from first position to second? or third, fourth, fifth…  Well, you shift.   What I’ve learned is that the shift is propelled by your arm.  Your fingers don’t “tow” your arm all over the cello.  Your arm puts you in position, and all the fingers have to do is type.  Accurately.  There are lots of thoughts about shifting.  This is one of them.  Here are some more:

Think about shifting from position to position, rather than from note to note.  Keep the speed of the shift SLOW.

I like to shift on the finger that is down.  Say you want to shift from first position to fourth, because you want to play an A on the D string.  (Because you’d like to vibrate the A.)   Your first finger is on the E.  Your arm does a “wind up”, creating forward momentum, and you slowly move your arm up to fourth position, landing your first finger on the A.  Then you do the reverse and go back to the E.   And repeat this many times.   You go forth and back because you want to get practice doing both shifts.  You do it many times because you’re teaching your arm what the distance is from first to fourth position on your cello.  Those muscles in your arm will learn and remember!  That’s the exciting part.  Your brain doesn’t need to tell them.  Muscles are smart.

There’s lots more to shifting, but that’s a good start.

No, this is not a sexual reference.  If you want to make something easier to play,  try making it harder.   There are lots of ways to do this, and you should try them all.   Say you have a measure that is just really hard to play.  Yes, you can just play it 100 times and you’ll get better.  As an alternative, try playing it one octave higher.  Yes, this will stretch your mind in figuring out how to do this, but after you’ve done this exercise and played it an octave higher a few times, you will be amazed at how much easier it is to play it as actually written!    Playing “faster” is not something that comes easily to me.  As an alternative to getting to the actual suggested tempo (and note that tempo markings are all  suggestions)  try playing a measure or two much faster than the suggested tempo.  It will seem so much easier when you slow it down.   Shifting is another technique that can be challenging.  Say you’re shifting from D to A on the A string.  Try shifting D to D for a while.  That D to A gets much easier .  The key to remember is that any of these “make it harder” exercises should only be done with one or two measures.  The idea is to stretch, but not so far that you snap!

Let’s say you are working on a piece.  It has fast passages, tricky shifts, and notes that are unknown.  We all have that piece.  It’s everywhere.  You have to really break it down and practice small bits at a time.    Let’s say you want to work on the fast passages.  There are several methods to playing faster.   You need to try them to see what works best for you.   First, isolate a few measures.  Actually take a few post-its and cover up measures before and after, above and below,  so you won’t be tempted to move ahead.   One method is the metronome method.  Set the tempo at a speed you can play comfortably.   Play the few measures.  Then you crank up the tempo 1 or 2 beats at a time until you reach the desired tempo.  I’ve always had a problem with this method.  I’m comfortable at 70 and I need to get to 120.  That means I’ve spent 80% of my time practicing slower than I need to and I’m  not actually learning to play it fast enough.   NOT that I’m saying you shouldn’t play slowly to begin, but when you’re ready to up the tempo, you need a practice method that works for you.  The metronome method may work.  But here’s another idea to try.  “Divide and conquer”.  Keep the music covered up so you’re only working with a few measures.  Say you have 2 measures of 1/8 notes like this:

You have to play them fast.  Break it down into 2 note chunks, play the first 2 notes at OR ABOVE tempo.   Play them several times.  Then play the next 2 notes at tempo.  Play them several times.  Now play the first two notes, count to two, and play the second two notes.  Do this several times.  Then put the 2 groups together and play at tempo several times.   Now you have the first 4 notes at tempo.  Go to the next group of 4, break into 2 groups of two, and do the same thing.  When the second group has come together, play the first group of 4, count to 4, then play the second group.  All at the correct (or faster) tempo.   Eventually, you’ll leave out the “count to 4” and put all eight notes together.  I like this method.   I’m playing at tempo, with small groups of notes, taking a break between groups.  It’s very intense practice and it’s another method to try out.  Let me know if it works for you.