Prevention vs. cure

Almost every day I have to correct a student who’s learned some wrong notes. Or wrong rhythms; that happens a lot too. And every time it happens, I’m surprised anew at how incredibly hard it is to unlearn and correct a learned mistake–far harder, I think, than learning a piece of music from scratch. It isn’t just the muscle memory, but the neural pathways we build when we make those memories. I get frustrated when I have to teach someone to unlearn a mistake, but I sympathize too because it’s happened to me so many times.

I still go hot and cold with shame at the memory of my last undergraduate recital, when I realized, five minutes before going onstage, that I’d learned two bars in the last movement of the Prokofiev sonata wrongly. By some miracle I managed to correct the mistake in the concert, but it was a truly terrifying moment that I don’t care to repeat.

The best way to prevent this problem, in my experience, is to do the bulk of one’s note-learning away from the cello. Score study using self-conducting, solfège where applicable, and many different recordings all help to ingrain the right notes. I don’t advise students to learn a new piece by sitting down right away with the cello for a hack-through–unless you’ve heard the piece a lot of times before, this seldom ends well.

In today’s practice session, I started learning a new piece at the cello first, because it hadn’t been recorded before and I was impatient to try it out and hear what it sounded like. To my embarrassment (teacher, teach thyself!) I caught myself several times forgetting the key signature, omitting accidentals, turning dotted figures into triplets and so on. Eventually, I forced myself to put the cello down and start singing instead. And conducting myself with a pencil. And occasionally using that pencil to write in courtesy accidentals. It seems that no matter how fluent one gets at sight-reading, once still has to do the dull old nuts-and-bolts work to get things right.

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