The easy bits

As part of my continuing search for efficient practice methods, I’ve started using my Zoom recorder in every practice session. After working on the challenging spots and sections in a movement for half an hour or so, I record a full take. I play it back immediately, taking detailed notes in the score. Then I work on all the places that need it, and after another half hour I record it again. As chastening as this process is, it really does help isolate passages that need work. Sometimes I don’t even notice a flaw until I hear the recording; this type of practice has improved my ability to listen to myself while I’m playing. In the words of one of my mentors, “Is it fun? Nope. Does it work? Yup.”

Sometimes we get so bogged down in what we perceive to be the “hard bits” of a piece that we neglect the easy ones. I almost laughed during my first playback today when I realized that I could play all the hard bits (in this case, a fast passage with many dashing shifts and spiccato bowing, a stroke that’s never been comfortable for me) just fine. I was messing up the supposedly easy bits, the lyrical, sonorous sections of cellistic cliché. (Aren’t we supposed to be good at this sort of thing?) I was surprised to hear that I was pulling the bow unevenly, resulting in the dreaded “banana tone,” vibrating inconsistently, and phrasing haphazardly. And yet, why should I be surprised? I’d assiduously worked on the fast, dashing bits with the metronome to get them up to speed. I’d done them in different rhythms. I’d isolated the most difficult shifts and repeated them again and again to train my hand to achieve them quickly. I’d scrutinized my arms in the mirror to figure out how to make my movements more efficient. Those slow, “easy” bits? I’d repeated them once or twice, but wrongly assumed that I could play them well without much work.

Maybe all those studies purporting to prove that practice makes you better, even the ones with sketchy methodologies and a bundle of semi-fake statistical jargon at the end, are onto something.