How to be a terrible, unsuccessful cellist

As a cello professor and writer, I spend a lot of my time telling people how to practise efficiently and how to maximize their chances of professional success. One of the difficulties of this, of course, is finding a way to phrase my advice that speaks to, and motivates, my target audience. I like to think of myself as a positive, optimistic sort of person, but even so, my instructions often degenerate into don’ts. In my own self-teaching in the practice room, I make a point of writing affirming instructions on my music. If I write “don’t rush,” my brain ignores the “don’t” and I find myself rushing in spite of myself. Therefore, I rephrase it as “steady” or simply write a backwards arrow, and that seems to work better.

I was thinking of this today as I was drafting an article on preparing successfully for performances, and to amuse myself, I dreamed up a second article, publishable only in blog post form, about how not to do it. This is, of course, tongue-in-cheek, but I thought that by putting don’ts in it, it might work some kind of magical reverse psychology on anyone reading it.

How to be a terrible, unsuccessful cellist

1. Don’t practise fundamentals, scales, or etudes. Only losers work on shifts, tone, bowstrokes, double stops, etc, separately from repertoire. Who needs all those boring Popper etudes in weird keys? It’s not as if any of the major cello repertoire ever uses six flats.

2. Don’t practise if you don’t feel like it. It’s pointless to attempt to motivate yourself, so you should probably spend an hour on Facebook instead. If you must practise, don’t bother isolating and repeating problematic sections, because it’s better to run your entire piece seven or eight times through to build your stamina. This is necessary because the adrenaline rush of performing in front of an audience doesn’t provide you with any energy.

3. Don’t study full scores. The pianist is supposed to be following you, not the other way around.

4. Don’t listen to recordings. They will only corrupt the purity of your own interpretations.

5. Don’t bother with studying harmony, analysis, counterpoint or any of that boring stuff. They’re dry as dust and nothing to do with actual music. Also, don’t work on ear training or sight singing. You don’t need to be able to recognize chords, intervals, and all that nonsense, and as a cellist, you don’t need to be able to sing anything.

6. Don’t study historically informed performance practice. Once composers finish writing a piece, they no longer have any authority over it. It’s totally yours to do what you feel like with, and any discussion about trills, vibrato and so on is pedantic.

7. Don’t attend masterclasses or summer schools. Those old geezers have nothing to teach you about music or the profession, and the other people in the classes are just wannabes who want to steal your brilliant ideas. Some people talk about “networking,” but don’t bother with this–it has nothing to do with professional success.

8. Don’t practise intonation any way other than playing every note into a digital tuner, because tuning is best done with your eyes, not your ears. Also, playing with “good intonation” only means playing with equal-tempered intonation. Why else would the piano be tuned that way?

9. Don’t bother thinking about expressive phrasing in the first stages of learning a piece. To save time, work on it so you can “just play it,” putting in the bowings and fingerings that are most convenient for you. Expression isn’t a fundamental part of making music on the cello; it’s more of an optional thing you can put on later and has nothing to do with bowings and fingerings.

10. Don’t listen to the suggestions or criticism of your chamber music and orchestra colleagues. They don’t realize that you are a special snowflake and always know best. None of the things they’re asking you for are possible on the cello, anyway.

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