Couch to 5K for Cellists, Week 3: Slow-Fast-Slow-Fast

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Begin running for 90 seconds,” instructs the robotic voice in my headphones on the first day of Week 3 of C25K. “OK,” I tell her. After last week, Week 2 of C25K, I know I can run for 90 seconds.

I’ve been working out more than usual this week in between runs. My preferred form of aerobic exercise has long been my elliptical trainer, but it recently broke and I couldn’t justify the expense of replacing it. I got hold of a second-hand stationary bicycle instead, so now I can cycle for half an hour or so on the days between runs. Truthfully, I find exercising very boring, so I bribe myself by allowing myself to binge-watch murder mysteries while I do it. This works well, because I have a guilt complex about watching TV, unless I virtuously exercise while I’m watching, which cancels out the idleness of it.

The problem with running outside is that you can’t watch TV while you do it. You’re alone with your own thoughts. Your own thoughts won’t necessarily be particularly sunny.

In Week 3 of C25K, your instructions are to begin with a five-minute walk as a warm-up. Then you run for 90 seconds, walk for 90 seconds, run for three minutes, walk for three minutes, run for 90 seconds, walk for 90 seconds, run for another three minutes, then walk for three minutes as a cool-down.

I started feeling slightly cocky as I began the first three-minute run. Three minutes is 2×90 seconds, and I’d just done a 90-second run without feeling too rough. Surely it wouldn’t be that hard.

(Voiceover: “It was too hard.”)

When I started C25K, I really only had two rules. (1) I’m allowed to quit; (2) I’m allowed to be bad.

Good thing about (2). Reader, I was bad.

It was the longest three minutes of my life. 90 seconds in, with another 90 to go, I was getting badly out of breath. All the things I read about proper running technique? Gone. All I could focus on was putting one foot in front of each other, thud-thud-thud. I was gasping and wheezing like the unfit kid with asthma on the playground, picked last for sports, lonely and mocked, that I was and am and always will be.

In case this isn’t obvious, I hated every draggy, reluctant step of it.

Why Can’t I Skip to the Part Where I’m Awesome?

I spend a lot of time hanging around with cellists in social media groups composed of a mixture of professionals, amateurs, and students. (That’s the great thing about the internet — it helps you find your people.) Mostly, the discussion is about general nerdery, scores, editions, recordings, and so on. Occasionally, though, a newbie will post something like “I just recently started cello aged 45. Approximately how long will it take me to get into a major orchestra?”

No one wants to tell them that their goal is totally unrealistic.

If it were realistic, we’d all be in major orchestras. Even assuming that a 45-year-old beginner had every possible advantage — the best teachers in the world, a million-dollar cello, and unlimited time and money — they aren’t going to get to the top of the profession. They’re not going to be in the profession at all.

I always want to say “Look, cello is fantastic. I get it. If you do a lot of practice under the guidance of a skilled teacher, you will improve. But please temper your expectations. You are not going to be in a major orchestra, and not just because major orchestras barely exist any more. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you can start to experience the joy and beauty and meaning that the cello will bring you.”

And this is what I had to tell myself about running as I pounded along the track pathetically slowly, coughing, thinking about all my friends who had run marathons and competed in Iron Man contests and could bench-press more than their own weight.

The Cello-Playing Tortoise

I had to accept that I’m slow. After the first three-minute run, I spent at least half of the three-minute walk wheezing. I was sort of weaving around the lanes of the track, because I couldn’t seem to walk in a straight line. I very nearly quit right there.

“Begin running for 90 seconds,” said the robot voice. “I don’t want to I don’t want to I don’t want to!” I howled back at her.

That was when a strange thing happened. Somehow, for some reason, I found that now I had my breath back, I could get through the 90 seconds far more easily than I had the first time. I wasn’t counting the seconds obsessively any more. I had somehow got into the rhythm of the thing. For the first time I felt like I was actually…running.

The Hare-and-Tortoise Metronome Method

Like most music teachers, I use the metronome a lot in my teaching. The metronome is a great tool, but its use is widely misunderstood. A lot of people, when preparing a fast passage of music that they can’t yet play, will start with the metronome at a slow tempo. On each repetition, they’ll crank it up a couple of beats per minute until they’re at goal tempo. Or so they think.

The problem with the “inch-it-up” metronome method is that it’s an extremely effective way of making yourself habitually lag ever so slightly behind the beat. I did it for years and always struggled with fast sections. I even thought I was incapable of playing fast.

That was before I learned about a new metronome method. When I wrote about it in my book, Cello Practice, Cello Performance, I described it as the “two steps forward, one step back” method. What you do is start with the metronome at the tempo that you can play. It might be ridiculously slow, but it’s what you can do right now. After getting to the point where you can be perfect at the slow speed, you put the metronome on faster — say two beats per minute faster. The passage will feel like a bit of a struggle at first, but you sit with it and try to get it sounding better. Then you turn the metronome back one click and play the passage again. It will feel easier. Hey presto, you just taught yourself to play one click faster than before!

You keep going up two increments, back one increment, up-two-back-one-up-two-back-one, until you reach goal tempo. Then you keep going. You train yourself to play the passage faster than you actually need it, so that when you have to play at goal tempo it seems easy.

I guess the comparison is pretty obvious — that C25K was teaching me to run using my own metronome method. Nice work, robot lady.


I still wish I were more hare and less tortoise, but I didn’t quit. After the second 90-second run there was another 90-second walk, and then it was back to the three-minute run again. Did I want to run for three minutes? I did not.

I still did it. I can’t truthfully say that it was fun or made me feel good, but I did it, and this time I didn’t wheeze and pant half so much. I got through it without stopping or passing out or throwing a giant tantrum and quitting. I did it.

On the cool-down walk, I realized I was standing taller and moving with more balance than before. I could walk in a straight line. If that’s improvement, I’ll take it.

Read Couch to 5K for Cellists Week 1 – P. E. Trauma and Music Trauma

Read Couch to 5K for Cellists Week 2 – Permission to Be Bad

© Miranda Wilson, 2021. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without permission of the author.


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