(Practice) Diary: Just not feeling it

For the second time this week I spent a perfectly good evening at home not practicing.

I haven’t done that (not practicing for no reason) since I started my 100 Days of Practice challenge, and prior to the challenge I rarely did it to begin with.

There were several reasons:

  • I’ve been very tired lately. I would go home and immediately take a nap. The hours between 6 and 9 pm are precious time to squeeze in dinner, cello, and violin, and a nap usually means not doing one of those three things.
  • I’ve been unmotivated / procrastinating. There is a cello etude I do not want to practice, and all my violin stuff just doesn’t bring any excitement. Which is ironic because both of these things should theoretically mean more practice (to nail down the etude and to have all the violin things perfected so I can move on to something else after the next lesson).

And today is especially strange. I have a cello¬†and a violin lesson tomorrow, and somehow I just decided to not do any practice and was okay with my choice (I’m not even panicking about my lessons tomorrow; look my hands aren’t shaking… yet). This has almost never happened. But I’m just not feeling it.

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Practice Diary: Am I moving too fast on the cello?

Cello lesson this weekend was quite productive. We revisited the bowing arm and fixed some issues I had that made my hand hurt trying to make big sounds using slow bows. I was given two new etudes, and was taught ways to make my Suzuki pieces more expressive.

All of this is great, and a great start to my 10th month of celloing.

But that’s the thing: I’ve only had 9 months of cello experience.

These new etudes I’m learning now, one of them was full of shifting. I had to mark the parts that require shifting because it makes you shift to a different position each time. In one line of music I had to shift to 4th, 3rd, and 2nd positions in the span of maybe 9 measures.

The other etude introduces double stops. I don’t know how to play double stops. I barely practice any double stops on the violin, an instrument that I am way more experienced in.

We also toyed with the idea of maybe take part of my last tape off the finger board. In the past month or so we already got rid of the 2nd and 3rd finger tapes. While that didn’t affect my playing too much, I really use my 4th finger tape quite a lot as a visual guide for shifting so it’s actually something I need.

We also talked about maybe starting to learn vibrato next lesson.

This is a lot. I took violin lessons for 5 years when I was younger, and I’m year 2 of re-learning the violin, and I’m still working on shifting and vibrato. Just a year ago I had a piece of tape on my violin because I just couldn’t get my 3rd position intonation right. My violin teacher is a stickler for proper techniques and I really appreciate that.

This is not to say that my cello teacher doesn’t care about techniques. We spend a lot of time in my lessons on getting the left and right hands properly, and he has the extra task of fixing all my violin-related bad habits.

But I just feel like I’m running way too fast with this cello thing, and I’m really afraid of sprinting right into a wall. But I’m also afraid of slowing down. I’m afraid of not making any progress.

I don’t really have an accurate and objective assessment of my ability. I know I am a cello beginner, but my experience with violin, a stringed instrument, gives me a special advantage that other beginners or beginners with other musical experiences do not have. I also know that I don’t practice that much and I don’t really drill on the techniques. I take lessons only every other week so I don’t always get timely feedback on whether I’m doing something right or incorrectly. I also have very skewed expectations from my cello study, as in, I expect the same out of my cello learning as I do from my violin, which is incredibly unfair on myself and I’m actually a worse critic of myself than my teacher is. I have a distorted view of my cello learning and progress and because of it I cannot make an accurate judgement.

So here I am, still sprinting full speed into a wall that may or may not exist.

Practice Diary: The solution to over-thinking is even more thinking!

So now I’ve been told by both my violin and my cello teachers that I think or analyze too much.

To have the ability to analyze everything you do is a good way to practice your instrument more efficiently, and for adult learners, it’s one of our most valuable advantages over younger students. We can think more critically and problem solve our way toward perfection.

Right?

Apparently I’ve been over-doing it. My cello teacher tells me almost every lesson that I “think too much”. It took me a while to actually figure out what he meant, because, how can you not think about everything you do when you are trying to play something as complicated as the cello? If I sound the way I do with all my brain cells fired up, imagine how much worse it would sound if half of them are asleep! Eventually I realized he meant that I spend too much time lingering on the notes I’ve already played, analyzing whether they were the right notes or whether they were good notes, and not focusing on the things to come. Apparently it’s very easy to tell when I’m doing it because my eyes shift whenever it happens.

The day my violin teacher brought it up was when I was having a particularly hard time playing my scales up to tempo. I had the metronome on but I kept ignoring it, wandering in my own speed. We figured out that the note after each shift was too slow, because I always hesitate after a shift. And I hesitate because I was trying to analyze if my shift was good. So basically, the same problem: spending too much energy obsessing on the past and not focusing on what’s next.

They both also brought up another point about my over-analyzing: it’s affecting the way I “perform”. Because I think too much about the details I neglect the big picture, which is to play a piece (scale, etude, concerto) all the way through in a musical manner. And it’s something I have to work on.

So in a way my inability to “perform” for my teachers is a result of not enough practice. I over-analyze on lesson day because I’m not confident with my playing, therefore I can’t actually perform the things. And now, realizing that there is an extra piece of thing I have to practice for, it means that I have to work harder to fit that in before a lesson as well.

And how do you do that? I can’t just add another hour to my practice session everyday; I simply just cannot devote more time into it.

Being an over-thinker that I am, my solution was to… analyze everything even harder, but trying to do that upfront so I get all the pieces ready earlier to leave myself time in the end to do run-throughs (as if I’m performing).

I’m still experimenting with the specifics. I’m trying to focus more on looking ahead in the music to prepare for the notes to come; working in smaller chunks to get specific notes and measures correct so I don’t have to think back as much; practicing running through something smoothly (without stopping), but only after I fix all the smaller things.

And slow practice is your friend. We see that everywhere. Everyone says to practice slowly, but I don’t think people (myself included) always know what that actually means (or are too impatient to do it). I feel that this topic merits its own post(s), and I’m still trying to figure out all of its magic to describe it coherently, so more on that later.

I’m not sure how well my over-over-thinking is working. Maybe I’m just unwilling to change; maybe it takes some time to take effect. I think it’s kind of working a little, so I’m going to keep over-over-think until my brain explodes :/

Why I thought finding a music teacher would be hard

When I first tried to find a violin teacher two years ago it was very hard (but that’s another story). One of the things I feared is that no one would take me on because I’m an adult learner with some but not a lot of experience. A quick search of online forums would give you a glimpse of why some teachers do not take adult students, and many of their reasons are legit. But recently I remembered an experience I had years ago that preconditioned me to think that finding a good teacher for me would be hard.

I took piano lessons for a year when I was a senior in college. It was a music class I took for credit, and as part of the class we got weekly half-hour lessons from the instructor. It was an important part of my life at the time. Music saved my sanity as I was trying to get into grad school, do research, and write my senior thesis. Naturally after I graduated I wanted to continue my piano journey, and I thought about continuing piano lessons in grad school.

I researched my options. My grad school has a music department. It has a bunch of practice rooms in the basement of the music hall that were unlocked and first-come-first-serve for all students. There are several piano instructors on the faculty list, and non-music-majors could potentially take lesson with them, even for credit (less fee). So I thought it was perfect, and I emailed one of the instructors (I don’t remember why I picked her or why I didn’t contact anyone else).

She was very nice over email, asked me to sign up for an interview slot during orientation week, and gave the impression that she might potentially take me on after talking to me in person. I treated this interview as an audition, and practiced all the things I was working on at the time and did everything to prepare so I would give a good impression.

The day came. I remember I signed up for sometime in the late afternoon, like 4:45pm. I was working at a lab at an off-campus site at the time, which meant I had to leave work early that day to come back to campus to make my interview. And I did. But when I got to her office at my time slot, I saw a row of students sitting outside her door. I was running and out of breath because I was just on time. I rushed pass the row of students and turned the door knob. It was locked. A student told me that someone was in there. And I said I know but I’m next and it’s my time now. They then told me that the interviews were running late and they were all waiting. Apparently the student before me hadn’t gone in yet.

When it was finally my turn, I walked in and sat down on the piano bench, ready to pull out my music and play at any notice. The instructor was sitting on the couch across from the room, and she had no intention of hearing me play. We just talked and it was a short meeting. She essentially told me (not even a discussion, not even an interview, not even a chance for me to explain anything) that I wasn’t advanced enough, that she only took intermediate students or above especially for non-music majors, that I should contact a music student in the department and ask if they teach, that I could come back to her in a year or two when I get more advanced and discuss our options again. And then we were done.

I was very discouraged and disappointed at the time. I had no intention of somehow getting a list of piano performance students, sift through each of them to find someone suitable to take lessons from, negotiate a somewhat regular lesson routine (between my first-year grad school and their busy undergrad schedules), negotiate a price, and try to figure out if they are a good fit.

Later I became very angry with the instructor. I’m still angry today. She essentially wasted my time by having me leaving work early to make her pointless appointment so she could tell me to my face that I wasn’t good enough for her teach, when all of it could be said in her first email and save both of us the trouble. I never heard her play the piano. I have never seen her teach. From the way her meetings ran late she seemed to have terrible time management. I didn’t know it then but I subconsciously already decided to never go back to her. And I never did. The sad thing is that I also stopped playing the piano all together not too long after the meeting. It really affected me even though I kept telling myself that she had every reason to not take me on. It was just the way she did it that really added salt to the wound.

At the time it was my first and only experience of finding a private teacher. I think from that experience I just assumed that any real professional musician is out of reach for someone like me. I felt that either I have to wade through many candidates to find a great teacher, or I would have to settle for someone who plays better than me but may or may not able to teach. So when I was able to study with my current teachers, one I didn’t even have to look for and the other I found on the first try, I feel so immensely lucky and grateful.

 

Practice Diary: No sound

The first note of the etude is an open G.

I didn’t have my metronome on so I could play that first note however long I wanted. I never had too much problem with the two notes after the G, or the 4 notes after that.

But I just couldn’t do it.

I was close. My violin was up, the frog of my bow was hovering maybe half an inch above the G string, I could hear the note in my head and picture myself playing the open string.

Instead of actually doing it I lowered my instrument instead and looked away from my music. I felt stressed about practicing the etude. I was disappointed by my sense of defeat. It’s admittedly not an easy etude but it’s not that difficult either. I’ve practiced the opening 8 measures for a solid week and half now, and I’ve had this etude for 3 and half weeks, and I still can’t get it. The word “failure” popped loudly in my head. There might’ve been a tear before I caught myself in the mirror and thought I was being utterly ridiculous.

This went on for a while. Eventually I decided not to test my luck, and started by practicing some shifting to the third position, playing the notes at the beginning of the difficult measure. It went okay. I added another note. A little flat but the second attempt was good. The next few notes were fine. I wasn’t touching the next string. My 2nd finger was in tune. My 4th finger was in tune. The next few notes were also in tune. Shifting back to first position went pretty well.

I put everything together and finally played that open G. The first 4 measures sounded… fine.

The next 4 didn’t, but by then I wasn’t stressed anymore. I proceeded with my practice. The rest went pretty well.

There were other etudes that were problematic from the very beginning, but this is the very first time, ever, that I am so stressed out by something that I would actually lose the courage to play. It wasn’t, of course, the open G that I was afraid of; it was the possibility that the notes after it would stumble and fall and crash into each other, and fill the room with audible display of my failure. And I just couldn’t stand that possibility. I don’t mind not being good at something. But I mind, very much, of working very hard and still failing — utterly failing — at something.

Anyways, I don’t think this will happen again tomorrow. By the end I was comfortable enough to practice with a metronome set at the speed I was supposed to play, and now I have a whole new set of challenges to overcome. These are challenges I’m excited to tackle, so I’m quite motivated to do more tomorrow.

 

Practice Diary: So it wasn’t a success

Today felt hard.

I was tired. I practiced the cello earlier and there were a lot of extensions in my etudes. When I got to the violin my left arm felt heavy and my fingers didn’t seem to remember their spacings. I was over-shifting and my third position was way out of tune.

I also spent maybe 30 minutes on the first 4 measures of an etude (Wohlfahrt Foundation Studies Book 2 #18) . There were just… problems. At first I played them ok-ish a few times and moved on. The rest of the etude felt easier, but I was distracted. I couldn’t let those 4 measure go. So about half way through I just stopped and went back to work on them, and instead of getting better they just fell apart more and more the longer I played them. At one point I thought about moving on to something else, but I wasn’t motivated to play any of my other stuff. I kept going for a bit longer before accepting the fact that it just wasn’t working. My fingers are just not independent enough and there was just nothing I could do to force them to stay in place.

I decided that this is something that will just take more time. I just need to practice it a little every day until my fingers just “get it” but until then… there’s no point getting frustrated. I was too tired to be angry. I put my violin away and declared today not a success.

The Language of Music (Learning)

I’m bilingual. I speak English and Mandarin.

I have a stereotypical Asian immigrant mother who first “introduced” me to the violin.

My musical journey began when she noticed a music school opening inside a Chinese supermarket we shopped at. She decided it was a good opportunity for me to take up an instrument, and she also decided that I should learn the violin. I remembered saying that I wanted to play the flute but, I mean look at me today. I obviously didn’t win that argument.

The music school (it’s still there) is owned by a Taiwanese lady who at the time was very young and probably just graduated from music school. She played and taught the flute, and hired a bunch of her friends, many still in school, to teach various instruments.

All this is to say that all of my childhood private violin teachers (including one I later studied with who didn’t work for this school) were Chinese.

I also remember my mother sitting in on all my lessons and took notes for me. I almost never read her notes, but I know they were written in Chinese. But many of my books were in English. I used String Builders and Suzuki books when I first started. Later my teacher gave me photocopied Kayser etudes that were in Chinese. My teachers wrote notes in either English or Chinese (depending on the teacher). All of my music theory knowledge was learned in English.

At some point I also took the ABRSM Grade 5 music theory exam, so I had to learn everything in British English too.

I think by logic all of my lessons must’ve been taught in Chinese with English terms thrown in, but for the life of me I just can’t remember anything to be sure. I barely know any music theory or violin playing terms in Chinese; I have to translate myself if I try to discuss violin with my Chinese friends.

There are times when I forget what language I used for certain conversations or for certain knowledge I acquired, but I took violin lessons for 5 years. How could I have learned something as complicated as playing a musical instrument but not remember what language I learned it in?

My current teacher is American and American educated. And some of the stuff she says are completely foreign to me. She sometimes asks me if I did this or that exercise when I learned basic things like bowing or rhythm and I panic because I don’t know what she’s talking about, and I wasn’t sure if that was bad foundational learning on my part or just different schools of teaching. I later realized that it was probably just the way I was taught by people who didn’t grow up learning the violin in this country.

This is weird right? That I took violin lessons for 5 years in my teenage years and not remember what language my teachers used in our lessons? I just want to throw this out here because I think about it often and it just amazes and baffles me every time.