The Piano Prodigy and the Cello

When a beginner comes to me for a first lesson, it’s always a really interesting process of discovery, both for the student and for myself. Some students already have a background in music, while others have never tried an instrument before. Some have studied dance or practiced other art forms; others have experience with contrasting fields of knowledge or interest. Everyone comes to the first lesson with a unique set of skills and interests.

While I never consider a particular “lack” of experience to be a limitation, it’s always fun to work with a student who has a background in music. This was certainly the case when I began giving cello lessons to a boy, about 12 years old, who was already playing some of the most difficult piano repertoire, and at a professional level.

How would someone, already so musically accomplished, approach “starting all over again”? Would they take to it more quickly or be frustrated at the lower level of their newfound skill? Would certain aspects of learning the new instrument be familiar and others completely foreign? How would my approach as a teacher be different, and would there be broader lessons I could apply to my other students.

Going For It

During our first two or three lessons, I would have to say that my new student was doing well – he obviously had a good ear and was coordinated. His basic finger motions were well-rehearsed from piano playing. Nonetheless, his improvements weren’t quite “prodigious”. He had a lot of the same physical awkwardness and misfires that anyone would have when learning an instrument for the first time.

However, from the start, he also had a certain willingness to “go for it”. He was always experimenting with playing higher notes than what I showed him, even if he missed them at first. He would bow with abandon, even if the tone was imperfect.

He was simply fearless. He noticed if he missed something, but it wouldn’t bother him. It was less like a kid studying for a test, and more like a kid playing with a new toy for the first time.

Listening and Listening Some More

It was in the 3rd or 4th lesson that everything changed. Suddenly, he was playing in tune with a beautiful sound, dynamically, musically. Of course, we had spent time going over technique in detail, and I tried to give him everything he needed, in terms of fundamentals. Nonetheless, it was a leap – everything we had been talking about seemed to come together at once.

So, what was it that caused the breakthrough? I may not be able to fully answer that question, but I can surmise a couple of factors, and a lot of it comes down to listening.

Since he had already had the experience of learning to play an instrument at a high level, his questions about playing the cello were very direct. When I gave him an answer, he really took it in, and was determined to apply it. So once the technical points had been clarified, he really reflected on them and pulled them together.

However, the other sort of listening turned out to be even more significant. I soon learned that he had listened to some of his favorite cello pieces upward of 100 times. The effect of that cannot be underestimated. First, he was engaged with the cello and music passionately. Second, he had a sound in his mind – something to clearly strive for. Third, his sense of pitch had been highly sensitized and refined through this process.

Lessons for Every Student

So, what is the secret? If there is one, it may only be knowable through experience. However, as teachers and students we can create a fertile ground for musical development.

What stood out the most with this prodigy wasn’t his dexterity or work ethic (though they were both important), but rather, his passion. When passion is deep and strong enough, it overtakes fear and doubt. By having a clear idea of what he wanted to sound like, and what he needed to reach that level, he was able to quickly bring together the technical points in service of the music.

Of course, I wouldn’t expect a student to simply teach themselves by having an “image” of what they’d like to sound like. It’s my job as a teacher to fill that gap, using knowledge and all the other tools at my disposal. However, I’d urge any student to listen as much as they can to help form that ideal in their mind.

It’s essential to find that passion, to seek it, and to allow yourself to spend time with it (lots of time!). That’s also a lesson for myself as a teacher, since it can be easy to get lost in the details. While knowing how to play the notes will always be an important part of the job, what’s even more essential is knowing why they’re there.

Enjoying Your Practice Session

Every music student has, at some point, experienced the frustration of “hitting a wall” during practice. It could be a technical hurdle (a scale that’s just a little too fast to handle), a physical issue (discomfort), or overall confusion as to how to proceed during a practice session.

There are a lot of things that can get in the way of productive, enjoyable practice, and it would be impossible to cover them all in a single article. Nonetheless, it’s worth taking a look – not only at possible solutions to common problems – but more broadly at what practice can be for you.

What Should Practicing Be Like?

First and foremost, practicing should be engaging, and it should also basically feel good: mentally, emotionally, physically. Now that doesn’t mean that frustration or boredom are completely avoidable – negative emotions are inevitable in life – but they should be recognized quickly and be treated as learning tools.

How Can Practice Be Mentally Engaging?

For practice to maintain your attention, it should neither be too simple and therefore boring, nor too complex and therefore overwhelming. That means that the improvement you set out to make should be achievable – within a minute or two. Literally. Yes, it should be that small! You’ll have to experiment to find the sweet spot – not too easy, nor too hard.

Imagine that you are working on a melody of 6 bars. Even if you can play it adequately well, chances are that you’ll need to reduce it to a much smaller “chunk” to make a lasting improvement within a small time frame. Equally important: you should have a clear intention of which one or two qualities you’d like to improve (for instance, tone and dynamics) and how to implement the improvements. Can you make a real change with 3 notes? Then that’s what you should do! Once the change has been made, set it aside and work on another part of that piece, or something else completely.

How Can Practice Be Emotionally Engaging?

Many students spend a considerable amount of time and concentration on just “playing the notes” (getting the rhythm, pitch, dynamics, and every other element in order), it can be easy to lose sight of emotions and expression. When do they come into the process?

The answer is fairly simple: at pretty much any time. The question is not when, but to what degree. Let’s return to the example of that 6-bar melody. Even if you are playing it under tempo, even if you can only string together a few notes, you can still add emotion.

How? The key lies in your voice. Sing that “chunk” of melody. It doesn’t have to sound polished. Just casually sing it until you feel just a little bit of an emotion: tenderness, excitement, sadness, whatever it conveys to you. Then play that “chunk” and see if you can bring yourself that same emotion with the sound of your instrument.

Congratulations! You are now on the path to personal expression.

How Can Practice Feel Good Physically?

If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you may have learned that the heart of the process doesn’t lie in a particular number of poses, but in your experience of them, and the process of getting to know your body and yourself better.

While learning an instrument certainly has some big differences from practicing yoga, the approach to the physical aspect of it is similar. Playing an instrument should feel “right”: for your arms, hands, fingers.

To get in touch with your body and re-sensitize it to its experiences, try going through the same playing motions away from your instrument. If your right arm feels tired when playing a string instrument, try “air bowing” – meaning without the bow – just your hand. (When first trying this, give your left arm and hand a break.) “Air bow” as if you are really playing a passage, with the sound and feelings in mind. Direct your awareness to different parts of your shoulder, arm, hand, and fingers: what’s comfortable and what isn’t?

Alternatively, if you are playing the piano and your fingers feel tense, try playing on a table, just as you would the real piece. Be conscious of what you’re feeling and try to make adjustments – for example, in your finger motion or finger shape – and get more and more physically comfortable.

Being Your Own Teacher

Even if you have a teacher, most of your time with the instrument will be time spent alone, so it’s important to develop a degree of independence and what’s known as meta-cognition, or self-awareness, to help best direct your own practice. As a basic principle, when we step back from a situation, whatever it may be, it often becomes clearer.

How does one develop that ability, as it applies to music study? Here’s one answer: writing, or journaling. Record on paper not only what your goals and practice plan are, but what experiences and thoughts come up during your practice session.

Ask yourself: What did I most enjoy? What was frustrating? What should I remember to ask my teacher about? Do I want to keep working on this piece? For how long? Was anything physically uncomfortable? What do I want to sound like? You can take notes before, during, and/or after your practice session, depending on the content – experiment!

You may not feel like journaling every practice session and that’s fine, but keep returning to it as needed. You’ll soon find that you are becoming more and more involved and satisfied with your practice as you become more and more aware of each aspect of it: the mental, the emotional, and the physical.