Even though I have played the cello for most of my life, I have not always been very good about practicing. There were just so many other things to do, and practicing didn't really hold my attention. On the other hand, I could tell that practicing really improved my playing, so I always wished I had the discipline to practice more. It has only been in the last few years that I have learned the art of how to practice... and how to keep practicing! It's been a slow process, but I thought I'd share some of what I've learned.
Research on great performers shows us that inborn talent is not as important as some other factors, especially practicing. In fact, anyone can become great with the right quantity and quality of practice. When we keep this in mind, we are developing what psychologist Carol Dweck calls the growth mindset, a tool that will serve us in all areas of life. The trouble is, how do we find the motivation to practice well, and to keep on practicing? Answering that question is one of the most important parts of my job as a teacher.
The social aspect of playing can be quite motivating. My students who participate in group classes at the Suzuki School of Newton enjoy making new friends and having a peer group of other cellists. Some students play in school orchestras, and some play in chamber groups. All of my students are invited to cellobrations with Cellos on the Charles. These informal recitals provide a goal to work towards as well as a platform to share music with friends and family.
The most lasting type of motivation is not the kind that comes from threats or promises of rewards, but intrinsic motivation. According to author Daniel Pink, we can be intrinsically motivated to do something if we are granted autonomy in performing the task, if we can gain a sense of mastery over the task, and if we feel that the task has a deeper purpose.
While young children need their parents' guidance in the beginning stages of learning an instrument, I encourage granting them decision making powers in a few areas. Most important is the choice of instrument; other areas of autonomy could include choosing the time of day that practice will regularly occur, choosing which review piece to play, and making creative decisions about a piece's articulation and dynamics. As students get more advanced, they have fun choosing which piece will be their next major project.
Mastery comes from deliberate practice. I encourage all of my students to practice slowly and carefully, breaking down hard passages into their building blocks. Once the different skills are mastered separately, they can be combined and the passage becomes easy. I ask my students to "overlearn" such passages; not only can they play it right, but they can'tnot play it right. The repetition required to do this is not always fun, so we may spice things up with a car race, board game, or card game. At first I ask students to practice certain passages in a certain way. As they advance, I ask them to design their own practice strategy.
Finally, I am always thinking about the purpose of learning to play the cello. Some students will become professional cellists and embark on an extremely rewarding career in music. Most students will keep music as an avocation, finding pleasure in music wherever they go. No matter the musical outcome, I believe it is extremely important for each of my students to develop the character traits that come from dedication to learning their instrument, including passion, perseverance, self-discipline, independence, teamwork, sensitivity, curiosity, and creativity. Music allows us to reach these higher parts of ourselves, setting us up for a lifetime of learning. As Dr. Suzuki said, "Music exists for the purpose of growing an admirable heart."