Even though every student is unique and has their own challenges to overcome on cello, the basics of good practicing stay the same. Most musicians don't have as much time to practice as they would like. The good news is that with smart practice skills, students can make the most of their cello time and be more objective with their goals. The ideas layed out below are some of the most effective and proven techniques to get the most out of our valuable practice time.
Practicing is Training - Cello is an Athletic Activity
Most students will want to play their music from the beginning of their piece to the end, over and over. To get kids out of that loop, I like to compare it to another activity they do.
Does a soccer coach have the team play a whole soccer game at every practice? Nope--they have to practice sprints, push ups, crunches, and more. That makes them stronger, and that turns them into better players.
Scales and technique exercises are the cello version of sprints and pushups. Working on these every day might not be as flashy as charging through your music super fast, but that's the most direct way to becoming a stronger instrumentalist.
Back to sports, some kids are surprised to see what a martial art class is like in real life, instead of how it is on TV. Usually they stretch and warm up with fitness exercises, then work on the punches and kicks by themselves, over and over and over. Sometimes they practice in a line, and sometimes one student at a time while others watch. They mix it up, and finally apply it in combinations when the techniques are set.
When working on lesson music, we have to isolate the tricky spots. We practice slowly so the technique is right, and keep practicing it slowly so it's reinforced correctly. Even if we get it at full speed, we still want to go back and practice it slowly--slow should be balanced, and balanced becomes fast. Only then do we add that technique into something bigger by playing the whole line, and eventually the whole song.
Got it? Good, Let's Do it Again
After you have learned how to swing a bat or throw a ball really well, does the coach still make you practice it more? Same with music--once you can play it, you have to go back and keep working on those techniques by themselves. Repetition is the key.
How Involved should a Parent be with Practicing?
Most students will need their parents to give them a push with their practicing. Many respond well to having a structured daily practice time, while others work well with practicing when schoolwork/etc. is finished and away from their mind. I suggest students practice the amount of their lesson time 6 or 7 days a week. It's much better to practice a small amount regularly throughout the week than to have longer practice sessions only a few times a week. If they only have 10 minutes to practice that day, it's still worth it to get that cello out and work those cello muscles!
Small cellists (and small cello shaped instruments) can use some extra help now and then!
Younger students often benefit from having a parent right there to help re-teach concepts from the lesson, usually with the help of the lesson notebook or recordings from the lesson. Having someone help with the role of the teacher at home is a good way to add an extra 6 lessons to the week.
No Need to Micromanage Perfection
Learning a new skill is tricky. It's very difficult to get everything (posture, tone, intonation, rhythm, musicality, memorization) right in every practice session. If you can focus on getting just one thing improved in every practice session, those small achievements are like little snowballs that roll up into an avalanche.
Combined with practicing, taking time to listen to their music is the most effective thing a student can do to make progress. Mastering a piece of music just by reading a piece of paper can be hard. Knowing how your favorite song goes by listening to it on the radio is a lot easier, and we can apply that to how we study music. The Suzuki Cello albums are great for hearing what the whole tune sounds like (the piano joins in to make the performance complete), and they are available for download on iTunes. Physical copies are also available on Amazon and at Shar for those old enough to know what a CD is.
Go For It!
Good practicing is hard work, but it pays off.
Developing these practice techniques takes time, adjustment, and patience. Once a student understands the benefits of effective practicing and turns these techniques into good habits, they're mastering something beyond an instrument. They have a new and creative set of problem solving skills, ready to be used at any moment and applied to any field.