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Divide and Conquer!

If you want to build a solid foundation for string playing, it's important to make sure that the player is focused on tone, intonation, rhythm, and technique. That's obvious, but the important part is finding moments in their music where they can drill these concepts into lasting habits.

One of my students requested a video to help him practice effectively over the Thanksgiving break. Here's a clip of the video I made for a him, driving home the point of practicing in short bursts rather than just playing from beginning to end.

What's wrong with practicing from beginning to end? That's the cello equivalent of having a soccer practice where players just play without taking time to drill anything in particular.

Or a Taekwondo class where students spar each other the whole time, without working on individual techniques. If we don't do that with sports, why does it happen with string playing so often?

This divide and conquer technique (Ms. Rachel told me there's another name for it, "chunking," so call it whatever you want) works best with a clear objective. Play this passage with fingers curved, with perfect posture, with fingers on the tapes--pick something, and nail that objective. Slow it down if necessary to have more successful runs. Even if it's under tempo, we're teaching our ear to guide us and our body to follow through. Slow practice is so important, I'll address that in another post.

To keep things from getting stale as you keep it going, you can try:

1) Throw two dice and add it up--play it that many times!

2) Imagine a picture you can draw. Every time a successful run happens, draw ONE line and have the student guess what it is. Keep going until the drawing is finished, or the player guesses it!

3) Play hangman, or your favorite one-letter-at-a-time guessing game! A successful execution (no pun intended) means they can guess a letter.

4) Play it seven times in a row perfectly!

5) Record a video--document how many times you can demonstrate the section with the objective mastered. Watch it and feel good about it! High fives are optional.

6) Play a game/app where they can do a tap or dice roll (like Angry Birds, or Chutes and Ladders). After they perform the section correctly, they can have their turn. I learned this one from a master teacher who broke through to a child who had trouble focusing--it may be best reserved for a special occasion.

Note that sometimes it's appropriate to make a practice section last quite a few measures, but it can be a as small as a single note.

Do you have any tricks to help students find success with small sections and objective repetition? Leave a comment and let me know! I would love to hear what works for you.


Neil Fong Gilfillan is a Suzuki cello teacher in Frisco Texas. He and his wife Rachel Samson on viola/violin run Chili Dog Strings, the only string studio in Frisco named after a dog.

frisco cello teacher

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