10 Tips on Learning the Cello, Exploring Technique, and Developing Musicality

Notes from the virtuoso’s desk on keeping time
 by Louise Lee

As part of his work as director of the online community Internet Cello Society, self-described “cello journalist” Tim Janof has interviewed about 80 of the world’s most prominent cellists and pedagogues. Janof’s interviews, published on the society’s website, have been varied and far-reaching, exploring technique, musicality, and other matters relating to learning the cello. But certain themes have emerged in the interviews, including the theme of time: how players spend it, manage it, think of it, and manipulate it in their practice, preparation, and performing. From his interviews, Janof culled ten ideas centering on the theme of time that could help cellists and other string players.

1. Time to practice.

As children, Zara Nelsova and Karine Georgian spent hours a day practicing. At the same time, pedagogue Eleonore Schoenfeld said that practice time largely depends on the age of the student, noting that for a kindergartener, a half-hour a day is reasonable. But Janof concludes that the answer to the practice-time question is simply “as much as it takes to achieve your goal.” You don’t need to count the number of minutes you practice against someone else’s standard. “Some people will learn something quickly, and some will need more time,” Janof says. “Both are fine.”

2. Goals for now and later.

We’ve all heard about setting goals, but you can refine that idea by thinking in terms of three time frames, Janof says. Consider first your short-term goals, or objectives that you want to achieve today. Maybe you want to master a particular shift, so you focus on that short-term goal during your next practice session. You also want to identify your medium-term goals, like a recital coming up next month, to help you pace yourself and plan the next few weeks. Then there are your long-term goals—like the competition coming up next year—that will guide your general direction over time. “Spend the time coming up with goals,” he says. “If you don’t have goals in mind, how do you know where you’re going?” Sometimes goals can be imposed by someone else: To provide structure, Nelsova’s teacher famously required that she master two difficult études a week. Your goals might not be as lofty, but without any, you won’t have much sense of direction or know what you’re working for.


3. Time to listen.

Everyone owns recordings. (Zuill Bailey and Mischa Maisky have vast collections.) Some believe that frequent listening to recordings could turn you into a mere imitator of other people’s playing, but others say that you can only learn from listening to others. The question, Janof believes, is not whether to listen, but when. Janof concludes that the best time to listen to a recording is after you’ve thoroughly worked through a piece on your own and developed your own ideas and interpretations of it. “Listen after you’ve squeezed out the meaning and maybe have run out of ideas,” he says. “You’ll hear more and notice more. If you have your own ideas first, you have something to compare the recording to.”

4. Visualize the future.

Don’t just take out the instrument and sit down and play. First ask yourself, “What will I want my playing to sound like?” Janof likens this exercise to what downhill skiers do when they stand at the top of a slope with their eyes closed, imagining the course and the moves they’ll make once they’re flying down the hill. Julian Lloyd Webber noted that his teacher Pierre Fournier could play on any cello and make it sound good because he had an initial vision of the sound he wanted. “He knew what he wanted up front,” Janof says.

5. Stop time with concentration.

Being mindful before you play can help you feel as though you’re stopping time. “It’s much like entering a meditative state,” Janof says. Focusing your concentration and attention fully at the start will help make your practice more intentional and deliberate.


6. Practice in the three stages.

Eleonore Schoenfeld suggests structuring your practice according to the future, the present, and the past. Imagine what you want to hear (think of the future). Play and listen to yourself carefully (live in the present). Finally, compare what you played with what you initially envisioned and figure out how to achieve that (evaluate the past). “Keep cycling through that,” Janof says.

7. Anticipate the future.

Playing anything requires ongoing mental and physical preparation and anticipation throughout. Wendy Warner says that “you need fast ears and not just fast fingers;you have to hear the note before you play it.” To prepare physically for, say, a shift, you might be sure to have your feet flat on the floor and get ready to roll with your elbow so you can be ready to hit the note that’s coming. Frans Helmerson advises players to “anticipate the next bow; you’ll play it better.”


8. Slow time down.

Practice slowly, going only as fast as you can think, Janof says. Slow practice isn’t only for students; Alban Gerhardt shifts slowly. Steven Isserlis uses slow practice for intonation. Practice slowly to give your mind time to think ahead and know what’s coming.

9. Take time away.

You can achieve a lot without the instrument, which, because it’s so difficult to play, can be a distraction in itself, Janof says. Colin Carr visualizes the physical motions and the sound he wants without the cello in hand. You can find inspiration looking beyond your own instrument. Thomas Demenga, struggling with a bowing problem, saw a postcard depicting a close-up shot of Rostropovich, looked at his right hand, and saw his solution. Jeffrey Solow has watched a film of Emanuel Feuermann for inspiration, observing his technique and positioning.

10. Establish a point of view.

Come up with a story about the music, Janof says. Instead of worrying about playing the instrument, think of a narrative, a trait, emotion, or concept for the work you’re playing. If your piece is flowing and lyrical, think of a stream and flowing water. William Pleeth talks about gestures and the emotions they can invoke; think of how to re-enact those while playing. Any point of view you establish can of course change, Janof says, but you always want to have something to say with your music.