By Brian Hodges | From the May-June 2020 issue of Strings magazine
The most memorable lesson I ever had as a student, the one that is seared in my brain and imprinted in perfect detail, was my absolute worst. Out of the hundreds of private lessons, master classes, and coachings in my student life, this is the one that sticks out for the simple reason that in one of my lowest moments as a student, I actually learned the most.
The lesson started out like any other. I had prepared my usual diet of repertoire: concerto, movement of solo Bach, scales, and a Popper étude. I felt confident about the work I had done on everything, expecting that my teacher and I would focus mostly on the big solo pieces.
As I settled myself to begin the lesson, my teacher asked what we were to start with. I rattled off what I had to play, and she thought for a minute before saying, “Let’s begin with the Popper.” I quickly turned to the page in the Popper book, took a deep breath, and dove in.
To say it was a disaster would be kind. From the moment my bow touched the strings and I played the first notes, it was clear to both of us that I was in murky territory. “Why does this feel so unfamiliar?” I thought, panic starting to set in. With each passing note, the music was feeling less and less comfortable, the ground shifting more and more under my feet. My thoughts reeled: “Why did I miss that shift?” “That hadn’t sounded so badly before.” “I thought I knew the key signature and where the various modulations were going.” I finally stopped, putting us both out of our misery, and said quietly, “It went a lot better in the practice room.”
This led to one of the more important discussions she and I had, one that would impact not only my student work, but my work as a teacher, guiding my own students in the fine art of preparation. She began by asking me how exactly I worked on the étude, and what specifically had I done to learn particular passages. As I answered, I realized that what I had done was not translating to security and success. It wasn’t that I hadn’t practiced; I just hadn’t practiced in a way that worked under any kind of pressure. She and I then talked about how to prepare a piece solidly and how that work can transfer from the practice room to where it counts.
Students often discover this the hard way, with a bad performance in a recital or performance setting, and to be sure, failure can be a wonderful teacher. However, over many years of teaching, I’ve learned to start the conversation early with students, realizing that it’s never too soon to stress the importance of mindful practice. For most students, their usual regimen of running through pieces, stopping only to attend to a minor detail, or simply engaging in “checked-out” repetition, needs to be reevaluated.
I spend a major part of lesson time talking about how to practice a particular passage, detailing a plan of attack, before actually going through it. On goes the metronome, as we sit and go through the passage slowly. I alternate modeling the practice routine myself by having them do it in front of me so they fully understand what the approach should be. We talk in detail about how this specific method can build the bridge from knowing a section superficially to having it stick and playing through it with ease.
In addition, I’ve often found in students’ performances, not to mention my own, that the level of comfort and security with a piece is often analogous to a level of performance anxiety. The less stable a piece is, the more nervous one feels. Practicing with an increased specificity not only assists in a successful performance, but also in how you feel as a player during the performance. As a teacher, I know it’s important that students have these performances go well, but also that they understand how they got there, building to careers of solid performances. Being thoughtful and logical about their practice and preparation, slowly and methodically, will result in their greatest triumphs on the stage.
As the famous saying goes, “It’s the journey, not the destination.” Certainly, performing is our destination—a major part of a player’s career—but there are deeper lessons to be learned along the way on the journey. Understanding this can be one of the most important lessons of all.
Brian Hodges is professor of cello at Boise State University and principal cellist of the Boise Baroque Orchestra. He is the co-author of Cello Secrets: Over 100 Advanced Strategies for Advanced Cellists.