End-o'-the-Year Reflections, part 1

Here in Atlanta, the school year ends in just a week, and while I’ll be teaching until the end of May, my day-to-day busy work has all but dried up. With a mostly-clean house and time alone while my partner is at work, I’ve been reflecting on the personal and professional successes and failures that I’ve experienced this year, and what (how?) I intend to build on what I’ve learned next year. Over the next few weeks, I’ll put those reflections onto "paper" and share them, if for no other reason than I find it cathartic (and I hope it will keep me honest next year). Here goes.

Teaching the Piece v. Teaching the Cello

More than a few times this school year, when faced with looming auditions or limited progress, I’ve had to make a decision about what is best for the student: should I teach them a way to play this thing that they are struggling with in the context of this piece, or should I teach them the technique required to accomplish this thing in all contexts, in all pieces? Do I teach the student (by rote) how to play this particular piece of music, or do I teach the student (more generally) the techniques required to play the cello?

For example, a few students have been working on the first etude in David Popper’s High School of Cello Playing. About thirty measures into the etude, there are a few somewhat-difficult shifts of an octave or more. Rather than working on the techniques required to execute these - and other - shifts (how to prepare the shift, how to move from one location or another, how to feel the shift rather than watch/stare down the shift, etc.), a few of these students have (literally) drawn marks on their fingerboard showing them the goal location of the specific note. When it comes time to shift, they pick up their hand, stare at their mark, and put the finger down, "correctly." HOORAY 100% PERFECT SCORE.

Not really.

These - and many other - students are more focused on playing the correct note than understanding how to play the correct note. It’s result-oriented cello playing, and I can’t stand it. I’ve been bitter for a long time when people show me 8-year-olds on Ellen playing something fancy sounding, or when people are astounded by The Piano Guys. Even if the 8-year-old knows what she's doing and practices accordingly, the playing still isn't mature; she's mimicking a great performer/teacher or (worse) someone she saw on YouTube. The same is true with The Piano Guys. The cellist in the group is BAD. He’s playing the correct notes and his tone sounds pretty good, but it’s the result of recording/microphone technology, not brilliant technique.

The people who show me these things are astounded by the results, not the technique. My students act the same way with their own playing.

My students’ result-oriented playing is akin to a multiple choice test: sometimes you guess and you come up with the correct answer, but just because you got that answer right doesn’t mean you learned anything or know what you’re doing.

My goal has always been to teach students how to play the cello, writ large, not how to correctly play isolated moments in this concerto but not that one. I’ve never intended students to learn music solely to take and win an audition, with no thought about how you apply the learned techniques in this piece to what is required in the next. Unfortunately, I’m failing.

School clinics/sectional teaching and All State Orchestra auditions are my biggest tripping point, and I'll use All State as an example of my shortcomings.

I’ve admitted to a number of school orchestra teachers that I’m probably not the best person to bring in to work with students in a one-time cello sectional situation. I can work one-on-one with a student in a masterclass setting, but in groups I’m much better long-term than in 52-minute doses once every 6 months. Large groups of cellists will always bring about many different problems, few of which can be truly fixed over the course of one class period. This kid can’t shift, but this kid can’t hold the bow, but these kids can’t count rhythms, and this one is asleep. Where to start?

Ugh. Give me a weekly sectional with these kids for six or eight weeks and I'll fix the problems. Ask me in for one day, and you're not going to see long-term results. 

All State Orchestra auditions are a little different. In this case, I’m working one-on-one with my own private students, in their lessons, for weeks at a time in preparation for their auditions. But still, there are problems.

(Note: For those who may not know, Georgia Music Educators Association runs the All State Orchestras, and they use a two-round audition process. For the first round students are given three months to learn an instrument-specific etude and a few scales/arpeggios. In the audition, they perform selections from their prepared music/scales, and are then given a sight reading exercise. Students advance to the second round only by achieving a minimum total score. There is no limit to the number of students who can advance. Students who advance to the second round are then given orchestral excerpts to learn. All students who have advanced to the second round gather 4-6 weeks later at one central location where they take a blind audition of selected excerpts and more sight reading. Students are then ranked by total score with the top students selected for All State Orchestras. There are some small things I’d do differently were I running this audition, but generally, it works out well.)

The nature of the audition lends itself to students who are result-oriented. Because of the type of excerpts (usually age-appropriate school orchestra music), students aren't challenged with terribly difficult techniques, as they would be in a professional orchestra audition. So, they can kinda fake it and get away with it. Because of the limited time offered before the final round of auditions, students don’t feel that they have time/energy to fuss over techniques. They have to play the notes, the rhythms, the dynamics. They don’t have to learn the proper way to execute these things.

Have a big shift? Put a mark on your fingerboard. The judges can’t see you, so who cares?

Don't read tenor clef? Who cares, just get a fingering and stick with it.

Have a weak sound? Press that bow into the string. It probably won't sound good, but at least it’s loud.

Don’t know how to count the rhythm? Listen to a recording and then fake it.

To be fair, the auditions usually shake out the way that they should. There are rarely big surprises, (save for the occasional student who tries to learn the techniques, rather than the music, and doesn’t get in). And this is where my dilemma arises. Do I hand students music with fingerings, bowings, and then play everything for them, multiple times, over many weeks? In other words, do I spoon feed the music to them and not care if they can apply this information to other music? Or do we go over every note and talk about how to practice individual measures, with proper technique, so that - whether or not the audition is successful - at least the kid has learned something about cello playing (and how real life works) in the process?

Sadly, for a while, I think it’ll need to be a bit of both.

All State Orchestra preparation takes A LOT of time out of lessons. There are kids who will never make All State whose parents insist that they try. Usually, those parents (and that kid) are result oriented. Parents don’t want to hear their child practicing shifts, or creating a great sound by playing long tones, or practicing proper vibrato technique in the mirror without their cello, or - oh gawd - sounding terrible because they are utilizing the 80/20 principle in their practicing. They want to hear them playing the correct notes, the correct rhythms, at full tempo, over and over and over and over again. And so, the five months of lessons that we spend on All State are five months where no technical progress is made.

When I was in high school, my private teacher spent way too much time working on All State orchestra materials in lessons. First-round audition music was announced in June, the audition was in December. We spent those six months doing nothing but scales (also required for the audition) and this music. If I passed the first round audition, I had new excerpts and two months until the second round, then more excerpts and two more months until the third round. All in all, during my junior and senior year of high school, when I should have been thinking mostly about college auditions, we spent ten months of the year trying to get into All State. And I didn’t really learn that much in the process.

Since 2015, I’ve had 28 kids accepted to various All State Orchestras. Six of them have been principal cello - first chair hooray! - and another three have been second chair. It is a great bit of advertising for me to brag about all the kids I get into All State. It’s, frankly, really good for business. In addition, All State materials are really easy to teach - most kids have the same problems in the same areas, so I can think about the wonderful petite sirah that I’m going to have later while mindlessly giving the same instructions over and over and over.

But who cares? I’d much rather brag about how competent my students are ("I just handed him #6 and he sight read it with all the correct technique!") and how much they know about style and sound ("She's paying attention to chord progressions and phrasing to that half cadence!"), not what chair they got in some crap shoot audition. And I’d rather work hard to make better cello players, not make my job easier for a few months each year.

So, my goal for next year: students will still take All State auditions, obviously. But, I’m going to be more honest about their prospects for acceptance and I’m going to require that audition materials are learned the same way we learn Bach Suites and concerto movements. Students will be given fingerings and bowings, but they will need to be able to explain their way through an excerpt: Why this fingering? What is the technique required to achieve this result? And so on. If they do it correctly, I believe they’ll doing well in all of their auditions, and maybe even learn something along the way that's applicable in other areas of cello playing and life.

I will be attempting to incorporate this into all the music that students are learning and put the onus on them: if you don't learn the thing, I'm not going to teach it to you by rote. Buy into this system and you'll get better, or don't and watch everyone pass you by. After all, that's what the real world is really like.