Learning an instrument: principle and detail

I enjoy reading cello forums from time to time. Often they offer insights into my own cello history. Adult students of cello can be quite analytical–both a good thing and a bad thing. They question what their teachers tell them to do–also, both a good thing and a bad thing. The forum I visited recently discussed the question of “set hand.”

The question is: should one have the unused fingers down on the string, or should they be above the string? That is, if the note involves the third finger, should the first and second be on the string as well?

I am not going into this question–it is just an example of how cello is often taught. We go to a teacher who has a certain idea of “correct” technique. We then go to a teacher who tells us this was all wrong. Is one of the teachers right and the other wrong? Or is there an underlying principle that could support both interpretations of technique?

I studied cello for nine years before college. I practiced several hours a day. Over these nine years I had six teachers, because we moved and lived abroad. I never had the same teacher for more than two years. Several of my teachers told me I had to start all over, learn everything from scratch. And do I did, only to start again with the next teacher.

When I got to college, I studied for a little while with a student of Aldo Parisot. This teacher told me about a principle of circular and figure-8 motion in cello playing. Once I understood that principle, other things fell into place. Unfortunately my practicing started to dwindle. But over the years, when I came back to the cello, I understood much better how to practice than I did as a child or teenager. I can guide myself better. I am sure I would benefit from lessons; there is much I have forgotten. But when I am practicing, I gain a lot from listening to myself and figuring out what I need to do to achieve the sound and texture that I want.

I believe most of my teachers were good. A couple of them were outstanding. It is impossible to know in retrospect whether I really needed to start over again and again, or whether knowledge of some underlying principles would have helped me make the transition from one approach to another. We cannot learn by underlying principles alone–there are many details of technique that must be learned separately. Still, the principles can help us stay on track, and they can separate the inessentials from the essentials.

One principle is a good, relaxed posture. Without that (and it took me years to figure this out) all sorts of contortions and bad habits can occur.

Another is simplicity. Whether or not you believe in the “set hand,” the less complicated the movement, the better, on the whole. If the finger has to travel a long way to the string and find its way to the right spot, there will be trouble.

A third is circular motion. The principle of the circle (or oval, or figure eight) is immensely helpful. It doesn’t resolve every technical problem, and it has exceptions, but it works very well.

A fourth is breathing. One should breathe naturally; holding your breath is a bad habit, as Parisot points out.

It seems that a teacher of a musical instrument (or of any subject–math, history, languages, chemistry, architecture) should teach underlying principles as well as details (not instead of details, though). The principles will not answer everything, but they will help the students guide themselves during practice. They may also help bring together seemingly disparate approaches.

Some will say, “That’s what we do with the Essential Questions!” Ah, “essential questions” are a tricky matter. More about that in a later post.


  1. Yes, yes, YES! I emphasize this repeatedly to my statistics students, so they can grasp statistical tests that aren’t in the textbook. As the rappers said, “Put the difference on the top and the error on the bottom.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JS9GmU5hr5w&feature=related)

  2. What it brought to my mind was “process” standards. Insufficient alone. Cannot be taught without content. And yet, can be taught with various pieces of content.

  3. This sounds intuitively right to me. Something similar happened to me when I studied calculus. I struggled at the start, but then a gifted teacher took the time to explain–and re-explain–underlying principles. Then it all fell into place.

    (If only I could still remember how….)

  4. I’m learning to play the piano as an adult (well, really, re-learning.) The teacher I have now is big on music theory and “how music works” and I find things are much clearer to me (and more fun) because I am understanding why a piece is written how it is (or why scales are how they are, or why a certain warm-up exercise is good to do) rather than just being told, “Practice this.”

  5. I tease my dressage trainer about his metaphors sometimes, but I’ve learned a tremendous amount from him because he never corrects without telling me the theory.

    I take a lot of that training theory back to the classroom, where I also tell the students the theory behind what we are doing or how I am breaking a task down. A dressage performance looks relaxed and precise because the lines of communication and trust between horse and rider are crystal clear and they work tirelessly on the basics. Turns out the same approach works pretty well in the classroom, too.

  6. It struck me a couple of years ago that there is a world of difference in my son’s school between art and music. In music, everyone knows what is good and bad. You can tell when kids play well and begin to master their instruments. In art, they just don’t care. Music is based on skills and art is based on process. The band and chorus teachers require kids to practice and parents have to sign off on forms. Art has no homework or expectations. The band and chorus give concerts where kids are offered the chance to perform solos if they are good enough. They play and get rated at adjudications. Art has shows at the school or library and everyone gets awards. If you practice hard enough for band or chorus, you can try out for All-State. In art, you can enter poster contests.

    My son has played the piano for many years and takes part in competitions. At one competition at our university, we got to listen to some phenomenal classical music played from memory by high school (and under) kids who have spent untold hours on practice. Then, during a break, we walked the halls and looked at some college art work in window displays, one of which contained art made entirely out of red and black swizzle sticks. One of the objects was a grand piano that looked like it was made the night before it was due. I never lump art and music together.

    This also reminds me of sports versus academics. Baseball is great in our town and my son loved it. It was all about skills. It was fun, but there were clear goals related to skills. As many parents know, it takes a long time for kids to make sense of baseball. Somehow, the coaches and organization keep everyone involved and moving forward. Nobody doubted the importance of skills.

    However, some of these parents got all sort of wishy-washy when it came to academics. Somehow, everything was different and more worrisome. They didn’t want to damage their children’s psyches or have them hate school with too much drill and kill. They have to have understanding first.

    Of course, those who warn against drill and kill offer up only low expectations as an alternative. They want kids to always have fun while working in groups on real-world projects that supposedly help with their motivation. My son’s piano teacher once held his hand low and told him that he was trying to have too much fun “down here”. Then he raised his hand high and said that if he works really hard, he will have much more fun “up here”. Number 2 of the 3 things I want for my son is to learn the value of hard work. Unfortunately, he gets very little of that practice at school.