May 20, 2012 5:42 PM   Subscribe

What is the quickest thing I can do to improve my cello playing and sight reading?

Hi guys,

So, I picked up the cello. I've been taking lessons for 4 months now, and I'm tired of sounding crappy. My intonation is off(usually sharp) and I grip the bow too tightly. I also can't read music fluently and I would like to have that skill by fall semester since I'll be in a class that requires basic music theory.

What can I do to improve my playing the fastest? I practice 2 hours a day and have been trying to use a tuner while I do scales, but I'm still having a hard time developing my ear, and I go sharp again as soon as the tuner is gone. I replaced the A, D, and G strings(but the G string still sounds icky, it has this not quite buzzing quality to it) with D'addario prelude strings. The cello is a cheap student model, I don't even think it's solid wood.

I will have a teacher this summer as well, so any books or particular exercises that will help are very welcome.
posted by lettuchi to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Your not-quite-buzzing could be a wolf tone. They make suppressors for that, so you might try one.

What are you practicing for 2 hours a day? Most string teachers I know hate tuners, did your first teacher suggest that you play scales against one? Because I was always told that it wasn't a very good way to tell that you were in tune. Are you/have you used tapes on the fingerboard? That is the way we all learned how to feel where the intervals are. You have to develop the muscle memory to know where the fingers go before you move on.

Speaking from personal experience (violin) my ear did not really develop until I started playing with others. You should talk to your summer teacher about groups that he/she might know about, even if it just other students.
posted by cabingirl at 6:11 PM on May 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think practice is the most important thing and you already doing quite a bit of it. I would also encourage you to practice with someone who is slightly better than you, if possible. For example, you'll develop your ear for your scales a lot more easily from playing scales with someone who is in tune than from using an electronic tuner. If you have access to a piano you could even have someone pick out the scale on the piano while you play.

That said, four months is so little time, try not to have unrealistic expectations. Most children have to study cello (or violin or viola) for several years before they attain the level that you're trying to get to, and it's not because kids are slower than adults -- honestly kids are usually faster to pick these things up than adults.

Likewise, reading music fluently just requires focused practice. If you buy some children's music theory workbooks you can do the worksheets in those books (e.g. writing the letter of the note under the note) as a way to squeeze more reading practice into the day when you're too tired/unable to play the cello more. There aren't really any "tricks" to becoming fluent in reading music, because when you're relying on the tricks you aren't fluent yet. As a datapoint, I picked up a new instrument that had music written in a clef I couldn't read, and it took about six months of daily practice for me to become fluent in that additional clef (truly fluent, not just transposing or using 'tricks').
posted by telegraph at 6:11 PM on May 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've been taking lessons for about as long as you (started playing in '09, took two years off when my daughter was born), and have had a lot of the same issues. I think everyone does when they start playing. Here's what's helped me:

1) Consistent instruction. It's good you're starting with a teacher this summer, and the sooner you start, the happier I think you'll be. Having someone who can point out your strengths and weaknesses as a player (ie technique, intonation, posture, grip, whether you're better at bowing or fingering) and help you work on them will get you confidence and improvement. Before I started with my new teacher, I'd been working on stuff by myself and getting frustrated. A few changes to the way I held the bow and raised my cello on that first lesson back, and everything's changed for the better.

2) A better cello. I started with a '55 Kay that was made of plywood. It was good for a start, but then I rented a new student cello with a solid top and bottom (ie made of real wood) and, dude. It was a world of difference. You get a good cello, and it's like you have a head start on good tone. It's worth renting, and, if you're serious, you can find a place that will credit the first three or so months of rental toward the purchase of a cello of your own (around $1000). Ask your teacher for a recommendation.

3) Set goals for your practice sessions. During the wilderness years, I'd just flip at random in my books. Now, I have a set routine (tuning, long bows, scales with metronome and fingering variations, exercises, etudes), and my playing has improved a lot. I know the things I have to work on (string crossings are a real pain), and I build up the tempos to the exercises.

What's also helped on etudes: going over pieces measure by measure, phrase by phrase. I used to play straight through an etude, and I'd be so frazzled by the end after hearing my screeches and clunkers that I just didn't enjoy playing the whole piece. I'd get stressed and tense, which made things worse. By going over the problem sections slowly, I'm more confident, and I can bring them up to tempo.

4) Finger tape. I know it'll go away eventually, but having tape on the fingerboard to guide my placement has helped a ton with intonation.

5) Reading music: cheat. Write in the fingerings *and* the note names on your pieces, even scales. I've found that reading music is like the way my daughter is learning to read: you can hear the whole piece first without knowing the notes, then you identify the notes, then you play the piece in bigger and bigger chunks, and then you start to become fluent in music.

Good luck!
posted by RakDaddy at 6:20 PM on May 20, 2012

An idea for the intonation: does your tuner have the ability to play a drone tone? So if you're practicing a C scale, set it to drone on C; listening to the note you play in relation to the base tone should help you develop your ear to play in tune. Also seconding RakDaddy on marking key finger positions with tape (I would do the 3rd, 5th, and 7th to start with); I taught myself string bass this way (already knew guitar, but I was so not used to no frets).

As for sight reading, it's just a lot of practice. It took me at least a year to be decent at easy sight reading tasks.
posted by smirkette at 8:28 PM on May 20, 2012

Okay, I am among the minority of people (un)lucky to have (near) perfect pitch. This is what helps me when I catch myself out-of-tune: sing it. (More on that a bit below.)

The suggestions above are all really good and they're going to be what ultimately lets you grind your way to sounding beautiful. I want to address the environmental factors. First, simply what room do you play in? Is it small with large surfaces to bounce sound right back at you? This is going to make every tiny inaccuracy you make sound a thousand times worse. Find a room with stuff that muffles sound, wall paintings, carpet, couches, clutter. It'll help.

Second, pitch accuracy is rarely innate, for almost everyone (including me), it is learned. It is developed through years and decades of training. I dont mean just sitting down having someone play a random note and you guessing it (if I leave the middle octaves, my guess-that-key accuracy is terribly slow and somewhat bad). I mean years of listening to concerts, recordings, speaking, sight reading, everything. In other words, our pitch accuracy is directly tied to the culture we live in. (By the way, this is the reason people who speak tonal languages are way more likely to have perfect pitch.)

What does this mean for you? Well, if the majority of the music you listen to is recorded in a studio, musicians, ensembles, and even entire orchestras cheat. They dont tune to A440. Instead, they often tune to A445 or even A450 to make everything sound brighter and livelier. So a part of the problem may be that you're ear is tuned differently.

Listen to live recorded concerts and Baroque-tuned music to help retune your ear. When you find yourself going sharp, find the proper tone and sing it when you play it. Itll help you internalize the proper pitch. Sing along when you play scales, arpeggios, and octaves. It doesn't matter if you have a short vocal range (I barely hit two octaves), follow along an octave up (or down). Tune yourself with a tuning fork instead of a tuner. Play harmonics (where you hold your finger half way down the string without pressing down). Along with the previous suggestions (such as taping the steps on the fingerboard), it'll all work together to temper your ear-brain-muscle memory.
posted by thebestsophist at 8:48 PM on May 20, 2012

First, try to relax, play the scales as slowly as necessary to feel relaxed. Feel the force coming from deep out of your back, and not your shoulders, arms, or hands. Your shoulders and arms should be 'low', and the force should flow smoothly down through them. If your right arm is tense, thats probably an indication that your left arm is tense, too. In terms of the left hand, relaxation means having an open hand shape, with the tip of the thumb only pressing very lightly into the neck. Don't beat yourself up over it though, its easy to not notice you're tense. Thats part of the value of a teacher- they'll notice these things you can't/don't.

You may think that concentrating on things other than intonation will make the intonation worse, but surprisingly thats often not the case. And you can fix a problem with one arm and have the other arm fix its own problems as a result. Your arms aren't quite as independent as you might think.

Playing with a drone, or other reference pitch is good advice. Start out playing extremely slowly, one note per bow, relaxed, until you get the intonation and tone right, and only then speed it up.

When you're playing the basic scales, try to make the other strings resonate when possible. For example, when you play D on the C string, you should see (or even hear) the D string resonate.

The buzzing could just be that the string is mismatched with the others. A good luthier can work with you to choose strings that work well together, they won't necessarily be the same brand. Or, it could be your technique. Being relaxed can do wonders for your tone. Also, make sure you're in control of the positioning of the bow along the string, and its not wandering up or down.
posted by Hither at 8:58 PM on May 20, 2012

And I'm not sure what kind of buzzing you're describing, but sometimes shirt buttons can rattle against the instrument.
posted by Hither at 12:37 AM on May 21, 2012

There are no shortcuts, sorry! : )

I second tape on the fingerboard when you're starting out.

Yes to a teacher and playing with others.
posted by inkypinky at 3:33 AM on May 21, 2012

Long time clarinetist here who knows a lot of 'cellists.

My diagnosis - you're a beginner on an instrument that probably requires a year or two before it's going to sound musical. Patience, grasshopper - and the beginner's mind.

If your life situation allows two hours a day, great - that's how obsessive people get good. But be VERY careful about tendonitis and fatigue, because tired, absent-minded practice can be worse than no practice at all. We have a former principal cellist in our orchestra who is struggling now because she developed tendon issues that may never go away.
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:57 AM on May 21, 2012

Thanks, all!
posted by lettuchi at 7:32 AM on May 21, 2012

I just read this article (I'm a brass musician) and thought it was GREAT, especially when you're trying to structure practices yourself.
posted by Katine at 9:22 AM on May 21, 2012

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