On Practice


To some, this word means boring, repetitive, constraining, following rules thus not creative. In a culture where we constantly seek instant gratification, and fast-track our progress, practice sounds like an ancient and outdated ritual that’s more about formality than substance.

I can’t count the times I come across popular articles with titles such as “how I learned x in n days” (“x” being a very complex thing such as a new language or a musical instrument, “n” being an integer no greater than 10), or “m simple steps to learn everything” (“m” being an integer no greater than 5). People use the word “hacking” when it comes to learning a skill.

Armed with modern technology and research information readily available, we now have the knowledge and means to achieve whatever we want — at least that what most of us believe.

Research has told us that it takes ten thousand hours to master something (this turns out to be misunderstood or not entirely accurate). It sounds like a lot, but in the beginning of my cello learning days, this strangely gave me lots of comfort. It implies certainty. If this rule is true, then it means, as long as I clock in my hours, I will be good eventually.

Therefore, I diligently tracked my hours when I practiced, tried to average the numbers, and calculated how many years would ten thousand hours take me. This was the motivation that got me through the first six months.

In hindsight, I was glad I had this psychological anchor. It kept me going when the actual practice gave me no joy or hope. I picked up cello because I hope I’d enjoy the music I play with it, the first three months was the opposite of that. It was torture times two — every part of my body that was engaged in playing hurt, the sound I made was comparable to what a cat would make when being slaughtered. Yet because I’ve hung on to the believe that as long as I punch in my time, I would be better.

After six months, I stopped tracking time. By then I had built the habit of playing almost everyday for at least an hour, and more on the weekend. And I could finally play tunes that somewhat resembled what the original score was intended.

Also around this time, my childhood—when playing piano was part of my daily routine—started to come back to me, bits by bits. I was reminded of the simple joy of playing, without the self-awareness and self-loathing that we acquire along the way as adults. Picking up new pieces felt easier, sight-reading started to be possible, musicality and phrasing became something I could experiment with now that I had better bow control.

Slowly, the focus of my practicing shifted from tracking hours to being immersed in the music. I no longer practiced to be better, I yearned to be better so I could honour the music.

How much bow do I use for this crescendo? How should the staccato sound to express the innocence and lightheartedness? How much vibrato is needed, and how big? How should this phrase sound comparing to the previous phase? These were the kind of questions I started to think about, and all of them pointed to one thing—technique.

As much as I had wanted my learning experience to be enjoyable and comforting, I now came to a conclusion that I can’t avoid the tedious, uncomfortable, boring, difficult part of playing—scales, bow techniques, tonalization, positions, finger strengths.

For a few months, I stopped playing new repertoire altogether, to only work on techniques. The repetition was surprisingly soothing. Stripped away all the melodic fabric, I was faced with the essence of the instrument. The wooden body with four strings, each with its own distinct characteristic, a bow that interacted with them at different points and different angles with different intensity of contacts. Simple physics of vibration. And I was overwhelmed and excited by the infinite possibilities at the same time.

Practicing became experiments. The designer in me started to treat it as a design challenge. Combining the instructions I was given, and my own curiosity, I trialed different ways something would work for me. How do I train my muscles to make the shift more fluent? How do I visualize the finger board in my mind’s eyes? How does the double stop feel differently than string crossing? These were probably not the questions I would feel the urge to know the answers to when I first started playing, but have become more interesting challenges as I grew as a cellist.

I’m nowhere near the level I wish I could be, but looking back, it was amazing that when my goal stopped being how good I can be and when, and started to become how much there could be to improve, I could really appreciate every second of practice. And from my experience, there was no hacking practice, there was no fast-route or instant gratification. But then, why should we need them? It was only through practice that I got glimpses of beauty, mastery, and possibilities. Isn’t that enough to keep us going?

This is Part 2 of my Cello Journey series.