How Much Time Should You Practice the Cello?
As a teacher I get asked this question a lot. Before I answer it, let me give you a little perspective. Yesterday I was working on a new piece of music – it’s one I have wanted to play for a while. I was curious how long it would take for me to dissect this thing, because I was hoping to record it for my YouTube Channel. But, there were a few tricky sections to iron out, and I didn’t have a lot of patience in my back pocket.
Next thing I knew, I was deep into superficial, “play-through” practice mode. Like all bad habits which sit just beneath the surface, I was schlepping along and not really working through the music the way I knew I should. After about 20 minutes of practice in which NOTHING improved, I changed my attitude and practiced the way I had painstakingly taught myself throughout the previous decade. Which gets us back to the original question, “How much time should I practice the cello?” (So you see, even seasoned professionals struggle with the whole issue of practice.)
As with most things in life, it’s not about the quantity, it’s about the quality. I am a full believer that 30 minutes of very focused practice can produce much higher quality playing than 3 (or 4 or 5…) hours of superficial, “play-through” practice. The first type of practice focuses on deep awareness of every note while you play. The second type of practice has a tendency to allow mistakes to settle deep into the brain. That’s exactly the type of practice to AVOID.
I have talked about truly focused or “zen” practice a number of times with friends and colleagues because it’s such a source of fascination to me. And no, I’m not a zen master or anything like that. I am simply mesmerized by this impactful practice technique. (I am going to do a future blog post on the zen practice technique.)
We practice because we want to improve. We want to learn the piece of music better and we want to become more proficient cellists. The 10,000 hours rule won’t magically transform you into an expert cellist. But the good news is that you can reach an expert skill level in MUCH fewer than 10,000 hours with the CORRECT method of practicing. 10,000 hours of poor practice will produce poor cello playing. 10,000 hours of FOCUSED playing will produce a master.
If you are just beginning to learn the cello, everything will feel awkward. The tips of your fingers on your left hand will feel sore and you won’t be able to put in a lot of practice time until you get comfortable with the cello and until your left hand fingertips gain some good callouses. But practicing at least a little each day will go a long way. If you can only focus for 15 minutes in the early days or weeks, that is just fine. Once you get into a practice groove, you should aim for a minimum of 30 minute sessions of truly focused practice each day – if your goal is to really learn how to play the cello.
* For additional reading on practicing, take a peek at this video from NPR https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/03/06/518777865/the-most-practical-tips-for-practicing-according-to-science
or this thoughtful article from Strings Magazine: https://stringsmagazine.com/tips-for-thoughtful-practicing/
or this one with YoYo Ma and Paul Katz: https://www.cellobello.org/cello-lessons/performance/yo-yo-ma-interview-practicing/
More info on learning to play the cello here: https://cellodiscovery.com
So to sum it up, it’s not the amount of practice time which will matter most. It’s the amount of focused, careful practice which will matter most. That kind of practice will take you to the next level.