Not all competitions are created equal. There are good ones and bad ones, and good and bad reasons for entering. Many kids are raised to be competitive, both musically and in school. Kids can feel pressure to do competitions from parents, teachers and peers. Sometimes it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking success can only be measured by winning competitions and that a career in music and admission to a good school are impossible without numerous wins.
Competitions are good for many things, but they should not define success. They often consist of just one performance, on one particular day; success is something you achieve over many years through work and dedication. Since most competitions, at the most, will be three rounds over a short period of time, it is a mistake to believe you are successful or unsuccessful just because you won or lost. Many truly outstanding musicians have lost competitions because of a bad day, when in reality, they are better overall musicians than the winners. People shouldn’t beat themselves up over a loss, because, if you look at the big picture, it doesn’t make that much of a difference.
For me, part of the reason I enter competitions is for practice motivation. When preparing for a competition, I find I am able to focus and learn things faster. Like an audition, its an environment that I and many others struggle with, and so it is just good experience to perform in front of people.
I also find that sometimes the judges’ comments, whether formal or informal, help me improve my playing. Not all competitions offer this though, and when they do not make judges comments available, you just play and are sent away with no knowledge of why you lost.
Find out as much as you can about a particular competition before entering and decide whether you really think it will be a worthwhile experience. Many competitions consist of just playing and leaving, with a winner announced via email at the end of the day. It can be a very dehumanizing experience, so be prepared!
The most notable exception to this that I have taken part in was the Sphinx Competition, which was a high-quality, multi-day experience. The judges gave detailed comments and were happy to talk afterwards to the participants. There were master-classes and lectures as well. Everyone in the organization cared about not only finding a winner, but also helping and impacting the musical development of all participants in a meaningful way. I made many connections and friends during my week at Sphinx. Sphinx is an organization with a very defined mission and a model competition.
By now, I think I’ve made it clear that I don’t believe in competitions defining musical accomplishment, or in doing the ones where there isn’t something to be learned. Sure, it’s a huge ego boost to win and losing can sometimes lead to a lot of productive soul searching, but its not for everyone, they also have the potential to be really negative, and there are plenty of other ways to succeed in the field of music. But you can learn and grow from the good ones, so all students should probably do a few just for the experience of playing in a stressful, critical environment.
Competitions can be a tool to focus and improve your playing, but they should not be used to define your success or failure.
In the reader chats I’ve hosted on this website, certain discussion topics make frequent appearances. One of those topics, a question I hear often from students and other amateur musicians, is: “How do you practice?” It’s easy to see why. The assumption is that professional musicians must be great, or at least successful, practicers, and that insights into the habits of accomplished musicians should provide valuable information about how to improve and make the best use of practice time.
While I am always happy to share information about my own practicing, I always make an important qualification: practice is a personal thing. There is no one way to practice, no secret passcode to gain entry to the clubhouse of good cello playing or success in the music profession. You must design practicing around your individual needs. Student musicians can, and should, do this in consultation with their teachers.
Nevertheless, it is possible to speak about what is generally desirable in practice regardless of your level of study. While good practice can be defined in countless viable ways, here’s one to start with: Successful practice is work—yes, work—that helps you identify the sources of your individual problems so that you can solve them in a way that makes you aware of the most basic principles that underlie all good musicianship and instrumental playing.
It is possible to achieve results through practice while still being wildly inefficient with your use of practice time. For instance, learning one particular shift in one particular phrase in one particular piece is not a broadly useful achievement, unless you connect it to the larger aim of internalizing the elements common to all well-executed shifts.
It is also possible to practice to your own strengths and fail to directly address any of your weaknesses. We’ve all done it: playing through a section of music that we already have well under our fingers will always, in its way, be more pleasurable than delving into thorny, unfamiliar territory where the progress can seem much slower. (Of course, playing through something has a valuable place in the learning process, but perhaps not as often as we think.)
When I ask my own students about their practice habits, I usually hear about how their time is divided among a warm-up (scales, arpeggios, long tones, and other exercises), etudes, and repertoire. It is rare that I hear anyone mention deliberately making time for what I call unstructured practice. At some point when I was in music school, I was sitting in front of a practice room mirror and just began playing whatever came to my mind. Watching my hands, posture, and motions in the mirror, I quickly realized there was some value in practicing this way, and began to include it in my daily routine with immediately positive results. With or without a practice mirror, it was during this part of my practicing that I began to make important basic realizations about how I was connecting myself physically to the cello, where I was blocking myself with tension, when I was breathing (or not), and how applying different physical motions to the cello produced different results in sound. In instrumental playing, there is a strong correlation among things that look good, things that feel good, and things that sound good—and the contrary. I have found it easier to develop an awareness of these connections outside the context of difficult repertoire (or any repertoire at all), and recommend this type of practice to practically any instrumentalist.
Here are a few take-away statements and questions: good practice skills can be taught and learned. Practice is about your relationship with yourself, and sometimes your teacher, as well. There are many ways to practice successfully. How honest are you able to be with yourself about what your ears hear? Do you know how you really want to sound? (If not, can you really expect your hands to begin to produce those sounds?) What constitutes the greater achievement: learning a difficult new piece as quickly as possible with “old” habits or taking longer to study a simpler piece with a greater understanding of finesse and fluidity in your playing?
Next time: having done the last few blog entries on general topics, I’ll focus on a very specific, nuts-and-bolts discussion of one of the most often-studied orchestral excerpts in the cello repertoire.
In all my years of musical training I was shown many important aspects of cello technique, which included movements associated with the bow and left hand—what I call the ‘ready-set-go’ school. Your teacher explains, you listen and watch, and then you do… and then you do some more of this work in the practice room until the movements are learned.
I only became aware of the profound importance of another, entirely different form of preparation when I began training as an Alexander Technique teacher. The beauty and simplicity of it took my breath away. Many years later now, as I work with students, some of them express the same incredulity. How can the energies within the body travel upwards, up along the spine, as it descends in space? What is this extraordinary power of Up against gravity and why don’t we musicians know about this first, before all else? It makes the work of the limbs –both the arms and legs—seem effortless. When the spinal column is lengthening in movement, we are in the lap of grace itself.
It is simple but not easy, as my teachers always warned me. And how right they were! The principle itself is simple: when we allow the neck to release tension, the head will move delicately forward and ‘up’ of the spine, which causes the lengthening of the spine and the widening of the back. Learning to live its essence is the hardest thing I have ever come up against.
Alexander called his discovery of this principle the Primary Control of the use of the self. He made this discovery gradually and incrementally. He first noticed that he was pulling his head back and down to initiate a movement. It wasn’t obvious and it took many attempts at self-observation, comparing ordinary speaking with his more intensive stage voice, before he realised that his habit was with him all the time, whether on stage or off. For performers his work is revelatory. If a problem appears on stage, can it just be stage fright? Could the roots of the habit be much deeper than we know, manifesting at their maximum when we are under the most pressure, but there all the same in our everyday life—just not as noticeable?
The preparation that most of us make to move is almost universal nowadays. As the thought of moving comes to us, we are unaware of how we prepare by tightening the neck and pulling the head back and down into the spine. The freedom and grace of the spinal column is instantly compromised. It happens wordlessly, soundlessly, thousands of times a day. A thought triggers a habit.
So how to tackle this beast called habit which has us in its soundless grip? There are no direct ways, as Alexander discovered. We can neither command ourselves nor try to do something different. Our habits will get the better of us simply because those old movement patterns are stored in the deep brain structures; the patterns have become automatic, activated in milliseconds. Thought=action.
That’s where the new way of working comes in. In the beginning, my teachers did not allow me to entertain the idea of moving nor to prepare for it. This function of the nervous system is called inhibition—non-doing or stopping—allowing the nervous system to come into a state of quiet, not intending or wanting to do anything. For speed queens like me, this was nearly impossible. But that is what true learning is: going for the impossible, nothing less.
It takes years of work to be able to stop and to direct the flow of energy differently within the body before the inner movement begins to determine the outer movement. We can either compress our spines to descend into a chair or go up along the spine to do the same, allowing for that graceful extension of the spinal column. In fact, with every move we make, we can either pull down on ourselves or go up. One of my Alexander teachers, an erstwhile cellist, used to call it the ‘pitch of the body’. Her expression gave new meaning to the words ‘in tune with Nature.’
In my next few blog posts I am going to take a temporary detour from our discussion regarding the K-Bow in order to talk about a new work that my quartet recently premiered in Paris at the Cité de la Musique. The piece is by Alireza Farhang, an Iranian composer currently residing in Paris. The work, entitled Tak-Sîm, was commissioned by IRCAM (the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics and Music).
In past blogs I have spent a fair amount of time talking about the integration of technology and extended cello techniques into performance. My desire to discuss this piece comes from the fact that in my opinion this particular composition successfully integrates both concepts. In his own words, the composer’s objective was to transmit the intonation of Persian music into the instrumental parts as well as in the electronic elements. In order to do this he analyzed melodies played by a famous Iranian Setâr player, Ahmad Ebâdi, then he made a sort of harmonic structure into which the instrumental and electronic parts were both composed.
Here is a link to a video that shows much of the work that we did together in putting the piece together:
The above rehearsals were all done without the use of electronics. Although the use of technology is a large part of this type of work, I find that it is always important to have the opportunity to work with the composer in an acoustic setting in order to iron out any instrumental and ensemble issues. Without this time you run the risk of holding up future rehearsal time.
Alireza Farhang uses a petty hefty dose of electronics in this composition. In what way, do you ask? In his own words, about 90% of the work was written using the software OpenMusic. OpenMusic is an object-oriented visual programming environment based on CommonLisp/CLOS. It provides libraries and editors that make it a powerful environment for music composition. It can also be used for teaching functional and object programming. The colorful soundscape of the work is all synthesized sound that Farhang created using OMChroma, which is a library within the OpenMusic environment. Here is what they say on the OMChroma website:OMChroma: High-level Control Structures for Sound Synthesis.
OMChroma is a compositonal framework integrated in OpenMusic adapted from composer Marco Stroppa’s Chroma system. OMChroma uses a matrix representations as control structures and provides powerful high-level procedures for the design and exploration of sound synthesis processes.
OMChroma is distributed as an external OM library by the IRCAM forum.
Participants / Contributors: Jean Bresson, Carlos Agon, Marco Stroppa (Musikhochschule Stuttgart), Serge Lemouton.
Using this software, there is some real time treatment of the instrumental sound. It’s sort of like sampling which is then transformed according to various parameters such as transposition or thickness of the texture. The sound designer has the possibility of working with these parameters while following along with the score.
And if things weren’t getting complex enough, we also used foot pedals in order to trigger soundscapes and to manipulate our sounds live. The sound files were triggered and controlled using the software Max/MSP. Max/MSP is a visual programming language for music and multimedia. I have performed a myriad of compositions that have used Max as it’s platform. This software is AMAZING because you can do virtually anything you want with it. The range of possibilities is absolutely astounding. That said, it is also infuriatingly squirrelly and I cannot tell you how many sound checks have come to a screeching halt because of a seemingly minute issue with the way a piece is set up within the software.
In my next blog post I will discuss some of the actual extended cello techniques that I used in performance and I will also discuss the premier itself.
A few weeks back, I was having a post-concert drink with my friend and colleague Joshua Gindele, cellist of the Miro Quartet, and the conversation turned to teaching. Though we are both associated with ensembles that perform dozens of concerts every season, teaching the cello is an important component of both of our musical lives. (Josh teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, and I teach at DePaul University.)
Discussions on the general relationship between performing and teaching often give rise to interesting questions, some without straightforward answers. Many performers teach even though the skill sets required for good teaching and good performing are far from identical. If great teaching is something that is learned, when and how are the skills acquired? If a performer is a big star with high name recognition, do some people assume — perhaps wrongly — that the person is a good teacher? (Our answer: yes.) Might a college-level institution hire a star performer to attract students, while the star’s teaching skills — or lack thereof — are of secondary importance? (Ideally no, but unfortunately yes.) Is it possible to define good (or successful) and bad (or unsuccessful) teaching in any objective way? Are good teachers routinely encouraged and promoted, and vice versa? Assuming that most people would not gravitate to teaching if they felt they were bad at it, does this mean most people who teach believe they are good at it? One of my teachers, Janos Starker, may have put it best, if charitably: ‘perhaps there is no such thing as bad teaching, only incomplete teaching…’
The most basic question, however, may be: why do I teach? I have a full-time job as a performer, so teaching is mainly a matter of choice, not necessity. I enjoy interacting with students, connecting with them, figuring out what their needs are and how they learn best, and helping them to realize their unique potential and achieve their goals. And what teacher doesn’t relish those moments when we know we’ve truly reached someone? We see the gleam in the student’s eye as they raise their awareness or take their skills to the next level. Teaching is a great learning experience, and there is no substitute for the challenge of developing finely-honed skills in both verbal description and instrumental demonstration. But for me, none of these things really addresses the question, why? They are meaningful things, to be sure, but they aren’t exactly why I teach.
For those of us who believe we’ve been fortunate to have had really great teachers, a strong sense of responsibility can lead to a desire to pass valuable information and traditions on to future generations of musicians. Music is one of the very few disciplines where becoming proficient at a high level requires a close apprenticeship with another individual. Though people try, it is impossible to learn to play the cello at a high level solely from reading technique books or studying online videos. These tools can play a supplemental role at the proper time in a student’s development, but the core of the way we learn is working closely with someone who knows more about the subject than we do. We all need the guidance of someone who can watch and listen with critical eyes and ears, giving us very immediate, individual feedback. This one-on-one instruction forms the basis of most serious instrumental music study and is quite unique when compared to other fields.
Because the music world is relatively small, many of us don’t have to trace our educational lineage too far back to find direct connections to some of the legendary figures in our field. My teachers in college and graduate school were Paul Katz and Janos Starker, my cello “fathers”. Mr. Katz studied with Mr. Starker too, and also with Gregor Piatigorsky, Gabor Rejto, and Bernard Greenhouse, my cello “grandfathers”. Mr. Starker studied with Adolf Schiffer, who was one of the last proteges of — David Popper. Popper as my cello “great-grandfather”? Pretty cool.
When I was younger, busy with practicing and the many other concerns of student and young professional life, I didn’t dwell too much on these questions. But as with everything, time provides perspective. Though both my college and graduate school teachers are still teaching, my generation is becoming largely responsible for passing on the traditions of our chosen discipline to those who are where we were twenty years ago. It honors the roles of our cello “ancestors” and helps ensure that the next generation will have the wisdom and tools they’ll need to carry on when their time comes.
This, come to think of it, is why I teach.
“Sensory appreciation conditions conception; you can’t know a thing by an instrument that is wrong.” -F.M. Alexander.
Our body-mind could be called our home. We live in it from the inside, looking out at the world. It provides our orientation, our focus, our sense of what is right and wrong, up and down, around us, beneath us and above us. All day long we are encountering and interacting with the world; stimuli are filtering through our senses and being evaluated against past experience. The question raised within us after only a few lessons in the Alexander Technique is the same one that F.M. Alexander grappled with for nine years as he searched for answers to the mis-use of his voice: What am I doing and how can I know that I do what I think I am doing? In other words: how reliable are my sensory feedback mechanisms?
In my first Alexander lessons, my teacher used to say: come out of your head and into your body. Let the sensations of your body come into play. I was so accustomed to evaluating a movement rationally—through logic and intellect—that the actual sensation of myself was one step removed. Often I did not realise that my arm or my neck was holding on. I seemed unable to discern levels of tension, let alone subtle, unwanted preparation for movement.
Alexander called this capacity to sense our ‘sensory register’ or ‘sensory appreciation’. In the early stages of the work, we begin to discover just how ‘off the scale’ we are in our capacity to sense subtle inner movement, the flow of energy along the spine, the freeing of limbs, the lengthening and widening that emerge out of lessening contraction throughout the body. We often encounter something even more bewildering in a lesson– being told by a teacher that we are actually doing the very opposite of what we think we are doing.
As the lessons progress, we may have the occasional experience of rightness, which has little to do with activity on our part. On the contrary, it comes by doing less. Through repeated experiences at the hands of a good teacher, the native intelligence of the body-mind re-awakens, as though it had been asleep for many years. The sleep is the state of tension which we have maintained unawares…we don’t know that we are holding on here and there and everywhere.
What is this native intelligence, and its companion— reliable sensory awareness— and how can we promote its presence in ourselves? My teacher used to say that it cannot be known directly and the moment we strive for it, it is gone. It is there for us in stillness and when we are not trying to do. Through years of proper work—whether it be the Alexander Technique or any discipline which understands and respects the principle of non-doing—our sensory awareness can be honed to recognize interference: the pushing, straining, and making counter-productive effort that negate this body-mind intelligence. Little by little we come to harmonize with that upward flow of energy along the spine. What we intend and what Nature intends for us begin to coincide on a conscious level.
Successful sight-readers move deftly around within a rigid hierarchy of tasks (“the Levels”). They’re like fencers, thinking ahead, anticipating the threats and challenges in the music, and adapting what they do on a measure-by-measure basis. They keep to the hierarchy, adding the next Level only when the lower ones are completely under control; experienced players do not jeopardize the ensemble by fumbling at a Level they can’t handle properly.
Thus, effective sight-reading training is about understanding these Levels to the point where you can apply and adjust them instinctively, automatically. As I’ve said, it’s a different kind of thinking, almost like playing a different instrument. For most people, the most difficult concept to wrap your head around is that finding the actual pitches comes last. Simply chasing notes will quickly lead to disaster when sight-reading within a group. You have to apply a different mental template, where it’s about something bigger than just those dots on the page.
Of course, the more technique you have, the more difficult music you can handle. But as sight-reading is a separate skill, it can be immediately improved with specialized work, whatever your level. In a nutshell, successful sight-reading requires three things at all times: (1) counting, (2) looking ahead, and (3) prioritizing. Counting and looking ahead are self-evident; it’s the prioritizing where things get interesting. To do it right, the hierarchy of tasks must be applied in strict order, as follows:
Level I: Keep a steady pulse and maintain your place in the music (visually, if nothing else). Meter, tempo, and pulse are paramount. (“The most necessary, most difficult, and principal thing in music is time” — Mozart to his father). And your first responsibility is to your colleagues, who are depending on you to play in such a way as to allow them to get through their parts successfully. So if you can do nothing else, play just the rhythmic skeleton, keep the basic time, follow your music along visually, and resume full playing as soon as you can without disruption. Sacrifice what you must, but never act as a drag on the ensemble; the tempo might not be comfortable, but few things are more irritating than having someone play as though with continually-applied brakes.
So whatever you do play must always fit within the pulse of the music. If you executed every detail of a given measure to perfection, but required an extra 16th-note’s worth of time to do so, you have failed. When a storm hits, the bar-lines are your friends; abandon all else and hold onto them! Everything is secondary to maintaining the pulse; violation of this imperative will almost certainly lead to a breakdown of the ensemble.
“Maintaining the pulse” is more subtle and difficult than simply counting; indeed, if you count without listening you will harm the group. It means integrating others’ playing (which may well be inexact) into your counting. It requires intelligent and interactive listening to what’s going on around you, and assimilation of that rhythmic activity into your internal pulse. Playing in “perfect time” to your own beat without regard to your partners will swiftly lead to a breakdown of the ensemble. (Always remain alert, though, for a ritard, accelerando, or other marking that alters the pulse.)
The best way to master this Level (and indeed music-making in general) is to mark the pulse physically, somewhere in your body. My teacher, Janos Starker, said that whenever you play anything, some muscle somewhere, between the top of your head and your little toe, must contract in time to the music. It could be any muscle, however small or unobtrusive, but it must mark time comfortably and steadily. Everything you play then “rides” on this internal pulse. (And it must be an internal pulse; no one wants to see or hear you tapping your foot.)
Lastly, be sure you’re clear on “roadmap” issues in the music, such as repeat signs, 1st and 2d endings, da capos, and fermatas. Roadmap mishaps will always lead to a halt in the proceedings, but are easily avoidable with just a cursory scan. Consult with colleagues about which repeats will be taken, and take note of all the spots your eyes will need to jump somewhere. Watch and listen at fermatas; either follow or lead!
Level II: Play correct rhythms. If the pulse is solid, your next task is to render the rhythms precisely. The more complex the passage, the more important it is that the rhythm be accurate. A wrong (or dropped) note simply means the harmony sounds funny for a moment; it usually won’t affect anyone else’s playing. But a wrong rhythm can derail the entire ensemble even if the underlying pulse is steady.
Typical trouble spots you should look out for before undertaking to sight-read a piece include:·
- Tied notes. A very common tendency (even in familiar music) is that the note following a tied-over note is often played too early. It’s important that you both “feel” the tied-over note, and release it slightly, like an apostrophe; this way the next note will be on time.·
- Dotted rhythms. The same tendency applies here; the note after the dot often comes too early. Try to feel the subdivision represented by the dot(s), and be sure that you arrive on the next beat on time. It’s better that short notes just before a beat come late rather than early (as long as the beat’s on time!).·
- Syncopations. Syncopations are, in essence, a series of tied notes and, again, it is vital that you feel all the beats that are elided. Indeed, you must feel them extra strongly since you’re not playing them.
- Changing divisions. Watch out for “math” problems. Rhythms can often break down at junctures between triple and duple patterns. In complicated licks, make sure you can visually spot where each beat falls in the measure
- Meter and tempo changes. While you might not know exactly what’s in store at these points, at least note where they are ahead of time. When you get to them, be on your toes and ready to make whatever adjustment is needed.
- Rests. This is no time to relax. Count them out as carefully as notes. If a rapid figure begins with a short rest (say, the first of four 16th-notes), the note after the rest usually tends to be late. When you have a rest longer than a few beats, it’s an opportunity to scan farther ahead. But keep counting while doing so!!
These issues will usually jump out at you as you scan through a part before playing it, and you should take a moment to sing or tap a tricky rhythm to yourself before starting. If you flip a page and a nasty lick comes at you completely on the fly, you should momentarily retrench back to Level I (play only what you can, while maintaining the pulse and your place).
If the passage is very fast, this might require leaving out one or more notes, repeating a note as a “place-holder,” or perhaps just playing an open string. What some call “faking” is a legitimate and even admirable application of the Levels in their correct order, with the needs of the ensemble taking precedence over the “needs” of the individual player (who wants to hit all the notes).
Even for a player of modest abilities, it’s fairly unusual that a rhythm cannot be sight-read, assuming you’re playing a piece that’s technically within reach. Rather, it’s the rhythm plus the notes that tangles us up. The correct approach is to focus on rendering the rhythms precisely and in time, and getting only what notes are feasible along the way. Remember, wrong/dropped notes are far less disruptive to the ensemble than wrong/dropped rhythms.
The nodus of string playing is in the coordination of two entirely different tasks between the hands. It is a cross we bear alone; pianists and woodwind players of course need great ambidexterity, but their fingers are performing the same basic action. With us, the interplay between the bow and left hand is almost impossibly complicated; rhythm can come solely from the left hand, solely from the right, or (most often) through a combined action between the two. A run of steady 8th-notes becomes much harder in an asymmetrical bowing pattern (3+1, two-slurred/two-separate, etc.). But again, the Prime Directive is to never lose time; so if you need to simplify a bowing pattern to stay on track, don’t hesitate.
Accomplishing Level II thus requires the complete understanding (and practice) of the dictum that correct rhythms take precedence over everything except the basic pulse. This adjustment is counter-intuitive and quite difficult for most people, but until it is made, sight-reading will remain frustrating for the individual and for any group with which he/she plays.
Level III: The notes (finally!). If the passage is one for which the first two Levels are not problematic, then you can focus on the pitches. In your initial glance, obviously, look at the key signature, but try also to determine the mode (e.g., D major or B minor). Think through (or even quickly mime) both scale and arpeggio fingerings for that key, especially if it’s one you’re not generally conversant with. Next, scan for accidentals. If there’s a sudden thicket of them, try to figure out if it’s a chromatic passage or whether the key has simply changed. (In the latter case, the passage could actually be easier than if the key signature was in effect.)
Developing one’s abilities on this Level involves an unconscious process of storing and recognizing more and more patterns. Over time, you will develop a “database” of common melodic and accompanimental figures, which you will begin to match to the music in front of you. There is a syntax to the music of each style period, particularly for bass lines, and when you come upon a familiar pattern, you shouldn’t need to read every note.
Instead, with practice, you will gradually learn to process notes in clumps rather than one at a time. For just one example, diminished-7th harmonies often contain both flats and sharps in the same chord. Once you begin to recognize the chord in an arpeggiated figure, you need only check where it starts and ends, and then plug in a standard fingering.
But what of those passages that don’t fall into any existing patterns, such as one finds in so much music from the 20th century onward? Here, the mental process you must acquire over time is what I call the “visualization of grids.”
Each note you play should be broken down into a 3-part datum: (1) the pitch, (2) the string you’re on, and (3) the finger you’re using. Each datum should then call up a mental “grid” of 19 notes — the fingered notes which are available to you at that instant. At any given moment the hand can cover five notes on each string (four fingers plus one extension), giving you 20; subtracting the one you’re playing gets you 19. So, for example, if you’re playing Eb on the G-string with your 3d finger, you have the following notes available on the C-string: F, Gb/F#, G, G#/Ab, A. On the A-string, you have D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb. And so forth.
The best sight-readers are those who can call up the complete, correct grid instantaneously on each note. If the next note you need is not on that grid, you figure out the most efficient shift needed to get to it. Fingerboard geography is complicated, but it is finite (at least in the lower positions). If you actively try to develop the visualization of grids in everything you play, your sight-reading will improve steadily.
This system is in contrast to the more traditional “position” approach. The concept of “third position” can be taught so as to encompass the visualization of grids, but it’s just extra mental baggage. Better to focus on the grids and available notes. This is not to say that each note is an island unto itself; of course we mentally clump them together into positions. But the positions are the tail, not the dog.
So although rhythmic groupings must be kept in mind no matter what (per Level II), advanced sight-readers also create a mental “overlay” of which notes belong together. Try to spot the notes on which you’ll have to shift, and to which finger. Watch out for scale patterns with gaps in them. But above all, make sure that a sudden tricky passage doesn’t make you neglect the first two Levels.
Bonus points: Character and dynamics. The Levels at which you’re operating will be constantly changing according to circumstances. But through it all, you should always try to convey the overall character of what’s in front of you. Even if the passage is so difficult that you’re relegated to Level I, you can still notice that it’s pp, or that the notes should be staccato.
To recap a little bit, good sight-reading requires more than accurate counting and playing; you must keep your ears open at all times and process what you’re hearing. Someone else in the ensemble might be playing a difficult lick that’s about to come your way, and getting it in the ear ahead of time (even with flaws) puts you ahead of the game. Even more importantly, not everyone in an ensemble will be equally adept at managing the different Levels (if they even know about them), and attentive playing from you could be a group’s salvation.
Back in the 1960’s, there was a safe-driving ad campaign on television whose slogan was “Watch Out For The Other Guy” — the point being that it was not enough to simply follow the rules of the road yourself, but that you had to allow for others out there who weren’t. The same applies here. As an ensemble cellist you will frequently find yourself playing a fairly simple repetitive rhythm while the upper voices wrestle with something more florid and difficult. There is a fine line between maintaining a beat that the others can depend on and insisting on metronomic perfection as if in isolation.
Remember, the success of the group trumps all. If a subtle adjustment from you will keep things together, you should make it, and discuss the issue later. But this can’t happen if you’re focused solely on yourself. Always relate your part to what’s going on around you, and if you’re the one struggling with a hard lick, listen for the rhythmic voice and hang on!
The foregoing was taken from an introduction I wrote for a reprint edition of a wonderful early 20th-century French text, “500 Sight-reading Exercises For Cello,” by Armand Parent and Vincent D’Indy. As per its title, the book contains 500 short (3-line), gradually-more-difficult exercises in all styles, keys, tempi, etc. I know of nothing comparable out there in scope and usefulness. The rest of my intro relates to the actual exercises in the book, and is thus not of much use in a general blog. But the book is available at www.cellos2go.com.