Don’t Work Hard, Work Differently

By Heewon Lee


When I first started playing the cello, I only touched the instrument during lessons. In my early teens, I would practice by listening to my favorite recordings of pieces, which resulted in my duplicating the performer’s mistakes. What you do in the practice room is transparent onstage, and there are no shortcuts to achieving progress — but certainly shorter, focused practice times will yield greater productively.

Many of my peers become frustrated with their lack of progress. They develop an unhealthy attitude by dwelling on what isn’t working instead of figuring out how to fix the problem.

I first heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule when I began studying the cello, and I think it helped me reach a certain level of comfort and consistency as a beginner. I followed the rule arduously and made sure I practiced three hours every day. However, it was in college that I felt a huge stumbling block where I thought I was wasting my time and money studying the instrument. My teacher said I wasn’t practicing because I hadn’t mastered the technical challenges of the piece I was working on at the time. When I showed him how I practiced a technical passage, it was exactly how he had suggested. I then realized the number of hours you practice doesn’t mean anything if they’re not productive hours. Eventually, I stopped counting the hours and just did it. I was happy.

My problem was that I was listening to my insecurities. My sound was small and tight, and my phrasing made no sense. I was on auto-pilot mode thinking of everything and anything but fixing sections. When I tried to break a passage apart, I couldn’t put it back together. I lost control and was too focused on my concern to be able to slow things down. I should have stopped practicing.

The way we think about our playing can be easily influenced by our teachers or anyone around us. How we critique ourselves as performers alternates between being negative and just plain old picky. It’s good to listen to our teacher’s advice, but most importantly, we need to know how we really sound.

What if we became our own teachers and figured out how to fix problems ourselves?

Proper practice will also leave your teacher with little to say. Mine did not hear all my recital repertoire until three days before the concert, and I only had one lesson on each of the pieces. Although having more time would have allowed the pieces to ripen, the suggestions he did make were quite helpful. This made me realize how much work I could get done on my own. With all the work done before, I was less nervous and able to unleash all of my emotions.

This is why I am a firm believer in noted violinist Pamela Frank’s pedagogy. She believes in practicing for the purpose of a goal, whether it be to perform, to teach, or to do anything. “I don’t understand people who say ‘today I’m gonna practice my intonation and tomorrow I’m gonna work on my phrasing!'” said Frank. “You should always be considering these things within your practicing to get the most out of your time. If you can play a scale exactly how you like it, you will be able to use it in any piece that has the scale.” In the master class, Frank did not touch the students’ musical ideas, but rather helped them achieve what they wanted through her tools. She did not have one way of explaining things; she knew how to break performance barriers to free the players.

Florida State University psychology professor Anders Ericsson also believes it is not how much you practice, but how you do it. In his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Ericsson writes, “Deliberate practice involves the pursuit of personal improvement via well-defined, specific goals and targeted areas of expertise. It requires a teacher or coach who has demonstrated an ability to help others improve the desired area of expertise — say chess, ballet, or music — and who can give continuous feedback. It also requires constantly practicing outside of one’s comfort zone.”

So, work differently and understand that the same practice routine might not work every day. Experiment on your own. Act like scientists in the practice room, and practice not for the sake of practicing, but for the sake of learning and improving. Not that I have everything figured out — absolutely not — but it is exciting to know how much I can discover on my own when I turn off the “negative feelings switch” in the practice room.


Raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, Heewon Lee is a cellist at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Lee is a student of Amir Eldan on modern cello and of Cathy Meints on baroque cello/viola da gamba. Lee has collaborated with Oberlin composers Peter Kramer ’14, Shihui Yin ’15 and others, and premiered Pauline Ng’s Li for solo cello. Lee will continue her studies at the Eastman School of Music in the fall of 2017.


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