Archive for the ‘Cello’ Category

The Responsibility Never To Be Bored

March 20, 2017

by Rex Weston

Instructor of cello at The Lesson Studio

I think of the cello as the best toy ever. Part of that is the flexibility of the instrument – it can be used to play any genre of music: classical, folk, bluegrass, celtic, rock and roll, jazz, hiphop. It can make a wide and lively variety of sounds, and it can take up many roles: bass, percussion, rhythm guitar, folk guitar, fills, harmony, and melody.

And there are a lot of fun things that happen when playing. The act itself should be physically pleasurable – as far as the brain is concerned, playing a difficult passage is as stimulating as skiing a difficult mogul run. Playing an instrument lights up an EKG like a Christmas tree.

Making great and weird sounds is fun. Playing a tune is fun. Improvising is extremely satisfying. Playing music with other people is great fun. Being swept away by playing great music is one of the high points of anyone’s life. Writing and improvising music are totally engaging.

But the most important part of the cello for me was the end of boredom in my life. I learned that if I was doing anything, and I was bored, that I needed to STOP, and figure out how to make it interesting. That it was absolutely my responsibility not to be bored. When practicing a piece, the moment I checked out with boredom meant I was no longer learning anything. That I might still be making sound on my instrument, but it wasn’t doing me any good at all, because my brain wasn’t focussing on what I was doing, and that made practicing pointless.

Now the typical response to boredom, and the one I was trained as a kid by television to do, is just to switch channels. The problem with this is that it is the opposite of productive, and just leads to a life of channel surfing. The productive way to deal with boredom, is to analyze the problem and find a way to make it interesting. This requires creativity.

Let’s take a simple problem in practicing a difficult passage in a piece of music. Playing the passage over and over usually doesn’t help. That is because the brain has checked out in the process – if it isn’t interested it won’t help you out. Doing the same thing again and again – sorry, but your brain has left the building. So the way to get the brain back in gear is to look at and play the passage many different ways. Playing the passage in different rhythms is a good start. After one has played the passage in a jazz swing rhythm, a salsa rhythm, a reggae rhythm, a waltz, hiphop, a march, playing the passage straight becomes suddenly simple. Basically you have to have fun to learn something. And the chances are that if you are not having fun, you are not learning anything.

This obviously applies to the rest of your life, too. Instead of checking out when being bored in a classroom, the new response is to look for something in the subject that is interesting, and explore that aspect in depth. It is called self-directed learning, and is the only way we really learn anything that makes a difference. It works in your job, and it works in your life.

Musical Misnomers: Playing with Gravity

October 14, 2013

Ethan Fallis – Cello instructor at The Lesson Studio


Sometimes the names of every day things in our lives don’t make sense. For
example, pencil lead isn’t really lead at all. It is graphite, which was originally believed to
be lead ore. Similarly, an English Horn is neither English, nor a horn. These are what
you called misnomers or “an incorrect or unsuitable name or term for a person or thing.”

The Bow “Hold”:
After teaching for many years, I have evolved the ways I introduce the bow hold.
If we take a step back and look at a cello player, what do you notice about the bow and
bow “hold”?
Here is another question: If you were to place a fork on top of a table, would you need
to hold on to the fork to keep it from falling off of the table? Absolutely not. The table
does all the work for you.
This idea can and should be applied to the bow and the strings. The bow will stay on the
string without your help. As the cello player, you simply guide the bow. A bow hold is a
light grip that doesn’t have any squeezing tension in the thumb, fingers, hand, or wrist.
The thumb must be curved and the fingers must drape or hang over the stick to create
this light feeling. To test your bow hold at home, and to find if you have a relaxed and
tension free hand, follow these steps:
1. Be sure to have great cello posture sitting on your sit bones, with flat feet, and a
centered spine.
2. Pick-up the bow and place the bow on the D string at the balance point like you are
about to play (the spot about 5-8 inches beyond the frog).
3. Without moving the bow, find your bent thumb and hanging fingers.
4. Now, while letting the bow sit on the string, slowly release all tension from your hand,
fingers, palm, arm, and shoulders.
By now, you should feel like you will almost drop your bow. Ideally, the bow hand should
merely keep the bow from sliding down the strings as you play. A teacher of mine once
said, “ If you don’t drop your bow while playing at least twice a day, your bow hold is not
relaxed enough.”
Getting the best sound: Gravity is your friend.
Cello players have a distinct advantage when playing our instrument. We have a
great sense of foundation and posture because of the nature of how we sit and play.
With this comes another misnomer. I have studied with many teachers and played in
many orchestras where a common term is used to get more sound from your
instrument. This term is, “bow pressure.”
Pressure, implies an act of tension in a specific direction. When speaking of the
bow and cello, pressure would suggest pushing down on the hand and bow to produce
and increase a bigger sound.

Through many lesson experiences both as a student and the teacher, I have
replaced the word pressure with weight. Take a look at this second cello player’s bow
arm. What do you notice?
This player’s bow arm has a great bow hold and a very relaxed arm. If a student
wants to pull the best and biggest sound from their cello, he must let gravity pull his
relaxed arm into the string. Think about some of these things: how big and thick are
each of the cello strings? How much energy do you need to pull sound from any string?
How heavy is your arm? How much weight is actually needed from the arm to get sound
from the string?
It takes very little weight vibrate the string, and with increased weight comes
more sound. A cello player only needs to allow gravity to pull their arm into the string to
attain the best possible sound. To find the best arm for gravity to be a friend, follow
these steps:
1. Be sure to have great cello posture sitting on your sit bones, with flat feet, and a
centered spine.
2. Take your bow and place it at the Frog as if you were to draw a down bow.
3. Now, with your excellent bow hold, relax your shoulders and drop your elbow below
your wrist.
4. Your entire arm should feel relaxed and all of the weight from your arm flowing to your
fingers and further into the frog.
5. Be sure to have a small tilt of the stick towards the fingerboard before you draw the
6. As you draw a down bow, focus on keeping your weight into the string with a relaxed
arm and flexible fingers.
7. As you reach the tip of the bow, notice the where the weight moves in your hand.
As you draw the down bow, the weight of your arm in your fingers should move
from the back of your hand (ring finger and pinky finger), to the front of the hand (thumb
and index finger). If you do not feel this transfer of weight, gravity is not being used to its
full potential.
Be Friends with Gravity:
To sum it up, cello playing is a relaxed endeavor and gravity lets us play the
instrument with very little effort. The combination of bow “hold” and “gravity lead arm
weight” not only allows us to pull the best sound from our instrument but also play for
much longer periods of time. As you continue your adventure as a musician, consider
forming a relationship with gravity.

Janos Starker and Learning From Giants

July 2, 2013

by Keith Thomas, Cello instructor at The Lesson Studio

Janos Starker, renowned cellist and teacher, passed away last week at the age of 88. I doubt that any performing cellist today has not been touched in some way by this giant. I first encountered his teaching as a young student learning the Bach Cello Suites for the first time. I played his fingerings and bowings (largely) without really knowing the man. He was, arguably, the most influential pedagogue of the 20th century, holding a professor position at the University of Indiana Bloomington for five decades. His methods are used in private studios and universities across the world.

At 15, he made his name performing this piece, the Kodaly Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello. That astonishing fact should give you an idea of his technical genius from an early age. Watching him perform the same piece as an older man, I’m struck by the total mastery and ease with which he tackles such a monstrous piece, and I consider it like a man and his old friend having a conversation. Look again at his performance: look at his face, fully focused and concentrated (and almost bored looking); look at his arms and wrist, relaxed to a ridiculous degree; listen to his ideas, how invigorating and interesting they are.

Which brings me to my point: there is an amazing value in studying pros. I’ve learned so much from listening to great performances from cellists, violinists, singers, flutists, and almost every other type of musician. Our ears are so spectacular that they can tell our bodies what to do intuitively. If I want to play with the color and character of Maria Callas, I need to listen to her singing and try to match it. If I want to play Kodaly like Starker, I ought to study his efficiency, his bowings, his fingerings, his musical ideas, his coloring, etc.

There’s a treasure trove of musical performances on YouTube. If you’re performing a piece, listen to it first. Then listen again and again, from different performers. It will ingratiate the music into your heart and you’ll feel more comfortable practicing and performing it. Listen and look; they’re the two biggest tools we have to have more fun practicing, and more success performing.

Keith Thomas, Cello Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Keith Thomas

The Benefits of Mental Practice

September 13, 2012

by Keith Thomas, Cello Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Keith Thomas, Cello Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Keith Thomas

When I was a young musician, I would experience pain from playing too long, with too much pressure. The pain in my arms was the natural result from playing many hours a day with bad technique and posture. As I got older, my technique improved but I was still wearing myself out. I needed a lot of practice time to learn the large amounts of music I had to perform, and to bring it to performance level. I didn’t know how to learn music without banging away at it for hours on end behind the cello.

That is, until my teacher in college told me about mental practice. If you’ve never heard of mental practice, please do a quick Google search for “mental practice music”. The number of scholarly articles, journals, and personal blogs about the subject is staggering. Mental practice is exactly what it sounds like; it is imagining in your mind that you are playing your instrument. You can do this in a lot of different ways. Is a certain measure or line of music causing you trouble? Take the problem measure and go over it slowly in your mind several times until you feel it’s perfect. Now go ahead and try to play it on your instrument. Odds are it will have improved.

This is because whether you play something physically or mentally, the mind processes it the same way. MRI scans have shown that the same areas of the brain are triggered whether a passage of music is played physically or simply thought of in the mind. As an added benefit, mental practicing can prevent the bad habits or wrong notes that get built into our muscle memory when we practice physically. By putting the brain back in control of the body, you can save precious practice time.

This idea of mental practice is not unique to musicians. Many elite athletes and performers of all kinds need a safe place to rehearse the mechanics of their craft. Former Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell, right before their Super Bowl game against the New Orleans Saints, said the ratio of mental to physical practice for their team was 6:1.

I can’t recommend mental practice enough as a tool to musical excellence. If you’d like to try it, here are a few tips:

Just like in physical practice, don’t try to mental practice the music quicker than you can comfortably. Enjoy learning the music calmly and stress free.

  1. Start with small chunks of music (maybe a bar or two) and add on more as you go.
  2. Repetition is great. If something is difficult, mentally practice it as many times and you can. Through repetition, difficult things become easy.
  3. Sometimes when you mental practice, the time flies. Other times it can be like watching grass grow. When you feel like you’re ready, try physically practicing what you just rehearsed in your mind.

Here’s a scholarly journal by one of my colleagues at Rice University, a violist and neuroscientist, on the topic.


Nurtured By Love: Reflections On the Suzuki Method

May 2, 2012

By Alexa Massey, Cello, Instructor at The Lesson Studio

The Suzuki Method is a rich musical philosophy based on the life work of Dr. Shinichi Suzuki. As I come close to the end of my first year of studying Suzuki Pedagogy at the University of Denver, I have found myself reflecting on several significant points of the Suzuki method which have not only nurtured me as a person, but also shaped me as a musician and teacher.

The point that has affected me most deeply is Dr. Suzuki’s emphasis on talent being nurtured and created rather than inborn. Even growing up doing the Suzuki Cello books, I had not internalized this part of Suzuki philosophy until recently. Many people feel quickly discouraged and give up at endeavors at which they don’t immediately display exceptional “talent.” Suzuki inspires a pro-active sentiment, and makes me realize that my weaknesses are due to lack of effort, consistency, and/or lack of correct environment and instruction, rather than due to an inborn lack of ability. Dr. Suzuki has also made me take a second look at my apparent “talents”—and made me realize that my strengths are not due to a magical, inborn ability within myself, but rather the day-to-day conditions and priorities of my life, opportunities I’ve taken advantage of, as well as years of guidance from excellent teachers and constant support from my parents. It is these factors that have led to my success. Suzuki’s philosophies are motivating because one cannot feel hopeless about him or herself if they really put this principle into action every day of their lives. He teaches us that, “only through action can the power of the life force be displayed. Ability develops through practice.”

Dr. Suzuki’s work with disabled children has been especially moving to learn about. His “unorthodox” methods and relentless personal creativity show that, with effort and dedication, even a very young blind child can become a musical virtuoso, such as his Teiichi Tanaka, whom he describes in detail in his book Nurtured By Love. Dr. Suzuki’s dedication to this child helped him establish a way to express himself, build his self-esteem, offer him a social outlet, as well as give him opportunities to shine and touch people with his music through performance. I’m sure that his childhood and life were greatly enriched by music. Through his work with students such as Teiichi, Dr. Suzuki teaches us, “any child is able to display highly superior abilities if only the correct methods are used in training.”

While Dr. Suzuki turned out many talented young students, I believe that his method develops sensitivity, discipline, endurance, and a beautiful heart because of his belief that every child can. If music was treated like an exclusive “club” that only the elite or genetically pre-destined could join, then he would be building a foundation built on ego and personal insecurity. It would not reap true art. Because of his faith in all children, this philosophy instills real self-esteem and fine character that is not based on a child’s achievement, but rather the inherent worth of their soul and their infinite potential. His philosophy creates children with strength and humility of character. Dr. Suzuki lived the principle, “character first, ability second.” Dr. Suzuki teaches us to, “never loose your humility, for pride obscures the power to perceive truth and greatness.” By believing in the potential of every child, he was coming from a place of humility, greatness, and strength.

The world of music is so much more than a hobby or afterschool activity; it is a way of life, and something to keep the spirit alive in a world that will always have darkness.

Conversation with Yo-Yo Ma

October 16, 2011

by Alexa Reeves Massey, Cello Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Alexa Reeves Massey, Cello Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Alexa Reeves Massey

It was a vivid day for a number of reasons. Not only had I been anticipating seeing Yo-Yo Ma perform the Haydn D Major Cello concerto with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra for weeks, but my teacher had acquired back-stage passes for him and his students to meet him after the performance.

Then a turn of events occurred. The day before the concert, the Twin Towers fell. I was in 8th grade and remember not fully understanding the impact of it until the following day in Denver, when my Mom pointed to the Sears Towers on our way to the Boetcher concert hall. As we looked up at the Sears Towers, which looked rather large to a small-town girl like myself, she explained that the Twin Towers were several times as high and wide as those buildings. This July, I visited ground zero in New York City, and the air felt thick with the loss of a decade ago. The surrounding Wall Street Buildings are still heavily guarded, and my heart pounded as the countless news images played through my mind of people running for their lives from the area I was standing.

Of course, Haydn D Major, an up-beat, joyful concerto, was no longer appropriate for the concert. An hour before the performance, the program was changed from Haydn to the Elgar Cello Concerto—one of the most soulful, heart-wrenching pieces of music ever written for the cello. This is also the work that inspired me to stick with the cello when I was young—I saw it performed at the age of ten, and I knew I would never quit the cello after seeing the true magic this instrument could create.

Most events were cancelled after the attack, but the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and Yo-Yo Ma continued on with the concert with an altered program as a tribute to the lives lost.

After the concert, Yo-Yo Ma spoke with my cello studio, and I will always remember the wisdom he imparted. He discussed the tragedy of the previous day with us, and I was struck by how gracious, generous, and completely humble this man was.

He went on to discuss cello playing with us, and said that practicing is about quality, not quantity. He said that some days he practices for five hours, other days he will only practice for five minutes. If you aren’t having a productive practice time, you are most likely just reinforcing bad habits. He also discussed the importance of having a balance of the three ways to practice. Those include:

1) Practicing by yourself

2) Practicing with others (rehearsing)

and 3) Imagining yourself practicing.

I remember being surprised by number 3 on his list. It seems silly, right? But it has been scientifically proven that the brain forms the same neural connections by imagining yourself doing something as actually performing the task. He said, “Just because your cello is in the shop is no excuse to not practice!” This piece of advice saved my music career in college—I was injured and the time I could practice was very limited. But I learned to practice in my mind, and work out fingerings, bowings, and other musical ideas before even touching my instrument. This is a great way to give your body a rest, or prevent injury, and still improve musically.

Yo-Yo Ma was a child prodigy, performing in the White House for President John F. Kennedy by the age of five. However, in college, he studied Humanities at Harvard University. Yo-Yo Ma stressed the importance of learning about the world. He said to develop yourself in many areas—to learn about history, humanities, art, and math & science; being a well-rounded person is as important to virtuosic musicianship as are practicing your scales and etudes. You can’t be a truly mature artist unless you are educated and aware of the world you live in.

As well, he said that he is always pursuing new musical interests. Yo-Yo Ma has largely popularized the cello because he doesn’t just play standard works—he is continually pursuing new projects, playing music from different cultures, and learning, growing, and challenging himself musically.

“When you learn something from people, or from a culture, you accept it as a gift, and it is your lifelong commitment to preserve it and build on it.”

Yo-Yo Ma

Can You See What You’re Playing? And I’m not talking about the notes on the page.

March 9, 2010

By Hollie Bennett, Intern at The Lesson Studio

You know you’re a true music nerd when you start finding all the similarities between everything you do or see and how it could relate to music. And you know you’re especially bad when you just see something and bam! Now that you watched that special on the Discovery channel about outer space, you know how you can explain vibrato to the twelve year old. But really, finding those parallels between, let’s just call it this for fun, the “real world” and the “music world” can help you understand exactly what you’re doing even more than before.

Imagery is such a staple part in music, at least for me. Hearing a piece of music that really attaches itself to me makes me feel in colors, imagine stories and truly understand the emotion that the composer or performer was trying to convey. Part of me thinks that as a musician that is your true purpose in life is to tell the story, show the audience what is happening, even if you don’t know, you need to show that you do. Sometimes doing crazy things like pulling out your box of 64 Crayola crayons that you haven’t used since the fourth grade and literally coloring your music the color that you thinks conveys each part of your piece can do wonders. Even making up words to go along with what you’re playing or seeing a story that can play out in your head can get the emotional and expressive side to connect with the technical of your playing.

One of my favorite topics to bring up to students is the Olympics. I’ve probably been driving my students crazy trying to convince them to watch everything from figure skating to the super-g to curling. The parallels between musicians and athletes are really interesting to me. How much work each party puts into perfecting their own craft is mind blowing: hours in practice versus hours on the ice or snow. You can find so many similarities. Figure skating spins and trills is one of my own teacher’s favorite analogies. You can also think of the idea of balancing between technique and musicality as the way a speed skater like Apolo Ohno and J.R. Celski balance around their turns with speed skating. So go out and try to find those parallels and start imagining them will you play. It might just help even more than you’d think!

Winter/Spring Semester Registration Begins

November 12, 2009

On Monday, November 16, 2009, The Lesson Studio (TLS) will begin its Winter/Spring Semester registration!

The dates for our Winter/Spring Semester 2010 are: January 9 – May 21, 2010

TLS has instructors for guitar, piano, voice, drums, bass, violin, viola, saxophone, clarinet, trombone, trumpet, tuba, euphonium, ukelele, oboe, cello, flute, mandolin and banjo! We also offer music therapy, a free workshop series, and summer music camp. We have an in-store drop-off/pickup for instrument repair. Included with your semester tuition are weekly instruction with the teacher of your choice; supplies including weekly goal sheets, staff paper, CDs, and music charts; assistance from three administrative staff people; free Wi-Fi in the reception area; 10% off coupon for a local music store; and best of all, an end-of-semester recital! Our Fall recital is held at the Old Main Chapel at CU and our Spring recital is held ON STAGE at the Boulder Creek Festival!

If you are a current student, be sure to let our staff know if you prefer the same day/time or a new time slot for your music lesson. If you are new to The Lesson Studio, please call 303-543-3777 for your FREE CONSULTATION today!

As always, please visit for more information.The Lesson Studio logo

Cello Prep vs. Cello Play

October 22, 2009

Laura Martinez is the sole Cello instructor at The Lesson Studio. She has a strong background with undergraduate and graduate studies in Cello Performance at Wichita State University, where she studied with David Schepps (a student of Pierre Fournier) and Andrew Kolb.   As a performer, Laura’s extensive professional experience includes the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, Wichita Grand Opera and Cavani II String Quartet.  She believes that performance and learning nurture one another, and strives to create that balance in her own musical life as well as that of her students. Today, Laura speaks about the importance of distinguishing “preparation” from “playing through.”

“Nothing is more frustrating than practicing and practicing something and not seeing the improvement we expect.  Often this happens when a student “plays through” something difficult over and over without enough preparation.

It’s important to separate “preparation” from “playing through,” especially in a tricky passage.  “Preparation,” on a string instrument, means making sure that left hand and right hand know what to do, and WHEN to do it.  For the “when” it helps to practice the rhythm alone, either clapping or singing/counting aloud.

After the rhythm is learned, the left and right hands need to learn their parts.  Pizzicato practice is a great way to make sure the left-hand fingers are clear on what they need to do.  Once your left-hand notes are clear and clean in pizzicato, the bow can be added.  If things get muddy or messy when you add the bow, it’s a good idea to practice the bow rhythm alone (on one string).  Usually this will clear things up and you’ll be amazed how clean and “shiny” your playing becomes.  If a passage needs some more polish, you can try playing the bow alone on open strings — this is a great way to work out difficult string crossings or bowing patterns.”

To learn more about Laura or to schedule a consultation/lesson with her, please visit