Joseph Mendoes - cello expert

How to Practice on the Cello

Learn the basics of practicing on the cello from our cello expert Prof. Mendoes

In this video, Prof. Mendoes gives you the basics of practicing on the cello to benefit from never-ending improvements.

Released on August 6, 2014

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Joseph: Hello, this is Joseph Mendoes with In this video I would like to talk about practicing, and my general philosophy towards practicing. I know in previous videos I've talked a lot about very specific techniques, and even in the video I think right before this one I talked about sound, and tone production, and things like that, and I talked about the bow, and all sorts of different things, but really the application of all these things is one of the most important things that you could do, and where we apply these things the most is in the practice room. So practicing is what I'd like to talk about today.

You know, practicing is something that is...I think to practice well is very, very difficult, and you have to be aware, tremendously aware, of the things that you're good at, and also the things that you're not so good at. A good way to go about this is to make a list, this can be a little scary, but to make a list of all the things you think in terms of Cello technique that you're not so good at. Now not specific things in like a piece, I'm talking about very general things. Like, let's say, you always had trouble with your shifting, or you're always unhappy with your changes of bow, that they're not very smooth, or your string crossings are not very well controlled, or maybe staccato, or spiccato, or you know, all these kinds of things, different bow strokes, or maybe you have a vibrato on one finger that's weaker than the others. You know, all these things are things that you would want to put on the list of things either maybe you're, you know, that you're bad at, and then also make the list of things you feel that you're really good at too. That's important as well, to really get kind of a clear picture of where you're at as a player. Once you've done that, then it becomes very clear to you how you need to be spending your time when you're practicing, because very often the...for many of us it's not a question of practicing more. I know for myself, you know, I always wish I could practice more, but there's only so much time in one day. So we have to use the time that we have very efficiently, and so we have to address those things that we feel are weak in our playing. Those are the things that we have to address first, and that can be hard to do. It takes a lot of discipline to be able to do that.

Now, in your own practicing, I know I can sometimes do this too, we sometimes like to indulge, and that's okay to do from time to time. You know, for example, you're playing a wonderful melody like the de Bergerac The know, and so on, that we can kind of work on these kinds of things in getting this very beautiful legato. Well, what if our legato's already pretty beautiful. Well maybe there's something else that we should be doing instead of that, to kind of shore up an actual weakness in our playing instead of making something that we already do well even better, which of course we want, but since we're kind of stuck with time being what it is, much better to address a weakness.

Now how do you address those weaknesses? Well, this is where you have to be creative. Really, the best way are specific exercises. You know, sometimes you need to even think of these exercises on your own, or you can even take them from the general repertoire, or attunes, and you can certainly, you know, if you have a teacher, you can ask your teacher about this, and your teacher will help you tremendously to figure out, you know, what's the best way to address a particular problem. But, sometimes even working on it in a specific exercise, or in a specific attitude is not enough. You have to think of the problem even differently. So be willing to think of solutions when you're practicing. It seemed like that they're out of left field. They seem like that, "Oh gosh I...that could never work." For example, you know, sometimes for me personally, if I'm having a shift, a problem with a shift, and I've tried everything that normally works to fix the problem, and to help me to play the shift not only more in tune, but with more musicality and confidence, sometimes I think of the completely and totally wild and off the wall solution like maybe just adjusting how I sit a little bit, or changing the end pin length a little bit, or making these kinds of adjustments that sometimes can be a little bit...Maybe you might consider them to be a little bit meaningless. Sometimes those little adjustments...something can just kind of click and it can work. So really be very adventurous with how you figure out solutions to problems and you might be very surprised about what you find.

Now as far as practice time goes, now this is...everyone's different on this. You know there are...and in fact, I'm different on it, I would say every day. I do have, and I do try to keep a minimum amount of time that I'm going to practice, and I try to hit that target. If I have a day that's just so busy where I'm teaching so much or playing so much that there's no way that I can fit in the amount of time that I would like to fit in I, try to at least hit that minimum. Now, that minimum's going to be different for you, depending upon, you know, what level you're at. For some know, for some of my younger students I would say the minimum should be you know 30 minutes, which doesn't seem like a lot, but if I'm having them work on something very specific then 30 minutes actually sometimes can be too much. So you know you have to kind of engage it and you have to know yourself. The other thing is, so you have a total time know, during the day on top of that you want to break that up, and for most of us, this is just what I've found, for most of us you can't really practice for too long, or you start to lose the effect of the practice. For me, I know personally, it really does depend on the day and how much sleep I get and everything, but if I'm very well rested, then I can even sometimes even go up to an hour and a half, and have that whole hour and a half be productive, but that's rare. Most of the time for m,e my max for my mental focus and my ability to real fix things and focus on particular problems is around 45 minutes or so. If I try to push it past that, I'll immediately notice. So never push it past what you think you can do. Remember, key is to really just try to get in there and fix things,And if things aren't getting fixed, make sure...obviously you have patience, but also don't be bothered if you're frustrated, because frustration in some ways, and some amounts, in small amounts I should sy,y is a very, very good thing. It leads you to discover things, it leads you try new things, and maybe try a different fingering, or different bowing, or you know try anything until it works so that you really become your own teacher in that way.

So yeah, I mean the other thing, the other obvious thing that everyone knows when you practice is make sure that you're really watching your posture, the very general things. If you're practicing for a long time sometimes posture can kind of go out the window, and also some other things can kind of get in your way. So yeah, I mean practicing is something that we all have to do, but it should never be making noise in a room. You know, it should never be something that you do just to kind know, you're looking at the clock and you're thinking, "Okay if I practice three hours a day. I'm going to be the greatest virtuoso." Not necessarily, you know, if you practice two instead of three hours, but those two hours are know, you're so mentally focused that your brain is almost sweating by the end of it. You know, that's, that can be more beneficial than saying, "Okay I'm going to practice this much every day and I'm going to get incredibly good." Of course, if you can practice that much, or even more than that, and all of it be mentally focused, then you know, then you'll be just fine. But, you have to know yourself, and you have to know what you're capable of, and shoot for that. That's the most important thing for practice.

And the last thing that I'll say about practicing is that, you're not going to believe me on this, but practicing actually should be fun. And, maybe if you're, you know, six, or seven, or eight years old, the practicing will never be fun. But, once you reach a certain age by around 12 or 13, if practicing is not something that you look forward to doing, all right, it's not something that you are excited about doing, then probably you're not practicing correctly. Probably, you're just kind of repeating things over, and over, and over again. Things aren't really getting better, and there's probably some kind of more basic fundamental problem in what you're doing. Practicing should be a daily renewal of vows, I guess we could call it that. You know, that every day when you get up, and you get that Cello out of the case, that you should be happy that you're doing it. If you're not, then probably you're stuck, probably there's something that's not working, and it hasn't worked for a while. And, that's the thing to attack, and that leads me back to what I first said, make that list. It's a hard thing to do for anybody, to look at yourself like that and say, "Okay this is what I'm good at, this is what I'm bad at," and just try to focus as hard as you can on the bad, and trying to get that bad to be better, and yeah...So sorry, I know I talked a lot in this video. There wasn't a lot of playing, but practicing is an important topic, and I thought I just wanted to cover it today. So I'd love to hear your comments. I'd love to also hear how all of you practice. Maybe you can help me in my practice and can spur me on, and yeah...So please leave your comments down below there, and once again this is Joseph Mendoes with
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User Comments and Questions

Comments, Questions, Requests:

Daniel R * VSM MEMBER * on May 31, 2017 @8:26 am PST
Hello Joseph,
Once again, thank you for this and all your fine instruction which I find most helpful. For me, at 1 year of playing I spend about an hour a day practicing. With longer practice I tend to fatigue and the music gets sloppy and discouraging.
Edward D Smith * VSM MEMBER * on May 6, 2017 @10:12 am PST
I moved away and no longer have access to my cello coach, so I find your videos most helpful. In my area there is no cello teacher within reach. This latest video lesson on practicing in particular hit home especially the amount of time to spend on any one thing. Looking forward to more...
Baard * VSM MEMBER * on June 10, 2015 @2:08 am PST
Hi again. I totally understand and agree about what you are saying, but I still find it hard to follow....the list I mean....because my problem is actually to see what should be next or what is the real challenge...I see a teacher every once in a while - but being in a full time job, time is of course an issues. I try to practice 30 mins every day, but too often I struggle with quality of practice. So - based on your experience - could you make me a sort of "general list for "busy medium advanced non-musician working people with motivation but little time and a lot of new orchestral notes to practice also.." - ?
Joseph - host, on June 26, 2015 @4:37 pm PST

I fully understand you problem with time. I wish I had more! Every minute at the cello is just too much fun!

My advice is to try and focus on fundamentals, like your bow grip and and your left arm placement. Simply remembering easy things like making sure your left elbow is high enough and that your bow hold feels balanced can go a long way to improving your playing. When we have a large volume of music to play we usually start ignoring basic things, and this gets us into big trouble fast. Try to remember just a few things while you practice and your playing will take off!

Randy Smith * VSM MEMBER * on September 30, 2014 @8:16 pm PST
Thank you for these videos! Please continue, as they are particularly helpful as an additional resource for my practices. I live in Japan and don't have any strings teachers in our town, but I was fortunate enough to learn of a high school teacher in a nearby town who has played cello for years as a hobby. He comes to my home once every 3 or 4 weeks for a 1 hour lesson with me. I would like to have lessons more often, but my schedule doesn't really allow me to do more than this. I have been playing for almost 2 years, and my teacher has been working me through etudes (currently assigning me #32 and #33 in the Dotzauer book. He has also assigned to me the Goltermann Concerto #4, which I am enjoying, but it's pretty challenging for me, so my progress is slow. Your videos are a great help. Thank you for taking the time in your schedule to make them!
Joseph - host, on October 1, 2014 @9:52 pm PST
Hi Randy,
I am so glad you are liking the videos. They are a lot of fun to make! The Goltermann is a fun piece, I performed it a lot as a kid, and now I teach it all the time!
Randy Smith * VSM MEMBER * on October 2, 2014 @4:13 pm PST
When it comes to learning a new piece of music, like a long concerto, what is the best way to tackle it? In my daily practice sessions, how should I break it down into manageable portions, working on new passages while not forgetting what has been learned? Thanks for any general advice.
Joseph - host, on October 6, 2014 @1:05 pm PST
Hi Randy,
The answer is in your question! Practice in two ways. The first way is to make sure you are progressing in the piece by adding a little bit every day, even if it is only a few measures. The second way is to do multiple play-throughs (performances without any stopping) of the material you have learned. Split up your daily sessions into these two parts and you should have no problem making good progress and not forgetting what you have learned.
psoucy * VSM MEMBER * on August 14, 2014 @4:40 am PST
In the example you gave, it looks as if your minimum would be 30 minutes and maximum 45 minutes. Did you mean: 45 minutes per day or at a time? I also find that I'm not as effective after about 30 to 45 minutes in a single practice session, but I try to practice many times per day: 15 minutes in the morning (first thing I do when I wake up!), 20-30 minutes when I'm back from work and another 30 minutes in the evening. During the weekend it would look more like two sessions of 30 to 45 minutes. This works well for me because I'm generally able to find some free 15-30 minutes periods even on the busiest days. Also, I find it easier to motivate myself to practice for short sessions than the perspective of a 1+ hour of practice.
Joseph - host, on August 14, 2014 @9:03 am PST

Sorry I was not specific! I did not mean per day, I meant at a time. I am a huge advocate of how you are practicing. It is the best way to keep your focus and not waste time, and it has the added benefit of preventing repetitive motion injuries. When my younger students complain that they have no time to practice, I will now use you as an example!
Ken Turley * VSM MEMBER * on August 6, 2014 @10:01 am PST
Thank you for sharing your experience and wisdom on the cello. I had visions of virtuoso's practicing six and eight hours a day! I find myself placing the lower tuning peg on the bone right behind my left ear. It gives me a sense of security and consistency, but it seems most cello players have that peg behind their head. Any advice?
Joseph - host, on August 6, 2014 @4:04 pm PST
Hi Ken,
There are many great players that weren't big practicers. Heifetz claimed to have never practiced more than three hours a day, Rostropovich two hours, and Feuermann and Kreisler hardly at all! That certainly should not be an excuse for us not to practice, but it should cause us to study our practice habits carefully to make sure they are efficient and productive!

I wouldn't worry too much about where your peg is interfacing with your body, if it is comfortable for you then go for it. My only worry would be if you are pressing it into that bone. That kind of squeezing of the cello is very often a symptom of another larger technical issue. If it just simply rests there, then there is no problem!

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