Monday Cello Coaching Reflections

Mondays are usually a cello coaching day for me–at least during the k-12 school year.  Nearly every afternoon I coach the cello section of the Floyd Central High School 7th period Orchestra.  This is a high school group that has gone every year for 21 (or maybe 22 or 23?  I lost count) years in a row to the state level.

This year 6 of the student cellists in this orchestra were members of the Indiana All-State Orchestra (a total of 13 students from Floyd Central High School were in this year’s All-State Orchestra) which, proportionally speaking (as well as from an absolute number standpoint) for the cello section (which I think had 13 members this year) and from the standpoint of the orchestra as a whole is the most students from one school to have privilege of being members.

Pound for pound, this is likely the strongest string section in the orchestra.

The repertoire that they will be playing for this year’s state contest, and with which I’ve been coaching them (since Fall of 2008), is the finale of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance No. 8, Op. 46; Bach’s Air on G which is an adaptation of the second movement from his Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068 (this is the Stokowski arrangement–meaning the cellos get the melody throughout the whole piece); and the finale to Shostakovich’s  Symphony No. 5 in d minor, Op. 47.

Many of the students in the 7th period orchestra (as well as the other orchestras at FCHS) are also members of the Floyd County Youth Symphony which meets every Monday night during the school year.  I also coach this group.  Students get credit for being in this orchestra which is open to students in the whole Kentuckiana area.  Membership requires that the students be in their school orchestras or bans (if there is one) as well as take private lessons.

I was a member of this orchestra for a number of years, serving as Principle cellist from my Freshman to Senior year in high school.  The highlight of my tenure there was playing the first movement of the Dvořák for my final concert with the orchestra on mother’s day in 1990.  The director, Doug Elmore, who conducted the orchestra for my solo is still conducting this group.  He also happens to be the orchestra director of the Floyd Central High School Orchestras and has as much as anything to do with the strength of the program down here!

The organization is going through some growing pains now.  The last couple of years I was a member it was split into three groups.  The Mini Orchestra (strings) which is roughly grade school aged.  The middle group, the Festival Orchestra, roughly corresponded to Middle School/Junior High and the Top group, the Philharmonic consisted mostly of High School students.  Obviously, since membership is by audition, ability level has as much, if not more to do with where students will be placed.

As of right now, the middle group is non-existent and the Philharmonic currently has 17 cellos in it.  Comparable to the numbers in it last year.  The middle group desperately needs to be brought back, obviously!

The repertoire that the Philharmonic is currently working on for their upcoming March concert, and on which I’ve been coaching them (since Fall 2007), is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Procession of the Nobles which is the Cortège from his Suite from the Opera-Ballet Mlada (this is in an arrangement by Merle J. Isaac); and the first movement of Borodin’s Symphony No. 2 in b minor; and a really wonderful big band/full orchestral arrangement of Frank Sinatra tunes which I’ll have to post the details about later once I remember who made the arrangement.

This is my usual Monday.  On occasion I will also coach the 1st period orchestra cello section at Floyd Central.  On other days I may find myself at other area schools running cello sectionals/coachings throughout Southern Indiana and Louisville.  Some days I might even fill in conducting.

What I think I might do on Monday nights after my day is over is post some reflections on running sectionals and pick apart some of the repertoire: maybe talk about fingerings, bowings and other technical details that cross my mind.


  1. If only grown-ups could join the youth organizations. There are several really wonderful youth programs in my area, but nothing for adults. Why is there so little (or nothing) open to those of us who have gotten a late start? I’d happily sit last in the worst youth orchestra, but I’m far past the age limit. In your opinion is there any way an adult can replicate the education that young people receive?


  2. That’s an interesting question and until I had realized how big the adult student community was it hadn’t been something I’d thought about much. I don’t know if you’re a member of the Internet Cello Society forums, but there is definitely one good resource for tips (mainly in the Cello by Night forum). There’s so much contentiousness amongst the traditionally trained (e.g. start at an early age, practice hard, take lessons, play in school ensembles then go to college) musicians there that unfortunately you’ll always have the naysayers about adults’ possibilities in musical training and a career in music.

    I will say that the learning environment is definitely skewed towards starting at a younger age. The education, ensembles and even the private teachers (so many music teachers don’t know the first thing about teaching adult beginners) has evolved into a system to begin really early training and dealing with the issues associated with various stages that children and then young adults have to go through–it leaves little room for the particular learning stages that adults have to endure.

    You’ve already gotten a start–you’ve found a good teacher, and from your latest post, it sounds like your teacher and your teacher’s teacher has a good handle on what should be taught. And obvious next step is fining a group to play with–and while youth symphonies and school orchestras aren’t ideal situations for the adult beginner (though I do have a parent of a student that occasionally plays along with the Mini Orchestra-she’s primarily an adult beginner though doing it mostly for fun and to help her child) your best bet is to find a good local community orchestra to play with. These usually include members of various levels and stages in their careers both amateur and professional.

    I used to occasionally play with one group that my cello professor conducted. The range of ages consisted of some k-12 students to retirees. The repertoire was usually at the perfect level for the group which had a really wide variety of ability levels (including the occasional student from the music school). At IU Southeast, where I currently teach, the orchestra is a mixture of being the university ensemble for the music students as well as a community orchestra. Being a full ensemble and since it is the University orchestra the repertoire usually includes standards-for example, we’re playing Mahler’s first symphony for our April concert.

    You might take a look around, or ask your teacher(s) about community orchestras in your area–what may also happen if you were to join such a group is that you might find other like-minded musicians with a similar level of ability to play chamber music with.

    As far as replicating the whole educational package that the young have–that’s a bit more difficult. In Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, Outliers, what he says ultimately distinguishes the most successful folks in any field is the “10,000 of practice” rule. In almost any success story in any discipline you will find that more than likely the person will have accumulated 10,000 of hard work in something related to the field before the “breakthrough” of success. Children music students who end up succeeding just happen to get that through the educational system with their individual practicing, as well as all the ensemble playing they do before going to the University (which just adds to the time). For Gladwell, it seems to be a minimum for mastery of a subject and there is probably no getting around it even with tons of talent or tons of luck (though obviously having either of those will help a little).

    Which brings me to the question you asked in the other post that I’ll answer here since it’s related. Yes, I have heard of at least one cellist, who had started as an adult. This story was told to me by a cello professor who was dividing time teaching in NYC and here in the Midwest. The student he had was from Korea, I believe) and had come to the US for college and wanted to be a professional cellist. Thing is, he had never played the cello before so he asked the teacher what it would take for him to do this. The teacher said, “You’ll have to practice 10 hours a day every day while you’re in school!”

    Apparently, the teacher, since he lived in here and only commuted to the East Coach to teach, would call this student at all hours of the day to make sure he was practicing which more often than not, he was. The student eventually did end up winning an audition in a regional orchestra in NY and supplements that with freelancing.

    I’m sure I’ve gotten some of the finer details wrong, but the main point is that mostly it’s going to depend on how much work you are willing to put into it–and ultimately, where do you want to go with the cello!

    Another related story is one that I’ve experienced. I play in an Arabic ensemble here in Louisville. The group was put together by a local bellydancer that I had played for in the past and she is the Oudist for the group. She’s only been playing about three or four years now and had never played that instrument before–though she did have some musical training in the past. While the Oud, in some ways, isn’t as difficult to learn as the cello (no bow to worry about–that’s the bane of stringed instrumental techniques) there are other things that are much more difficult (microtonal scales which require a different type of listening skill and hand-to-ear coordination as well as some skill in improvising which is normally a part of Middle Eastern music).

    To the point–we manage to get gigs on a regular basis. Even private gigs for Arabs and more public ones at some Universities since we’re one of the few ensembles like this in the area. But it wouldn’t have happened if she had not put in the many hours of practice, even as an adult beginner, so that he could get to a point she was comfortable performing!


  3. I’m really curious what that guy’s full story was. And how the heck he convinced the university to let him do what he wanted to do. And how the heck he didn’t end up so injured from 10 hours a day of practice that he could no longer play. And how he made all 10 of those hours productive rather than spending most of his day reinforcing bad habits. CelloStudio wrote in this post that it’s impossible to get in more than four hours of genuine practice a day and I’m inclined to agree in principle at least, though I think the number of hours varies by person and day. Also, by how effective I am at taking breaks while practicing. I’ve been wanting to write a post about this, so maybe I’ll go do that!


  4. As am I–I should probably ask more about him (also would just like to know if he’s still performing).

    Likely he didn’t end up practicing THAT much every day–though I’m sure he must have put in his hours. And few folks would have that kind of time unless you’re doing an artists or performance diploma where you only work on your instrument. While I was in music school I would occasionally have periods where I would put in 7+ hours a day, but that’s a difficult amount to sustain and those periods were more often before competitions or recitals.

    4 hours is an optimal limit and one I think most performing musicians should eventually strive for. And yes, it will vary by person.

    See I wasn’t clear if the student was in a university as a music major, or at a university for something else and just happened to be taking lessons because that’s what he wanted to do. I think I should definitely ask, because just the details of the story would be telling about the ability of adults to learn to a high level of proficiency something like a musical instrument. Granted, he ould have been in his late teens/early twenties, so there is that advantage to adults starting later in life.


  5. I think there are only two advantages to starting earlier:
    1. Younger people have more of their lives left to live and have more years to play. When someone starts at, say, 50, they have 45 years less of cello playing compared to someone who starts at 5. Adults are perfectly capable of rearranging their lives to make time for cello. It may be harder in some ways, but unlike children adults are the ones who have control over their own lives. More and more studies show that adult brains continue to grow only as long as the brains are forced to learn and I truly believe that adult brains are just as capable of learning to play an instrument. For myself, I know my mind feels once again as it did when I was a teenager. Before cello, I was feeling slower, mentally sluggish. One of the main reasons I chose to play cello was I wanted something challenging for my mind (and boy did I get more than I bargained for!)
    2. The entire music education system is geared toward kids. I still can’t find a community orchestra anywhere in my area. Well, we have a couple, but they are nearly at the level of SacPhil, so people like me aren’t exactly welcome. I’ve heard mention of one beginner orchestra, but I have yet to find any contact info. For all I know they don’t exist anymore, which may as well be the case since I can’t find them anyway!


  6. There are so many issues boiled up in this–I think you’ll find that I will blog about many of them. See, when I quit playing the cello what I was seriously considering going into was the field of comparative neurocognition. I was VERY interested in comparative neurolinguistics for some time so had spent many years just studying the subject (and seriously, I still might go into a related field rather than pursuing a baroque cello performance discipline).

    Yes, adults’ brain still “grow” which is contrary to the assumption that after adolescence the brain stops developing and no new neuronal growth happens. But so much of that growth is relegated to the more parts of the brain that don’t have nearly as much to do with actual new neurons growing as it does with new axonal and dendritic development.

    One way to look at it, since the research for neurolinguistics is probably far more advanced than other disciplines, is that–if one were to, say, spend the 10,000 hours in “bi-linguistic practice” as opposed to 10,000 hours in secondary language acquisition, we would see qualitatively different types of brain structures. Most studies have demonstrated (and in science, demonstration is about as much as you can get–proof is for mathematics and logic) that the fundamental neural architecture for a language is finished by the age of 12 (which is why feral children usually cannot learn a language if they are taught after that age) which seems to imply that most of the neuronal development is complete by around that age. If someone is raised bi-lingualy then that neuronal architecture is already “biased” towards both languages, where as in secondary language acquisition–the second language is usually (neuralphysiologically speaking) “piggy-backed” on the neural architecture for the original language.

    Which is one of the reasons for the differences between adult, versus children learning and development.

    All that aside, I really do believe (contrary to most classically trained musicians) that adults can achieve a level of competence that is comparable, if not exactly equal, to the level of competence that children can achieve. Unfortunately, I’m in the minority and have had many vitriolic discussions about that possibilities with many of my “colleagues.”


  7. I think it’s one of those self-fullfilling prophecies — they think adults can’t learn, so they refuse to teach them (or they try, but don’t really get creative and invest in their students.) Since adults aren’t being taught, they never really learn. The teachers then blame their students for the lack of achievement. I feel even luckier now for having started with a teacher who is so young. She’s never shown a lack of confidence in my ability to learn, not having been fully indoctrinated into the child-focused educational system. On the contrary, she seems to be investing far more into me than into her other students. She’ll work as hard for her students as they work at learning to play. She’s often surprised at my progress, but not because I’m an adult — because I’ve consistently made the fastest progress of any student she’s had. The only aspect I have trouble with is playing with others simply because I don’t have orchestra experience like younger students do. She has told me I have a wonderful sense of musicality and always come up with interpretations for my pieces that she’s never heard before (and surprisingly she usually loves them!)

    Maybe I’m not learning as fast as I could have as a child and maybe I won’t be as good as I could have been, but my progress seems to surprise everyone, most especially cellists. I’m hoping that I will continue to be ahead of the learning curve as time goes on and figure out a way to prove everyone wrong. Even if I’m never an amazing cellist, I’d be happy with being decent enough that no one would ever know how late of a start I got just by hearing me play. If my learning slows down because of my age, then so be it, but I’m only 27 and have a lot of years left.


  8. That is SO wonderful! Yes, the “don’t really get creative and invest in their students” is so much of a problem with teachers in general–and the idea of ‘investment’ is so particularly prescient as to be almost apocryphal!

    The self-fulling prophesy idea–yeah, I can see that (and have seen that). So much can be learned (by educators) about learning ability if only teachers would get outside of the orthodox educational system.

    It really does sound like you have a wonderful teacher–so much of what you’ve posted about what your teachers(s) have instructed (especially about some of your issues in this post–1-4 and 6 in particular!) would have been things that I’ve told my own students that it’s good to know that I’ve figure out some of the “correct” set of problems associated with cello techniques that vex young (or new) cello students!!!


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