Dotzauer Day 12: On Competence, Confidence, and Compromise

7 April 2018 Utrecht


‘Give your child the gift of being expert at one thing’ Shinichi Suzuki


I am noticing a change in myself these days, and in a way, it’s a change back. The great musical pedagogue Shinichi Suzuki wrote ‘Give your child the gift of being expert at one thing’. Although today perhaps our ideal is to develop children as ‘well-rounded individuals’ there is a lot to be said for the confidence gained from having an area of competence. The confidence the farm child has, as they perform daily chores, handling livestock, or learning to drive at age ten; the confidence that the child of an artisan develops, as they learn how to handle the tools correctly, how to work with wood, or metal, or motors, or food; the confidence of the child who has an interest in craft, and masters real skills in working with materials. I am fairly sure this confidence, having been,  up to a point, an expert in playing the flute, is one of the things that helped me survive my high school years. I had very low self-esteem in general, but I had inside me the knowledge that I had knowledge and skill, and to a relatively high level. This is what I feel I am regaining at this point. I start to have a certain level of confidence in what I am doing, I start to feel in control of my resources, I start to feel that I am gaining expertise in playing the cello. And the confidence that comes from that does not affect my playing only, but also my everyday life. After a break from regular full-time work for more than two years, I start to feel that I am, in a small way, somebody. Somebody who plays the cello.


I’m back home, wedged in between the music chest and the sofa extension in our narrow Dutch house, and now I am switching back to my ‘good’ cello. Old Scratchy has been taken upstairs, ready to be packed and taken back to Italy, where he usually lives. In order to adjust to ‘The Bennet’, I start again with the one octave D major scale that I have been using as warm-up. The Bennet is much more penetrating, and in fact, with these upper strings (Evah Pirazzi) has a much scratchier sound, so I have to work extra hard with everything I have learned over the last few days (for more on moving between different cellos, see Day 5). I need to bow altogether more sensitively, to try to play into the string more and draw the sound out gently (but not tentatively!). There must be absolutely no extraneous movement.


In the first movement of the Bach sonata, I return to the little five-note scale descents that I was working on yesterday.



The last little up-bow staccato note sticks out, and I realise that I have given no thought as to how it should sound. I decide to give it a slight lift, without making it ‘precious’, but it requires some skill and I get stuck, really on the first fragment. The more I play it, the more problems I find. The Bennet is so much more sensitive, everything I do tells a story. I have to avoid pulling my left-hand fingers off sideways, because it makes a little sound that I don’t want. They must come off absolutely cleanly. I wasn’t even aware that I was doing this; it is a problem particularly with my second finger. I become so fascinated with this problem that I don’t get beyond that first five-note fragment in the movement today.


Back to the metronome work, on the opening of Dotzauer. I feel I’m almost, but not quite, back to square one with the bowing. I end up mostly working on the second, piano line of the study. There’s a horrible resistance around F/F-sharp on the D string. It seems to be common with lots of cellos. Not quite a ‘wolf’ note, but it feels and sounds awful. In fact the whole experience is pretty discouraging.


I noodle around a bit, trying various effects, and suddenly a lot of it seems to come right, and the sound is much smoother, with much less excessive bite at the beginning of each note, although, adjusting back to the Bennet, I am having some issues with the first finger in first position. I guess one feels the proximity of some notes to the nut in this position in the same way that you feel some notes in relation to the neck. In order to maintain this smoothness, however, I find that I dare not move, dare not breathe, so I am sitting there, rigid, breath held, jaw clenched, feet scrunched up, and I am reminded that one can, in fact, go mad in pursuit of perfection. Although I want a very high degree of finesse in the long term, on any given day I am going to have to decide how much perfection versus how much compromise I will go after.


When it gets to the second movement of the Bach, I find that I am not brave enough today to start a new section, so I work on an extended passage I’ve covered before, starting from where I was two days ago. So much to improve. ‎This cello shows the difference between in tune and slightly out of tune much more starkly, because it resonates so well when the tuning is sweet. Which is great, but today, tired from my journey, it is only adding to the frustration. Lots of bad habits come back, as I get increasingly stressed: raising the right foot to balance the cello; raising the right shoulder, and keeping it up, even when playing at the frog; collapsing the left wrist. The one small saving grace is that I become aware of these things much sooner.


Today seems to have become a day of small fragments. I have no wish to bash through large tracts in an unsatisfactory way, so within each piece, I will tackle some small problem. In the opening of Boëllmann, it is half a line leading to a leap from F to C, which I usually nail, but not always…



I decide to play the ‘game of seven’, which is really a kid’s practice game. You have seven objects on your stand, or near you, and every time you play the passage correctly, you move one of them to another place, or to the other side of the stand. The catch is, if you then muck the passage up, you’ve got to move it back. This is so that, in the end, you have played it well more times than you have played it badly. Otherwise we tend to play something badly several times, and when we’ve got it right three or four times, we think we’ve nailed it, but we have now practised it wrong more times than we have practised it right. On this occasion it proves useful, because I go from the beginning of the phrase, and playing it repeatedly makes me think about exactly how I want the note at the end of each fragment to sound, and how long exactly I want the rest to be. It takes a lot of times to get through to my seventh object, and I can see that to set that leap in stone, I will need to do this again tomorrow.


After a painful attempt at a thumb position exercise, which puts the first finger in exactly the angle to exacerbate the split finger injury, I do a joyful noodle through the theme of the Boëllmann sonata, and call it a day. It was a worthwhile practice, but by now at the end I feel a little ill with the stress of it. I know when I’m beat. Tomorrow….


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