Climbing the mountain by Jonathan Bell from Unsplash.

Setting the standard high without being self-critical: Part 1

As a cello adult beginner, I understood progress took time and since I didn’t have the pressure to become a professional musician or win competitions, I never set high expectations for myself.

Playing out of tune? That's normal, my ears are not trained from my formative years. Always rushing those 16th notes? I mean, do I really have to play with a metronome all the time? It is kind of frustrating that after a lot of practice in so many years, I still struggle with intonation and tempo a lot. But isn't it what us adult learners have to live with?  

Until earlier this year, this was what I thought. And then, one day, I wondered, "is this a fact or just my own assumption?" Is setting low expectations actually hindering my progress? 

To validate it, I started to challenge myself to sound good. Really sound good. With the help of my current teacher Erika Nielsen, who believes everyone should sound as good as they can at their level, I started spending more time tuning each notes and double stops, trying to match how something should sound like in my head with my playing, and not easily letting go when a passage still sounds sloppy.

The more I paid attention to where my gaps were, the more focused my practice became. Instead of trying to cover a bunch of different materials in one go and feeling overwhelmed, I can identify a few things to really work on. And if I can make progress in those areas, even the tiniest improvement, I can call my practice a success and feeling more motivated to practice the next time. This healthy loop led to noticeable progress in my sound quality in the last few months of my practice.

As if this is not enough evidence, one experience during the week of TSM community program really drove it home for me. It's about tuning, my biggest nemesis of all time. 

Imagine this. You are sitting in a room with 5 other cellists trying to tune a chord together, where you are the only person playing the third. You play your note. "It sounds fine to me?" I thought to myself, and looked over to our mentor Emmanuelle Beaulieu Bergeron for instructions. Emmanuelle closed her eyes, listened, and looked back at me as if asking, what do you think?

I mean, what do I know, I can't tell the difference. Like anyone who's trying to look like they know what they're doing while they're not, I took a random guess and tuned a bit more lower. She eventually said, a bit higher. 

The next chord came around, and the same thing happened. Like any good teacher, Emmanuelle asked me to really listen. In the beginning, I couldn't tell the difference between playing in tune and slightly out of tune. And I kept telling myself (and my mentors, and my peers) that it's because I was an adult learner, my ears were not trained. Maybe I was looking for some empathy or just a reason for my mentors to just tell me how I should tune. 

Looking back, I was so glad that my mentors didn't give me the easy way out. They continued to encourage me to listen and to feel. Because towards the end of the week, as I let go of my “adult-beginner” narrative and really listened to what in-tune sounded like, I started to get it. There was no miracle and I didn’t end up playing in tune perfectly every time, but I definitely became more consistent and confident playing those 3rds in the end. And to me, that’s a significant improvement. It means that while there are disadvantages in being an adult beginner, training my ears and getting those fine details are not impossible.

This experience further convinced me that if I were to be serious about learning, making improvements, and playing better, I need to start setting higher expectations for myself. But what about the other side of this coin — our tendency to be self-critical? Does setting high expectations mean we are being too hard on ourselves? In the next post, I will offer some thoughts on the differences and how to find the balance.


By Winter Wei

Cover image credit: Jonathan Bell from Unsplash

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