Popular magazines are full of advice on how to lose weight in ten easy steps. Incorporating power foods, eating frequent but smaller meals or adding a few exercises to a daily routine can stimulate your metabolism and jump-start weight loss. The government has taken away the food pyramid and created the food plate, showing Americans how to balance our diet in order to get only the nutrients we need.
These can be great tips when they become part of a life-style change. A diet is only successful if it is not temporary, or if small set-backs don’t lead to throwing in the towel and going back to our unhealthy habits. Fighting boredom by changing what’s on our plates, not being too restrictive or getting stuck in a rut in exercise routines can keep people on track.
In a similar way, even though musicians know they need to think while they practice and not just indulge in playing through long passages or pieces without going to the root of the problem, they often practice without analyzing. Just as mindless eating in front of a television can be detrimental and cause weight gain, mindless practicing is equally dangerous. We’ve all heard the expression “practice makes perfect.” But it doesn’t, just in the same way that a half-hour on the elliptical does not guarantee weight-loss. Practice makes permanent. Sometimes that is a good thing, when a shift or a hard passage is mastered through repetition of small sequences. But all too often students acquire poor intonation and posture, or worse, playing injuries, through the repetition of bad habits. The Cello Diet (which could easily be a piano, trombone or insert-your-instrument-here diet) stresses stream-lining practice sessions by focusing on the essence of what needs to be fixed, not what is already working. Although maintenance is also essential, successful problem-solving is the key to be a healthy musician.
THE CELLO DIET
- Don’t start with dessert. Countless parents have repeated this to their children: “Don’t fill up on sweets before you’ve eaten what’s good for you.” Pick a piece of music or a passage that you feel really good about, and save that for the end, when your brain is a little less alert. Start your practice session with music that requires your full attention. Instead of consistently playing through an entire piece and then trying to remember everything that went wrong, identify a challenging spot and tackle it before putting it in context. In addition, make sure you have a balanced practice “plate” that consists of warm-ups, technique and repertory.
- Break up your meals into five small meals a day. Just as nutritious snacks in between meals stimulate your metabolism, shorter but frequent practice sessions spread throughout the day can be highly beneficial. It’s always better to work in small spurts than to practice for an hour without thinking. Only practice as long as you can stay focused and then build up to longer sessions. Finding free time in a busy schedule is much better than skipping a day completely.
- Take small bites. If something doesn’t sound quite right, or if you miss a shift, don’t go back and repeat the whole passage over again. Go right to the essence of the problem. This might be just shifting from one note to another, successfully anticipating an extension of the left hand, or managing bow speed. Don’t practice what you know already!
- Think about what you’re eating. Just as every bite of food should be savored and enjoyed, a musician needs to listen to every note carefully. Is this the tone you want? Is it in tune? Is every sound luscious and ringing? Enjoy every minute of it.
- Don’t lift 25 pounds if you can’t lift 10. Many people will put the weights on machines at the gym too high, hoping to rival the buff guy in the cut off t-shirt pumping iron. This often results in failure or injury. In the same way, it is great to have goals in music, but make them realistic. Don’t start with the idea that you have to play something as fast as Yo Yo Ma. If you can’t play a passage slowly without crashing and burning on a shift or a difficult articulation, don’t try and play it up to tempo yet. Take it down to a speed where everything is comfortable and slowly build up to where you want to be.
- Target practice is only helpful if you are correcting your shot. While practicing free-throws, a good basketball player is constantly correcting their aim between shots in order to gain a certain percentage of precision. When a musician works to improve muscle-memory in shifting, it is essential that they take time to analyze the last “shot” before repeating. Taking a second to assess in between will ensure more efficient practicing and make sure that practice makes perfect, not just permanent.
- Listen to your body. There is not a “no pain no gain” motto in music. If it hurts, it isn’t right. Inflammation of tendons can creep up and stay for a long time. As soon as pain is felt, evaluate what could be at root (are you squeezing your thumb? are you hunching a shoulder?) and back off. Ice the area after practicing (or run a sore wrist under cold water), cut back on playing time as possible and get sleep. If the pain persists more than a few days, see a specialist.
- Try new foods. Just as an exotic fruit or new grain like quinoa can stimulate your palate and keep boredom from sabotaging a diet, musicians need to be open to tackling challenging new techniques. This could be exploring unknown territory in an upper register, mastering new rhythms and or working on complicated bowing patterns.
- Make realistic goals. Break your goals down into several steps. The big picture might be losing twenty pounds. First think about how to get to that goal (eating better, more exercise), and then define weekly goals (maybe 1.5 pound weight loss a week). When you sit down to practice, have a big goal in mind (upcoming recital or performance), then break that down in to smaller increments like perfecting a movement of a work or learning a hard passage. Give yourself a pat on the back when you meet your goal, but always have something in mind when you sit down to play, like improving your tone or making a physical change your teacher has suggested. This focus will make you feel more successful in the long run because you will meet your goals.
- Variety is the spice of life. Eating the same salad every day for lunch will lead to failure if you get tired of eating the same thing every day and start craving variety. Practicing can become tedious, too, if you always follow the same routine. If you tend to always start with scales or etudes, begin with Bach or your concerto instead one day. You can always find a passage within a work (scale or sequence) that can serve as a warm-up to get your fingers moving and your mind engaged. Learn to enjoy the process of practicing by exploring new ways of confronting challenges and making music!