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Practice Tips

On this page I describe some practice methods to use in your practice. At the bottom of the page you can download other documents describing useful practice habits, and some warm-ups and scales. Practicing is the only way to get better at anything! Just do it!

Good Practice Habits:
  • Practicing a little while every day is much better than long practice sessions only once or twice a week.
  • Schedule a block of time each day where you can commit to playing cello, without the distraction of homework, chores, TV or any other diversion. For some students, before school is the best time to practice; others prefer to practice right after school (especially while waiting for a ride home). Others like to play cello as a break from homework in the evening. Find a time that works for you consistently, every day of the week, in order establish a good routine. 
  • Practice in a quiet room with minimal distractions or interruptions.
  • If you have a hard time concentrating for as long as you need to practice, try splitting up your practice time into two shorter sessions at different points during the day. Or take a little break in the middle of a long practice session.
  • Practice with at least one goal in mind (though you will usually have several goals). One goal should always be to reinforce good fundamentals: posture, technique, tone, intonation, etc. Other goals may be more specific to the music you are learning. The number of minutes you practice is less important than what you actually learn.
  • Use your brain, and make your music sound better. Do not mindlessly repeat music badly over and over just to fill up practice time. Imagine ways to improve how you sound.
  • Try keeping a weekly practice record or journal to keep your practice focused and organized. A practice record may be found in one of the attachments below. Make notes about any problems you encounter while practicing. This will also help focus our lesson time.
Five Types of Practice:

1. Warm up
A daily warm-up routine is important at the start of a practice session. Jumping right in to difficult music can cause tension, and frustration when your hands don't seem to be working right. Any warm up routine should focus on basic fundamentals of playing. Try playing open strings, long tones, finger patterns, shifting exercises, vibrato exercises, and scales played with varying tempos, rhythms and bowings. If you're going to chop down a tree, it's best to start by sharpening your axe.

2. Improvising and Playing by Ear 
Free yourself from playing with sheet music. Play something spontaneously; just a beautiful melody, or a song to reflect a particular mood, or an improvisation on the blues. There are no right or wrong notes, but try to make the most beautiful sounds you can. Also try to play songs by ear that you've heard but never seen sheet music for, like your favorite song on the radio, or a popular tune. Somewhere over the Rainbow, Danny Boy, America the  Beautiful, Unchained Melody, and Yesterday by the Beatles are a few examples. Think of some more melodies you would like to play, and figure out how to play them by ear.
3. Sightreading and Play-through
This type of practice is useful to get the sense of a piece as a whole, or at least a section of music. As you play though, take mental notes of what needs work. Don't spend too much time playing through; once you know what really needs work, focus on smaller sections. This practice is also useful for when you are preparing for a performance, so that you get used to playing through a whole piece without stopping.

4. Woodshedding
Woodshedding should take up the most of your practice time. Choose a small section of music to work on: a couple of lines, a few measures, or even a few notes, and dig deeply into the music, and work on it until you cannot even imagine it sounding better. The music is in the details; practice at a microscopic level. This is the type of practice that makes you a better cellist. Try these woodshedding practice methods:
  • Isolate problems, solve, and recontextualize: take the problem notes out of context, figure them out, and then put them back into the context of the phrase.
  • Simplification (approximation of the goal) When there are too many problems to solve in a passage, simplify the passage to solve one problem at a time. For example, play a passage without a string crossing until you can nail a shift; or take out a shift in order to focus on a clean string crossing. Change the notes that you play so that there are fewer complications, so that you can master each complication one at a time. Once each complication is mastered, you should be able to put it all back together.
  • Loops: Take a short fragment of a phrase that surrounds the problem spot, and play it in a repeating loop. It's okay if you make mistakes, just keep looping. Stopping and starting can be a source of frustration, so make a loop and practice without stopping. It might help to play the fragment forwards and backwards.
  • Swing rhythm. For fast passages, try swinging the rhythm to teach your fingers how to play quickly and evenly. For example, turn a string of sixteenth notes into a string of dotted eighth-sixteenths, as well as the opposite rhythm sixteenth-dotted eighths (slow-quick slow-quick and quick-slow quick-slow). If the passage is not slurred, adding slurs is recommended for this exercise.
  • Play and pause for intonation. Choose a note that you want to check for intonation.  Play the passage normally, but then pause on the note and hold it to check if it is in tune. You might check the note with a drone or open string. One of the best uses for this practice method is to test the first note after a shift to a new position. Also useful if you tend to play sharp or flat with a particular finger.
  • Drones for intonation: Try practicing your scales and sections of your music with a drone (a long, sustained pitch) of the key you are playing in. Practicing with a drone gives you a reference point for your intonation. Sometimes it is hard to tell if you are playing out of tune if you have nothing to compare your pitch to; so practicing with drones is very useful for training your ears to hear what good and bad intonation sounds like. If you are playing in tune, your notes will fit nicely and sound smooth with the drone--each note has a special place in relation to it's home key. If a note is out of tune, it will fight with the drone and will sound rough. Look under the Helpful Links tab for a website that plays any tone on the keyboard (
  • Metronome work. Your metronome is your friend.
    • Practicing slowly and steadily increasing the tempo is often very helpful, but sometimes it seems to create an insurmountable wall, where you get stuck at a point at which you cannot seem to play any faster--especially for fast passages. Consider this analogy: running and walking. Isn't running is a lot different than walking fast? So playing fast music is different than playing slowly, speeded-up. Therefore, practice fast passages at the tempo they are supposed to be so that you know what difficulties you are dealing with. How? Simplify (see above); choose small fragments, loop them, and then link them together; start from the end and work backward (so that you are always playing into knowledge, instead of playing into what you don't know yet). Also try tempo-hopping: instead of steadily increasing the tempo, try making skipping several clicks on the metronome, up and down, so that you practice slow, fast, and everything in between. For example, you might start practicing something at about half tempo (or slower!), then jump up 16 beats per minute, then drop down 8 bpm, then up 16bpm, then down 8bpm, then up 16, etc. until you reach your tempo goal, or even beyond it.
    • When you practice slowly, try to practice the way it would be if you were playing at tempo. Would you be using vibrato if you were playing at tempo? How much bow would you use? What part of the bow would you play in? How would your left hand and fingers move to be the most efficient? 
    • Off-beats: practice with the metronome set to off-beats, instead of on the beat. This will help internalize your pulse. 
    • Try setting the metronome to beat only once per measure, instead of every beat. Again, this forces you to generate the pulse from within. Some metronomes have an "accent" function which helps to achieve this. For example, if a quarter note equals 140 beats per minute, set the metronome to only 70 bpm (half notes) or 35bpm (whole notes). 

5. Playing old familiar pieces
Sometimes it is good to play pieces that you know really well already. As you mature musically and become more technically proficient, you may come up with different interpretations of the music, or different fingerings and bowings. Kind of like how a good book can illuminate different meanings each time you read it, a good piece of music can mean different things to you each time you play it.

Other articles on practicing from around the web:

SelectionFile type iconFile nameDescriptionSizeRevisionTimeUser
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  530k v. 1 Dec 29, 2015, 3:31 PM Brian Magnus
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This document gives a variety of bowing suggestions for practicing scales and arpeggios. Practicing scales in different bowings helps to develop coordination and to keep your scale practice interesting!  291k v. 1 Aug 2, 2013, 10:01 AM Brian Magnus
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Here are some short warm-up exercises to use at the start of a practice session.  202k v. 1 Jan 8, 2013, 8:36 PM Brian Magnus
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A torturous challenge of intonation! For advanced students.  19k v. 1 Aug 2, 2013, 10:18 AM Brian Magnus
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Here are some more excellent practice tips from violist Steven Tenenbom of the Orion String Quartet. He knows what he's talking about! Read this!  3651k v. 1 Aug 23, 2012, 8:21 AM Brian Magnus
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Using this practice record each week can help you keep track of your assignments and focus your practice sessions.   482k v. 1 Aug 2, 2013, 1:55 PM Brian Magnus

This is a packet of major scale and arpeggio studies that can help fill any technical gaps left from practicing scales the regular way.  Aug 28, 2012, 10:04 AM Brian Magnus
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This document was found backstage at the Meyerson, home of the Dallas Symphony. Read it and use it!  2136k v. 1 Aug 23, 2012, 8:24 AM Brian Magnus
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This is a sheet of two-octave scales of the most commonly used keys for beginning cellists.   76k v. 1 Aug 2, 2013, 10:14 AM Brian Magnus

Scales in two octaves. Every good cellist practices scales. Be a good cellist! For second year students and up.   Aug 2, 2013, 10:15 AM Brian Magnus