By Rex Weston, Instructor of cello at The Lesson Studio
I think of the cello as the best toy ever. Part of that is the flexibility of the instrument – it can be used to play any genre of music: classical, folk, bluegrass, celtic, rock and roll, jazz, hiphop. It can make a wide and lively variety of sounds, and it can take up many roles: bass, percussion, rhythm guitar, folk guitar, fills, harmony, and melody.
And there are a lot of fun things that happen when playing. The act itself should be physically pleasurable – as far as the brain is concerned, playing a difficult passage is as stimulating as skiing a difficult mogul run. Playing an instrument lights up an EKG like a Christmas tree.
Making great and weird sounds is fun. Playing a tune is fun. Improvising is extremely satisfying. Playing music with other people is great fun. Being swept away by playing great music is one of the high points of anyone’s life. Writing and improvising music are totally engaging.
But the most important part of the cello for me was the end of boredom in my life. I learned that if I was doing anything, and I was bored, that I needed to STOP, and figure out how to make it interesting. That it was absolutely my responsibility not to be bored. When practicing a piece, the moment I checked out with boredom meant I was no longer learning anything. That I might still be making sound on my instrument, but it wasn’t doing me any good at all, because my brain wasn’t focussing on what I was doing, and that made practicing pointless.
Now the typical response to boredom, and the one I was trained as a kid by television to do, is just to switch channels. The problem with this is that it is the opposite of productive, and just leads to a life of channel surfing. The productive way to deal with boredom, is to analyze the problem and find a way to make it interesting. This requires creativity.
Let’s take a simple problem in practicing a difficult passage in a piece of music. Playing the passage over and over usually doesn’t help. That is because the brain has checked out in the process – if it isn’t interested it won’t help you out. Doing the same thing again and again – sorry, but your brain has left the building. So the way to get the brain back in gear is to look at and play the passage many different ways. Playing the passage in different rhythms is a good start. After one has played the passage in a jazz swing rhythm, a salsa rhythm, a reggae rhythm, a waltz, hiphop, a march, playing the passage straight becomes suddenly simple. Basically you have to have fun to learn something. And the chances are that if you are not having fun, you are not learning anything.
This obviously applies to the rest of your life, too. Instead of checking out when being bored in a classroom, the new response is to look for something in the subject that is interesting, and explore that aspect in depth. It is called self-directed learning, and is the only way we really learn anything that makes a difference. It works in your job, and it works in your life.