How – or What – Should I Practice Every Day?
A frequently asked question in many online forums is some variation of – what should I practice every day – or how should I organize my practice time? When we saw Amit Peled’s book, The First Hour, and his 7-week course, The First Hour Online Journey, we thought we might get some answers.
Professor Peled was kind enough to open his doors to us, and after attending his last 7-week session, here is an insider’s view of the course, as experienced by a student.
A Student Again
As the lucky representative of The Cello Museum, I got to be a student again. Entering the Zoom classroom, I’ll admit I was a bit nervous, having not been a cello student for decades. Before taking the class, I was not sure how much I would be able to improve, despite knowing that there’s always more to learn.
Going into this class, I planned to gain an understanding of Professor Peled’s teaching to report back to followers of The Cello Museum, but I thought there was little to no chance I would advance my own playing. I speculated that I would learn some helpful warm-up exercises and tips, but I wasn’t sure I could make substantial improvements in my own technique.
The flip side of it is that whatever my level of playing today (having spent more time as a curator than as a performer), I was taught by one of the greatest cello teachers of the last century – William Pleeth. After lessons with him, I’ve frequently found it difficult to focus when working with other teachers. Mr. Pleeth set the bar extremely high.
I am happy to report that not only was I immediately drawn in by Professor Peled’s teaching, but I was also surprised that his course helped me to build my technique.
In the course, Professor Peled spoke of being a “cello athlete.” From interviews, I know that Professor Peled is an athlete, and plays very athletically. I know he loves basketball, but I was very surprised that he had never done martial arts, given the way he teaches cello technique.
Tuning into class each week on Zoom, I almost felt I was walking into one of my Taekwondo classes. Professor Peled didn’t make us do jumping jacks, push-ups, or the splits – but he started with cello warm-ups and stretching.
Then, like in martial arts classes, each technique was broken down into its component movements – only in this case, the focus was on how our joints and muscles interact with the cello and bow.
The Mr. Miyagi of the Cello
Professor Peled spoke to us as the Taekwondo Masters speak in my classes. If you haven’t done martial arts, think of the Karate Kid movies. He’s like the Mr. Miyagi of the cello.
I could almost hear Mr. Miyagi’s voice giving Professor Peled’s instructions:
Find simplicity within complexity.
Attending The First Hour Online Journey sessions was like attending my black belt forms classes. Professor Peled broke everything down into bite-size, do-able chunks.
We learned each movement in detail and repeated it. He made us think about action and reaction in our movements. Rather than repeating exercises facing in four different directions as we do in martial arts, we kept changing keys.
If Mr. Miyagi had taught cello instead of karate, he might have given us Professor Peled’s wisdom about thumb position:
Your thumb can be your best friend – or your biggest enemy!
Another instruction he gave us that made it feel like a martial arts class was:
Find flexibility within stability.
Thankfully we were not required to demonstrate a crane stance with our instruments to prove our stability and balance. Even so, Professor Peled taught us to work with our whole bodies, building from the soles of our feet upward. The goal was for us to achieve a sense of ease and comfort with the cello, even when working on the most difficult exercises or playing the most demanding music.
The Cello as an Extension of the Body
Professor Peled’s own ease with the cello is obvious when he plays, but also when he sits with the cello. The cello seems as if it is an extension of his body, rather than a separate entity.
He even commented on this when I spoke with him via Zoom after the class sessions were over. When he logged in, there he was with his cello.
For a moment, it felt like one of those nightmares where I’m back in music school and showed up for my cello lesson, but forgot to bring my cello.
Thankfully, he told me that he prefers to sit with the cello, even when he is being interviewed, as it feels like it’s a part of him:
When people take photos of me or when I give interviews, I like to have my cello, because I feel more comfortable than just sitting without it.
Other Cello Technique Books – More Questions than Answers
How many of you have tried working through a technique book and wished you could ask the author about a particular exercise? The what or how or why of an exercise is not always clear.
Plus there’s so much information available at our fingertips these days – a plethora of studies and technique books. This can feel overwhelming to students. How do you know how to apply all of this information?
One of the joys of this class was learning exercises in a book from the book’s author. I had a little experience of this with Christopher Bunting, but not on this level.
Professor Peled says that cellists – and even other high-level professionals get to a point where we must ask ourselves:
Simply – how do I practice? What do I need to do?
Professor Peled teaches his students practical instructions on how and what to practice. He says:
You simplify all this knowledge.
Wax On, Wax Off
Unlike Mr. Miyagi, who teaches techniques first and explains later – for example, “wax on, wax off” – Professor Peled puts everything into context almost immediately. He shows students how the exercises in his book relate to specific examples in the cello repertoire.
The First Hour Online Journey is much more than a sequence of exercises one should do every day – this is an entire philosophy and way of playing. How does he get across so much information so quickly and simply? In part, through his cello emoji.
Cello Emoji: A Picture is Worth 1000 Words
I asked Professor Peled about the “spark” that inspired his cello emoji – was there a specific “aha!” moment? It turns out that he was using emoji way before the rest of the world had emoji. He told me:
When I started teaching and I remember even as a teenager thinking about the cello, I always tried to find a way to explain [things for myself]. My teacher would go for a whole hour how to shape the hand and I would say it’s like I’m holding an apple. It was really clear to me, and I always looked for that connection. What do I do naturally that will serve me to understand what this big professor tried to explain to me in a very complex way?
Having sought to distill these very complex and detailed concepts and methods into easily recognizable symbols as a student, he continued doing this for his own students.
When I got the job at Peabody 18 years ago, I had a student back then who could draw very well, so she drew a hand with an apple, and she drew a chicken wing. So it was much earlier [than emoji] just for me to explain to [students] what my concepts were.
Over the years, his images grew in number.
Then when we started using the iPhone, [using emoji] was a natural way of showing [students].
He used to give students photocopies at the beginning of each school year, and this grew into a book. Now he says his goal is to eventually have an app that students can use when practicing The First Hour exercises. The app will allow students to set their key for the exercises and have an accompaniment.
With the emoji, his book, and daily practice, he explains:
The concept was not just how can I simplify but how can I make this part of my daily life.
Origins of the First Hour Practice
Professor Peled’s First Hour book and course evolved over time. He told me:
When I was a teenager, I went to an art school in Tel Aviv, which is like Fame, and in my class were a few violinists that played so beautifully and so well – and all of them studied with the same teacher . . . Chaim Taub.
As I was growing more friendly with these people, I started asking them, why from all of the violin teachers in Israel, the five of you all have this amazing intonation and technique.
They said every lesson, the first half hour of it (the lesson is 90 minutes) . . . we play scales – the Flesch system. Every week is a different key, we play the whole key on every string, 4 octaves, arpeggios, 3rds, 6ths, and octaves – and we have to perform it for our teacher.
As a student, he played for Professor Taub himself and, like his violinist friends, started doing one hour of scales every day, in addition to his Popper.
Later, he met cellist Colin Carr who inspired him to add combined double stops to the system.
When he started teaching at the Heifetz Institute about 10 or 12 years ago, he met cellist Richard Aaron who gave a class on his method of playing scales. From Aaron he got the scale patterns that he currently teaches. One is: open, open, close, close, 123, up and over. Before meeting Aaron, he used the Flesch system in which the fingering for each key is different. He said:
That blew my mind!
Students are taught to play scales, but usually not in such a systematic method. He said:
Yes, every teacher tells you to play scales, but they never listen to [them on a regular basis].
In The First Hour Online Journey, Professor Peled teaches students how to practice scales and then has students play them.
Without being a disciplinarian, Professor Peled teaches discipline. His book and class teach students just how much of an impact systematic, daily practice of scales and left- and right-hand exercises can make on one’s playing. It really is like Mr. Miyagi’s “wax on, wax off” training.
But this method of practice is not static. It continues to evolve and expand, and there is already a second volume in the works. Professor Peled told me:
What I tell my students all the time is, what I’m trying to teach you is to have a methodic way of playing, but what you put in it through your life journey as a musician, as a cellist, is really up to you. So if there is a great pattern that does affect you, take it, put it in, and use it. That’s why it is vibrant, and that’s why I have volume two already in my head for The First Hour.
Nuts and Bolts of the Course
The First Hour Online Journey is where tradition meets modern technology. This is like an old-fashioned cello class – but it’s online.
Every week students log into a meeting via Zoom. Students are muted for the entire playing portion of the class and can follow along for 45 to 50 minutes. Professor Peled watches everyone and while covering his course material, adapts to his students in real time by slowing down, speeding up, or taking more or less time with specific exercises.
He gets students to engage other parts of the brain by speaking certain ideas aloud while playing, such as “pizz, shift, lift” and makes students experience the emoji physically by pretending to hold an apple or a strawberry, or to be boneless like a jellyfish – all the while saying “apple, strawberry, jellyfish” aloud.
Classes go by very quickly – not a moment is wasted. Each week I was surprised when we got to the question time for the last 10 to 15 minutes. At this point, students unmute themselves and can ask questions.
Students have access to video replays each week between classes – and for several months afterward. Professor Peled also provides supplementary videos on YouTube. Plus students can join in discussions with one another on a private Facebook page.
Who should take this class?
- Students working to get comfortable in thumb position and feel at one with their cellos will find this course extremely helpful.
- Advanced students who are looking to build a consistent way to stay in shape as “cellist athletes” will learn practical exercises to build or enhance their daily regimen.
- Teachers will learn ways to help their students build a solid foundation in cello playing.
- Cellists who do not perform full-time and might, like former high school or college athletes, later in life feel they have fallen out of shape as “cellist athletes” will learn a system to get back into shape and maintain their fitness levels.
- Any cellist who does not already feel like a “cellist athlete” who would like to become one – this course will get you started.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to be an athlete or martial artist to take this course, but after you finish it, you might find yourself thinking you’ve met the Mr. Miyagi of the cello.
Sign Up for The First Hour Online Journey
Professor Peled is offering another session starting on 5 December. Be sure to sign up today or add it to your holiday gift list for cellists in your life.
We thank Professor Peled for giving us this inside view of The First Hour Online Journey.