How I Learned to Play Cello In 6 Weeks (and How You Can Too.) – An Introduction to Meta-Learning.

You may be aware of the fact that: last week I released a piece of music called ‘Invocation’, which was recorded almost entirely using layered acoustic Cello and Voice.

It’s doing well.  It received a 5 star rating on iTunes.  I love it.  Other people love it.  Sales have been really good.  And the reviews, well… The reviews have been amazing.

What most people don’t know is: on the day I started recording the piece I had a grand total of 42 practice sessions under my belt.  That’s the equivalent of one, 6 week block of total practice time.  Before that? I had literally never even touched a Cello.

How is that even possible?  How did I do it?  And, more importantly, how can you do it too?

Read on and I shall reveal all…

CelloPorn
(CelloPorn)

In this article I’ll break down exactly how I learned to play the Cello in just 6 weeks worth of total practice time.  And not only that.  I will also delve into the key principles behind the ‘how’, so you can apply them to anything you wish to get good at fast.

Ready?

FIrst, A little bit about: Meta-Learning.

Before we get to the Cello itself, it is important to have at least a cursory understanding of what ‘meta-learning’ is.  As it is this, foundational understanding, which is the master key to learning anything in an accelerated fashion.

Put simply, the phrase ‘Meta Learning’ is: a way to describe and talk about the set of higher-level principles that you use to direct and guide your learning efforts.  Another way to say this would be: your learning strategy.

For example, say you have to study for a test.  When you create your study plan, you will do so using guiding principles, either: consciously or unconsciously.  Putting a label on these higher level principles allows us to bring them into conscious awareness, where we can optimise and refine them.  Thus setting ourselves on the path to achieving better results in much less time, whilst experiencing greater ease and joy in our learning.

Said differently:

Better Meta-Learning strategy = More Efficient Effort.  Which = Less time spent learning + Better Results + More Fun.

…And, some basic Meta-Learning Principles:

If I was going to break down the principles I have found to be most important in the learning process, they would look something like this:

  • Set an Outcome and define exactly what I want
  • Break down the topic into component parts (Chunk.)
  • Identify: Key Component Chunks (highest leverage/yield activities) + make these a priority.
  • Make the entire learning process: purposeful and accountable by having a real target with real consequences.)

And, when I plan my sessions I:

  • Prioritise the High Yield, High Leverage, Key Components,
  • Structure the sessions so they: begin with the simple, and progress to the complex, and
  • Use, Frequent, Compressed and Sustained Deep Practice. (More on all this later.)

Now, A Little Bit about Music…

There are, of course, an infinite number of ways that you could chunk down the thing we call ‘music’ in order to create a framework in which to work towards mastery.  Whilst there is not a ‘correct’ way, there are ways which are more effective, and ways that are less effective.

In my experience the following 4 areas are the absolutely essential ingredients you need in order to create actual music.

Focus – Contrary to popular belief (mostly among non-musicians), the most important thing to focus on when you are making music is not necessarily the sound.  Rather, it is the state that you are in whilst you are playing.  Musicians have different ways of getting into state before they play.  Some warm up on their instrument.  Some pray.  Some employ home chemistry.  Personally: I meditate.  I find that, for me, it’s the most efficient way to clear out and transmute the dross that would otherwise block me from making music.

Ear – The more deeply you go into music, the more you hear.  If you are not listening correctly you cannot create music.  One of the best ways and most effective ways to make sure you are listening is: to play and improvise with other music / musicians.

Time – Musicians call playing in time: ‘being in the groove’ or ‘being in the pocket’.  The feeling of being in the flow of music is unmistakeable.  Together with: correct focus and correct listening, being in the pocket can anchor you deeply in the heart of music.

Touch –  Is the last step in the chain to expression. The sound you create is a product of many different factors.  But the most important of these are: how anchored in the music you are, and the way you touch your instrument.  (Insert Beavis and Butthead laughter here if you wish.)

How I applied all this to: learning the Cello – Strategy, Chunking, and Planning.

What does the pre-work process look like?

  • First: Set my Outcome (What I want and Why):

To be able to play Cello (main outcome) AND to create a finished piece of music with it (make it accountable.)

  • Then: Chunk the task down to its component parts, and identify the Key Factors.

For me, there were 3 main things to focus on.

Bowing – The bowing of the instrument is literally what produces it’s sound.  I had never played a bowed instrument before the cello, so physically mastering this movement was the first key.

Intonation – Unlike guitar or piano, cellos and their family are fretless instruments – meaning that you have to be scrupulously exact in where you touch the string.  If you are out by a fraction of a millimetre the note will be either too high or too low.  Building high quality muscle memory of exact finger positions was job two.

Vibrato – This is an effect created by moving the left hand or up and down rapidly on the string.  This technique allows the player to emote to a greater degree thru the instrument.  Mastering this was task three.

(Side Note: there was also Tuning (the cello is tuned differently to any other instrument I have played) but, to be honest, this wasn’t much of a factor for me as I use a lot of different tunings on the guitar already, and have a quick head about them.)

  • Finally: Sketch out a plan for…

Where the Rubber meets the Road – The Actual Sessions: Execution (and Deep Practice.)

Session (Broad Overview):

First: get into state.  Then: play with the key component pieces in isolation, before combining them until actually playing music.

Session (Detail view):

  1. First: Meditation and Preparation: 1 hour+ (Focus)
  2. Then: Bowing – I would simply bow the open string, focusing on refining the movement until it: felt natural to me and yielded good tone.  When I had natural movement and good tone on one string I would move to the next, and so on until I had good tone on all four.  Then I’d begin switching between strings, always keeping the feeling and the tone as I did. (Touch)
  3. Next: Intonation – To learn exact intonation I would play the cello like a double bass (plucking the strings instead of bowing) in order to isolate and be able to fully concentrate on the left hand.  I would ‘find’ one note until the intonation was perfect (at the beginning I used a clip on guitar tuner to check this but later on I didn’t need it.)  After I had one note I would find another, then change between the 2 before adding a third, and so on.  When the hand positions and fingering felt totally natural to me, I’d run scales, and practice one handed vibrato. (Touch)
  4. After this I’d add the bow and begin 2 handed practice.  I would run thru the same sequence, starting with one note and adding more in as the two handed movement become natural to me.  (Touch.)
  5. Next: I would play with a metronome – Bowing open strings first, then adding the left hand, until I felt I was in the pocket. (Time).
  6. Finally:  When I felt fully plugged in to the music; when I could forget completely about the physical and just play, I would record something, loop it thru the studio speakers and freely improvise, following the feeling wherever it went.  (Ear).

First Note: It is also important to notice how I structured the progression of exercises in each session.  Always beginning with the smallest, most foundational key component and, as that became natural and unconscious, progressing to complexity by adding just one thing at a time to the mix.

Second Note: The final thing worth mentioning about the practice is: the attitude with which I approached the sessions; which was one of play and exploration as opposed to any kind of results-oriented frame.

This approach coupled with: a meditative (clear and focused) state of mind, held for sustained periods of time (usually at least 4+ hours per session), and repeated daily (greatest frequency of repetition for maximal learning compression), when I was at my freshest (usually early morning), is what I mean by Deep Practice.

Practicing in this way, I progressed from never having touched a cello in my life to: writing, recording and releasing a piece of music for cello and voice after only 42 practice sessions.  And what you hear on the track is what I played.  There is exactly zero studio fuckery.  😉

Some Closing Thoughts:

An easy criticism of this article would be to point out the obvious fact that: I am a musician by trade and therefore have a wealth of previous, relative experience which makes it far easier for me to learn cello in 6 weeks than someone who had never played before.

It’s a fair point.  And whilst it is true that learning to play cello was a lot easier for me than it would be for someone with no previous experience, there are two very important things that you must bear in mind.

The first is to understand that: whilst cello was easier for me to pick up because I had a relatable base of knowledge, almost everybody has something that they are good at.  Which means that everybody has some degree of relatable transferable knowledge base because, if you are good at one thing, no matter what that thing is, it is much easier to become good at something else.  Mastery is always relatable and always, to some degree, transferable.

But the more prescient point is this: even tho I am using ‘learning the cello’ as an example, learning the cello is not actually the main point of this article.

The point is this: Whatever it is that you wish to learn; if you utilise a better set of meta-learning principles (guiding strategy), you can achieve exponentially better results, in a much shorter timeframe, whilst learning with more ease and greater joy.  Fact 😉

And if you are thinking: ‘That’s great for him but I don’t have the: time / instrument / desire to sit down for 4+ hours everyday / (insert your own objection here)…’  I would say to you: the beauty of this method is that it is infinitely flexible and can be adapted to almost any set of circumstances.  You decide what you want.  You set the outcome.  You chunk down the task in the way that suits you best, and you create a strategy which utilises whatever resources are available at that time.  The specifics are, to some degree, arbitrary.  The underlying foundational principles however, are true gold.

Becoming aware of and consciously evolving your learning strategy is what the special forces like to call: a ‘Force Multiplier’.  Meaning: work on this one thing, and everything else gets better.  In today’s world the ability to learn faster, more thoroughly, and with greater ease is vital for us all.

And Meta-Learning, is your Archimedes Lever.


My name is James Radcliffe and I am a 100% audience supported independent artist.  If you like what I do (and can afford it) then please consider buying some of my music.  Each purchase really makes a big difference to me and 10% of every sale goes to a charity which: houses, feeds, clothes, and educates orphaned children in Nepal.

Also, every month I send out a newsletter packed with Interesting and Exclusive Things.  If you sign up today you’ll also get 3 FREE tracks of my music as a welcome gift.

Get 3 Free Tracks Now.

And lastly, if you’d like to find out what I’m up to on a more day-to-day basis then here is my brain on Twitter:

73 Comments

    1. Thankyou so much, you are very kind 😉
      If you have any questions or if I can help in any way you know where I am. Also, please feel free to let me know how it works out for you. 😉
      Hope you are well, and Good Luck!
      – J

  1. I can play the piano and clarinet, I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the cello. It is a haunting beautiful instrument. By the way, I love your new song. It’s perfect on every level.

    1. It is fully doable. If you can already play two instruments then you already have a huge headstart.
      Let me know how it goes. If I can help in anyway then you know where I am,
      and more power to you! 😉
      Be well,
      – J

  2. As a musician and teacher (formerly in the schools and at present in the homeschooling), I really appreciate what you’ve accomplished and laid out for us, JR. I can see you’d make a fabulous instructor, the way you know to break large goals into manageable increments and build up only upon mastery at each level. The attitude in the process that you emphasize is wonderful, and I like the force multiplier. I’d tip my hat to you…if I wore one. A nod from the Grammar Mafia will have to do. LOL.

    HW

    1. I will take that nod from the grammar mafia with pride. 😉
      Thankyou very much for your kind words. I do teach occasionally (mostly when I have time) and find it really rewarding. I think teachers are some of the truly unsung heroes and heroines of the world, I doff my cap to you in return. 😉
      Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to connect with me,
      Hope you are well,
      – J

  3. In 2010, I read Shakespeare’s 154 Sonnets on a seven-hour flight from Sydney to Brunei. Having been a serial writer of incomplete ditties, I saw in the sonnet’s format a way of giving structure to my craft. My first sonnet (written in Feb’ 2010) sets out the challenge; and as my ‘tag’ suggsts, the destination was 155 sonnets (cheekily, one more than Shakespeare ever completed). To make the challenge a little more tricky, I decided it had to be completed in two-years (that’s about three sonnets every two weeks). For me, part o the joy of poetry is the physical act of handwriting; pen to paper is a powerful sensation. And then, listening to the poem express itself, firstly through an internal voice, ultimately reaching an audience’s sensibility is the rich reward.

    Yep… challenge, discipline, practice, and sensibility; with a sustained and regular routine delivers the goods. Other contexts I find important are ‘purposeful play’ and a strong sense of ‘audience connection’ – feedback (reward and recognition).

    Cheers Tim

    1. It is a beautiful thing to find a form in which you can express yourself naturally. I am very glad for you. 😉
      I am fully convinced that regular practice, consistent effort and persistent discipline are necessary ingredients for ones growth, if one ever hopes to create great art.
      Thanks for dropping by, for taking the time, and for you thought provoking words.
      I wish you all the best for the holidays,
      – J

  4. Hi, James, I LOVE this post, because it leads me to a favorite topic of mine…The Silva method, which is getting into the alpha state of mind and then doing or affirming what you wish to do or learn. You have already been practicing it, but maybe you would like to hear more about it. It works for me. Your story is amazing and I’m so glad to hear you are tapping into your creative and intuitive self. Can’t wait to see/hear more from you.

    1. Thanks a lot for this. 😉
      That sounds really interesting, I’ll maybe look into it if I get a spare moment but, as you can imagine, I am pretty rammed with work right now. It does sound from what you’ve said that my method already encompasses the principles tho.
      Really glad you stopped by, thanks for taking the time to write and I hope you are having a great day,
      – J

  5. Thank you for checking out my post and drawing me in to yours. Love your post and music. There is still hope for my dream to play the violin. I do practice asking What Do I Want – Why Do I Want It and add in How Will It Make Me Feel when facing anything in life but I will pay attention to the steps you have laid out for us. Thank you for sharing meta-learning.
    Love and Light!
    Sandy

    1. Hey there Sandy,
      There is always hope! Do it! 😉
      I am sure you could play the violin like a BOSS if you set your mind to it.
      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to write to me,
      let me know how it goes, OK? 😉
      Be well,
      – J

  6. James | Great article. In today’s environment, not only is the world changing at breakneck speed, the skills required to be successful are also changing. Use of meta-learning techniques would be a great way to stay on top.

  7. Hi there, I finally got around downloading your cool track – I like it, it really is special and has a great rythm, it draws & keeps one´s attention because it is somehow very intense. Great work you did! And this blogpost you wrote – I enjoyed it and feel inspired by it…and I also had to chuckle a bit when reading – because it is soo much you ;- )) and you know this is meant in a very very friendly way, yes?
    Have a good weekend
    C.
    P.S. Will you go see “The battle of the five armies”????? I´ve bought my ticket for next week Wednesday – aargh, it´s gonna be BOMBASTIC !!! If you go – and I think you will – I definetly would love to hear your opinion about it – but not until Thursday next week ;-D

    1. Hey there you, 😉
      I am really glad that you like it, makes me happy. 😉 Thankyou for getting it, and for the support.
      No offence taken at all. 😉
      Of course I will be going to see …Five Armies. Not sure when tho, as I am a little busy at the moment. Hit me up when you’ve seen it and we can chat.
      Really nice to hear from you, hope you are well,
      – J

      1. Aargh! Seen it! Loved it! Some really breathtaking fighting sequences, some brilliant sets and a VERY cool redhaired Dain Ironfoot riding his boar and heartfully headbanging orcs ;-). But I was also a bit sad about the trilogy now finally coming to an end, I must admit.
        I hope you find the time to see it soon, I think you will enjoy it ;- )
        Talk to you soon
        C.

        1. 😉 Really glad you enjoyed it.
          Am going to try and see it soon, but am completely rammed with studio stuff at the moment, so it may be a while.
          I am also glad your comment was spoiler free 😉
          Hope you are well, Christine of clan Nemeth.
          Sleep soundly,
          – J

          1. 😉 ha yes I forcefully kept myself from telling too much…and as you obviously are in your highly-concentrated-work-mode, you probably are safe not to read any reviews or such by accident. I hope you are well, too – I for myself can say that things really are looking up, I´ve got a very promising and VERY interesting interview ahead of me upcoming Wednesday and would appreciate you keeping your fingers crossed for me ;-D

            Have a great day
            C.

            1. My fingers are, and shall remain crossed for you. Good luck (is it with Peter Jackson?) 😉
              I really appreciate the lack of spoilers, I have managed to almost completely avoid all mention of it. Which I am weirdly proud of it seems.
              I am working, but have been kind of going in ever-decreasing circles. Had a breakthru today, and am now very happy. 😉
              Big love to you, and Hug,
              – J x

              1. Ah thanks for the support 😄 and of course you guessed right hoho – as I just played around putting my Faunians “on film” …take a quick look at it over at my space and tell me what you think 😉 . Glad you had a successful work session….I sometimes have the impression resistance hits a brick wall in your case😳
                Big hug back
                C.

                1. 😉 You are always welcome for the support. That is an extremely exciting interview to be sure. ;-p
                  I liked the ‘video’, you are very cool – keep being true to your bad self Cristine Nemeth.
                  (Fingers still crossed),
                  – J

  8. I’ve heard the term ‘meta learning’ but never knew what it meant. Thanks for the description, the wonderful post, and for the reminder that learning is much more effective when you have a formal approach and the right mindset. Thanks!

    1. You are more than fully welcome. 😉 Really glad you liked it, hope that it’s useful for you.
      Thanks a lot for taking the time to reach out and connect, I really appreciate it.
      Hope you are well, and have had a great weekend,
      – J

  9. Love this article. I feel there is hope in my dream to learn to play the guitar one day. As a lover of all types of music where music is a big part of my life and always has been; I’ve learned a valuable resource from you in developing a “learning strategy” before I start to learn to play a guitar. Thank you for this empowering article. “Zero studio fuckery”; James, you’re just too awesome! One of the characters in my YA thriller trilogy is a muscician and would so love to use your quote in my book. Peace and love to you.

    P.S. I purchsed ‘Invocation’ from Amazon and am enjoying it daily.

    1. Hey there,
      First, thanks so much for your support. It means the world to me. 😉 I am really glad that you like the track too.
      Learning strategy is a key for sure. Guitar is well withing your grasp.
      Feel free to use the quote, I gift it to you freely. 😉
      Have a great day,
      – J

      1. Thank you for the use of your quote, James. Feeling so much gratitude and thanking the Universe for the giving and special people I get to meet (you there, included). Warm regards, Kat.

    1. I thought so too.
      The majority of the time (but not always) I am against fuckery of any kind on general principle.
      Thanks for stopping by, and for taking the time to write this,
      See you soon,
      – J

  10. Inspiring article. Glad you checked out my blog so that I could see this and get fired up. It reminds me of a very busy time in my life during which I really wanted to learn some music on the piano. I gave myself 10 minutes each morning while my oatmeal was cooking. I was blown away at how much better I got despite the very short time available.
    Thank you for sharing your process!

  11. Thanks for sharing this post. These are principals that can be used to learn most anything, I expect. Since my career is in public education, this really speaks to the way we educate our young. If schools paid more attention to teaching students to focus, to explore and play, then children would learn so much more. Seems like we metaphorically throw them the cello and bow, say, “Do it like this,” and then expect them to become virtuosos without a real understanding of the joy learning can create.

    1. Man, I could not have said it better myself. This is a great, great comment.
      I totally agree with you. I definitely think that the public education system could do with an upgrade. I imagine that, it’s forward thinkers who work in public education such as yourself, who are going to push this forward.
      I really wish you the best with this, I honestly believe that evolving and expanding our education system is one of the greatest leverage activities if we want to create a better culture and world.
      Thankyou for stopping by, and for taking the time too write this.
      I wish you well,
      – J

  12. thanks for ‘liking’ my post and by doing so introducing me to your blog – two favors! How inspiring – the cello may not be my choice of new instrument to try, but you have opened vistas of possibilities – cheers

    1. Hey there,
      You are fully welcome – thankyou in return. 😉
      Your words are very kind, I am really glad you took something from the post. It’s nice to meet you, keep up the good work!
      I wish you well,
      – J

  13. Interesting lessons, but unfortunately I can’t really use ’em. I lost the ability to sing when I hit adolescence (I was positively angellic in choir before then), and never was able to carry a tune in a bucket with any instrument at any age…

    How ’bout I stick to what I know that involves the creation (and sometimes even destruction) of thoughtforms, inspiring the following generation(s) with how things changed since I was their age, and my personal favorite: making images from maths? I’ll leave you the musical world and together we can try to take over the world… err, wait.. 😀

      1. Why wait? Now’s a good a time as any to take over the world. The world needs more art and philosophy and music than it seems to be getting.

        And besides how I segue is part of my charm! Give them a dose of cuteness while I lull them into a sense of safety before shaking the very foundations of their being. Something you learn more about when I’ve been properly caffeinated. Or waxing philosophical… Or both.

          1. Only one cup actually… the second cup (that I have like a New Englander — iced) is for this evening after my 2.5 mile walk and having a modest supper. I’m also waxing philosophical as well. Along with 9 hours of sleep (it was screwed up, but I talk about it elsewhere). A magically delicious combination of elements that leave my family (and friends) rolling their eyes and wondering what else is going to fall out of my mouth (or in this case off of my fingers).

            So how ’bout it? Should we take over the world like Pinky & the Brain (we’ll need to work out who Pinky will be), Sheridan & Delenn (also will need to work out who’s the more spiritual there), or Rincewind & the Librarian (I can be the Librarian. There’s something appealing about unscrewing people’s heads by their ears when they call me a “monkey”).

            1. That is so perfect.
              Henceforth, I shall forever picture you as the librarian. 😉
              Not sure I want to be Rincewind tho, will have to think of someone else.
              – J
              P.S. Am fully jealous of your 9 hours of sleep. Enjoy your evening.

              1. Well certainly not Patrician Vetinari… or Headmaster Ridcully…. Vetinari scares me with his efficiency… And I suspect the birds don’t care for you one way or another (that takes Ridcully off the list). The Bursar? I don’t see you as being that scheming. You lack the height for Carrot Ironfoundersson… The drinking of Samuel Vimes… (Can you tell I’m steeped in the books right now?). Besides Rincewind and the Librarian are like a team… Sure it’s in the Unseen University Library, but a team nonetheless…

                And don’t be jealous of the 9 hours.. it wasn’t uninterrupted. Besides, I’m more than making up for the lack of sleep I go through in the summer.

                  1. So deep down inside the International Man of Mystery is a really stubborn witch with a penchant for breaking all sorts of rules when life and what not get in the way? Oh, and perfect teeth and none of the standard warts in the usual places.. All I can say to this is…

                    Oook!

  14. Interesting.

    When I think of writing – when I am writing – I incorporate a number of related skills that define what I produce. I don’t do this consciously. Instead it is the result of much thinking (years) about writing – the voice – the lyricism of language – the music – and finally, the images we create through writing – the painter. All of these are integrated and expressed through the essence of writing – the words. A cycle, you might say. Begins and ends at the same point, but what happens in-between – the transformation – is what makes the experience a profound one.

    As for learning a different musical instrument when you are already an experienced musician – much more likely to happen than learning an instrument when you have no musical
    experience – for sure.:-)

    1. First, thanks so much for stopping by and leaving such an eloquent comment. 😉
      Totally agree with you about the musical instrument. And as I said at the foot of the article, everybody has a relatable base of knowledge that is, to some degree, transferable. It may have taken me less time to learn cello than someone with zero musical experience, but the point is: it still took radically less time than it would have taken, had I not utilised meta-learning principles.
      Thanks again for stopping by, have a great day,
      – J

          1. Get into what? The Cello? Aside from the piano, my favorite instrument, the cello is next. But mostly from an observer’s point of view. I LOVE to watch cello players perform. It’s a symbiotic connection. The entire body gets into it. I remember watching one cellist perform and she was just digging it – better than lovemaking, I thought:-). At least for her. I remember that more than I remember what piece she played. The power of images! Hahaha!

            1. I know exactly what you mean here.
              I remember watching footage of Jacqueline Du Pré when I was a young boy and thinking the same thing.
              It is so beautiful and deep-down moving to see someone so plugged in to their thing.
              😉

  15. This is really interseting. I play cello myself i a fucked up psychic folk band, merely use it like a small contrabass, will try your method to improve my playing. Great article. H

  16. Very interesting! I think the key thing is deciding what you really want to do, though the clarity of the strategy is excellent.

    1. Deciding what you want to do, and having a really intense desire to do it is totally key.
      That’s the destination, strategy is just the easiest way.
      Thanks for stopping by my friend, hope you’re well,
      – J

Click Here To Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s