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.

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

    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

      Like

  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.

    Like

    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

      Like

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