3 suggestions for learning demanding repertoire.
Sometimes in the past I have experienced that learning a new solo piece can feel a little overwhelming. This is particular to repertoire that is contemporary or new to me.
It can be difficult to read due to there not being a singable
melody, or sometimes there is so much information on effects required of you (Sul pont to Sul tasto, going to half-crush, quarter tone down etc) that there is a need for a high level of coordination (and reading skills) even before you start to play.
The first thing I have realised in practice is that I have to be patient. Whatever the piece, it takes the time it takes. It is no use trying to force the process and saying to yourself «I have to learn this by Saturday». I have attempted to plan in this way countless times, and in many ways this is the reality of the musician, living with an overhanging deadline. Unfortunately in my experience this kind of pressure on getting through certain amounts within certain time limits in practice tends to result in stress during practice. This stress tends to translate to not taking enough care with the quality of the practice, and being more focussed on getting through the notes rather than playing with a conscious mind. If I can practice with quality and not quantity then more often than not feel that I learn something better and quicker.
Of course, sometimes you only have a few days to prepare something, but it is how you use the time that is key. 3 hours of focussed work will invariably always reap better results than 3 hours of inefficient “stressed” work.
The first thing I do when approaching a new/contemporary piece is to write in fingerings and bowings before playing it on the cello. I will often just sit at the kitchen table or on a train and try to imagine how certain fingerings or bowings will feel, and how it will sound. Lots of the fingerings and bowings get changed after a while but this process allows me to get to know the music better mentally prior to playing it and also gives me a physical starting point from which to try to master it technically. I will often check tempos so that I am imagining at the correct tempo and building an impression of the style and atmosphere of the piece.
Usually this first process will show me where the challenges lie technically and the next thing I will focus on is to learn the hardest parts. Lots of slow work to co-ordinate my motions in order to establish movement patterns and internalise them. If I see that there are certain techniques used that I need to strengthen then I will devote some extra time to this too. This is for example if I see that a piece has long passages in thirds. Then I will feel the need to get my thirds up to scratch and make sure my hand is strong enough. I would maybe play some scales in thirds or make up an exercise from a tune or something. I also usually go through the whole piece very slowly or without much attention to tempo in order to focus on the way I use my body, going for good balance and staying as relaxed as possible whilst playing in tune, with a good sound at all times.
This process is quite slow but ultimately after a few sessions going through this initial period I feel I know the piece quite well and have a good solid foundation on which to build the quality of my playing and the interpretation. How much time I spend doing this is also subject to how much time that is available. For me though, I prefer to spend some time in this phase.
In summary: Stay patient, be impatient about quality, trust the process and focus on the quality in the here and now and not on when the piece has to be ready by. Start with mental practice by building an impression of the piece and what it is about. Add bowings and fingerings so that you can a mental picture, or map, of how to approach the piece physically. Practice slowly with special attention to how you are moving, focussing on balance and relaxation in your body. Practice demanding passages very slowly, and specific techniques that need strengthening to establish movement patterns to make technically difficult passages easier.
As my old teacher, Ralph Kirshbaum, used to say at the end of my cello lessons ”Practice well!”