5 Tips for Student Cellists

Y-Squared Yelian Yasmin Wilton Hall Kaupo Kikkas

The below is an article I wrote for CutCommonMag.com and the article appears at https://www.cutcommonmag.com/5-tips-that-help-me-tolerate-my-own-playing/



My name is Yelian He, and I’m the winner of the 2014 Australian Cello Award (now part of the Young Performers Awards), and the 2009 Royal Over-Seas League String Competition. I’ve given my life in pursuit of my skills, and that has taken me around the world since I was a boy.

Some of the highlights in my journey have been performing at some of the world’s most well-known halls and festivals, meeting the Queen Elizabeth II (twice), and performing at Buckingham Palace – and every time, I was lucky enough to win an award.

Happily, my story thus far has given me plenty of things to write about, and today I’d like to share with you five tips that helped me tolerate my own playing for this long.


1. Take time, give opportunity.

Short notes also have value – give them enough. One aspect of playing I often come across as a teacher is that people pay more attention to the louder, longer, and on-beat notes; while neglecting the more subtle, shorter, and off-beats. The notes are there for a reason, and it often serves to develop longer lines in the ear of the listener. Quieter doesn’t mean less important!


2. Repetition is often to be avoided, unless the composer is striving for the emphatic, irony, or sarcasm.

There are often examples of sequences and repetitive sections within the text, but it doesn’t automatically give you the right to treat them all the same way. Music is a story, imagination, a journey – and more often than not, the ear likes to hear dynamic, colour, or energy developments.

The exception to this is if the composer intended for the repetition to stand out. There are certain repeated notes and passages in Beethoven and Shostakovich that spring to mind, where I attempt to exaggerate the repetition to highlight sarcasm.


3. The music may not be complete with just one instrument. Study and listen to all others.

Just like in movies and TV shows where each actor has their own dialogue to say, the story in music doesn’t advance until all of the performers are dynamically reacting to one another. This involves knowing what each performer plays, how their part affects yours, and ultimately how you fit into the music.

Not everything is a conversation, though, so be careful with what you assign your phrase – it could be an interruption, an argument, a dialogue – use your imagination and experience.


4. Learn to RELAX! Greater difference in sound and intention could be achieved if every part of you is warmed up and relaxed.

Another aspect I see a lot in students of all levels is physical tension when playing. Until otherwise proven wrong, I believe it’s fundamental to be relieved of any physical tension when playing the cello. Obviously, I don’t mean one should be so relaxed as to start sliding off the chair, but my Sifu (Kung Fu master/teacher in Chinese) refers to it as ‘relaxed strength’. It’s the idea that you should never use more strength than necessary to achieve what you need to – like standing up, walking, swimming, etc.

But why is relaxing important, you ask? Because when relaxed, you’re ready to do anything. If you had physical tension, the first thing you have to do, in order to do something else, is relax.


5. Passages can be horizontal or vertical. Make sure people can hear it.

Phrasing in music is very important. They’re like sentences in a book, or brush-strokes in a painting. Not all phrases are created equal, however. Just like how some sentences seem more important than others, some phrases needs the ear’s attention on every syllable:

( | | | | )

While others need to get to the end of the phrase to make sense:


Experiment with both during practice, and see if the passage lends more clarity to your story.


Now for those of you who have stuck around this far, thanks! I’d like to reward you with two more tips, which – while not strictly practice tips – have shaped my progress and abilities over the years. I consider these the cornerstones of my learning process.


6. Go hear concerts all the time.

It may become expensive and time consuming, but in order to become a better musician, you also need to hear music. When we’re practising, the sound of our own playing is all we hear. If that becomes the only source of music we hear, then we’re simply serial practisers – with no regard for how the world and its people are moving about.

If you want to be an artist with stories to tell, then you’ll need to immerse yourself in what you do. And this is not a shameless plug for my upcoming concerts, but a lead-up into my next tip:


7. Create a community of like-minded people.

When I was younger I was taught that practising is a solitary exercise, but what I wasn’t told was that improvement is a group exercise.

It wasn’t until more recent years, when I tried my hand at Wing Chun Kung Fu, that I realised how quickly I can improve at it utilising what I’ve learned about the cello. In Wing Chun, you predominantly practice with someone else, and you switch partners often, which led me to the realisation that I was (in many ways) directly responsible for someone else’s improvement.

I won’t go into much detail here, as I’m sure not everybody shares the same passion; but my realisation brought me to understand that, by helping others, I was helping myself. You don’t have to be best friends with one another (although in some cases, it just happens), but you do have to be receptive and willing to help others get better.