Mark Kosower: On Slow Practice, Commitment, and the Kind of Focus That’s Associated With His Best Performances

You know how some people just make things look easy, and effortless? Like they never had to practice a day in their life?

Logically, of course, we know that’s almost never the case. And there’s always a ton of hard work that goes into developing mastery that nobody ever sees.

But some folks do seem to have a knack for finding better ways to practice. Which, like compounding interest, probably adds up in really meaningful ways with each passing hour, week, month, and year.

Indeed, I sometimes wonder what my college years would have been like (or heck, even high school or middle school), if I had had a better understanding of what I should be doing in the practice room.

And if I could go back in time and change anything…I actually wouldn’t change a thing (well, except maybe for that one time I ate tilapia and blueberry cobbler, and…well, let’s just say I haven’t eaten either of those things in the 20 years since).

But if I were going to go back in time, and change only what I did in the practice room, I know whose practice I’d be tempted to try modeling my practice behaviors after.

Who is this mystery person, you ask?

Meet Mark Kosower

Mark Kosower is principal cellist of the Cleveland Orchestra, and a member of the faculty at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He began his cello studies at age 1 1/2, and under the watchful eye (ears?) of his cello professor father, had a somewhat unconventional journey, and the good fortune to practice in many of the “right” ways from a very early age.

In this ~40 minute chat, we’ll explore:

  • Mark’s dad’s emphasis on slow practice, and why he thinks it’s so helpful (3:07)
  • Whether he and his dad ever got into arguments, when his dad put on his “teacher” hat and offered criticisms of his playing (5:07)
  • Two ways that his dad managed to communicate support, while still being critical (7:09)
  • How Mark came to develop very clear ideas about the music he was playing, and make his own decisions about how things ought to sound – though this may not be so easy to replicate! (7:38)
  • At what age Mark began to dabble in composition – and a cute story about how he tried to get back at his dad (he was mad at him for some reason), with an unusual birthday present (9:37)
  • How composing changed how he would look at a piece of music he was playing (11:00)
  • The importance of a good auditory (and practice) model – the other element that Mark feels gave him a leg up in his early development (11:41)
  • Whether he finds it more useful to study the score, or listen to recordings first (13:25)
  • His “rule” about using recordings in the learning process (13:50)
  • What does slow practice actually look like? (16:17)
  • His thoughts about the best way to approach a piece of music; how to “take a bath” in it, and figure out what he wants to say (17:25)
  • How to prepare when you’re short on time (18:45)
  • Why Mark tends to focus on bow arm issues before he deals with left hand issues (20:53)
  • Why it’s healthy to let some mistakes go by (though he admits to struggling with this himself) (22:26)
  • More on why he likes to make sure his bow arm is solid before addressing the left hand (23:02)
  • Mark’s teaching themes – or his musical “pet peeves” (26:28)
  • The thing Mark thinks Heifetz did better than anybody else (28:15)
  • The question Yo-Yo Ma asked him at age 13, that left him kind of “dumbfounded” (29:11)
  • What Mark thinks about in performance, when he’s playing at his very best (for me, this is perhaps the key takeaway from the whole conversation) (30:10)
  • I ask Mark what pieces he thinks everyone ought to have the experience of playing (i.e. what pieces can be really life-changing to play), and Mark answers… (33:32)
  • Mark casts his vote for the composer he thinks might be one of the most life-changing (34:30)
  • And then, I blame Mark for my never having eaten cheese curds (37:12)


[1] 90’s-era Mark was fond of randomly breaking into a cello version of the Jordan/Pippen Chicago Bulls-era NBA on NBC theme song (1:35). If you can’t quite remember that theme (it does bring back fond memories if you were a Bulls fan…), here’s John Tesh with a performance of the big band version , as he also shares the song’s origin story (it involves an answering machine – remember those?).

Or if you just want to hear the original (over, and over, and over), here’s a 1-hr loop of the TV version .

[2] Mark mentioned studying with Janet Horvath (4:31), who shared some advice on injury prevention/recovery with us a few months back.

You can learn more about Janet here, as well as her book Playing (less) Hurt.

[3] Mark mentioned Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge as being something potentially life-altering (34:06). Here are some notes about the work by Brentano Quartet violinist Mark Steinberg, as well as a performance by the quartet .

And if you’d like to geek out about music theory for a bit, and explore the fugue-y-ness (?) of the piece, here’s a performance by the Takacs Quartet with annotated video , and analysis.

[4] Mark also mentions Beethoven’s symphonies (34:41). And not that you’ve not heard them before, but if you have a ~6-hour road trip coming up, you can listen to them all here .

But there’s no saying you have to listen to them in order, so here’s a handy guide with short descriptions of each, to help you pick.

Even cooler perhaps, is this guide, where you get a different conductor’s thoughts on each symphony.

[5] Beethoven’s Archduke trio also gets a mention (35:01). And here’s an interesting anecdote about the first public performance of the piece – in which Beethoven himself was the pianist (despite essentially being deaf at that point).

As well as a performance by the Istomin-Stern-Rose trio (and is it just me, or is it a little startling when the page turner suddenly walks into the frame a few bars in, to take a seat a good few feet behind Istomin?).

[6] Schubert’s C major “cello” quintet is also pretty great (35:16), which you can hear the Afiara Quartet perform here , with an introduction by guest cellist Joel Krosnick (who was Mark’s teacher at Juilliard).

[7] And last, but not least, Schubert’s A minor string quartet (35:21) (which you may recall from this Loki scene in The Avengers ), and which you can hear in its entirety in this performance from the 2013 Esbjerg International Chamber Music Festival .

[8] I mention never having had cheese curds (37:11) (wait…they’re squeaky? )

[9] And that Levain bakery’s cookies are the best . (40:34) And apparently, this is how they’re made…

[10] Finally, Mark mentions a couple restaurants in Cleveland (37:52) – Lola and Crop

Where to find Mark

Here is where Mark will be teaching and performing in summer 2019:

Colorado College Summer Music Festival
June 3-9, 2019
Colorado Springs, CO

North Shore Chamber Music Festival (*performing only)
June 10-15, 2019

Kent/Blossom Music Festival
July 3-10, 2019
Kent, OH

Manchester Music Festival
July 15-21, 2019
Manchester, VT

Barra Mansa International Music Festival
July 23-26, 2019
Barra Mansa, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival (*performing only)
July 28-August 8, 2019

Hidden Valley Music Seminars
August 12-17, 2019
Carmel Valley, CA

You can always see Mark perform in Cleveland Orchestra concerts of course, but here are some of his upcoming outside performances in the next ~6 months:

Nevada Chamber Music Festival
December 27, 2018-January 1, 2019

Faculty Chamber Music Concert
w/violinist Olga Kaler and pianist Jee-Won Oh
Cleveland Institute of Music
Wednesday, January 16, 2019 8 p.m.

Ensemble 207
Artistic Director
Cleveland Institute of Music
Tuesday, February 12, 2019 8 p.m.

Bach for Humanity
Solo Bach
The Renaissance
Monday, February 25, 2019 7 p.m.
North Olmsted, OH

Chippewa Valley Symphony
Herbert Concerto No. 2
Saturday, March 2, 2019  7:30 p.m.
Pablo Center at the Confluence
Eau Claire, WI

Bach for Humanity
Solo Bach
Cleveland Institute of Music
Wednesday, March 6, 2019  8:00 p.m.
Cleveland, OH

Bach for Humanity
Cleveland Cello Society
Reinberger Auditorium
Monday, March 11, 2019  7:00 p.m.
Cleveland, OH

Belleville Philharmonic
Haydn D Major Concerto/Dvorak Silent Woods
Saturday, March 27, 2019  7:30 p.m.
Lindenwood University Auditorium

Here are some recent videos of Mark in performance:

Haydn Divertimento

Piatigorsky Pljaska

Haydn D major Concerto

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.

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