Popper Challenge

but why should i?

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Étude - noun - a short musical composition, typically for one instrument, designed as an exercise to improve the technique or demonstrate the skill of the player.

Pardon the stereotypical opening to an academic paper - but, it’s important that we all understand the essential meaning of an étude from the very beginning. At some point in your musical life, someone has recommended etude study to you, or has asked you slyly, “how are those études coming along?” This could have also come from your inner voice, your guilty conscience from skipping right to the heavy hitters before you’ve mastered the foundational building blocks of the cello repertoire.

So this question, “Why should I?” Well, because simply, we want you to. We want you to be the best cellist you can possibly be. We all need a little extra motivation, a shoulder to lean on, and a community to keep us accountable. The very definition of the word includes two very important concepts of the Popper Challenge: improve the technique AND demonstrate the skill of the player. We want you to do it all! We want you to improve your technique! We want to watch you demonstrate your skill! We want to watch it all come together! We want to watch your first video in January, then watch your last video in December and think, WOW what technical improvement, what a demonstration of skill!

Why should you? Why wouldn’t you? Go ahead, think of some reasons, we’ll wait. But instead of wasting your time thinking of excuses, you could be practicing! So go practice!

If you need more inspiration, or a few more minutes to finish your coffee, keep reading for the origins story of the Popper Challenge from Joshua himself - then practice. And send us your étude video!

About the popper Challenge

In 2009, I was frustrated with my perceived inability to maintain a regular practice schedule after years of weekly check-ups through private teachers, school schedules, and then a position as Principal Cellist in a major American orchestra. I had recently moved to New York City after signing with a prestigious artist management firm and was pursuing my solo career, which was exciting, but at least as far as scheduling was concerned, sporadic. One day, as I was impetuously running through all 40 of the études from David Popper’s “The High-School of Cello Playing” (the absolute standard book of études which every cellist has a familiarity with), I had the idea to start posting them on YouTube. I figured that if I set a goal of posting one each week, it would force me out of the lumpy, concert-centric practicing I was doing, and into a more regular routine where I could actually track progress. The idea of posting them was simply accountability: I did not expect more than 20-25 friends to view them, but knew that even the possibility of that viewership was enough to make sure I practiced well and only posted videos I could be proud of.

While eventually a flu coinciding with a world premiere knocked me off track with my weekly schedule, the effect of the Popper Project was immediately palpable and important for my personal confidence and artistic progress. An actual marker of my playing, consistent goals, along with accountability from others, worked. And, much to my surprise, the videos became very popular, very quickly. What I had not realized is that there was not an easily accessible archive of recordings of these études, which again, every cellist plays. Cellists began sharing them, writing to tell me how excited and inspired they were in their own practicing, and everywhere I went (even the streets of New York City) I was now recognized by cellists as “the guy with the hair who does the Popper Project”. Now, almost ten years later, each of the forty videos has at least 10,000 views, with some exceeding 55,000 views since posting. Etude #1 alone has over 110,000 views. And while teachers and students still write to thank me for the inspiration, the videos are still getting substantial amounts of new views each month, without any boosting or advertising.

All of this was unplanned. The Popper Project was a self-motivated project with the aim of bettering my own playing. I was unprepared for the amazing reaction and inspiration from others, and in the midst of wonderful growth in my performance career at the time, not focused on the community aspect of what I was unwittingly building. Years later, I want to return to the Popper Project in order to make a stronger connection with the global community of cellists in order to harness that inspiration and share the ideals and lessons of my 21st Century experience with as many cellists as possible. Online sharing has the potential to really accentuate learning experiences as accountability, feedback, and shared knowledge motivate an individual to stay focused on their personal goals, and I want to create a community that challenges cellists to put the most vulnerable and exploratory parts of their progress out there in an encouraging and stimulating environment. That brings us to the Popper Challenge. I hope that the Challenge will offer clear paths for cellists of all ages to make good on the inspiration of the Popper Project by setting their own goals, tracking their progress, getting feedback from myself and others, and geeking out with other cellists in the community.

The Popper Challenge is not just for cellists. These days, the trend has moved away from “perfect” performances towards access to behind-the-scenes tidbits that make even the most famous artists and performers feel close, personal, even vulnerable. One woman who I will never forget came up to me when I was performing at the US Open in Queens, NY, and told me she had watched every Popper video I had posted all in a row. As it turns out, she was not a musician at all, had never even taken lessons as a child. She loved the sound of the cello, but was really hooked by the notion that she was watching my progress unfold along with people “in the know”; cellists. While the main focus of the Popper Challenge is to invigorate and build the cello community, we will focus on making accessibility to the journey a priority so that other instrumentalists can set and share their own parallel goals, and lay persons can get the kind of insight into classical music that creates a feeling of knowledge and investment, a gravitational pull into the world of high art and performance through behind-the-scenes access.

Structurally, much of what the Popper Challenge has to offer in the way of engagement will be hosted on my growing Patreon site. Current patrons have access to my own compositions, practice sessions, and behind the scenes life of a classical soloist. The Popper Challenge will introduce the current Patreon community and invite new patrons to be a part of global cello community as I introduce them to one of the most important collections of etudes for the cello and a new community of cellists interested in sharing their progress. Over time, one of the goals of the funding from Patrons is to create a digital archive of new recordings of the great cello repertoire of our time. This community loves being a part of this growth rather than just watching, and I believe they will be hooked on the progress of the Popper Challenge and the conversations it elicits. I also am very excited about the prospect of immediately exposing cellists to the artistic exploration happening there, an answer to the question, “why do I need to practice études at all?”

- jR