THE BREATHING BOW FOR CELLISTS
As cellists, when approaching the subject of our musical voice, we must
start -- as perhaps we must also end -- with the breath. Within the meaning
of the Greek and Latin words pneuma, psyche, and anima sits the connection
between the spirit (or soul) and the breath (or wind).
by Ruth Phillips
It is hardly surprising that so much spiritual practice centres on the
breath, for within the simple act of inhalation and exhalation sits the
fundamental paradox on which forms such as Buddhist meditation, Yoga, the
poetry of Rumi, and the cantatas of Bach are built. Consciously working with
the breath challenges a materialistic society that is addicted to having and
holding, in that everything, including life itself, once taken in, has to be
let go of. Consequently it challenges a musical climate that has become
fixed in that materialism.
The in-breath followed by the out-breath is expansion and contraction which
is the essence of bowing; it is receiving and giving inspiration, which is
the essence of performance; it is tension and release, flow and ebb, life
and death, control and abandon. It is, in effect, our greatest teacher. Why,
then, when I asked dozens of string players -- some fresh out of college and
others experienced professionals -- whether their teachers had ever
mentioned breath, did 90% say 'no'?
In order to bring the seminal importance of the breath and the direct link
between the breath and the bow-arm into their awareness, I have developed
the following process for cellists. When doing this work, it is essential to
develop a spirit of interest and compassionate observation throughout. As
feelings and thoughts arise it may be necessary to repeat certain steps of
the process in order to maintain this spirit. It is a meditative process,
which can be utterly transformative. It emphasises the quality of attention
given to the breath and invites us to notice how it and the music move us
rather than us moving it.
These exercises are not intended literally as a way of playing -- i.e.
breathing in when there is tension in the music and out when there is
release, or indeed breathing in time to the music -- but rather as a process
towards freedom and groundedness in performance. The idea behind all
breath-work is not to be bound by our breath, but for an awareness of it to
liberate our physical and emotional responses. There are times when we will
actively draw on this connection; times when we need extra support or
release, such as starting a movement (the most natural preparation for
starting -- or 'releasing' into -- a movement is to breathe in, letting our
arms follow that motion, and to play on the out-breath, just as a singer
would do), or at specific moments of expansion, emphasis or climax in the
music. This will be conscious only at first as we change our habits and
holding patterns. Eventually it will become second nature and breathing out
or holding the breath before playing will feel as unnatural to the cellist
as it would to the oboist or the singer.
- With the instruments down, I ask the group to sit in a circle with
their arms loosely hanging by their sides, and to start to breathe into the
sides, front and back of their ribcage. As they breathe in, they observe the
arms being pushed out to the side by the expanding side ribs and the
shoulders gently rising with the clavicular expansion. On the out-breath
they observe the release of the shoulders back down and of the arms back
into their sides.
- I play a legato melody from a piece of music they know. (Saint-Saëns'
The Swan works well.) As they listen to the melody I ask them to feel the
expansion and contraction of the phrase in connection with that of their
breathing, allowing the arms to float up and out as the musical tension
builds and then to fall back to their sides as it releases. Thus, through
the gentle amplification of the breathing, the seeds of bowing are sown.
- Next, we repeat the previous exercise but this time with the cellos
resting in the playing position against the torso. I ask the students to
observe any change in their breathing pattern. Almost without exception,
these occur due to the sudden proximity of the instrument. The most common
change for cellists is that they start breathing into the upper chest,
cutting the breath off where the cello meets the body, as if the instrument
replaces the body. In my experience, feelings of anxiety, shame, and of
being ungrounded are also common. At this point, whether consciously or
unconsciously, we enter the psychotherapeutic landscape.
- Having observed these physical and emotional changes, I then invite
the students to explore the bodies of the cellos and their own bodies
through touch, creating one living, breathing instrument. As I continue to
play the melody I suggest tracing the concave/convex curves of their own
bodies and those of their instrument. I encourage them to touch the belly of
the cello and their own belly, the neck and their own neck, and to feel the
strings mirroring their vocal cords as they touch their throat. I suggest
the image of the cellos ribcage as capable of expanding with the breath of a
phrase as their ribcage does, and encourage them to bring this to life
through their touch.
- The next step is to introduce the bow. With the left hand at rest on
the neck of the instrument, the student takes the bow gently in the right
hand, which rests on the lap. The listening/breathing/observing is then
repeated. At this point, because of the physical contact with the bow, it is
common for the head to jump in with thoughts of up bows and down bows. As a
result, the simple breathing pattern is often upset and panic can set in.
- As I play the melody one more time, I ask the students to play open G
strings on each half-bar, allowing the breathing and bowing to become one
with the slow pulse of the music. It becomes startlingly clear at this stage
that pulse, or metre, is the body of the music. Pulse becomes the
physical/earth element and is understood as different from the intricacies
- The final stage is to play the melody all together. At this point the
student becomes aware of the different kinds of stress that can be
experienced as the body opens and closes, tenses and releases, and how there
are moments in music of stressed expansion (up bow ) and stressed
contraction (down bow). This challenges the common decision to dole
down bows out to every musical accent and brings a whole new emotional realm
Working in the manner described above with our breath can heal the divide
between our physical body, the body of the instrument and the body of the
music. It grounds us in matter and, being grounded, we can safely begin to
explore the other elements of music-making. Without such grounding the
emotional and spiritual demands on the performing musician can be
It can also have a profound effect on stage-fright.
Joseph Zinker says:
- "Energy is blocked most often by fear of excitement or strong emotions. The
physiologic blockage accompanying fear of excitement is frequently in
After several weeks of group work all my students reported that they were
enjoying performing for the first time. They were not nervous but rather
aware of having extra energy available to them, which they had learned to
ride. The two that habitually took beta-blockers had chosen to stop because
they wanted to be in contact with this energy rather than blocking it.
A classically trained musicians' relationship to his instrument can be as
complex an affair as any other relationship in his life.
Firstly, there is the fact that it is probably worth a great deal of money.
For a string player the value could range between the cost of a small flat
in Tooting to a mansion with pool on Hampstead Heath, and the instrumentalist
may not relate to the instrument with any sense of his own value. The
instrument may well be hundreds of years old and have been played by great
exponents throughout its history. While this can be inspiring, it can also
Next, the instrument is often what, in psychotherapeutic terms would be
called a "transitional object"; an inanimate object onto which we project
the primary feelings originally attached to a loved one, such as the mother.
The intimate contact and level of expression one has with the instrument is
carried in its very fibre, as are the disappointments, judgements, hopes,
and expectations which one has projected onto it. Though inanimate, the
instrument is as alive to the instrumentalist as any other transitional
object; the child's friend the picky blanket or the imaginary playmate.
Opening the case can be like opening Pandora's box and the Box of Delights
In order to begin to explore this often unconscious relationship with cello
students I do a simple exercise that is an extended version of the one
explained in the section on breath:
Exploring the relationship with the Cello
- Placing the cello temporarily out of sight I use visualisation -- fluid
images such as a waterfall -- to establish a sense of joints opening
and weight flowing through them. Once this release has occurred I bring the
cello slowly towards the student, asking him to observe any changes in the
emotional state or the level of tension he feels. Almost without exception,
anxiety creeps into the muscles and joints causing the jaw to tighten, the
lips to purse, and the shoulder, elbow, wrist, and knuckle joints to lock.
For very few the proximity of the cello initially inspires feelings of joy,
comfort, and a desire to sing.
- Having made this observation, the student is in a position to begin
releasing the tension as the cello moves towards him a second or a third
- Taking time to map out a spherical space in the room in which to safely
contain himself and his instrument, the student then begins moving with and
around the cello, observing any feelings that arise. As he approaches it he
can feel fear, intimacy, be repelled or interested, and I encourage him to
amplify these feelings by expressing them through movement.
- When the dance draws to a natural close, I ask the student to take a
place where he feels in a comfortable relationship to his cello and begin to
vocalise, either by singing a familiar piece of music or improvising. This
symbolic role reversal (with the sound coming from his body and the cello as
the listener) can be very reassuring in terms of the musician's voice being
'heard' by the instrument in whose awesome presence he may well have lost
Working with this process in a group situation, the student's individual
dances can remind me of different animals, each moving within their habitat,
with the movements ranging from intimate touching to a bleak and determined
separation. For one girl, the proximity of the cello seemed to inspire a new
sensuality, as she caressed each and every curve of the instrument's
surface. For another girl, normally so graceful, having been trained as a
dancer, the dance with the instrument seemed to rob her of any sense of her
own body and she became almost dowdy in her movement, as if her cello stole
away her grace.
With this physical and emotional approach we begin to transform the
relationship with the cello, as we do with any important relationship in our
lives, by first feeling it; feeling it on every level. To ignore its
importance is merely to relegate it to the unconscious realm from which it
could well manifest as fear. If we build a trusting relationship with our
instrument, we can learn to follow its wisdom -- from the arc of the bow to
the vibration of the string -- and listen to what it needs from us. In doing
so we begin to live in the flux between control and abandon.
As my yoga teacher said to me: "To be immersed in the body is to be present
in the old mind." If we are physically present when playing we will
access not the busy fearful mind of judgement and competition, but the
wisdom of the mind of the musician that always sings within us.