HOLISTIC TECHNIQUE

by Gordon Epperson



Gordon Epperson is well known to the cello world and particularly to the readers of the American String Teacher. For eight years he edited the "Cello Forum,'' and much of the material published by ASTA in his book, The Art of Cello Teaching, is a compilation of his essays appearing over those eight years. Epperson is artist, teacher, scholar, writer, philosopher; his philosophical treatise, The Musical Symbol, is a fundamental resource in the study of the aesthetics of music. He has just returned from a five-month tour in New Zealand where, as a Fulbright Scholar, he concertized, conducted master classes, and lectured in all of the principal cities and universities .




It is no accident that our Age of Analysis is also an Age of Anxiety. "We murder to dissect," said Coleridge. And we do it from the highest motivations: we wish, even as we further dismember Humpty Dumpty„his Fall being, presumably, some kind of Original Sin„to put things right, to get closer, some how, to perfection. The result, among string players, is a mechanical accuracy and fluency without parallel in the history of the art.

When I compare the state of cello playing today with that of, say, 1940, I am amazed by the contrast. The dexterity of many of today's young cellists was matched, in that earlier time, by only a few virtuosos of world renown. This change should be heartening, even a cause for general rejoicing, as well as delight for the practitioners in the exhibition of their superior skill. An analogy to Olympic contests suggests itself, and indeed the proliferation of intensive competitions, with their emphasis upon speed, power, and endurance, strengthens the comparison.

Winning a "prestigious" contest is now such an acknowledged avenue to professional recognition that one easily forgets about the more laissez faire atmosphere of a few decades ago„as uncertain, to be sure, as our own milieu„when many emerging artists never entered such an arena. Some of them were then, as other aspirants are today, unfitted by temperament for the demands of that particular kind of "success," in which making a mistake or having a memory slip are looked upon as the cardinal sins.

Every player aspires to greater precision, finer control, impeccable intonation, staying power. Of course. But what larger purpose is being served by this insatiable hunger for more technique, what "ends," if you like, are envisaged? Wise men have said that ends and means should be consonant. How often (or how far) do most of us, teachers and students, think beyond the day-by-day exigencies of a demanding craft which can so readily absorb all our energies, physical and psychic?

I grew up hearing the cliche "the Greeks had a word for it." Whitehead described Western philosophy as a "series of footnotes to Plato." Plato included music with mathematics and gymnastics as essential to a proper education, in which the whole person is developed: spiritually, mentally, morally, and physically. This qualifies, in our present vernacular, as a holistic view. Plato was fearful of the possible effects upon character of the "wrong" kind of music. Aristotle voiced a suspicion of extraordinary prowess per se. After maintaining that "it is difficult, if not impossible, hr those who do not per form to be good judges of the performances of others," he went on to say that "the right measure will be attained if students of music stop short of the arts which are practiced in professional contests, and do not seek to acquire those fantastic marvels of execution which are now the fashion in such contests, and from these have passed into education."'

We need not go quite so far in our proscription, today, of the competitive spirit, and certainly not, I think, for professional players, though it is important to realize that a very small number of those who aspire to solo performance will build their careers entirely--or chiefly--on concertizing.

The emerging prototype of what might be considered a holistic per forming musician, in our culture, is versatile: a player who loves the art, who can hold his own in performing the great orchestral and chamber literature, the solo and duo sonata, and even--if he has the gifts and appetite for it--engage in pyrotechnical display. (He may also, like his counter parts in earlier centuries, take his turn at composing.) There are more and more artists who fit this description, and many arenas for the exercise of their powers. Festivals, camps, seminars, workshops, performing groups of all kinds draw perpetually upon their talents, to say nothing of the numerous schools in which they serve as mentors.

Technique, therefore, must em brace all aspects of the performer's art. Too narrow a concept will stifle the imagination and impede development of the player's distinctive style. "Style"--again, it is Whitehead's dictum--"is the mark of the expert." We can, and we must, abstract general principles of wide applicability, but every cellist's technique has unique features: preeminently, of course, his own sound. Body language, "timing" on stage, and those elusive qualities of temperament and charisma are also components of technique and require thoughtful practice and keen awareness if rapport with an audience is to be attained. Most of all, an artist is a Gestaltist, who apprehends the pat terns of musical meaning the composer has set down, and brings them
vividly to life.

Technique, then, is synthesis as well as analysis, and we cannot do without either. Analysis, however, is hardly in jeopardy. Tireless attention to detail characterizes the best teaching today, as it always has; but the disproportionate emphasis placed on dexterity leads to deprivation, if not desperation. No wonder that "tension" in its various manifestations is endemic. For what deep artistic, or human, values are served by competitive virtuosity? In 1880, writing of musical life in London, Edmund Gurney, author of The Power of Sound, complained: "In general society musical talk almost always sinks into that most barren and wearisome region, the discussion of the merits or demerits of different executants and virtuosi."

Most of us, I suspect, believe that music-making is an activity that can yield profound value. The aspiring young player is hungry for meaning, and no amount of obsessive calisthenics, in its absence, will satisfy him. Keen awareness of a musical work as a whole gives direction to practice and places mechanical drill in musical context. Here, if anywhere, the teacher has an essential role: to guide, and perhaps to inspire. Classes and seminars devoted to technique should include attention to phrasing, tone color, and expressive power.

Leopold Stokowski, in setting forth the qualifications for members of the All-American Youth Orchestra, which he conducted half a century ago, specified that candidates in strings should be able to play very fast, and very slow; very loudly and very softly; they should have the ability to make a crescendo from pianissimo to fortissimo in a single bow, and a corresponding diminuendo on the next. Above all, they must have poetry and fire.

If ours is an age of analysis and anxiety, it is also an age of Master Classes. The term "master" has come to be applied somewhat indiscriminately. But a master worthy of the title, most would agree, deals with more than extemals; moreover, he exemplifies what he teaches. What are the characteristic signs of his instruction? Alan Watts, in his introduction to a book by Al Huang, says of its author:

He begins from the center and not from the fringe. He imparts an understanding of the basic principles of the art before going on to the meticulous details, and he refuses to break down the movements into a one-two-three drill so as to make the student into a robot. The traditional way is to teach by rote, and to give the impression that long periods of boredom are the most essential part of training. In that way a student may go on for years and years without ever getting the feel of what he is doing.2

Getting the feel of it--or "getting it all together"; this is a holistic enterprise. When I was a young student of cello my teacher complained to my mother that I was very tense. "So tense, he is, Mrs. Epperson!" My mother was a musical person who played the piano by ear, and who had taken up ukelele also. "Maybe he just needs to get the hang of it," she suggested to my teacher. "When I began to play the ukelele it took me a while to get the hang of it." "That's an instrument I never cared for," said my teacher, not understanding.

But I stuck with the cello, and when I got the hang of it, despite my teacher's grim forebodings, tension yielded to celebration.



1 Artistotle, Politics, 1341alO. aowett translation)
2 Al Chung-liang Huang, Embrace Tiger, Return
to Mountain, Moab (Utah), Real People Press,
1973, p. 1.


Reprint of Cello Forum article in the ASTA Journal, summer 1982
By permission of the American String Teachers Association



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