MARGARET ROWELL: An Introduction

MARGARET ROWELL: An Introduction
by Irene Sharp


{1984 article about Margaret Rowell's Teaching by Irene Sharp, cello professor at San Francisco Conservatory of Music}

In the fall of 1958, I performed the Brahms Clarinet Trio at Holy Names College in Oakland, California. At the end of the concert the pianist, Bernhard Abramowitsch, turned to me and said, "You play well, but I know a woman who could help you improve. She doesn't play the cello any longer, but she is an unbelievable teacher." My immediate reaction was negative. "A woman? And she doesn't play! How can she possibly teach?" However, I made an appointment with her, and thus met one of the most important people in my lifeMargaret Rowell.

On my way to meet Margaret Rowell, I was nervous as I drove from the Albany flats to her beautiful house in the hills above Berkeley. How would I play? What was she like? I was met at the door by a gentleman wearing thick glasses, a green eyeshade, and an apron. He had a twinkle in his eye and he used language so beautifully that I was instantly charmed. This was Margaret's husband, Professor Ed Rowell. While I studied with Margaret, I would often come early to talk with Ed and learn from his wisdom and his genial wit.

As her husband ushered me in, Margaret came along in her warm, quick, enthusiastic manner. Her brown eyes flashed behind her glasses. With her short dark hair, her simple dress and artistic jewelry, she looked elegant. She shooed Ed back to finish the dishes, closed the French doors to the living room, settled on the blue couch, and waited for me to play.

I played the Prelude from the Third Bach Suite badly, although I played as well as I could. Years later, Margaret said that it was so bad that she couldn't tell whether I was musical at all. But, typically, Margaret recognized in me someone who needed help, not necessarily someone who had the potential to become a cellist, but someone with many cellistic problems and a desire to learn.

Margaret's specialty is to take someone whose talent is not so obvious and help him uncover and realize his potential. I have heard her say at so many workshops "I don't teach the cello, because the cello can't learn! I teach the human being." As I sat in her booklined living room, I sensed the many other cellists who, like me, had come here with their aspirations, and learned not only cello playing but an approach to living.

Until I met Margaret I had experienced only traditional teaching. The teacher assigned an exercise or piece, and the student attempted to learn it. The material was supposed to accomplish the teaching. If the student didn't play well, he was simply not talented, and there was nothing to be done. A basic approach to the instrument was not taught. If the student was physically immobilized while playing, he was categorized as "tight" and that was that. In the lesson itself, the teacher sat behind his instrument and the student behind his. There was not physical interaction between them.

Margaret's lessons were an enigma to me. I was used to playing a piece, not worrying too much about the actual sound I produced or how it felt physically. I never realized that there was a connection between the two. However, in those first lessons I rarely played more than one line of music. Margaret believes in teaching "from the inside out." She wants you to feel what it is like to produce an expressive tone and a beautiful phrase, not just fit yourself to a prescribed position with the hope that things will come out sounding all right. In order to reach you internally, Margaret uses imagery and direct physical contact.

During the lessons, this imagery and absorption with kinesthetics took many forms. One day when I couldn't get the feel of the bow, Margaret said, "Think of a paint brush," and had me get up and pretend to be painting her wall. When she wanted a "poured tone" she took me to the kitchen to fill a pitcher and a cup so that I could get the actual feeling of pouring. When I insisted on gripping the three ounce bow in a deathlike grasp, Margaret got her most beautiful bone china tea cup and saucer and had me manipulate them up and down and around. "Was there any danger that you would drop them?" she asked. And so I realized the feeling of an easy clinging hold to the cup nothing like the viselike grip that I had been using on the bow.

Margaret's repertoire was not limited to cups and saucers. She asked me whether my car had a gear shift or an automatic transmission. Then she showed me how the left hand on the cello should be shifted, as if the cellist had an automatic transmission: not with a jerk but with an easy fluid motion. To teach pronation (turning the arm toward the body), she took me to her door so that I could turn the doorknob. Then I had to demonstrate that turning the top of a jar gives a similar motion. This type of teaching was highly unusual!

Even more unusual was having Margaret pump my arm in every direction to see how stiff I was and to show me how to use my arm from my back. I crawled inside myself, hoping she would stop thumping me so we could go on and play a few more notes. Enough of this feeling stuff!

But there was more to come. In her efforts to have me feel how the power could come through from the back, she had me crash the heel of my hand on my thigh. I often walked out her front door with a few black and blue marks.

Margaret would also get me to feel her arms as she played some notes, but my fingers were blind. It took me years to "see" what she meant.

One day when I couldn't yet understand the feeling of power from my back. she encouraged me to get on the floor and crawl, feeling my weight come through my hands while still having the fingers free to move. Margaret tried this with quite a few students. Once at the San Francisco Conservatory, the President of the Conservatory had an important visitor who wanted to meet Margaret. When they arrived at her studio they found both Margaret and her student crawling on the floor. A fine howdoyoudo, and what great teaching!

However, the lessons were not all physical. There were poems and readings from Robert Frost, Omar Khayyam, and F. A. Alexander. She was fascinated with wildflowers; out came a book showing "fiddle ferns" and their similarity to the scrolls of stringed instruments. Throughout all of it was this magnetic, vibrant, energetic, enthusiastic person. Margaret has so much vitality, you know she has never lost the childlike curiosity and energy that every adult longingly remembers.

One of Margaret's favorite quotations is from Saint Exupery's Wind, Sand and Stars: "Have you ever thought...about whatever man builds...all his calculations...all the nights spent over working drafts and blueprints, invariably culminate in the production of a thing whose sole and guiding principle is the ultimate principle of simplicity? It is as if there were a natural law which ordained that to achieve this end, to refine the curve of piece of furniture...or the fuselage of an airplane, until gradually it partakes of the elementary purity of the curve of the human breast...there must be experimentations of several generations of craftsmen. In any thing at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away...."

In her teaching, Margaret applies the principle of simplicity by using "one finger scales." This consists of playing a scale on one string with the same finger playing each of the notes. This, she believes, gives one a direct message from the brainear telling the finger exactly what is needed; the finger responds without interference. Often, as I was waiting for my lesson, I would hear the previous student playing a one finger scale. This happened over a period of months. I thought to myself this student must be slow, or perhaps Margaret's teaching is slow. Finally, at one lesson, I heard the Haydn D major Cello Concerto flowing beautifully from the next room. This concerto is to a cellist what Mount Everest is to a mountain climber. What Margaret and her student had accomplished with one finger scales was to have so simplified the technique achieving a beautiful tone, shiftings intonation, and all the other fundamentals that climbing the Mount Everest of cello literature was relatively easy as a result.

Studying with Margaret also meant participating in her California Cello Club. This club evolved from her students meeting to play for each other and in ensembles. It grew to include all the Bay Area cello teachers and their Students. The Cello Club became a forum for visiting cellists. There were Countless occasions when Margaret hosted Piatigorsky, Rostropovich, Starker, Casals, Greenhouse, and other famous cellists. Cello Clubbers could get a closer view of an artist,
and the great cellists became aware of the cello community in the Bay Area, a community which existed because of the spirit and artistry of this one woman. In 1958 Rostropovich visited the University of California at Berkeley, and Cello Club attended the concert in the gymnasium in full force. After the concert the University and Cello Club cohosted a reception at which there just happened to be eight cellists with their cellos and the music to the VillaLobos Bachianas Brasileiras. Of course, Rostropovich participated in the impromptu concert after the concert memorable occasion for all.

Cello Club had wonderful Christmas gettogethers. In ensemble, forty or fifty cellists played the familiar Christmas carols. A teenager played "O Holy Night." The youngest cellist played "Between the Ox and the Grey Ass," an ancient carol. There one experienced the true Christmas feeling, with Margaret bustling about fixing punch and hundreds of brownies and arranging the greenery and holly so that it looked just right. No one who participated could ever forget these occasions.

Margaret is somewhat of an absentminded professor. Sentences sometimes don't get finished, keys disappear, her purse all fifty pounds of it can't be found, the book with the quotation that she needs isn't where it is supposed to be. Her forgetfulness sometimes takes unexpected turns, as it did that first Christmas I knew her. One evening before Christmas I arrived at our apartment to find a book on Beethoven waiting for me from Margaret with the message, "Merry Christmas!" A few days later there was another package containing a bone china sugar and creamer set"Merry Christmas from Ed and Margaret!" When we arrived at the Rowell's for Christmas dinner, Margaret was all apologies. "Oh, I forgot your Christmas present!" and she presented me with a beautifully wrapped Alexanian edition of the Bach Cello Suites. She had forgotten all the previous gifts. I was overwhelmed.

Pablo Casals came to Berkeley in 1960 for a monthlong master class. Margaret had many former and present students in the class, and she worked tirelessly to get us ready to play for the great cellist. It was the experience of a lifetime. Cello Club had a potluck dinner for Casals, and we had over eighty cellists playing together in his honor. After the month of Casals was over, I called Margaret for a lesson. She said, "You don't want to study with me after having been in the master class, do you?" I had never realized that Margaret did not hold on to her students. If she felt they needed something that she couldn't give, she would send them to someone else. This is most unusual in a world of teachers where each feels that he is the only one who can do the job well.

Margaret's teaching is in a continual state of change. She is forever learning and simplifying; asking questions of students, artists, physicians, chemists; reading, and writing to people all over the world. Margaret often states in her lectures that our cellistic geniuses are largely self taught. We don't remember the names of the teachers of Casals and Rostropovich. The reason for this is that in their quest for expression through their
instruments these "greats" chose all the right paths. They were able to play well because there was no interference between their thought processes and the physical execution of these desires. They play "from the inside out" and it looks easy. Margaret, through her inquisitiveness, great warmth, and hospitality, is able to observe these great artists. She attempts to understand their techniques and to transmit this knowledge to her students.

Because of my husband's military commitment, we left Berkeley in January, 1961, and drove with our sevenmonthold baby, Wendy, to Anniston, Alabama. There we rented half of a farmhouse, and Wendy and I talked to the cows while Terry went on all night field maneuvers. This is when Margaret r S teaching began to unfold within me.

There were many facets of Margaret's teaching thatI could not understand. She had talked about the reservoir of power in the back, ready to be used whenever it was needed by the hands. She had talked about playing through the fingers, not with the fingers. One was supposed to cling to the fingerboard and to the bow with a suction grip, like a baby clutching a toy. I was to use a bear hug to hold and position the instrument, and I was to feel that my arms were bird wings, light and airy, but powerful.

One by one, I worked through the concepts that she had delivered to me. I began to understand the basic approach to the cello: to free myself so that I could produce music. I realized again the magic of her teaching. It does not always produce immediate results, but, like timerelease capsules, her teaching keeps acting over an extended period. Although I had only studied with Margaret for a short time, during the three years when I lived in Alabama and Washington, D.C., I felt as if I were having a lesson with her every day. As I began to comprehend her teaching, I would occasionally write to Margaret and explain to her what she had tried to explain to me. Her invariable response was, "But of course, Renie!"

We returned to California in July, 1964, with two daughters. I was eager to see Margaret and to start teaching once more. From time to time I went to play for Margaret, but more often I would go to her and say, "Margaret, I have a student with such and such a problem. What should I do? What material should I use?" I loved teaching cello. Every student was unique and needed a different approach, but the principles were the same and had to be taught. Margaret has always had a great commitment to educate teachers. She feels it is the teachers who need to be instilled with the basic principles so that they can pass them on to their students. We had many wonderful exchanges where I tried out my new ideas on Margaret, and she shared her greater wisdom and everevolving ideas with me.

In the spring of 1968 Margaret delivered a talk in Seattle for the large Music Educators National Conference held there. Margaret rehearsed her talk many times beforehand, trying to be as succinct as possible. She asked me to come along to assist her, mainly to accompany four thirteenyearold boys who played the Haydn C major Concerto in unison, as well as to illustrate
her teaching points. In the large audience was Paul Rolland of the University of Illinois. Paul had a grant from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare during the Johnson administration, and he was producing a string method which included a book, films and new music. Later, Paul said he was intrigued that his violinistic ideas were so similar to Margaret's cellistic ideas, even though they had never met or talked. He invited Margaret to write the cello portion of his method. Margaret agreed and entered what turned out to be a frustrating period of authorship, trying to fit her choice of words into the Rolland method. The photographs were difficult to get just right, and the sequence of techniques had to be exactly the same as for the violinists.

Margaret sent the proofs of the book to me in Ann Arbor where we had moved in 1969. Then came a phone call that she was going to have a cancer operation, but I wasn't to worry. Margaret wrote the preface to the Prelude to String Playing while in the hospital. I marveled at the spirit of the woman who could concentrate on something that she loved at a time of great stress.

Paul Rolland asked Margaret to demonstrate her ideas in an American String Teachers Association Workshop in Milwaukee. Margaret again invited me to come along to assist. Actually, she did not need any assistance. She was giving me an opportunity to learn how to teach teachers. When we arrived in Milwaukee, we first took a limousine from the airport and were dropped off in front of a hotel. Our baggage sat on the lawn suitcases, cello, music cases. A taxi showed up to take us to the university. Margaret, gregarious as ever, engaged in a lively discussion with the driver, a university graduate, about books and architecture. When we arrived at the university I had my cello, suitcase, and music, but in the heat of the discussion we had left Margaret's things on the lawn in front of the hotel. I felt utterly useless. I had come along to carry things and to help remember, and had failed at the first opportunity.

We gave four workshops in Milwaukee with Paul Rolland between 1972 and 1976 and since then have given them all over the U.S. and Europe. A workshop is basically divided into three sections. In the first we discuss the basic approach to the instrument. The second consists of a typical master class in which a student plays a work and is helped in front of the entire class. In the third we prepare several pieces to be played by the whole group in a program at the end of the workshop.

Margaret prepared for each workshop as if it were the first she has ever given. She has copious notes from all the lectures she has delivered, and she uses them. However, each lecture is different. Her preparation is similar to that of an artist giving a concert. Although he has played the pieces many times, he must reconsider all the possibilities of each work and approach the composition as if it were the first time.

Margaret's vast knowledge of music and cello playing has come from many Sources, but she has integrated it with her own wonderful, characteristic insights. As Margaret guides teachers through her basic principles, one realizes that she has taught many children and has retained within herself the imagery that inspires children and adults. Her gift is the creative teaching that allows learning to happen from the inside out.

The teachers learn about bear hugs and bird wings and make their hands become "blobs." They cling to the string and bow with their baby clutches and again get the feeling of flying over the instrument with their wing feathers (fingers). They do "knuckle knocks", thumping the cello with their knuckles to feel the easy power coming through, then clap all over the fingerboard to feel the mobility of the arm. They learn about balancing on the string like a tightrope walker and that vibrato is like the wavering of the acrobat as he maintains his balance. These concepts are illustrated with newspaper clippings of the Great Walenska walking a tight rope from building to building. Margaret brings a picture of a skeleton to show the similarities in the construction of arms and legs, and shows how the feet have their reflexes built into them but the hands work only through the brain.

She also has a "bag of tricks" Which she uses to illustrate points: a lizard with flexible "fingers" and rubbery feel that demonstrates suction into the string; Chinese handcuffs, again for a suction feel; a windup toy, wound up in the back to demonstrate where the power is. Margaret is not teaching dry notes and rhythms, but inner feelings and concepts which will enable live tones and rhythms to be produced.

Margaret is also willing to give each person the "feel" of her baby clutch or bear hug. Using the power from her back, she has been known to fling an unsuspecting student across the room with a mere flick of her arm. She challenges a teacher to take a book out of her hand, but the teacher finds this impossible because of the strength in Margaret's flexible grip.

In the master class phase of the workshop, one realizes that Margaret's approach is not just physical, but deeply musical. She wants the music to have shape and direction. She often talks about the architecture of music indeed that architecture is frozen music. One of her most scathing comments to a student would be, "It sounds too technical." Margaret wants Bach to sound like Bach, Beethoven like Beethoven, etc. She does not hand out "her" fingerings and bowings to works as 80 many teachers do. Rather, she works with each student to fit the technique to his concept of the music.

Margaret has the utmost patience when it comes to teaching. She will try multiple approaches over a long period of time in order to get a student over a musical hump. At these workshops it is clear that Margaret is not only interested in the most talented students. It makes no difference whether they are aged seven or seventy, amateur or professional, farmer or nun. The ones with problems receive the most attention. Margaret's interest is in the development of human potential.

Group playing in workshops and Cello Club was an unusual facet of Margaret's teaching. Cellists are by nature friendly, and since the cello has nearly the same range as a human choir, a cello choir has a glorious sound. Cello Clubbers love to sit down and play Bach Chorales together or arrangements of other great pieces. At a workshop many participants are moved to tears when they are in the midst of this beautiful sound. We had to limit the cello orchestra to ninety players at Margaret's 80th birthday celebration at the San Francisco Conservatory. Playing in such a group gave the whole community a feeling for the enhancement of the individual and his part in a greater whole.

Margaret and I have taught workshops in many places, each with its own special memories. We study maps on the airplane and discuss the spots we want to be sure to see. Margaret wants to experience everything. One year we were in Lexington, Kentucky. We finished the workshop and rose early on Sunday morning to watch the thoroughbred race horses go through their warm-ups. "Look at those delicate legs that carry the ton of flesh. They're always ready to take the weight just like our fingers in playing the cello." Then there was the Chicago trip when we had to see the wonderful lines of the Mary Cassatt paintings in the Art Institute, and Margaret's beloved water lilies by Monet.

Our trip to England, the first for both of us, was full of wonder. Under the expert guidance of my husband, Terry, we visited everywhere in London using the underground. Margaret was fascinated by the underground and kept asking whether they had dug it from the surface or had tunneled through when it was built. Neither of us knew, but Margaret was persistent. Finally, in desperation, she spotted a "typically English" little old lady with hat, gloves, and shopping basket. Margaret rushed over and asked her the burning question, "Did they go straight down or sideways to dig the underground?" The lady looked at Margaret and blurted out in a thick Yiddish accent, "I vuden't know. I hev only been here a short time meinself."

On that same trip for the European String Teachers Association, the workshop in Cambridge included a Beethoven Sonata cycle, and I performed three of the Cello Sonatas. As I was rehearsing in the concert hall Margaret stopped by to listen. She could not contain herself. "Your bowing is awful in that spot, Renie!" She grabbed my arm and vigorously demonstrated the proper approach. Other faculty members wandered in to watch the teaching demonstration. I was mortified; I was supposed to play in two hours and was being shown how to do a bowing. However, at the performance I discovered how right Margaret had been. I marveled again at the teaching genius who could not bear to see a wrong action being taken when she had the ability to correct it.

Margaret is forever lending her music, cellos, bows, and books to people and then forgetting who has what. On one occasion before a performance, she complained about the sound of my A string. I went home discouraged. What could I do? A few hours later a call came from Margaret. "There's a cello of mine
in San Jose. Pick it up and see whether it doesn't sound better." It was beautiful, and I have enjoyed it ever since. _

During one of our many hours of preparation for a workshop, I left Margaret a pamphlet written by a neurologist whom I had heard speak on Neurological Clues to Better Teaching of Music." I knew that Margaret was fascinated by the study of the mysteries of the brain and had read a great deal on the subject I thought that this pamphlet would also interest her. I left it on top of her piano which was already covered with music, books, and magazines.

On our next trip, to Columbus, Ohio, Margaret said, "Renie, I have something that you will enjoy reading. I'll just put my name on it so you can return it to me sometime. Out came the neurological pamphlet signed Margaret Rowell. I protested, "But Margaret, I loaned that to you." We had a good laugh. 'Well, it's too bad that I signed it," she said. "I'll replace your copy."

Sure enough, in a few weeks she had a copy for me. However, she had not simply written the author and asked for a reprint. She had gone out of her way to meet the gentleman and had begun an exchange of ideas with him. He was interested in her work, and she wanted to discuss his ideas with him. Her magnetism, interest, and curiosity had worked again.

Margaret has students everywhere. My students, Margaret's grandstudents, love to have her come to our Sunday morning workshops. She imparts such a feeling of history, love, ant sensitivity, and does it with such a flow of energy, that we all come away inspired. From her presence one gets a sense of a pebble thrown into a pool of water with widening circles flowing out from the center. Each person she has touched knows that he has had an extraordinary experience.

Irene Sharp
January 1984
Palo Alto, California

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