I was very fortunate to be able to study and work in depth with the eminent cello pedagogue Margaret Rowell. As part of my combined training as a professional cellist and teacher, I was closely associated with her for 24 years, until her death in 1995. When I was 19, I was already a well-developed cellist, and had been accepted at Juilliard; but I had also become familiar with Margaret's work, and chose instead to settle in Berkeley, California, to have access to her teaching. In her work I discovered a very profound and unique insight into cello playing. My years with her were enormously productive, and as a result, now that I'm based in New York, one of my activities is to give seminars in various places to share my version of her ideas with other cellists.
In this article, I'd like to give you a bit of an idea of what goes on in my seminar, and what sorts of methods you would encounter there -- to the extent that it's possible to do that in an essay such as this. It won't be the same as if we were together in person, and you could ask me questions to clarify what I mean; or I could see if I thought you were actually doing the thing I'm showing you how to do. Also, this is just the smallest "taste" of it, since the seminar is usually scheduled to take an entire weekend, or more. But I hope that from this you will get a sense that Margaret found newly effective approaches to old and difficult issues, and that by opening some doors that had been closed to us before, a special kind of inspiration came to life.
Born in 1900, Margaret herself was a "child prodigy" on the cello, and developed in what one might call a "natural" way with relatively little help from teachers. By the time she was in her 20's she was a distinguished concert artist, in a trio that broadcast frequently on NBC radio. But right in the middle of this career, she came down with tuberculosis, and was hospitalized for three years without being able to touch the cello. When she came back to performing, she of course remembered the technique and musicality, but felt she had lost the easy, relaxed, expressive kind of physical connection with the instrument, that she had always taken for granted before -- which was also the part that had allowed her to be an artist, rather than just an excellent player. She went to every cellist and teacher she could find, to ask how to get it back, and it turned out that this particular type of feeling for the instrument was the one thing with which no one could help her. So she set out on her own personal quest to regain that feeling, and though it was a very painstaking and difficult search, her creativity and brilliance eventually led her to mastery of the issue. Now she knew for the first time how to provide this ability for herself, (instead of just having it naturally and unconsciously), and as a result she also knew how to provide it for other cellists. She found the source of it, so that those who don't have it can acquire it, and those who do have it can do it more, or do it on purpose rather than just by chance. Since this specific kind of knowledge is missing from the current "state of the art," even in the best of teachers, Margaret's contribution is major. Even where some teachers have pursued the matter, Margaret brought a new depth of understanding and access to the issue for everyone, out of her particular combination of unusual circumstance and unusual perception.
One important element in her research was investigating the playing of many famous cellists, to find out how this element of "naturalness" works for them, and to discover what's going on when things are working right, or well. She spent a great deal of time observing and listening to them in concert, and she also sought them out and questioned them at length, always trying to "read between the lines" and look for what lay behind their words. This brought her into close contact with Casals, Piatigorsky, Rostropovich, Fournier, Rose, Nelsova, Ma, and many others, and she became their respected personal friend. She was eventually able to figure out a number of things that artists such as these have in common in their playing, things which are essentially too instinctive for them to be able to articulate themselves. These things could be called "basic principles," which concern the physical side of playing, and the relationship between the body and the cello. Working together, these principles produce a special "feel of the cello," which is not technique or musical interpretation, but is more like the underlying foundation that allows technique and interpretation to function well -- at any level, whether one is a polished artist, beginning student, or anything in-between. These principles have to do with certain elusive physical sensations, which have to first be captured and then incorporated into one's playing.
A major challenge in understanding these "basic principles" is that trying to grasp or produce a physical sensation is very different from trying to learn a mental concept. The world we live in is very good at knowing how to learn mental concepts, such as facts or information -- but much less skilled in the whole area of what the body feels inside, and how to get at that. For example, cello technique, as that term is normally understood, is more in the category of a mental concept, a straightforward procedure which can be approached by verbal description. But here I'm referring to certain body sensations that lie underneath technique -- and which have to be there in order for the technique to fulfill itself. Those sensations can be captured, but they require a different kind of thinking, because they don't operate the same way as mental concepts, and they don't obey the same laws.
Here's a simple way to see the difference between how to learn a mental concept and how to capture a physical sensation. In learning a mental concept, it's very useful to try to get the right answer. It's basically a matter of finding a piece of information and representing it correctly. But in the world of physical sensations, answers don't do much good. With this kind of an internal feeling, no sooner do you think you've found the answer to how to get it, but the feeling then slips away, often unnoticed -- leaving you wondering sooner or later where it went and how to get it back. Body sensations, like emotions, don't respond well to "rational reasoning." As a matter of fact, "right answers," no matter how logical, tend to work against being able to get closer to capturing a physical sensation. What gives us some access to a physical sensation is asking questions, but doing so in a very particular way. It's a matter of asking a question, but not in order to get the right answer -- rather, for the state it puts us in to be asking the question, for what we get out of just being in that process. Asking a question without being focused on the answer, strange as that sounds, puts a person in a particular state of openness which allows a physical sensation to come to the surface and reveal its presence. But the tricky part is that the moment we turn it into an answer, (which is what we all do all the time, like a "cultural addiction," as it were), the feeling begins to disappear like a mirage; that's because it's now no longer a physical sensation but a mental concept, and is therefore no more than a memory of what was felt, which is crucially different from having the feeling itself. So the unusual mode of thinking that's needed for this undertaking is to learn how to ask questions without being concerned about the answers one gets. That's really fairly simple, but it's also easier said than done. It's a skill that we "don't learn in school," and it has to be cultivated over time. However, it really does work, and it's a significant part of what Margaret pioneered in order to produce the breakthrough that she achieved.
I'll give you a small, rudimentary example of how this can be done. Let's say I come over to you and with my hands I move your bow-arm around, showing you a particular kind of feeling of flexibility in all the joints -- shoulder, elbow, wrist and knuckles -- after which your arm feels more comfortable, and your sound comes out with a freer quality, getting more good sound with less effort. In a sense, that resulted from my questioning what your arm is doing. The way to go further with that is not to think of that new feeling as something that's right -- but rather to ask yourself lots of questions about it, and not take any one answer too seriously. So, you could ask yourself, as you move your arm around, "What is my arm feeling right now?" And take note of any answer that comes up, but then quickly drop that answer and ask the question again, for the new moment -- which will probably be different. Physical sensations are like that -- they don't have the continuity of mental concepts. If you ask that question in the morning, the answer may be different from when you ask it in the afternoon, or the next day. Even if the answer opens something up for you in the moment you find it, it probably won't apply to the next moment; and if it does, you can be sure that eventually it won't apply, if you keep asking the question. So then you can ask, "What does my arm feel if I move it this way?" And then, "What does my arm feel if I move it that way?" And experiment with different variations, on the arm motion and on the questions. It's not that you don't want to get anything out of the answers; with enough different answers, we gradually begin to learn things about producing sensations. The point is that answers are much less important than the fact that you keep questioning. This kind of physical sensation only exists in the moment it's created or generated; unlike a mental concept, it doesn't carry over from one moment to the next, like something you get and keep. But it can always be produced, "from scratch," freshly in the new moment -- and the way to do that is to keep asking questions, which are the hooks that pull it back up, so to speak.
So, what I will say is that I can't give you any answers, but I can give you an empowering way of asking questions. The "basic principles" I'm talking about actually "behave" more like questions, rather than answers to anything; so I'm going to ask you to think of them that way. They may sound like pieces of information, but in fact, they are something other than that -- they are thought processes, which produce physical sensations and spontaneous moments of insight. I like to think of them as "generating principles," because they are not information, but rather, something that generates information. The distinction is critically important. If you can approach these "basic principles" as tools for exploring and investigating, rather than something to be arrived at or achieved, they can give access to certain actual physical sensations, which open up new realms of ability with the cello.
Based on what I've said so far, there are two "traps" to keep from falling into, in reading the remainder of this article. I want to caution you to avoid having either of the following two reactions, or attitudes, in approaching this material. I'll tell you why, after telling you what they are. The two counterproductive reactions are: 1) "I don't agree with that," and 2) "I already know that."
With the first one, the thing to realize is that as I suggested above, I'm not saying that any of this material is an answer, or something that's right -- so therefore I'm not asking you to agree with it or not. I'm just asking you to "ask it as a question" -- to try on the perspective, as a place to think from -- to experiment with the point of view, in a serious way, and see what happens with cello playing in that context. In a sense, agreeing with it is as bad as disagreeing -- that's not what it's about. The physical sensations in question here are not generated by a debate about who's right or wrong.
As for already knowing it -- that brings up the same kind of problem. The relationship between the body and the cello has to be felt spontaneously in every new moment; it doesn't live as something that can already be known, like a concept -- and filed away in a compartment. As I mentioned, I'm talking about a place to think from -- not a fact or a conclusion. You can't "already know" a place to think from, because a place to think from is not a piece of information -- and you can only know pieces of information. The way to approach this material is to try thinking from it, and see what happens. And if any of it sounds familiar, treat it as something to be known in a new way, from a fresh perspective. Otherwise you'll rob yourself of the value to be gained from the material that follows.
When we talk about playing the cello in a physically natural way, we're generally referring to something that should feel easy and relaxed, or at least free of stiffness and tension. On closer examination, it's not really a matter of being "relaxed" per se, but rather of how energy is channeled through the body. To be merely "relaxed" might lack the passion and excitement that the music demands; and also we do need some version of strength and power for playing the instrument. But what exact type of strength and power is it that we need? And how do we achieve those things without being stiff, tense, tight or awkward?
Let me pose the larger question from an additional angle. With a cellist who plays artistically, there's a distinct feeling of freedom in the various motions involved; nothing is constricted or constrained. What exactly is it to move in a free way? For example, with the bow -- we can talk about moving the bow faster or slower; but at any given speed, what do we mean by moving it more freely? What is a free motion, specifically, and how is it achieved? That's the kind of issue where we need some illumination. By the time you've read to the end of this article, you'll have a sense of what that kind of freedom is.
As a point of departure, I'm going to use an analogy with walking. It's safe to say that most people walk in a fairly natural way; and it's equally safe to say that most people who play the cello don't do that as naturally as they walk. If we could find out what it is about the way we walk that makes it a "natural" motion, and then apply some of that to cello playing, it would be one example of an insight into what makes the great artistic cellists so unconsciously natural, in a physical sense. That would be part of building a link between the mind and the body -- instead of having the mind and body each working well, but operating in separate worlds from one another.
If we're going to try to find parallels between walking and playing the cello, one way we might frame the question is in terms of how to use the arm like a leg. One thing that's for sure is that when we walk, we don't have a stiff ankle, and then try to press down on the floor through the front of our foot and our toes. In taking a step forward, the heel of the foot comes down first, and then we shift our weight toward the front of the foot with a flexible ankle while the other foot circles up and around, to receive its weight through the heel.
Just as the foot has a heel, the hand has a heel -- it's the base of the palm, near the wrist. The wrist joint is the counterpart to the ankle. So, from the previous observation about how the heel of the foot works, let's imagine how the "heel of the hand" might apply to having the bow-arm function with the naturalness of the leg in walking. If I were showing you this, I would have you take a long down-bow, and as you do it try sinking into the string through the heel of your hand, with a flexible wrist. I would have you try using the heel of your hand as a focal point, and getting a feeling of weight sinking into that heel, with the wrist flexing downward, and the fingers and thumb on the bow being quite relaxed, almost as if they were made out of rubber. This would also involve checking to make sure that the joints in your elbow and shoulder are springy and easily movable, like your knee and hip joint in walking.
If you try this successfully, or if I were there in person to show you how to do it, you would find that this way of bowing produces a sound that is deeply "into the string," and yet not forced. Cellists want a sound that's not "superficial" in the sense of being on the surface of the string -- and at the same time does not force, press or choke the string. This feeling of sinking into the string through the heel of the hand, with a flexible wrist, lets the bow enter deeply into the string, but without "pinching" the sound.
Please note carefully: I'm not saying that you should play with a low wrist, or a flat wrist, or have the heel stay down -- any more than you would want the heel of your foot to stay down when you walk. I'm saying that we can open up some positive possibilities by having a certain spring-action of flexibility in the wrist, in order to sink in through the heel when we want a deeper or larger sound, or sink in less when we want a softer or lighter sound. One way to understand it is to think of dynamics as colors -- so that a forte, or maybe "rich red," would be produced by sinking in deeper with the heel, whereas for a piano, or maybe "pastel pink," you could let the wrist come up more. Obviously, this is one of many aspects of dynamics and sound production, and I'm describing it in oversimplified terms -- but this particular item is a missing link in cello knowledge, and it has very far-reaching implications.
Now, if you observe a lot of cellists and the way they play, you'll find that this kind of flexibility in the right wrist and use of the "heel" of the hand is fundamentally present in the great, natural artists, even if they never talk about it that way -- and much less present in those who seem to have less "talent," whose wrists are noticeably more rigid. That situation raises the question of why a cellist would ever end up with any stiffness in the wrist in the first place. To shed light on that, we have to look into the issue of how we produce the physical power needed for playing.
Let's return for a moment to the heel of the hand, and I'd like you to try this: sitting upright in a chair, let the heel of your right hand fall forward and hit your right leg, just above the knee -- and do it so that it bounces off of your leg, as if you throw the heel down and forward, and have it "ricochet" off your knee and into the air, with the arm still going forward in a circular motion. To do this the way I mean it, the wrist, elbow and shoulder joints all have to be very free and relaxed. If you do this, you can feel the considerable power that can come through that heel of the hand. If you did it hard enough, you could bruise your leg with it! And yet there's not a stiff joint anywhere in your arm. It's similar to the idea of stamping your foot, forcefully enough to shake the timbers of the house -- which you would always do through the heel of the foot, with flexible joints in the whole leg -- not through the ball of the foot or toes, with a tensed-up ankle, which would deliver a lot less power.
The only reason a cellist would ever have a stiff right wrist is if they imagined that it was necessary in order to get enough power or strength into the bow. But as we see here, by analogy with the leg, it's possible to get much more power through a flexible wrist (and supple fingers) using the heel of the hand, than from a stiff wrist with an attempt to have "strong fingers." So this opens up a whole area of insight into the question of how to play without tightness or stiffness. It's the idea that a great deal of tension and stiffness in playing comes from trying to get power from the wrong source.
In addition to the matter of how to get our power from the right source, it's also an issue, as I said earlier, of how energy is channeled through the body. It's a question both of where the power comes from, and where it flows through to, (in this case the heel) -- and in an unblocked way. So, to continue with this line of inquiry, let's return to the analogy of walking -- again, to connect the mind with the body. When you're standing and you take a step forward, with your leg coming through to that heel of the foot, where does the energy come from to move the leg? What is the power source for the leg's motion?
If you experiment with walking, you'll see that in order to take a step, your leg does not go forward first. You don't stand where you are and stick out your leg, and then put it down to pull your body forward. Rather, the thing that moves forward first is the trunk of the body, or torso, with the motion initiated from the center of the lower back, which is where the center balance of the whole body is located. Of course, the legs are involved in this, but only in the sense that one leg slightly "relaxes out from under you," which allows the central torso to move forward, while the other leg essentially "falls forward" to meet it. So, although the legs move, their muscles and nerves are coordinated with the center of the lower back, which is the source that initiates their motion, and supplies the power for it. This is why a person can walk for miles without their legs getting tired -- because the leg muscles are not the power source. It also makes walking easy and smooth, instead of a forceful effort. And if it works this naturally for walking, we can begin to see how the same basic idea can be applied to cello playing.
Try sitting with your cello in a playing position but without the bow, and put your arms around the cello in a "bear hug." Now rock back and forth from right to left several times, on your "sitting bones," with the legs also holding the cello and moving with it, and the spine all in one piece; (not just moving from the waist up, but all the way down to your seat). That "back and forth" motion from the center of the lower back can be used as the source of motion for the bow arm, just as the center of the lower back moves the legs in a forward direction in walking. Now take the bow and draw it across the string in the same direction as your back is moving. Have the down-bow start and continue from "leaning" to the right; then change bow direction smoothly in the center of the back, and have the up-bow start and continue from "leaning" to the left. The arm follows the back, in the same direction. If you do this, it can allow the arms to be much more relaxed, because the back is doing a large part of the work. This relaxation of the arm frees the sound to be much more resonant, stimulating the string's active vibration instead of pressing down and inhibiting it. Feel how free and easy the arm becomes, when it doesn't have to work so hard, because it's being moved primarily by the back, instead of by its own muscles. The arm almost feels as if it's floating. And then, as you lean to the right for down-bow, if (for example) you want more power for a deeper sound, try leaning into the heel of the hand, from the back, sinking gently into the string, the heel flexing downward, with the wrist and fingers supple. You can feel not only where the energy comes from, (the back), but where it comes through to, (the heel) -- thus knowing how to use the arm more like a leg. And if the elbow and shoulder joints are free to move easily, that flow of energy from the back will not be blocked, but will be channeled through the body, from the inside, out, with no interference.
This is not to say that it's necessary to move the back to some particular extent while playing; this demonstration is just to enable you to feel the power source more dramatically. Ironically, one could say that as long as you can move, you don't have to move; the basic point is to avoid sitting in a stiff, rigid position. But on the other hand, a certain amount of that back motion is clearly noticeable in artistic players. Margaret used to go to concerts of famous cellists, and sit where she could observe them from different angles, particularly from the far right or left side at the front of the hall. That was one way she was able to detect the coordinated use of the arms from the back, which could be seen in that slight movement of the center of the body, with the arms following in the same direction -- a movement which also encompasses the legs, all the way down to the soles of the feet.
From the observations so far, an interesting picture is starting to emerge. If we use the center balance in the lower back to generate natural motions of the body, we can say that the back is the power source for the function of the arms. This power source in the back lets the arms be much more free and easily relaxed than if we try to use the arm muscles to provide power for the arms. Arm muscles soon get tired, and are a very limited source of power, at best; but the back is an endless source of power -- and using it allows the arms to release tension. And if the arms are not stiff, there can be a flow of energy from the inside, out -- from the center of the body, through the free arms, into the cello and out across to the audience. If, on the other hand, the arms are working hard with their muscles, the resulting tension is a blockage of power, cutting off of the flow of energy, like a short circuit, and thus restricting the freedom of musical communication. What's needed is a simple kind of "re-wiring," so that the hands and arms are not trying to be their own source of power, (like a small, inadequate battery), but are connected to the much larger "power plant" in the back. By being wired up to the real power source, a superabundant supply, it's possible to get rid of a great deal of tension, effort and stiffness.
A good way to think of it is that the back is the reservoir, the arms are the waterfall -- and the fingertips are the electric lights in your house -- which are ultimately wired up to that large power source in the back. Margaret always liked to say that "we don't play with our arms, we play through our arms" -- and that the whole body really plays the cello, not just the arms. There's also another way in which the back is the power source for the arms: the muscles that actually move the arms are the muscles of the upper back. The arm muscles don't actually move the arms. We only think they do; anatomically, that's not an option! In reality, any attempt to use the arm muscles to move the arms is doing nothing but adding muscular tension where it can't help anything happen. If you just leave your biceps relaxed, the back muscles will move the arms for you -- which is the only way the arms ever move anyway. You won't actually feel the back muscles doing anything, because it's so effortless for them; you'll just find that your arms are moving and the biceps aren't doing it, but are free and relaxed. Try it and you'll see -- the back is the power source for the arms. That source has two aspects -- the center balance, (lower back), and the back muscles, (upper back).
Now try another thing. As you play some long bows, down-bow and up-bow, and you feel that the back is actually moving the bow-arm, (by moving with it in the same direction), notice what's happening with the right hand. Does the hand move the bow, or does the arm move the bow? Pretend your hand is moving the bow, and see how the hand feels. Then do the same long bows, but this time the idea will be to see if you can feel the arm moving the bow -- rather than the hand doing it; the hand is just "going along for the ride." A good way to feel that is to be aware of a "horizontal" impulse in the arm, coming from the "side of your wrist," like where you would wear your watch -- an impulse from the right side of the wrist for down-bow, and from the left side of the wrist for up-bow. (The impulse actually comes from the center of the lower back, and travels down to whichever side of the wrist -- through relaxed biceps and free shoulder and elbow joints.) When you feel that the arm is moving the bow, notice the effect this has on the hand, as well as the sound. If the hand isn't trying to move the bow, it's free to do something else, which is critically important.
This investigation leads to some discoveries about the role of the hand, and the relative roles of all these body parts. For one thing, the hand can't move the bow all by itself, (except maybe an inch or two); for long bows, the arm has to be doing it, powered by the back. So, we can't actually have the hand move the bow -- however, we can "think" it does -- we can play as if the hand were moving the bow. This happens by a simple optical illusion. We see the bow moving; and we see that the hand is on the bow. From that visual image, the mind puts two and two together and gets five -- our brain interprets it that the hand is moving the bow -- and the hand acts accordingly, thinking it has that job to do, and tightening up in order to make the effort. All that's needed to change that is to feel that the arm is moving the bow, which is all that's happening anyway. If you simply allow the arm to move the bow, which is what it's already doing, the hand is suddenly much more relaxed -- which is because it's no longer trying to do the arm's job. Just as when the back is moving the arm, the arm is able to be relaxed -- because it's no longer trying to do the back's job. This kind of "liberation" starts with unmasking a mere optical illusion, regarding power sources. And what is an optical illusion, but a disconnection between the mind and the body -- where the eyes (as parts of the body) are perceiving one thing, and the mind misinterprets it as something else?
Now, when the hand is no longer trying to do the arm's job, it's free to do its own job. And what might that be? The fingers of the right hand are responsible for the quality of contact between the bow and the string. When the individual fingers are free to influence the bow by a vast range of subtle manipulations, those fingers thereby produce all the colors, shadings and nuances of tone that make up an artistic cello sound. This reaches to the core of what I mean by playing artistically. If the hand is even slightly tight or constricted because it's trying to do the arm's job, it's only able to produce a monochromatic palette of tone. Where art comes into it is in having an infinite variety of tone colors, values and intensities freely at our disposal. This is only possible when the fingers are available to be used for such qualities and inflections, instead of trying to be a source of power or motion, which is what the back and arm are for, respectively. When the fingers are free to interact with the bow in subtle ways, the colors and nuances are released into the sound spontaneously, without even trying, or being aware that it's happening. This is why the great artists do it unconsciously -- it happens automatically when the fingers are free to do it, and that can occur without one's knowing it. And yet, there's the feeling of being capable of creating the effects one is consciously pursuing -- so that if you want to produce a particular emotional feeling or shape of a musical phrase through tonal shading, you have the means to do it. There's a great feeling of expressive freedom -- as well as easy naturalness.
Here's a way to feel this more specifically. Let's imagine that the length of the bow hair is divided into four equal sections -- one for each finger. As the bow moves across the string, each finger in turn will exert a slight pull on the bow, as if to gently bring it in toward the string -- and then smoothly release as the next finger takes over. For the motion of a full-length down-bow, the fourth finger, or "pinkie," is responsible for the first quarter of the bow, closest to the frog. The third finger takes charge of the next quarter; the second finger takes over at the halfway point, and finally the index finger is responsible for the quarter nearest the tip. For up-bow it's the same thing in reverse. So the fingers on the bow are used as 4-3-2-1 for down-bow, and 1-2-3-4 for up-bow. We could say that the down-bow at the frog is started with the pinkie, and the up-bow at the tip is started with the index finger. This, of course, is a very simplistic version of it, in its most basic form. In actual musical situations, bowings involve an infinite assortment of different lengths of stroke and parts of the bow; so the engagement of the fingers is used in all possible combinations and amounts, to express whatever the artist feels and wants to bring out at that moment. Try feeling this with your fingers on the bow as you play, and you'll see what I mean. Combining that with the arm (rather than the hand) moving the bow, you can hear a sound that is not only much more free and resonant, but releases thousands of shadings, colors and varieties. This kind of thing makes all the difference in the world between artistry and the lack thereof. Specifically, it makes the cello's sound expressive and interesting. It gives the sound the ability to communicate a variety of things, instead of just one thing. And having just one option is sort of like having no options. There's nothing quite so disappointing as the experience we've all had, of going to hear a cello recital, looking forward to basking in the beauty of the music and the instrument -- and then after ten minutes of it, realizing that you've now heard the entire limited range of expression that the otherwise skillful cellist is capable of producing from the instrument -- and yet the concert is still going to continue for another couple of hours. This makes tedium out of the thing one loves the most, which amounts to the cruelest of ironies.
So far, everything I have said has been in reference to the bow. But all of it applies equally to the left hand, in the full spectrum of its functions. For example: powered by the back, and rooted in the heel of the hand, with the side of the wrist leading, the left arm is the transportation for the hand, carrying the hand up and down the fingerboard -- with springy and flexible joints in the knuckles, wrist, elbow and shoulder. As the focal point for the flow of energy, (like the ankle area in walking), the heel/wrist area is what "aims for" and pinpoints the note on a shift -- not the fingers, which can't take themselves there on their own even if they wanted to, but can act as if they were doing that, which adds needless tension, as well as more risk of missing the note -- and thus makes the notes seem to need endless reinforcement for technical security. You can feel the difference if you try this out. Just like sound quality with the bow, playing in tune is an issue of the body being free to respond to what the ear hears, in the sense of internal pre-hearing. So for instance, in bowing, it's not a question of whether the bow-arm is high or low, which varies according to musical situations in any case. Rather, it's a matter of the arm being connected to the back, so that the power source can supply the artist's needs, which can only be fulfilled if there's no muscular force, heaviness or stiffness. Margaret was fond of saying that we need to have no interference between the brain-ear and the fingertip. In that state, the aspect that ultimately benefits the most is ... music. It's worth contemplating the fact that for any potential musical idea in a person's imagination to be manifested in reality, we are utterly dependent on the human body, and its most intimate cultivation. Whether we're freeing the vibrato's pulsations for a range of different intensities, or liberating the bow-arm's sensitivity for lyricism, inflections and accents -- music requires an unobstructed path of expressive energy from the inside of the player's body, out to the listener. An artist has something inside that needs to be communicated; if the physical channels are blocked, the urgent message can't be delivered -- to the detriment of all concerned. If that's finally the case, then all the technical accomplishment and interpretive understanding in the world are in vain.
It's important to note that this physical approach, just by its nature, resolves all problems of pain or injury in playing. No medical knowledge is needed; all it takes is knowing how to use the body in an artistic way in the first place -- and the pain/injury issues are solved along with it. I like to say that the "good news" about cello playing is that what feels the best also sounds the best, and vice versa. Cello playing never has to hurt, and pain/injury exist in inverse proportion to artistry.
At this point, I've partially described two of about ten physical principles that the seminar addresses. (I say "about ten" because by their nature, they're always evolving, and are not a fixed "answer.") I've touched on the mind-body link, and the connection to the power source. I'll very briefly mention two more, and then leave their fuller development and the other six or so major principles, (all equally important to those described so far), for the seminar itself.
When we're talking about power sources, one of the best examples is the principle of strength through flexibility. It's sort of a "Zen" paradox that something that's flexible is actually stronger than something that's rigid -- and this applies to every aspect of cello playing. It's analogous to the way buildings and bridges are constructed to be able to withstand earthquakes -- the structures are stronger if they can bend a little bit. It's similar to the way the flexible tires of a car "stick" to the road -- which they wouldn't if they were made of smooth hard steel. Margaret loved to say that "we've gone out of the age of the iron rail, and into the age of the rubber tire!" It's even true of human relationships -- if one person or the other can give in to some extent, the relationship is strong enough to survive a stress or crisis; but with brittleness on all sides, the bond can snap under stress and is thus weaker. We lack this physical flexibility in cello playing, because we unthinkingly assume that we're stronger if we're rigid -- when in fact the opposite is true.
In cello playing, one way we can use this principle is through something called the "suction cling," which applies to three things: the way the hand holds the bow, the way the left fingers approach the fingerboard, and the way the bow comes into contact with the string. It's not a "cling" in the sense of clutching or grabbing at something, but rather of easily adhering by contact with the surface, just due to the nature of what it's made out of. So it's a matter of having a touch that is rubbery and supple -- like the way a very new baby takes hold of one of your fingers with their whole hand, and you almost feel as if you can't pull your finger out. Since that baby does not have the muscular development to counter that of an adult, we realize that the tactile "power" in the binding of the skin textures is the result of the grip's very flexibility -- of its softness instead of hardness. You can try this with the cello, and the effects are liberating; in order for the fingers to have this "suction," all the other joints along the arm have to be springy and malleable.
The other principle for a reference in passing is the use of negative energy. To push forward through the arms would be "positive energy;" to pull back in toward the center of the body is the corresponding "negative energy." As an analogy -- in order to have an electrical charge, for example in a battery, both polarities are needed, positive and negative -- and yet, our world culture is so obsessed with "pushing ahead" that on many levels we forget to "pull inward." (That electrical charge is comparable to the specific kind of energy we need for cello playing.) One way we can re-introduce this missing element into cello playing is to subtly "pull" the bow in toward the string, even as a long down-bow is opening out in front, almost like rowing a boat -- with the bow-arm feeling a pull back toward the center of the body (as it moves in a "horizontal" circle), at the same time as the center of the body is moving forward. (It's the same thing in reverse for up-bow.) This releases the tension that results from an exclusively forward push with the bow; it balances the out-flow of energy from the back, so that it's not all going forward; it creates a supple tonal relationship of contact between the bow and the string, neither forcing the sound nor skimming the surface; and like electricity, it produces a dynamic vitality in the body movements and in the sound. In a powerful and significant way, it thus helps to allow for artistry. This "negative energy" works for the left hand by pulling the fingers toward the string and the fingerboard, in the direction of the center of the body, (with the left elbow balanced and not sagging down), rather than pushing the fingers down from above and/or squeezing with the thumb. It's not merely a matter of being relaxed; it's knowing how to pull in toward the center, and thus direct the energy in a way that releases tension and frees artistic qualities.
This gives you a small taste of some of these ideas -- like a taste of a hot fudge sundae, which is better than nothing, but still not the same as eating the whole thing. To develop this material in any real depth requires not only substantially more time, but an in-person hands-on situation. A great deal of it depends on being physically transmitted by touch from one person to another. It's also necessary to have me there to respond to your questions, and resolve a wide range of objections. I've been teaching this material for 30 years now, and believe me, I've heard and dealt with every conceivable objection to it. I can assure you that what you've read here is just the "tip of the iceberg," and the approach is comprehensively applicable and internally consistent.
So, this is a beginning -- but one that has made a difference. The concrete results of Margaret's many decades of innovative teaching gave us a bold vision of what is possible. This stands in the starkest contrast to what actually goes on in the larger world of cello playing and teaching, at all levels. It shows that most cellists are ensnared in a trap of self-imposed limitation. There's an old saying that "Most of us go to our grave with our music still inside of us." It's ironic how true that is of musicians themselves. It's simply the result of a pervasive unwillingness, more like a steadfast refusal, to re-examine the fundamental premises of one's thinking. We are left in a situation in which the music stays locked inside the person, and the very best that cello playing can give to the world remains permanently out of reach.
© 2001 Nicholas Anderson
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