by TIM JANOF
An Internet Cello Society Exclusive
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Victor Sazer is the author of New Directions in Cello
Playing. His teachers included Leonard Rose, Edgar Lustgarten, Claus Adam
and George Neikrug. After leaving Juilliard, he became a member of the Houston
Symphony. He later moved to Los Angeles where he enjoyed an active professional
life in the film, television, and recording industries and as a chamber
musician. Throughout his career, Mr. Sazer has been deeply committed to
teaching and is widely recognized for his innovative and creative teaching
methods. He served as an artist-teacher of cello and chamber music at the
California State University at Long Beach for more than twenty years. He
is a past president of the California American String Teachers Association
and a founding member of the Los Angeles Violoncello Society.
TJ: How did your book, New Directions in Cello
Playing, come about?
VS: About the time I began to write a long planned book about cello technique,
I became aware of the magnitude of pain problems among musicians from a
major study commissioned by ICSOM (International Conference of Symphony
and Opera Musicians). This study showed that over 76 percent of string players
acknowledge having medical problems serious enough to impair their performance.
In the light of this information, I realized that I couldn't write about
cello playing and not address issues of pain. The search for answers then
became my first priority. Is it inevitable that cellists sacrifice their
bodies for their art? Can performance-related pain be avoided? Are there
objective principles or criteria that can be used to distinguish healthy
practices from harmful ones?
TJ: Did you find answers?
VS: I eventually learned that there are underlying principles and was startled
by their simplicity. They are observable principles of body movement, which
govern all human activity. We use the same body whether we are playing the
cello, doing brain surgery or chopping onions. We can gain tremendous insights
into our body's natural impulses by seeing how we use our bodies while doing
ordinary things. Increasing awareness of these impulses is the key to pain-free
playing. It enables us to adapt our technique to our body rather than the
other way around.
TJ: How do you approach this in your book?
VS: Initially, the reader is guided through a process of self-discovery.
The best way to learn about your body is to observe how it feels when you
perform certain physical movements. The book asks you to perform a series
of simple movements, without the cello at first, followed by questions about
your reactions to them. Your body provides you with answers that deepen
your understanding about how your body works.
TJ: Why make us do movements without the cello?
VS: Because it helps reveal the fundamentals of body movement with objectivity.
If you experiment with your instrument first, there is a tendency to revert
to ingrained habits. Of course, many demonstrations with the cello are included
further on in the book.
TJ: Did taking this approach change your thinking about cello playing?
VS: It certainly did. No one could be more surprised than I by what I learned
and continue to learn by experimenting in this way. Many of my long-standing
ideas and assumptions about playing changed dramatically.
TJ: Did you have problems with pain as a cellist?
VS: Fortunately, I never had acute pain, but the more my body awareness
increased the more hidden tension I was able to uncover and eliminate. This
process improves your ease of playing and comfort and is also is good insurance
against future problems.
TJ: You describe what you call the breath test in your book. How is this
VS: The breath test is a valuable diagnostic tool, probably the most valuable
one of all. It is an infallible detector of tension anywhere in your body.
When your body is tension-free, you can breathe deeply and completely. If
tension is present, you can immediately feel restriction in your breathing.
TJ: How do you use the breath test?
VS: Here is an example: Stand and take a few deep breaths. Then tilt your
head slightly forward and breathe deeply again. Can you feel that your breathing
is now restricted? This is because tilting your head puts the weight of
your head in front of your center of gravity causing your body to be off
balance. If you release your back and abdominal muscles while in this position,
your trunk will fall forward. This shows that tilting your head creates
tension by forcing your muscles to do extra (wasted) work to just keep you
from falling forward. If the back of your neck or your shoulders ever hurt
after a long playing session, this might be the reason. If you try the breath
test with your trunk leaning forward or twisted or as you raise a shoulder,
sit improperly or do anything else that upsets your balance, your body will
give you a similar message. You will not be able to take a complete deep
TJ: What is wrong with having tension in your body? Tension has become a
real buzzword these days.
VS: I use the word tension (this is explained in the book) as shorthand
for excessive tension. Our muscles are arranged in opposing groups that
work together. Normally, when one muscle group contracts, the opposing one
expands. This kind of muscular activity involves tension, but it is a necessary,
functional tension. This is how your muscles work to move your limbs. This
tension doesn't cause pain. Excessive tension exists when opposing muscles
stress your body by staying contracted at the same time, or when you use
more muscle power than you need to accomplish a task. Excessive tension
inhibits rather than creates motion.
TJ: Janos Starker said, in his interview with me, that the goal is not to
play without tension, but to prevent it from building up in a particular
part of the body. Do you agree with this?
VS: Certainly a buildup of tension in any part of your body, for any reason,
is harmful. A buildup can be caused by something you do at the site of the
tension, but very often, it is caused by a chain reaction from an imbalance
in another part of your body. Paul Katz, in his forward to my book, quotes
Janos Starker as also saying that he could best describe his entire lifetime
of cello playing as the continual discovery and release of smaller and smaller
points of muscular tension.
TJ: Is repetitive motion something we should be wary of too?
VS: Some medical experts attribute pain largely or entirely to overuse from
repetitive motion. Certainly this deserves serious attention as one, among
many potential causes of injury. All repetitive motions are not the same,
however, nor are they all injurious. The force and manner in which they
are performed as well as their frequency can vary considerably, as can their
effects. When repetitive motions generate a great deal of tension, they
are dangerous. The effects are different, however, when they create little
or no tension. It is important to note that some repetitive motions release
rather than create tension. The most obvious example of this type of repetitive
motion is vibrato.
TJ: How does vibrato help one avoid pain?
VS: Vibrato counteracts immobility, which is a significant cause of tension.
Holding notes for a long time senza vibrato is more stressful than vibrating.
TJ: Since you don't consider overuse the main cause of pain, what is the
VS: I would characterize the main cause of pain as improper body use rather
than overuse. Improper use is anything that upsets your body's balance.
Three things that commonly interfere with balance are faulty body alignment,
pressing and immobility.
TJ: Is pain really so bad? Or is a little pain okay?
VS: A little bit of pain is like a little bit of pregnancy, it tends to
grow. Pain is your body's red light, telling you to stop what you are doing
because it is harmful. Playing in spite of pain can lead to more serious
injury. Sometimes playing with pain conditions your body to accept it as
normal. This too can have dire consequences. Hidden tension often builds
up, layer upon layer. Although it may not make you hurt, it can interfere
with your freedom of movement and might also be a precursor of pain. By
using the breath test and asking your body a few simple questions you may
be able to eliminate hidden tension. The seeds of pain are commonly sown
early in the lives of cellists. A 1988 study found that that nearly 80 percent
of advanced secondary school music students in Houston considered pain acceptable
for achieving technique. The no-pain no-gain approach is a sure way to create
TJ: So if one feels pain, what should one do?
VS: Stop what you are doing immediately and try to discover what's causing
the pain. Increasing your awareness about how your body works can help.
Here is a demonstration that reveals some useful information about your
Step 1. Stand, keeping your body loose. With an arm extended in front of
you, draw a few imaginary circles in the air. Can you feel your weight shift
from foot to foot? Can you also feel your body rotating and moving in the
opposite direction to that of your arm?
Step 2. Draw a few circles again, but this time do not let your body weight
shift. Do you feel the tension rising? If you perform the breath test with
each step, you will find that you can breathe freely when you allow your
weight to shift but not when you impede it. If you do something as ordinary
as drinking a glass of water or turning the page of a book, you can feel
your weight shifting. Why should it be different in cello playing? The English
violin pedagogue, Percival Hodgson, pointed out that "a capacity for
easy transference of weight from foot to foot is the correct foundation
for arm movements." This observation is more likely to come from a
violinist than a cellist, because violinists experience playing while standing.
Although it's easier to sense natural weight shifts while standing, they
are just as essential when you are sitting. Awareness of how this works
can make a big difference in how you feel and how you play.
TJ: What specific pain problems does this address?
VS: Just about all, because awareness of your body's balancing mechanism
is so basic. You play with your entire body and everything you do is connected
to your total body balance. Individual parts such as arms, hands or fingers
can function optimally only as part of your whole body. It is easier to
diagnose other problems when your body is balanced. For example, I spoke
to a cellist who had severe pain in his right forearm. In spite of several
years of medical treatment, the pain kept getting worse. He was convinced
that he would soon have to give up playing the cello. His injury had been
diagnosed correctly and the prescribed treatment of rest and exercise would
probably have cured him if he quit playing the cello. However, the way his
body was aligned when he played was not diagnosed and this was causing him
to re-injure his arm whenever he played on the A string. With a little experimentation,
he learned that his injury had more to do with what he did with his feet
than what he did with his arm. He was able to play without pain after improving
his balance and mobility.
TJ: Where are some of the common trouble spots in a cellist's body?
VS: Common trouble among cellists are back pain, right arm tendinitis and
shoulder (rotator cuff) problems as well as compression problems of the
left arm. Carpal tunnel syndrome and hand and finger injuries are also common.
Cellists have the highest incidence of back problems of any group of musicians,
or possibly any other population group. They are followed, in order of frequency
by harpists and then pianists.
TJ: Can you explain why players of these dissimilar instruments have similar
VS: One thing that they have in common is that they all play sitting down
and move their arms away from their body without the support of their feet
and legs. This is often compounded by a widespread failure of many musicians
to understand the mechanics of sitting. Harpists have to reach their arms
in front of their bodies. Because of where the pedals are located, harpist's
feet can't always provide adequate support for their extended arms. Piano
pedals are in the middle of the instrument. This provides a base that is
too narrow to support many of the pianist's arm movements. When reaching
both arms to one end of the piano or the other, a pianist has to roll over
on a hip. This isn't great for one's back. The base of support for the bow
arm is too narrow when the cello is held in the traditional manner, with
a leg touching each side of the instrument. This position evolved from pre-endpin
days when cellists cradled the cello between their calves. This brought
the cello bridge toward the center of their body. Jean Louis Duport was
an exception to this practice even though he played without an endpin. He
held his cello more on the left side of his body and instructed readers
of his method book to do the same.
TJ: Are there solutions?
VS: Solutions for the harp and piano would require mechanical modifications.
For example: if the piano pedals were adjustable or farther apart it would
be much easier for pianists to play anywhere on the keyboard. Fortunately,
the solution for the cello is easy. All you need to do is realign your body
and broaden your base. You can do this by widening the distance between
your feet and holding your cello toward the left side of your body. Keep
your right leg about 4 to 8 inches away from the right side of your instrument,
depending on your size. Your leg should be far enough away from the cello,
so that when your bow is at the tip, your hand is not to the right of your
right foot. Your cello can rest easily on three points: your body, the floor
through the endpin, and your left leg. This position is stable, flexible
and provides improved leverage. It improves your balance and enables you
to support the entire span of your bow strokes. This alone could reduce
the frequency of right arm tendinitis, because you don't have to reach as
far to the right with your bow arm.
TJ: By positioning the cello to the left, doesn't a sense of distance from
the cello create a lack of connection? A commonly heard principle is that
you should be able to hug the cello when you sit with it.
VS: Although it is wonderful to hug someone you love, hugging your cello
narrows your base and centers your cello. I think a better alternative is
to broaden your base and center your body.
TJ: How does one achieve power at the tip, in a healthy manner?
VS: Power at the tip is no different than power at the frog when your body
is well balanced and you use the right power source. The basic power for
bowing doesn't come from your bow arm but from your body. Your arm responds
to your body's impulses by moving in the opposite direction. This creates
the friction that produces sound. Your body is heavier than your arm so
when they are balanced against one another, the main power comes from your
body. The tail doesn't wag the dog! When your feet are properly placed,
they can be used to advantage, to steer your body's movements. You can easily
see the similarity between this natural process and any other physical activity.
For example, you don't throw a ball by just moving your arm. The power comes
primarily from your body. The correct placement of your feet is also critical.
TJ: You emphasize the importance of how one sits in your book.
VS: Healthy sitting is extremely important for all musicians, but especially
for cellists. I first became aware of this when I read an article by Dr.
Richard Norris in which he asks, "When is a chair not a chair?"
and answers, "When it is an instrument of torture." His article
was a catalyst for my further exploration of seating issues. Dr. Norris
explains that because the thigh bone can only move freely for about 60 degrees
as it rotates in the hip socket, the human body was not meant to sit with
the thighs and trunk at a 90-degree angle. Sitting this way tilts your pelvis
and strains your lower back. By using a seat that is the right height for
you, with your knees several inches below your hips and your feet several
inches in front of your knees, you can get the same support for your back
as when you stand. The angle of your seat can be improved by using a firm
tapered cushion, that is about two-and-a-quarter inches higher in the back
than the front. When I do presentations, I always bring tapered cushions
of various sizes for people to try. The most typical reaction from those
sitting on one for the first time, is a big smile. It relieves tension in
their lower back that they never knew they had.
TJ: Why should your feet be in front of your knees?
VS: This gives you the best support with the least tension. Test this by
extending your arms in front of you while you are seated, and then raising
and lowering them while you move your feet to different places. Your arms
will feel lightest when your feet are in the best location. If you do the
breath test at the same time, you will find that you can breathe most freely
when your feet are in front of your knees.
TJ: One thing you mention in your book is that the body likes to move in
arcs or circles instead of straight lines.
VS: Yes, our bodies are not designed to move in straight lines. We move
in arcs and circles when doing ordinary things. Why should it be different
when playing the cello? Percival Hodgson published pictures in 1934 tracing
the path of the right hand in a wide variety of bowings. They show curves
of every description; arcs, spirals, loops, etc. but no straight lines.
Hodgson's work presents convincing proof of the inevitability of curves
in all of our movements.
TJ: If you move your bow arm in little circles, then the bow does not remain
straight or perpendicular to the string.
VS: Why must the bow remain perpendicular to the string? First of all, it
is not possible to keep it straight at all times. Leonard Rose once said,
"There are no straight bows." Secondly, the string responds faster
when the tip of the bow is pointed slightly up when playing down-bows and
down when playing up-bows. Angling the bow this way also tends to make your
bow go around the string, so you actually play on the side of the string;
down-bows on the left side and up-bows on the right. Going around the string
and playing on the side produces a better sound than playing on the top
of the string. A sequence of alternating up and down bow strokes is typically
shaped like a figure "8". This allows for continuous motion of
your arm which makes bow changes smooth and easy. Straight bows can be more
stressful, especially when the bow is moving fast. It takes more effort
to stop motion to reverse the direction of the bow at the end of each stroke
than to continue it.
TJ: Won't the bow tend to slide up and down the string if you play with
a crooked bow? This would compromise the tone.
VS: Not necessarily. The bow is drawn across the string in a line that is
perpendicular to the string, even though the bow is at a different angle.
This creates more friction and better traction. Combined with the fact that
your physical movements are more natural, you might even have better control
of bow placement and tone. This approach allows you to easily move your
bow towards and away from the bridge to vary your colors and intensities.
TJ: What type of bow hold do you advocate? Is it similar to the "paintbrush"
VS: With the paintbrush image, your wrist is the handle and your fingers
and hand are the bristles that follow the wrist. Your wrist goes down on
the down-bow and up on the up-bow. The bow tends to be driven downward in
the direction of the floor. I used this approach for many years, but now
I'm getting better results another way. If your wrist moves up instead of
down on the down-bow, the natural leverages makes your hand and bow go toward
the string rather than downward. It also moves your bow around the string
so you play on the side of the string. The bow goes around the string counter-clockwise
on down-bows and clockwise on up-bows.
TJ: In the second movement of the Elgar Concerto, there are those perpetual
fast bows. Many people tire out before they reach the end of the movement.
Is there something that can be done to prevent this?
VS: There is obviously a limit to how long you can repeat the same rapid
motions before fatigue sets in. So, a good place to start is to explore
ways of varying the motions. When playing fast bow strokes, several notes
can be played on a single body impulse. For example: Play two fast 16th
notes, accenting the first one and letting your bow rebound to play the
second one. So, you get two for the price of one. Then play a group of four
16th notes, again accenting the first note of the group and letting your
bow rebound to play the remaining three notes. The accented notes are active
and the rebounding notes are relatively passive. With continued practice
along these lines, you can learn to equalize sound on of all of the notes
so you don't hear the accent, but retain the increased ease of your preparatory
work. If you are using a sautille bowing, point the tip of your bow slightly
upward toward the scroll. All off-the-string bowings tend to work better
with the bow at this angle. If you are using rapid on-the-string strokes,
you will probably get better results if the tip of your bow points slightly
down, toward the floor. Test this, by trying each of the strokes at different
bow angles to find what works best.
TJ: Let's go to the left hand now. You suggest placing your fingers on the
side of the strings so that you are pulling the string slightly to the side
instead of pressing the string down on the fingerboard.
VS: First of all, there are differences between fast and slow playing. In
slow playing, I suggest placing your finger on the fingerboard, between
the upper strings and on the right side of the C string. Resting on the
wood provides a solid pivot point for your vibrato. Your finger can contact
the string by just leaning toward it when the end of your finger is a bit
away from the string. You can play completely on the side of the string
when your finger is right next to the string, but in either case, always
touching the wood. I like to think about placing each finger with your entire
arm and hand unit. If your arm is balanced and in the right place for each
finger, your finger will do the right thing. Although the string may be
pulled to the side a bit, I don't characterize this approach as pulling
the string because this is not the main feature of the process. It might
give some people the wrong idea. When you play very rapidly, you play completely
on the side of the string most of the time but still always touching the
wood. You can brush the string with a light pizzicato-like motion as you
remove your finger. Your arm should always be free to participate by moving
TJ: Doesn't the tone suffer, since you are not stopping the string on a
hard surface such as the fingerboard?
VS: No, I think the tone may even be enhanced because the string is never
dampened. Mobility is increased because this takes less effort than striking
or pressing the string down to the hard surface of the fingerboard. Another
benefit of this approach is that the impulse that some cellists have to
press harder when they play louder disappears completely. The only time
the string must touch the fingerboard is when you play pizzicato.
TJ: Many cellists advocate the notion that fingering should be a transfer
of the arm weight from finger to finger, which implies that there is minimal
tension to begin with. Isn't this approach healthy since active pressing
is not involved.
VS: There is no problem if active pressing is not involved. There are, however,
many cellists who over-press or strike their fingers against the string
with excessive force.
TJ: Where should the left hand's thumb be when playing in the various positions?
VS: I think the thumb should be allowed to go where it wants to go, following
its natural impulse as much a possible. I don't see any point in having
a single pre-set place where your thumb should be all of the time, in any
part of the cello. You use different tools for different jobs. We do many
different things when we play the cello. They need not all be done in one
"position." I am an advocate of "thumb liberation."
Try this little experiment: Hold your hand in the air in a typical cello
position, with your thumb opposite your second finger. Then move your fingers
rapidly and see how it feels. Now move your fingers again, but this time,
release your thumb and let it go where it wants to. Which way allows your
fingers move more easily?
TJ: Getting back to the thumb, does this imply that the thumb could be hanging
away from the neck or fingerboard, like a hitchhiker?
VS: "Hitchhiker" seems to imply that where the thumb goes is arbitrary.
It is not. By finding the best place for your thumb in any given configuration
of your fingers, you are finding the best tool for the job. Careful observation
and awareness are needed in order to always select the right one. For example,
it is usually better to have your thumb reasonably close to the rest of
your hand when you are vibrating. When you straighten a finger, however,
it is less stressful to allow your thumb to reach away from your hand. Try
quickly straightening your first finger in the air, keeping you thumb opposite
your second finger. Do you feel your thumb straining to move away? Now,
straighten your first finger again and release your thumb. Which way feels
TJ: Where does the thumb belong in thumb position?
VS: Again, I don't think there is only one place where the thumb belongs
all of the time. Where you have it depends on what you are doing. When you
play fifths with your thumb it is logical to have it across two strings.
When you are vibrating on another finger, however, keeping your thumb this
way can make it harder to get your best vibrato on the playing finger. It
is better to release it. Here is another example: If you are going to play
an A in the middle of the A string with your thumb, followed by a B-flat
with your first finger, it is more comfortable to move your thumb to the
left so it only touches the A string. Holding your thumb down on two strings
continually also has a dampening effect on your cello that reduces its volume.
TJ: How does the liberated thumb affect vibrato?
VS: It makes it easier to maintain an even and unwavering vibrato on all
fingers. At the same time it provides the flexibility to vary its expressive
qualities. When the thumb is opposite the second finger, vibrato tends to
rotate around the thumb. Each finger is a different size and distance from
the thumb, so it takes more effort to equalize the vibrato. You can observe
many fine cellists releasing their thumb to vibrate, intermittently, if
not all the time. I find that students learn to vibrate more quickly this
way, because they can't clutch with their thumb.
TJ: How do you recommend playing octaves?
VS: They can be played several different ways, depending on where they appear.
One way is to have your third finger on the right side of the upper string
and your thumb on the left side of the lower one. You can use a bit of the
inside of your thumb, opposite the nail. An excellent cellist told me that
she loved this method when she played the octaves in the Popper Hungarian
Rhapsody. The octave passages on the low strings in the third movement of
the Haydn D Major Concerto can be played another way. Place your thumb on
top of the C string but deeper than usual; in the center of the second joint
while your third finger is on the right side of the G string. Octaves can
also be played using your third finger on the right side of the upper string
and your thumb across two strings but tilting it so that it only touches
the lower string. Of course, they can also be played in the traditional
TJ: How about artificial harmonics? Do you play this similar to octaves?
VS: Yes. There's no need to press the string all the way down to the fingerboard
with your thumb. Avoiding pressing it down makes playing harmonics much
TJ: You recommend not keeping your non-playing fingers down in fast passages?
Does this mean that you recommend a typing motion?
VS: Fast playing is more like wiggling your fingers than typing. You don't
restrain any of your fingers when you wiggle them. Notice that when you
wiggle your fingers vigorously, your forearm rotates. Notice also that your
arm tenses up if you interfere with this rotation. Most cellists would agree
that playing double stops takes more effort than playing single notes. If
you keep more fingers down than you need when you play single notes, you
will work as hard as when you play double stops. Another reason to alternate
moving fingers, is that it makes the articulation more even on all of your
notes. Try playing A then B flat, using your first and second fingers on
the D string. Repeat these notes several times keeping your first finger
down. Then, do it again, lifting your first finger as you alternate it with
the second. Do you hear the difference in articulation? When you lift, each
note is equally defined. This difference is especially noticeable when performing
a pair of grace notes or mordents.
TJ: Doesn't it become more difficult to coordinate the left and right hands,
especially during fast passages with fast separate bows, when one finger
is played at a time?
VS: Coordination problems are more likely if you try to have your bow follow
your fingers. Try the reverse and let your fingers follow your bow. The
first thing to do is to make sure that your bow strokes are precise and
rhythmic. Once this is set, focus on the bow. Let it be the metronome for
your fingers and coordination will improve. When you first learn to drive
a car with a clutch, you have to think about several things at once. You
press the gas pedal and release the clutch and shift and so on. But after
you learn how to do it, it becomes integrated into a single act. The same
process occurs when learning a cello technique or any other skill. Several
motions merge to become one. This can only happen, however, when the motions
are practiced in the proper sequence.
TJ: Does intonation suffer if the fingers are not above their notes?
VS: On the contrary. Keeping your fingers spread apart to be above the notes
tends to be more rigid so it is more likely to make intonation suffer. This
is especially true in the lower part of the string where the distance between
notes is the greatest. When teachers put tapes on the fingerboard to mark
finger placements in the "first position," they condition their
students to play with a tense hand from the very start. On the other hand,
when you release your fingers, you can even learn to expand at times, to
be able play whole tones between all of your fingers with no stretching
or tension. If you hold the ends of a rubber band between the thumb and
first finger of each hand and stretch and release it several times, you
would say that it is elastic. If you stop the process, while the rubber
band is even partially stretched, it is no longer elastic. It is tense.
Your hand reacts in much the same way. If you reach for notes only as needed
and allow your hand to be released as much as possible, your hand is more
elastic and flexible and you can find the notes with greater accuracy. Also,
your vibrato is better when your fingers are closer together.
TJ: This might be helpful in pieces where there are long passages with extended
position, like the Prelude of the fourth Bach Suite.
VS: There is no question that some pieces are more demanding than others.
When you find long passages calling for extended position it is most important
to release your fingers as much as possible. You might also try to find
alternate fingerings that reduce the number of consecutive extensions. Re-examining
the way you perform the extensions may also be helpful.
TJ: How do you deal with a piece like the Gigue of the fourth Bach Suite,
where notes go by so fast that you don't have time to move your fingers
in and out of a relaxed state.
VS: You might be surprised at how much tension you can avoid if you don't
hold unnecessary fingers down, don't anticipate or set extensions too soon,
release your thumb and allow your forearm to rotate to help your fingers.
Just one example: In the first measure of the Gigue, if you play the second
triplet, (B flat, C and D) fingering the notes 1X24, there is no need to
set the extension before you play the group. You can play the group in one
sweep, extending on the fly as you rotate your forearm in a cartwheel-like
motion. All your fingers can be together as you play each note (extending
between the notes). This is much like you would play an arpeggio on the
TJ: Is there a healthy way to play trills?
VS: One way is to rotate your forearm toward the bridge so that your fingers
can touch the string a little toward their outer edge. Use a light springy
trilling action focusing on moving your finger away from the string rather
than toward it. Keep the strokes short and allow your arm to move freely
to participate in the motions. The shorter the strokes are, the faster you
can trill. When you skip a finger to play a whole tone trill, allow the
finger between the stationary and active one to move with the active one.
Holding it away from the string is more stressful than letting it go along
for the ride. Keeping your arm and body mobile during extended trills can
help minimize fatigue.
TJ: Do you have any suggestions for people with small hands?
VS: Some of the alternative techniques we have been discussing can offer
even greater benefits to people with small hands than those with large ones.
The distances between notes on a cello are the same regardless of body size.
Avoiding restrictive hand positions and liberating the thumb can make playing
easier for everyone and make the size of hands almost irrelevant. Of course,
if one's hands are small beyond the norm, it might be best to use a smaller
TJ: How does one play without tension and still play with emotional intensity?
Are these two, mutually exclusive?
VS: Absolutely not. The less tension you have in your body, the more completely
engaged you can be in music making. The freer you are from physical impediments,
the greater your capacity is to maximize your expressive capabilities.
TJ: I have heard your critics say something to the effect that there have
been many great cellists throughout history and they all played beautifully
without your concepts. So are your ideas really necessary?
VS: We all admire the artistry of the great masters of our instrument. But
history also records physical problems going back at least 200 years. Some
people are suspicious of new ideas and can find comfort in doing things
only as they have been done in the past. I find it more rewarding to follow
the advice of my first cello teacher, Charles Brennand Sr. He instructed
me to only write fingerings and bowings in pencil, never in ink! He explained,
"You never know when you'll get a better idea. And furthermore, always
look for one." The essence of this lesson was "think for yourself
and do not fear change." My fondest hope is to stimulate further discussion
and encourage other cellists to continue exploring in the never-ending search
for a "better idea."
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