by Tim Janof


The following article originally appeared in the October 1994 edition of

The Strad (under the name "Tim Finholt"), a string musicians magazine based in England.  It is being

re-published here with permission of The Strad.

	I am sitting with my cello, clearing my head of the mundane stresses of

everyday life.  Nothing else matters, only my cello, my bow, and my own

sense of quiet contemplation.  Concentrate on breathing.  Concentrate on

relaxing.  Concentrate on the feelings of tenderness and love for music and

love for this wonderful instrument I have before me.

	I glance at myself in the practice mirror and reflect upon Pablo Casals's

words: "Beautiful playing is beautiful to look at."(1)  I think about Yo-Yo

Ma, and how beautiful he was as he played the Dvorak Concerto.  Everything

looked so easy, so perfectly balanced, so simple.  There were no unnatural

arm positions, no impressions of stressed shoulders or hands, no grimaces

of fatigue or pain.  And yet he was playing one of the most strenuous

pieces for cellists.  Why don't I look like that when I play?

	"As calmly and well-balanced as a cellist may sit with his cello, the

moment he starts to play, a change takes place in his body; suddenly his

head sits lopsided on his shoulders, one shoulder is pulled up, the elbow

is stretched out in a pointed angle, and the wrist of his right hand

becomes stiff like a board, or his hand dangles about as if it were drunk

and the left hand assumes a position that causes one to ask how it is

possible even to strike a note, to vibrate, to move from one position to

the next.

What a convicting observation from Emanuel Feuermann."2

	I begin to wonder if Yo-Yo Ma makes it look so simple because it actually

is simple.  Careful, don't confuse the notion of simplicity with the notion

of ease.  Playing the cello is not easy; it's an immensely intricate set of

motions requiring fine motor control that can only be acquired by years of

practice.  But perhaps I make it more complicated than it needs to be.

	Armed with this realization, I begin to examine my attitudes to cello

playing.  Have I been piling up prejudices, anxieties and neuroses about

cello technique?  I can still hear the "inner chatter" (3) that has

enslaved me over the years -- "I'll never hit that big shift," "the notes

are too fast," or "thumb position is too difficult."  And yet, in cello

lessons, the diagnosis of a technical problem always results in a common

sense solution--a higher arm, better planned bowing, better preparation for

the next note, etc.

	"The basic ill of poor playing lies in the absolute disregard of natural

laws." (2)  Feuermann seems to have had me in mind when he uttered these

words.  Sometimes I feel as if I must defy the laws of physics in order to

play well.  But this is ridiculous.  If I play out of tune, it's because my

finger is in the wrong place.  If I miss a string with my bow, it's because

my bow did not touch the right string at the right time.  It all sounds so

simple.  Maybe it is.

	I remember a concept from my math and science courses--the principle of

linearity--the idea that a whole can be divided into independent parts and

analyzed separately.  These parts can then be re-combined to comprehend the

whole.  Maybe my cello playing would benefit from this approach.  I could

study the bow arm independently of the left hand; then the left hand

without the bow; and finally, link the two together.  This sounds



	I start with the bow.  I look down at my cello and count the strings.

There are only four.  (What a relief -- sometimes it feels as if I am

playing a sitar!)  No matter how fast or slow I play, I am always playing

on one of these.  But it's more challenging to play fast because it's more

difficult to keep track of which string I'm on.  This leads me to suspect

that many perceived left hand problems are actually right hand problems.

If I really want to learn a passage, I should play it slowly first and

figure out which string each note is on.

	I begin to play a passage from a concerto [see example at the Internet

Cello Society Web Site] with the left hand 'shadow' fingering above the

fingerboard, while I play the corresponding open strings with the bow.  As

I play the open strings faster and faster, a pattern reveals itself:

A-A-D-D-A-A becomes a repeating sequence.  It's the famous passage from

Saint-Saens' Concerto no. 1 [measure 297].  Repeating this until it becomes

internalized, I add back the left hand.  What a difference--it's so much

cleaner!  Of course many passages are not this regular.  But the general

principle holds: always know what string you're on.

	I then note that whatever I play using my bow, it is either traveling up

or down-bow.  This observation may seem trivial, but it becomes crucial

when playing fast, when it's often difficult to keep track of the direction

the bow is supposed to be going in: always know in what direction you are


	Looking at my bridge I notice that the strings are at different elevations

above the cello body; the D and G-strings are higher than the A and C.  I

alternate between playing the A and D-strings.  Because of the difference

in heights, I tend to have a broken sound as I switch from one to the

other.  How can I achieve a smooth legato?  Michael Tree, violist of the

Guarneri Quartet, solves my problem:

	"When one hears an unwanted break in the line at the moment of string

crossing, it's usually because the arm doesn't prepare for it in advance.

The arm has a wide potential latitude of vertical movement.  You can raise

it to play on the left side of the string or lower it to play on the right,

or you can play dead center.  If the arm anticipates the string crossing by

leaning in the direction of the note that's coming, a more fluid, circular

motion is achieved.  The difference of a quarter of an inch may be enough

to put the arm in position; the wrist can do the rest.  But many players

will do the exact opposite and lean the arm in the wrong direction; the

result is an abrupt, angular movement." (4)

This means the more economical my motions are, the easier it is, and the

better I sound.  This is definitely a step towards my goal of simplicity.

	I then alternate between playing the open A-string with the open C-string

-- a huge leap over the two middle strings.  Again I sound choppy because

of the commotion of my bow arm, which flaps like a wing as I move between

strings.  Looking in the mirror, I note how unsettled and ridiculous I

appear as I play.  I must try to apply the string crossing lesson above.

In an effort to counter my panic caused by visual cues, I imagine that the

strings are actually on the same level.  Instinctively, I raise my bow arm

to a level where I can play the D-string comfortably, in a compromise

position between the A and C-strings.  Now I can reach both strings with

relatively little movement, mostly a wrist and lower-arm action.  A high

bow arm gives me the flexibility to play on any string with a minimum of

effort.  I begin to play the Prelude of Bach's E flat Suite, which is full

of huge string crossings.  The notes sound more connected than ever before.

Economy of motion pays off again.

	I then play my open A-string, using half my bow for each note.  I

gradually increase the tempo while maintaining the use of half-bows.  I am

quite irritated by my tone -- it sounds uneven, scratchy, and forced.  My

arm is also extremely tired, so I must be doing something very wrong.

While maintaining the fast tempo, I try using less bow.  As if by magic, my

sound becomes even and full and my arm is able to relax.  I conclude that

the faster one plays, the less bow one needs.

	With this lesson in mind, I play a quaver [quarter note] followed by two

semiquavers [eighth notes], and keep repeating this pattern.  I notice that

I am using the same amount of bow for the quavers as for the semiquavers.

It occurs to me that semiquavers could be considered as 'fast notes'; they

have half the duration of quavers, so, assuming a constant bow speed, they

should need half the bow.  When I try this, it works beautifully.  The

notion that cello technique might obey basic mathematical relationships

gives me hope of finding simplicity.


	Putting down my bow for a moment, I direct my attention to my left hand.

I turn my cello around and look at the fingerboard.  Some of humanity's

greatest creations lie there waiting to be played: the Bach suites, the

Beethoven sonatas, Bloch's Schelomo.  I know they are there because a great

musician like Yo-Yo Ma could take my cello and play them for me.  All I

have to do is learn to put my fingers in the right place.  But how?

	I run my fingers up and down the fingerboard, feeling how straight and

smooth the strings are -- no curves, no bumps.  Yet when I begin to play, I

have a different perception; as soon as I reach 5th position, I enter some

sort of forbidden zone -- as if I must reach into a deep chasm to find the

notes.  This is ridiculous.  The only difference between the upper and

lower parts of the fingerboard is that the notes become closer as I play

progressively higher.  I come to the realization that I have been a victim

of the notion that 'higher is harder.'

	But how are my fingers going to 'remember' where to go, unless I remind

them?  Scales!  If the great musicians need them, I certainly do.

	I play a few notes on the A-string in first position and look at my left

arm, noticing that my elbow is low.  I will not be able to reach the

C-string if my elbow stays in this position.  And if I need to go into 5th

or thumb position, my arm will hit the body of the cello.  The only way to

avoid these potential hazards is to lift my elbow into a comfortably

elevated position when needed, or better still, save myself some work by

keeping the elbow up at all times.

	I play some notes in thumb position and marvel at its simplicity.  There

are only three commonly used fingering combinations for the first three

fingers: 1) Whole step between 1st and 2nd and whole step between 2nd and

3rd; 2)  Half step between 1st and 2nd and whole step between 2nd and 3rd;

and  3) Whole step between 1st and 2nd and half step between 2nd and 3rd.

Add the thumb, and the basic combinations only double.  With this knowledge

I can figure out how to play any combination of notes; I only need to know

the intervals between them.  Finding the best fingering is another issue,

but consciousness of these simple truths makes playing in thumb position

much easier.  And if I know the required configuration for the notes to

come, I can shift directly into the required finger combination.

	Except for chords, cellists play notes in a series; each note has some

connection to the notes surrounding it.  If I am not conscious of these

relationships at all times, I will not prepare mentally and physically for

notes to come (this applies to both hands).  By keeping my right arm high,

I am preparing for notes that will occur on other strings.  And by keeping

my left arm high, I am preparing for notes in higher positions.

Preparation may also involve adjusting my arm position, how I sit, how I

rotate the cello, and so on.  This requires experimentation on a case by

case basis.


	Finally, I notice that I tend to stop breathing when I play, especially in

challenging passages.  As Robert Dew observes: "Many people hold their

breath while playing, often to a length that would shame a pearl diver."

(5)  What could be more unnatural?  Am I that paralyzed with fear?  Can

something so innocuous as getting a few sounds from a wooden box be that

stressful?  Without breathing a giant boulder has fallen in the path to



	As I sit with my beloved cello before me, fighting the necessity to join

the outside world again, I reflect upon the true goal of my cello playing:

to experience the art of music.  All of the above observations are merely

means to an end: to arrive at a freedom from the artistic bondage of my

poor technique.  Yet as Paul Tortelier observed, technique and musicality

can be linked: "I have noticed that when some of my students succeedin

correcting poor technical habits, there is a change in their

interpretation.  They become aware that their interpretation has been

mediocre as well as their technique." (1)

	Many of the bow and left hand discoveries I have outlined can be found in

the first book of any instrumental tutor: awareness of the four strings, up

and down bows, intervals between fingers, etc.  My approach is therefore

akin to Robert Fulghum's theory that "All I really need to know I learned

in kindergarten."  In my own playing, I find that when I commit a technical

sin, I have overlooked one of these fundamental notions.  We all like to

think that these things have become automatic.  But the harder the music,

the more distracted one becomes with the notes, forgetting the basics.  As

adults, our lifetime of experiences have produced layers of prejudices,

anxieties, and neuroses.  We need to strip away this "sophistication" and

become child-like in our thirst for technical insight.  Only then can we

find simplicity in cello playing.


(1)	David Blum, Paul Tortelier: A Self-Portrait in Conversation with David

Blum.  (London: Heinemann, 1984).

(2)	Seymour W. Itzkoff, Emanuel Feuermann, Virtuoso.  (Alabama: University

of Alabama Press, 1979).

(3)	Barry Green with Timothy Gallwey.  The Inner Game of Music.  (New York:

Doubleday, 1986).

(4)	David Blum, The Art of Quartet Playing.  (Ithaca: Cornell University

Press, 1986) p. 124.

(5)	Robert Dew, "Instinctive Responses."  The Strad (October 1993, p. 940).


1996 Reprinted by permission of The Strad

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