A Cellist's View of the 2003 ASTA National Conference
Exclusive to the Internet Cello Society

by Dr. Bret P. Smith
University of Maryland, College Park

The American String Teachers Association (ASTA) held its first-ever "stand-alone" national conference March 27-29, 2003, on the campus of the Ohio State University in Columbus. Nearly 1,000 teachers, performers, students, manufacturers, and merchants gathered for the purpose of "Celebrating Strings -- All Together Now!" The offerings of this conference, which included performance, clinics, lecture-style presentations, and exhibits, contained much of interest to cellists of all types and vocations. As one attendee noted, the only negative thing about the event was the fact that there were so many difficult choices.

A notable aspect of the Columbus conference, and the recent activities of ASTA in general, was the emphasis on what are becoming known as "Alternative Styles." If defined as "not Western classical-style art music," this is, of course, a huge category embracing hundreds if not thousands of musical styles. The performers and clinicians at this conference demonstrated techniques for performing, teaching, and learning Anglo-American, Irish Scandinavian, Mexican, Indian, Arabic, and Asian fiddling styles, bluegrass, jazz, and blues; as many of these traditions involve improvisation, there was a healthy emphasis on its principles and processes.

Mark O'Connor's "American Journey"

An early highlight was Thursday morning's performance by renowned American violinist Mark O'Connor, Scottish violinist/violist Carol Cook, and American cellist Natalie Haas. Mr. O'Connor's career is well-known to fans of traditional fiddling and country music, and his projects Appalachia Waltz (1995) and Appalachian Journey (2000) with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer have sold nearly a million copies and brought his playing and compositions to the attention of classical audience. As he explained from the stage, he has always looked for "bridges to cross," and in his trios, to "allow classical and roots/traditional players to meet in the middle." For example, in Old Country Fairy Tale, the fast-slow-fast structure parallels both the form of a classical concerto and of a fiddle contest set, where the player is required to perform a reel, waltz, and a tune of choice. The program also included a medley of the tunes Chief Sitting in the Rain and College Hornpipe, the original Caprice for Three, Appalachia Waltz, and the Olympic Reel. The last piece, influenced by the Cape Breton style, was composed for the closing ceremony of the 1996 Olympic Games and recorded with Natalie MacMaster on her album In My Hands (http://www.nataliemacmaster.com).

In preparing the trios for publication, Mr. O'Connor realized that the unique virtuosity and bright sounds of his partners Ma and Meyer might make these versions less-than-accessible to the multitude of players. The versions performed in Columbus shift the recorded cello parts to the viola, and the bass parts to the cello. He also noted that this re-scoring has the additional result of taking the emphasis off virtuosity for its own sake, allowing different aspects of the music to emerge.

Ms. Haas provided a convincing demonstration that cellists need not feel left out of the Alternative Styles movement, executing the technical and musical demands of the fiddle-influenced pieces with notable command. As O'Connor noted, the traditional Scottish dance band of 200 years ago included a cello, so the accompanimental and soloistic styles are not without some precedent. Originally from Menlo Park, California, Haas is now in her sophomore year at Juilliard, a student of Fred Sherry (http://www.stokar.com/fred_sherry.htm); she also credits her work with Alasdair Fraser at the Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddle School and O'Connor's summer fiddle camps (where she now teaches) as an important influence (see her full biography at http://www.culburnie.com/artists/AlasdairFraser/NatalieHaasBio.htm).

In terms of specific techniques, this music features abundant double stops and melodic fingering challenges, as the violin neck lends itself to somewhat different patterns and melodic motives than might emerge from a strictly "cellistic" point of view. In the right hand, the player needs to perform "cuts" (a sort of grace note ornament that imitates the repeated-note articulation of a bagpipe), a very fast Celtic triplet (again a sort of ornament, attached to a longer note and something like the rhythm of the bodhran in Irish music), sixteenth-note patterns with shifting accents, and extended passages of fast triplet bowing. When combined with string crossings, these triple groupings can be quite tricky -- see Popper's "Lohengrin" study #19 in the High School of Cello Playing for an example from a different perspective. Another interesting effect is a percussive vertical "whack" of the bow, near the frog, that causes the strings to slap the fingerboard, something like a slap bass or Bartók pizzicato.

Although this performance was unamplified, Ms. Haas uses a Crown GLM-100 microphone (http://www.crownaudio.com/mic_htm/glm.htm) when performing with amplification. All the pieces on the program are available for purchase via download from http://www.markoconnor.com.

Playing Without Pain: A Presentation by Victor Sazer

Readers of the ICS site will likely be familiar with the ideas of California cellist and teacher Victor Sazer, whose 1995 book New Directions in Cello Playing (Los Angeles: Ofnote Publications) presented a wealth of ideas for identifying and using sometimes-unorthodox techniques with the aim of reducing cello-related pain and injury. I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Sazer present his ideas at an ASTA conference in Kansas City in 1996, and at the time I was happy to note that the room was full to capacity. The Columbus conference was also standing-room-only, with such cello luminaries as Paul Katz, Jeffery Solow, Anthony Elliott, and Robert Jesselson among the 90 in attendance. Mr. Sazer's work is clearly directed to an area of great interest and need to the cello community.

Mr. Sazer began with a general description of the origin of his approach, relating anecdotes about his experiences with fine players who labored for an entire career with debilitating pain. Regarding specific playing techniques, he noted the tendency of students to become "disciples" who feel somehow "disloyal if you have a different idea." His basic premises focus on the notion that repetitive motions are stressful when isometric (involving straight lines and angles) and easier when circular, and that body balance and weight are the engines that drive natural human motion patterns.

The problem arises when an instrument's construction interferes with these natural motion patterns. He shared illustrations of a re-designed flute, whose bent headjoint allows the player's arms and head to remain in a balanced position, and a viola with an asymmetrical body that permits a large volume of acoustic space within the instrument without demanding the player to stretch the left arm. Of the three orchestral instruments that require seated positions (cello, piano, and harp), only the cello is free to adjust the position of the feet and seat, not requiring manipulation of pedals in the center of the body.

When identifying positions and motions that are the least stressful, one should rely on the "breath test." Motions that permit the breath to remain deep and free are less damaging than those that restrict the breath. Sazer offers many demonstrations from everyday life, like standing, walking, reaching, and throwing. He relates his cello ideas to the insight of Casals, who spoke of technique being unified by an impulse from the center of the body. The amazing flexibility of the human body is a danger, however, as the body will adapt to unnatural postures and motions before pain becomes evident. The body is always in motion, and that even the slightest motions involve weight shifts of the entire body; the main source of the arms' power is the body's balancing mechanism, as the most efficient motions proceed from heavier to lighter. Lifting and pulling also create less tension than pushing and pressing; using a leverage principle, there is more efficient power in a lift on the opposite side of a balance.

In terms of particular cello techniques, faulty balance leads to tension and is caused by poor alignment, immobility, and pressing. Sazer demonstrated a broad-based cello posture, where the right leg can support the bow's balance at the tip. He also spoke of his advocacy of the "thumb liberation movement" (in which the left thumb is free to adopt many different balancing positions) and a technique of fingering on the side of the string rather than pressing to the fingerboard -- the only time that the string needs to contact the fingerboard is for pizzicato. The left hand fingering system can also be freer by using a rolling sort of forearm motion, permitting the whole-step extension to be placed between any finger.

These ideas are developed and demonstrated fully in the book, which is now in a second edition. Mr. Sazer told me that the new edition contains a section on teaching beginners, an addition sure to be of great interest to teachers. Sazer can be reached at sazer@cello.org, and at http://www.sazer-cello.com.

Cellists Honored

Friday evening's concert of the University of South Carolina Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Donald Portnoy, was an event with several areas of interest to cellists. Prior to the concert, cellists Paul Katz and Mstislav Rostropovich and violinist John Kendall were recognized with major 2003 ASTA awards. Mr. Katz, the cellist of the Cleveland Quartet, was presented with the Artist-Teacher Award. In his sincere and heartfelt acceptance speech, he shared aspects of his biography and his gratitude for the influences of Gabor Reijto, Victor Sazer, Bernard Greenhouse, Gregor Piatigorsky, Leonard Rose, and Janos Starker on his artistic development. Mr. Rostropovich received the Isaac Stern International Award, and presented a brief address on videotape. Mr. Kendall received the Paul Rolland Lifetime Achievement award. He was the first American teacher to travel to Japan in 1959 to learn about Shinichi Suzuki's Talent Education program; his writings and tireless activities contributed immensely to the success of the Suzuki approach worldwide.

Following the award presntations, the USC Symphony presented a program that included cellist Daniel Lee, winner of a 2001 Avery Fischer Career Grant and former student of Orlando Cole, Peter Wiley, and William Pleeth. Mr. Lee confidently navigated the Dvorak Cello Concerto, demonstrating a large sound and wide pallette of vibrato colors.

The View from the Exhibit Floor

An enjoyable and informative feature of this type of conference is the bustling presence of hundreds of publishers, retailers, instrument manufacturers, educational programs, and others displaying their products and services. It would be impossible to describe all of the offerings in detail, but I did have a chance to look into some things that I had been interested in for some time.

For those of you who grind your teeth after battles with poorly-fitted or otherwise troublesome tuning pegs, the Knilling company is marketing an ingenious solution they call the Perfection Peg. These pegs are truly ingenious and entirely functional, incorporating a 1:1/4 planetary gear mechanism within a synthetic housing that looks just like a traditional ebony tuning peg. The Perfection Peg's housing is glued into the pegbox's existing drilled holes using an instrument-friendly heat glue; the peg's handle turns, engaging the internal mechanism and providing the torque that winds and tunes the string. The mechanism is reportedly very stable and reliable, having been tested and used for the last 12 years. My brief test was very convincing, the peg turned smoothly without any indication of slippage or sticking. This peg could be a godsend for school programs that maintain inventories of instruments, and will be very useful in teaching tuning to young players whose previously frustrating battles with sticky or slipping pegs will be eliminated. A set would also be a sensible addition to a customized electric cello setup. Knilling advises professional installation, as the pegs come in left- and right-hand designs.

I had a chance to try my first carbon-fiber bow, the Coda Bow Classic model, and found it to be an impressive product that should appeal to many cellists. An extensive and meticulous research and development process led to the materials and manufacture of this type of synthetic bow stick, based on longitudinal fibers fused into a carbon-based bow stick. The weight and flexibility of the bows are modeled on the characteristics of the finest hardwood bows, and are definitely worth considering as an affordable and durable alternative to a traditional wooden bow. I was able to produce a variety of on-the-string and off-the-string bowings with no difficulties, and would certainly be more willing to play a vigorous col legno passage with a Coda bow! Side-by-side testing would be a very interesting exercise. Coda Bows are available in four models, ranging from $265 to $775 retail, and can be found on http://www.CodaBow.com.

A brief stop by the booth of G. Henle Verlag gave me a chance to examine their edition of J.S. Bach's Six Suites for solo cello for the first time. This edition will probably emerge as a must-own for me, as my staple edition is the relatively "editor-free" volume of the late Dimitry Markevitch available from Theodore Presser. The Henle edition Urtext (original text) is based on a careful process of consultation with the original manuscript sources and contains both Urtext and edited folios as well as a scholarly essay and facsimile manuscript pages. Cellists will appreciate the opportunity to arrive at truly informed interpretive decisions based on the latest scholarship.

A Masterclass with Paul Katz

Cellists were able to enjoy a treat on Friday afternoon in the form of an hour-long master class with Paul Katz. Three students presented selections from their repertoire, and Mr. Katz had an altogether-too-brief time to make comments. The first student played the Prelude from Bach's Sixth Suite in D Major. Mr. Katz commented on the need for absolute intonational consistency in this piece, and advised us all to be "really manic about it." The resonance of an in-tune pitch also affects the right hand's job, and the process is one of "searching in both hands." He spoke of the need for one's sound to be "instrumentally attractive" and advised the goal of achieving a trumpet-like heraldic type sound in this movement. This movement is one of the few places with dynamics marked in, and rather than taking an entirely new approach to the second bar, it is simply a "soft version" of the first bar. Mr. Katz noted this student's tendency to tightness in the left hand, and advised vibrating everything to help release tension. In general, on a modern cello, we need to use more vibrato to achieve an ideal sound.

The second player performed two movements of Britten's First Sonata for Solo Cello. Mr. Katz engaged in a bit of question-and-answer regarding the music's character, tempo markings, and general message. He mentioned the need to establish the musical conception first, and only then approach matters of technique, or "figuring out what I need to do with my hands." To achieve the forte sostenuto of the opening, Mr. Katz focused the student's attention on the contact point and the sense of resistance in the bow -- we need to "let the cello save the bow," and rather than even think about saving the bow, he prefers to think of "pulling the bow." The "vertical component of playing" needs to be entirely passive, with the horizontal component being the focus of playing energy.

The final student performed an unaccompanied work of Ginastera (my position in the hall made it difficult to hear the announcements from the stage -- in a master class, speak up, students). Mr. Katz noted the skill needed to effectively navigate the demands of this contemporary writing, but felt that the playing at times was "impressive, but not very attractive." In the brief working time, Mr. Katz selected a particular gesture in the first measure, noting that there were no rests and that the goal should be uninterrupted sound. He demonstrated and described a certain sort of dropped marcato attack, in which the right hand fingers soften the attack as the bow is dropped. As before, he emphasized the need to establish an interpretive goal before dealing with technical decisions.

Teaching Effective Practice in the Studio

Houston, Texas-based cellist Cornelia Watkins presented an interesting session geared to private studio teachers, dealing with effective techniques to develop problem-solving and self-evaluation in students. In general, she cautions against "answering your own questions" in a lesson, rather than encouraging the student to observe. The first goal is a non-judgmental environment in which the student can report their observations -- the next goal is to have students be very specific, asking "what?" and "where?" questions about their playing. Then it is time to attach an evaluative element, determining matters of better or worse and making changes and choices.

Ms. Watkins stressed the importance of making a "positive" suggestion (like "pull the bow") versus a negative (like "don't run out of bow"). It is one of the peculiarities of the human psyche that we tend to do the very thing that we are thinking about. This is part of an overall strategy of making sure that the student doesn't get bogged down in 100% negativity; tape recordings can be useful to increase objectivity and to validate and highlight the positive side of a student's accomplishments.

Overall, the student's practice needs to be structured around specific goals, and the teacher's role is to model and encourage this process. These insights, empirically "discovered" in the private studio, bear a notable resemblance to some of the principles emerging from the research on self-regulated learning, as well as some of the self-help type literature.

A View to the Future

The American String Teachers Association is to be congratulated on engineering a diverse array of offerings sure to interest the great variety of string players and teachers. It is certainly an encouraging fact that a national conference is capable of attracting a large number of attendees as well as exhibitors, performers, and clinicians. I understand that these national conferences will be biennial, alternating with a Studio Teacher's Forum in the intervening years. For those involved with string playing and teaching, I suspect these events will continue to contribute to the development of our shared pursuits. See you in two years!

Direct correspondence to the appropriate ICS Staff
Tim Janof
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