by Ruth Phillips

As cellists, when approaching the subject of our musical voice, we must start -- as perhaps we must also end -- with the breath. Within the meaning of the Greek and Latin words pneuma, psyche, and anima sits the connection between the spirit (or soul) and the breath (or wind).

It is hardly surprising that so much spiritual practice centres on the breath, for within the simple act of inhalation and exhalation sits the fundamental paradox on which forms such as Buddhist meditation, Yoga, the poetry of Rumi, and the cantatas of Bach are built. Consciously working with the breath challenges a materialistic society that is addicted to having and holding, in that everything, including life itself, once taken in, has to be let go of. Consequently it challenges a musical climate that has become fixed in that materialism.

The in-breath followed by the out-breath is expansion and contraction which is the essence of bowing; it is receiving and giving inspiration, which is the essence of performance; it is tension and release, flow and ebb, life and death, control and abandon. It is, in effect, our greatest teacher. Why, then, when I asked dozens of string players -- some fresh out of college and others experienced professionals -- whether their teachers had ever mentioned breath, did 90% say 'no'?

In order to bring the seminal importance of the breath and the direct link between the breath and the bow-arm into their awareness, I have developed the following process for cellists. When doing this work, it is essential to develop a spirit of interest and compassionate observation throughout. As feelings and thoughts arise it may be necessary to repeat certain steps of the process in order to maintain this spirit. It is a meditative process, which can be utterly transformative. It emphasises the quality of attention given to the breath and invites us to notice how it and the music move us rather than us moving it.

  1. With the instruments down, I ask the group to sit in a circle with their arms loosely hanging by their sides, and to start to breathe into the sides, front and back of their ribcage. As they breathe in, they observe the arms being pushed out to the side by the expanding side ribs and the shoulders gently rising with the clavicular expansion. On the out-breath they observe the release of the shoulders back down and of the arms back into their sides.

  2. I play a legato melody from a piece of music they know. (Saint-Saëns' The Swan works well.) As they listen to the melody I ask them to feel the expansion and contraction of the phrase in connection with that of their breathing, allowing the arms to float up and out as the musical tension builds and then to fall back to their sides as it releases. Thus, through the gentle amplification of the breathing, the seeds of bowing are sown.

  3. Next, we repeat the previous exercise but this time with the cellos resting in the playing position against the torso. I ask the students to observe any change in their breathing pattern. Almost without exception, these occur due to the sudden proximity of the instrument. The most common change for cellists is that they start breathing into the upper chest, cutting the breath off where the cello meets the body, as if the instrument replaces the body. In my experience, feelings of anxiety, shame, and of being ungrounded are also common. At this point, whether consciously or unconsciously, we enter the psychotherapeutic landscape.

  4. Having observed these physical and emotional changes, I then invite the students to explore the bodies of the cellos and their own bodies through touch, creating one living, breathing instrument. As I continue to play the melody I suggest tracing the concave/convex curves of their own bodies and those of their instrument. I encourage them to touch the belly of the cello and their own belly, the neck and their own neck, and to feel the strings mirroring their vocal cords as they touch their throat. I suggest the image of the cellos ribcage as capable of expanding with the breath of a phrase as their ribcage does, and encourage them to bring this to life through their touch.

  5. The next step is to introduce the bow. With the left hand at rest on the neck of the instrument, the student takes the bow gently in the right hand, which rests on the lap. The listening/breathing/observing is then repeated. At this point, because of the physical contact with the bow, it is common for the head to jump in with thoughts of up bows and down bows. As a result, the simple breathing pattern is often upset and panic can set in.

  6. As I play the melody one more time, I ask the students to play open G strings on each half-bar, allowing the breathing and bowing to become one with the slow pulse of the music. It becomes startlingly clear at this stage that pulse, or metre, is the body of the music. Pulse becomes the physical/earth element and is understood as different from the intricacies of rhythm.

  7. The final stage is to play the melody all together. At this point the student becomes aware of the different kinds of stress that can be experienced as the body opens and closes, tenses and releases, and how there are moments in music of stressed expansion (up bow ) and stressed contraction (down bow). This challenges the common decision to dole down bows out to every musical accent and brings a whole new emotional realm to bowing.

These exercises are not intended literally as a way of playing -- i.e. breathing in when there is tension in the music and out when there is release, or indeed breathing in time to the music -- but rather as a process towards freedom and groundedness in performance. The idea behind all breath-work is not to be bound by our breath, but for an awareness of it to liberate our physical and emotional responses. There are times when we will actively draw on this connection; times when we need extra support or release, such as starting a movement (the most natural preparation for starting -- or 'releasing' into -- a movement is to breathe in, letting our arms follow that motion, and to play on the out-breath, just as a singer would do), or at specific moments of expansion, emphasis or climax in the music. This will be conscious only at first as we change our habits and holding patterns. Eventually it will become second nature and breathing out or holding the breath before playing will feel as unnatural to the cellist as it would to the oboist or the singer.

Working in the manner described above with our breath can heal the divide between our physical body, the body of the instrument and the body of the music. It grounds us in matter and, being grounded, we can safely begin to explore the other elements of music-making. Without such grounding the emotional and spiritual demands on the performing musician can be terrifying.

It can also have a profound effect on stage-fright.

Joseph Zinker says:

"Energy is blocked most often by fear of excitement or strong emotions. The physiologic blockage accompanying fear of excitement is frequently in respiration."

After several weeks of group work all my students reported that they were enjoying performing for the first time. They were not nervous but rather aware of having extra energy available to them, which they had learned to ride. The two that habitually took beta-blockers had chosen to stop because they wanted to be in contact with this energy rather than blocking it.


A classically trained musicians' relationship to his instrument can be as complex an affair as any other relationship in his life.

Firstly, there is the fact that it is probably worth a great deal of money. For a string player the value could range between the cost of a small flat in Tooting to a mansion with pool on Hampstead Heath, and the instrumentalist may not relate to the instrument with any sense of his own value. The instrument may well be hundreds of years old and have been played by great exponents throughout its history. While this can be inspiring, it can also be inhibiting.

Next, the instrument is often what, in psychotherapeutic terms would be called a "transitional object"; an inanimate object onto which we project the primary feelings originally attached to a loved one, such as the mother.

The intimate contact and level of expression one has with the instrument is carried in its very fibre, as are the disappointments, judgements, hopes, and expectations which one has projected onto it. Though inanimate, the instrument is as alive to the instrumentalist as any other transitional object; the child's friend the picky blanket or the imaginary playmate. Opening the case can be like opening Pandora's box and the Box of Delights simultaneously.

In order to begin to explore this often unconscious relationship with cello students I do a simple exercise that is an extended version of the one explained in the section on breath:

Exploring the relationship with the Cello

  1. Placing the cello temporarily out of sight I use visualisation -- fluid images such as a waterfall -- to establish a sense of joints opening and weight flowing through them. Once this release has occurred I bring the cello slowly towards the student, asking him to observe any changes in the emotional state or the level of tension he feels. Almost without exception, anxiety creeps into the muscles and joints causing the jaw to tighten, the lips to purse, and the shoulder, elbow, wrist, and knuckle joints to lock. For very few the proximity of the cello initially inspires feelings of joy, comfort, and a desire to sing.

  2. Having made this observation, the student is in a position to begin releasing the tension as the cello moves towards him a second or a third time.

  3. Taking time to map out a spherical space in the room in which to safely contain himself and his instrument, the student then begins moving with and around the cello, observing any feelings that arise. As he approaches it he can feel fear, intimacy, be repelled or interested, and I encourage him to amplify these feelings by expressing them through movement.

  4. When the dance draws to a natural close, I ask the student to take a place where he feels in a comfortable relationship to his cello and begin to vocalise, either by singing a familiar piece of music or improvising. This symbolic role reversal (with the sound coming from his body and the cello as the listener) can be very reassuring in terms of the musician's voice being 'heard' by the instrument in whose awesome presence he may well have lost his confidence.

Working with this process in a group situation, the student's individual dances can remind me of different animals, each moving within their habitat, with the movements ranging from intimate touching to a bleak and determined separation. For one girl, the proximity of the cello seemed to inspire a new sensuality, as she caressed each and every curve of the instrument's surface. For another girl, normally so graceful, having been trained as a dancer, the dance with the instrument seemed to rob her of any sense of her own body and she became almost dowdy in her movement, as if her cello stole away her grace.

With this physical and emotional approach we begin to transform the relationship with the cello, as we do with any important relationship in our lives, by first feeling it; feeling it on every level. To ignore its importance is merely to relegate it to the unconscious realm from which it could well manifest as fear. If we build a trusting relationship with our instrument, we can learn to follow its wisdom -- from the arc of the bow to the vibration of the string -- and listen to what it needs from us. In doing so we begin to live in the flux between control and abandon.

As my yoga teacher said to me: "To be immersed in the body is to be present in the old mind." If we are physically present when playing we will access not the busy fearful mind of judgement and competition, but the wisdom of the mind of the musician that always sings within us.

Ruth Phillips

Direct correspondence to the appropriate ICS Staff
Webmaster: "webmaster" Director: John Michel
Copyright © 1995- Internet Cello Society