Awaken the Dawn is the title of my latest piano solo composition. It was dedicated to the congregation of Boston Avenue United Methodist Church in Tulsa. This is the live broadcast that aired November 9th on KTUL-TV Channel 8.
Two exciting professional updates:
I am delighted to share news of my recent appointment as program director of Sistema Tulsa, a forthcoming El Sistema-inspired program for the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Sistema Tulsa is a visionary community-wide project of social change through music. Inspired by the educational philosophies of El Sistema in Venezuela, the program will grow and support children and youth musical ensembles that exemplify and nurture a culture of aspiration. In concert with Tulsa Public Schools and numerous community partners, the project will be hosted and led by the Boston Avenue United Methodist Church.
I have been accepted into the 2015 cohort of Leading Change in Education Systems, a professional program of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The program examines the challenges of leading the development and implementation of effective policy and practice in order to provide quality education.
My nuevo álbum de piano solista “Sounds Blooming” ya está disponible vía formato digital de iTunes. La grabación fue producida en los estudios de la WGBH en Boston y contiene una colección de obras modernistas e introspectivas de John Cage, Claude Debussy, Gustav Mahler, entre otros.
Have you ever observed how very young children respond to music – with rhythmic movement, with sounds, with all sorts of other movements? Do you remember how you felt as a child, when you wanted to make music? Do you ever feel something akin to ecstasy when you hear a piece of a performance you really love? Is the sense of ecstasy only a thought or is it a feeling also in your body? Where in yourself do you feel it? Do you feel the rhythm? Can you feel that sometimes music makes you feel light and sometimes heavy, sometimes it is a swaying feeling and sometimes you want to jump? Sometimes tall and wide when the sound fills up the universe and sometimes all stops and there is just a minimal movement, like very quiet waters?
Do you realize that all these states have to do with your body, with different muscular states and a different organization of the skeleton? That your muscles feel different when you feel speed, and different when you feel swaying? What would you think if I told you that the feeling in your body of a particular phrase will create just the right muscle tone needed to play the phrase – not more and not less? Would you consider the thought that ignoring the physical feeling of music might contribute to injury and frustration?
Why do many of us lose that embodied feeling of music we had when we were children? Is it possible to keep the ecstasy of music alive through the whole process of acquiring the techniques to express it? And not only to keep it alive, but use it to find the right movements to express it? I constantly hear from students, after our lesson, variations on this phrase: “Wow, I remember now why I wanted to do it in the first place. I forgot!” The spontaneity and unity of hearing, doing and listening, is suddenly available again and the music is a pleasure to make, even when it needs improvement. Quiet, simple breathing resumes and the sense of the body’s weight returns. It is a moment of relief even to very accomplished players.
When one remembers this natural feeing of music and realizes how much of it is dormant, the next question is how to reclaim it.
The Feldenkrais method provides tools which use the language of movement to do just this. Dr. Feldenkrais created thousands of movement lessons which address every movement needed to live and to play. As a result, injuries are prevented and alleviated and one discovers new options of sounds which in turns enrich the musical imagination.
After many years of working with musicians and realizing how little information and help they get from their own body, I developed a way, which I call “Embodied Music”, to apply the Feldenkrais Method to musicians.
I use four formats in teaching:
1. Group movement lessons
2. Private sessions where I work with my hands, addressing specific problems of a student, sometimes with and sometimes without the instrument.
3. Master Classes
4. Workshops, combining all formats.
In the next installment, I will explain the tools and the theory used to help you express your music without hurting yourself. In the last installment I will direct you through a series of movements so you can experience the efficacy of this Method.
A wheel needs a central point of contact, an axis, in order to turn and spin. One never loses touch with one’s central point – the spine – as one moves through life. But society today has lost that core. It has no idea where it is going.
- Svami Purna
When I was well into my studies as a young cellist, I became fascinated with the question: How does one raise the arms to play? My naive mind wondered: is there a wrong way and a right way, and how does one distinguish between the two? I read a great many books on cello technique and for years I asked this question of my teachers. It seemed to me to be a very important gesture that most people took for granted, and my teachers, with one exception, never discussed it, except very generally to illustrate: ‘do it like this’. But where did ‘this’ originate? Where did the energy come from and how was it to be directed in this fundamental act of preparing to play?
When I began training as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, I came face to face with a basic tenet of the work: the act of raising the arms is central to all one’s activities and depends upon the entire coordination of the body, not only the arms. I felt as if I had finally come home.
I mentioned in the last installment the following quotations from F.M. Alexander:
Stiffened necks and arms of people of today are outward signs of the imperfect development and lack of coordination of the muscular system of the back and spine.
Arms and necks are stiffened in performing actions which properly call for the perfect coordination of the muscular mechanisms of the back.
To understand the meaning of these words, we are asked to take a step back—to what precedes the raising of the arms—and that means coming into quiet and taking stock of the state of one’s head/neck and back relationship, what Alexander called the ‘Primary Control’. If the neck is tight, if the head is not balancing freely on top of the spine, if the back is either rigid or collapsed, what hope have we of raising the arms and using them freely in whatever we do, let alone playing the cello?
Let’s begin by looking at the connection of the arms to the source of their power, the back and yes, the legs too! The moment you think of reaching up or out with the arm, the equilibrium reactions are stimulated. Information is sent to the calf, hamstring, and abdominal muscles to organize the anti-gravity response to start working. The long muscles of the back (the extensors) engage to stabilize the trunk and to deliver the power to the limbs. So both the trunk and pelvis are involved in the preparation for using the arms freely. If you cannot use trunk and pelvis properly, you cannot use the arms well.
In the work of the Alexander Technique, the head/neck/back relationship is primary and the limbs are secondary; the former determines the efficacy of the latter. We cultivate the power of the back in order to use the limbs freely. Once the back is in its place, what we call back and up, rather than pushing or collapsing forward and downward, then we turn our attention to how the arms can be raised. To learn to keep the mind focused on what is primary when raising the arms is a huge challenge for the brain.
Amongst musicians, the arm joint (I refer here to the ‘ball and socket joint’–the ball of the upper arm bone which sits in the socket formed by the juncture of the collar bone and the shoulder blade), is one of the most misunderstood parts of the body. When I ask my students where they think their arm joint is, they usually point to a non-existent joint in the crease of their sleeve top. When I point to the place along the outer arm, indicating that this joint actually lies about 1 ½ inches down from the shoulder girdle, they are invariably surprised.
Tightening the neck, pushing forward or collapsing the lower back and raising the shoulder girdle to raise the arm are three of the most common faults, even amongst professional musicians and teachers of other instruments. To learn to use what Alexander called the ‘lifter muscles’—the latissimus dorsi or the large long muscles that wrap along each side of the back—and to allow the arm to rotate in the socket by sending the elbow away from the shoulder, rather than contracting it inward, contributes to a free, floating arm which is light, very mobile and which can transmit the power of the back, the primary energy supplier.
It can take quite a revision of our thinking to acknowledge that the arms don’t make the effort; they simply transmit the power supplied by the back. They are the agents of the spine and must be quiet and ‘empty’ in order to receive this power. Furthermore, when they are well-supported by the huge, long muscles of the back, they are not heavy, nor do they ever need to be made heavy to produce sound. Making the arms feel heavy to relax them is one of the great myths of cello playing and usually involves collapse of the spinal column, or what we call in Alexander work ‘pulling down’.
My Alexander teacher often quotes his great teacher’s saying: ‘Let the spine light up the fingertips.’ The energy must flow like water from the source to the destination, in our case, the string.
Although the collection of excerpts on an audition repertoire list may seem arbitrary, each one has a purpose: giving the audition candidate an opportunity to demonstrate certain things about his or her playing and artistry. Audition success involves showing a command of certain basic elements—such as rhythm, dynamics, intonation and articulations—as well as conveying a nuanced understanding of the music and the composer. A well crafted audition list will include excerpts that emphasize each of these elements, and a candidate’s ability to demonstrate control and understanding of them will determine his or her chance for success.
Let’s put these goals into concrete terms using a common cello audition excerpt as an illustration: the opening of the second movement of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2:
The bar-by-bar discussion that follows is by no means intended to imply that these are the only ways to think about this music. Rather, it is to illustrate one type and level of thinking that can lead to a successful audition performance. Ultimately, each of us should form our own ideas through exploration, with small details being carefully considered and then absorbed into the larger picture. Some of the comments below have to do with making what is printed on the page clearly audible to the listener, which sometimes is no small task. Other comments involve thinking beyond what is printed.
Some preliminary statements about this excerpt:
What are the top priorities here? Beautiful and nuanced sound, seamless legato, and elegant phrasing.
If you aim for the right sonic and musical qualities first, the best tempo will usually find itself. Resist choosing a tempo first and then fitting the music into it. Remember that the slower the tempo gets, the more difficult it will become to play long phrases successfully.
Printed dynamics, phrasings, and other markings should be very clear to the listener, but subtly inflecting a phrase even when no dynamic is printed is not only smart for an audition, it’s good musicianship.
Although this discussion does not specifically address vibrato, it should be understood that the desirable vibrato is one that (a) doesn’t stop during finger changes and shifts and (b) can be varied to enhance your musical aims. Moments of poco (or even senza) vibrato could conceivably be used effectively in this excerpt, but these decisions must be made thoughtfully and the sounds prepared carefully. Nothing in this excerpt happens suddenly.
Bars 1 – 2
Your sound must be free and open. Make an appropriate preparatory motion to begin playing so you aren’t starting from a physically static place.
Don’t push the limits of the instrument here—for that matter, don’t ever do it. This is not the loudest you will play in this excerpt. What does poco forte mean? Define it in relation to the louder dynamics that will come later.
Should you divide the opening slurs into more than one bow stroke? The answer (both here and everywhere) depends on whether you can make a beautiful, free sound in the right dynamic without dividing the slur. If you do break the slur, do so as imperceptibly as possible. Should you start up bow or down bow? Either can work, and aurally it should make absolutely no difference.
This phrase has contour, so it must have inflection. Many players phrase away at the end of the first slur, which is nice, but then begin the second slur louder and do exactly the same thing again—even though the ending harmony is completely different the second time. How about beginning the second slur where the first leaves off and then warming into the end of the second slur, to coincide with the first B major chord of the movement?
The last beat of bar 2 must sound like a pickup (even though you must use the bow more quickly), so its relationship to the following downbeat is clear.
The exact bowing in this bar is less important than that you play the phrase, not your chosen bowing. Coupling two notes together is common. This is a good bowing if well executed, but your ears must demand that each note goes in its proper place in the phrase, with no unwanted accents or inconsistent articulations. The musical line goes down from the downbeat, so it is nice to phrase it down.
It is imperative to avoid unwanted emphases on beats 2 and 3. Playing very smoothly here ensures that you don’t upstage the swell in the next bar (which should be noticeably different from anything played so far).
There is a lot to think about in this bar. Many bowings can work. Make the swell gradual, and not to the B, which frequently gets jabbed either because it’s the highest note or because of inelegant bow use.
Give careful thought to the type of audible connection—if any—that you want between the D# and the B. Then choose your fingering based on that. Too often, a player will go with the first fingering that works and become stuck with whatever type of slide results from it.
The most sudden dynamic and color change in the entire excerpt happens in this bar. Where? On the E. I have heard many an audition candidate sit on the E with unchanging tone, then suddenly play softer on the C#. The E is the gateway from one world of sound (and the height of the swell) to another. It must begin to change right away and lead us to a completely different sound color.
Bars 6 – 7
Show beautiful soft sound and real legato. Using the A string in bar 7 is fine if it’s done in a way that doesn’t accentuate the A string’s brightness.
You must shift at some point, but downward “shmears” are seldom attractive musically. Every shift you make should be either expressive or inaudible. In these bars, go for inaudible, meaning artful use of the bow to play legato while still making allowances so shifts aren’t heard.
Bars 8 – 9
The two upward shifts take place as a part of the longest single crescendo in the excerpt, not to mention that they end on different notes. Give the feeling, as a singer would, that the second one reaches higher, taking a little more musical “effort.” As mentioned, choose your fingering carefully. Which type of shift you make (and whether you shift at all, since crossing from the D string is an option) has an enormous effect on whether you sound like you are transcending the instrument or not.
Where is the top of the crescendo? Brahms is a bit vague with his markings, but it seems to want go to the downbeat of bar 10. If you aren’t careful, the B in bar 9 gets suddenly louder, so it sounds like the phrase goal and leaves no room to continue to bar 10. Pacing this crescendo evenly for two full bars is difficult—but it’s what the composer wrote.
Bars 10 – 11
The downbeat of bar 10 may be the loudest you play in this excerpt. Thinking backward, your sound at the opening must be gauged so that it doesn’t compete with the sound you’ll use at bar 10. After such a long crescendo, the diminuendo is quite quick. How low does it go? That’s up to you, based on the surrounding musical events. Bar 11 begins with the same two notes as bar 10, but the swell is much quicker—so perhaps it doesn’t come up as high. The small swells in these bars must be interpreted in the context of the larger phrase, and all swells do not have to be created equal—even those that look the same on paper.
Bars 12 – 13
Let the sound grow freely through beat 2 of bar 12. This is not a moment for white-hot intensity—nothing in this excerpt is. Since the cellos stop being the primary voice at the “poco forte” marking in the middle of the bar, it is less than you have just been playing. Crashing down on the F# does not give the impression that you understand the changing role of the cello line in the music.
The fast notes must be heard, but they must also be smooth and not seem suddenly active so they disrupt the general sense of broadness in the music. Get started on time so you can spread the quickest notes out to their full value.
There are many possible fingerings for this passage. The most obvious fingerings all involve shifting during the fast notes. I looked for an alternative and ultimately chose a solution for myself that is a little outside-the-box: from the downbeat, 2 1 2 4 4 (on the G natural). This fingering may not work for every hand, but it does allow the shifting to be done before and after the quick notes, not in the middle. I mention this mainly to drive home the point that we will only sound our best after thinking carefully about all the fingering options for a given passage.
Bars 15 – 17
Don’t play too softly in 15, to leave room for diminuendo. Keep the espressivo quality going all the way to the end, carefully listening as you bring the last note to silence.
A few days ago I was on the Symphony Hall stage, playing Brahms’s A German Requiem in concert. While playing the second movement, I started thinking about what I was going to make for dinner the following night. The last time I cooked it, I thought, it came out a little dry. Maybe this time I should…
But wait a second, I was playing one of my favorite pieces in one of the world’s best halls, with a great orchestra and a great conductor, how could I not be completely absorbed in what I was doing? Was I the only one on stage whose mind was wandering, and if not – did anyone in the audience notice? I was aware that I was a part of a great concert, and the audience seemed to think so too. What was going on? I was playing everything just fine, but I wasn’t really there, and becoming aware of it made me feel like I’m not doing what I’m supposed to.
We try very hard to be “in the zone” when we perform, but is it really realistic to expect ourselves to always be there? In a professional setting you have to perform a lot. This year, for example, I will have played about 170 concerts with the orchestra, plus a good number of chamber music concerts. As much as I can try, it’s certain that I won’t be as involved as I’d like to in quite a few of them. So how do we as performers deal with that?
For one thing, we shouldn’t take it too hard when it happens. We all know how easy it is to start beating ourselves up for being distracted, and as a result get more and more distracted. Better to just acknowledge what’s happening without judgment and just go on.
More important is the matter of how we prepare and practice. Young cellists often practice their notes carefully, and expect the inspiration of the moment to take care of the rest. We simply cannot rely on that – we owe it to our audience to give the music the expression we want to give it whether or not we’re “feeling it” at the moment. When we practice, we should be aware of the expression we want to show in the music, and be specific about how we achieve it with our instrument. This is where technique meets musicianship and where it matters most.
So don’t worry about being out of the zone sometime, I would bet that it happens even to the best of us. But do work on making that variable matter as little as possible by knowing exactly what you want to say musically and how to make it happen technically. If anything, it will make the times when you are fully present and fully involved in what you’re doing even more satisfying and memorable.
You are a marvel. You are unique. In all the years that have passed there has never been another child like you. Your legs, your arms, your clever fingers, the way you move. You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel.
- Pablo Casals
Pablo Casals, ever aware of the miracle of life and of how gesture can be informed with thought and feeling, could elicit from his cello or from his orchestra sounds that could penetrate the heart. To watch him moving his arms as he played or conducted was to witness the reaching forth from his inner being to the outer world.
Arms are conductors of the energy within. They bear the fruits of our thought in action, they take our hands to the very place we wish to touch or hold; they make it possible for the fingers to express our simplest and our deepest intentions as musicians.
Watching the arms is a clue to the state of a person’s thought—they can reveal tensions, anxieties, or emotional distress (at a time of loss, the arms and hands tell the inner story and seek out others instinctively to receive support). In a charismatic speaker or performer, the arms can act as a compass, defining the magnitude of a phrase or an idea and holding the attention of the audience through the tempo of their movement in space. The way a musician enters the stage, either swinging or holding his/her arms, ready to embrace or ready to fight—is detected at a subliminal level by the audience. As the performer warms to the audience, the arms loosen and the connection is established between player and listener. Fear contracts, fight braces, but love expands.
The first gesture we learn as players is to take hold of the instrument that fascinates us. I remember once meeting a four year old Chinese boy in Beijing who had been playing the cello less than a year. He could hardly wait for his father to remove the case from his 1/8 size cello, pulling and tugging to help; once out, he grabbed the instrument faster than a squirrel on a nut. His arms told me more than any words could that he just loved playing his cello.
Indian and Persian musicians in training must first learn what it is to touch their instrument, as touch is symbolic of the reverence and respect accorded their chosen medium of spiritual transmission. The instrument is at once inanimate and animate; its life is awakened by the touch of the musician who opens to and is touched by the divine powers expressed through the music.
Raising the arms is a simple movement, one we hardly give thought to, and yet it is the rare cellist in whom the arms and wrists are free. Just the opposite in fact. Mostly one sees arms that are doing the work of the back, trying to produce the energy needed to play. The true masters of any instrument, not only the cello, demonstrate to us that free arms are the expressive agents of the soul.
This installment therefore opens the question of how we make this fundamental gesture from which all else follows. FM Alexander noted in his writings the following words which sum up many of the problems musicians face in their work:
Stiffened necks and arms of people of today are outward signs of the imperfect development and lack of coordination of the muscular system of the back and spine.
Arms and necks are stiffened in performing actions which properly call for the perfect coordination of the muscular mechanisms of the back.
The Alexander Technique is one way of learning to acknowledge — to come to experience in our bodies — how much the arms and hands overdo. They are the slaves of an overactive and wasteful mind continually exerting too much energy in all directions.
In the teaching of the Alexander Technique, the first step is the practice of inward quietness, without which we cannot develop the sensitivity to notice how and where we are overdoing. Becoming quiet and inwardly still enables us gradually to become aware of these interferences.
My students often are surprised by the discovery that they are ‘holding onto’ their arms or legs when they had no idea they were doing so. As we ascend levels in the work, this discovery recurs to a finer and finer degree.
Musicians are generally not prepared to accept that their unproductive habits do not originate with the instrument. Their patterns of overdoing—their manner of giving attention to their work – are formed by all their activities, by the way they live, music being the claim on most of their time and energy. This ‘manner of the Use of the Self’, as FM Alexander called it, underlies all our reactions and holds the key to changing our habits at the cello. It is a long process of ‘undoing’ these ways of thinking.
Here in Part Two of my discussion on Tak-Sîm by Alireza Farhang, I am going to focus on his application on various extended cello techniques. On this topic, I found his approach to be quite fascinating and one that I am especially excited to share with everyone here in the cello community.
The piece begins with an audio trigger that I execute by pressing on a foot pedal. The trigger is a low, ambient sound that is sonically enhanced when I play a tremolo on the stick of the bow thus creating an almost a breathless quality.
Although a relatively simple technique, for this technique I would suggest using what I call a “guilt free” bow. The reason is because there is a large crescendo at the tail end of the note. This requires a great deal of bow pressure, beyond what I would feel comfortable doing on a decent bow. So what is a “guilt free” bow you ask? For me this is a bow that is not worth very much money and one that you don’t mind wacking around a bit. I have two. One is wooden that I playfully call “the club” and the other is a carbon fiber bow made in China. Both actually sound pretty good and can bounce pretty well.
At this point I would like to comment on the fact that Alireza did something that is unfortunately all too rare in the world of composition. It is true that in his quartet he asks all of us to do many things that we do not normally do. That said, he also did his homework. Alireza actually went out and got a hold of a cello and experimented to find various sounds on the instrument. So when I would say to him, “this is not playable” he would actually respond “you do it like this”. For this I have to give him a great deal of credit. Surprisingly enough, this is only the second time that i have ever had this type of experience working with a composer. And both times i have found that I have discovered new ways of creating sound. My guess is that this is probably due to the fact that a composer does not go in with a set idea of how sound is created on a cello. I would encourage all composers to try this sometime.
It is mainly near the end of the piece that Alireza unleashes his arsenal of extended cello techniques. In fact, the entire last 5 minutes or so is one big cello solo. The solo begins with a high double stop tremolo that rises up until you finally reach the bridge with your left hand. But you do not stop there! You continue tremoloing on the bridge creating a pitchless fuzz until you allow the bow to finally emerge on the far side of the bridge creating a dissonant chord. Again, you do not stop there! The tremolo continues down the cello to the point where the strings touch the tail piece. OK, now you hit a stop sign: fine tuners. So after taking a breath, you finish the phrase with a tremolo on the tail piece.
Next secton: bow the end pin. Whenever I bow the end pin I usually get a high harmonic. But as a result of his experimentation he knew a way to achieve a different sound. He asked for me to play a very low pitch which required a great deal of pressure. This is not an easy sound to make…and not very easy to control either!
And after a quick scordatura from C to B, Alireza next asks the cellist to play a tremolo between two harmonics located above the fingerboard in “rosin land”. As many of you already know, harmonics in this territory are pretty fussy. When I asked Alireza about them, he simply said, “I want the audience to feel your struggle”. Thanks, Dude.
But all of this leads to the solo’s most expressive moment. It is a melody played with left hand pizzicato meant to mimmic the sound of a setar. This melody is accompanied by sul ponticello tremolo and alternating between varied pitched and unpitched harmonics. This is a really beautiful sonic effect and a great moment in the music.
So how does a composer come to this point to ask a musician to do so much extreme extended technique. I cannot answer for all composers. But in Alirezah’s case the inspiration is actually completely musical. In his program notes, he writes: “The idea came to me in Autumn 2009 during a seminar at Columbia University”, recalls Alireza Farhang. “A young Turkish composer living in New York played a recording of some traditional Turkish music performed on a solo instrument. After the piece finished, he asked the audience to identify the instrument. The general opinion was that it could only have been a traditional Turkish instrument. This seemed right because everything about the sound, style, and intonation all sounded Turkish…nobody could guess that it was actually a cello! I then realized how the style, the intonation, the intervals, the articulations, all of the various qualities of holding a note, can change the character of an instrument and it’s identity. Thus was born Tak-Sîm.”
Not all competitions are created equal. There are good ones and bad ones, and good and bad reasons for entering. Many kids are raised to be competitive, both musically and in school. Kids can feel pressure to do competitions from parents, teachers and peers. Sometimes it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking success can only be measured by winning competitions and that a career in music and admission to a good school are impossible without numerous wins.
Competitions are good for many things, but they should not define success. They often consist of just one performance, on one particular day; success is something you achieve over many years through work and dedication. Since most competitions, at the most, will be three rounds over a short period of time, it is a mistake to believe you are successful or unsuccessful just because you won or lost. Many truly outstanding musicians have lost competitions because of a bad day, when in reality, they are better overall musicians than the winners. People shouldn’t beat themselves up over a loss, because, if you look at the big picture, it doesn’t make that much of a difference.
For me, part of the reason I enter competitions is for practice motivation. When preparing for a competition, I find I am able to focus and learn things faster. Like an audition, its an environment that I and many others struggle with, and so it is just good experience to perform in front of people.
I also find that sometimes the judges’ comments, whether formal or informal, help me improve my playing. Not all competitions offer this though, and when they do not make judges comments available, you just play and are sent away with no knowledge of why you lost.
Find out as much as you can about a particular competition before entering and decide whether you really think it will be a worthwhile experience. Many competitions consist of just playing and leaving, with a winner announced via email at the end of the day. It can be a very dehumanizing experience, so be prepared!
The most notable exception to this that I have taken part in was the Sphinx Competition, which was a high-quality, multi-day experience. The judges gave detailed comments and were happy to talk afterwards to the participants. There were master-classes and lectures as well. Everyone in the organization cared about not only finding a winner, but also helping and impacting the musical development of all participants in a meaningful way. I made many connections and friends during my week at Sphinx. Sphinx is an organization with a very defined mission and a model competition.
By now, I think I’ve made it clear that I don’t believe in competitions defining musical accomplishment, or in doing the ones where there isn’t something to be learned. Sure, it’s a huge ego boost to win and losing can sometimes lead to a lot of productive soul searching, but its not for everyone, they also have the potential to be really negative, and there are plenty of other ways to succeed in the field of music. But you can learn and grow from the good ones, so all students should probably do a few just for the experience of playing in a stressful, critical environment.
Competitions can be a tool to focus and improve your playing, but they should not be used to define your success or failure.
In the reader chats I’ve hosted on this website, certain discussion topics make frequent appearances. One of those topics, a question I hear often from students and other amateur musicians, is: “How do you practice?” It’s easy to see why. The assumption is that professional musicians must be great, or at least successful, practicers, and that insights into the habits of accomplished musicians should provide valuable information about how to improve and make the best use of practice time.
While I am always happy to share information about my own practicing, I always make an important qualification: practice is a personal thing. There is no one way to practice, no secret passcode to gain entry to the clubhouse of good cello playing or success in the music profession. You must design practicing around your individual needs. Student musicians can, and should, do this in consultation with their teachers.
Nevertheless, it is possible to speak about what is generally desirable in practice regardless of your level of study. While good practice can be defined in countless viable ways, here’s one to start with: Successful practice is work—yes, work—that helps you identify the sources of your individual problems so that you can solve them in a way that makes you aware of the most basic principles that underlie all good musicianship and instrumental playing.
It is possible to achieve results through practice while still being wildly inefficient with your use of practice time. For instance, learning one particular shift in one particular phrase in one particular piece is not a broadly useful achievement, unless you connect it to the larger aim of internalizing the elements common to all well-executed shifts.
It is also possible to practice to your own strengths and fail to directly address any of your weaknesses. We’ve all done it: playing through a section of music that we already have well under our fingers will always, in its way, be more pleasurable than delving into thorny, unfamiliar territory where the progress can seem much slower. (Of course, playing through something has a valuable place in the learning process, but perhaps not as often as we think.)
When I ask my own students about their practice habits, I usually hear about how their time is divided among a warm-up (scales, arpeggios, long tones, and other exercises), etudes, and repertoire. It is rare that I hear anyone mention deliberately making time for what I call unstructured practice. At some point when I was in music school, I was sitting in front of a practice room mirror and just began playing whatever came to my mind. Watching my hands, posture, and motions in the mirror, I quickly realized there was some value in practicing this way, and began to include it in my daily routine with immediately positive results. With or without a practice mirror, it was during this part of my practicing that I began to make important basic realizations about how I was connecting myself physically to the cello, where I was blocking myself with tension, when I was breathing (or not), and how applying different physical motions to the cello produced different results in sound. In instrumental playing, there is a strong correlation among things that look good, things that feel good, and things that sound good—and the contrary. I have found it easier to develop an awareness of these connections outside the context of difficult repertoire (or any repertoire at all), and recommend this type of practice to practically any instrumentalist.
Here are a few take-away statements and questions: good practice skills can be taught and learned. Practice is about your relationship with yourself, and sometimes your teacher, as well. There are many ways to practice successfully. How honest are you able to be with yourself about what your ears hear? Do you know how you really want to sound? (If not, can you really expect your hands to begin to produce those sounds?) What constitutes the greater achievement: learning a difficult new piece as quickly as possible with “old” habits or taking longer to study a simpler piece with a greater understanding of finesse and fluidity in your playing?
Next time: having done the last few blog entries on general topics, I’ll focus on a very specific, nuts-and-bolts discussion of one of the most often-studied orchestral excerpts in the cello repertoire.
In all my years of musical training I was shown many important aspects of cello technique, which included movements associated with the bow and left hand—what I call the ‘ready-set-go’ school. Your teacher explains, you listen and watch, and then you do… and then you do some more of this work in the practice room until the movements are learned.
I only became aware of the profound importance of another, entirely different form of preparation when I began training as an Alexander Technique teacher. The beauty and simplicity of it took my breath away. Many years later now, as I work with students, some of them express the same incredulity. How can the energies within the body travel upwards, up along the spine, as it descends in space? What is this extraordinary power of Up against gravity and why don’t we musicians know about this first, before all else? It makes the work of the limbs –both the arms and legs—seem effortless. When the spinal column is lengthening in movement, we are in the lap of grace itself.
It is simple but not easy, as my teachers always warned me. And how right they were! The principle itself is simple: when we allow the neck to release tension, the head will move delicately forward and ‘up’ of the spine, which causes the lengthening of the spine and the widening of the back. Learning to live its essence is the hardest thing I have ever come up against.
Alexander called his discovery of this principle the Primary Control of the use of the self. He made this discovery gradually and incrementally. He first noticed that he was pulling his head back and down to initiate a movement. It wasn’t obvious and it took many attempts at self-observation, comparing ordinary speaking with his more intensive stage voice, before he realised that his habit was with him all the time, whether on stage or off. For performers his work is revelatory. If a problem appears on stage, can it just be stage fright? Could the roots of the habit be much deeper than we know, manifesting at their maximum when we are under the most pressure, but there all the same in our everyday life—just not as noticeable?
The preparation that most of us make to move is almost universal nowadays. As the thought of moving comes to us, we are unaware of how we prepare by tightening the neck and pulling the head back and down into the spine. The freedom and grace of the spinal column is instantly compromised. It happens wordlessly, soundlessly, thousands of times a day. A thought triggers a habit.
So how to tackle this beast called habit which has us in its soundless grip? There are no direct ways, as Alexander discovered. We can neither command ourselves nor try to do something different. Our habits will get the better of us simply because those old movement patterns are stored in the deep brain structures; the patterns have become automatic, activated in milliseconds. Thought=action.
That’s where the new way of working comes in. In the beginning, my teachers did not allow me to entertain the idea of moving nor to prepare for it. This function of the nervous system is called inhibition—non-doing or stopping—allowing the nervous system to come into a state of quiet, not intending or wanting to do anything. For speed queens like me, this was nearly impossible. But that is what true learning is: going for the impossible, nothing less.
It takes years of work to be able to stop and to direct the flow of energy differently within the body before the inner movement begins to determine the outer movement. We can either compress our spines to descend into a chair or go up along the spine to do the same, allowing for that graceful extension of the spinal column. In fact, with every move we make, we can either pull down on ourselves or go up. One of my Alexander teachers, an erstwhile cellist, used to call it the ‘pitch of the body’. Her expression gave new meaning to the words ‘in tune with Nature.’