A few weeks back, I was having a post-concert drink with my friend and colleague Joshua Gindele, cellist of the Miro Quartet, and the conversation turned to teaching. Though we are both associated with ensembles that perform dozens of concerts every season, teaching the cello is an important component of both of our musical lives. (Josh teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, and I teach at DePaul University.)
Discussions on the general relationship between performing and teaching often give rise to interesting questions, some without straightforward answers. Many performers teach even though the skill sets required for good teaching and good performing are far from identical. If great teaching is something that is learned, when and how are the skills acquired? If a performer is a big star with high name recognition, do some people assume — perhaps wrongly — that the person is a good teacher? (Our answer: yes.) Might a college-level institution hire a star performer to attract students, while the star’s teaching skills — or lack thereof — are of secondary importance? (Ideally no, but unfortunately yes.) Is it possible to define good (or successful) and bad (or unsuccessful) teaching in any objective way? Are good teachers routinely encouraged and promoted, and vice versa? Assuming that most people would not gravitate to teaching if they felt they were bad at it, does this mean most people who teach believe they are good at it? One of my teachers, Janos Starker, may have put it best, if charitably: ‘perhaps there is no such thing as bad teaching, only incomplete teaching…’
The most basic question, however, may be: why do I teach? I have a full-time job as a performer, so teaching is mainly a matter of choice, not necessity. I enjoy interacting with students, connecting with them, figuring out what their needs are and how they learn best, and helping them to realize their unique potential and achieve their goals. And what teacher doesn’t relish those moments when we know we’ve truly reached someone? We see the gleam in the student’s eye as they raise their awareness or take their skills to the next level. Teaching is a great learning experience, and there is no substitute for the challenge of developing finely-honed skills in both verbal description and instrumental demonstration. But for me, none of these things really addresses the question, why? They are meaningful things, to be sure, but they aren’t exactly why I teach.
For those of us who believe we’ve been fortunate to have had really great teachers, a strong sense of responsibility can lead to a desire to pass valuable information and traditions on to future generations of musicians. Music is one of the very few disciplines where becoming proficient at a high level requires a close apprenticeship with another individual. Though people try, it is impossible to learn to play the cello at a high level solely from reading technique books or studying online videos. These tools can play a supplemental role at the proper time in a student’s development, but the core of the way we learn is working closely with someone who knows more about the subject than we do. We all need the guidance of someone who can watch and listen with critical eyes and ears, giving us very immediate, individual feedback. This one-on-one instruction forms the basis of most serious instrumental music study and is quite unique when compared to other fields.
Because the music world is relatively small, many of us don’t have to trace our educational lineage too far back to find direct connections to some of the legendary figures in our field. My teachers in college and graduate school were Paul Katz and Janos Starker, my cello “fathers”. Mr. Katz studied with Mr. Starker too, and also with Gregor Piatigorsky, Gabor Rejto, and Bernard Greenhouse, my cello “grandfathers”. Mr. Starker studied with Adolf Schiffer, who was one of the last proteges of — David Popper. Popper as my cello “great-grandfather”? Pretty cool.
When I was younger, busy with practicing and the many other concerns of student and young professional life, I didn’t dwell too much on these questions. But as with everything, time provides perspective. Though both my college and graduate school teachers are still teaching, my generation is becoming largely responsible for passing on the traditions of our chosen discipline to those who are where we were twenty years ago. It honors the roles of our cello “ancestors” and helps ensure that the next generation will have the wisdom and tools they’ll need to carry on when their time comes.
This, come to think of it, is why I teach.
“Sensory appreciation conditions conception; you can’t know a thing by an instrument that is wrong.” -F.M. Alexander.
Our body-mind could be called our home. We live in it from the inside, looking out at the world. It provides our orientation, our focus, our sense of what is right and wrong, up and down, around us, beneath us and above us. All day long we are encountering and interacting with the world; stimuli are filtering through our senses and being evaluated against past experience. The question raised within us after only a few lessons in the Alexander Technique is the same one that F.M. Alexander grappled with for nine years as he searched for answers to the mis-use of his voice: What am I doing and how can I know that I do what I think I am doing? In other words: how reliable are my sensory feedback mechanisms?
In my first Alexander lessons, my teacher used to say: come out of your head and into your body. Let the sensations of your body come into play. I was so accustomed to evaluating a movement rationally—through logic and intellect—that the actual sensation of myself was one step removed. Often I did not realise that my arm or my neck was holding on. I seemed unable to discern levels of tension, let alone subtle, unwanted preparation for movement.
Alexander called this capacity to sense our ‘sensory register’ or ‘sensory appreciation’. In the early stages of the work, we begin to discover just how ‘off the scale’ we are in our capacity to sense subtle inner movement, the flow of energy along the spine, the freeing of limbs, the lengthening and widening that emerge out of lessening contraction throughout the body. We often encounter something even more bewildering in a lesson– being told by a teacher that we are actually doing the very opposite of what we think we are doing.
As the lessons progress, we may have the occasional experience of rightness, which has little to do with activity on our part. On the contrary, it comes by doing less. Through repeated experiences at the hands of a good teacher, the native intelligence of the body-mind re-awakens, as though it had been asleep for many years. The sleep is the state of tension which we have maintained unawares…we don’t know that we are holding on here and there and everywhere.
What is this native intelligence, and its companion— reliable sensory awareness— and how can we promote its presence in ourselves? My teacher used to say that it cannot be known directly and the moment we strive for it, it is gone. It is there for us in stillness and when we are not trying to do. Through years of proper work—whether it be the Alexander Technique or any discipline which understands and respects the principle of non-doing—our sensory awareness can be honed to recognize interference: the pushing, straining, and making counter-productive effort that negate this body-mind intelligence. Little by little we come to harmonize with that upward flow of energy along the spine. What we intend and what Nature intends for us begin to coincide on a conscious level.
Successful sight-readers move deftly around within a rigid hierarchy of tasks (“the Levels”). They’re like fencers, thinking ahead, anticipating the threats and challenges in the music, and adapting what they do on a measure-by-measure basis. They keep to the hierarchy, adding the next Level only when the lower ones are completely under control; experienced players do not jeopardize the ensemble by fumbling at a Level they can’t handle properly.
Thus, effective sight-reading training is about understanding these Levels to the point where you can apply and adjust them instinctively, automatically. As I’ve said, it’s a different kind of thinking, almost like playing a different instrument. For most people, the most difficult concept to wrap your head around is that finding the actual pitches comes last. Simply chasing notes will quickly lead to disaster when sight-reading within a group. You have to apply a different mental template, where it’s about something bigger than just those dots on the page.
Of course, the more technique you have, the more difficult music you can handle. But as sight-reading is a separate skill, it can be immediately improved with specialized work, whatever your level. In a nutshell, successful sight-reading requires three things at all times: (1) counting, (2) looking ahead, and (3) prioritizing. Counting and looking ahead are self-evident; it’s the prioritizing where things get interesting. To do it right, the hierarchy of tasks must be applied in strict order, as follows:
Level I: Keep a steady pulse and maintain your place in the music (visually, if nothing else). Meter, tempo, and pulse are paramount. (“The most necessary, most difficult, and principal thing in music is time” — Mozart to his father). And your first responsibility is to your colleagues, who are depending on you to play in such a way as to allow them to get through their parts successfully. So if you can do nothing else, play just the rhythmic skeleton, keep the basic time, follow your music along visually, and resume full playing as soon as you can without disruption. Sacrifice what you must, but never act as a drag on the ensemble; the tempo might not be comfortable, but few things are more irritating than having someone play as though with continually-applied brakes.
So whatever you do play must always fit within the pulse of the music. If you executed every detail of a given measure to perfection, but required an extra 16th-note’s worth of time to do so, you have failed. When a storm hits, the bar-lines are your friends; abandon all else and hold onto them! Everything is secondary to maintaining the pulse; violation of this imperative will almost certainly lead to a breakdown of the ensemble.
“Maintaining the pulse” is more subtle and difficult than simply counting; indeed, if you count without listening you will harm the group. It means integrating others’ playing (which may well be inexact) into your counting. It requires intelligent and interactive listening to what’s going on around you, and assimilation of that rhythmic activity into your internal pulse. Playing in “perfect time” to your own beat without regard to your partners will swiftly lead to a breakdown of the ensemble. (Always remain alert, though, for a ritard, accelerando, or other marking that alters the pulse.)
The best way to master this Level (and indeed music-making in general) is to mark the pulse physically, somewhere in your body. My teacher, Janos Starker, said that whenever you play anything, some muscle somewhere, between the top of your head and your little toe, must contract in time to the music. It could be any muscle, however small or unobtrusive, but it must mark time comfortably and steadily. Everything you play then “rides” on this internal pulse. (And it must be an internal pulse; no one wants to see or hear you tapping your foot.)
Lastly, be sure you’re clear on “roadmap” issues in the music, such as repeat signs, 1st and 2d endings, da capos, and fermatas. Roadmap mishaps will always lead to a halt in the proceedings, but are easily avoidable with just a cursory scan. Consult with colleagues about which repeats will be taken, and take note of all the spots your eyes will need to jump somewhere. Watch and listen at fermatas; either follow or lead!
Level II: Play correct rhythms. If the pulse is solid, your next task is to render the rhythms precisely. The more complex the passage, the more important it is that the rhythm be accurate. A wrong (or dropped) note simply means the harmony sounds funny for a moment; it usually won’t affect anyone else’s playing. But a wrong rhythm can derail the entire ensemble even if the underlying pulse is steady.
Typical trouble spots you should look out for before undertaking to sight-read a piece include:·
- Tied notes. A very common tendency (even in familiar music) is that the note following a tied-over note is often played too early. It’s important that you both “feel” the tied-over note, and release it slightly, like an apostrophe; this way the next note will be on time.·
- Dotted rhythms. The same tendency applies here; the note after the dot often comes too early. Try to feel the subdivision represented by the dot(s), and be sure that you arrive on the next beat on time. It’s better that short notes just before a beat come late rather than early (as long as the beat’s on time!).·
- Syncopations. Syncopations are, in essence, a series of tied notes and, again, it is vital that you feel all the beats that are elided. Indeed, you must feel them extra strongly since you’re not playing them.
- Changing divisions. Watch out for “math” problems. Rhythms can often break down at junctures between triple and duple patterns. In complicated licks, make sure you can visually spot where each beat falls in the measure
- Meter and tempo changes. While you might not know exactly what’s in store at these points, at least note where they are ahead of time. When you get to them, be on your toes and ready to make whatever adjustment is needed.
- Rests. This is no time to relax. Count them out as carefully as notes. If a rapid figure begins with a short rest (say, the first of four 16th-notes), the note after the rest usually tends to be late. When you have a rest longer than a few beats, it’s an opportunity to scan farther ahead. But keep counting while doing so!!
These issues will usually jump out at you as you scan through a part before playing it, and you should take a moment to sing or tap a tricky rhythm to yourself before starting. If you flip a page and a nasty lick comes at you completely on the fly, you should momentarily retrench back to Level I (play only what you can, while maintaining the pulse and your place).
If the passage is very fast, this might require leaving out one or more notes, repeating a note as a “place-holder,” or perhaps just playing an open string. What some call “faking” is a legitimate and even admirable application of the Levels in their correct order, with the needs of the ensemble taking precedence over the “needs” of the individual player (who wants to hit all the notes).
Even for a player of modest abilities, it’s fairly unusual that a rhythm cannot be sight-read, assuming you’re playing a piece that’s technically within reach. Rather, it’s the rhythm plus the notes that tangles us up. The correct approach is to focus on rendering the rhythms precisely and in time, and getting only what notes are feasible along the way. Remember, wrong/dropped notes are far less disruptive to the ensemble than wrong/dropped rhythms.
The nodus of string playing is in the coordination of two entirely different tasks between the hands. It is a cross we bear alone; pianists and woodwind players of course need great ambidexterity, but their fingers are performing the same basic action. With us, the interplay between the bow and left hand is almost impossibly complicated; rhythm can come solely from the left hand, solely from the right, or (most often) through a combined action between the two. A run of steady 8th-notes becomes much harder in an asymmetrical bowing pattern (3+1, two-slurred/two-separate, etc.). But again, the Prime Directive is to never lose time; so if you need to simplify a bowing pattern to stay on track, don’t hesitate.
Accomplishing Level II thus requires the complete understanding (and practice) of the dictum that correct rhythms take precedence over everything except the basic pulse. This adjustment is counter-intuitive and quite difficult for most people, but until it is made, sight-reading will remain frustrating for the individual and for any group with which he/she plays.
Level III: The notes (finally!). If the passage is one for which the first two Levels are not problematic, then you can focus on the pitches. In your initial glance, obviously, look at the key signature, but try also to determine the mode (e.g., D major or B minor). Think through (or even quickly mime) both scale and arpeggio fingerings for that key, especially if it’s one you’re not generally conversant with. Next, scan for accidentals. If there’s a sudden thicket of them, try to figure out if it’s a chromatic passage or whether the key has simply changed. (In the latter case, the passage could actually be easier than if the key signature was in effect.)
Developing one’s abilities on this Level involves an unconscious process of storing and recognizing more and more patterns. Over time, you will develop a “database” of common melodic and accompanimental figures, which you will begin to match to the music in front of you. There is a syntax to the music of each style period, particularly for bass lines, and when you come upon a familiar pattern, you shouldn’t need to read every note.
Instead, with practice, you will gradually learn to process notes in clumps rather than one at a time. For just one example, diminished-7th harmonies often contain both flats and sharps in the same chord. Once you begin to recognize the chord in an arpeggiated figure, you need only check where it starts and ends, and then plug in a standard fingering.
But what of those passages that don’t fall into any existing patterns, such as one finds in so much music from the 20th century onward? Here, the mental process you must acquire over time is what I call the “visualization of grids.”
Each note you play should be broken down into a 3-part datum: (1) the pitch, (2) the string you’re on, and (3) the finger you’re using. Each datum should then call up a mental “grid” of 19 notes — the fingered notes which are available to you at that instant. At any given moment the hand can cover five notes on each string (four fingers plus one extension), giving you 20; subtracting the one you’re playing gets you 19. So, for example, if you’re playing Eb on the G-string with your 3d finger, you have the following notes available on the C-string: F, Gb/F#, G, G#/Ab, A. On the A-string, you have D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb. And so forth.
The best sight-readers are those who can call up the complete, correct grid instantaneously on each note. If the next note you need is not on that grid, you figure out the most efficient shift needed to get to it. Fingerboard geography is complicated, but it is finite (at least in the lower positions). If you actively try to develop the visualization of grids in everything you play, your sight-reading will improve steadily.
This system is in contrast to the more traditional “position” approach. The concept of “third position” can be taught so as to encompass the visualization of grids, but it’s just extra mental baggage. Better to focus on the grids and available notes. This is not to say that each note is an island unto itself; of course we mentally clump them together into positions. But the positions are the tail, not the dog.
So although rhythmic groupings must be kept in mind no matter what (per Level II), advanced sight-readers also create a mental “overlay” of which notes belong together. Try to spot the notes on which you’ll have to shift, and to which finger. Watch out for scale patterns with gaps in them. But above all, make sure that a sudden tricky passage doesn’t make you neglect the first two Levels.
Bonus points: Character and dynamics. The Levels at which you’re operating will be constantly changing according to circumstances. But through it all, you should always try to convey the overall character of what’s in front of you. Even if the passage is so difficult that you’re relegated to Level I, you can still notice that it’s pp, or that the notes should be staccato.
To recap a little bit, good sight-reading requires more than accurate counting and playing; you must keep your ears open at all times and process what you’re hearing. Someone else in the ensemble might be playing a difficult lick that’s about to come your way, and getting it in the ear ahead of time (even with flaws) puts you ahead of the game. Even more importantly, not everyone in an ensemble will be equally adept at managing the different Levels (if they even know about them), and attentive playing from you could be a group’s salvation.
Back in the 1960’s, there was a safe-driving ad campaign on television whose slogan was “Watch Out For The Other Guy” — the point being that it was not enough to simply follow the rules of the road yourself, but that you had to allow for others out there who weren’t. The same applies here. As an ensemble cellist you will frequently find yourself playing a fairly simple repetitive rhythm while the upper voices wrestle with something more florid and difficult. There is a fine line between maintaining a beat that the others can depend on and insisting on metronomic perfection as if in isolation.
Remember, the success of the group trumps all. If a subtle adjustment from you will keep things together, you should make it, and discuss the issue later. But this can’t happen if you’re focused solely on yourself. Always relate your part to what’s going on around you, and if you’re the one struggling with a hard lick, listen for the rhythmic voice and hang on!
The foregoing was taken from an introduction I wrote for a reprint edition of a wonderful early 20th-century French text, “500 Sight-reading Exercises For Cello,” by Armand Parent and Vincent D’Indy. As per its title, the book contains 500 short (3-line), gradually-more-difficult exercises in all styles, keys, tempi, etc. I know of nothing comparable out there in scope and usefulness. The rest of my intro relates to the actual exercises in the book, and is thus not of much use in a general blog. But the book is available at www.cellos2go.com.