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.