Watching Starker’s master class is a bit like how Brahms must have felt with Beethoven looking over his shoulder. But I have realized something. Nobody can be a clone of anybody else. Starker tempts you because he is so decisive and incisive. Talking about laws of playing. Not that I totally disagree with his premise. He is brilliant, naturally.
However, his brilliance can’t discount my or another’s brilliance. One way of saying it is that… well, actually that. We can say the same or almost the same concepts, but in different ways. We don’t necessarily disagree with one another. But we have to find our way of expressing it. Like, when I discovered that the difficulty in the left hand stems from the existence and thereby impedance of the neck, it may be closely related to his law of circles. But my brain and my body cannot fully ingest his philosophy and concepts. I will choke a bit. My own truths will sound and look a bit different, even if they had similar roots.
If I am so cut and dry about my attachment to the cello, it will affect my approach. I noticed some of that today. It reflects in my mannerisms. It’s nice. Every word I write seems to translate to a physical idiosyncrasy. It’s kind of my dream. As much as I’ve enjoyed/loved writing in spaces like this over the years, I never saw an absolutely direct translation to my music. There are undoubtedly indirect correlations, which I’ve adored. It’s been possibly my chief method of improvement as a cellist – growing as a human being.
So with improvements on two fronts, will I again butt up with my usual problem of combining them? Does it take the wisdom of the ages and the patience of Job to handle 2 sources of growth in one moment? What seems to be a possibility is that endeavoring on only one of those is not sustainable as a manner of living. The undone one will always end up undermining the done. If I play the cello well but eat poorly, the ease and naturalness with the instrument will eventually revert under the pressure. If I eat well but play the cello unsuccessfully, the well-balanced eating will eventually fall away.
2 things: I think I really let my physical attitude to cello get in the way. I was observing that I am really not just a performing monkey. I have a very nuanced sense of rhythm and pacing. I have a keen ear for colors and sound. What I was noticing was that I perceive essentially as much as conductors do. This is not something I am normally aware of in myself. It is in my mind and in my ear. And in my heart. And my spirit perhaps. Where does it start? That’s a good question. Even in my writing one sees a heightened perception.
So I would like to (re)consider my extra-cello possibilities for music making. But what it also reminded me of is that I don’t have to be so body-aware, body-conscious, body-obsessed. I am more that just a physical performer. There is much bizarre emphasis on entertainment around here. I don’t know if being in an orchestra heightens that or subdues it. Perhaps this has been a long time coming. Perhaps I’ve never really gotten in touch with my spiritual connection with music. Wow, why did I say that? Is that what this is? Is this from listening to the Big Book streaming? I always hate being cheesy, you know that. One of my many evadings from a sense of a higher power.
I’ll get around to the second thing, but not tonight.
The left hand is a busy guy. And a bit conflicted.
While you’re exerting pressure downward into the string, you are also doing a variety of other actions. Shifting, vibrating, bridging between strings, playing chords or double stops, and God knows what else that I can’t think of off hand.
How is all of this possible? By not doing any one of those things to the point where it overtakes the others. Hold on loosely, but don’t let go, as the rock song advises. That should be my cellist’s motto.
Of particularly frequent concern is combining pushing down notes and vibrating. Those actions are extremely contradictory. My friend tried to show me how they work together. You actually use the pressing down as an anchoring device, around which you can vacillate for vibrato. That has always been a problem for me. Maybe it’s too complex and my brain isn’t able to send the correct information to my hand. It gets shorted.
Recently I’ve been enjoying great benefits from practicing basic scale exercises. My guess is that it takes all of the musical layers and emotions out of the equation, so that my body functions in its simplest and most efficient manner. That’s my guess. There I am playing my Klengel — it’s interesting to think of how many cellists over the decades have played the exact same thing, including Klengel himself. I guess if it worked for them, who am I to question it.
I now realize what a friend at IU was talking about. Sitting on the floor in one of the hallways he described a fingernail/cello quandary he was having. At the time I was still an avid biter, so I couldn’t see how normal length nails would undermine his playing. Now that I actually use clippers instead of teeth, I am running into the same difficulty. Don’t the left hands’ nails get in the way? I never limited my biting exuberance particularly in the days when I bit, but now I find a maximum shortness for comfort during clipping.
What seems to be the case is that there must be an tenuous alliance between the nail and the string. It primarily involves the first and second fingers. I haven’t worked out exactly which positions are affected. There does appear to be a further issue of extensions, which changes the angle of the finger and thereby the placement of the fingertip and nail.
Does vibrato work with the nail? Is there a limited dynamic range? Am I degrading the string with frequent scratchings back and forth when shifting? Is the scratching audible to anyone but me?
This issue came up at IU in particular because Starker tends to make adjustments to the angle of his students’ left arms and hands. He is looking for consistency all along the fingerboard which should aid in consistency of intonation. He is brilliant at finding overarching structural and musical truths which apply anywhere on the cello and within any piece of music. Personally I felt a lot less lost after my work with him, making practicing a much more efficient and productive proposition. I think now I am discovering that I will naturally replace some of the encyclopedic rulebook which colleagues and I imagined he kept somewhere (besides his brain), with a few short chapters that are more deeply me. But I could never have come to this place of trust in myself without his anchoring to spring from.
originally published on 10/27/07
I sit in orchestra and watch people. Or observe is a better word, due to my feeling of non-belonging. I see all sorts of bizarre movements and expressions that are solely a result of an individual’s idiosyncrasies. They are unrelated to the essence of the music being played. They are their egos. That is actually fine if they prefer to do things that way. My dilemma is that I cannot seem to get away with even the slightest departure from total discipline in body and mind without everything unraveling at the seams. All these other people appear to be humming along perfectly contentedly. And I have in fact asked people or alluded to the possibility that they are suffering from any of my same physical or mental symptomology, and almost always it is not the case. This is one reason why I have spent much time trying to look for answers to my cellistic issues outside the musical realm – I keep hitting a brick wall when I address it directly.
One other aspect to this is the question of whether others are striving for the same kinds of things I aspire to. If generally they are not, then it may be perfectly logical that they have none of the same problems I do. I assume people are on my page. I strongly wish that they are. It’s painful for me to even write that there’s a possibility that they aren’t. I despise being different, separate, and in the end isolated. I cannot believe the way people take all these human differences and/or commonalities in stride. I freeze up when I become aware of these things. And I freeze up if I try not to be aware. Maybe the only thing I can attempt to do is take my inability to take things in stride, in stride. That’s only once removed from other people, right? Not too bad.
originally published on 9/3/08
I practiced last week. I wanted to do some honing after hearing pristine violin playing the other week. It works, funnily enough, that practicing stuff. But I find it also carries with it a risk factor in orchestra, that being over-fatigue. But now I see that that is only in the short term. Over a few weeks as of yet, it is becoming easier to play. I tactily know where I’m headed on the instrument, and I’m mentally less second-guessy and trepidatious. But this typing is a killer.
originally published on 3/2/07
I’ve been trying to lighten up – with my left hand, that is. I listen to Itzhak Perlman and watch his videos, and there is such a relaxed, easy approach he takes. I don’t see the lack of effort doing him any harm, certainly, and it is probably quite beneficial. When I loosen up my vise grip it doesn’t always give me the sound that I am striving for. I believe that once I get used to this freer, gentler sound, it won’t bother me anymore. It also seems that by concentrating on my left arm, there is a spiraling effect to the rest of my body, and my mind, too. It’s almost as if I have made one spot the focal point for all of the tension simmering within me, and if I let that go, everything else falls away, too, like a domino effect.
originally published on 8/4/07
I somehow am under the misapprehension that you must be in a state of undue tension in order to make and emote beautiful music. I have been trying to relax as much as possible, as I have blogged previously, but once my initial tryout period fizzles out, I come back to what I must consider “real playing.” The relaxed version of my playing does not register in my mental musical associations. It’s like fluff. But I need to convince my inner self otherwise, not primarily for comfort, in truth. It really sounds superior on many fronts. It is really more in tune, and more ringing, and much easier to phrase and play around with colors.
I guess I thought that by impersonating Perlman in a sense, the looseness would come about and be absorbed and assimilated by sheer emotionality and love and admiration. I suppose my love for my own musical taste and needs supersedes that.
originally published on 8/14/07
I played on a chamber concert last night. What interested me was my relative level of tension. There seems to be an allowable quantity of muscular tension as I perform in contrast to normal playing, probably due to the adrenaline drug effect. The habits formed from innumerable past performances also contribute to this regressive tendency.
I realize that I need to remind myself, in lieu of a teacher, that although I perform with more tension than I rehearse and practice, I am performing with less strain than in prior concert situations. As they say, I can try to remember to compare apples to apples, if I’m comparing at all.
originally published on 8/16/07