Haven’t posted for awhile. Imagine that. It’s a little like coming home though, isn’t it? Maybe my exploration into humanism explains that to some degree. This is a human, not superhuman, exercise and exploration. I never knew it, but I was raised and live my life as a humanist. Not as anything else.
I guess I thought I could notate a couple of discoveries I’ve come upon lately. I unhinged some degree of relief from my left hand pain. I haven’t really verbalized it yet, so it’s a bit foggy. One thing is that the bottom of my hand must be an equal player in this whole exercise. It’s not all about the top. The first realization I had, which I shared with my colleagues, is that the neck is precisely where my thumb wants to be, should be. So I experimented with miming the left hand on thinner, smaller objects, and it seemed to prove my theory out. That was until I tried it on a guitar. Then I realized that there is something else which must be an impediment besides the height of the neck. As it turns out, the width is just as much of a problem, just as on a guitar. Just realizing and acknowledging this issue already helped. Negotiating the obstacle course which is the cello neck will continue to be my task. That is why I started by saying I must give the lower part of the hand great credence in all of this. That is the part which deals with this maze from moment to moment.
The other discovery is regarding another favorite pet peeve of mine – eating. I now see utterly clearly why there are so many fat/chunky people walking around. Restraining yourself from eating til you’re stuffed is just really fucking difficult. And finding that delicate balance between undereating and overeating is nearly un-do-able. I am saying this because I have realized the most obvious thing in the world, the thing I’ve been reticent to admit all these years. You must eat less and move more in order to get to a happy physical state. And when you eat less, you will feel hungry, or at the very least hungrier. So, how horrible is being hungry? Perhaps not so much. Perhaps at my middle age I have discovered worse sensations in life than hunger. Your weight is not a static animal, it is fluid. It is unfair to judge yourself, either positively or negatively, for something that is in a constant state of flux.
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’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 am now noticing that there are a number of things conspiring against my efforts not to curl my fingers. Pizzicato, vibrato, shifting and staccato strokes all have a tendency to encourage that shape. I must be vigilant in order not to fall right back into my old habits.
Another ally I have is the thumbs. Although they have their own leanings towards hooking in the opposing direction, when I focus on keeping them more neutral, the fingers do respond in kind.
originally published on 11/9/08
I noticed tonight that I sometimes have mini-explosions in my left hand when I play. Little baby spasms. It’s a good thing I think. It may be a road to more efficiency. It is the briefest length of tension possible, and then you instantaneously fall into relaxation. There are many gradations of the spike as well, depending on the material. You can request from your mind and hand that it be an extended, shallow hump, kind of like a long slur marking. I was also somehow having the image of a volcano, with different types of eruptions. Having this as another parameter in the mix of cello techniques is rather effective I think. It adds a far greater range of control over tension levels.
originally published on 3/19/09
Upon further exploration of the left hand, I noticed that the arm plays an important role in providing balance to the hand. I like to use the chicken wing metaphor when describing the up and down motion of the arms. This helps distinguish the upper arm from the shoulders and forearm. When it’s elevated, it also gives the hand a stabilizing table to connect to, requiring less effort from the wrist and finger muscles.
But there’s another arm motion, the forearm one. It correlates to vibrato, it was recently explained to me. It’s like a pushing motion, or like when you gesture to someone to back away further. I believe the muscles used for this help support the angling of the hand and fingers. It’s a little like having a prosthetic arm or a mannequin arm, where you can move the arm around while keeping the hand still. The arm is doing most of the work. The hand must be loose, of course.
originally published on 1/3/10
When I get it right, everything seems to hum. The fingers just lay on the string with their own weight. The vibrato only requires a gentle wiggle. I feel a warm feeling of trust and ease throughout my body. It’s like someone once said, the body is actually supposed to fall naturally into place, if only you could direct it appropriately.
These good vibes this morning were a result of last night’s practice session. I discovered a simple truth. In order to achieve a like feeling in all of the fingers, you have to arc them the same, and distance them equally from the thumb. The thumb must be willing to alter its depth. So it is deepest for the fourth finger, gradually getting shallower as you descend to one, until the thumb may not even be in contact with the neck for the first finger. I couldn’t believe how obvious it was, especially since I’d never heard talk of it.
originally published on 1/7/10
I see, I see! No extraneous movements! No squirming, no fudging, no second-guessing! That’s how I will beat the beast of left arm exhaustion. It’s been there all along. I’m sure Starker harped on it repeatedly, in me and others. But now I’m ready to use it.
I see now that any moments of epiphany always involved this approach. It’s kind of like the middle way. I had to test the waters of all the edges in order to wean myself down to the simplest point of motion.
originally published on 4/25/08
I have naturally been trying to sort out all the info I gathered on my recent trip to Bloomington. That’s the thing about Mr. Starker — he condenses huge, complex ideas into succinct statements and demos, so you can be working through a few hours of lessons over the course of months or years. I suppose I had forgotten just how mind-altering his wisdom is. The only down side is his professorial shadow lingering over my shoulder when I teach at times. Maybe that’s not so bad.
One particular thing vexing me is the issue of the hooked first finger on the bow hand. What I have noticed is that when I let it relax and uncurl, eventually the other fingers compensate for the absence of its grip, thereby organically rebalancing the hand. I am also hoping it’s not my imagination that my left hand fingers are responding in kind to this lack of hooking and curling. The question basically is, what is the minimum amount of this shape I can get away with without sacrificing the sound or control? Writing these words is tapping my sensory imagination, as if I can connect the release in my fingers to a release in other muscle groups.
originally published on 11/9/08