Tag Archives: technique


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.


I kind of decided enough was enough tonight. It’s not worth the pain. It’s not sensible or necessary. So then I really, seriously thought about the possibility of quitting. No more. Zip.

Then I thought, do I have a reason to be a cellist? Or to continue being one? An answer wasn’t immediately coming to mind. I guess I don’t really think deeply about that question. I just kind of do it. Maybe moreso in my old age? But I think I couldn’t even begin to address that question when I was younger and more naive. Life has given me some wherewithal to engage in productive contemplation.

So the meat of this thought process was occurring during the Brahms first piano concerto, with Grimaud and Andrey.

You see, last night’s concert found me in a different place at that moment. I was absolutely connected, in a semi state of nirvana, musically. I was in my typical state of discomfort cellistically, but I was soaking every bit of the Brahms into my pores. I don’t know if that gave me something in particular to draw on tonight. But I had been thinking this week about how I have spent much of my life as a listener to music, with the week’s program of the Brahms and the Schumann 4th Symphony as two of my favorites for cranking on the stereo. During the parts of the Brahms that the cellos rest, I was able to go into that state of immersion that I do when I listen off stage. I actually meditated to exactly that slow movement when I was in high school, during lunch period I think. I would lie down on the grass out in front with my walkman, and let Ashkenazy’s endless lines wash over me.

I wondered if the reason I am in this field is actually an extension of my love of listening to beautiful music, not really because I adore participating in its creation. This love has many physical and emotional side effects, mostly positive, but some negative, and I have frequently wondered if they are always an asset for the purpose of performing. Tonight I may have found a way through that question. It’s about passion. Finding my true passionate nature. It seems to be possible that my passion for letting music wash through me in fact touches a different part of my soul than the art of playing.

At the moment when these ideas streamed through my consciousness, something changed. It’s ironic, because the thought of quitting opened up something in myself that was trapped when I was supposedly sustaining my level of dedication, feeling I would never quit.

I have been trying to raise the bar on my overall level of well-being and happiness. Tonight was one of those nights where I felt the price was too high. The pain outweighed the pleasure. It’s possible that having now experienced the musical differentiation described here, I may find a way to live in tenuous balance with this art and craft.


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 Nile

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

Of Dove

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 took a nap before the concert tonight, and it gave me an ease at the outset of the performance that I don’t often feel without a great deal of concentration and (non)effort. Last summer I blogged about trying to play with utter looseness, a la Perlman. I felt it oddly unnatural and unsatisfying to not exert much effort, perhaps due to the contrast from what I am accustomed to. Tonight I remembered another phase I went through – Krishnamurti immersion. He frequently talks about non-effort, non-conflict, non-worry and non-thinking. They are tantalizing concepts, but the last time I perused one of his books I was less than taken by his philosophizing.
I like the idea of extending the technical issues I have on the cello out to the rest of my existence. That’s of course been a great quest and fantasy of mine for decades.

As the concert progressed, I gradually lost that pleasurable ease. It tends to be fleeting like that. It’s as though I like to have something to butt up against. I like friction, resistance. I need them, more to the point. I realized that I also like to hear other performers with some of that taste for friction. I am unmoved by totally comfortable, unperturbed players. It’s like watching a piece of cardboard play music.

originally published on 1/26/08


It’s the oddest thing. I am one day out of my orchestra’s season, and I feel utterly different sitting at the cello. I am able to focus on a different array of technical and psychological facets of playing – perhaps better ones, I’m not sure yet. It once again proves to me the inexorable link between the mind and the body.
Something I had attempted to describe to a student started to manifest itself as I was practicing – the role of the different right hand fingers. I said that the first and fourth fingers are not really doing the brunt of the work, they are more like steerers. It’s the second and third that are in the thick of it. Generally I’ve found I can demonstrate or describe things to students far more effectively than I can actually do them when left to my own devices. Teaching is so interactive. It is infectious. If I teach the kid something, I catch it too.

I also noticed that when I enhance my awareness of the right hand fingers, the left hand ones respond in kind. They become more sensitized. When the subtleties of the bow control increase, it gives me the possibility of finessing the touch of my left hand further. I often find my right hand/arm is my left hand/arm’s teacher.

originally published on 6/4/08


I’m enjoying playing pretty music. I hope it continues.
I realized why I have been so interested in using every millimeter of the bow lately. Extending to the very frog and very tip extends my body motions just that little bit more so as to provide a greater sense of freedom and openness. If I’m not mistaken, I also think vertical movements of the arm(s) also enhance that feeling. These roomier motions aren’t limited to any one bow stroke or note. If you space it out among many measures and lines of music, it accomplishes the same goal. For instance, originally I thought it only worked for long, slow bow strokes. But briefer notes that are placed in varying portions of the bow hair can convince the brain of the same sensation.

As was observed last summer, coincidentally, deeper inhalations and exhalations also give terrific opening sensations. It’s like your lungs are a bow, and vice-versa.

originally published on 7/30/08