Not long after finishing university, I realised I was ‘out of the jurisdiction’ of all of my teachers and finally free to explore ways of approaching cello technique that were previously unavailable. After trawling through many treatises on string playing and investigating the teaching philosophies of some well-regarded performance coaches, I decided to prioritise the physical sensation of playing over the sound produced. In practising, I changed my primary goal from ‘sounding good’ or ‘getting it right’ to making everything about the experience ‘feel nice’. I kept myself honest through this process by knowing that, if I cheated (and allowed small amounts of unnecessary tension to creep in during difficult passages or moments in practice), then this effect would probably result in greater tension and therefore errors in performance.
For about two or three days, I felt that I sounded significantly worse than I had for many years prior. However, the most major issues were around moments that had been the most likely to fail in performance. I therefore stopped considering these issues to be ‘slips’ and instead began to realise that the processes or concepts behind their execution were faulty. Thus began a long process of trial and error, examining the functioning of the human body and the cello.
This process was emotionally painful at first, until I realised that the cello and my body were both giving me the clearest feedback I could possibly ask for; it was simply a matter of learning how to listen to and interpret that feedback. Essentially, what I had discovered was that, by remaining free in my body-use and not trying to interfere with the outcomes of my understanding of cello playing, I’d found that my best teachers could be the instrument and my body.
Many breakthroughs and realisations followed in the subsequent weeks and months, often on close to a daily basis. Before much longer, I genuinely enjoyed being wrong. A mistake of any kind meant that a window into my next major discovery had likely just presented itself. Further, a substandard result no longer occurred because ‘I hadn’t worked hard enough’ or ‘I wasn’t good enough’, it was simply the outcome of my understanding of the cello (which I became always willing to improve or refine). Likewise, on the rare occasions that I would take a day or two off practice, errors upon resuming weren’t really from ‘being rusty’, so much as my muscle memory no longer compensating for a faulty concept. Changing ‘bad habits’ had become much less of an issue too; when I accurately understood the causal relationship between a certain process and its outcome, I found myself preferring the version that worked well. During this process of exploration and discovery, I found that knowing what doesn’t work can be just as valuable as knowing what does work.
As I continued to practice and explore in this way over several months, I developed a greater awareness of my body and an increased sensitivity to the ways in which it ‘wanted’ to move. This increased my physical efficiency substantially and other people’s feedback (both musicians and non-musicians alike) started to change dramatically; suddenly I was a ‘natural’.
In hindsight, this has been a process of transformation and exactly the right thing for me to do. When I first started down this path, however, it felt like a major leap of faith; the gravity of the platitudes from my time as an ‘educationally institutionalised’ cellist was strongly present. Ultimately, I realised that I had to take responsibility for my own playing and that I would need to question everything I’d been taught. It is my hope that more musicians can start to feel the benefits of working in this way. I’ve found it to be far more rewarding than my previous ways of practicing, and my standard is much higher as a result. Similarly, pain issues I’d had in the past have no longer been a problem. My ultimate technical goal, by the way, has always been to reach a level of proficiency where the technical considerations of any given piece of music are a non-issue, so that the music and its performance can be at the forefront of my mind.
A final note I should add is that by the time I’d started working in the ways described above, I’d had a background of Alexander Technique lessons for several years. Other systems, such as Feldenkrais, may be equally good, but I’ve had no experience with these. Alexander Technique lessons helped immensely with my body use and awareness and could be useful to musicians finding themselves interested in, or having difficulty, employing the processes I’ve described here.