Acting the part
All for show
Test yer gesture (ha)
As many of you know, I am in the business of teaching how to play the cello. I was about to write, “I teach the cello” but then I thought, “Teach it what? How to be a human? Latvian history? Roller skating?” (backwards and forwards)
So early for a digression! Anyway, I teach people of just about every level how to play the cello. I also get called upon every so often to consult on films, commercials and other showbiz type shebangs to either teach someone how to look as if they are playing the cello, or to fake it, myself. Even before I did my first consulting job, I knew that going for the gestures, the simple physical look of confident playing, was important to actual proficiency. Talking about it with some of my regular readers generated some interest, so I thought I would go a little more in-depth with this idea. You know how I like lists, so here we go:
1) Think digital.
0 or 1. On or off. Moving or not. One of the hallmarks of an introspective, well-meaning, struggling student is dithering. Hesitation out of habit, fear, self consciousness. Over preparing. Pre-preparing. Post analyzing, blah blah. One thing you notice about the movements of successful instrumentalists is that they are singular. Even the preparation for a bow stroke is one idea, not a series of strange little questions or doubts. Even if your intonation is approximate, and your bow grip under construction, you are still going for one note at a time. (this applies to double stops, too.) So move with one focused gesture, and make the end to the note as thoughtful as the beginning. Scales are the perfect place to work on this skill. Decide what you want to do: short, long, tapered, slurred, no vibrato, fast bow, slow bow…and then stick to it with as little interference from your brain as possible. To get even deeper, I’ll walk you through an example of how your mind (with its expectations, disappointments, and general destructive input) can work against you, and how to fight the good fight.
Let’s say I decide upon fast bows, quarter notes, using half of the bow in a slicing motion, 48 bpm. I want my stops to be exact, but not harsh. Ok, so it’s a sort of Baroque basic, and definitely requires a simple, singular motion. C major, 3 octaves, here we go….
Three notes in, because the C string sometimes does not like to respond to a fast bow with imprecise technique, I whiff my E and F, creating a sort of crummy, false sound. Immediately, the brain seeks to change the technique to salvage the sound, but the change usually involves lots of starts and stops, and just for fun, some self doubt and hesitation.
No! The exercise is about maintaining a technique, which is practice in and of itself! Any new technique requires a lot of repetition to absorb it into your playing, and what you’re practicing almost more than the technique is persisting at the nature of the movement!
So, being “digital” just refers to a finite, singular movement. Shift in one move. If you miss it, adjust, and try again in one move.
2. Wag the dog.
We get to thinking about the process and assume that only way to play with confidence and reliable technique is by years of slogging away.
Which, incidentally, is quite true.
But on the way there, sometimes it helps to look at the relationship between the gesture and the end result. Sure, professionals do A, B, and C with confidence. Have you ever considered that they do it because of the confidence, not that they are confident because they can do it?
What I mean is that the confidence can precede ability. Playing with gusto is something that catches on like wildfire. The more you play with intent and focus, the more you are able to harness those energies that propel you. Plus, the feeling is not subtle. Since we are constantly cultivating muscle memory that needs to be precise to less than a millimeter, it’s interesting to note how large, in contrast, a simple and singular motion can feel.
3. Watch and learn.
Check out some of the movements of symphonic and solo players. Notice the details, like what their arms, heads, and bodies do, with relative uniformity. Here’s a list within a list of interesting commonalities:
-repeated notes tend to garner a lean slightly forward, signaling intensity and forward momentum
-long open C string in a dark or moody passage gets accompanied with a nod of complicity
-dotted rhythm gets a bounce in the seat and sometimes a subtle twist of the torso in sympathy with bow movement
-notes that fall on beats get an off-beat preparation with the bow. So, if you come in on 4 on a down bow, one might make an up bow motion just above the string on the ‘and’ of 3.
-baroque separated notes can make the right arm swing from the elbow. Think the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz.
Don’t think of mimicking these movements as putting the cart before the horse. In the case of the cello, the cart is PART of the horse. When you look at pros and notice their movements and how homogenous they are, realize that they are not purely emotive or for show: it’s a part of getting it right.