Technique (Instrumental Skills)

When the cello is played well, it is an extraordinarily beautiful, wonderful instrument. But making it sound like that is not an easy task. In fact, playing the cello well, is an extremely complicated activity requiring a combination of specific and highly developed physical, intellectual and emotional skills that very few other activities come anywhere near to.

An instrument, like a language, is best (easiest) learned young. A child who has the luck to have a fine teacher, can grow with, and adapt to the instrument intuitively and effortlessly, learning and mastering the instrument with relative ease and naturalness. After the end of childhood however, learning and improving our instrumental skills – as well as teaching others how to play better – becomes a much more difficult task. It requires more conscious effort and more intellectual understanding.

Working it out for ourselves, solving the constant variety of playing problems which we face, requires a large dose of scientific method (as well as lots of  intuition and copying). Often we need to be like a doctor – looking for the correct diagnosis for each problem. But unfortunately, we are like a doctor “in reverse” because, unlike for life, the default position for cello playing is zero ….. off ……. nothing …… horrible. Nobody is born playing the cello. This is an unnatural activity that we have to make natural. So, rather than being like a doctor and restoring someone to their natural, healthy state, we are like a building engineer, creating an extremely complex building from the vague plans that the composer has left us. Our job is not only to construct that building in such a way that it be both strong and beautiful, but also we have to then permanently maintain and reinforce it to resist the forces of nature which would  tend to make it fall down over time. And on top of all that we have to make the process look (and feel) easy and natural !!

Great artists don’t only need to have great things to say, they need also to have a great technique in order to be able to say them.

Every human life is an emotional drama worthy of a novel (especially our secret imaginary inner life). In the Musicality/Interpretation section there is a large area devoted to Psychology which deals with this fundamental component of artistry. However, having something great to say is not usually the part of artistry that is lacking. We all have plenty to say ……..  we just don’t have the tools (technique) to say it. Mechanical skill is necessary in order to be able to express emotions (play “musically). Without these skills, even the most sensitive, artistic, poetic, musical person will struggle to make the music sound as they would like it to. And in fact, the more sensitive the musician, the more painfully they will suffer the lack of these mechanical skills. Instrumental technique opens the door to communication, allowing us to express, through music and our instrument, all the depth and richness of our inner lives.

Improving our technique doesn’t improve or influence what we have inside ourselves to say (our inner emotional life) …… but it can do a huge amount to give us the tools to express whatever we do have in there. And that is the objective of this “Technique” section.

Here we are talking about “simple” physical, mechanical, technical skill. About how to make the instrument feel like a natural extension of our body in the same way that driving a car (or bicycle) ideally becomes eventually a completely natural, comfortable – and thus easy –  human activity.

Every cellist – just like every athlete – has practiced their craft for thousands of hours in order to automatise and make easy, the complex movements involved in playing. In fact, researchers have compared the number of hours of practice required to acquire various different skills. Learning to drive a car requires dozens of hours, learning a language hundreds of hours, mastering tennis requires several thousand hours, but mastering an instrument – especially a string instrument – requires tens of thousands of hours. More hours in fact than almost any other skill. And these are not hours spent thinking about musical factors such as phrasing, harmony, interpretation, musical style etc but rather hours of actual playing, of technical, physical work.

But it’s not just the number of hours that makes the difference. What we practice, and how we do it is supremely important. Breaking down the problems into their simpler components and then acquiring the necessary skills in small manageable steps, makes the difficult job of learning the instrument more enjoyable. It is this process that converts “The Art of Playing the Cello” into “The Science of Playing the Cello”.

Let’s talk for a moment about the difference between “Art” and “Science”. Throughout history, anything that was not understood, was automatically considered as religion, magic or art. Centuries ago – in the “Dark Ages” – so little was understood that almost everything was considered as magic, art or religion. But little by little, as our understanding of the world has deepened, science has pushed pack the triple frontiers of magic, art and religion.

In the same way that the science of chemistry began as the magic art of “alchemy”, instrumental technique can evolve from being an “Art” to being a “Science”. We might start off  by considering good playing as an “Art” as in , for example,  “The Art of Bowing ….. Fingering ……. Cello Playing ….. Vibrato …. Shifting etc “, but ultimately it will be a sign of progress if we can also convert this art into “The Science of Bowing ….. Fingering  … etc”.

This doesn’t mean at all that we are taking the “Art” out of music. It just means that, in our practice sessions and in learning the cello, we can separate artistry from technique. “Artistry” has basically two components: on the one hand, our inner emotional life and on the other hand, the way we communicate with others. Let’s consider “Artistry” then as belonging to the Psychology department, and “Technique”  as belonging to the science department. When we put the two together …….. that is when we get pure magic!

In fact, magicians and string players have a lot in common. Both are considered “artists” but both in fact need to be first and foremost very highly skilled technicians. A magician can explain and teach his “magic” tricks ………likewise, a musician can explain and teach his musical craft. We can and should treat all aspects of cello technique in the same way that a musician treats his magic tricks.

Chemists can analyse any substance to find out what its basic ingredients are. Cooks (chefs) know which raw materials have gone into the preparation of their delicious dish. Well music is a lot like chemistry and cooking: the finished product is made up of many different ingredients, combined in different proportions and all prepared in special ways. The “consumers” of this finished product (the listeners in the case of music) don’t need to know about how it was made in order to enjoy it …….. but those who make it do (usually) need to know how they made it, in order to be able to reproduce it again.

Making music, like cooking,  involves two processes:

  1. the writing of the “recipe” (the act of composition) and
  2. the practical act of preparing the ingredients and doing the actual cooking.

We instrumentalists are the food-preparers – the vegetable choppers: we don’t need to know why or how the recipe was made (composed) but we do need to have the tools, ingredients and know-how necessary to follow the instructions, bring it to life and to make it taste (sound) wonderful every time. In order to play well, we need to know – either consciously or intuitively – how to solve the many diverse technical problems that can cause any passage (or any note) to not sound good.

In the same way that a chemist (or a cook) can analyse a finished product, breaking it down into its basic components, we cellists can analyse our technical problems, breaking them down into their simplest components, in order to be able to work on them more efficiently. The alternative is a little like banging your head against a wall: practicing for hours and hours and hours and just hoping that it will all work out with lots of effort, natural talent (and a very hard head). For some people of course this old-fashioned method does work out – they are the lucky ones. But even the most naturally talented instrumentalists will always find some problem that their talent alone cannot get them through.

An analysis of technical needs and problems resembles the root system of a plant: the deeper we go, the more the system divides into smaller and smaller branches. The Technique section is divided up into three  principal areas:

BASIC PRINCIPLES             LEFT HAND               RIGHT HAND           

Ideally, for every technical problem (or, in other words, for every specialised skill) – small or big, difficult or easy – you will be able to find here several different types of material that allow us to approach it from different angles:

– a scientific analysis  of what the difficulties really are
– an effort to present the problem and its solution in non-scientific terms using analogies taken from other aspects of life

– exercises specifically designed to isolate, illustrate and work on the problem
– a compilation of repertoire excerpts in which the problem appears

This “instrumental skills department” is enormous …. an encyclopedia …. a tree of knowledge, but the most important concepts are very simple. When practicing mechanical skills:

  •  Use a metronome
  •  Use only a small, slow vibrato (a wide, fast vibrato is often a mask over insecurity).
  •  Practice complicated tasks slowly at first, without tension and without emotivity (save your nervous energy for “musical” situations).