FOR CELLISTS: AMATEUR, ASPIRING ............... AND CURIOUS

Pedagogy

PEDAGOGY AND AUTO-PEDAGOGY

Pedagogy is not just the science of teaching others. It’s also about how we can teach ourselves. Teachers can help us greatly, slightly, or not at all. They can even do damage, but ultimately we are all autonomous, self-taught (but much-helped) musicians.

And a lot of lessons can be had for free. We no longer need to travel to see the world’s finest cellists play: just switching on the computer is enough. And not only can we watch them play or teach at the flick of a switch (or the click of a mouse). We also now have the best seat in the house, they will repeat anything we want over and over for us (even in slow motion), and we can even play along with them, over and over. What’s more, just like a GPS (SatNav), these great artists will never get tired or annoyed with us no matter how slow we are to “get it”. Wow!

Many important pedagogical concepts can be “stolen” from other aspects of life. One of the best (and most fundamental) of these is: “make your problems into your teacher”. Almost any piece of music (or musical situation) will present us with at least some problems – technical, musical, emotional, philosophical etc – which we can then use as fuel (food, a starting point) for our continuous learning process. Benjamin Zander has a brilliant idea on this subject: when we make a mistake (or if something is sounding bad) then instead of getting angry, sad or upset, we should think “gosh, how fascinating” and then take it from there.

TECHNIQUE OR MUSICALITY?

Pedagogy, like this Celloblog, has two main aspects: Technique and Musicality. A good teacher teaches both, but in different proportions according to the needs and strengths of each individual student. Musicians with great natural physical ability and attributes (especially a large hand – see Hand Size) will find playing the instrument easy, but may need to spend more time exploring and developing elements of musicality. On the other hand, musicians with great sensitivity and/or intelligence but less natural physical advantages will need to spend more time working on developing their technical skills.

Finding the right mix of technique and musicality for each individual student is an important role for a teacher because, unfortunately, human nature leads us usually to favour doing more of whatever we are already good at. This means that technical stars would prefer to play virtuoso pieces all day rather than study a score of something as boringly easy as a sonata, while the more cerebral musician might prefer to study scores, read and listen to music rather than spend hours doing the necessary mechanical practice. Without a correcting force, the virtuoso will get increasingly brilliant but also increasingly superficial, while the cerebral player will become increasingly good at interpretation but also increasingly lost and frustrated at the instrument. The psychological pain factor is considerably more in the second case, as the cerebral musician is perfectly aware of his weakness whereas the virtuoso is often blissfully unaware of his.

For the typical cello student there is however often an unfortunate imbalance in the relative importance given to technique and musicality, in favour of the musicality side. It is a great shame if a cello teacher spends so much time teaching “interpretation and musicality” that the student doesn’t really learn how to play the cello well, because while we can learn musicality from a huge range of sources, we are almost totally and uniquely dependent on our cello teacher in order to learn how to play the cello well. Very often a teacher will dedicate much more time and energy to the interpretative aspects of the cello repertoire than to solving the specific cellistic difficulties that we find in that repertoire. It is often as though technical progress is considered to be just a side-benefit that will occur automatically when we play musically and learn new repertoire. This might work for highly talented players, but for the normal cellist it is a recipe for guaranteed pain and frustration, because no amount of musicality can make up for unsolved technical problems!

In fact, it would probably be healthier if we considered the relationship between technique and musicality in the exact opposite way: that in fact it is a good technique that allows us the wonderful side-benefit of being able to play more musically, because with a good technique, the repertoire becomes easy, which allows us to now play exactly as we want to. Seen in this way, our approach to learning and practicing the cello repertoire changes. Now, instead of starting at the beginning of a piece and working our way towards the end (as we would if we were reading a story/book etc), we start with the most difficult passages, then we work on the slightly less difficult parts, and finally the easiest bits.

The wonderful italian cellist Enrico Dindo has a very useful idea with respect to the separation (and ultimate fusion) of technique and musicality. When we start to learn a new piece of music, he encourages us to consider these two areas as being in two entirely separate “rooms”. In one “room”, we work on the piece, at the cello, in a purely “technical” way (without any consideration of the musical aspects). In another “room” – without the cello, but with the score, historical information, our singing voice, recordings etc. – we work on the musical and interpretative aspects. As we gradually get to know the piece better, these two separate rooms become more and more connected until ultimately they fuse into one large room in which a competent execution is combined with a well thought-out interpretation.

A teachers primary goal should not be to teach their own particular interpretation of a piece of music, but rather to give their student the tools to be able to make any piece “easy” so that the student can then be able to interpret it as they (the student) want. Teaching “musicality” (interpretation) is often an easy way out for a teacher. Compared to the task of solving technical problems, teaching “musicality” doesn’t require much preparation or thinking. Normally, the main impediment to “good” playing is a lack of instrumental technique rather than any lack of musicality. Anybody with a good technique can be taught to copy an interpretation (in parrot fashion) but ultimately, “musicality” is the personal reflection of each individual musician. It is a much more emotional, intimate and subjective area than technique and, unlike technique, can – and should – be easily absorbed and improved over a lifetime of musical interest. In other words, a student’s technical problems are the responsibility of the teacher, whereas the musical deficiencies are much more the responsibility of the student: the reflection of the student’s own work and persona. Teachers can guide a student to resources that will help develop their musicality (listening to different interpretations, going to concerts, reading and studying scores etc) but spoon-feeding interpretations not only does nothing for our creativity, but also does very little for our technical mastery of the instrument.

THE TEACHER AS PARENT. THE IMPORTANCE OF EMOTIONAL WELL BEING

What do great teachers and great parents have in common? Often it is not their identical solutions to identical problems, but rather an extraordinary empathy, consideration, profound respect and absolute lack of arrogance and egoism with regard to their students (children). Good teaching and parenting both require these qualities, as well as a large dose of generosity and dedication, and it is usually the lack of these which explains why some magnificent players are awful teachers and why some very successful adults are dreadful parents. The recognition that emotional well-being is an essential aid to learning and a prerequisite to all valid music-making, is vital in any teacher, but especially in teachers of younger students (or late starters) in whom the foundations of confidence are being laid.

A child (or adult) learning to swim, does not need the same teaching approach as a seasoned competitive swimmer preparing for the Olympic Games. So it is not surprising that many successful teachers of younger students are women, whose maternal, nurturing approach can build confidence better than the more robust “masculine-challenge” type of pedagogy (which may become more suitable later on).

GROUP TEACHING AND MASTER CLASSES

Nothing could be better for developing this confidence than for students to play together, and for each other. Whereas the “private” lesson will always have an important place, group teaching, is a hugely useful (but neglected) area of pedagogy. At every different level we can learn so much just by watching each other ……… and learning/playing is so much more enjoyable and healthy with other people than on our own. Even practicing together is probably a very good way to avoid the social isolation of the solitary-confinement practice studio (see Practice)

The traditional “masterclass” could possibly be improved. Rather than being a performance followed by a public lesson, there is a place for group lessons dedicated to specific subjects such as specific pieces of repertoire or specific technical skills (spiccato, vibrato, thumb position, shifting etc). With this format, all cellists could participate actively, seated in a circle, copying and learning from each other and the teacher at the same time. This would avoid the typical situation in which those students who play in the master class often don’t attend the lessons that are given to the other students. Some pedagogical advice is personal: it applies especially to us because of our unique physical and personal characteristics. But most pedagogy is “general” in that sense that it can be applied to everybody. When students don’t sit in on other people’s lessons in a master class, then they miss out on all that “general” pedagogical knowledge and advice. Rather than paying for a week of listening, watching and playing for a great musician, the student is often paying for a few hours of individual lessons in a new (and often exotic) location. This is a big shame.

When the objective of a class is “performance practice”, then it is logical to “start at the beginning” of the piece and for only one cellist to play at a time. But for discussing the interpretation of a piece of music, or for working on technical mastery of the cello in general, the group lesson format could make the “master-class” situation more efficient, fluid and participative. In this case, rather than starting always at the beginning of any piece, other approaches are possible such as: “play me a tune” (any melody) …….. “show me a problem” …….. “what is the biggest problem in this piece” …… “play me the most tricky passage” ….. etc.

The great violin pedagogue Mimi Zweig has her students performing concerts in which they play repertoire pieces in unison: what a great, healthy, sociable, user-friendly way to get comfortable with a piece and with the art of performing!

THE PEDAGOGICAL IMPORTANCE OF PLAYING IN PUBLIC

What happens in a music lesson is usually very important for the development of a musician. But what happens when playing in public is infinitely more important. The largest part of being a musician is being able to play in public, and no amount of private lessons can teach that. At all stages of learning, and for all levels of “talent”, students should be playing regularly (and often) for others. There is a public adapted to every level of achievement and it is the teacher’s job to make sure that every student has that vital opportunity to “perform” before an appropriate public. In choosing what type of audience is appropriate (from fellow students, friends and family, retirement home, schools etc up to Carnegie Hall etc), it is always better to err on the “easy” side than on the “intimidating” side. Confidence is built on confidence and if we are too intimidated by an audience/event and don’t play well, then the effect on our confidence will be negative. These negative experiences are to avoided as much as possible. It is better to take three tiny steps forward than risk breaking a leg in an almighty leap. In order to build confidence, it is much better to be bored by an audience than frightened by them!

TEACHER’S DEMONSTRATIONS: ON WHOSE INSTRUMENT?

For both the teacher and the student to better understand the student’s difficulties, it would probably be a good idea if the demonstrations by the teacher were always made using the student’s instrument and bow. Normally, the student’s equipment is of much lower quality than that of the teacher, which gives the teacher an unfair advantage. Often there may also be problems of instrumental setup (see “Instrument and Bow“) of which the teacher is not aware. The student will learn a lot – and will probably gain a lot of inspiration – just from hearing what their own cello and bow can really sound like when played well.

For similar reasons, teachers should probably also allow their students to occasionally try their own (that of the teacher) superior material. This will open up the student’s ears as to what can be done on a cello when we have a good instrument and bow.

WHAT REPERTOIRE TO TEACH?

The answer to this question should be: “whatever the student will be playing in public”. We can learn from absolutely any repertoire: pop, jazz, symphony etc. If a student has a public appearance of any type, no matter how “informal”, then why not look at the difficult passages of that repertoire in the lesson instead of working exclusively on the concerto and solo repertoire? Every “performance” is an important opportunity to build our self-confidence. But if we are not well prepared then that opportunity for enhancement can become another little (or big) nail in the coffin of a diminishing self-confidence.

PLAYING BY EAR: SUZUKI

Music pedagogy doesn’t get any more holistic, human or healthy than this. I cannot think of a more beautiful way to introduce music and instrumental playing to children. If you haven’t yet read Suzuki’s writings then you are lucky: there is a world of pleasure and illumination awaiting you!

ORAL TRANSMISSION OR PUBLISHING?

Cello pedagogy is still very much in the Stone Age in the sense that information is still transmitted almost exclusively orally. Very few fine cellists have bothered to put their thoughts, theories and tips on paper. Alexanian, Tortelier, and Bunting all published helpful technical and musical material with detailed commentary, but Starker, Feuillard , Popper, Duport, Piatti, Grutzmacher and many others published principally technical exercises or studies with limited (or zero) explanation and discussion.

To mention some other excellent published material:

  • Irene Sharp has an excellent website with teaching materials, interviews etc (www.irenesharp.com)
  • Phyllis Young has published two very fine books about cello playing and teaching: Playing the String Game (Shar Publications) and String Play (University of Texas Press)
  • Joan Dickson published a small but very handy book of exercises called “Freedom of the Fingerboard” (available at musicroom.com)
  • one of the best methods I have seen for beginners is “Method for the Young Cellist” by Feuillard, with each page (lesson) combining simple exercises with a small perfectly written duo to put each lesson subject in a musical context
  • for absolutely top level pedagogy directed towards professional level cellists, Maria Kliegel’s “Cello Masterclass” (DVD and book) is unequalled. For 30€ anyone can have the equivalent of watching many hours of Maria Kliegel’s best teaching. This is an unsurpassed act of generosity and a quantum leap into a new style of pedagogy and education.

There have been many more pedagogical writings published about violin playing than about cello playing. Much of this material is however applicable also to the cello. Flesch, Galamian and Szigeti all published their detailed thoughts on violin playing. More recently, Simon Fischers’ articles and books (Basics, Practice etc) are probably the best public contribution to string pedagogy ever made, and are easily adapted to the cello from the violin.

No doubt the small, scattered and multilingual market has meant that cellists have historically had little financial incentive to write and publish their thoughts, but the possibilities that Internet has recently opened up mean that nowadays “publication” can be, at the same time, free, worldwide, multilingual and instantaneous.

Videos are magnificent pedagogical material. Watching a video is almost as good as being there (and sometimes even better thanks to the close-ups, camera angles, slow motion replays etc.). How wonderful and instructive it would be, to watch masterclasses of fine cellists teaching (or just demonstrating and talking about) pieces of music or certain aspects of cello technique. What a shame that there are not hundreds of these to choose from. YouTube has many fine historical performances but it would seem that nowadays, the worse we play, the less ashamed we are of broadcasting our performances. Performances by great living players are scarce.

THE “PLAY THIS” METHOD

Another relic of “stone age pedagogy” is that technique is taught largely by giving difficult pieces of music to the student and saying “play this”. This is the easy way out for the teacher. Learning difficult pieces (repertoire) is the ultimate aim of learning an instrument ……. but it is not the most efficient way to learn how to play the cello. Practicing a difficult passage one million times may eventually give the desired result, but it would be healthier, more respectful, less painful, more inspiring, more musical and more efficient for the student to learn most of the necessary technical skills before starting to learn the piece of music. Every piece of music has its own special difficulties, its own problematic passages …… and as such, deserves to have its own unique preparatory exercises written out. It is not especially difficult to devise progressive exercises specifically for each difficult passage, and these exercises can make even the hardest passages not just playable but also practiceable, reproducible, interesting and profoundly useful for the improvement of our instrumental technique. The wonderful violin pedagogue Sevcik did exactly this for some violin concertos, even though he is mostly known for writing a huge number of simple exercises for developing left and right hand technique.

Sometimes the “problem” to be worked on is quite simple, with few components, concerning only one or two notes. Other times it can be an enormously complex passage of many notes in which many difficulties are combined simultaneously (spiccato, shifting, string crossing, extension, fast playing etc). In every case we just need to break down the problems into their smallest components and work on these, gradually adding (combining) more of the difficulties, thus building up painlessly and progressively the skills necessary to make the passage easy. This is so much more physically efficient (and therefore also emotionally satisfying), than just hammering away at a passage hundreds of times hoping that it will eventually become easy. Here is an example of this problem-solving method applied to one shift from Lalo’s Cello Concerto:

laloshift

What are the possible technical difficulties that can make this shift insecure and what material can we practice in order to resolve them? Let’s look first at the most general, simple, basic difficulties (and find the material for resolving them) before developing some specific exercises.

1. this is a shift up into the Thumb Region. It helps enormously for these shifts if can get the thumb up onto the fingerboard before the shift so that, in fact, we are already in “thumb position” before we start the shift (see Shifting Up To the Thumb region)
2. this is a 1-1 arpeggio shift (see Minor Third Shifts Up To Thumb Region)
3. this is a shift to the extended first finger (see First Finger Arpeggio Shifts With Extensions)

See the following pages of examples of “repertoire-based-exercises” taken from (and intended for) various “difficult bits” of the cello repertoire.

PEDAGOGICAL ORDER = CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER?

For learning the cello comfortably, efficiently and naturally, there are many advantages to be gained by choosing musical material in the same chronological order in which music and cello playing evolved over the centuries. If we start with Baroque and Pre-Baroque, then progress on into the Classical period repertoire, followed by the Romantic period and ultimately the 20th century, then we are following a very natural learning progression, and not only for the mechanical aspects of cello technique but rather for all aspects of our musical and cellistic development. The increasing sophistication and complexity of musical language throughout the ages is the perfect reflection of the emotional, psychological, social and philosophical transformations that have occurred  over the same period.

This is the whole idea of education, teaching and pedagogy: what took centuries to discover by natural evolution can be explained and learned in an infinitely shorter time span, but what is most important here is that, for most subjects, it makes more sense when we learn things in the same order in which they were discovered. As babies, we learn first to crawl, then to stand, then to walk, then to run. Only when we have this base comfortably assured can we then begin to dance, play sports and do gymnastics. Absolutely the same principle applies to learning languages: we start simple and gradually add complexity.

In other words, the best way to learn almost all aspects of musical and instrumental technique is by taking the same path that music and cello playing have followed in their gradual evolution over the last four centuries. Starting with the simple and working towards the more complex can be achieved almost automatically by simply following this chronological development. The heaving emotions and complex musical language of music of the Romantic Period don’t help us to establish a healthy peaceful relaxed comfortable technique. Surfing is loads of fun once you know how to swim well, but trying to learn to play the cello using musical material from the Romantic Period is often the equivalent of trying to learn to swim in a wild stormy ocean. In contrast to this, if we start with music of the Baroque and Early Classical periods, and then gradually progress to the Romantic and Modern Periods, our technique – and our musical/emotional development – can gradually evolve in a healthy, natural progression.

The Early Classical period is when the cello’s possibilities – both technical and expressive –  really began to evolve. It was the cellist-composers of this period who were principally responsible for this evolutionary leap. At the same time as they were discovering the new possibilities of the cello – especially in the use of the Thumb Position and the higher registers in general – they were writing and playing music that showed what it was now possible to do on the cello. Even though these compositions are not on the same musical level as those of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, the large amount of music for cello produced by cellist composers such as Danzi, Breval, Romberg, Boccherini etc. constitutes some of the very best learning (study) material for cellists that can be found. See Classical Period: History and Repertoire

Practicing music from this period is the best possible preparation that we can do in order to later be able to affront the technical and musical demands of Romantic and 20th Century music.

LEARNING WITHOUT INSTRUMENT OR TEACHER

Reading a score, imagining how it sounds, imagining playing it on the cello, watching and listening to others playing it: none of this requires a cello or a teacher. This is free and you can do it by yourself whenever and wherever you want to. Using these techniques it is extraordinary how much of the “musical” learning and memorising of a piece can be done without the instrument (see Mental Practice).  This allows us to dedicate more of our actual playing time to developing our physical, technical, instrumental skills, for which it IS absolutely necessary to have the cello in our hands.

CONCLUSION

Cello technique has advanced enormously over the years but we are still very far from an academic, universal, scientific, university-research-type approach to pedagogy. We have however certainly come a long way from the Dark Ages of not so long ago, in which musicians guarded their knowledge jealously, and a student had to obey and copy every detail of the teachers own playing or run the risk of excommunication. Here is a quote by Leonard Rose, talking about his teacher:

“we had to play every fingering and bowing that the man wanted. This was stupid because he was 6 feet 2 inches tall, and I’m 5 feet 8 inches. His arms were much longer than mine; his hands were much bigger than mine………. he  did not teach us how to investigate possibilities other than what he dictated…. If we took the slightest different fingering or bowing, his ego was immediately shattered “.

In this age of technology and automation, our “Holy Grail” (object of worship) is often “the perfectly functioning machine”. Good pedagogy however should never underestimate the importance of pleasure, fun, imagination, humanity, creativity and cooperation. These are the really essential ingredients of music, art and a happy life ………. but are often overlooked by engineers and economists.