FOR THE CURIOUS CELLIST

Calm or Excited?

Tranquility, calm and relaxation ………. or excitement and activity ? This is an absolutely fundamental question, for cello-playing and for life in general. Sometimes we need excitement, activity, “tension” (and their associated adrenalin)  …………. but at other times we need the opposite: calmness, peace, quiet and relaxation. It is the inability to change between these two states, or an excess of one in relation to the other, that can cause problems for us, because in life as in music, we obviously need both. Never has the saying “there is a time and a place for everything” been more appropriate.

“Calm” is perhaps the ultimate, highest, most supreme evolutionary state to which people, societies and the living world in general can aspire. If we can achieve calm then we are truly blessed.

Unfortunately, “modern” life tends to encourage the opposite. Television, advertising, popular culture, technology, economics, coffee, Red Bull etc ………….. are only part of a never-ending list of omnipresent influences which seem designed to speed us up, to energise us and make us “more efficient”. Sleep, rest, reflection and doing-things-slowly are handicaps in the mad race to accumulate wealth and influence. So for most people nowadays, the balance between excitement and tranquility is completely distorted towards the action side and for many of us, our greatest need is now to rediscover how to slow down and be at peace. With so many accelerants pumped onto the gentle flame of life is it any surprise that so many people burn-out (and others drop-out to avoid being caught up in the fire)!

NERVOUS? HYPER-REACTIVE? THE ALARM-CLOCK TEST

“Nervousness” is not just something that happens on stage (see Stagefright). A certain amount of it is present in our daily lives, to different degrees depending on our social, personal and genetic influences as well as on our momentary life situation. A very simple measure of our degree of “base” nervousness is the way we react to sudden noises or other unexpected surprises. The morning wake-up alarm is a good example. Some lucky people need a loud, shrill alarm (even with phone-vibration) to drag them out of their deep sleep. These are the ones who are best suited to life as a performing musician! Other, more nervous, hyper-reactive people only need a very soft gentle alarm to wake them up: the loud one having the effect of a gunshot or an atomic bomb on their nervous system.

Curiously, in the Latin countries (Italy, Spain etc) the word “nervous” doesn’t usually imply fear so much as agitation and lack of calm. Fast writing, fast talking and fast thinking are all signs of “nervousness” that have nothing to do with fear, stage fright, music, or our instrument but everything to do with a general mental agitation and a lack of calm and peace in our daily lives.

Some aspects of daily life make us “nervous”. Others make us calm. Obviously, whenever possible most of us would benefit from choosing more of the calming activities. The problem is to realise just how the different activities really affect us in the long run, because so often their immediate effects are the opposite of their long-term effects. For example, watching TV, eating junk food, taking sedative drugs or alcohol might feel relaxing and soothing in the first instance, but all tend to provoke greater nervousness and anxiety in the long run. Rather than being a good preparation for a return to “real life” they are more likely an escape from it!

So which activities do make us slow down, calm down and sleep well in the long run? Music tends to be brief and intense so perhaps we could look in the opposite direction: meditation, yoga, long quiet walks in nature, slow reading, slow eating, slow cooking ……. etc.

An accelerated mind may seem to be very productive at first but, like a car driven fast, we can easily cross the barrier into “too fast” where the advantages of speed become outweighed by the disadvantages (and dangers) of going “too fast”. Going too fast implies the need for excessive effort, excessive tension (to stay in control at high-speed) and the risk of accidents. On stage we all automatically speed up, so it is especially important for a musician that during daily life (off stage) we are not accelerated, in order to have a wide safety margin to make sure that this on-stage acceleration doesn’t take us into the danger zone.

Mental agitation affects our body-use negatively in several ways:

1. We lose both kinesthetic and spatial awareness meaning we are no longer sensitive to the tension levels in the different muscles nor are we sensitive to exactly where our body parts are and how and where they are moving. In summary, we become both tense and uncoordinated. Fast, jerky movements and bumping into things are the physical manifestation of fast, jerky, unfocused thoughts.

2. While our minds are leaping, running, jumping and doing a non-stop variety of olympic sports, our bodies are completely vegetative. Watching a screen (TV, computer etc) or driving a car are perfect examples of this phenomenon and of modern life in general, where we are sitting, immobile, watching a rapid succession of images flashing by. You would think that these activities would be relatively “relaxing” for the body. Surprisingly it is quite the contrary! The combination of intense, high-speed, non-stop mental activity with physical inactivity, not only makes our bodies weak and permanently tired, but also tense and nervous. This is certainly not a help for string playing.

So, in modern life, most of us need to simultaneously slow down our minds and get the big muscles of our bodies moving. And in cello playing, this double-necessity is even more pronounced!

In fact, in performance, nearly every thought is just a nuisance. Our mind needs to be completely quiet so we can give our entire energy and focus to feeling and living the music. As Vladimir Ashkenazy once said “if you have to think about what you are doing, then you are not ready to perform”. A musical performance is like a sports performance. Imagine a gymnast or a high diver who needs to think about what they are doing while in the middle of their routine/dive …………..

Playing the cello is also a sport. It requires a lot of highly complex and rapid physical activity (depending on the piece of music we are playing). So, at the cello, while looking for an absolutely calm, relaxed and quiet mind, we need at the same time a very responsive and active body. Rather than looking for deep physical relaxation at the cello – which would imply slow, floppy, sleepy movements – we need to look for physical “ease”. This means that we need to make our playing feel easier, because it’s only when something feels easy that we can put in a lot of physical energy without actually getting physically “tense” and without losing our vital inner calm. Think CAT and we will have the purrrfect picture of mental quiet and active physical ease. If only cats could play the cello ……..

To find every way possible to make our playing “easier” is the whole objective of this Celloblog.

See also The Relaxation Principle article in the technique section.