FOR THE CURIOUS CELLIST

Mind-Body

This article is part of the Psychology section.

It is the intellectual, mental, capacity of humans that most differentiates us from our fellow living creatures. Compared to humans: cats are more agile, birds are faster, fish swim better, gorillas are stronger etc. Animals also feel emotions, but their capacity for thaught is nowhere near as developed as it is in humans.

In primitive life, it is the body that does most of the work, whereas the mind activity – the thinking – is secondary. In modern, civilized human society, these roles have reversed and it is the mind that does most of the work. Music is possibly one of the most highly evolved, most sophisticated and most  “human” of activities, in the sense that it uses – and often to the limit – not just our physical capacity but also our emotional and intellectual abilities.

However, we can sometimes think too much. In modern life, our minds are leaping, running, jumping and doing a non-stop variety of olympic sports. But at the same time our bodies are often completely vegetative. Watching a screen (TV, computer etc) or driving a car are perfect examples of this phenomenon and of modern life in general, in which we are sitting, immobile, for long periods of time, watching a rapid succession of images flashing by. You would think that these types of activities would be relatively relaxing for the body. Not at all. Surprisingly, they make our bodies not only weak and tired, but also tense and nervous. This is a recipe for disaster!

So, nowadays, most of us need to slow down our minds and get our bodies moving. And this also applies often to cello playing!

Composing music requires considerable intellectual activity. Mastering the playing of an instrument also (although this thinking is usually – and hopefully – done by the teacher instead of the player). A large part of “practice” however, is largely mechanical – just like professional athletes doing their daily training. Once they have learned how to do their particular sport in the best possible way, they just need to do it for hours and hours so their bodies (and minds) become accustomed to automating to a large degree their extremely complex and specialized activities. The same occurs with instrumentalists.

And actually performing – music or sports – requires as little active thinking as possible! In fact, in performance, nearly every thought is just a nuisance and a potential distraction. Our mind needs to be completely quiet so we can give our entire energy and focus to feeling and living the music through our bodies and our emotions. As Vladimir Ashkenazy once said “if I have to think about what I’m doing, then I’m not yet ready to perform”. A musical performance is like a sports performance: imagine a gymnast or a high diver who starts 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 type of music we are playing). So, at the cello, we need at the same time an absolutely calm, relaxed and quiet mind, and a very responsive and active body.