Dotzauer Day 15: Zen and the Art of Consistency in Cello Playing

10 April 2018 Utrecht

‘Practise only on days you eat‘ Shinichi Suzuki

Today I am in something of a strange place. I woke up in the wee small hours with a migraine, failed to recognise it as such, so let it run with paracetamol for another hour before I realised I would need something stronger, and now, either due to the after effects of the migraine, or the effects of the now serious medication, and perhaps partly the warmth of a warm spring day, I am feeling spaced out. Pleasantly floaty, but it’s a little hard to focus.


I do believe in going through the motions, however, and feel there is something to be said for practising every day, without missing any. So I get set up, and decide, as time is also restricted due to having spent half the morning lying in a darkened room, I will practise only Dotzauer today.


This turns out to be a mistake, as the minute I begin I can feel the lack of a proper warm-up. I decide to do one on the fly, by switching on the metronome, and playing through from the beginning. It’s a bit depressing to hear that plenty of things that I have worked on are only marginally better, but I suppose I still have eighty-five days to go with this piece, so I am not going to stress about that. In any case I am feeling too floaty to stress about anything.


I do a couple of retakes of things that are particularly messy, but then work my way through to where I was yesterday. By now I have become aware that sounding the string sensitively requires some participation from all of the fingers on the right hand. This realisation further alerts me to all of the fantastic feedback one can get from these fingers: I feel when the bow is skating a little, when it is squeezing the string, when it is very slightly jittery, and feeling these things allows me to hear them better as well.


I have been delaying getting grips with, but which is really bothering me today, is my hit and miss attempts at fourth-finger extension in first position. Specifically the C-sharp on the G string, in this piece. I don’t know why this should be so problematic on my small cello, perhaps it is from having struggled for so long with a cello which was too large, where even a normal fourth finger felt like an extension. I seem to have ‘extension anxiety’, and am subconsciously trying something a little different each time.


Consistency is fundamental to mastery. People who shoot know this, as the art of being able to shoot with accuracy is that of being able to set the shape of the body in exactly the same way every time and then, providing the basic position is good, shift the whole mechanism until it points to the middle of the target. I once had an archery coach at Oxford, who made me shoot in a blindfold for about half an hour. I became superbly aware of how my body was, where every part was in relation to the whole. When he took it off, my score improved by 100 points.


Of course, as instrumentalists we do not want to hold the body absolutely still. Quite the opposite, in fact. Gerhard Mantel’s in his excellent ‘Practising Etudes’ (see link below) advocates for the need for a cellist to move : ‘A joint which doesn’t move has a tendency to become tense after a short while. The most important demand to our body when playing is: Move a little bit, preferably in the most possible number of joints. This includes joints that do not technically participate in the merely functional aspects of a playing movement’. However, this still needs to be coupled with a consistency of motion. How can we go after the musical idea, if we are shackled by having to consciously place every finger?


In line 7 there is a new string-crossing problem; the introduction of a single full semibreve in the line before means that the bowing is reversed, so I am treading a familiar path of a line of rising and descending crotchets, but the string crossings are different because the bow is now going up, down, up, down, and as it is at the point, I have to work hard to get the stronger beats to sound well.


In the sequential passages I am hearing a little interference, as I move across from a higher string to the one below, using the same finger. A little swoop, like a tiny, musical sigh. It has to go. It is necessary to really finish with the former note, before descending to the latter, and it is difficult to do this without stopping the bow in a stilted way. This is another thing for my list of what to query with my teacher, when I play for him in person, rather than over Zoom.


A little bite at the beginning of each note is really helping to articulate this passage, and especially useful in clarifying the two bars of crotchets that are bowed in reverse, as it were.


I may be feeling a little out-of-it today, but I had had a boost to my confidence yesterday evening. I play in the only amateur Baroque orchestra in the Netherlands, and, as I am a Jack of All Trade and Master of None, I get to play a variety of instruments, and am lucky enough to score a few solos. Having to play solo cello in various arias and concerti grossi, has been a real test of my nerve, and an enormous boost to my confidence. I manage to pull it off, because far from it being all about me, the group relies on my playing in these instances, so I hold it together, whatever I may be feeling inside. Sometimes only just, and there have been occasional bow jitters and a squeezy left hand position resulting in compromised intonation, but I have managed, nonetheless.


At the moment we are playing a couple of concerti , and Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo. The latter is rather boring for the cellist. Lots and lots of long-held Ds and Gs, and various other bass notes of basic chord progressions. It makes Dotzauer 1 look like the Dvorak Cello concerto. However, I am pleased to find that my new-found solidity of playing is paying off. The many fourth-finger string crossings are in tune, and sound well, and I am phrasing well without thinking, due to better bow control. I am using a Baroque bow, which is a relatively new experience for me, and for this repertoire it comes into its own. I have found the balance point (see ‘Emily Plays Cello’ in the link below), and find that now I can manoeuvre it, I have few problems with ‘bow initiation gunk’ that I do with the traditional bow. All in all, it is a very satisfying rehearsal for me.



7 thoughts on “Dotzauer Day 15: Zen and the Art of Consistency in Cello Playing

  1. It’s the process of developing a kinetic memory isn’t it? Where it becomes so habitual that the correct movement becomes automatic, and then the mind is free to concentrate on the fine detail of expression. Mainly it’s in the brain and nervous system control of the muscles, even though we call it muscle memory, although I expect it’s partly also that the muscles themselves become accustomed to that type of movement, building up strength and flexibility.


      1. I’m intrigued. I expect there are multiple layers to the learning process and that’s just one aspect. I read a book a long time ago about lateral thinking, about how the mind gets into habitual ‘grooves’ so to speak, and that can make it difficult to learn new things or think creatively, so I suppose that could apply to kinetic memory also, where learned habits become limiting?


      2. ***spoiler alert*** Not only learned habits, but learning habits! I think that is absolutely true, and that is indeed when it takes conscious action to analyse and re-align the physical action. However, what I have come to question (and it’s more of a reminder of something I have known well in the past) is the breaking down of things into small pieces, and then trying to put them together, versus throwing the idea, concept, intention, or feeling ahead, and letting the body work out the solutions for itself. The kind of mind I have needs the bigger picture; the small stuff may well take care of itself. I think you will know what I am talking about.

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  2. Yes, it does. The problem is when the mind is preoccupied in performance with images or inner chatter, that interfere with the artistic vision, (that is to say, performance anxiety) and therefore the technique which was being powered by the artistic vision fails.


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