I enjoy reading cello forums from time to time. Often they offer insights into my own cello history. Adult students of cello can be quite analytical–both a good thing and a bad thing. They question what their teachers tell them to do–also, both a good thing and a bad thing. The forum I visited recently discussed the question of “set hand.”
The question is: should one have the unused fingers down on the string, or should they be above the string? That is, if the note involves the third finger, should the first and second be on the string as well?
I am not going into this question–it is just an example of how cello is often taught. We go to a teacher who has a certain idea of “correct” technique. We then go to a teacher who tells us this was all wrong. Is one of the teachers right and the other wrong? Or is there an underlying principle that could support both interpretations of technique?
I studied cello for nine years before college. I practiced several hours a day. Over these nine years I had six teachers, because we moved and lived abroad. I never had the same teacher for more than two years. Several of my teachers told me I had to start all over, learn everything from scratch. And do I did, only to start again with the next teacher.
When I got to college, I studied for a little while with a student of Aldo Parisot. This teacher told me about a principle of circular and figure-8 motion in cello playing. Once I understood that principle, other things fell into place. Unfortunately my practicing started to dwindle. But over the years, when I came back to the cello, I understood much better how to practice than I did as a child or teenager. I can guide myself better. I am sure I would benefit from lessons; there is much I have forgotten. But when I am practicing, I gain a lot from listening to myself and figuring out what I need to do to achieve the sound and texture that I want.
I believe most of my teachers were good. A couple of them were outstanding. It is impossible to know in retrospect whether I really needed to start over again and again, or whether knowledge of some underlying principles would have helped me make the transition from one approach to another. We cannot learn by underlying principles alone–there are many details of technique that must be learned separately. Still, the principles can help us stay on track, and they can separate the inessentials from the essentials.
One principle is a good, relaxed posture. Without that (and it took me years to figure this out) all sorts of contortions and bad habits can occur.
Another is simplicity. Whether or not you believe in the “set hand,” the less complicated the movement, the better, on the whole. If the finger has to travel a long way to the string and find its way to the right spot, there will be trouble.
A third is circular motion. The principle of the circle (or oval, or figure eight) is immensely helpful. It doesn’t resolve every technical problem, and it has exceptions, but it works very well.
A fourth is breathing. One should breathe naturally; holding your breath is a bad habit, as Parisot points out.
It seems that a teacher of a musical instrument (or of any subject–math, history, languages, chemistry, architecture) should teach underlying principles as well as details (not instead of details, though). The principles will not answer everything, but they will help the students guide themselves during practice. They may also help bring together seemingly disparate approaches.
Some will say, “That’s what we do with the Essential Questions!” Ah, “essential questions” are a tricky matter. More about that in a later post.