Efficient Expressivity: Toning Down your Movement to Tune Up your Performance

Below is a post I contributed to Renée-Paule Gauthier’s blog, “Mind Over Finger.” Geared towards students, it was a fun and unusual opportunity for me to think about the technical side of performance, rather than the philosophical one! Click here to see the original post.
If you spend the majority of your days with an instrument in your hand, you’re an athlete. What we do is physically demanding, exhausting, and, frankly, a bit unnatural! Think about it: we spend hours every day in a practice room, contorting our bodies in an effort to achieve technical perfection and dramatic musicality. And while stretches, yoga, and other healthful activities are key to taking care of ourselves as athletes, the technique that I have found to be the most powerful when it comes to saving energy, preventing injury, and playing more expressively, comes down to one word: EFFICIENCY.
Less is more.
Think about biking for a moment. Ya know how serious bikers wear those dorky spandex shorts and funny tops? Well, it actually makes it easier for them to ride faster! Without loose clothing flapping against the wind and heavy fabric to soak up sweat, the outfit itself becomes a tool towards efficient riding.
Umm…. you’re not suggesting that I wear spandex for any performance that involves fast notes, are you?
Luckily, for us musicians, I can happily attest that spandex is NOT the answer! But, like biking, we can look into what we are doing while we play that gets in the way of being able to sound the best we can. Next time you practice, take a video of yourself and, when you watch it, ask these questions:
1. What physical movements do I habitually incorporate into my playing?
2. Are these movements necessary?
I’ve been working up a few orchestral excerpts lately, and, asking myself these questions in a recent practice session, realized that every time I started the opening melody in the second movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, I made a sweeping gesture with my bow arm and dipped my head down. I had been struggling to get it to sound flowing and easy, and suddenly it dawned on me that perhaps such a large gesture was actually getting in the way. Being conscious to keep my gesture small, concise, and efficient, I tried the passage again. The difference was striking–not only did the melody sound more legato and free, but, physically, I felt more in control and less tense. The physical movement I had been making was unnecessary and haphazard, and though it looked like I was simply playing musically, in actuality, I was playing inefficiently.
Don’t die onstage.
Often times, when we’re playing an especially romantic or intense piece of music, our physical movements become more romantic and intense right along with it. This always makes me think of something my former teacher, Uri Vardi, used to tell me: When an actor plays Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet,” he doesn’t actually die. His character dies, but he himself is only acting. Likewise, when we play an incredibly passionate piece of music, the goal is to channel the passion into our sound, not to allow the passion to creep into our physical movements. Physical tension is a musician’s greatest enemy, but what we don’t always realize is that it is our effort to play expressively and musically that often leads to the worst kind of tension. Learning to separate the musical drama from the physical drama can be what allows us to minimize pain and tension, and also tends to give us the freedom to make that musical drama more effective, exciting, and expressive.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Moving when you play isn’t bad, and I’m not suggesting you be stiff and still! After all, there are many virtuosic players out there who move a LOT! (Just look Yo-yo Ma or Joshua Bell!) But what I have learned in 25 years of cello playing is that the absolute best thing you can do for both your body and your sound is to be aware of the way you move, constantly evaluating whether what you’re doing while you play is helping you achieve the sound your want or simply getting in the way. The way you use your body should always be intentional and thought-through. It is through constant awareness, evaluation, and intentionality that you can find the most of efficient playing style for you, which I think you’ll find not only makes you a better musician, but also a happier, healthier artist.

Learning to say “You’re Welcome”

Is it just me, or does anyone else have a hard time saying “you’re welcome?” It happened again this weekend. After performing a particularly energetic and inspired rendition of Shostakovich 11, all I could think about was my own issues: how many mistakes I made, how many mistakes the orchestra made, what spots I should have practiced more, how much better it would have been if X,Y and Z; which, after an hour’s worth of inner monologue, all eventually built up into: why haven’t I gotten further in my career, why have I failed at X, Y and Z, how come I’ll never be as successful as [insert colleague here]… And yet, when I left the hall after these performances, patron after patron stopped me to say thank you. “Thank you for the incredible experience,” “thank you for moving me,” “thank you for sharing your talent today.” And I, stuck in my own head and my own issues, muttered “I’m glad you enjoyed it” and “thanks for coming,” hustling away to avoid further conversation.

For some reason, after so many years of playing and so many hundreds of performances, I still have a deep distrust of my audience. Why don’t I believe them when they tell me honestly and sincerely that the performance that I was a part of touched their lives? And why doesn’t their perspective matter more? After all, if the performance was for anyone, it was for them, not me. I know I’m not alone in this. Come on, musicians: how many times have you walked off stage after a mind-bogglingly enthusiastic standing ovation, ordered a drink at a bar, and proceeded to talk through a play-by-play of everything that wasn’t perfect?

Well, here’s the [incredibly basic] fact that I’ve been realizing lately: Audiences don’t come to concerts to judge. They come to enjoy. That goes for any concert–from a top tier orchestra or world famous quartet to a local community orchestra or grassroots chamber ensemble. The details that we musicians spend our lifetimes analyzing and perfecting just aren’t what anyone is listening for when they come to experience a performance as a whole. And so, while it’s still necessary for neurotically lovable perfectionists like me to keep our standards high, my new resolution is to accept thanks and praise with grace, humility, and empathy. To say “You’re Welcome” and mean it. Because if we’re not doing this for our listeners, then what’s the point of doing it at all?

Great friends, great chamber music: THIS Sunday

It all started with a glass of bourbon, a plate full of crackers, and some insanely delectable butter (the organic butter from the local farmer’s market that’s so delicious and addictive, it has been lovingly coined “crack butter”). I was sitting in the middle of the Blue Ridge mountains with Anne Lanzilotti, one of my dearest friends, and slowly our conversation evolved into something along these lines…

Anne: We should really read Caroline’s duo sometime. It’s super easy to put together, and it would be so much fun to play it with you.
Sara: YESSSS. I would love that. Ya know, it would be great if we could even convince someone to let us perform it.
Anne: That WOULD be great. What if we put a whole show together?
Sara: I actually think we could make that happen. I can hook us up in Chicago…

Sara and Anne scheming in Brooklyn last week

More bourbon was consumed, more crack butter spread, and as we continued pondering together, a concert idea began to take shape: an evening filled with the string chamber music of Caroline Shaw, an old friend of both of ours…..who also happens to be a Pulitzer prize winning composer.

The show that we’ve come up with, which happens to be this Sunday night, is one of my favorite recent projects because it’s a coming together of old friends, new friends, quirky melodies, rich and open harmonies, innovative adaptations, and, well, excuses to fly one of my best friends out to Chicago to collaborate with me and my in-town musical soulmates, the ladies of Chicago Q Ensemble.

This will be NO stiff-collared classical music affair. If you come out, you can expect to hear Caroline’s music interweaved between old stories of camp friends, arrangements of string quartets for two violas instead of two violins (with Caroline’s blessing, of course!), flower pot percussion mastered by the fantabulous Jake Harpster, as well as the tales and travails of going to every Home Depot in the area to test the pitches of said flower pots. Caroline’s music is filled with joy and lightness, and is typically written for her friends. Taking that as our cue, the evening will be a celebration of our own friendships as we share the sheer delight of this music with you.

Sunday, January 25th
3111 N. Western Ave.

Limestone and Felt, for viola and cello
Valencia, for string quartet
In Manus Tuas, for solo viola
Punctum, for string quartet
Boris Kerner, for cello and flower pots
Entr’acte, for string quartet

You’re Invited!


I’m writing to invite you all to a handful of solo/chamber concerts I have coming up over the coming months. Usually I’m not one to get all self-promotey like this, but there are so many interesting projects that I’m excited about that I just couldn’t help myself this time. Take a look at the events below–I would love to see you at one, some, or all of them!

Warmest regards,


“Beautiful Bach” on the “Musicians at Mayslake” Series

An all-Bach recital consisting of the 3 gamba sonatas as well as the D minor unaccompanied cello suite. Featuring yours truly on cello alongside the fabulous Stephen Alltop on harpsichord.

Thursday, November 20th
Mayslake Peabody Estate

1717 W. 31st Street
Oak Brook, IL 60523
$25 general admission, $23 seniors, $7 students


“In Concert”: A Dance and Music Collaboration

A collaboration between many musicians and many dancers! Presented in part by the chamber music series that I have co-founded this year, Chamber Music on the Fox, as well as Elgin’s hippest arts organization, Side Street Studio Arts. The lineup will be a little different each night, but on Saturday you can catch me playing the D minor Bach Suite alongside the dancers of Core Project Chicago, and both nights will feature a mega-collaboration between the dancers of Core Project Chicago, me, and a bunch of my contemporary-classical cronies, with live original choreography set to the music of Pulitzer Prize winning composer David Lang.

Friday and Saturday, November 21st and 22nd
Elgin Art Showcase

164 Division Street (8th floor)
Elgin, IL 60120
$12 online, $15 at the door


Bluebeard’s Castle

As far as operas go, Bela Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” is definitely one of my faves, and I’m pumped to be playing it with the New Millennium Orchestra. I know, I know, I told you I was only going to tell you about the solo and chamber concerts I have coming up, but this one was too irresistible to leave out. How could you pass up a creepy one-act opera about a sketchy new husband in a sketchy old castle?

Thursday, December 4th
Thalia Hall

1807 S Allport
Chicago, IL 60608


Chicago Q Ensemble’s Birthday Brunch!

My beloved string trio is having a birthday party! We’re turning 5 years old, and we figured the best way to celebrate would be with a fundraiser brunch (we give you mimosas, you give us donations). Join us! It’s going to be a blast, and might just feature a special premiere and even…..PARTY FAVORS.

Sunday, December 7th
Dixon Stein

410 S Michigan Ave, Suite 801
Chicago, IL 60605
$20 friends, $50 superfans (or a donation of any amount if you can only be there “in spirit”)


Caroline Shaw Portrait concert

My good friend Anne Lanzilotti (aka new music violist extraordinaire) and I had been scheming recently, and all of a sudden our schemes have turned into an actual plan. She’s going to be flying in from NYC to play a concert with me, along with some of my other favorite people (including the Chicago Q ladies), on the Frequency Series at Constellation! We’ll play a recital of pieces by Pulitzer Prize winning composer (and old camp friend!) Caroline Shaw, including a piece for solo viola, a duo for viola and cello, another duo for cello and flowerpots (yes, you read that right), and several string quartets. Caroline’s music is beautiful, and it should be a pretty fun time for all involved–especially me, since I just convinced Anne to come visit me.

Sunday, January 25th

3111 N Western Ave
Chicago, IL 60618
Ticket info not available yet, but check Constellation’s website in a month or so!


Over the last few months, I’ve been involved in a writing project that has been both endlessly amusing and infinitely enlightening! I’ve been an employee of Dartmouth College (in New Hampshire–yes–thanks, internet, for making that possible for this Illinois girl), specifically for the Hopkins Center for the Arts. In an effort to market their classical music programming towards young people and get more college students to come to concerts, they hired me to write a page worth of snark for each of their 18 classical shows this season.

My assignment has basically been to:

1) Research each program.
2) Determine what about the program would appeal to a college student.
3) Translate that into a few short, snarky paragraphs, and also into a Tweet that sums up the whole concert.

I’ve had a lot of fun with this project, and just thought I’d share a small sample. This is apparently what has been gracing the napkin holders in Dartmouth’s cafeterias these days. I have yet to see some of the other creative things they’ve been doing with what I’ve sent them, but am looking forward to finding out…


String Review: Crown Strings

Out of all the members of the stringed instrument family, cellists are byfar the most boring. I’m not talking about their personalities or their musicalities, I’m talking string preference here. Go up to any professional cellist and ask them what type of strings they use and I’d say about 92% of them will answer: “Larsen on top, Spirocore on bottom.” You’ll get the occasional “Jargar for A and D” or maybe even a “Belcanto Gold on C”, but for the most part, we don’t mess around experimenting with new types of strings.

The problem with cello strings, though, is how obscenely expensive they are. Check out my shopping cart for one set of strings (A and D will last me 6 months, G and C will last a year).

Screen Shot 2014-04-13 at 8.39.25 PM

String prices have skyrocketed over the last couple of years. The total in that shopping cart is over $100 more than I spent 2 years ago. That’s why I’ve decided to embark on a grand string experiment! I’ve started asking string companies if I can sample their strings, so that I can *hopefully* find a set that is just as high quality as the go-to Larsen/Spirocore combo, but without breaking the bank.

The first strings I tried were Crown. Coincidentally, Crown strings, which used to be an independent brand, were recently bought by Larsen. They’re now more expensive than they used to be, but they also have brand recognition now. A full set is just a little over $100.

Unfortunately, I was not hugely impressed with Crown. The A and D strings were strong, bright, and clear, but the lower strings completely lacked any depth. Playing on the C string made me feel like I had no rosin on my bow. It was exhausting trying to make a big, deep, rich sound on either of the lower strings. Here’s how I rated each string individually:

Screen Shot 2014-04-13 at 8.54.29 PM

I might consider getting Crown A and D strings again in the future; if a Spirocore G and C could add some depth to balance them out, I might be sold. But I definitely would never put either of the Crown lower strings on my instrument again.

For next time….I just received word from Jargar strings that they will be sending me their new “Superior” model A and D strings to try! Stay tuned….

The Interdisciplinary Feedback Loop


If you’ve been checking the Chicago Q Ensemble facebook page in the last week, you may have noticed some odd pictures. Ellen, standing on a giant box, violin under her chin, with crazy pink lights behind her. Aimee, playing while kneeling on the floor with her music stand pushed down as far as it will go. You’ve probably been thinking to yourself, “Those Q ladies have really gone off the deep end. Can’t they just have a normal rehearsal?” Well yes, we’ve been doing that too—matching bowstrokes, working with the metronome, yadda yadda yadda. But what we’re really excited about, the thing that has us sending emails back and forth with the subject line “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh”, the thing that has us free-writing about prayer, and the thing that has actually been shaping many of our musical decisions is our explorations into true interdisciplinary collaboration.


Before I get into what exactly that means and what exactly we’ve been up to in those cryptic pictures, allow me to deviate for a moment to describe a completely unrelated experience I had last week. For the second time this year, I had the pleasure of performing the complete D minor Bach Suite along with the dancers of Core Project Chicago. Some of the dance movements were choreographed, some were improvised (and by the way, I mean dance movements in both senses of the term: 1) the actual movements the dancers made, and 2) the 5 movements within the suite that refer to specific dances from Bach’s era). What was really exciting about collaborating with the Core Project artists was that their dancing actually influenced, inspired, and enhanced the way I played Bach. Suddenly, music that I’ve been playing decades took on new meaning. I found that I was playing phrases in ways I had never considered before and taking slightly different tempos that seemed to go better with the dancing. At times I even felt like I was somehow improvising, even though I was reading the same notes on the page that I’ve always read. And I couldn’t help but think that the dancers were having a similar experience—that maybe, probably, their movements were influenced by whatever nuances I was inserting into the Bach. Between what was coming out of my cello and the gestures of the dancers, we had established a feedback loop of imagination and inspiration. Together, we were feeding off of each other’s ideas and artistry in a beautiful new way. It doesn’t really get any better than that, right?

A few days after my Bach collaboration, I found myself back in a black box theater with Chicago Q and our staging collaborator, Deirdre. Still under the spell of inspiration from working with dancers, I realized that what Q has been doing as we’ve explored staging the music of Andrew Norman is exactly the same thing that I had done with Bach. Replace one art form for another—theater for dance—and between Deirdre and the three of us, we have created the same type of imagination-inspiration feedback loop. While the three of us approach the piece from a musical perspective, Deirdre approaches it from a theatrical perspective, and when those two very different forces come together, we end up with something much bigger, much richer than either of us could have imagined alone.


You know what? I’m not going to explain those pictures after all. I think I’ll just keep letting you wonder. And in order to fully grasp what we’ve been up to, you’ll just have to come to our November 24th show at Constellation. In the meantime, though, I can’t wait for our next session with Deirdre, when everything I think I know about our art form gets thrown upside down as we explore it through a crazy, collaborative, imaginative new lens.