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.

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).

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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:

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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….

My New Life Partner

Last June, I married that lovely man pictured so delicately above.  But he’s not my latest life partner, I’ve already moved on! (Richard is shaking his head while reading this over my shoulder)   I’m happy to announce the newest member of my family: a new cello.  The search began last summer, with trips to New York, Boston, and Chicago, and stops in about 10-15 instrument shops.  I got serious about a couple of cellos, but none felt absolutely right.  Then, in November, I got in touch with the brother of a friend, who works for a shop in Boston, and he flew down to Miami to bring me this cello to try.  After playing it for friends, having friends play it for me, playing it in different sized rooms with different acoustics, and spending a few solid weeks getting to know it, I bit the bullet.  My other, beloved cello is now heading back to Boston (where it initially came from) and I’m starting fresh with this beautiful instrument.  It’s an old English cello, made around 1800 by Bernhard Fendt (aka “Old Barney”) for the famous Dodd shop in London.  It’s got a smooth, somewhat dark sound, and definitely has a personality of its own.  It makes me want to practice all day, which, I suppose, is probably the point!

Looking for a new instrument, I discovered, is a bit like online dating.  It starts by coming up with a list of requirements that need to be met (tall, funny, liberal…or in the case of a cello: clear, warm tone, full sounding…).  Once you’ve got your list, you get to see all of the dating options available to you, and you can decide to either get in touch with them or not.  You go on a lot of dates (or try cellos at numerous shops), and in most cases, you know from the first 5 minutes if you’re not interested.  But there are a few people who you think you might connect with on a deeper level, and with them, you meet up again, or even date them for a while (with instruments, if you feel yourself “falling in love” in the shop, you can take the object of your affections out for a trial period to play for a week or more).  In the end, you finally realize that the person you’re dating is, in fact, the ONE.  And at that point, whether it’s a person or a cello, you make a lifelong (or career long) commitment to them.

Just as in a marriage, a cello and its owner are intrinsically connected, and the relationship between them continues to grow and mature over time.  As the wood of the instrument ages, the personalities of the cello and the player merge.  Many musicians who have had their instruments for a long time consider it an extension of themselves when they are playing.  Even in the short time I have been playing my new cello, I can already feel the instrument adapting to my playing, and I in turn am making my own adjustments to get the most I can out it.

I can hardly express in words how excited I am about the new cello.  If you’d like to hear it, here is a short clip of the beginning of the Haydn D Major Concerto.  I just recorded it in on a webcam, so the quality isn’t fantastic, but you can get the idea.  Enjoy!