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About Thumbs — by Selma Gokcen

You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough. —William Blake To anyone engaged in a skill requiring dexterity—surgery, drawing, and of course playing a musical instrument—the use of the thumb is crucial to successful execution. Thumb-finger opposition is one of the primary characteristics which distinguishes primates from other animals, allowing them to manipulate tools; in humans this potential exists at the highest levels, facilitating the development of skills which make extraordinary use of the hand...witness the moto perpetuo.  We also have expressions to describe this relationship when it doesn't work well: "He/she is all thumbs!" To enable this thumb—finger opposition, there is a considerable amount of brain space devoted to the fleshy area of the thumb between the base joint of the thumb (located at [...]

Blog #18: Stability and Mobility — by Selma Gokcen

"Freedom, freedom, but with order." —Pablo Casals In our work in the Alexander Technique, we teachers are constantly addressing the simultaneous need to stabilise and mobilise the body, to make sure the back remains firm and strong (but without stiffening), and the pelvis stable, all in order to move the arms and legs freely. In my recent reading, I came across this little chart: Foot — Stability Ankle — Mobility Knee — Stability Hip — Mobility Lumbar Spine — Stability Thoracic Spine — Mobility Scapula — Stability Glenohumeral Joint — Mobility Elbow — Stability So what does this have to do with cello playing?  Well, a fair bit! I'll start from the bottom and work up, along the lines of how a tree grows, just because trees are a great example [...]

Breathing Free — by Selma Gokcen

"The nose is for breathing, the mouth is for eating." —Proverb One of the more noticeable aspects of the modern cellist’s performance is noisy breathing. On records or in the concert hall, sometimes heard as far back as the last row, the laboured breath of the cellist engaged in giving his or her best performance can be a major distraction to a listener.  Whether it’s the sharp sniff or gasp on the up bow or a general effortful pant, is this heavy breathing necessary for their work? On a recent surf of the internet, I came across some amusing comments about cellists and their breathing from a radio listener: “I always find that 'cello players breathe loudly, even on recordings! I wondered if perhaps it is a symptom of having [...]

Going Up — by Selma Gokcen

"The world is a ladder, which some go up and some go down." —Gypsy Proverb   'Think up along the spine': five of the most important words in the Alexander Technique. It takes as much hard work, patience and humility to understand and live these words as it does to interpret great works of music, perhaps more, because thinking up along the spine means that every waking moment we can be conscious of ourselves, not only when we are making music. For cellists, thinking up along the spine is going for the gold. So given its importance to us as players, what does this phrase tell us? Working backwards from the last word to the first, let's see where it takes us. The spine is composed of 24 articulating vertebrae [...]

By |2017-11-24T03:37:57+00:00July 16th, 2014|Categories: Alexander Technique for Cellists, Playing Healthy, Self Discovery|

Heads Up — by Selma Gokcen

"In order to change the world, you have to get your head together first." —Jimi Hendrix Here is a question for you...what is the foundation of good balanced movement at the cello? There are many answers and many ways of defining balance and coordinated movement. The CelloBello website offers some great advice here. In this short blog, I propose to turn the question on its head, as we do in our work as Alexander Technique teachers. "How can we prevent interference with our balance?" And by defining what gets in the way of balancing ourselves with the cello, we can discover what to let go. Years ago, in my student days, I gradually made the discovery that something in my bow arm wasn't working. For years I tried to correct the [...]

Hit or Miss — by Selma Gokcen

"Under the ordinary teaching methods, the pupil gets nineteen wrong to one right experience. It ought to be the other way round." —F.M. Alexander A young instrumentalist aiming for a professional life onstage puts in a staggering number of practice hours during their formative years. I heard the director of our Conservatoire recently state the figure of 8 to 10 hours a day for the 18-24 year olds at undergraduate and graduate levels. Does he think that's what's happening in the practice room or wish that it were so? Either way, it's alarming to think that so much time is spent sitting and using the fine muscles of the fingers in relentless repetitive motions. Were we, are we designed for this kind of activity? Maybe the better question to ask [...]

Holding On for Dear Life — by Selma Gokcen

"Doing in your case is so 'overdoing' that you are practically paralysing the parts you want to work." —F.M. Alexander   As an Alexander Technique teacher, I work with many cellists who are in distress—the kind of distress that means they can't play for the time being. Their conditions vary from tendinitis to De Quervain syndrome to back pain to focal dystonia. The list is long but one thing most of them share is the habit of 'holding on to themselves.' What do I mean by this?  When they are in a position of rest on my teaching table—lying on their backs with their heads also resting on a small pillow—they remain gripped by tension in their necks, backs, arms and legs that may take us many months to undo.  [...]

Looking & Seeing — by Selma Gokcen

In my last column, I mentioned getting to know some of your habits at the cello…the worst ones can become your best friends, in that they will offer the richest material for work on yourself. So now we step into the arena. Looking at oneself is not easy. The same instrument that presents the problems is also doing the observing, so how reliable can our observations be when the instrument itself is faulty? This was F.M. Alexander’s dilemma. His vocal problem was hidden within himself, and so he set about observing himself in a mirror, later three mirrors, to see if he could discover any correlation between what he was doing with his whole body and his specific vocal defects. After long and patient examination, he identified several harmful habits, [...]

Make it Your Own: Teaching Alexander Technique — by Selma Gokcen

The Alexander Technique has its own process of training to become a teacher of the work. Much like cellists, we take lessons from established teachers, we attend school daily and we begin from the beginning, with lots of preconceptions which are called habits. Our teachers constantly bring our attention to them, rebalancing and releasing negative patterns of use, mostly through their hands, sometimes through words, and often both.   from http://www.alexandertechnique.com   As the inner fog lifts and our sensory awareness improves, we begin to be able to "put hands on" others and transmit what we have received. It's so tenuous at the start and requires years of experience to be able to distinguish fine differences in the flow of energy up and down the spine, the various tension [...]

Power is Energy, Unblocked and Properly Directed — by Selma Gokcen

"The words of truth are always paradoxical." —Lao Tzu Paul Katz was here recently in London giving a workshop on the bow to the members of the London Cello Society and raised an interesting point about strength.  His Tai Ch'i teacher once said to him, "Hardness is Weakness, Softness is Strength: Hardness is Death, Softness is Life."  This remarkable saying inspires this article. As cellists we need to be able to call upon reserves of power to play our big repertoire, to perform long concerts and tours. No way are we not interested in knowing about power and strength, but as soon as we raise the question of where it comes from, then hundreds of viewpoints can be found. Weight training, strength training, aerobic conditioning, and the list goes on. [...]

Questions — by Selma Gokcen

"I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer." —Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet (1903)   Einstein began his career working on his theory of relativity and then embarked upon a thirty-year voyage in search of the so-called "unified [...]

Raising the Arms (Part 1) — by Selma Gokcen

You are a marvel. You are unique. In all the years that have passed there has never been another child like you. Your legs, your arms, your clever fingers, the way you move. You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. - Pablo Casals Pablo Casals, ever aware of the miracle of life and of how gesture can be informed with thought and feeling, could elicit from his cello or from his orchestra sounds that could penetrate the heart. To watch him moving his arms as he played or conducted was to witness the reaching forth from his inner being to the outer world. Arms are conductors of the energy within.  They bear the fruits of our thought [...]

Raising the Arms (Part 2) — by Selma Gokcen

A wheel needs a central point of contact, an axis, in order to turn and spin. One never loses touch with one's central point—the spine—as one moves through life. But society today has lost that core. It has no idea where it is going. - Svami Purna When I was well into my studies as a young cellist, I became fascinated with the question: How does one raise the arms to play? My naive mind wondered: is there a wrong way and a right way, and how does one distinguish between the two?  I read a great many books on cello technique and for years I asked this question of my teachers. It seemed to me to be a very important gesture that most people took for granted, and my [...]

Ready, Set, Stop! A Different Kind of Preparation — by Selma Gokcen

It is what you have been doing in preparation that counts when it comes to making movements. -F.M. Alexander In all my years of musical training I was shown many important aspects of cello technique, which included movements associated with the bow and left hand—what I call the ‘ready-set-go’ school. Your teacher explains, you listen and watch, and then you do... and then you do some more of this work in the practice room until the movements are learned. I only became aware of the profound importance of another, entirely different form of preparation when I began training as an Alexander Technique teacher. The beauty and simplicity of it took my breath away. Many years later now, as I work with students, some of them express the same incredulity. How [...]

Reflections on Bernard Greenhouse and the Importance of the Back — by Selma Gokcen

"We are learning to do consciously what Nature intended."  —F.M. Alexander Spending a week remembering Bernard Greenhouse on CelloBello brought back memories of many hours of lively conversations and shared experiences. Bernie had naturally what we call 'a back' in the Alexander Technique, and there is no faking or pretending to have a back...you either do or you don't, and the evidence of it is felt in the power of presence. The back mediates all our responses—a strong and expansive back gives one the ability to speak and act from a place of natural authority. Bernie's quiet but strong presence when playing, teaching or just conversing emanated from that central core that Casals spoke about, and which no doubt magnetized Bernie from far away and moved him across an ocean in search of the master. Like recognized like. One [...]

Running After What is Behind You — by Selma Gokcen

Much of our training as cellists has us working long hours, working hard, but are we working smart? Do we know what is productive and what is counter-productive in our manner of working? How do we know? Is it possible to know? Many years after my cello study at the Juilliard School, I hit a wall. I could not go further in my work with the traditional methods of cello technique, cello etudes, additional lessons and hours of practice. It seemed I was going round in a circle.  I finally realised that solution to problems at the instrument might lie somewhere beyond the green pastures I had hitherto spent my life exploring.  I said to myself: Maybe the study of music is like science.  You have to go into the [...]

So You Think You Know? (Part 1) — by Selma Gokcen

“We think we know what we do, but all our efforts show that unless our sensory appreciation is reliable, this belief is a delusion.” – F.M. Alexander Musicians, like athletes and dancers, work on the basis of muscle memory. Our conventional teaching has taught us to play by "feel," as well as by using the ear, by sensing how far, how near, how long, how short, how much force or weight, how slowly or quickly—the endless  subtle variations of these directions we are called upon to make as we move. We rely on this "sense of where and how things are" not just at the cello but in everyday life. Through constant repetition, the conduits are formed for nerve impulses to activate muscle.  In this process our kinaesthetic sense is [...]

So You Think You Know? (Part 2) — by Selma Gokcen

“Sensory appreciation conditions conception; you can't know a thing by an instrument that is wrong.” -F.M. Alexander. Our body-mind could be called our home. We live in it from the inside, looking out at the world. It provides our orientation, our focus, our sense of what is right and wrong, up and down, around us, beneath us and above us. All day long we are encountering and interacting with the world; stimuli are filtering through our senses and being evaluated against past experience. The question raised within us after only a few lessons in the Alexander Technique is the same one that F.M. Alexander grappled with for nine years as he searched for answers to the mis-use of his voice: what am I doing and how can I know that [...]

That Sound — by Selma Gokcen

"Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other in the integration of the human being because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the Soul on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the Soul of him who is rightly educated truly graceful."  – Plato I wonder whether most of us, performers and listeners alike, fall in love with the sound of an instrument before we even know how and why it has such an effect upon us. The primacy of sound—its essential fascination—indicates a deep internal need for the connection to life, first of all in the womb where the heartbeat of the mother is heard, then after birth as the newborn is attuned to the sound of its mother’s voice, and [...]

The Eyes Have It (Part 1) — by Selma Gokcen

One of the most valuable indicators of well-functioning coordination is eye movement.  I have noticed for a long time now that there are different types of gaze in musicians. The "well-trained" musician of today often exhibits what I call blinkered attention, the result of years of too much effortful practice. The strain around the eyes is visible and often accompanied by laboured breathing. Caught by inward feelings and sensations, this musician is "concentrating." In the words of my Alexander teacher, the original meaning of concentration used to be: to relate a set of factors to a central point. It has been increasingly misused in our educational system to encourage the shutting out of everything else out to focus on a single thing. Concentration therefore as a useful aim has been [...]

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