The whole organism is responsible for specific trouble. Proof of this is that we eradicate specific defects in process. —F.M. Alexander
To a mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders. —Lao Tzu
We now come to the bow, the most challenging aspect of cello playing by far. There are so many fantasies and fallacies surrounding the technique of the bow, as well as profound differences of opinion regarding sound production and articulation.
Rather than address these directly, I would like to introduce another way of thinking about the bow: as an ‘instrument’ whose function exists in relationship to the whole body. By starting from the general (the whole of ourselves) and eventually arriving at the specific (the ‘bowing instrument’), we might view the process in the right perspective, rather than treating the bow as an end in itself. Alexander’s basic principle—use affects Functioning—definitely applies here. The use of ourselves (our head-neck-back relationship) affects the functioning of the arms, hands and fingers, and by extension the bow.
In Part 3, I introduced the importance of quietness to one’s general coordination when moving with the cello. Whether just sitting or playing, neither should disturb one’s inner equilibrium. Nor should picking up the bow.
With my students in London, I usually start with the bow away from the cello, placing the bow on my teaching table in front of them. Their first impulse is to pick it up, and, of course, there one sees immediately the force of habit in action. If they lift their shoulders to raise their arms, or if they tighten their arms to pick up the bow, what chance do their hands and fingers have to be sensitive and responsive to the string? So we address the release of the shoulders and we learn to ’empty the arms’. This work can only take place when the back is supplying the power to the arms. I have a series of procedures which gives the pupil the experience of the back connecting into and powering the arms, so that the arms remain neutral and quiet but with a tremendous force available to them through this connection to the large paraspinal muscles and the lattissimus dorsi, or what I call the ‘cello playing muscles’.
Essentially my pupils have to identify the wrong thing they are doing and to learn through quietness and repeated sensory stimulation of the primary control and the powerful back muscles (sometimes also referred to as the anti-gravity muscles) to allow this new-found power to pass through their arms and into the string via the bow. The arms don’t generate the energy, they conduct the energy.
Key to this process is the understanding of the principle of opposition. As the arms move forward to pick up the bow, the back has learn to stay back to stabilise the torso. And yet one of the most common faults observable today, especially in young female cellists (but not only!), is the slumping of the body over the shoulders of the cello in the higher positions. In losing the back, one is thrown forward and down over the instrument, and then all sorts of compensations are necessary to supply the missing power. The clarity and ringing quality of the sound in the higher positions disappears; suddenly the cellist looks trapped in a symphony of misguided effort and unease.
The beauty of organising the whole body well to pick up the bow is both simple and profound. It eliminates so many problems arising from this simple gesture gone wrong: stiffness in the wrist, unnecessary tension in the thumb and fingers, inability to make a smooth bow change, lack of resonance, and the list goes on. Casals spoke about the central hub of the body being well balanced. To my knowledge, he never knew about F.M. Alexander nor did he necessarily teach this idea systematically. But one can see in his filmed performances that his natural balance and coordination formed the foundation of his musical expression. This aim is ours as well. Good use makes for the very best possible functioning.
Once my students learn to pick up the bow without tightening in the neck and arms, but rather using their back to support the weight of the bow, then we move to the string, learning to allow the quiet arm to contact the string without collapsing or stiffening the body or making the arm heavy. Fingers are flexible, as is the wrist, and the thumb gently opposes the fingers without stiffening. It is mobile, able to bend and extend.
The next challenge is to initiate the sound without pressing into the string. Here the principle of opposition comes into play immediately. The player has to learn to use the opposition of thumb to fingers on the bow, which in turn stimulates the action of the back against the placement of the bow on the string. What does this mean? The back stays back. The arms remain quiet. The hand, thumb and fingers coax the bow hairs to engage the string. It is a sensitive gesture, and requires listening from that place of inner quiet. It is so easy to go wrong here and feel that we need to press the string to initiate the sound. A ravishing, radiant sound is always expressed through proper contraction and release and a body at ease, not doing too much or too little.
Pulling against the string on the down bow and pushing against the string on the up bow happens by leveraging the power of the back, not by tightening the arms. The useful principle of turning on the spine, rotating to increase the leverage of the back (as described in Part 3) applies to long bow strokes and powerful accents, as well as to increasing the volume of sound. I sometimes ask my students to pull the string to the left with their left thumb when first engaging the down bow, and to push the string to the right when initiating an up bow. The increased resistance intensifies that sensation of opposition from the back (as well as the sensation of the back lengthening and widening), as long as they don’t tighten the arms.
After a period of time working with the whole body in relation to the bow, it becomes much easier to sense how and where one interferes with the bow stroke. A stiffening of the neck will reflect in a nasal, pressured sound. One can hear the unwanted sound at the same time as one can notice the source of the problem. This kind of work is a fine tuning of one’s inner pitch, which develops into a reliable sensory awareness. Over a lifetime this awareness can be so refined as to give us the feeling of being played upon, and of doing next to nothing. It is all happening with the beauty of a wave rolling in or the wind playing upon the trees.