I only learned about the importance of the spinal column to cello playing as I was introduced more deeply into the Alexander Technique. Of course I knew the superficial facts about the spine and especially how vital it is to the health of the nervous system. But its particular relevance to cellists was not brought home until I began training in the work of teaching the Technique. Here are a few interesting facts about the spine to start off 1: The spinal cord is surrounded by rings of bone called vertebrae. Both are covered by a protective membrane. Together, the vertebrae and the membrane make up the spinal column, or backbone. The backbone, which protects the spinal cord, starts at the base of the skull and ends just above the hips. The spinal cord [...]
About Selma Gokcen
Selma Gokcen, born in America of Turkish parentage, has received critical acclaim for her imaginative programming. Along with Bernard Greenhouse and Jonathan Kramer, she presented a programme at London’s South Bank Centre, in New York and at the Kennedy Center entitled Pablo Casals: Artist of Conscience, celebrating the life and music of the legendary cellist.
Ms. Gokcen has performed with L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Presidential Symphony in Ankara, the Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra, the Houston Symphony, the North Carolina Symphony, and the Aspen Philharmonia, among others. Her recital appearances have taken her to such cities as Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Palm Beach, Charleston, S.C., and to Belgium, Italy and Turkey. In South America, she has toured under the auspices of the U.S. State Department. She has concertized in Australia and New Zealand, and given master classes in Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
In addition to solo appearances, she is an accomplished chamber musician and has participated in the Chamber Music West Festival in San Francisco, the Southeastern Music Festival, the Hindemith Festival in Oregon, and the Accademia Chigiana in Siena.
Ms. Gokcen holds the Doctorate of Musical Arts, as well as a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from the Juilliard School, where her teachers included Leonard Rose, Channing Robbins, William Lincer and Robert Mann. She was awarded a First Prize from the Geneva Conservatory of Music as a pupil of Guy Fallot, and also studied privately with Pierre Fournier. In 1999 she was chosen by one of Spain’s greatest composers, Xavier Montsalvatge, to record his complete works for cello. She has also recorded Songs and Dances in Switzerland for the Gallo label.
In 1988, Ms. Gokcen became interested in the Alexander Technique, prompted by a lifelong fascination with the roots of habits and the difficulties of modifying them. Students often entered her cello studio seeking changes but unable to resolve their problems.
Eventually her reading brought her to the Alexander Technique, a discipline described by its founder as “learning to do consciously what nature intended”. She came to London in 1994 and enrolled in a teacher training program at the Centre for the Alexander Technique.
Ms Gokcen was qualified as a fully-fledged teacher by the Society for Teachers of the Alexander Technique in 1998. In September 2000 she was appointed to the faculty of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she is also a professor of cello. She works with string, wind and brass players, singers and composers. She also incorporates her Alexander Technique teaching as part of her cello studio.
The Alexander Technique embraces what is today called holistic thinking–an indivisibility of the mind-body connection and the awakening of awareness of what Alexander called the “use of the whole self”, which affects our functioning in all our activities, especially the highly complex skill of music-making. It is particularly useful in addressing breathing, coordination, and muscle tensions. Most importantly, the quality of attention developed through the practice of the Technique can transform a musician’s relationship with their instrument and their audience.
Selma Gokcen is also the co-founder and Co-Chair of the London Cello Society.
"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 [...]
“Change involves carrying out an activity against the habit of life.” “You can’t do something you don’t know, if you keep on doing what you do know.” —F.M. Alexander Summers take musicians to new places where teachers and students meet for the first and sometimes the only time, and within this one or perhaps two or three encounters, Chance and Fate can open unexpected doors. Being out of our familiar circumstances and roles and away from the people we see every week in the same place—and for the same reason—provide just the right marinating sauce for Serendipity. It was during a summer festival in Belgium that I met two Alexander teachers and had my first lesson. I wasn't aware of the effect of that lesson at the time but four years later I [...]
"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 [...]
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 [...]
"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 [...]
"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. [...]
"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 [...]
"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 [...]
"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. [...]
"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 [...]
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 [...]
"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 [...]
"You get away from all your old preconceived ideas because you are getting away from your old habits." —F.M. Alexander We come to the end of this six part series, having touched on various aspects of cello technique, bringing the principles of the Alexander Technique to the most basic work of balancing the instrument, then using the bow and the left hand. Once this basic work is accomplished, the next stage is to take a new piece of music and to begin to work with it for a few minutes each day. Instead of aiming for the goal—which is to get the piece learned and which can produce all sorts of accompanying reactions—we can take away the goal entirely, and use those few minutes while we work on the piece [...]
"The body is like an instrument; it depends who is playing it." —F.M. Alexander In the Alexander work I do, I consider there are five stages in learning to let go of the left hand fingers in cello playing so they can be free to race around the fingerboard, as well as play expressively. The hand must be soft and empty of all intention in approaching the string. If it has preconceived form and shape, then it cannot function except within the confines of this preconception. In connection with this work, I often ask my students the meaning in Zen Buddhism of "the empty hand that holds the spade." We can think of the fingers as the end of a long chain of joints starting with the upper arm ball [...]