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 [...]
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.
THINKING IN A NEW WAY—Overcoming Habits (Part 3 of 6): My Cello and Me, a Dynamic Partnership — by Selma Gokcen
Trying is only emphasizing the thing we already know. —F.M. Alexander Just as you have the impulse to do something, stop. —Early Zen scripture (anonymous) Once a reasonable base of understanding is established and a student is able to stop, wait and stay back (this means leaving their back back rather than rushing forward) in the face of simple activities like sitting in and standing up from a chair, going up on the toes, all basic procedures long established in the Alexander Technique, the next challenge is to take up the cello. For each player, their instrument has associations, sometimes happy, sometimes fraught with tension and negative experiences. Just seeing their instrument makes some of my Alexander students anxious! And they are surprised that they don't have to pick up [...]
THINKING IN A NEW WAY—Overcoming Habits (Part 2 of 6): Finding our Source of Power — by Selma Gokcen
"You translate everything, whether physical, mental or spiritual, into muscular tension.” It is not the degree of ‘willing’ or ‘trying’, but the way in which the energy is directed, that is going to make the ‘willing’ or ‘trying’ effective.” The stiffened necks and arms of people of today are outward signs of the imperfect development and lack of coordination of the muscular system of the back and spine. —F.M. Alexander Any athlete, and I include musicians here, who is aiming for the top level of performance is by definition working to improve their coordination, timing, balance and accuracy of movement. But musicians have another reason for wanting a reliable 'instrument' (I refer here to their own body, not their musical instrument). We want the freedom to immerse ourselves in the [...]
We can overcome habits of a lifetime in a few minutes if we learn to use our brains. —F.M. Alexander The obstacle is the path. –Zen proverb I offer this six part series of articles to demonstrate how I work with the Alexander Technique to help musicians to overcome deeply ingrained habits. If a quick and easy fix is what is wanted, then the reader won't find it here. The process as I see it is multi-layered—the same habits that affect our cello playing and music-making are also our habits of life, the way we perceive, react and behave, moment to moment. Such observations are at the heart of Alexander's work. Albeit with the help of a good teacher the process of unlearning habits can be easier, there are no shortcuts. [...]
“It is not the degree of ‘willing’ or ‘trying,’ but the way in which the energy is directed, that is going to make the ‘willing’ or ‘trying’ effective.” –F.M. Alexander As professional musicians, we have a deeply trained muscle memory system, a network of learned movements which allows us to study and perform a huge number of works in any situation, often in a short space of time. This system is a blessing when it is reliable and accurate and a burden when it does not serve us well. Confronted by unwanted tension or a repetitive stress injury such as tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome, some of us, as F.M. Alexander did, may ask: what is my part in this? How have I brought about this condition? And it [...]
“You translate everything, whether physical, mental or spiritual, into muscular tension.” “We can throw away the habit of a lifetime in a few minutes if we use our brains.” —F.M. Alexander My Alexander teacher is always speaking about the force of habit and the difficulty of keeping the mind on a new track, when, for example, a simple decision is made not to lift an arm or get out of the chair in the usual way. Our kinaesthetic sense, the sense of our muscles in movement, is of little help here. We measure effort by how something feels, and that feeling is our habit. To give up wanting to feel our way forward in the early stages of Alexander Technique lessons comes down to a battle with habit, which is [...]
"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 place to find is within yourself. I learned a little about this in athletics. The athlete who is in top form has a quiet place within himself, and it’s around this, somehow, that his action occurs...There’s a center of quietness within, which has to be known and held. If you lose that center, you are in tension and begin to fall apart. – Joseph Campbell True quiet means keeping still when the time has come to keep still, and going forward when the time has come to go forward. In this way rest and movement are in agreement with the demands of the time, and thus there is light in life. The hexagram signifies the end and the beginning of all movement. The back is named because in the [...]
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 [...]
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 [...]
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 [...]
“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 [...]
“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 [...]
"The obstacle is the goal." - Zen Proverb The training of attention through my line of work—the Alexander Technique—happens in a particular way, through the application of certain principles. We take the obstacles, in this case a pupil’s habits, and work with them moment by moment, observing and undoing the tensions in the neck area and throughout the back and spinal column. In this way the pupil’s habits become rich material for understanding how their attention can be directed. The head is heavy and bears a particular relationship to the spine, as it is either poised (gently balanced) on top of or pulled into the spinal column. Cellists are vulnerable to tightening the neck and pulling the head either forward and down towards the fingers or back and down, shortening the [...]
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 [...]