Not counting a negligible number of tap classes when I was 5 years old or so, my first real dance classes were at Indiana University, as a sophomore majoring in cello performance. I had long since forgotten my first fumbling steps as a cellist when I was not quite 3, but the struggle of learning a new skill was all too real as I would wiggle into my leotard and tights at 7:30 in the morning to make 8 A.M. beginner ballet class where I would, with my fellow well-intentioned classmates, attempt to contort myself into an elegant swan, but mainly try not to fall down. My teacher was beautiful; everything about her, her hairstyle, her smile, her hands, her long legs, even her voice, was the epitome of grace. My desire to emulate everything she embodied so effortlessly, met with my utter frustration at falling short morning after morning, was my first real taste of what it means to be an adult beginner. So much longing, so far to go, and, unlike a child, no patience for the in-between.
As I’m sure you can imagine, the not falling down bit was mostly a matter of getting my legs coordinated. The elegant swan bit was something, I came to understand, that lived in one’s épaulement, and for me came much, much later.
Épaulement (ay-pawl-mon) is a great word in the dance vocabulary: literally, it addresses the posturing of one’s head, neck, shoulders, extending down the arms and into the rib cage. It’s the poise you see on the top half, while the bottom half does all the pyrotechnics. Figuratively, it represents the difference between skill and art. It’s the difference between surviving a precarious balance, and defying gravity.
We cellists know what that’s about. It’s the difference between merely getting through the arpeggios in the Dvorak concerto exposition, and shaping them to create a clear, effervescent, magical effect. That requires épaulement, too. Unfortunately, one rarely has capacity to think about such finesse when one is still learning the steps, so to speak.
Ballet classes are all structured the same way (and before I get too far in, I must disclaim that this is based on my amateur perspective and experience): you start at the barre. Pliés, tendus, degagés, rondes-de-jambe, and so on…the combination of moves may change, but you always warm up the body the same way, in the same order of movement type. I was taught that if you were 10 minutes late, never mind being scolded for being tardy, it just straight-up wasn’t safe to jump into class. Your body wasn’t warm, and you could easily injure yourself. While going through all these exercises, the brain is mainly occupied with alignment, proper muscle engagement, balance, extension, and overall attention to detail. It’s where one develops strength, flexibility, and control. Then, and only then, do you venture out into the center of the room, away from the safety of the barre, to really test your mettle.
And here is where it gets interesting. Once in center, a similar routine unfolds: combinations to establish center of gravity, shifting of weight from one leg to another, footwork combinations starting slow and progressing faster, then turns, then jumps, then bigger, grander combinations. Always the same (or very similar) order of movement type, often a different combination. (I should mention that these combinations are learned on-the-spot, watching the teacher do/talk through it once, then diving in, hoping you remember it well enough to repeat in front of your classmates!) Only, now we’ve substituted one training tool for another, the barre for the mirror. Here one can observe their own line, and practice their épaulement, flirting with adding a head tilt here or shoulder pivot there as confidence builds. What this achieves for the brain is an amazing capacity for memory, flexibility, coordination, and the nuance of gesture, so far beyond the prerequisite body awareness and strength training.
All this, and we haven’t even learned any repertoire. In fact, I went years without learning any actual choreography. When I did, it was a different ball of wax altogether: we would repeat the whole thing, over and over, addressing corrections as they came up, until we could get through it without errors. Then, finally! Maybe I would have capacity to think about my épaulement with intention. (My apologies to the dancers out there. I never said I was a particularly good ballerina…)
I dwell on all of this because it’s restructured the way I teach, and indeed practice, the cello. Being in those classes, the predictability of applying attention to my body and my movements in layers, felt so refreshing compared to the hastened scramble I always felt sitting down to practice, jumping right in to whatever scary etude or solo I had in front of me. It taught me that learning how to dance (or play the cello) is a very different skill from learning repertoire. It taught me about respecting one’s mental capacity, about muscle identification, and the very real danger of not stretching and warming up. It also taught me how music feels, in space-time. Of all the things I learned, that is the most precious, and the hardest to replicate for my students unless we go dancing down the hall together (which I have been known to do).
But back to my point: I started designing a lesson strategy, and practice strategy, inspired by these classes. First, I start by attending to the bow. The bow is your breath, your vitality, and unless you start by thinking of it first, it often gets overlooked. Then, I warm up the left hand with simple patterns, get the blood circulating through the fingers, engaging or disengaging muscles as they need. I address the shoulders, attempting to relax the pectoral muscles so as not to pull the neck and shoulders forward. Here, the study of épaulement comes in handy in a literal way; the attention to the placement of the head, neck, shoulders, arms, and relaxed hands, has been the most relevant to my body as a cellist.
Next, as I begin to shift, I keep the left shoulder back, relaxing the brachioradialis (the bulgy muscle on top of the forearm near the elbow) to achieve a dropping feeling rather than a shoving feeling. Then the vibrato, always loose, never coming from a place of tension. By now a body scan might be necessary to remind the brain of all the major or minor adjustments made so far. Now I feel ready for some heavier lifting, a particular skill, perhaps: spiccato, double stops, acute intonation “target-practice”, thumb position, complicated rhythmic patterns, fast passagework, using etudes to exercise whatever challenges feel relevant that day. All before I ever get to “music”. But then, when I finally do…I’ve established a foundation of control upon which I can truly make musical choices, without being preoccupied by remembering how to play the cello (well, maybe a little less preoccupied, anyhow…).
It’s easy to forget how physical music-making is, cello playing especially. But unless the body awareness is thorough, one will never have enough capacity to use the body to its greatest potential, to reach high levels of artistry. Because when you finally get your repertoire, and you start turning your attention from mechanics to épaulement, you become something different, something so much more than the movements you execute or the sounds you make. It is not an afterthought – on the contrary, that spirit dwells in the heart from the beginning, and keeps you motivated through all your technique work. Our épaulement lives in the way we feel a phrase, the way we linger on a note, the prep before the first bow stroke, the hover into a rest, the controlled application of vibrato, the perfect timing of bow speed to note value…so many delectable choices that we can delight in, if only we can get past learning the choreography.