Interview by Tim Janof
Gerhard Mantel is perhaps best known as the author of the book, Cello Technique — Principles and Forms of Movement. He recently published his second book, Cello Üben (Cello Practice), which is currently published in German by Schott, and has quickly become a standard text in German-speaking countries; an English version will soon be published as an “e-book” by http://www.rugeri.com. He has published a set of duos for students and teachers called “25 Duettudes,” each of which addresses particular technical issues for intermediate students. He has also published a cello method for children, Cello mit Spass und Hugo. He is president of the German chapter of European String Teachers’ Association (ESTA). After his studies with August Eichhorn, he continued working with Pierre Fournier, Paul Tortelier, Maurice Gendron, Andre Navarra, and, during a summer study period, with Pablo Casals.
TJ: You studied with August Eichhorn, who was heavily involved in research on cello technique from a physiological standpoint. How much of your first book, Cello Technique, came from his teachings?
GM: I was deeply influenced by my studies with him, so his approach certainly made its way into my book. I am very grateful to him, and I have done my best to continue his work. My more “scientific” studies were, and still are, aimed at improving my own playing for my ongoing concert career in Europe and abroad.
In addition to my work on systematizing cello technique, I have been trying to understand artistic issues, like why is one interpretation more compelling than another, or how is it that two equally competent cellists can sound completely differently on the same instrument? What does each cellist actually do differently, technically speaking? And can this difference be taught? To answer these questions, one must define and compare many factors, such as vibrato amplitude and frequency, the angle of the vibrato motion, left hand connections and articulations, bow articulations, contact points of the bow and their changes, color and tone development, tempo, the conditions of creativity, and so on. As you can imagine, these questions are easier to ask than to answer.
My endeavor in recent years has been to make cello technique and musicianship more teachable. As my experience increases with age, I believe more and more that it’s worthwhile to pass along these ideas to the next generation so that they do not have to re-invent the wheel. My second book, Cello Üben, is my attempt at this.
TJ: You also studied with some of the biggest names in cello history: Fournier, Tortelier, Gendron, Casals, and Navarra. Let’s start with Fournier. What was he like as a teacher?
GM: Fournier was my first teacher after my basic studies with Eichhorn. The key word of Fournier’s personality and teaching is “noble.” Nobility implies seriousness; every detail in your music-making is important. He did not want us to play “nice” notes. Instead, he wanted us to play stories, scenes, and messages — “Express your feelings. Express your concept.”
As for technique, he likened it to brushing one’s teeth. He thought that everyday technical “hygiene” (scales, etc.) was a matter of course and that it was one’s responsibility to do it, another key word in his teaching. It is your responsibility to give your body the ability to obey your artistic demands! It is your responsibility to search for the composer’s reason for writing each piece, each phrase, and each detail. Fournier had worked his way through his awful handicap of Infantile Paralysis, so any sloppiness, both technically and musically, was completely unacceptable, even incomprehensible, to him.
TJ: You also studied with Paul Tortelier. At what point in your development did you study with him?
GM: I studied with him for nine months, after I had already been principal cellist in Bergen, Norway. Tortelier was fascinated by the idea that music-making has an element of theatrical acting, not as something “imposed on top of the music,” but as something elementary that is inherent in effective artistic musical communication. He also stressed that one should never leave anything to chance, that there should always be an underlying concept of what one is playing, and that one should have an understanding of why one plays a piece a certain way.
Technically, Tortelier favored straightening the outer finger joint, contrary to most teachers, both for vibrato (more flesh on the string) and for quick relaxation of the fingers in thumb position. He did not insist on this, because people’s skeletons differ widely, but he recommended it as a tool.
TJ: You then studied with Maurice Gendron.
GM: Gendron was a problematic teacher, and an emotionally unstable personality. A student needed a lot of stamina in order to withstand his outbursts or sarcasms, which resulted in many leaving his room in tears. On the other hand, in looking back on influential periods in my life, I now realize that the most “cozy” lessons are certainly not the ones that most shape one’s personality. The ability to profit from such a teacher also depends on the stability and level of proficiency of the student, but his teaching style can also destroy a person.
Gendron was an exceptionally fine player, his bow technique having an unparalleled suppleness, and his interpretational ideals being more refined than dramatic. He frequently demonstrated during lessons, and, since I was already rather advanced, I learned a lot from this “mirroring” kind of teaching, which provoked every grain of ambition in me to match his playing. He did not grant his students the slightest leeway in fingerings and bowings, so one had to adapt to this kind of intolerance in order to be accepted by him. It was this element of provocation that brought a very substantial result for me.
TJ: Then came Casals.
GM: One could not please Casals. The lessons took place in an emotionally tense environment, as if we were in the presence of God himself. In this ritual, almost religious, state of mind, one took every criticism with the determination to change one’s cellistic life as soon as the lesson was over. Casals could easily say to a group of high level students, “You all play out of tune and out of rhythm.” In intonation matters he was extremely demanding. He was aware, and made the students aware, that there are quite different intonational situations, depending on melody, harmony, tempo, and expression (Casals’ term: “Expressive intonation”), and he became angry when someone left this up to chance.
His musical credo was: “Characterize before playing just nicely.” He used rhythm as a means of characterization, not as a meter. The tension between meter and rhythm, the rhythmically intended deviation from the meter, is one of the most important elements in the characterization of a rhythm and of a phrase. In one lesson I remember he had me play the first two bars of the sixth Bach Suite at least ten times, answering by playing it himself. It took many repetitions until I found out that he intended to play the second bar ever so slightly faster than the first.
TJ: You also studied with Andre Navarra.
GM: Navarra’s approach was clearly based on intuition about music, and a somewhat restricted elementary philosophy of technical necessities. His main technical merits for the right hand were a highly effective gymnastic training, mostly through fast string crossings at the frog, and the insistence on perfect bow changes. His students all went through a very demanding technical training of scales, octaves, arpeggios, etc. His comments usually ended with the phrase: “Il faut travailler!” (“You must practice”). He did not specify much on how to practice, but with a rather restricted arsenal of praise he managed to motivate his students into endless practicing, which, at a certain stage of one’s development, brings about security and the feeling of being able to rely on one’s technique in concert situations. He relied on the “naturalness” of movements, whatever definition one might attribute to this “nature.” Again, the provocation to work things out and find methods for myself rather than the exact description of facts and methods, both technically and musically, had a great effect on my development.
TJ: Some musicians find your first book, Cello Technique, to be overly analytical. They prefer to relate to music and their instrument on more of an emotional and tactile level, and don’t really care how each joint moves.
GM: When I play, I don’t care how each joint moves either, as long as there is no disturbance in my playing. When I wrote the book 25 years ago, I was reacting to my sense of how vague most cellists’ understanding was of the mechanics of cello playing. I wrote the book to help musicians get to the root of what they are doing, and to de-mythologize the more material part of the act of playing the cello.
I realize that my book may seem overly detailed, but I thought it was important that I describe things as precisely and as clearly as possible, rather than relying on vague analogies. The book was not written for people who prefer to learn the cello through trial and error or by feel, or for those who aren’t terribly interested in what’s happening on a detailed level. Many people, admittedly, don’t need this knowledge for playing, but what if they teach?
Of course, if I were to write about the same subject today, it would come out somewhat differently. I wrote the book before I had much teaching experience. This is why I am excited that my new book, Cello Üben, will soon come out in an English edition under the title Cello Practice, published by Rugeri as an e-book.
TJ: My impression of your first book is that you were trying to rigorously describe traditional technical principles, and to help cellists maximize their efficiency while applying them. Your second book seems to be exploring ideas that are outside the bounds of traditional technique.
GM: That’s right, although I would rather say “outside of traditional teaching.” Some of these ideas have always been in use, but they have not been described and made conscious. In my second book, there is also a stronger emphasis upon music, where I explore techniques that widen one’s expressive palette.
TJ: Let’s march through the cello and discuss some of the basics of cello technique, starting with the position of the cello. Where should the endpin touch the floor relative to the centerline of the body?
GM: It should be near the centerline. The cello must be at a certain angle, of course, since the neck rests on our left side.
There is leeway in the placement of the endpin, particularly to the right of the centerline. I once had a very small Brazilian student who couldn’t bow to the tip because she had very short arms. I had her shift the endpin to the right about an inch, which meant that the cello was more slanted from the upper left to the lower right. In this position she was able to reach the tip of the bow and still play at a right angle to the strings, even the A-string.
TJ: Some advocate holding the cello significantly to the left several inches.
GM: This seems like an unnecessary exaggeration. If you are more average in height and arm length, holding the cello just slightly to the left works the best. If you are particularly small in stature, simply moving the endpin slightly to the right as I just described will accomplish the same thing. The body must be upright, not the cello, and the hands should not operate any further from the body than necessary.
TJ: Where should the feet rest?
GM: Generally speaking, the feet should be kept flat on the floor in front of you. It is also best to wear shoes that don’t slip on the floor so that you can use your legs and feet for support. The seat should be flat or slightly tilted forward, and be covered with rough material so that one’s trousers don’t slip on the chair.
I want to stress, however, that there is no single optimal playing position. Cellists must maintain a certain amount of mobility so that they can adjust as needed for each technical situation, as well as find the position that enables them to maximize their ever-changing musical expression. Depending on the musical context, the player may want to lean more forwards or backwards, move side-to-side, or twist. There are no absolutes.
TJ: I understand that there is no single ideal playing position, but I would guess that there are some positions that you would generally recommend. You just mentioned leaning forward. Why would this be helpful?
GM: When you do something with your hands, like peeling a potato or carving a piece of wood, it is natural to lean over what you are doing. The same thing applies to cello playing, particularly in the higher positions, where you need to move your body closer to the left hand’s activity in order to maintain the necessary leverage.
The body moves forwards and backwards depending on the work we do. We can improve our playing considerably by always adapting the angle of leaning forward to the place where we play on the fingerboard. Thus, even the pelvis is responsible for intonation!
I hesitate to make general statements about this because cellists with different positions can play equally beautifully. Rostropovich, for example, tends to lean back when he plays in low positions, but he leans forward, sometimes a lot, when playing in higher positions.
TJ: You suggest that leaning forward can be helpful. Some discourage this because it somewhat inhibits one’s ability to breathe. Do the advantages of leaning forward outweigh the disadvantages of slightly restricted breathing?
GM: This issue does not play a major part in my playing and teaching. In order to inhibit breathing to any detrimental level, the body would have to crouch beyond any reasonable limit, therefore I do not agree with this objection in this context, again, assuming the constant mobility of the body. The body is built for maximum flexibility and adaptation to any arising situation. Since it is, and should be, in constant motion for technical as well as for expressive reasons, one must be able to use all possible axes, including the torsional axis of the spine. Therefore, there can’t be such a thing as an optimal fixed position. “Statistically” speaking, however, a slight leaning forward, especially in high positions, is the most natural thing to do, as I explained earlier. One certainly doesn’t lean back in high positions.
Breathing, by the way, cannot be separated from playing. It cannot be independent of the motional and emotional content of the music. Some people advocate an independent breathing, which in my opinion does not exist.
TJ: You’ve written that faulty breathing can interfere with one’s playing. How so?
GM: Free breathing is of course important and necessary, but how one breathes is also important. I once had a student who had the habit of gasping suddenly, which caused his body and shoulders to shake visibly. I have seen this in other players, who suddenly inhaled and exhaled at each bow change, which resulted in unwanted breaks in sound. In this situation, I have encouraged students to hum through the bow change. The hum gives the student an audible cue as to whether or not he or she is breathing more naturally, regulating the exhale to something more reasonable.
TJ: Do you have any recommendations for endpin length or type of endpin, whether bent or straight?
GM: I consider this to be a matter of personal preference. I happen to prefer a long, straight endpin (I am 6 feet 2 inches tall). The cello tends to be less stable along its axis with a bent endpin, so you have to hold it more firmly with your knees, which I consider to be a waste of energy. But if a student comes to me with a bent endpin and plays well, I’m not going to change it. In the case of a more immobile player, I might suggest that he or she try a bent endpin in order to increase mobility in the lower part of the body.
TJ: Do you need to use pressure when playing the cello? There are some people who believe that “pressure” is a dirty word in string playing.
GM: Let’s talk about the bow first. Strictly physically speaking, there is no friction without pressure, and there is no tone without friction. Therefore, there will be no tone without the use of pressure. No matter how softly or loudly you play, you need an ever-changing adequate amount of pressure in order to produce friction between the bow and the string.
The pressure issuing from your body is very different at the frog than at the tip. At the tip, the pressure you can apply is limited by whatever torque you can produce with pronation, the inward turning of your arm. If you put the tip of the bow on a scale, the maximum pressure you can apply is only 500 or 600 grams. At the frog, without applying any additional pressure, by the sheer weight of the arm, you will produce 2 or 3 kilograms, over 4 times more pressure than at the tip, and more than you would ever want to apply. So when playing fortissimo, there’s a huge difference in exertion as one bows between the frog and the tip.
In order to maximize the pressure at the tip when playing fortissimo, the hand will have to grip the bow as firmly as necessary so that the fingers don’t slip off the frog. When returning to the frog on the upbow, you must be sure to relax the grip as you approach the frog and replace the torque force with partial arm weight.
The function of the fourth finger also changes as you go from the frog to the tip. As you approach the tip, it can pull up on the frog in order to help with applying and controlling pressure. As you approach the frog on the upbow, it can push down on the back of the frog (depending on the desired pressure, i.e. loudness) in order to counter-balance the bow’s weight.
As a player bows towards the tip, he also has to add a pulling element to the whole bow/arm system, since the pronation torque tends towards the floor. A pulling factor is added (mostly but not always unconsciously) toward the center of the body. The pressure direction of the bow is perpendicular to the string, not perpendicular to the floor.
TJ: Janos Starker doesn’t like the term “bow grip.” He feels that it can, at least subconsciously, cause unnecessary tension in the bow hand.
GM: I agree with his concerns about the psychological implication of the term. We don’t want to play with unnecessary tension, but the only way to maintain pressure at the tip is to tighten the musculature of your bow hand as necessary for the dynamics desired. There’s no way around this physical law. The crucial point is that the grip must be released when coming back to the frog.
TJ: Is there no way to take advantage of arm weight as you approach the tip?
GM: Not really. If you apply arm weight at the tip, your arm will just drop towards your body and the C-string. Therefore you can only speak of “arm weight” in bowing when you are on the C-string during a downbow. The turning power of your forearm, which is transferred to the bow through your index finger, is the dominant force, not weight.
I actually don’t like the expression “arm weight.” I prefer “arm mass” instead, because it is the inertia of the moving arm that is more important than its weight. The weight of your arm produces a force at the frog that is much greater than you will ever need. If you completely relax your arm into the bow when you are at the frog you will crush the tone. I find the concept of “arm weight” in cello playing to be somewhat paradoxical, since we spend a lot of energy suspending our arm so that we don’t put too much weight on the string.
TJ: Do you have the same opinion about the use of arm weight in the left hand?
GM: The left hand is a little different, because you have two ways to apply pressure on the fingerboard: either you let the arm sort of hang on the fingerboard through the friction of your fingers, using the thumb to apply counter-pressure, or, without counter-pressure of the thumb, you carry your arm weight with the shoulder muscles.
It is easy to verify this fact: If you let your arm hang by “squeezing” the neck, you can relax your shoulder completely. If, on the other hand, you take the thumb away from the neck, the shoulder immediately takes over the carrying work, which is felt clearly by a certain necessary shoulder tension.
TJ: Do you continually squeeze with the left thumb when you play?
GM: No, I use both methods. I use a changing amount of thumb counter-pressure in order to have what amounts to a pair of tongs between my fingers and thumb. I release the thumb for shifts or when I am playing a series of fast notes, when fluidity is necessary. As with the bow, there is a constant interplay between the use of the carried arm and the thumb counter-pressure. I never use only one, but varying combinations of the two.
TJ: Getting back to the bow, do you believe that the bow hair should be flat on the string when playing? Some believe that this will increase their power.
GM: The number of hairs that are in contact with the string has absolutely no influence on the loudness of the tone. If your readers don’t believe me, they can try the following experiment:
- Place the cello on its back on the floor (on a blanket or other protective material). Place the bow on a string, and hold the bow at the tightening screw between your thumb and index finger. As you move the bow across the string, twist the bow back and forth between your thumb and index finger. You will not hear the slightest change in volume. (Holding the bow like this rules out any “cheating” possibility as to applying additional pressure in any part of the experiment).
From a physical standpoint, friction is dependent only upon the force applied perpendicular to the string and the coefficient of friction (i.e. rosin). The surface area of the point of contact (the number of hairs in contact with the string) is completely irrelevant. Though there are other very important reasons why one might flatten the bow hairs on the string, increasing the volume isn’t one of them. On the other hand, of course, if you want to play loudly, you use a more upright bow twist position in order to prevent the bow stick from making contact with the string.
TJ: Your new book suggests that there are times when playing with a crooked bow can be beneficial.
GM: You must be careful how you say this. I make a distinction between the angle of the bow’s position relative to the string’s axis and the direction of the bow’s travel relative to the string’s axis. The bow does not have to be positioned perpendicular to the string, but it must travel perpendicular to the string, otherwise the bow will dampen the string’s vibrations. A string does not vibrate from side to side, but between the bridge and the nut (or finger), so any force applied along the length of the string immediately kills the vibration and produces an audible scratch. This scratch is also heard when you force the bow (held in perpendicular position) towards the bridge by pushing it along the length of the string.
Let me explain this in more detail. Imagine holding a laundry rope in your hand, whose other end is attached to the wall of your home. If you now start quickly moving your end of the rope up and down, the wave that arises by this movement travels to the wall and back. The vibration does not incite all points of the rope to move simultaneously in the same direction, up and down. This is also the way a string vibrates. It does not vibrate as our eyes see it, since the eye cannot follow each vibration, it only sees the sum of the vibrations. The movement occurs along the length of the string.
Thus, the only direction of a force that does not disturb this longitudinal vibration by pulling along the length of the string is the right angle to the rope/string. In other words, the direction of the force applied at any given point, and at any given moment, must be at a right angle (within a small scope of tolerance). The form or position of that force (whether the bow is at a right angle or not) is irrelevant to the vibrational possibility. But if the bow pulls this longitudinal wave in any direction, the wave will be destroyed.
Physically, the same problem occurs if a bow is held at 90 degrees, but bowed (“scratched”) towards or away from the bridge, or if the bow is held at an angle, but bowed while maintaining the point of contact. In other words: If the bow is held at an angle, the point of contact must move along the string in order to maintain the 90 degree angle of the force applied. If you play with a crooked bow while moving the bow perpendicular to the string’s axis, you can achieve this, since the bow will naturally travel towards or away from the bridge and still produce a perfectly clear tone. As an experiment, you can bow at as much as a 60-degree angle and the tone will not become scratchy. You can find further description of this in my new book.
TJ: Why would you want to play with a crooked bow?
GM: So that you can quickly change your point of contact on the string, for reasons of varying string length (left hand position), tone color, tone duration, dynamics, etc. In other words, this is meant to be a musical device, not just some abstract technique. It allows you to change your point of contact in an artistic way. If you want to move quickly towards the bridge on a downbow, you would drop the tip just a little bit. If you want to move toward the fingerboard in downbow, you would raise the tip instead. You can even do both consecutively on one downbow, creating a “messa di voce” profile of the tone (small crescendo-decrescendo effect), which simultaneously produces a slight but nice color change. This technique gives you many shades of tone control that you don’t have if you only play with a rigorously straight bow.
By the way, I recently saw Gidon Kremer perform and he rarely played with a straight bow. He constantly adjusts the angle of his bow, thus allowing him to change his point of contact without any scratches. This was most gratifying to see.
TJ: Your new book discusses another way of changing the bow’s point of contact — walking the bow up and down the string by twisting the bow along its axis.
GM: That’s correct. Particularly near the bridge, if I twist the bow with my fingers such that the hair of the bow moves just a few millimeters, the bow’s contact point will be adjusted without an audible scratch. This technique gives you even finer control over your sound, yielding a second tier of color and dynamic possibilities.
This brings up another point about the physics of the string. In forte playing, the optimal point of contact when you first put the bow on the string (“speaking of the string”) does not match the optimal point of contact for a full ongoing sound. It is best to start a bit further away from the bridge and then shift the bow down towards the optimal sound-point, either by using the “crooked bow” technique described earlier or by walking the bow down the string with the twisting action just mentioned, or both. For the entrance of the tone, you don’t have enough leverage between bridge and contact point to clearly start a string’s vibrations when you are too close to the bridge. But once you get the string vibrating, it has enough momentum that you can almost bow on the bridge and the string will not scratch.
TJ: Are the up and downbow motions just the reverse process of each other? Should the right arm just re-trace its path on the upbow?
GM: No. The elbow will follow one arc on the downbow and another arc on the upbow. The elbow does not simply retrace its path on the upbow. Instead, the elbow should trace a counter-clockwise ellipse in each cycle of downbow and upbow. If you don’t trace an ellipse, you won’t be able to maintain a continuous sound as you approach and move away from the tip.
On the downbow, you need to raise your elbow as you approach the tip. Raising the elbow causes the right hand to tilt such that the palm faces to the right. This helps to increase the torque force necessary to maintain the sound. If you then lower your elbow immediately on the upbow (the mirror image of the downbow), thus turning your palm to the left, you will lose the force at the tip. Therefore, in true forte playing, the elbow must remain high at the beginning of the upbow and then slowly lower. This motion results in an ellipse being traced with the elbow instead of re-tracing the same quarter-circle arc. Of course, if you modify the sound in a different way, the path of the elbow will correspond to something else.
TJ: Is an inaudible bow change possible?
GM: No. The vibration of the string is not sinusoidal. It actually forms an assymmetrical sawtooth. In the downbow, the phase of the vibration with which you pull the string is much slower than the phase in which it snaps back. The upbow produces the same sort of vibration, but in the opposite direction. Because this change in vibration must take place, there is no way to make a truly seamless bow change.
I don’t mean to say that one shouldn’t strive for an inaudible bow change. I work very hard with my students on “perfecting” it. There are times in music when one wants this effect, so it’s an important skill.
I must also point out that there are many times in music when one wants to hear the bow change. Audible bow changes, along with the various left-hand techniques, are what produce the variety of articulations that create musical interest. You can go through almost the entire alphabet and re-create the consonants with combinations of the two hands. The bow change can be made to sound like the consonants W, M, L, K and so on, going through the entire gamut of hardness and softness.
TJ: You seem to advocate in your book what is often called the “paintbrush” technique, in which the fingers and wrist lag behind the arm in order to smooth out the bow changes.
GM: The idea behind this is that the ideal so-called inaudible bow change occurs when the speed of the bow is maintained up to the very last moment and then resumes at the same speed in the opposite direction instantaneously. Though theoretically simple to understand, it is not simple to achieve, because this would require the large mass of your arm to change direction very suddenly, which would cause a jolt in your musculature and create unwanted tension. Our hands and fingers, on the other hand, are very light, so it’s much easier for them to change direction quickly. Therefore, if you change the direction of your arm an inch or less before the bow change, but allow your fingers and hand to continue in the same (old) direction until the very last millimeter, the bow change will be as seamless as possible. This will also allow you to use a more comfortable pendulum arm motion that is not at all abrupt. This wrist and finger movement will become the more active the louder you play, since it has to do the friction work on the string.
TJ: Should the thumb in the bow hand be straight or curved? Starker tells students that it should be curved.
GM: This is a difficult question because most people say that the thumb should be curved, but almost nobody does it!
The answer also depends on the person’s thumb. I had a student with a thumb that was horribly curved; the last joint was bent backwards almost 90 degrees! He definitely needed to curve, or stabilize, his thumb the other way. But he was an extreme case, of course.
The main reason one would play with a straight thumb is to increase one’s effective strength while minimizing one’s exertion, which comes in handy when playing forte at the tip. If you place the tip of your bow on a scale and then press, you will find that you are able to create a significantly larger force if your thumb is straight rather than curved. In other words, it takes a considerably larger amount of exertion to create the same force with a curved thumb. Our goal, after all, is to minimize the strain of playing the cello.
It makes sense to play with a straight thumb when at the tip, but it doesn’t make as much sense when playing in the lower half of the bow, where one’s arm weight is more than sufficient to create any necessary pressure. We can afford to relax our grip on the bow when playing at the frog, which implies that we can use a naturally curved thumb. I wouldn’t say there are any strict rules about this, but I would say that you should straighten your thumb as the need for pressure increases. I would also like to stress that we not only have the outer joint that everybody talks about, but we also have the very mobile next joint, whose mobility is very much neglected. Thus, the position of the thumb (more curved, more straight) should be flexible, depending on what we want to do in any given moment.
As with all joints of the body, sensitivity is greater in moving joints than in immobile ones. We have to consider each task: maximum force at the tip does not require a curved thumb because exertion would be greater, while output is smaller. When we need maximum sensitivity (which equals maximum precision, i.e. for shifts) it is preferable to slightly curve the end joint of the right thumb. Even intonation can profit from this right hand behavior. Again, it is not a question of position, but of motion.
I don’t know which position Rostropovich advocates, but I certainly have seen him use a completely straight thumb. In addition, he moves his thumb more into the curvature of the frog, thus creating more touch surface area for the thumb, which means less pressure per square millimeter of thumb skin, thus preventing any pain in the thumb.
TJ: Do you believe that, in order to achieve more power at the tip, one should move one’s index finger along the stick towards the tip?
GM: On the surface, this seems quite sensible, since physically speaking one has better leverage. But physiologically speaking, when you analyze the musculature of the hand and fingers, and at what position the index finger performs at its peak, you will find that it doesn’t work best when it is stretched away from the hand. The advantages of moving the finger towards the tip will be negated by an effectively weaker finger performance. The index finger’s strength is maximized when it is kept closer to the other fingers. Of course, there is a certain leeway in this angle between the index and other fingers, depending on circumstances in playing.
TJ: In your second book, you map the bow’s travel graphically in order to assist a student’s planning of their bow distribution.Do you have your students do this exercise too?
GM: I don’t have them do this graphically, but I do insist that they plan their bow distribution. A lot of people play with the same amount of bow, no matter what the rhythmic values of the notes are. For instance, some play an eighth note followed by two sixteenth notes with three equal lengths of bow, even though, in many cases, the sixteenth notes should use approximately half the amount of bow when compared to the eighth note. I’m not advocating a mathematically precise bow division, I just want it to be well thought-out, both technically and musically. This issue was one of David Oistrakh’s main points in teaching as well.
Another example is the following:
People often play this down-up-down figure, shooting back to the frog on the upbow. If not treated carefully, the short note will be accented unintentionally by the fast upbow. One must think about the amount of bow each note requires in order to match one’s artistic goals. This becomes particularly important when playing the Bach Suites, where there is such a variety of asymmetrical bowings, one note against three, for instance.
TJ: You don’t like the term “relaxation” when used to describe the act of playing the cello. Why?
GM: Relaxation is only part of the process of playing the cello. Everything you do in life involves actions somewhere along the wide spectrum between tension and relaxation. If you are playing a forte whole bow, much less exertion is required in the lower half than in the upper half. You go from relative relaxation to relative tension as you approach the tip.
I actually prefer the phrase “ready to move” instead of “relaxation.” One sees this in boxing and tennis, where the athletes keep their bodies in constant motion so that they are ready to strike or reach the ball as quickly and as accurately as possible. There is a constant interplay between relaxation and tension in their motions. Their goal is not to relax, but to be ready to call upon their strength instantaneously, while maintaining their precision.
I see this idea being used in string playing more and more. People will not be encouraged to find complete relaxation, but instead to be able to quickly change the mode in which their musculature operates (which, of course, also implies split-second relaxation after split-second tension). This notion is particularly easy to visualize when one thinks about a sforzando, where a sudden and brief fortissimo is required; there’s no such thing as a relaxed sforzando.
TJ: You wrote that a note is perceived at the center of the vibrato cycle, not at the top or the bottom, as is often claimed? Why?
GM: The ear sums up all vibrations and finds the statistical average. As an experiment, put your first finger on A on the D-string and quickly slide between G sharp and A sharp; you will perceive the (awful whining) note as A. The perceived tone will be near the center between the upper pitch and the lower pitch. If the vibrato motion is asymmetrical, the ear still calculates the average pitch of all vibrations and moves the perceived tone a little up or down from the exact middle position of the finger.
TJ: This seems to refute some Early Music players’ assertion that Modern players get away with playing more out of tune, because they cover up their questionable intonation with vibrato. You seem to be saying that vibrato has little effect on intonation.
GM: Vibrato doesn’t cover up bad intonation. The perceived tone, whether the result of a symmetrical or asymmetrical vibrato, is either in tune or out of tune, depending on which pitch a player regards as being in tune.
Baroque players have a different sense of intonation, since Modern players have become accustomed to equal tempered tuning, which came with the development of the clavier. Baroque players play lower major thirds and higher minor thirds than Modern players, for example. The Baroque players’ assertion that Modern players play out of tune may have more to do with the fact that they have a different concept, and habit, of intonation.
Intonation is a very interesting subject. Whether something is in tune or not depends on many factors, including whether one is thinking in terms of musical lines (horizontally) or in terms of chords (vertically), whether one is playing slowly or quickly, and whether one is playing with an equal-tempered instrument such as the piano. If you play a fast major scale, for instance, raising the leading tone will make the scale sound more brilliant. But if you were to use this same leading tone in a chord, it would sound completely out of tune. You may have to change your finger position as much as 4 millimeters (in first position) in order to make the same tone sound in tune in different contexts.
TJ: Let’s discuss a few more technical aspects of left hand technique. Do you believe that one should keep the fingers over their respective notes when playing?
GM: No, unless you are talking about teaching a beginner how to find the notes. Otherwise, you should know exactly where the notes are at all times, but your fingers should not hover over them. This notion comes from the understandable assumption that you will play more accurately if you do, but this is not the case.
If I were to construct a robot, I would build it such that its fingers hover over the notes. But we are not robots, and we have a completely different system of perception and action. Our spatial perception and sensitivity is maximized when we are not in a state of tension; hovering fingers are under tension. If you lift a finger, you do not place the tip vertically in the air above its place; instead, you retract it, bending the middle knuckle of the finger. Rather than hovering over the tones, the fingers should be in the optimal physiological posture (I’m avoiding the word “relaxed”) for the movement necessary to hit the note accurately. This posture is internalized after doing the same motion thousands of times in practice sessions.
The tempo of the notes does affect where the fingers should rest. I would only consider placing my fingers somewhat near their notes when playing extremely fast passages. In slow melodic lines, I would delay moving my finger to the next note until the last possible moment. I make sure that my arm, wrist, and hand are in the optimal position for the note being played, and, just before the next note, I adjust my position to the next optimal position.
TJ: Do you hit the fingerboard percussively with each finger as you place them on the string, and lightly pluck as you remove them?
GM: It depends on what I am playing. I tend to do this when playing fast runs, which helps with clarity, but not when I’m playing melodic lines. In the opening of the Rachmaninoff Sonata, for example, I play D with my first finger and then place my second finger on E-flat as slowly as possible, creating a slight glissando effect. In other situations, I might bang my second finger on the same E-flat. The amount of left-hand articulation I use depends on the needs of the music.
TJ: In thumb position, placing the first finger can be problematic. People usually play on the nail or with a collapsed joint. Do you have any suggestions for this?
GM: This is very problematic. I do not curve my first joint when I use the first finger in this position; I intentionally play with a collapsed joint. I do adjust my arm position to try to make it as comfortable as possible. It’s issues like this that inspired me to found a research institute on instrumental pedagogy in Frankfurt, the purpose of which is to share ideas on such technical and musical issues.
TJ: What do you think of the idea of pulling the strings to the left instead of pressing them down. This is an idea that has been getting a lot of attention lately.
GM: The renowned English-Hungarian violin pedagogue Kato Havas advocates this “gripping” of the string on the violin too, at least as far as the “initial touch” is concerned. There is an aesthetic difference between this “careful” touch and the “banging down” of the string, so you need to decide what you want to hear from a musical standpoint. The sideways impulse, however, can only be tiny, since it would require an additional frictional force to keep the finger from sliding to the side (which citar players use for changing string tension).
My approach to this is a little different. We have to differentiate between the static exertion of pressure on the string and the actual movement of placing a finger. In placing a finger on the cello, there is a considerable stretching of the middle knuckle. Pressing down the string (statically) other than at a vertical angle toward the different string levels of the fingerboard would be a considerable waste of energy. The movement of placing a finger, however, can be done in two ways: either pulling to the left or pushing (stretching the middle knuckle of the finger). The difference between the two is tempo. In slow cantabile sequences, pulling to the left is possible and can be applied for a “softer” tone connection. In fast sequences, the stretching approach of the middle joint is the easier and faster movement.
TJ: You wrote, “Anticipation is the key to virtuoso technique.” What does this mean?
GM: If I play slowly I have time to prepare for the next action. If I want to play fast, I have much less time, so I have to plan much earlier, perhaps several notes ahead of the difficult point.
Let’s take a shift, for example. In order to shift successfully, I need to initiate a preparatory motion in my body and in my arm well before the shift actually occurs. The time between the first preparatory motion and the shift can be as much as one second. When playing a series of fast notes, I have to start preparing for the shift several notes prior to when it occurs, not just the note before. A common mistake is that students practice shifts in fast passages by endlessly repeating only the note prior to and after the shift. This is a waste of time. Success or failure is decided much earlier. One must practice the shift by playing the entire series of notes involved in the shift preparation.
TJ: How does one prepare for a shift?
GM: Let me start with an analogy. When you throw a ball, you don’t hold the ball beside your head and suddenly jerk your arm forward. This is very unhealthy since you are trying to force a large mass (your arm) from being in a state of rest to a state of great speed in an incredibly short time, which can cause unhealthy tension if not injury. Instead, you pull the arm and shoulder back and then throw the ball.
A similar thing should occur in shifting. When you shift up, you should first dip the elbow while pulling it and the shoulder back. Then you roll your elbow forward (clockwise) as you move up the fingerboard. This preliminary action puts the mass in motion prior to the actual shift, as well as helps with your accuracy, since the motion is under much less tension. On the backward shift, you should first dip your elbow and roll it and your shoulder back (counter-clockwise). Important: As you arrive on the target note, lift the elbow again a little bit in order to assure sufficient pressure on the target note. This is for both sliding directions.
TJ: Do you have any tips for playing the E-flat Bach Suite without getting tired? All that extended position can be tiring.
GM: I use fingerings that minimize the use of extended position. I also make sure that my fingers don’t hover over their notes, particularly when extended position is required. I move each finger to its note at the last instant and release the finger on the previous tone immediately. Any moments of stretching must be minimized. This makes the suite much less tiring. Also, I watch my bow very carefully for optimal speaking of the string. If this is not done, the left hand presses unnecessarily hard to ensure a better speaking. This additional unnecessary pressing occurs completely automatically and unconsciously, making the bow all the more important.
TJ: How do you play fast separate notes for an extended period of time without your right shoulder fatiguing? The second movement of the Elgar Concerto is an example of this.
GM: If you simply bow fast notes with a straight bow, your shoulder will tire quickly, since it is trying to quickly shift the large mass of your arm back and forth. The shoulder is not designed to do this, so it fatigues after only a few bars. If, on the downbow, I bow such that the frog is pointed towards the floor, and, on the upbow, I bow such that the tip is pointed towards the floor, the elbow joint does the work instead of the shoulder. The elbow, in addition, automatically goes forward a little bit on the downbow and back a little bit on the upbow. By using the elbow much less mass is being moved, which requires much less energy, thus saving the shoulder. The following diagram from my new book depicts this bow stroke:
TJ: You’ve implied several times in our conversation that tension is not necessarily a bad thing. “Tension” has become a dirty word in music, like “pressure.”
GM: Unrelenting tension is always harmful, but ever-changing tension is fine, which comes from and leads to maintaining your mobility. There should be a constant interplay between tension and relaxation, like I described with the whole bow stroke. Though I haven’t measured it, I would guess that there is as much as a 10-to-1 ratio between the tension of the hand when playing at the tip and when playing at the frog. The key is to never stop moving, since movement in itself will release tension. For example, if you want to enter into a pianissimo tone ever so smoothly, slowly shake your head a little bit. This movement completely relaxes and sensitizes the neck and shoulder musculature, allowing a much finer feeling for such a tone entrance.
On the other hand, occasional intentional tension may be helpful for character. If you want to play rhythmically precise notes in a middle speed range of martellato, like in the beginning of the Allemande of the Third Bach Suite (see below), you will find it helpful to add a little extra tension in your right upper arm.
This kind of tension can be created and, even more importantly, released in a split-second. In the Allemande, the three upbeat sixteenth notes would have this arm tension, while the note on the first beat would not. As is illustrated in this example, and in my new book, all this detailed technical discussion is meant to give the readers more musical possibilities.