Selma

Power is Energy, Unblocked and Properly Directed — by Selma Gokcen

"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. [...]

Hit or Miss — by Selma Gokcen

"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 [...]

Questions — by Selma Gokcen

"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 [...]

Holding On for Dear Life — by Selma Gokcen

"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.  [...]

Blog #18: Stability and Mobility — by Selma Gokcen

"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 [...]

About Thumbs — by Selma Gokcen

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 [...]

Breathing Free — by Selma Gokcen

"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 [...]

THINKING IN A NEW WAY—Overcoming Habits (Part 6 of 6): Putting it All Together — by Selma Gokcen

"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 [...]

THINKING IN A NEW WAY—Overcoming Habits (Part 5 of 6): Fleet Fingers — by Selma Gokcen

"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 [...]

THINKING IN A NEW WAY—Overcoming Habits (Part 4 of 6): The Arm Becomes the Bow — by Selma Gokcen

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 [...]

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 [...]

THINKING IN A NEW WAY—Overcoming Habits (Part 1 of 6): The Value of Quietness — by Selma Gokcen

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. [...]

The Process of Unlearning Habits — by Selma Gokcen

“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 [...]

The Force of Habit — by Selma Gokcen

“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 [...]

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