The Russian musician and Hochschule für Musik und Theater, Hannover professor describes how he trains himself to transcend the physical restraints of playing


There are many schools of thought about every technical aspect of playing: posture, positioning, bow grip, shifting, vibrato and so on. But over and above these issues, my main objective is to achieve complete detachment from the many muscular and mental functions required of a cellist during a performance. In other words, I want to make the playing so physically natural that the conscious mind doesn't have to be involved in any way. Of course, this kind of reflex action is impossible without correct balance and a very solid technique.

Let us analyse the way we learn a new piece. First we must understand the structure. Our eyes see notes and our ears hear the music. Next we want to recognise the 'dance', like ballerinas learn the steps of a choreography. To play music the body needs certain motions that it learns and the brain catalogues. I want to predetermine the slower motions of my body (particularly the elbows) and store the information so I can later recreate it spontaneously without thinking - totally by reflex. I develop a clear set of tasks that I deal with one by one, so that my brain doesn't become too overwhelmed.

The physical side of playing must correspond with the text of the music. Consider the Prelude of Bach's Fourth Suite. The left hand forms chords while the right arm crosses from the C string to the A and back down. In order to make the motions smooth and uninterrupted I first need to know the direction and position of my arms and elbows in each phrase. These movements must be determined before the wrist and finger motions because I am unable to move the larger appendages as fast. I want to see the right arm and elbow lift slowly and come down naturally and logically - not in a zigzag. Without the bow in hand I map out the basic right-arm motions in a general way, following the music. My right arm should feel and memorise the height required to play on each string. (In the case of a piece containing many slurred notes or passages your mind will not be distracted by difficult or intricate bowings and can easily follow the movement of the left hand, therefore working out the right arm movement is not necessary.)

Once I know the general direction and elevation of the elbows I am free to work out the bowings because my elbow will be at the same height whether I slur or play separate bows. The elbow determines where you are, physically, in the phrase. I can play one separate note on a down bow with three slurred on an up, or slur two, four or combinations. Once my body learns the postures I don't even have to think about bowing and can continuously change or even improvise on the spot because my elbow will always know where it is in the music. Particularly in the Bach suites the bowing is the creative part of interpretation.

lntonation is part of this process. If your elbow is in the wrong place it is impossible to play in tune. There are many ways for your left hand to move from the C to the A string, but the elbow has to move ahead of the fingers. If the elbow leads and you have a good hand position, your fingers will automatically fall into the right place.

Let's look at another type of piece like Dance of the Elves by Popper or Rondo Brillant in B minor by Schubert. I practise slowly using long slurs so that I can work out the coordination of the shifts in the left hand with the elbow position of the right arm without having to think about the bow. Everything must remain legato. However, eventually I want to play really fast and therefore, I have to remember what the fingers are doing and store that information efficiently. When playing I want it to feel like a slingshot: you hold back the elastic band, feel the tension - then release: your fingers fly. Then there is a gap or slot for my brain to catch up and think ahead again.

A somewhat analogous situation is finding a way to perform continuous sautillé. I do not play every note the same length - some notes at the end of a group are shorter. I call this bursting sautillé. The stroke is so fast that the audience cannot hear that some notes are shorter. This gives me a chance to rest. If your hand works continuously with many repetitive motions it will become very tired. Make sure the elbow is in the correct position and the bow has good string contact, then make an impulse from the whole arm and relax. This way, through your right hand, like the bouncing of a pingpong ball, you can create a burst or ricochet stroke. Remember to aim for a fluid, circular motion.

Now we must decide on blocks or sections to learn. To find the end of a group look for a change of pattern: a big string crossing or a large shift. The tricky part is establishing where to put a gap before creating a new pattern for the body to learn. Physical movements - not the music - define the series or bursts. Your body asks for a break and then you can go again. When you play slowly listen to your body - it will know how to move more

naturally. When the divisions are worked out and the entire structure is formed, then the gaps are tightened and brought closer together. My final objective is that the cello playing will look so good and natural that no one will notice it including myself - it becomes irrelevant.

The Russian cellist Daniil Shafran was totally unconscious of the cello. I saw him in rehearsal playing the most devilishly difficult music and talking at the same time! He no longer had to control his body. He was free to sense real, powerful emotion not just text. When your mind is liberated you can become creative. You can begin thinking of more expressive musical possibilities. Your whole being can open to 'divine' interpretation. I don't believe that I have enough in me to create real 'truth' in interpretation but if I free my mind and body I can hope to be inspired by the actual origins of the music.

Photo: Aidan Woodcock

This article was first published in The Strad's March 2004 issue. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase single issues click here.