The most perfect technique is that which is not noticed at all — Pablo Casals
The most perfect technique is that which is not noticed at all — Pablo Casals
“a really fine technique...involves relaxation and free breathing. I wish that more musical training started from those precepts.”– Steven Isserlis
The breathing bow was originally an article written for The Strad magazine in 2002. What started out then as a series of bowing and breathing exercises I have since developed into an holistic approach to playing the cello that helps transform tension into flow, and stage fright into stage presence.
Drawing not only on my experience as a professional cellist but also on my knowledge of yoga, mindfulness and meditation, and my interest in world music, I aim to help players discover:
Above all, I hope to provide students with tools that promote enjoyable and economical practice that, by unifying musical and technical gesture, lead to a direct expression of the music they wish to share.
“Music is the divine way to tell beautiful, poetic things to the heart.”– Pablo Casals
T he seed for the breathing bow was planted at the International Musicians’ Seminar at Prussia Cove. I was sixteen and sitting on a ragged couch looking out at an even more ragged Cornish coast. At the bottom of the ‘Great Room’ a Japanese student quivered beneath the misshapen and many-chinned hulk of the Hungarian violinist, Sandor Vegh.
“Look the waves” Vegh said, thrusting his finger towards the window out of which I was gazing.
The student continued to draw her bow in tidy straight lines across the string.
Vegh interrupted her once more. “Curved. Look your bow. Curved. Look the phrase. Curved. Everything in nature is curved” (He actually said carved, which has its own poetry, but he meant curved.)
When I look back I believe that was the moment I began my personal (and indeed curved) journey towards understanding that breath, music, movement and nature are all connected. Along the way I have embraced many disciplines, musics and philosophies such as meditation, Yoga, Alexander Technique, Voice Movement Therapy, Indian singing and African drumming.
I have had the immense privilege to work with extraordinary teachers in my life such as Sandor Vegh, Jane Cowan, Johannes Goritzki, Sascha Schneider, Timothy Eddy and Steven Isserlis, and I always come back to the breath, to the waves, to Vegh, and indeed to his friend and inspiration, and the grand-teacher of so many of us, Pablo Casals. I hope that, through The Breathing Bow and my commitment to an organic approach to the instrument, I am honouring Casals’ perfect technique. Such a technique is not something to show off. Rather, as our legs swing, release, transfer weight, spring, move from our core and flow perfectly when we walk, so can our whole bodies move unremarkably and perfectly when we play. If they do, we can begin to tell beautiful, poetic things to the heart.
January 21 2018, London. — Workshop with Ruth Phillips and Dale Culliford. The Breathing Body, The Breathing Bow
F rom my home in Provence, at the foot of the Mont Ventoux, I offer tailor-made cello workshops for people of all ages and abilities who want to feel better playing the cello. Everyone is welcome. Beginners can avoid future strain by starting to play in a way that is tension free. Amateurs can take some of the tension out of what they love to do to relax. Students can prepare for exams in a calm state of mind and body, and professionals can take a step back from the stress of their concert schedule to challenge and even change deeply entrenched habits, rediscovering the joy of playing the cello and making music.
During a cello intensive, players can receive up to four hours’ coaching a day. Follow up lessons are available on Skype.
Self-catering accommodation is in our charming three-bedroomed house in the neighbouring hamlet of Les Baux, 5 mins walk from our home. Players are welcome to come with other cellists, a chamber group or with non-playing friends or family.
Other pleasures include exploring the markets, villages, cafés, vineyards and countryside of the Vaucluse. For cycling enthusiasts, bicycles can be hired and for wine lovers, tours of the Côtes du Rhône wineries can be arranged. Walkers just have to open the door…
Imagine a meditation given by a world class cellist. She helped me get out of my head and reconnect with my body like no one has before. Keenly perceptive, Ruth is a consummate coach. She doesn't impose her interpretation or even her method. She simply takes what you've got and makes it much, much better.” —Robert Howard, San Fransisco
Ruth Phillips concentrates on simplicity of movement and making every physical gesture as natural as possible. This is complimented by her use of meditation and breathing techniques. With her I was able to strip away tensions and anxieties in order to simply communicate and enjoy performing music.” —Elizabeth Hanks, Sheffield.
Ruth is a superb coach. She helped me recognize that by allowing both myself and the music to breathe, I could draw the audience in instead of choking them with my effort. Having eliminated the excess tension and stress from playing the cello, not only do I find that my playing is much more inviting, but that practice has become therapeutic and something to which I now look forward.” — Harry Doernberg, Yale University
The hours spent together working, listening and reflecting in Ruth's house in a charming Provencal hamlet were truly magical. She is warm and generous and made me feel confident, secure and at ease immediately.”—Samar Haidar, Interpreter.
Like yoga for cellists! Ruth has a holistic approach to cello playing. Her interest in spirituality is apparent in her teaching and in the beautifully relaxed way that she plays.” —Sophie Pearson, lawyer, London
The week I spent working with Ruth in France was invaluable for a number of reasons. Surrounded by the stunningly beautiful Provençal countryside—restorative in itself—we covered many different aspects of cello playing: Connecting the breath with the bow, translating everyday movements into cello playing, rediscovering phrasing as a combination of tension and release, and the process of how to practise. I cannot recommend this course highly enough. Cellists of any age and ability would, I am positive, have a huge amount to learn and enjoy.” — Rebecca Herman, London
I tend to hold my breath when I play, and often feel I have to ‘slay a dragon’ to get myself on stage. I met with Ruth for a session in New York. I was so blessed by her generous and relaxed, organic approach to playing the cello and within a week of our session I was publicly speaking to a large group with little effort, and playing for people with negligible anxiety. I highly recommend her work to anyone wishing to do the same.” — Annie Camp, Atlanta
Like a sprinter needs to have a ‘relaxed effort’ to produce a good performance, the psychological and physiological aspects of learning are closely related in Ruth’s approach and her great personality is a source of motivation.” —Louis Barruol, wine maker, Chateau St Cosme, France
Ruth literally embraces the cello as if it were an extension of her own body, constantly working with it to create an atmosphere of enlightenment and artistic satisfaction. She is an inspiration and a true artist.” — Daniel Keane, London
Ruth Phillips... has been through a deep personal journey into the nature of the psychology—one might say spirituality—of performance. As a result of this journey with her students and her study of Indian and other musical disciplines she now has a highly valuable lesson to offer to all who approach her; a lesson much needed in the current climate, and to my knowledge, a unique one." ” — Jonathan Harvey
R uth was Born in London in 1964. With her father a painter, and her mother a music teacher and author, Ruth grew up in a Bohemian household surrounded by artists, musicians and writers from all over the world.
At the age of sixteen Ruth left the Yehudi Menuhin School to study in Dusseldorf with Johannes Goritzki whom she had met at the International Musicians’ Seminar in Cornwall. Two years later she started her professional life, playing in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. In 1990 Ruth went to America where she continued her studies at the State University of New York with Timothy Eddy. There she received her Masters degree in performance. Upon her return to the UK she became a member of Glyndebourne Touring Opera where she played for twelve years. It was then that she took up the baroque cello, working with The New London Consort, La Serenissima and the Hanover Band. Since moving to France in 2004, Ruth has worked with the Musiciens du Louvre and the Concert d’Astrée, and is associate principal cellist of Opera Fuoco. Ruth continues to play with Garsington Opera.
Ruth has taught at Dartington Summer School, the Guildhall School of Music, European Youth Summer Music, Toulouse Conservatory, Cellos at Belle Serre and Klassik Keyifler. In 2015, with her colleague, cellist and Alexander teacher Dale Culliford, she ran a Breathing Body, Breathing Bow workshop at the Royal Northern College of Music. Ruth also gave a presentation at the European String Teacher’s Conference in Bolton and traveled to New York to be filmed for the upcoming documentary on stage fright, ‘Composed’.
Ruth has a degree in Voice Movement Therapy and has completed a mindfulness course with the Buddhist and mindfulness teacher Tara Brach. She has also written a book, Cherries from Chauvet’s Orchard, which was shortlisted for the Guardian Mslexia women’s memoir competition. She lives with her husband, the painter Julian Merrow-Smith, with whom she runs plein air painting workshops. They have a son, Louis whom they adopted from Mali in 2011, and four cats.