Some reflections on the words we habitually use, what images those words create in our mind and how those images influence our playing. Sometimes helpful, sometimes not…
We do not call the elbow – the joint that connects the upper and the fore-arm – a ‘forearm hold’ and yet we do not hesitate in calling the right hand – the part of the body that connects our forearm and our bow (the third limb of our arm in string playing)- a ‘bow hold’. As I reflect on the word ‘hold’, it occurs to me that we also say ‘hold’ another’s hand, or ‘hold’ someone in our heart. So, what are we actually saying to ourselves when we use the word ‘bow-hold’? For some the word ‘hold’ means to grip (indeed many still call it a bow grip). It might mean to hold back or away, hold tight lest one might lose.
What messages are we giving to our body when we speak? And, as teachers, what messages are we giving to our students?
There are all sorts of other words we use, or ways in which we use words, that can confuse us. Take ‘shifting up’ or ‘shifting down’, for example. On the cello, the image of shifting ‘up’ when we are moving ‘down’ in space can create a blockage, an unwanted hesitation or undesired rush. When we shift ‘up’ we are, of course, dealing with going ‘up’ or climbing in pitch whilst at the same time going ‘down’ or falling in physical space. So, we need to clear in our minds about whether we are ‘reaching’ or ‘releasing’ up in pitch (influenced not just by melody but by harmony and rhythm). If we are ‘reaching’ up in pitch, we may need to create some resistance to the fall down in space, and if we are ‘releasing’ up we can make that fall without resistance.
Other messages that may influence the way we play can be contained in such ‘positive’ commands as ‘sit straight’ (when the spine needs to be curved and flexible), ‘feet flat on the floor’ (when the feet need, whilst being in contact with the floor, to have a delicious spring in their arch) or ‘straight bow’ (when the bow is naturally curved, as is the string and the swing of the arm). ‘High’ and ‘low’ positions are confusing for the same reason as shifting up or down is, and ‘lift’ and ‘press’ can both invite unnecessary muscle use when we could be enjoying the freedom of gravity and it’s natural rebound.
Some terms we habitually use may seem completely random to us and as a result our own interpretation of them may or may not be helpful. An example of this is ‘up bow’ and ‘down bow’. The origin of the down and up bow signs is actually the 17th century composer Georg Moffat’s ‘n’ for nobilis (good or strong) and ‘v’ for vilis (bad or weak). (No judgement here, of course…) However, the words ‘down’ and ‘up’ make sense to us on some level in terms of dance steps where one sinks ‘down’ into a main note and releases ‘up’ onto the weak one. The natural swing, or ‘inégalité’ that results lives on not just in baroque music but in jazz and many folk traditions, and is gravity and rebound working for us. However, it is not necessarily the image we want for all the music we play, and our obsession with ‘down bows on all main notes’, especially when the notes in question are stressed (melodically, harmonically or rhythmically important) ‘weak’ (second of four beats for example) notes which would be glorious on a weighted up-bow, at the top of an in-breath, with the rib cage full of air and the arms open like wings. Some prefer the French terms tirer and pousser (pull and push). They certainly add another dimension. I like to think of inhale and exhale, ebb and flow on occasion….
And then there are the terms that make so much sense but that have come to mean something other through use and association. ‘Bow stroke’ is such a term. When I think of ‘bow stroke’ what associations to I have? What messages am I giving my body? If a student asks me what bow stroke to use, I think of ricochet, spiccato, détaché, up-bow staccato…my body tenses with thoughts of all the techniques I haven’t yet mastered. And yet here I sit, ‘stroking’ my beloved cat, and I am reminded of the absolute beauty of this word in terms of bowing. My hand glides into and moves through the fur, feeling the resistance of the texture, the contours of the body, the pulse and the aliveness of the animal. My eyes take in the colour. My fingers are soft, transmitters and receivers of information and feeling. As I reach the end of the animal’s body my arm, in a movement that initiates in my torso and indeed my heart, swoops up in a backward arc and plunges back into the fur with all the momentum it has gained in the air…..
Up-stroke, down-stroke? Perhaps it is time to re-examine, refresh, and in some places even re-invent our technical vocabulary.
The wall between stage and pit is just one of those that can exist between people, even playing the same music in the same place at the same time. However, thanks to Covid 19, a chink appeared in that wall last night, and through it the twain did most certainly meet.
In the recent and fascinating discussion on the benefits of yoga for musicians on The Exhale, someone asked the question ‘What about Pilates for strengthening the core?’ and, in his answer, my wise yoga teacher, Peter Blackaby, confirmed my hunch that isolating any muscle group or body part, even ‘the core’, to make a movement is counter-productive to flow and energy.
“I knew there was no way I could practice the amount I needed and not just completely destroy my body. I wondered how other people did it. It never occurred to me in college that it was something I could learn”