The calendar flipped to the month of Spring a few days ago. Today I was out walking the dogs down the still frozen dirt road, still frozen and icy dirt road. As I trudged uphill I could hear the chickadees chattering in the bare trees- flitting back and forth to my neighbor’s feeder then tucking themselves into the conifers to sit, split seeds and watch over the dogs carefully. It was the only sign of spring visible as I neared the crest of the road and the northern wind found me. My being without a hat, a nod to “spring”, frozen ears, a nod to winter.
I’d spent some of my morning in conversation with a string-player friend who was struggling with tendinitis, a common injury among us. It is an ailment that can be brought on/aggravated by frequent use or, especially in early players, by working too hard.
What is infrequent is the number of times you’ll hear an instructor tell you not to work too hard. However, at the very center of playing a stringed instrument is the question, “how much muscle is too much?” This issue comes up the first time you put a cello (let’s say) into your hands. Once you have been green lighted for using a bow vs pizzicato, there is the great temptation to play twenty three out of twenty four hours a day. You run to your instrument first thing in the morning, play for a while, get up, do some work, walk past the cello and suddenly you are seduced by all of that beautiful flame...so you sit down, play again for a bit...but, because you are new at holding the bow (not like your fork, your pen, your paintbrush, screwdriver, steering wheel….) your hand decides the only way to make this thing do what you want is to grab it but good, herein after known as the “club grip.” That grip, in itself, causes tension on your elbow because of the position it bends your wrist into. So, using that incorrect club grip twenty three out of twenty four hours per days adds up to that elbow seeing a lot of unwarranted action. You find that while writing a check, the simple act of using the pen causes you pain as if writing the check itself is not pain enough it seems.
Your instructor continues to have you hover your right hand over the bow, take a deep, cleansing breath and, very zen-like, release the hand down onto the bow then slide it into the long-explained (herein after known as hated) position. Watching yourself in a mirror, every time you see your hand sneak back into the more comfortable, easy and incorrect position...you stop that sweet business and begin again.
And you progress.
Now you are able to use your bow regularly with the correct grip. You work, feed your family and get dressed as well as play the cello. You begin to play pieces and find that once in a while you recognize them as such. However, in that same practice mirror, the Evil Queen looks back at you as you play and chastises “That right elbow IS always bent….you DO look like a pirate hoisting a mug!” “There is so much going on,” you retort, “sixteenth notes, dotted rhythms, staccato, legato- who can open their elbow while bowing at the same time as trying to read that micro-printed music?” So your brain focuses so hard on reading and your still pirate-y right arm reacts by mirroring that effort- pushing even harder to hoist that mug.
The next day you find that trying to lift your dog into the bathtub, because of the freakishly early mud season in February, is not only painful in your elbow but now your shoulder is belly-aching as well.
Time off the instrument takes heat off the joints...for a while.
And you progress.
After a long period of studying you find that you are able to use your bow with much greater relaxation. There is even a glimmer of flex in your right wrist. This all works very well as long as you are playing pieces that are familiar or well within your ability range. But the mountain of progress only goes in one direction...up. New pieces with new challenges are placed on your music stand. You find that you have to use crampons to climb this mountain. Your instructor notices that both right and left hands are, indeed, working in tandem...working together at literally pushing this boulder up the mountain! You give a little “oomph” of effort while putting down the notes with your left hand and a little “arrrgh” of effort as you push the bow up. (Casals did it, right?)
Your instructor notes that it is winter and the strings are actually almost touching the fingerboard...can it really take that much effort to put them down.
The effort...the effort. It seems that in almost every other endeavor extra effort is rewarded. In bike racing it is what wins the Tour De France.
In playing the cello, I like to call muscling the “anti-cello.” The still fascinating thing to me is what that requires of us. Recently music that I was working up for a performance had some super fast runs that were apparently written for a player with bionic fingers...but I persevered. I practiced them slowly, I broke the runs apart, I named the notes and intervals in my mind and I swore. At the end of my practice sessions I noticed my right elbow was cranky and it struck me; the exertion of my brain was directly proportionate to the exertion in my right arm/hand. When I sat down again I took a moment to focus my brain, to let the notes come to me slowly, no matter how fast I was playing and I took note that the bow had begun to drop into my hand vs my trying to manipulate it. Suddenly things were much easier to manage.
Part of learning to play this instrument, perhaps all instruments, is learning to center ourselves. Performance, especially, requires us to be still within ourselves in the midst of chaos. Our brains have to delegate responsibility to our right and left hands and then leave them alone, trusting that they can do the job without too much interference. After all, isn't delegation at the very heart of all success?