The Well-Tempered Cellist

by Selma Gokcen

Temper (v.): To have or get a proper or desired state or quality; To mingle in due proportion

"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." -- Muhammad Ali

To play an instrument is to open the door to a thousand questions. If you are a cellist of any persuasion reading this now, chances are you have wrestled with many of them at the cello, either in your own lessons or with your pupils. One of the tough questions that 'won't go away' undoubtedly concerns the degree of effort required to do what we do. How much is too much, how much is not enough?

One could walk the earth, consult the sages, and come away no wiser.

In ancient China and India, it was well understood that the study of a musical instrument is a means to unlock the mind and soul of the player. To learn to 'turn this key' is to enter a state of grace. No pushing, striving, or fighting is of use and the amount of effort exerted is in inverse proportion to the result gained. Here is a story I sometimes share with my students:

A young boy traveled across Japan to the school of a great and famous swordsman. When he arrived at the school he was given an audience with the founder, who was impressed that this young boy had made such a long journey.

� 'What do you want from me?' the master asked.

� 'I wish to be your student and become the finest swordsman in the land,' the boy replied. 'How long must I study?'

� 'Ten years at least,' the master answered.

� 'Ten years is a long time. What if I studied twice as hard as all your other students?'

� 'Twenty years,' replied the master.

� 'Twenty years! What if I practiced unrelentingly, day and night with all my effort?'

� 'Thirty years,' replied the master.

� 'How is it that each time I say I will work harder you tell me that it will take longer?' the student asked, quite confused by now.

� 'The answer is clear,' said the master.

� 'When there is one eye fixed upon your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the way.'

� Cellists are a rare and lucky breed of performing musicians. We sit to embrace our instrument, we can play any pitch that lies within the range of the human voice and then some, and we can alternate between bass line and melody with ease.

We are the foundation of the string quartet and the orchestra. We could be said to be sitting pretty compared to our violin, oboe, and bass playing colleagues. Not much contortion, if any, is required to play the cello.

So how is it that we go wrong? What conspires to produce tension and strain, and makes for the comparatively rare phenomenon of a fluent, seemingly effortless and yet powerful player?

It wasn't until I encountered a discipline called the Alexander Technique that some answers to these questions became apparent.

The clues lie in the fundamental principle of the Technique, which its founder, F.M. Alexander, called the 'Use of the Self.' One of my teachers once referred to this technique as 'Zen for the Western mind' and as a trained practitioner of this method, I am beginning to understand what he meant. The Alexander Technique resembles the Eastern way of learning: the indirect approach, learning what not to do, what interferes and is therefore not needed or wanted.

The underlying assumption is that we cannot know the right way, but we can learn to recognize the wrong thing and prevent this from happening. For students of music, of course, this philosophy runs counter to our education, which is geared to achieving a precise result by doing something again and again until we get it.

The Alexander Technique is, however, very precise in its application of the principles governing the Use of the Self. There is a rhythm and a rhyme to it all, which I shall set forth here. And the sum of it opens the way for the tempering of the musician in the complete sense of the word-- in movement and in music.

The Primary Control

The primary aspect of the Use of the Self concerns the relationship of the head to the neck and spine: the head-neck-back relationship which is the key to proper coordination of all creatures with a spine. Alexander called it the Primary Control. To allow for the balance of the head atop the spine without tightening the neck brings about the right relation of the head to the back. A common habit of cellists is to pull the head forward and down to look at the fingers, or back and down into the spine to look heavenward for inspiration. Both gestures act as a brake on the energy flow from the spine to the fingers.

Tight necks make for tight arms, wrists and fingers. Tension builds up successively, sometimes painfully. The point of origin of this tension can be traced to the pulling down of the head into the spine. All efforts to deal with this tension locally will fail if this primary relationship is not addressed. The important point to be made here is that unless there is organic damage, the primary control functions naturally in all of us. There is no need to learn to use it; we only need to learn how not to interfere with it. Take a look at films of Casals, Feuermann and Fournier to witness the balancing of the head working for rather than against the performer. Keeping one�s head rather than losing it�the choice is yours.

Pierre Fournier


Alexander termed 'inhibition', or 'non-doing', the ability to refrain from doing something, and he called it the cornerstone of his Technique. To become quiet and to let the natural coordination of the Self come into play. To allow and to let be. Non-doing is a difficult concept to grasp for musicians who are highly trained, like marksmen, to hit a constantly moving target.

Inhibition is a natural function of the human (and animal) nervous system and is the most important function for musicians to understand. Why? Because it is axiomatic that harmonious movement originates in stillness. The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu says that all movement arises from stillness and returns to stillness. (As an analogy, this quote by Mozart: "The silence between the notes is as important as the notes themselves.") To begin from a place of quiet means that the impulse to move is not laden with unnecessary effort. Inhibition takes practice, a bringing of the mind to stillness. As my students often say, it is not easy to do nothing. The habit of doing is deeply ingrained in us. The humility and the grace which the practice of inhibition yields in the long term allows us to hear the music behind the notes.


Direction is a term describing the impulses which inform movement and which activate the Primary Control. (Inhibition and Direction form two sides of the same coin.) Alexander found that by sending thoughts, or 'mental orders', as he described them, he could assure that the Primary Control would not be interfered with as he initiated a movement. The orders are: to let the neck be free, to let the head go forward and up, to let the spine lengthen and the back widen, and the knees to go forward and away. To learn to inhibit and direct is, in Alexander's words, to 'quicken the conscious mind' ---to acquire the power of consciousness. In time, to become aware of the internal direction in movement, to learn to 'go up' is also what the study of Zen cultivates, and here the Alexander Technique shares a place in the elevation of consciousness. The implications for musicians are immense, as the great composers understood music as a bridge between the human and the divine. Going Up is where the music is.


The correct opposition of forces brings about balance. This is a fundamental principle of mechanics and one which is of primary concern to all musicians. To understand first of all how the principle works in us, without the instrument, is the starting point with my students: the head is forward and up against the back which remains back and up, the hips stay back to allow the knees to go forward and away. These oppositions allow a force to come into play which is effortless, and which permits the efficient application of the bow against the string, the left hand against the fingerboard. The back is often mentioned in articles and books as the source of power, but what is rarely acknowledged is the relationship between the head, neck and back, which is the key to a well-functioning back.

In short, the whole body fulfils its potential to move without strain when the oppositions are brought into play. This is a simple principle but not easy to put into practice. Alexander often said that life takes us forward and down at every moment. To learn to stay back and up in daily life, let alone while playing the Dvorak Concerto, is an enormous challenge. The regular practice of certain exercises which embody the principle of opposition is a feature of my work with students. They learn over time to use their arms out and away from the back, which remains stable, and to allow the back to provide the strength for the fingers, instead of the all- too- common contractions in the arms which tighten the fingers.

The Breath

Heavy breathing is an affliction of many cellists. There was an internet posting a few years ago amongst listeners of the BBC about why cellists breathe so heavily. "Just want to know though, why one of the players kept breathing so heavy whilst playing, it sounded like...well... you know how it sounded. Does it really take so much physical exertion to play the cello?"

That's up to us.

The breath comes in of its own accord where devils don't tread. Who are the devils? A stiffened neck, a head that pulls back and down, a spine that collapses or a back that narrows and tightens. If the Primary Control is allowed to function without interference, the breath will enter and leave the body freely. No effort need be made to take or expel breath. That is how we are made.

Faulty Sensory Awareness

There is a dragon in this story of becoming a conscious hero/heroine. And that dragon lies within us. It is our penchant for trying to feel out what is right when learning something new. You may be well aware of how difficult it is to change a habit. You can be shown what to do and how to do it, or you can demonstrate clearly to a pupil, and yet, when the time comes to play, that much desired change slips away. The old pattern, unwanted though it is, feels more familiar and is much stronger than our best intentions to allow for the new movement.

Alexander came up against the force of habit through this very aspect of himself-- his own unreliable sensory awareness. In learning to inhibit and direct, what he thought and felt he was doing to change his use was exactly the opposite of what was happening. The new, by its very nature, is unknown and unfamiliar, so to learn something new by trying to feel the right thing is a complete contradiction in terms. We have to suspend reliance on ourselves in this manner and allow for the new experience, guided by our reasoning. This is the rock upon which the Sirens undo us all. We musicians have such a powerful inner connection to the sound we produce and its accompanying familiar sensations, to the emotions we express through the musical text, to the very idea of self-expression. If one's use is positive in this regard, so much the better. If not, then the undoing of the mis-use can entail a complete re-evaluation of what it means to speak the music, to make a sound, to communicate in one's own voice. Such an undertaking can be earth-shaking, and it is entirely up to the musician to give consent to a re-evaluation of a technique and an aesthetic that has already taken years to consolidate. Some will do so, if it means in the end discovering their authentic voice. Some will not, because the journey can be too long and too arduous.

Inner Pitch

Just as string players cultivate good relative pitch with respect to their instrument, so can they in time become sensitive to the overdoing which gets in the way of making music. Alexander often spoke of the 'due and proper amount of tension' in movement. How do we know what this is? We cannot know it directly, he tells us. We can only come to know when we are exerting too much effort and let go of it. And how do we cultivate this inner sense of effortlessness? By taking care not to interfere with the head-neck-back relationship, which takes us up against gravity. We can return all the time to quiet and allow for lengthening rather than contraction through the spine. 'Stay back and aim up,' one of my teachers always says to me. 'Wait, take your time, and allow for the thinking.'

There are two aspects to movement. The external movement in space (moving the bow across the string, for example) and the internal movement which takes place within it. The internal movement is one of lengthening in the spine and opening out and up against gravity. This sense of 'inner pitch', the sense of flow when all is working well and we are in tune and in harmony with ourselves, can, with practice, become as acute as good intonation at the cello.


Cellists depend on their feet to move well at the instrument. Percival Hodgson says in his book, Motion Study and Violin Bowing, that the foundation for correct arm movement is the transfer of weight from foot to foot. To learn to ground ourselves by allowing for the downward force of gravity and the opposing upward flow in the spine is to dance. The Alexander Technique cultivates a well-grounded sense of self through the practice of inhibition and direction. It takes years of work to deepen the sense of one's place on this earth and the consequent respect for the place of others.

All great musicians make music that dances�Casals and Louis Armstrong are soul buddies of the dance, Casals in Bach and Armstrong in jazz. They take the ground as their starting point. The dance is losing its power in modern players of the cello. Janos Starker said years ago that too many downbeats spoil the music. And that's what happens when the downward force predominates in the body. We lose the ability to take our listeners up.


Ultimately the Alexander Technique cultivates the power of attention. My teacher often spoke of the 'psychic muscle', the faculty by means of which we can pay attention. And it is so weak in most of us, divested of its force by unnecessary tension in our movement. Listening is impeded by tension. Our eyes are glued to our fingers and our ears are closed off in an effort to accomplish what we want to say on the cello. To separate what is wanted from what is not is a long process that begins with inhibition, direction, and an opening of the eyes onto the world, away from the instrument and ourselves. Eventually the power of attention brings us into a state where the inward intention and the outward expression are one: we can play the music as we hear it.

In closing, I would like to say that the words are not the thing itself. I have attempted to describe a process which takes place within the Self and which, in truth, is wordless. Perhaps musicians are best placed to understand that the notes are not the music, they are a gateway into the music. And so it is with the Alexander Technique, a gateway into the Self.

In describing what musicians can aim for, Heifetz said it in another way: "One does not need to be educated musically. We simply need to guard against mis-education. Our own ears, unless they have grown so used to mediocrity that they lose their keenness, will do the rest of the job for us."

Selma Gokcen resides in London where she teaches cello and the Alexander Technique at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. For further information, please contact:

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