Balance in Teaching
My approach to teaching can best be summed up by the word balance. There are several kinds of balancing that come into play as a musician: mental, physical and emotional, as well as balance in repertoire and studies. And in all my teaching - orchestral, chamber music and cello - I aim to inspire students to be well-educated musicians and well-rounded humans, with curiosity about all aspects of music.
Much in the same way that we are exhorted to eat a diet with choices from each food group, a cellist needs to work from a well-balanced menu. I believe in a cello diet which includes scale studies of increasing difficulty, method books for fundamental hand and arm set-up, etudes from different time periods to incorporate stylistic variants, and supplemental exercises to target problem areas. I have never met a cellist, including myself, who “doesn’t need” to practice scales and etudes – these are the backbone of our technique, and they enable us to be fleet-fingered and to learn repertoire quickly. I see my role as a guide through the maze of technique, and my goal is to give my students the tools they need so that they can effectively teach themselves.
One of the most important aspects of playing any instrument is to have one’s body in balance. The force required to play an instrument as large as the cello can leave a student with tension problems and injury if they push their arms and hands in a stressful fashion. My playing and teaching is based on the concept of releasing weight and using large muscles to produce maximum gain for minimum input. For instance, changing the angle of the finger in the vibrato can make the tone open up and literally be louder. Motion is an important aspect of balancing the body – all parts of the body need to move and shift, sometimes from note to note, to create the proper weight balances. I find that it’s often the more advanced students who benefit the most from understanding how to find balance in their own bodies. I like to work with supplemental exercises off the instrument to help the body learn fine details of motion.
Ideally, professionals and students should perform as varied and balanced a repertoire as possible, and I had the good fortune in my own training to study with both expert Baroque practitioners and cutting-edge avant garde performers. During two decades of performing with the Colorado Quartet, I spent a lot of time analyzing and thinking about sounds and bow strokes in regard to stylistic appropriateness for different time periods. It’s important to help students find a color palette for each composer and era, and the tools they need to build this palette come to them through bow and left hand technique, in addition to knowledge of traditions and performance practice. I convey to my students a sense of stylistic balance in their repertoire so that they can develop confidence in their own abilities to make good musical choices.
Finally, there’s the balance of knowing my students as people – being concerned with their well-being and happiness. While the stereotype of the all-suffering artist still hangs in the air, realistically we know that over-stressed, unhappy students are not usually the best performers. What I love most about teaching is the opportunity to work one-on-one with people of all ages, to act as a mentor for them as is appropriate, to have fun with them and to be a resource when they need help with real-life issues. My favorite kind of student is actually not the super-talented, extremely advanced performer, but rather the questioning student who needs new ways of looking at technical and musical challenges. Ultimately, student and teacher have a very special connection as they create music together, fulfilling their own dreams and bringing emotion and beauty to those around them.