My Thoughts on Teaching

Music Department

Music Events

Willamette University

I started years ago to jot down my thoughts after my colleagues encouraged me to recount my experiences of many years of exceptional tuition as well as my own experiences as a performer and teacher over the last two decades. Here I would like to share my thoughts with my fellow young and not-so-young colleagues. I like to describe teaching as analogous to writing a cookbook -- the more one cooks, one can improve and refine the recipes, resulting in many feasts. I strongly believe that instrumental teaching has to be specific for each step of the way, not unlike the sciences; otherwise it becomes a form of coaching, and coaching is not teaching.

It is not guaranteed that one can become a great cellist, however, to learn how to play the cello shouldn't be any more difficult than driving a five-speed stick-shift car. In my teaching, my utmost aim is to relate playing technique to daily human gestures. For instance, in order to acquire a natural and free bow-arm, one should simulate holding a piece of cloth as if polishing a tabletop to feel this natural and very familiar movement. The gestures we do repeatedly and unconsciously millions of times in our lives can be easily transferred to the cello playing. Today's world is much smaller and more connected in many ways than fifty years ago due to the invention of the computer and the internet. Unlike thirty years ago, it is almost impossible to pinpoint the different schools of cello playing today (i.e., French, Russian, German); instead, there exists a mélange or a fusion of the different schools. Certainly, each school has its own merits, but also limitations. To only focus on a particular school would narrow our imagination for executing the full potential of this beautiful instrument and its rich repertoire.

Le violon, c'est l'archet - "the violin, it is the bow" declared the 18th century Italian virtuoso Giovanni Battista Viotti. Viotti is considered the founding father of the French violin school, which influenced the great violin "devil," Niccolò Paganini. In my view, the bow is the breath of a string player - the very essence of string playing. The bow is extremely crucial in executing the musical style of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and of those non-Germanic composers such as Debussy and Ravel. The latter two call for very different bowing techniques. A well developed bow-arm in conjunction with expressive vibrato lays the foundation for displaying a wider range of human expressions and creating a subtler palette of timbres in one's playing. The freedom of the bow-arm allows the left hand finger technique to develop, to become more independent and agile.

One should never underestimate the importance of a good bow-hold. My bow-hold is a five-finger hold instead of a three-finger hold, the latter focuses on the index, middle and thumb, releasing the weight off the ring and pinky fingers. The five-finger hold engages all the fingers as if holding someone's arm with the entire hand. With this bow-hold, the thumb does very little to the bow regardless how much sound one wishes to produce. Why shouldn't cellists play like some of the greatest violinists? who focus on the middle finger as the weight-point on the bow consequently reducing great pressure from the index finger and thumb. When the middle finger "takes charge," your entire bow-arm frees up and the bow movement for either direction would also follow through naturally. Try out, squeeze the middle finger when you want to create ff; then move the weight-point to the index finger and do the same thing. One immediately realizes that no matter how hard one squeezes the middle finger, one won't break the sound regardless how loud the dynamic level is; however, on the contrary, squeezing the index finger would result in "killing" the sound and creating discomfort to the hand and the arm.

Remember, you are holding the bow, NOT merely touching the bow with finger tips; having the bow in hand, as if one is holding a tennis racket; the more one feels the bow is "in the hand," the better control one achieves and the more secure one feels.

Over the years, I have gradually realized that the three-finger hold may be a cause of many physical problems for cellists; the index finger and thumb "work" much too hard, combined with a low-elbow creates a disconnect between the upper arm-forearm-hand unit. A poor bow-hold not only prevents the execution of a variety of bowing techniques, but it may also create tendonitis and other sorts of muscle and joint problems. A good bow-hold must be established at the beginning stage of learning. As one's playing develops to a higher level, it is extremely difficult to change one's bow-hold especially among those musically intuitive players since they tend to trust what they hear more than being aware of any physical discomfort.

Leslie Parnas used to ask me when we spoke, "what have you discovered lately?" I ask myself this question often not only in music matters, but also with constant exploration in the realm of playing technique.

This marvelous instrument compels us to forever seek out its infinite beauty and our shortcomings only inspire us to uncover its greater beauty. Practice slowly with utmost care; as Maurice Gendron used to say to me, tout est possible avec beaucoup de patience - all is possible with lots of patience.