And the ear shall lead them

The fingers, I mean.  I haven’t written a cello post for a while, and I’m in a writing mood, so here goes.

You can’t play (well) what you don’t hear in your imagination.

This is probably the single most overlooked fact of string-playing life.  Many teachers don’t talk (enough)about it or hammer it in enough.  Some, it seems, assume that students do hear things.  Maybe those teachers have “great ears” and automatically hear thing themselves.  Some (inexperienced) teachers may not realize how important it is because they haven’t discovered it for themselves.  We might call it the deaf-leading-the-deaf syndrome.

The movements we make on the cello are visible.  The finger tip goes to the right place, and the right note comes out.  So much of teaching focuses on what the student and teacher can see.  Where things go and how to get them there.

A cellist sits in front of you me.  I whisper in her ear.  She plays just one note.

You listen. Was it the right note or a wrong one?  Did she play the note I asked for?

There’s no way for you to know.

We repeat the experiment.  This time, I hum a pitch into your ear before she plays.  I didn’t tell her what to play, I hummed it to her, it turns out.

Now you know if she plays the intended note or not.

You or I sit behind with our cello.  There’s a note, or a series of them on the page.  In high positions.  In, perhaps, a clef we haven’t quite learned to read.

We deduce where our left fingers probably should go.  We put them there.  Something comes out.

Is that really it?

We don’t know, because we don’t know how it is supposed to sound.

As a teacher, I see this a lot.  It shows up often in passages that have chromaticisms (notes outside the key) and modulations (changing keys) and are written in clefs (tenor and treble) and positions (especially higher than fourth) that are unfamiliar to the student.  The fingers may be in the right general vicinity, but a quarter or half or full inch makes a huge difference.  Emphasis on huge.

I used to tell students where to move their fingers.  Now I first make sure they now what it’s supposed to sound like.  It’s quick to diagnose;  just try singing it.  If you can’t, you aren’t hearing it.

What I like to do is to have the student go to the piano, play the notes and sing along, and then go back to the cello.  Most of the time, voila!–it’s cured.  The fingers magically go to the right place.

The ear has led the fingers.  It has taught the hand where to go.

It also works to play it on the cello for the student, but going to the piano is especially useful.  Using it makes clear that it’s an aural thing.  There’s not question that by watching the teacher’s hand, the student has just figured out better where to put hers or his.  It also shows the student that the process can be done without the teacher.

When I was sixteen, I found I played better and more in tune after I’d listened to a recording, especially one by Rostropovich.  It didn’t last all that long, this “Rostropovich effect,” and it puzzled me.  What I understand now is that I was imagining Rostropovich, hearing Rostropovich in my inner ear for a while, and that not only energized me but had me hearing, had my ear guiding my hand.

So that’s my cello advice for today.  Make sure you hear it before you play it.  Cello playing works a lot better when you do.

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2 Comments

Filed under cello playing, inner hearing, intonation, Rostropovich, Uncategorized

2 responses to “And the ear shall lead them

  1. Janis

    We don’t know, because we don’t know how it is supposed to sound.

    Sometimes it’s hard also because the sound we want to hear, the one we can hear in our imagination, is drowned out by whatever squawk we’re making. The latter shouts down the former. It’s hard to listen to two things at once, and that’s basically what a musician has to do. I’ve been one since I was a little kid (piano), and it’s STILL hard for me. I’ve gotten better at it, but it doesn’t seem to be the way my head swings naturally.

    It’s part of what makes improv hard for me and writing easier. Writing means stopping and listening to what my imagination is doing, and putting it in short term memory. I then turn OFF that internal noise and can pay attention to the real noise that the piano is making. I only have to listen to one thing at a time. Real-time improv is hard because, to me, it feels like I’m trying to listen to two things at once: the sound I’m imagining, and the real sound I’m making.

  2. Daniel Levitin, in Your Mind on Music, talks about this in some depth. In one research study he sites, subjects were asked to sing the first note of a very familiar musical phrase and almost everyone, including people who didn’t play any instrument or even sing well, got the intonation correct. The practical application you use is a good example of that. Improvisation has always been difficult for me for me for a lot of reasons. I find that singing improv in my head makes it easier. It’s a of rehearsal of sorts.

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