Imaginary lions: how "effort" sabotages cello playing, and how to fix it

By Miranda Wilson


What cellist hasn't been told this?

Frankly, instructing someone to relax is about as effective telling them to "CALM DOWN!"--i.e., practically guaranteed to produce the opposite effect.

Chances are that a tense player wants nothing more than to relax. Intellectually, we all know that tension is "bad," but in the moment, under the stress of performance, our brains go into fight-or-flight mode. Our primal instinct to escape a marauding lion kicks in, and oxygen-rich blood rushes into our larger muscle groups. 

Of course, the lion isn't real, so all the effort we were going to put into wrestling it manifests instead as the cellist's worst enemy: muscular tension. 

What we teach ourselves to do

The central point of my book, Cello Practice, Cello Performance, is that the way we perform directly reflects what we've taught ourselves to do in everyday practice. What would happen if we thought of relaxation as a learnable, practised skill, like double stops or sautillé?

Effort = tension?

Here's the thing about cello: nothing about it is inherently relaxing, because getting good at it requires intense physical, intellectual, and emotional effort. But our bodies typically conflate the concept of "effort" with tension--just observe any small child drawing a picture with her brow furrowed and her tongue clenched between her teeth. If we aren't mindful of our tendency towards tension, it can build up into chronic aches and pains. Pain is just part of life for many musicians, to the point that after a while, they barely even notice it. 

But if we ignore pain for long enough, one way or another, it will catch up with us. The commonest injuries for cellists--back pain, neck pain, chronic headaches, temporomandibular disorders, muscular aches, tendinitis--are the body's way of alerting us to inefficient playing habits.

Pain is not inevitable. If we take the time to build relaxation into cello practice, we can stop "trying" and replace effort with awareness. That means learning to notice what tension itself feels like, so that we can catch ourselves doing it, and redirect our bodies towards relaxation.


A cure for anxiety...and an "off-label" use for it

Long ago, in the 1920s, a physiologist called Dr. Edmund Jacobson invented a practice called Progressive Muscle Relaxation to help patients with anxiety disorders. According to the Mayo Clinic website, here's how it works:

"[S]tart by tensing and relaxing the muscles in your toes and progressively working your way up to your neck and head. You can also start with your head and neck and work down to your toes. Tense your muscles for at least five seconds and then relax for 30 seconds, and repeat."

This technique helps with a lot of things besides anxiety. If you practise it lying down in bed, for example, you're likely to fall asleep quickly.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation for cellists

I've adapted Jacobson's practice for use in a daily fundamentals workout for cellists. It's a fantastic meditation in the awareness of tension and relaxation, and can be used even by beginning players. Here's how:

Set your metronome to around 20-30 bpm. We're going to play some long tones (four clicks to a note) on a single stopped pitch, preferably using vibrato. Any stopped note will do, and it doesn't matter which pitch or which finger you use; you just want to produce your most resonant, projecting tone using the principles set forth on pp. 28-29 of Cello Practice, Cello Performance. I call this "finding your sound for the day."

We're going to sit on this pitch for a long time, paying mindful attention to every part of the body, and noticing how the tension and relaxation of those body parts contributes to and alters our sound.

  1. Pay attention to how you're sitting, since this is vital to the efficiency of your technique. (See "Weight In the Chair, Feet On the Floor.") Your weight should be equally distributed so you aren't favouring one side over the other (you may need to wriggle about in the chair to find a balance between your sitz bones). Your feet should be placed so that you could stand up easily without shuffling them; that is, you don't want them tucked under the chair or sprawled out in front of you.

  2. Tense your toes. Clench them, push them into the floor. Now let them go, noticing how much better they feel when you do this. How does the tension and release of your toes affect your sound?

  3. Now try digging in your heels and stiffening your ankles. Let them go. How do they feel now?

  4. Clench and release your calf muscles. Does this change your sound?

  5. Squeeze your cello between your knees, then release.

  6. Tense the powerful muscles of your quadriceps, then your gluteal muscles, then relax them. Notice how you can use the power of these strong muscles to affect your cello tone.

  7. Check your hips and sitz bones again to make sure your weight is balanced and that you aren't twisting your torso into an unbalanced stance. Notice how your chair is really holding your weight--thanks, gravity!

  8. Stiffen your abdominal muscles, then notice how it feels to let them go. So many people walk around all day with their abdominal muscles sucked in because they're embarrassed about their weight. The beautiful thing about playing the cello is that the size of the instrument hides a multitude of sins. Feel the relief of letting it all hang out, and notice how your sound responds to this.

  9. How does your lower back want to curve? Are you over-arching it, or forcing it to be unnaturally "straight"? Sit in a balanced way that allows your spine to assume its natural curve. Most of us harbour a lot of tension and big knots in the muscles of our lower backs. Imagine that you're softening these knots. You don't need them any more. Listen to your sound softening into even greater resonance as you do this.

  10. Travelling upwards, notice how your ribcage expands and contracts as you breathe. Have you been breathing regularly, or have you been breathing in shallow gasps (as many string players do)? Practise the mindful breathing-bowing exercises from page 12 of Cello Practice, Cello Performance, and notice how they increase the resonance and beauty of your cello tone.

  11. Your heartbeat: can you feel it? Sometimes, particularly when playing extremely regular rhythmic patterns, you can get your heart to beat in time with music. Turn your attention inwards and notice how fast your heart is beating.

  12. Notice your collarbones. A lot of people don't really think about their collarbones very much, nor realize that this is where the arms begin--what makes them move. Some of the muscles that attach to the clavicle--the deltoid, the trapezius, the pectoralis major--are places where most cellists hold too much tension. Try purposely overworking these muscles (as opposed to the unconscious overworking most of us are already doing). After tensing them, can you then release them? What would happen if we didn't overwork these parts of our body? Moreover, how might we utilize the larger parts of our body to do some of the work these muscles strain to perform when we play the cello?

  13. Let's take both arms together, even though they perform different actions. (See page 3-5 of Cello Practice, Cello Performance--not to mention page 12, page 27, page 32, and a bunch of other pages--for an explanation of why we should combine the different actions of the hands and arms as one.) What happens when you tense up your biceps while playing? It affects a lot of other parts of your body, doesn't it? What happens if you deliberately stiffen the joints of your shoulders, elbows, wrists, and knuckles? (It's practically impossible to do these separately--tensing one tends to make the others tense up too.) Release all of them as much as you can.

  14. Grip the bow and the fingerboard tightly between fingers and thumbs. We all know we aren't supposed to "grab" the bow, but many cellists habitually do this out of an underlying fear of dropping it. Release this fear: your bow won't fall because the cello is there. Now, hold it as lightly as you possibly can without dropping it. Space your fingers naturally in both hands--don't "wedge" them together, since while this provides a (false) sense of strength, it increases tension. Let all your joints be free: even if you aren't deliberately moving them, they should move in response to the movements of the other joints.

  15. Now turn your attention to your neck, jaw, teeth, and tongue. So many cellists hold the bulk of their tension here--the very parts of our body that we most associate with expression. Try clenching and unclenching your jaw, teeth, lips, and tongue. Try to get the tendons of your neck to stick out tensely. Let them all go and feel your face and neck soften. See "Cello Tone Production, Expressive Metaphor, and the Human Tongue."

  16. Think about your eyes, forehead, nose, and cheeks. Are you staring, bug-eyed, when you play? (It's surprisingly common.) Are you pulling faces? Pull some particularly grotesque ones, then release them. Feel your forehead, eyelids, and cheeks soften.

  17. Lastly, consider your ears and scalp, and the back of your neck. People don't often think about having a tense scalp, but contracting the muscles of the scalp and neck is a leading cause of tension headaches. Tense them so you can feel them, then let them go.


As you release tension all over your body and channel your weight and balance into the cello, you should notice a difference in your sound--it'll be more open and resonant.

With practice, you'll be able to balance your bow at a point closer to the bridge and control its speed better now that your right arm's weight is in the string. Your left arm, meanwhile, will be vibrating freely and loosely.

Don't beat yourself up if the minute you release one body part, another one tenses up. True mindfulness of what your body is doing takes time. If you incorporate this workout into daily practice, it will soon become second nature to release the imaginary lions of "effort" and replace them with truly efficient means of sound production.