Stop, Check, Notice, Release: Eliminating Tension in Cello Playing

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Every music student knows that when you first go to a new teacher, the teacher is inevitably going to decide that you have a technical problem that needs fixing. Some may be relatively easy to implement. Others, such as a bow hold change, may require a steep learning curve and lots of determination to replace inefficient habits with better ones.

As a cello professor, I can say with absolute certainty that the top technical problem in incoming cello students is excess tension.

It sure was for me when I first went to university.

I arrived at the University of Canterbury aged eighteen feeling motivated, ambitious, and ready to go. Imagine my horror when my teacher told me at our first lesson that I was doing everything wrong.

“Everything?” I gasped.

“Everything,” said my teacher.

It seemed horrifying, but I realize now that it was 100% true. Photos from the time show me with every technical problem in the book — a tight claw of a bow hold, shoulders raised almost to my earlobes, neck thrust forward, lips pinched tightly together. I was, truthfully, a giant fixer-upper.

The thought of undoing everything I’d ever learned about playing the cello afresh seemed like a gigantic tidal wave looming over me while I paddled away furiously on a tiny inflatable raft.

And yet, the strength of my desire to play the cello better got me through this setback, and now that I’m a cello professor, it’s my goal to help students eliminate their own excess tension on the path to becoming self-sufficient self-teachers. (This was also my primary motivation for writing Cello Practice, Cello Performance.)

We all know that tension = bad, relaxation = good. It’s easy enough to relax while sunbathing on vacation, so why is it so hard to relax while performing an emotionally invested activity like playing the cello?

I’m no psychologist, but I’d hypothesize that our culture of overwork = virtue has something to do with this. We equate hard work with pain. We have control issues. We’re afraid to release arm weight into the string in much the same way as we’re reluctant to “let go” emotionally.

And yet, it can be done, one step at a time. You have to really want it, but you can learn to eliminate excessive tension from your technique by a method that I call Stop, Check, Notice, Release.

“SCNR” is the mindful practice of learning to notice tension in cello playing by asking ourselves what any given body part is doing at any given time while we’re playing the cello. The reason this works is the same reason that if I ask you not to think of a polar bear, you immediately think of a polar bear.

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There’s a simple reason for this. We’re contrary creatures, and the minute anything is forbidden, we want to do it. So it stands to reason that as soon as you draw your attention to a certain body part, you’ll want to flex that body part. And that’s OK, because we’re going to release it immediately.

Here’s how it works. You determine — whether by a teacher’s feedback, your own observation in the mirror or a video, or even by the experience of pain in that body part — where tension is sabotaging your cello technique. Common areas include, but are by no means limited to things like excessive tension in the right trapezius and deltoid from “holding up” the bow instead of releasing weight into the string, or “pinching” the neck of the cello with the thumb. Pick one and set a goal that you’re going to replace an old, tense habit with a new, released one.

Step 1: summon up your determination to release this tension. A strong desire is crucial, because changing old habits is not a simple task and you need to really want to do it.

Step 2: choose a passage of music that you’re going to work on. I recommend an etude that you know well and find relatively easy — perhaps one of the first few studies from the first volume of Dotzauer’s 113 Etudes.

Step 3: play through a line of this etude, stopping still on the first beat of every measure.

Step 4: check the body part. Questions to ask: “What’s my thumb doing? Is it pressing on the neck? Am I busting the joints out backwards?” You have to make it your business to really notice what this body part is doing.

Step 5: release the tension so that your joints can move easily and your body’s weight is balanced. Repeat the steps again and again until you can do the passage with your new habit of flexibility and balance. Repeat daily, ever watchful that the bad habit doesn’t return — and it’s sure to sneak up on you, because bad habits are persistent little so-and-sos.

Examples of how to use SCNR:

  • Do you keep pushing your head forward, buzzard-style, in spite of yourself? Try to imagine that you are a puppet whose body parts are held up and manipulated by strings. When the puppet-master pulls up the string attached to your head, your head is compelled to become centered on top of your body. Stop, check, notice this. Then release: free your neck, and let your head return to being on top of your body.

  • Do you have a tendency to supinate your bow hand by slumping the side of the hand over onto the stick because the weight of the frog seems hard to control? Stop, check, and notice when this sneaks up on your. Release by imagining your thumb and second finger as a kind of balancing fulcrum, and gently return your hand to a more pronated position so that you can continue bowing in a more rational manner.

Further Reading:

“Imaginary Lions: How ‘Effort’ Sabotages Cello Playing, and How To Fix It”