Emotions First, Then Cellos: Why "Just Playing" Music Doesn't Work

By Miranda Wilson

Have you ever had to learn a score in a hurry, and decided “For now, I’ll learn it so that I can just play it, and add the expression in later”?

Big mistake.

Not everyone can play the cello well (yet), but everyone can have emotions. That’s why we went into music in the first place, isn’t it? Something about it grabbed us. It moved our hearts, and occasionally our tear ducts. It called us.

This being the case, why would you prepare a score with as little feeling as the Toyota robot?

If you think “fingers first, expression later,” you’re doing it backwards. We haven’t a hope of playing in a way that will move the audience’s emotions if we are suppressing our own.


Here’s the thing about emotions. Unlike perfect bowings and fingerings, you can have them right now.

As I wrote in my book, Cello Practice, Cello Performance, “Let expressive goals dictate your physical movements at the cello.”

Fingerings and bowings take time to formulate. If you “just play” music, you may have to change all of the markings you’ve made once you get around to applying expressive principles to the score. Why use this cumbersome two-step method when you could seamlessly teach yourself the fingering and bowings that contribute best to the emotion you feel for the music?

Here’s the method that I use myself, and I recommend it to all my students, beginners and advanced, young and old.

Step One. Ask yourself, what are some adjectives that I might use to describe this piece? All compositions take us on a journey, so there might be myriad images, colours, and emotions associated with it. By the way, there are no wrong answers to this question. This is how you form an interpretation that is uniquely yours.

Step Two. You’re not going to like this, but… I’m going to ask you to sing. In Chapter Five of Cello Practice, Cello Performance, “Habits for Efficient Practice,” I wrote:

Sing the cello part… It doesn’t matter if you aren’t a good singer… Sing with as much expression as possible, planning the high and low points of the phrases and scrupulously observing the composer’s dynamics and articulation markings. Away from the restrictions of the cello and your technique, you can plan an expressive ideal.

Step Three. Once you’ve made an expressive plan for your score, now sit down with the cello and plan the fingerings and bowings.

Try it, and see how much more efficient and effective it makes your score-learning. Let me know how it works out for you!