I help people become better cellists by teaching them how to use their hands. But more importantly I help cellists become better people by teaching them to use their brains.
When I am teaching, I often find myself saying some variation of the following:
“If it works for you, you will have a tool you can bring to any area of your life. Imagine if you used this in all your classes!”
My goal is to help my students become more powerful in everything they do, using their studies on the cello. I am convinced that the best route to being a better player is the same as that to being a better, more empowered person in every area of life.
Here is a small selection of what a student can gain from studying an instrument:
Self management skills: Discipline, goal setting, understanding motivation, time management
Self understanding: Sensory development, body awareness, understanding memory
Self teaching skills: Patience, using review correctly, creating vivid experiences
Craftsmanship: Attention to detail, understanding the power of specificity
Scientific thinking: Formulating and testing hypotheses in practice and performance
Creative problem solving: Strategies for finding new angles on problems
Emotional intelligence: Identifying emotions, connecting emotions to learning
Communication Skills: Connecting to an audience, articulating goals and impediments in lessons
I want my students to be aware and purposeful in their development of these traits, at the same time as they improve their technique and learn to perform great works of art.
Now, this is all very philosophical, but what about actual cello teaching?
I believe the best results are achieved by helping students find a balance between two learning strategies; a repertoire and goal oriented, top-down approach, and a technique, general skills oriented bottom-up approach.
Top-down: Students should strive to learn as much repertoire and as many etudes as possible, and perform whenever possible. They should test their limits on the instrument and push to become better every day. I call this top-down learning, because it is the exercise of conscious will power, the drive of the ego to be the best possible player. My style is to encourage this subtly, rather than forcefully: I want it to come from the student and not the structure of my teaching (so they can take it with them when they leave!). However, for each student, I try to find the right balance of structure and external encouragement to foster this kind of learning.
Bottom-up: Great players make it look easy – because for them, it is! Effortless playing is not achieved through effort. Students need to learn a patient, comfort oriented approach that relies on building relaxed and efficient reflexes on the instrument. I teach them to cultivate awareness of the body, an open, non-forceful state of mind, and from there build the best possible mechanics, step by gradual step. I have broken down every aspect of cello technique so that it may be learned through physical sensation, rather than verbal instruction (though there is plenty of that too, for better or worse!).
One of my key roles is helping the student find balance between these two approaches. Most students are most familiar with the top-down approach (practice is a battle with your piece.) So for a new student, I may spend more time on the bottom-up skills. But it depends on the student!