Reality & Illusion, part 5: In the Sandbox

(Previous Episodes: 1. Bach at McDonald's. 2. Bach's Invisible Cello. 3. A Cellist, a Pianist, and a Composer Enter a Bar. 4. Bach, Dead and Reborn.)

The confusion we make between illusion and reality affects every last little bit of our daily existence.


We create mystical beings in our imagination, and we assign them an objective, material reality. Among these beings are our teachers, our parents, our siblings, our friends—in fact, every person in our lives. It’s hard to crack this illusion, but “my cello teacher,” for instance, was in truth “my perception of my cello teacher,” rather than a tangible being with recognizable material properties. These days “my perception of my cello teacher” has become “my memory of my perception of my cello teacher,” taking the teacher further into the realm of the illusory.

If you think Bach exists for real, you risk assigning him a sort of ultimate authority; Bach would have “the last word” as concerns his music. And you risk assigning many other people minor-deity status, with everyone conspiring to pass judgments and create constraints—Fournier, Bazelaire, Casals, Starker, Bijlsma, Rostropovich, Ma, and a thousand teachers, players, writers, listeners, family, and friends.


To give an example, when I told my cello teacher back when I was 14 that I wanted to become a professional musician, she said to me, with some sadness in her voice, “But you’ll never be a Pierre Fournier.”

Realistically, I think she was telling me that I wasn’t very good and wasn’t going to become very good either. Pierre Fournier, the blessed high priest, was a herald of the sacred texts of the fountainhead Johann Sebastian Bach. And I, unsightly adolescent, was unworthy of the priesthood. I should become an accountant, maybe. Or a mass murderer.

For a long time I struggled with the high priests inside my head, telling me that “my Bach” wasn’t “as good as Fournier’s” (or Casals’s or— whatever, whomever). I’d play Bach in my practice room, and the voices of the high priests moaned with pain about my intonation, my technique, my articulations, my haircut, you name it.

Then one day I became simple-minded, as it were. I asked myself an innocent little question. How would I play if I just decided to enjoy my own intimate relationship with the ambiguous blueprint, with all that “Bach-related information” that had come my way over the decades? How about I stop chasing Fournier’s ghost, and start chasing Bach’s ghost instead?

I went there. I ignored the musicologists, the cellists and non-cellists whom I’ve heard play over the years, my old teacher’s warnings, professional standards of technique, social standards of decency. I decided on my tempi, my dynamics, my bow strokes, my rubato, my everything. And I finally played “The Six Suites by Pedro de Alcantara and J. S. Bach,” in full ownership of my subjective half of the deal.

Did I play well? Such a question implies objective standards that point toward a thing called “reality.” Fournier probably wouldn’t have thought that I played well, but as it happens Fournier is also dead. His standards don’t count.


Did I enjoy myself? I was as happy as a barefoot three-year-old in a sandbox, playing without adult supervision. In my subjective perception I build castles, palaces, and entire cities using Bach’s blueprints, or what was left of these blueprints “after the earthquake.” I mean, the earthquake of reality and illusion clashing for supremacy.

In conclusion & in a few words: Bury reality in the sandbox and play with your illusions. No, no, sorry! Bury your illusions in the sandbox and enjoy reality in all its glory.

Reality & Illusion, part 4: Bach, Dead and Reborn

I love the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. On my list of greatest composers of all time, he shares first place with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

When I was 14 I heard the late Pierre Fournier, a great French cellist, at a concert in my hometown. He played César Franck’s sonata for cello and piano (originally composed for violin and piano) and Bach’s Sixth Suite (originally composed for the five-string violoncello piccolo da spalla), among other pieces. The morning after his recital I decided to become a professional musician. Subsequently I heard him in two other live performances, one in New York and one in London. I collected some of his recordings, including his Bach Suites.

Here's Fournier in action. 

I heard Janos Starker play the Fifth Suite in São Paulo. I heard Anner Bijlsma play several suites in a single program in New York. I heard Maurice Gendron play the Second Suite in London. (As it happens, I also took master classes with these three great cellists; I played for them and received their feedback, though not on Bach’s Suites.) I heard plenty of cellists of my own generation play movements and whole suites. My LP collection of old included the complete Casals set, the Fournier set, and the Fifth Suite played by Aldo Parisot, with whom I studied for two years in grad school. My CD collection includes two period-performance sets, one of which played wholly on the violoncello da spalla.


Bach wrote three sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord. I performed all three, sometimes with piano, sometimes with harpsichord. I heard Bach’s flute sonatas, both solo and accompanied, multiple times. I heard Bach’s keyboard music played on the piano, the organ, the harpsichord, and the clavichord, and I played a few of those pieces myself at the piano. I heard his orchestral pieces, and played several of them in my youth—the Brandenburg Concertos, the Suites, a violin concerto or two. I heard the Passions and learned a couple of recitatives with my first singing teacher. I heard some of the cantatas, some of the oratorios, many of the trio sonatas. I know the six sonatas and partitas for violin solo by heart. As a teacher and coach, I’ve looked closely at many of Bach’s compositions, helping pianists, violinists, and singers—among others—figure out what’s going on and how best to learn the compositions and perform them.

It's quite paradoxal. Bach seems very present in my life. Yet Bach doesn’t exist.

What exist are my perceptions of Bach; my perceptions of Fournier and Starker playing Bach; my memories of my perceptions of Fournier, playing—more than forty years ago—an ephemeral, subjective version of an incomplete and ambiguous blueprint.

It’s how it goes, inevitably, for all of us. Using tools that we manipulate subjectively—the tools of sight and sound, the tools of analytical thinking, the tools of emotion and intuition—we take some “Bach-related information” (which could be a printed score or something learned by ear or something we’ve culled from a thousand disparate experiences and encounters) and we use all that information to shape “our Bach.”

And then we go psychotic and say, “This is Bach.” Or, “This is by Bach.” Or, “Bach composed this.”

I Am Bach2.jpg

No, no, and no.

You ought to say, “This is me, fashioned in a Bach costume.” “This is by me, as the result of an ongoing process that includes Bach-related information.” “I composed this, borrowing from Bach and multiple other sources going back decades. Strangely, every note in it ‘looks and sounds’ like the notes on a printed score with Bach’s name on it. Don’t you love those extensive, unexplainable coincidences?”

When Johann Sebastian Bach played the music of J. S. Bach way back when, "Bach was Bach." When I play the music of J. S. Bach today, “Bach isn't Bach.” He's . . . a hybrid, a body-snatched 300-year-old Brazilian-Prussian undead mutant.

A thing of beauty.

I’ll bypass the impossible task of delineating reality and illusion, and I’ll say that I prefer the psychosis in which Bach doesn’t exist to the psychosis in which Bach exists.

The moral of the story? It's a story in itself. Come back soon. 

Reality & Illusion, part 3: A Cellist, a Pianist, and a Composer Enter a Bar

I've been posting about reality and illusion, using the music of J. S. Bach as my starting point, and my experiences playing Bach's cello suites as the backbone of the discussion. And I've been trying to ask a strange question. Do the Six Suites for Solo Cello exist? Does Bach himself exist?


I think all is illusion—or, rather, our subjective approach to Bach and to anything else "is" the reality. Bach’s Suites don’t exist as an absolute quantity or quality, as something forever unchanging, as something that all observers can agree upon with any degree of certainty. Like the quantum physicists who believe that the physical world doesn’t exist outside your perception of it, I believe that Bach’s Suites don’t exist outside what you make them to be—in your mind, your ears, your cello or marimba playing, your emotions, your thoughts, your family history, and everything else that forms the entity known as “you.” (BTW, quantum physicists believe that you don’t exist either, or me, or anyone or anything else. But this isn’t pertinent to this discussion.)

It is, however, exceedingly easy to fall prey to the illusion of the Suites’ reality, and to conduct your life as if they were, indeed, real.

If you believe that the Suites exist, you practice the cello in a certain way. You think long and hard about historicity, Bach’s intentions, the acoustic properties of the Baroque cello (or the viola da spalla or the violoncello da span or the . . .) and the environment where the Suites were originally performed, the manuscripts by Bach’s wife and students, what the scholars think, what the musicologists think, and a thousand other considerations.

If you believe that they’re illusory, you practice in a whole other way. You may or may not pay attention to the musicological issues. You may or may not try to find out how the Baroque cello (or the viola da spalla or the . . .) sounded like. You may or may not compare different editions. You may or may not listen to the highly regarded scholar-performers who give period-instrument performances. You may or may not listen to Casals, Ma, Rostropovich, or anyone else.

One attitude says, “You can’t start that Sarabande on an up-bow. Nobody would have done it in Bach’s time.” The other says, “How would it sound like if you started that Sarabande on an up-bow?”

One attitude says, “Certain things are nonnegotiable.” The other says, “Everything is possible.”

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There are merits and demerits to both approaches. Some disciplined musicians have given a lot of thought to historical, acoustic, and aesthetic issues; shaped their techniques to follow unyielding strictures; and given marvelous performances as a result. Others who have thought many of these lofty thoughts have given terrible performances. I once attended a concert by a star pioneer of the period-instrument movement. I left in the intermission, regretting the time and money wasted. Same with the everything-is-possible crowd. Thirty-five years ago I heard an unforgettable performance of the Third Suite on the marimba, played with divine beauty by a young man at a street fair in New York City. And I’ve heard plenty of performers unconstrained by taste, technique, or any degree of self-awareness do unspeakable things to Bach.

What does it all mean, in practice? What is a musician to do with all this metaphysical information?

The reason why András Schiff got me thinking is that some people think the music of J. S. Bach shouldn’t be played on the modern piano. It wasn’t “meant” to be played on the piano. It was “meant” to be played on the clavichord, a lovely plinky-plink instrument known to have been a favorite of Bach’s. According to this view, the mechanisms of the piano are in antagonism with the notes, phrases, and musical structures as conceived by Bach, and it’s a musical, sonic, aesthetic, historical mistake to play Bach on the piano.

Well, I think Bach’s keyboard music, much like the cello suites, doesn’t exist as an absolute entity. What exists is the inevitable, necessary, deeply personal, all-too-human interaction between the player and a vaguely delineated object called “the score.”


The interaction between the score and the player is subjective, and so is the interaction between the listener and the entity now known as the-interaction-between-the-music-and-the player. I hear András Schiff do his subjective thing, and I have a subjective reaction of pleasure, even of love. It’s a love triangle: Bach, Schiff, and Alcantara, united in a single, continuous experience. Bach passed away centuries ago, and he’s really not thinking about Schiff or me or anyone else. Schiff has no idea that I exist—or perhaps he has an abstract idea of having many listeners, but he doesn’t play “for me” in person. And yet, when I listen to Schiff play Bach, we three are one. In that moment, “I am Schiff, I am Bach.”

The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi talks beautifully about how a certain form of listening creates a union between the sound and the listener.

Come back soon, and I'll tell you a ghost story.

Reality & Illusion, part 2: Bach's Invisible Cello

In my last blog post I remarked that listening to the pianist András Schiff playing the music of J. S. Bach got me meditating about reality and illusion.

I first studied Bach’s music as a 14-year-old cellist, growing up in São Paulo, Brazil. Bach composed six suites for solo cello. The sixth of them he wrote for a five-stringed instrument tuned like a standard cello (from the bottom up, C G D A) with an added E string. Some well-trained minds speculate that Bach never meant his pieces for the cello as we know the instrument today, but for a large viola-like instrument held from the player’s shoulder by a strap. This instrument is called by some people a violoncello da spalla . . . and by other people a violoncello piccolo da spalla or violoncello da span . . . and by some other people a viola da spalla. It’s said that Bach and other composers of the time (three centuries ago) called this instrument violoncello.

Here's a spirited violoncello da spalla performance of a movement from Bach's Sixth Suite. The performer is Sergey Malov.


Now let's go back to the 14-year-old kid in Brazil. Playing a modern cello made from materials that didn’t exist in Bach’s time, the kid buys a score for a piece composed for some other instrument; and the score is in fact a Frenchman’s heavy-handed interpretation of Bach’s wife’s dictation of the piece, and no one can be sure how she ever went about taking down that dictation in the first place. Reality or illusion? Was I really playing Bach's actual cello suites? Or was I having some sort of rather subjective head trip?

Over the centuries since their composition, these pieces went through multiple transformations in the minds and hearts of musicians. After Bach’s death most of his music “disappeared” from public awareness for a while, until (as all students in music history classes learn) the Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn “rediscovered” Bach and advocated his music anew—some of the music anyway, which was then performed in the fashion of Mendelssohn’s time.

The cello suites stayed out of public awareness for much longer. From time to time they were used as technical studies, and very occasionally some fool would play a movement or two in performance. I say a “fool” because the suites weren’t really considered “music.” (Reality and illusion, anyone?)

Pablo Casals finally brought the suites out from oblivion, studying them in depth, performing them in public as works of art, and recording them as a complete set in 1938 and 1939. Here's the great man, performing the First Suite in 1954.

Since Casals’s time, the Suites have become an integral part of the canonic repertory. Thousands of cellists of all ages and abilities have performed the pieces hundreds of thousands of times all over the world. These cellists practiced passages from the pieces hundreds of millions of times. Some notes in some suites have been played more than a billion times. I myself made a modest contribution to these statistics, adding roughly five thousand attempts at playing some of the suites in my practice room and in public from 1972 to 2013. Or ten thousand attempts, maybe. But certainly not more than fifty thousand attempts, at most.

Besides the thousands of cellists, tens of thousands of other musicians also studied or performed the suites, in whole or in part—including violists, trombonists, flutists, guitarists, lute players, marimba players, you name it.

According to an Internet source, there are over 80 printed editions of the suites, some claiming to be as close to Bach’s intended ideas as possible, others making no claims of any sort. I don’t know how many commercially available recordings there are, but a quick search of “Bach cello suites” on shows 1,482 choices as of January 14, 2013, with the top two spots being the complete CD sets by Yo-Yo Ma and Mstislav Rostropovitch.

Here’s a nifty thing as regards our discussion. This is how these top spots are listed at Amazon:

The 6 Unaccompanied Cello Suites Complete by Yo-Yo Ma and J. S. Bach (2010) 

Bach: Cello Suites by Mstislav Rostropovich and Johann Sebastian Bach (1995)

The players’ names are listed before the composer’s. The Suites are as if “by Yo-Yo Ma first and foremost, and also by J. S. Bach.” It could be a simple matter of information display, or a simple matter of marketing considerations. Or it could be food for thought if you’re interested in figuring out reality from illusion. Other choices in information display are available. The #4 item on Amazon’s page, for instance, is listed as “Bach: Cello Suites by Johann Sebastian Bach (2003)”, with the name of the performer not shown at all. (You can find out easily, of course. Click on the link for details. All right, I’ll tell you anyway: It’s Pablo Casals.)

Is it crazy for Yo-Yo Ma to be listed as a co-creator of the Bach Suites, or is it crazy for Pablo Casals not to acknowledge that he’s a co-creator of the Bach Suites?

To put it differently, do the 6 Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, by Johann Sebastian Bach (born 1685, died 1750) exist? Are they “real,” or are they “illusory”?

Does Bach himself exist?

Stay tuned.

Reality & Illusion, part 1: J. S. Bach at McDonald's

The other night I spent some time on YouTube watching the pianist András Schiff playing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. I’ve never seen Schiff perform live, and until now I wasn’t that familiar with his playing. I enjoyed it tremendously. His Bach sparkles and swings; his Bach speaks, laughs, and cries. It’s quite something.

Watching and listening to him got me thinking about reality and illusion.

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I first studied Bach’s Six Suites for solo cello in my adolescence. I was probably 14 when I sight-read the first suite, working from the one edition I was able to buy in my native São Paulo, in the classical-music backwater that Brazil was then (and, to a good degree, still is now). The edition was signed by Paul Bazelaire, a French cellist who was born in 1886 and died in 1958 (that's him on the cute photo). To Bach’s music, Bazelaire added dynamics, phrase markings, fingerings, metronome markings, and a thousand other indications. Later I bought several other editions of the suites. Over the decades I studied all the suites and performed several of them. I know them by heart, and like most cellists I only need to hear three notes from any excerpt to recognize which movement in which suite those three notes come from.


What is reality, what is illusion? The metaphysicians have been debating this for millennia. There are many viewpoints on the issue. A minority—a tiny minority—believes that reality is an objective situation shared by everyone. Some say that the whole of humanity is someone’s huge dream, with no objective existence. Others claim that reality is what you make of it. A guy and his girlfriend sitting quietly across each other at a Macdonald’s are in two distinct, separate, and perhaps even mutually exclusive realities. The girl is having feelings, thoughts, thoughts about her feelings, and feelings about her thoughts—some of which involve the guy, or a version of the guy she imagines day by day. The guy is communing with the salt, fat, and sugar, and he’d be surprised if the girl suddenly entered his awareness and addressed him. “Don’t interrupt me,” he’d say. And his using these many words would deplete his energies and justify his ordering another Big Mac.

The idea that the guy and his girlfriend share a single, objective reality is ludicrous.

When a performer views a score, metaphysical questions regarding illusion and reality are in fact not only pertinent but downright urgent. Three hundred years ago, a human being called Johann Sebastian Bach, living in a country that today is called Germany but that back then didn’t actually exist as a country in the modern conception of the world, composed a piece for solo cello. He seems never to have written the piece down, but his wife wrote it down for him, and so did a couple of his students. How? Did they hear Bach play it on the cello? Or did Bach play the notes on the clavichord, and the wife and the students wrote down the notes as if for the cello?

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How come the scores came out a little different—in pitches, flats and sharps, slurs and articulations? If the versions differ (and remember, no version is in Bach’s hand), is one right and the others wrong? How can we tell? Is it important for us to be able to tell? How did Bach intend his piece to be played? And if he had specifics in mind, must we try to obey him? Does that mean that there’s only one way to play the piece—one legitimate, approved, sanctioned, sanctified way that renders all other ways criminal or sinful?

Nobody agrees on the questions—or on the answers. Watch this space for further developments.

A master communicator (and what a shirt!

Some months ago I blogged several times about musicians who don't move a lot when they perform. The subject merits repeated study, so let's look at something fantastic.

These two Brazilian guys here are experts on the art of improvising poetry and songs in public, in the style known as "repentista" in Portuguese. (Repentista comes from the word for "sudden.") They are both masters of the art . . . but the guy on the red shirt is exceedingly poised and well directed. You don't have to understand Portuguese to marvel at his back, his calm, his strength, and his communication skills!

Condensed energy is the name of the game.

How Musicians Can Benefit from the Alexander Technique

Robert Rickover interviewed me for his series Body Learning. Click here to listen to my interview, How Musicians Can Benefit from the Alexander Technique.

Here's how it starts!

Robert Rickover: Pedro could you begin by giving our listeners a short description or definition of the Alexander Technique?

Pedro de Alcantara:
I think the Alexander Technique is a way for you to solve a problem by putting the problem aside and working on yourself instead. Focusing on yourself, centering yourself, calming down, opening up your mind. If you really do all of that, most problems tend to disappear. That's why I titled my first book for musicians INDIRECT PROCEDURES. When you're trying to solve a problem, instead of doing it directly, you go in this indirect way where the problem is less important than your own thoughts and actions. By clarifying your thoughts and actions, the problem could disappear.

One of the best musicians, ever!

I recently watched an installment of the PBS documentary The Blues. One of the musicians featured in it astounded me: the pianist, singer, and comedian Martha Davis, who died at age 42 in 1960. She’s a brilliant performer, in total command of her materials and, more important, of herself. Watch these clips and wonder at her ease, her sense of timing, the latent powers in her playing and her singing, and her wicked sense of humor.

After enjoying these clips for their tremendous entertainment value, watch them again and see what you can learn from Martha Davis in practice. For instance, it seems to me that her poise of head, neck, back, shoulders, and arms plays a role in her mastery (as it does with Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, and all the other jazz greats I’ve blogged about in recent months).

I also think that Davis has found a perfect balance between “doing things for her own pleasure” and “doing things for the pleasure of her public.” In other words, she cares a lot about her public . . . and she probably doesn’t give a hoot about other people might think of her. Suppose the public really wanted her to push her head back and down into her neck, roll her eyes, and sweat up a storm in a display of “feeling.” Would she do it? I doubt it. She shares her talent with the public in a straightforward and casual manner that is also very generous and touching. But she doesn’t make a show of herself, so to speak. With her, it’s the materials that count—the rhythms, sounds, words, and jokes—and not her emotions about those materials. She’s an extravert but not a narcissist. My theory is that she loves herself without being in love with herself.

All right, enough with the fancy theories. I’m just going to watch her clips again (and again . . . and again!).



Reader Comments (2)

Pedro you site is positively inspirational. I love the Martha Davis Clip - I have seen this before, but was so glad to be reminded of it. Every time I feel a bit bogged down, I explore your site - so full of quality stuff. Thank you

February 14, 2011 |

I'm glad you enjoy my site . . . Davis is quite something. She died young (42) imagine what wonders she'd have produced had she lived longer.

February 15, 2011 | Pedro

Music hath charms . . .

The playwright and poet William Congreve – no, I don’t know much about him either – included the following line in THE MOURNING BRIDE, all the way back in 1697: “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.”

His quote sometimes gets mangled, and people remember it as “Music hath charms to soothe a savage beast.” Either way I think we can all agree with him. Music is a wonderful, marvelous, divine, magical thing that can have the deepest effects upon all savages.

In this clip we see and hear the soothing, healing effects of music. Blood-hungry feral monsters become completely calm after listening to the mellifluous song of a Zen master. Rocks soften, knotted oaks bend, and the savage breasts become so civilized you could even let them eat dinner at your table.

Or not.

Merry Christmas!

The Oppositional Principle in Music, Part 7: Masters & God(s)

 The Oppositional Principle has had many adherents over the decades and centuries. Here’s how the playing of Johann Sebastian Bach was described in his lifetime.

At the clavichord Bach is virtually still. He plays effortlessly, the movements of his fingers 'hardly perceptible.' Those fingers not in action remain motionless, 'quietly in position.' The rest of his body takes even '[less] part in his playing.' His hands do not contort or register any strain even in the most difficult passages. Bach plays expressively but his body expresses nothing. (Quoted by David Yearsley in Bach and the Meaning of Counterpoint.)

The bad news is that there are no YouTube clips of Bach playing the clavichord. The good news is that there are multiple clips of someone who corresponds to the above description of Bach.

I’m going to let Chick Corea (a master of the Oppositional Principle) introduce the guy in question. There are masters and there are gods . . . most musicians would agree that Art Tatum is a god. Well, no. Art Tatum is God.

In my next post I'll make a detailed study of his playing.

The Oppositional Principle in Music, Part 6: Samer Totah and Kenneth Snelson, Masters of Balance

Recently I’ve been writing about what I call the Oppositional Principle for musicians—the idea that you may be able to play, sing, or conduct better if you keep your body relatively still, moving little beyond the needed gestures of your technique. The still body can condense and distribute energy more powerfully than the moving body.

It all depends on how you do it, of course!

Your stillness ought to be the result of many tensions brought to balance, like a Kenneth Snelson sculpture in which multiple forces in multiple dimensions all contribute to the overall stability of the structure. If you organize your forces in this way, then music will “charge you up.” The fluid energies of music will oppose your stable forces, and music itself will come through condensed and powerful.

After you visit Snelson’s beautiful website, come back here and watch Samer Totah, a great oud player who focuses his movements where they can carry the greatest power.

The Oppositional Principle in Music, Part 5: Ivry Gitlis, Devilish Violinist

 What I’ve been calling the oppositional principle in music is a way of singing, playing, or conducting in which the musician moves relatively little beyond the composition’s (or improvisation’s) immediate technical needs. Like all concepts, this can be easily misunderstood. I don’t think it’s good for you to be inert, passive, rigid, stiff, boring, afraid, or self-conscious! Instead I advocate a steady presence, like a bouncer at a nightclub who stands so confidently by the door that no one even tries to sneak past him. Call it “latent power” if you will. You can achieve it by distributing your physical tensions throughout the whole body from head to toe; firming up your spine, all the way from the skull to the coccyx; and pointing some of your energies toward the floor (as if anchoring yourself) and some toward the ceiling (as if unmooring  your inner Zeppelin). In other words, you “think up and down” at the same time.

You can give extraordinary, extravagant, intense, intoxicating performances in this way: the body doesn’t move, but the music soars! Watch the violinist Ivry Gitlis playing  Camille Saint-Saëns’s “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” without losing his anchored feet and legs, without throwing his head about, and without huffing and puffing. It’s the music that goes crazy, as well it should!

The Oppositional Principle in Music, Part 4: Young & Old

What I've been calling the oppositional principle in music is a way of singing, playing, or conducting in which the perforer moves relatively little, instead letting the music move through him or her and on to the public. In recent posts we saw Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, and an entire choir of male singers perform while keeping themselves quite still on stage. Today I'd like you to watch two different pianists demonstrating the approach: a very young Ahmad Jahmal and a not-so-young Mieczyslaw Horszowski (who was still playing the piano after his hundredth birthday). Jamal and Horszowski move their bodies only a bit here and there. They produce magically sweet sounds at the piano. And every one of the notes they play has a clarity of intention that make the notes "speak" as if coming directly out of the piano.

These two great artists show that the oppositional principle knows no boundaries: you can embody it if you're white or black, young or old, a cool cat or maestro. What's also interesting is that by embracing an universal principle you'll remain a unique individual; Jahmal and Horszowski are completely different from each other, even though they're very similar! I'll go on a limb here and state that only by embracing universal and timeless principles can you really fulfill your individual mission on this planet.

The Oppositional Principle in Music, Part 3: Dizzy and the Bird

The assumption that to make music you must move your body a lot is widely shared, by audiences and musicians alike. Some people think that the only way for a musician to express himself or herself fully is by “moving with the music," and it’s true that there are many great instrumentalists, singers, and conductors who take a balletic, athletic approach to music. But there have always been master musicians who, instead of moving with the music, let music “move through them” and on to the audience. In fact, by remaining relatively still musicians actually condense and heighten the power of music to move the audience.

What I call the oppositional principle in music—where the musician opposes the movement of music through the stillness of his or her body—applies to all fields of music-making. You might suppose that jazz musicians usually move an awful lot when they play. After all, those guys improvise crazy stuff and lead wild personal lives, right? Counterintuitive as it may seem, the jazz greats move almost not at all when they perform. Check this clip with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie—two of the greatest players ever—and watch how little they move. An interesting detail is that when Dizzy lifts and drops his trumpet, he does it at a very slow tempo, much slower than the tempo of the music.

Moral of the story: If you stand still, the craziness just gets deeper, broader—and better.

The Oppositional Principle in Music, Part 2: Coro de Iddanoa Monteleone

Bodily coordination comes in many forms, one of which I believe is particularly rewarding for musicians. It consists in suffusing your body with latent mobility—that is, the capacity to move in a thousand different ways, held permanently in reserve—but without actually moving much beyond the minimal movements you need in instrumental and vocal technique.

Depending on how you do it, holding your body still may have the effect of condensing and multiplying the energies of music itself. Your rhythmic drive and the richness of your sounds will actually be bigger if you don’t move a lot.

Imagine a canister full of gas. If you heat the canister, the gas inside will expand and push against the canister’s inner walls with ever-increasing power. Canned and heated gas, in other words, has more power than gas that isn’t canned or heated. Let’s call this compressed energy. The compressed energy of the expanding gas can be put to a constructive use, for instance to propel a rocket.

A few weeks ago I offered Louis Armstrong as an example of condensed energy when he plays the trumpet, though not when he sings. Here I offer you the Sardinian folk group Coro de Iddanoa Monteleone. The conductor moves a bit, the singers move almost not at all… and music itself moves with unstoppable power!

The Oppositional Principle in Music, Part 1: Louis Armstrong

Ben Ratliff, a journalist with the New York Times, recently blogged about this video clip of a young Louis Amsrong, performing in Denmark in 1933. Ratliff invites his readers to watch how Armstrong moved to the music, "making his body part of the performance." What's remarkable about the performance, however, is Amstrong's dual personality. As a communicator and an entertainer, he moves, dances, makes faces, and clowns around in a very amusing manner. But when he starts playing the trumpet, he completely stops all extraneous movements! He stands upright and still, and other than those movements that are necessary to play the trumpet (lips, fingers, lungs, and so on), he moves minimally and almost invisibly. He doesn't move to the music; rather, the music itself moves, from him (or maybe even through him) to the audience. Ratliff also remarks on how the other musicians in the band tap their feet to the beat of the music. While it's true that some of them tap almost frenetically, their upper bodies are, like Amstrong's, at rest: vertical, still, and ready for movement but by no means moving.

I believe this is a vital oppositional principle: Make yourself firm and grounded as music passes through you, and the opposition between your firmness and the music's mobility will create a great deal of dynamic energy, much to your listeners' benefit. Move to the music as you play or sing, however, and you risk dispersing the power of music to the winds. And you know what? It's not only your listeners who'll suffer!

Many master musicians remain still when they play and sing. Watch this space for further examples and a thorough discussion of this most important of principles.

If you can't do something... teach it!

A nifty website for guitarists features a regular blog called “Guitar Hero,” profiling up-and-coming guitarists with interesting life stories. Guess who’s their most recent Guitar Hero?

Modesty prevents me from uttering his name.

I took a grand total of two guitar lessons 38 years ago. Occasionally I pluck a guitar string when someone leaves an instrument unattended, but I play the guitar roughly as well as I speak Greek: “Hey, George, where's my spanakopita?”


However different any two human endeavors may be, they’ll always share certain characteristics. You need to be pretty attentive to perform brain surgery, but as it happens you also need to be attentive to perform pedicure. Amputated toes, anyone? Exactly. The best brain surgeons are focused, clear-headed, methodical, knowledgeable, and intuitive. And the best pedicurists? They’re pretty much the same, even if the actual techniques used are a bit different.

Within the music world, a guitarist, a singer, a conductor, and a pianist have many more traits in common than they have in separate. Coordination, rhythm, and sound are the three pillars of music-making, and all musicians need to steep themselves in the basic principles of all three.

A good teacher is one that helps you become like the best brain surgeons and pedicures: focused, clear-headed, methodical, and all that. If you’re learning the piano, you certainly need to acquire specific piano-playing techniques. But you could learn many important skills from someone other than a pianist: a fellow musician, or another artist, or just someone who’s really observant and skilful.

I know flutists who have traveled long distances to Staten Island just to take lessons with a certain trumpeter there. Singers get coached by pianists and conductors. Conductors sometimes profess admiration for certain dancers, from whom they learned valuable lessons. Dancers learn from sculptors; witness Martha Graham’s collaboration with Isami Noguchi.

As it happens, the most important forces in my life as a cellist have been a pianist and a singer. I did have some excellent cello teachers, but my real musical identity was shaped by my encounters with Robert D. Levin and the late Cornelius L. Reid.

I’ve taken the idea of applying universal principles to individual endeavors and, over the years, I've developed a pedagogical method that is pertinent to all musicians without exceptions: cellists, pianists, and singers, but also percussionists, trombonists, drum majorettes—you name it.

For these reasons and many more, it makes sense that a guy who can’t play the guitar to save his life would become a Guitar Hero. Go check it out and then let me know what you think.

You can reach me at the pedicurist's, where I’ll be receiving some much-needed brain surgery.

Oh reader, your talents require TLC!

In my last blog entry I riffed on the notion of talent, the gist of my convictions being that everyone is born multitalented. A brave voice rose in the wilderness, pointedly letting me know I’m crazy. Just kidding! The brave voice, who answers to the name of Lisa Marie, makes some very good points. Here they are.

I think there is a problem with the word “talent.” Isn't it used to mean the exceptional thing, the thing that most people don't have? I think one tends to use the word unthinkingly in order to designate that happy (and indeed, rare) combination of qualities and circumstances (energy, enthusiasm, time, a little salutary egoism to enable one to be a bit annoyingly obsessive, good teachers, etc.) and one ends up being mislead by the existence of the word into thinking one is referring to something else, some further magic entity, apart from these ingredients.

And so my more somber version of your “we are all multi-talented'” would be to say “we quite probably all aren't, but that this is a lot less of a problem than we have been led to believe... particularly if it is possible to muster energy, enthusiasm, time, egoism, etc.”

Genius, now that would be something else again, I suppose.

This is my abbreviation of what the brave voice is saying in the wilderness:

“Talent” as people normally see it is a kind of illusion; people do things well because of down-to-earth qualities such as energy, enthusiasm, time, and so on—not because of a magic, mysterious quality, which we might want to call “genius” instead. It’s not a problem to be “untalented” as long as you find the necessary time, energy, and enthusiasm to accomplish your goals.

I see talent as an innate capacity to do something, a biological inheritance that is independent of these down-to-earth qualities but that needs some of them to blossom. So, I do think everyone is multitalented indeed, having many built-in capacities from birth. Ultimately, however, the brave voice is quite right: things happen not by magic but through dedicated effort. Here's the film maker Ridley Scott in a recent interview in the magazine Film Comment: "[My mother] was a real force of nature. [My brother] Tony and I inherited perseverance from her. It's really the thing you need to succeed. I always say it's stamina, stamina, stamina, then perseverance, and last is talent."

As for "genius," I’d like to offer a very specific definition. I see a genius not as someone with brilliant inborn capacities, but someone with an original insight who creates a new paradigm within his or her field. In that sense Claude Debussy was a genius, since he created a new musical paradigm contributing to the development of, among other things, atonality; but Maurice Ravel wasn’t a genius, since his work—however brilliant—hewed to the paradigms, tonal and rhythmic, that came before him. Ludwig van Beethoven: genius. Felix Mendelssohn: not (even though he was an astounding child prodigy). Miguel de Cervantes: genius (he "invented" the modern novel). Jane Austen: not. Mahatma Gandhi: genius (he created a new paradigm, non-violent resistance). The Dalai Lama: not (he embraces a paradigm that was fully formed before his birth). But note that I admire the Dalai Lama unconditionally, and I think he represents humanity's highest ideals. Here I'm using the word "genius" as a technical term, narrowly (and perhaps idiosyncratically) defined.

Given a choice between talent, genius, and stamina, I know which one I would pick for myself and my career. Phew! Writing this blog entry has exhausted the resident genius here, so please excuse me while I take a nap.


Oh reader, you're so talented!

In my recent installments of The Naked Beginner I recounted how I used to suffer from the misconception I had no talent for drawing, and how I cured myself from that handicap with help from a fictional character, an imaginary friend, and a dead white male. Here I offer you a little meditation on the notion of talent. Since the meditation applies to all people, I’m posting this blog entry on multiple categories.

  1. Everyone is born multitalented; this you can see by watching a few kindergarten kids at play, inventing every sort of game and improvising brilliantly at arts, sport, music, relationships, and anything else. The tragedy is that many of those kindergartners (and I’m talking about you and me and your brother and your sister) will grow to “forget” how talented they were from the first.
  2. You have hidden talents you don’t know about. Every day as you go about your normal existence, amazing things lie inside you waiting to be discovered.
  3. Talents are eternal: they are always there, inside you, from birth to death. When the expression of a talent is squashed, the talent itself remains. At any time in your life, if the conditions are right the talent will come right back out.
  4. You can be absolutely sure about something and yet be absolutely wrong about it. Wanna bet? The principle is universal. It applies to your feeling certain you don’t have talent for something—drawing, music, computers, managing people, you name it.
  5. If you’ve tried to do something and failed miserably, you might still have a talent for it; perhaps you just need a good teacher, a good partner, a good environment. Think how many mean and incompetent teachers are out there, and how discouraging they can be.
  6. “I’ve never danced in my life! I don’t have a talent for it!” Can you see what’s wrong with these words?
  7. Timing is everything. Talent is always there, but sometimes you need to wait until you are good and ready to explore it. And you may not be ready until you’re 13, or 26, or 39, or 52. (Here’s testing your talent for multiplication tables!)
  8. Talent is immutable; it’s already there inside you, and it’ll always be there as a latent force. But your manner of tapping into it is highly variable. It’s easy to confuse the two. If you go about blindly trying to develop a talent, your failure doesn’t mean you don’t have the talent.
  9. You can develop a new skill in intermittent bursts of time and effort, as long as the effort is intelligent and the time well-spent.
  10. If someone has a great deal of innate facility for something but no patience to develop the skill over the long term, does he or she really have “talent”?
  11. Okay, it’s possible for you not to have talent for something and feel sure that you do. Still, that’d be a lesser problem than having talent and feeling sure you don’t.
  12. Talent isn’t contagious, but enthusiasm is.

Hey, you talented readers out there: How about submitting your stories about hidden talents, talents snuffed out by mean teachers, talents that have surprised and delighted you as you went about discovering them?

Lessons from the balloon's baby brother: Readiness

You’ve been playing with a balloon and learning some surprising lessons about your voice and your upper body. The time has come for you to broaden your exploration. Take a tennis ball in your hand. It doesn’t matter if it’s old and beat-up. If you don’t have a tennis ball at home, an orange or tangerine will do, anything with a similar dimension and texture. Tennis ball or citrus fruit, just hold it as a playful, mischievous, curious child would: What can I do with this thing? In how many ways can I amuse myself? How can I use this object to annoy my mother?

Objects invite the resourceful child inside us to discover the capacity of the hands to hold, squeeze, pinch, poke, caress, slap, throw, catch, and so on. Squeeze the tennis ball, for instance. It yields to some degree, it resists to some degree, both more or less at once. You can feel the ball’s rubbery core at the same time you feel its outer surface, fuzzy like a kitten’s back. And you can also feel the skin, flesh, and bones of your own hand, which—like the ball—is innately resilient and multilayered.

It’s a double exploration: you find out about the object at the same time you explore your hand, or more broadly, your whole self. Throw the ball up in the air, catch it; throw it from hand to hand, find a rhythm and let the rhythm do the work for you. The tennis ball was born to be thrown, and it invites you to go with it, to enter the game and never leave it.  Let your palms, fingers, wrists, and arms enjoy the object's bounciness, and before long their own inborn elasticity will enter your awareness. Hold the ball in between the palms of both hands and roll it about, massaging the ball with your palms and your palms with the ball. The ball’s roundness, its shape, texture, and weight all contribute to making the experience delightful. And the delight comes not from the ball itself, but from your hands.

Every object in your life has lots of wisdom to impart—and I mean every object without exception, including headbands, eyeglasses, furniture, shoes, belts, toothbrushes, cell phones. All you need is to approach each object with the right frame of mind, which I propose to call “readiness.” Needless to say, your violin, your piano, your flute are fine partners in the game of object wisdom. And they’re dying to play with you.



Ø n. the state or quality of being ready


Ø adj. (readier, readiest)

1a prepared mentally or physically for some experience or action

1b prepared for immediate use

2a (1) willingly disposed

2a (2) likely to do something

2b spontaneously prompt

3 notably dexterous, adroit, or skilled

4 immediately available