My view is that as a cellist, you are an athlete. The only difference between you and a marathon runner is that you’re using different and very specific groups of muscles and tendons, and you repeat motions as much if not more than most professional athletes. With this in mind, I encourage students to develop a regimen that reflects this fact and respects the body’s need for flexibility, strength and natural motion.
I start the practice day with stretches: neck, shoulder and hand; I also encourage students to stretch after each practice session in order to retain flexibility. The stretches should be done slowly, gently and never to the point of any discomfort. I usually do each stretch to a count of 10.
Note: don’t do stretches if you have an injury to the area; it’s also a good idea to consult with a sports medicine physical therapist about proper stretching techniques for you.
Wrist stretches: with a straight outstretched left arm, place the flat palm of your right hand against the palm of your upstretched left palm; slowly and gently push up your left hand to a gentle but thorough stretch. Release slowly; repeat with the right hand.
Make a fist with your left hand: with the same straight outstretched left arm, grasp the left hand with your right hand. Pull down gently, slowly and firmly to a comfortable stretch, then release slowly. Repeat with the right hand.
Upper arm and shoulder stretch: Place your left wrist on top of your head; grasp your left wrist with your right hand. Pull directly to the side while maintaining a straight vertical posture. You should feel a nice stretch in your upper arm, shoulder and left side. Repeat on the right side.
I am a huge fan of what yoga does for the body and mind. Increased flexibility, reduction of stress, and the integration of good breathing habits into daily life and playing can reap great benefits to you as a performer. Yoga also encourages a quiet mind, which I feel is essential to focused practicing and performing. TM and other meditation techniques can also create the conditions for a quiet mind.
One of my favorite breathing techniques, which I use to counter stress and to prepare for performance, is a breath count of 4, 7, and 8. Breathe in through the nose for a count of four (visualizing a beautiful place helps); hold the breath for a count of 7, then breathe out through the mouth for a count of 8, imagining that you’re releasing toxins.
A good way to integrate the breath into your playing is to practice slow scales, breathing in on the downbow and out on the upbow, ending at the frog with empty lungs. Ms. Tuttle likened this expansion/release cycle to a bird spreading its wings. You can then integrate versions of this into slow Bach, then medium-speed melodic work (the Swan is a great exercise in breathing this way). Just don’t hyperventilate!
In addition to the integration of the breath into playing, I find much benefit in including the spine in the expansion/release cycle. Starting with a soft belly and a slightly slumped but vertical posture, begin a downbow and gradually sit up to an expanded position. The head should never drop below what I call a “bobblehead” position; your head should feel like it’s floating in a bowl of water. As you begin the upbow, gradually drop back to a soft, relaxed position at the frog.
The “Head Waggle”: A good way to encourage a released neck is to learn the head waggle. Start by sitting straight but with a relaxed spine and belly. Take a breath, then release the breath and drop into your tailbone while allowing the head to drop slightly back. Ideally, the head should wobble back and forth a bit. You can then integrate this release into the change at the frog, bouncing into your tailbone just before the change. This can also be done at the change at the tip. This release tends to encourage a soft pectoral muscle, which is critical to comfortable, smooth bow changes at the frog.