As a teenager, I’d get very tired of wise-cracking passers-by calling, ‘Who’s your boyfriend, darling?’ as I walked down the street hugging my cello case to my side and I sometimes wondered why on earth I’d chosen such a human-sized instrument. But the moment I sat down to play, I knew why: no other instrument speaks with the same voice or has such an exhilarating range of sounds to explore.
We have often wondered what draws so many players and listeners to the cello, particularly the increasing numbers of mature adults who take up the cello for the first time or who return to playing after many years. From a more scientific viewpoint, we have also wanted to understand a little more about what makes being a musician so profoundly stimulating and satisfying. So Sarah decided to visit specialist libraries and consult cellists from all backgrounds to try to get more of an insight into the many rewards of being a cellist:
Music and the Brain There is a long history of research into the effects of music on children and adults, with a host of books and articles arguing for and against almost every conclusion. However, recent advances in MRI brain scanning technology have provided concrete evidence of the effect of music on the brain. Just as physical exercise changes the shape of the body, musical training alters and strengthens the brain, perhaps more radically than any other cognitive activity. Professional musicians are now known to have a greater volume of grey matter in the areas of the brain governing motor control, the interpretation of sound and visuo-spatial processing. Musicians who started training before the age of 7 also have a thicker corpus callosum (the bundle of nerve fibres connecting the two hemispheres of the brain). These changes in the structure of the brain not only improve musical skills, but can also increase ability in other areas such as speech, language, memory, attention and empathy. The brains of trained musicians are also more plastic than those of non-musicians, and therefore playing an instrument may enhance your ability to learn other skills.
The dramatic activity in the brain caused by listening to music and revealed by MRI scans is beautifully described by Philip Ball, author of The Music Instinct: ‘Whereas many cognitive tasks such as vision or language have fairly well-localised centres of brain activation, music does not. To put it crudely, when we listen to music, all the lights are apt to come on at once. Pretty much the whole brain may become active. No other mental stimulus comparably engages all aspects of our mental apparatus, and compels them to speak to each other; left to right hemisphere, logic to emotion. It’s quite simply a gymnasium for the mind.’ (p.241)
Music also has a positive effect on the immune system, boosting levels of anti-microbial proteins, while mood-influencing hormone levels are regulated by music, reducing stress levels. Susanna Wilson took part in a research project playing Bach cello suites in the waiting room of the antenatal clinic of a London hospital. Researchers measured the blood pressure of expectant mothers and found that lower blood pressure readings were measured after listening to the cello. Recorded music is also being used in the pre-operative stage of surgery to enhance the effects of anaesthesia.
Researchers are also exploring the positive effects of music for the older generation. A study of healthy older adults showed that learning and performing music is an ideal way to maintain and extend mental ability in the older brain, as well as providing social and health benefits.
Ask the cellists. Knocking bookshelf dust from my sleeves, I embarked on some fresh research of my own, asking a wide variety of players to express the benefits they derive from being a cellist. Their responses were overwhelmingly positive and often deeply moving. Extended versions can be found below this article.
Cello therapy. Playing the cello is a therapeutic experience for everyone I spoke to. The profound integration of mind and body which is required to play well is not only absorbing and stimulating at the time of playing, but also positively influences the rest of life. One Jungian analyst says that she feels psychologically and spiritually uplifted after playing her cello. John Blood is a composer and studies the cello with Judith Mitchell: ‘The experience she has given me of connecting cello playing with virtually every other aspect of my life has been so rewarding. If you loosen your shoulders and release tension whilst playing the cello then, suddenly, your tone improves. Do the same whilst walking down the road and the world becomes an altogether different place. Break down a seemingly insurmountable musical problem into smaller components, work on those and soon there is no problem at all! The same technique works in everyday life.’
Judith Mitchell believes that the cello is an especially therapeutic instrument: ‘The whole craft of playing music on the cello involves balanced and integrated posture, feet well grounded and movements flowing freely.’ Pat Legg agrees: ‘Just the way we sit and wrap ourselves around the cello is very grounding and the physical involvement with the cello is simply good for the soul. I have talked to various therapists about this, and it seems that people who have music as part of their lives seem to survive much better than those without musical involvement. It’s hard to explain, but the action of playing brings the mind and the body together in a very strengthening way.’
One principal cellist of a symphony orchestra always feels at her best when she is playing: ‘While I’m playing the cello I feel physically relaxed, but at the same time strong and powerful. I enjoy feeling small joints and muscles that I am normally not aware of. The feeling of transferring the weight of body onto the instrument is fulfilling and pleasurable. I feel the instrument as being part of me. During playing, the mind and concentration become so sharp and elevated to a different level that it is not easily compared to any other activity.’
Another place. Another important theme in people’s experience is the unique sensation music gives of being ‘somewhere else’. Carol O’Brien started playing the cello at the age of 65 and is now able to play chamber music with friends: ‘When my part isn’t too difficult and I can listen to the other players, it’s an exhilarating feeling to be part of something so beautiful. It really has added another dimension to life.’ As her teacher Pat Legg puts it: ‘When you listen to your fellow players, there is a movement from self-absorption to being part of a bigger picture; becoming aware of your own body and your own sounds in relation to those of others.’ Judith Mitchell describes this experience as being ‘both individual and in union with humanity at one and the same time.’ Judith’s friend Margaret Quail, a psychotherapist and cellist, is excited by Donald Winnicott’s concept of a ‘third area of human living’, a state between separateness and union, which one can experience through a creative activity such as music making. Margaret writes: ‘It is this idea of the potential space of the intermediate area of experience which fascinates me. It is neither my inner world nor the outside reality. I am conscious of it when I engage in all sorts of activities: attending a concert or play, reading a book, painting a picture; but never more so than when I am playing the cello or piano – alone and especially with others.’
Love of the cello. Cellists are particularly passionate about the physical qualities of their instruments. Carol O’Brien is deeply in love with her beautiful Forster cello and John Blood finds the ‘human-sized’ dimensions of his instrument deeply satisfying. Sue Hadley can’t help smiling when she holds her cello. Perhaps not surprisingly, cellists are also unanimous in their attraction to the cello’s tonal range. Many believe that people are drawn to the cello because its range is so similar to that of the human voice (from bass to soprano, male to female). Steven Isserlis calls the cello ‘Everyone’s favourite instrument’ and believes that the cello’s dark, wistful timbre touches the heart more than any other instrument. (Financial Times interview, 22.10.10) Cellists also enjoy the cello’s position in the orchestra. John Blood was inspired to become a composer when he started playing in the cello section of a youth symphony orchestra. ‘It’s as though I’m at the very fulcrum of that magic that makes an unexpected key change in a Dvorak symphony or a Beethoven quartet so spine-tingling.’ Sue Hadley thinks: ‘It is the physical experience of actually playing, listening and being this gorgeous low, steady beat for other players that gives me such an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction. There is a wonderful feeling of calm that surrounds me.’
Self expression. Most cellists feel that the cello provides them with the sounds they need for self-expression which words just cannot provide. A student of the Croatian cellist and teacher Dobrila Bercovic-Magdalenic writes: ‘I use the cello’s sound to express things which I wouldn’t be able to say in words. For me, the sound of this instrument is a ‘voice’ of all that is.’ For John Blood, ‘The social pleasure of having musical conversations and arguments with friends whilst playing, without the slippery, tiresome ambiguities of words is, for me, sheer bliss!’
Late starters. There do appear to be particularly profound rewards to be gained from starting the cello in later life, especially during retirement. Sue Hadley started learning the cello at the age of 58 after working as a nanny all her life. She had no experience of classical music or instrumental playing before this, but the cello has become one of her major sources of happiness and self confidence in retirement. ‘I knew no-one except other nannies when I retired, but through the cello I have not only found a huge network of dear friends, but a whole world of music which is utterly new and fantastic to me. I feel as high as a kite after playing. I’m always meeting people on the bus or tube who say they wish they could play the cello, and I always tell them that ANYONE can do it.’
In a world of rising life-expectancy, music is likely to become a more important source of fulfilment and wellbeing than ever before. Pat Legg has taught late starters for the last 15 years and is convinced that it is never too late to start. Pat also observes that playing the cello has changed at least one aspect of her students’ lives for the better. She observes that it takes considerable courage for a highly accomplished retired professional to learn a completely new skill but, as scientific studies and the reports of players indicate, it would be hard to find a more inspiring and rewarding activity for anyone wishing to enrich and stimulate their mind and life.
Warm thanks to Judith Mitchell for her generous reading list and kind support; to Dobrila Bercovic-Magdalenic for encouraging so many of her students to participate; to Gordana Jevic for her beautiful translation from Croatian to English; to Danish brain scientist Kjeld Fredens for his valuable references and to all the many cellists who inspired this article.
Philip Ball The Music Instinct: how music works and why we can’t do without it. Bodley Head 2010
DD Coffman Music and Quality of Life in Older Adults Psychomusicology 18:1, 2002, pp76-88
Susan Hallam The power of music: its impact on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people (http://www.ioe.ac.uk/Year_of_Music.pdf) Excellent study and bibliography
T Hays, R Bright, V Minchello, Contribution of Music to Positive Aging, Journal of Aging and Identity 7 (3) 2002 pp165-175
Robert Jourdain Music, the Brain and Ecstasy: How music captures our imagination NY 1997
D J Levetin This is your brain on music NY Dutton/Penguin2006
Editors: Isabelle Peretz and Robert Zatorre Cognitive Neuroscience of Music OUP 2003
Schellenberg, E.G. (2003) Does exposure to music have beneficial side effects? In Peretz, R.,and Zatorre, R.J. (eds). The cognitive neuroscience of music, pp 430-448. OUP 2003
Schellenberg, E.G. (2004) Music lessons enhance IQ. Psychological Science, 15(8), 511-14.
Music as an Intervention in Hospitals:Best Practice: Evidence Based Practice Information Sheets for Health Professionals Volume 5, Issue 4
Extended versions of interviews:
Interview with Sue Hadley
‘I worked as a nanny all my life after leaving school and not long before I retired, I began taking my little goddaughter to cello lessons with Wendy Max. I told Wendy that I’d like to learn the cello too and before I knew it she’d found me a cello and a teacher (Pat Legg). I started playing the cello in 1996, aged 58. I had never even touched an instrument before and had no experience of classical music.
Right from the start, I have always loved to hold my cello. It always makes me smile! Sometimes when I am playing I think, ‘Heavens, listen to me making this music,’ and then I lose my place! I love the sound that my cello makes: it is like velvet.
I think that it is the physical experience of playing, listening and being this gorgeous low steady beat for other players that brings me such an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction. There is a wonderful feeling of calm that surrounds me when I play, and afterwards I am always high as a kite and so excited that it feels as though I have had a few drinks!
I carry my cello to rehearsals on London transport and I even enjoy that, because I have long conversations with people. So many of them say: ‘I wish I could play an instrument,’ and I always tell them anybody can learn to play. If I can learn at 58 with no music in my life before, then ANYONE can.
My confidence has had an enormous boost. My social life has completely changed from when I was a live-in nanny and kew no-one except for other nannies. Suddenly I found a network of friends to go out with and do things with. I call them my music family. I have also learned to listen to music. When I play or go to a concert, everything is new and fantastic to me.
I go out playing most evenings and go to the pub with friends. Every day there is something exciting happening. I live in sheltered accommodation and my people here always want to know where and what I am playing. They are so kind that they brave going out at night to support me at concerts. Because of that I make a tea party for anyone who wants to come along every Thursday, so that helps the people here to get together more.
When I play alone, I am more nit picking and I go over difficult bits and work on scales .Then something will come together or sound right and I have this amazing feeling of joy and I get this Cheshire cat smile right across my face. When playing alone it’s an intimate time: my time, almost a selfish time when I just suit myself and only listen to myself. Playing in duets up to sextets I have to really concentrate, listening to the others coming in on time, wanting to get the timing and sound right. When it works, it’s brilliant and we are all so proud of ourselves. Orchestra is more laid back in a way because you have the conductor guiding you.
I was happy being a nanny all my life and once I retired I thought I would just become a TV watcher and do my knitting. Little did I know! Heavens knows where my wool and needles are!’ (Sue Hadley)
Interview with composer John Blood
‘I started playing the cello aged about 12. I’d been playing the piano some years before this and had performed in concerts at school. My biology teacher, a cellist and a very talented musician, had formed a youth orchestra in Nottingham which was short on cellos; our school had a music stock room full of unused instruments; he “borrowed” a cello (which was rather a lovely instrument), gave me a copy of Tune a Day for the cello and began giving me lessons. Within a couple of weeks he took me along to his orchestra and said “Play what you can”!
I can still remember in those first lessons the strange combination of excitement at making completely different sounds to those of the piano, coupled with the new physical strangeness of actually trying to produce those sounds. With the cello I felt I’d been introduced into a “grown-up” world of music making!
To actually play in an orchestra was an amazing experience. To be in the middle of all those overtures and symphonies, which I knew so well from the radio and from the large library of piano solo reductions that I’d already started collecting, was an experience that never palled.
Being given this chance opportunity to play the cello, without any question, led me to be a composer. I was soon writing large orchestral works and conducting them with our newly formed school orchestra. When I was 18 my Symphony No 1 was broadcast by the BBC, something that would never have happened if the cello hadn’t entered my life.
Above all, I love the sound of the cello, especially when all is going well and I can produce the sounds that I want! So many string playing friends say “I wish I’d learnt the cello” because of the special sound it produces. There is such a range and variety. It can sing or growl!
The physical shape of the instrument is so “human sized” compared to the other members of the family and this makes it very satisfying to play. It fits so well into all the right places when one sits down! It’s a cliché but one does embrace it.
Intellectually I find it a challenge of enormous proportions! It’s like some complicated game of chess where one has to think several moves ahead in order to arrive at a given destination. A feathery, light-and-airy semiquaver phrase is going to crop up in two bars time. It’s in 5th position and, at the moment you are tootling along, fortissimo, in 1st position at the heel. The shift, the change of bow weight, the position of the bow on the string all have to change in the twinkling of an eye. Both brain and body work in gracefully harmony to achieve this musical gear change with imperceptible ease . . . at least that’s the plan!
Playing the lower harmony lines in quartets and orchestral music gives me, as a composer, so much pleasure. It’s as though I’m at the very fulcrum of that magic that makes an unexpected key change in a Dvorak symphony or a Beethoven quartet so spine-tingling.
The social pleasure of having musical conversations and arguments with friends whilst playing without the slippery, tiresome ambiguities of words is, for me, sheer bliss! The cello is able to enter into the discourse with a great variety of beguiling timbres at its disposal from the high pitched and penetrating, attention-seeking A string to the gentle, persuasive mumblings down on the C string.
Emotionally the cello, unlike virtually any other instrument, has the capacity to be right at the cutting edge of the drama as well as being able to just slip away into the background, adding a dash of colour and excitement by the simplest of means.
Playing alone, one can spend more time improving and honing certain aspects of technique as well as simply playing for the sole delight of doing so. This can be very satisfying and rewarding. The benefits gained by this work can be readily felt when playing with others, especially with players of a higher standard who cause one to listen and imitate.
Playing in a cello section as a soaring, expressive melody leaps off the page and the whole section plays as one is an amazing experience and it too can help or benefit one’s playing. One is carried into realms of performing that one might not venture into whilst playing the same passage alone at home.
I’m so lucky in having such a wonderful teacher as Judith Mitchell. So many people I know, after playing the cello in their youth, and for various reasons, experience a long gap of not playing only to start again later on in life. An eager teenager wanting to enjoy as much music making as possible accepts musical challenges on the hoof and bluffs his way through difficult corners. As an adult one wants to do things a little differently!
Judith has made the process of essentially re-learning to play the cello one of great joy, excitement and fun. With every lesson she magically opens yet another door through which new musical delights of cello playing are waiting to be tried out. But it is the experience she has given me of connecting learning to play the cello with virtually every other aspect of my life that has been so rewarding.
Loosen your shoulders and release tension whilst playing the cello and, suddenly, your tone improves. Do the same whilst walking down the road and the world becomes an altogether different place. Break down a seemingly insurmountable musical problem into smaller components, work on those and soon there is no problem at all! The same technique works in everyday life.
Learning the real enjoyment in the process of playing the cello rather than in focussing on reaching an ever elusive monumental peak of perfection is such a wonderful thing to be discovering.’ (John Blood)
Letter from psychotherapist and cellist Margaret Quail to Judith Mitchell 11th January 2004
‘I’ve been looking through Playing and Reality by D W Winnicott, (Routledge 1971). Winnicott began his medical career in the field of paediatrics and became more and more interested in the study of child psychology. In Playing and Reality (now a classic work of reference) he writes of the baby’s early relationship with the mother and his gradual awareness of objects outside of himself. He writes of the baby’s first use of ‘not me’ possessions – fist in mouth activities, attachment to teddy, soft toy or piece of blanket. He calls these ‘transitional objects’.
Winnicott uses the term ‘transitional objects’ and ‘transitional phenomena’ to designate what he calls ‘the intermediate area of experience’. He also places into this category the infant’s babbling and the way in which an older child goes through a repertory of songs and tunes before preparing for sleep, along with the use made of objects ‘that are not part of the infant’s body yet are not fully recognized as belonging to external reality.’ (p.2)
He goes on to say that: ‘It is assumed here that the task of reality-acceptance is never completed, that no human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality, and that relief from this strain is provided by an intermediate area of experience… which is not challenged (arts, religion, etc.) This intermediate area is in direct continuity with the play area of the small child who is “lost” in play’. (p.13)
Later, in the chapter ‘The Location of Cultural Experience’ he writes: ‘… we have yet to tackle the question of what life itself is about. … We now see that is not instinctual satisfaction that makes a baby begin to be, to feel that life is real, to find life worth living. In fact, instinctual gratification starts off as part-functions and they become seductions unless based on a well-established capacity in the individual person for total experience, and for experience in the area of transitional phenomena. It is the self that must precede the self’s use of instinct; the rider must ride the horse, not be run away with. I could use Bufon’s saying: “Le style est l’homme même”. When one speaks of a man one speaks of him along with the summation of his cultural experiences. The whole forms a unit.
‘I have used the term cultural experience as an extension of the idea of transitional phenomena and of play without being certain that I can define the word “culture”. The accent indeed is on the experience. In using the word “culture” I am thinking of the inherited tradition. I am thinking of something that is in the common pool of humanity, into which individuals and groups of people may contribute, and from which we may all draw if we have somewhere to put what we find.’ (Winnicott’s italics)
‘…The interplay between originality and the acceptance of tradition as the basis for inventiveness seems to me to be just one more example, and a very exciting one, of the interplay between separateness and union’. (p.98-99) ‘…At the same time, however, it can be said that separation is avoided by the filling in of potential space with creative playing, with the use of symbols, and with all that eventually adds up to a cultural life’. (p.109)
Towards the end of the book he sums up: ‘It is useful, then, to think of a third area of human living, one neither inside nor outside in the world of shared reality. This intermediate living can be thought of as occupying a potential space, negating the idea of space and separation between the baby and the mother, and all the developments derived from this phenomenon.’ (p.110)
This impressed me when I first read it and it continues to impress me now as I think of my own involvement in music. It is not so much my early relationship with my mother that I think about – it is outside my memory although I don’t doubt its importance – but it is this idea of the potential space of the intermediate area of experience that fascinates me. It is neither my inner world nor the outside reality. I am conscious of it when I engage in all sorts of activities: attending a concert or play, reading a book, spending time in an empty church, painting a picture; but never more so than when I am playing the cello or piano – alone and especially with others.’ (Margaret Quail)
Contributions from students of Dobrila Bercovic-Magdalenic:
‘Playing the cello has a strong physical influence on me. After 25 years of playing the cello has become part of me, so that when I stop playing for few days I sometimes lose physical coordination and injure myself by hitting my hands or arms against objects around me. This might sound strange but that’s how it is!’
‘I read an article years ago that stated that when looking at sound waves of the human voice, the instrument that most closely resembles these sound waves is that of a cello. I have no idea whether or not this is true but I love the idea that we are all drawn to the cello as a result. Indeed, I can’t count how many times non-musicians have referred to the cello as their favorite instrument, citing its ‘sound and tone’ as the reason it sounds so familiar. There is something deeply satisfying about playing and listening to the cello and the only combination that tops playing it solo is when it’s played en masse, something that I’ve only experienced occasionally at the Manchester Cello Festival. Hearing 40-odd cellos at the same time is incredible!’
‘I took up cello at an early age, mostly out of curiosity, because I knew very little about the instrument at the time. Taking up this instrument was the most influential decision I have ever made in my life. You can say that it shaped my life from the point I started playing, and I have also made friends for life by following this path. The sound of this instrument is unique. No other string instrument has a perfect range like the cello, the ability to produce a deep, dark, sound or go up and match instruments like the violin in higher registers. None of the other stringed instruments can produce so many tone colours. These colours affect the mental and emotional state of the artist, as well as the listener. When playing, music uses me and the instrument as a medium to present itself to the listener. The cello is much more than a tool; I use its sound to express things which I wouldn’t be able to say. For me, the sound of this instrument is a “voice” of all that is. I like to think that in this way: that each idea, every emotion can speak through this “voice”.’
‘As a cellist I deeply feel the words of Matilda Leko, famous jazz singer, who said: “Music found me. I could express my pain, my sorrow, and my happiness through music, without being aware of it. And then it became my life, helping me transform all the feelings within my soul, into beautiful colours of music. I must be a lucky one!”’
‘While I’m playing the cello, I feel physically relaxed, but at the same time strong and powerful. I enjoy feeling small joints and muscles that I am normally not aware of. The feeling of transferring the weight of body onto the instrument is fulfilling and pleasurable. Never do I feel the full engagement of each and every, even the smallest part of the body, unless I’m playing cello. I feel the instrument as being part of me.
During playing, the mind and concentration become so sharp, and elevated to a different level that it is not easily compared to any other activity. These are the feelings that have nothing to do with music that I am playing; they relate only to playing, and are present even while practicing scales, etudes… and which I miss so much when I’m not practicing!
And then, when I add the music, which is the reason and aim of playing, and for which purpose everything previously said stands, it opens another dimension which involves emotions and temperament, and there begins the problem of controlling them. To learn to keep under control the strong emotions that music can provoke, and decide at every moment how much I can give myself to music and its beauty, and how much to keep within reason and technical demands, and at the same time not to forget about the body, is something that is continuously being learnt and developed, and is certainly transferable to all other aspects of life. (Just as everything that I live through affects my playing and the way that I express myself.)’
‘Music is God’s gift, and playing the cello for me is the best way to enrich my life and everybody else’s around me.’