‘I come from a family of scientists and educationalists – which explains my lifelong desire to understand how things work. During my 3rd year at the RAM my friend Peter Worral came back from a course with André Navarra and told me I really should try to work with him. He said that Navarra had a very technical approach to his teaching, and I knew that I was really hungry for this way of working. There was something in my bow arm I wasn’t happy with: it was an obstacle between me and the instrument that had never been explained – and I knew I needed a solution. So I went to a course with Navarra in Siena that summer.
Watching Navarra’s bow arm in action for the first time was like finding water in the desert. I knew I had to have it. It was the equivalent of seeing Federer playing tennis: it was poetry in motion, the physical action completely attuned to the ideal outcome. In our first session I played the 1st movement of the Elgar concerto and he gave me a really good lesson on it. Then I started playing the introduction to the second movement, and he sat back and – as teachers did in those days – lit up a cigarette. I could see he was just going to relax and let me play without comment, so when I reached the sautillé part of the movement, I stopped and said, ‘This bow stroke isn’t working. Why?’ I could see a twinkle in his eye. Then he got up and gave me a transformative lesson on the French school of bowing.
I went home to London after the course and worked on everything he had taught me. I played to him again in London a year later, during my final year at the RAM. He walked all around me so that he could see my bow hold and bow arm from different angles. He was so impressed by what I had achieved on my own after 15 minutes of input from him in Siena that he invited me to come and study with him in Germany.
When I arrived at the Hocheschule, Navarra picked me up by the scruff of the neck and dropped me in the deep end by saying I should learn the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations. I was slightly panic stricken and said to my fellow students, ‘This is so difficult,’ but they looked at me and said, ‘Just practice!’ It was a completely different philosophy in his class. Navarra’s gift was to demystify the learning process; he gave us ways to get down to ground principles. Whatever the difficulty is, there is always a point from which you can work on it.
To illustrate the learning process for repertoire, Navarra used to draw a circle like a cake. The first, fairly generous slice, is about simply learning the notes. Then an enormous chunk of the circle represents the process of going back into the piece in a very deep and detailed way, making a profound and comfortable connection with every note, musically and physically, examining and working on every detail. The final slice of cake is when you emerge out of that deep learning stage with a very different experience of playing the piece. He understood that young people tend to think they have learned the piece when they have learned the notes – but that’s only the start. It is essential to find that depth of connection, with physical ease and mental calm, so that practising becomes, at its best, a kind of meditation.
As a result, I probably move a bit more slowly at first through repertoire with my students because I feel it is important to go into depth rather that crunch your way through masses of material, possibly at the expense of the health of your playing. I like to keep repertoire flowing with an eye to what each student is ready for, what suits their character and what they will enjoy. It’s terribly important that they enjoy it and are stretched – always with this aim in mind of making them at one with their instrument. Everything I do has that long-term aim, finding stepping stones along the way to suit each individual. Whoever comes into my teaching room, I try to meet who they are. I would find it very difficult to write a book on teaching technique because the way I explain it, the approach I take and the order in which I do things depends on who is sitting there – I can’t write that down as a rigid set of rules.
In terms of technique, the French school of bowing is one of the most important things I need to pass on as a teacher. It involves the development of much more even finger control in the bow hand so there is a much stronger connection between the little finger and bow. This affects all aspects of bowing technique and also influences the way the sound is produced.
When it comes to moving the bow, the French talk about ‘en poussant’ and ‘en tirant’: pushing and pulling (not ‘up’ and ‘down’ bows) and this basically describes what you are doing with the sound. You push the weight of the bow through the string (you don’t impose on the string from above) using an utterly released upper arm, so that you can get an enormous sound with very little physical effort. This also sums up one of the fundamental philosophies of my teaching, which is to get the maximum result with the minimum expenditure of physical energy. This in turn means that your playing can last for many decades, as you’re less likely to get injured through physical strain.
Navarra’s name always comes up during discussions on sautillé bowing. When teaching sautillé, I start by demonstrating exactly what the stroke is. It’s a friction stroke (not off the string) which depends on a lot of contact with the string and uses some weight in the bow. We’re not thinking of pulling and pushing for this stroke, because the bow actually goes up and down if you look at the point. The actual amount of travel of the hair is minute. You also need to find the sweet spot on your bow where it is most inclined to join in, as you can’t impose sautillé on a bow; sautillé requires a partnership between you and your bow.
The other thing Navarra gave us in bucket loads was fantastic techniques for practising. One of his favourite sayings was, ‘Always practice as if you have all the time in the world.’ He said that this is even more important when a performance is just two days away. Rushing your practice is what Alexander Technique teachers call ‘end gaining’ – you are pushing for a result instead of working with where you are at the moment and you are going to build up all kinds of tension as a result.
Another fundamental teaching principle is to try to remove all obstacles in my students’ way. I want to make them feel what I felt when I first got my bow arm right – that there is nothing between me and the instrument. You are at one with the instrument, so it then becomes a channel rather than an obstacle, a channel through which you express yourself rather than something with which you fight. My ideal would be to get all my students to that point and I keep a very close eye on their technique, right from the first lesson, and start to work to remove the obstacles, beginning with the one that seems to be most in the way and progressing on from that.
My uncle, who was a celebrated Cambridge genetics professor, said that he built his entire career counting the hairs on the backs of fruit flies! Talk about the nitty gritty of scientific research! Teaching for me is similar – you need to be patient and observant and to have a mind-set that wants to analyse what you observe. For me it’s a significant part of the fascination and joy of the job. It requires patience, but I enjoy my students as individuals at every stage of their development as cellists.
I had a breakthrough recently in helping a student to understand sound production. He has the most amazing facility and soul in his playing but was working a little too hard to get the sound that he wants. He was using a slightly raised right upper arm and the challenge was to get him to push and pull the bow while releasing his upper arm – to help him trust that if he was really pushing that weight through the string, he would get the level of sound and the drama that he wanted. Then there came that wonderful moment when the penny drops, and you see the ‘wow’ on the face of your student. Suddenly he could play a passage with a fraction of the effort and a satisfying, round forte sound. I think he went away from that lesson convinced that he needed to practise to make that a complete habit.
If you can show a student the art of practising in their own time, it is immensely empowering. They know it’s not just down to my input, but to the work they do by themselves. Navarra sent us all off to our professional lives with a handy bag of tools to use – and that’s what I try to do for my students, with the ultimate aim that they are independent. It’s a good feeling to see them flying off the branch, knowing they have what they need to go on progressing in their own way.’ GT