Tag Archives: overseas scholarship

Archery and cello playing – two sides of the same coin?

Colloquium presented at the Department of Music
Stellenbosch University
22 October 2012

The reason why I took up archery may need some explanation and in order to do this I have to go back in my history a bit.

As a young under graduate student I was often frustrated as tendonitis seemed to hound me through out my studies and cause me to seriously question my career choice. However, as is often the case in life, the choice of whether to continue or not, was made for me when I was awarded a UNISA Licentiate Overseas Scholarship after my final BMus year which caused me to land at the “Mozarteum” in Salzburg for the next 3 years studying cello performance.

It is now just about 35 years ago that my cello teacher in Salzburg gave me a little book to read which she thought could be helpful to me (all in German!). It was called “Zen and the art of Archery”, written by a German Philosopher by the name of Eugen Herrigel in 1953. It is a booklet about his experiences whilst studying Archery with a Zen Master in Japan for 6 years. It describes his struggles, both to understand the underlying Zen philosophy and those encountered within him during this process. This story and the description of his teacher’s teaching absolutely fascinated me as there were such clear similarities to that which I was confronted with in my cello studies, although of course from a completely different perspective and in a completely different discipline. The road that I was being led towards and coached about in an attempt to help me understand the underlying cause of my tendonitis, was an inner journey that I saw mirrored in Herrigel’s descriptions of his. It struck a sympathetic chord in me and I vowed: One day I am going to study archery! However, as is also often the case with good intentions, it took me a while to realize this one – all of 30 + years, but I can honestly say that I never really forgot about it – it was always lurking at the back of my mind.

What I learnt in Salzburg was to a great extent to completely change my approach to music and therefore also to cello playing. I came from a typical background where, for the outside world at least, external achievement was very important and I, unconsciously, also accepted that as proof of quality and of self worth. I felt good if I could say how many hours of practice I had put in and what level of perfection I thought I had achieved. It felt even better when I won something or achieved good marks in an exam. It was therefore quite a new experience for me when my teacher hardly commented on obvious imperfections in my playing and would be more interested in whether or not I felt comfortable when playing, or asked of me to rather think about what movements expressed the music best that trying to play a piece. She asked me to simulate playing – to “play” without sound, making only the movements, allowing my body to experience the music and allowing it to find the most natural way to move whilst playing. At first I was completely stressed because the first thing that happened was that the level of perfection in my playing took a real nose dive! I felt that I was loosing control – which of course I did – but that was exactly the point. I needed to give up trying to control everything. How often did I not hear the words: “do not play – let ”it” play! Or: “only play with honest energy – use emotional energy and not will power!” At first it sounded like Chinese to me!

I remember one very bad day when I stood in the middle of a foot bridge crossing the Salzach River which runs through the middle of Salzburg, after having had an hour long lesson on the first two notes of the Schumann cello concerto. I was totally exasperated with myself and my cello and thought “if I throw my cello in this river it will end up in the Black Sea and I need never ever play again!” Luckily I did not do it and I still play on the same instrument!

No wonder that I was struck by this sentence on the very first page of this little book that came into my hands – part of the preface written by a certain Mr. Suzuki. (nót the famous violin teacher!) I quote: “If one really wishes to be master of an art, technical knowledge of it is not enough. One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an ‘artless art’ growing of the Unconscious.” I was getting really excited about all of this!  And I read further “this state of unconsciousness is realized only when, completely empty and rid of self, the artist becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art.”  If stuff like this was written in a published book, then maybe my cello teacher is not completely mad. Maybe there is something to it!

Herrigel describes in his book how he came to Japan to teach philosophy at a university. Studying archery with a Zen Master was one of the things on his “bucket list” and he had been looking forward to pursuing this dream of his in Japan. He was thus very disappointed when at first he had great difficulty in convincing a Zen Master to teach him, a Westerner, archery. He was eventually only accepted as a student when a Japanese friend, who was also studying archery with the same teacher he had unsuccessfully approached, intervened on his behalf. Now follows his description of the 6 years of struggle and despondency and eventual growth.

In the first year he was only allowed to draw the bow string – not shoot. He describes how the teacher demonstrated this action, seemingly without any effort and then saying “Now you do it! Remember, archery is not meant to strengthen the muscles. When drawing the string, you should not exert the full strength of your body, but must learn to let only your two hands do the work, while your arm and shoulder muscles remain relaxed, as though they look on impassively.” Herrigle’s subsequent efforts, trying to achieve this, went on for a year – one during which he was eventually lead to discover the secret of breathing. As the Master then instructs: “through this breathing you will not only discover the source of all spiritual strength, but it will also cause this source to flow more abundantly and pour more easily through your limbs, the more relaxed you are.”

Reading about this again triggered a new approach in cello playing for me. No one had ever asked me before to observe my own breathing whilst playing, but my cello teacher did that often. She made me aware of it that I actually often held my breath when a difficult passage came up. I started to question myself. How do I breathe? Do I breathe at all!!? Where in my body do I breathe? How does my breathing affect my sound and phrasing? The liberation that this insight brought about was a highlight in my search for that hidden something that changed notes into magic.

In the second year of his studies, Herrigle was eventually allowed to work on the release of the bow string. His teacher said:” All that you have learnt hitherto was only a preparation for releasing the shot” When watching the Master, the release looked so simple and undemanding, that it might have been child’s play. This effortless smooth release of utmost tension however, continued to elude Herrigle. He was close to despair and said as much when the Master replied: ”The right art is purposeless and aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede. What stands in your way is that you have a ‘much too willful will’. You think that what you do not actually will yourself to do, does not happen.”

Then I had to remember my cello lessons again and the ever recurring directive; “don’t do it, let it happen!” Possibly the most difficult thing to learn is to give up control – even an assumed one!

I was always amazed by the fact that during my cello studies, every now and then, I seemed to “bump into” new insights on this subject. Such was the fact when I attended a cello master class by the renowned cellist of the previous century, Zara Nelsova, an American of Russian decent. One of the students was having great difficulty with hitting the notes spot on in the very difficult Walton cello concerto. She proceeded to explain that, given the huge distances one often has to move on the cello, you can only be sure to hit a remote note once you understand that each note is actually a specific state of mind and body and not primarily a geographical location on the fingerboard. Now that was a new thought to chew on! She explained further that practicing simply aiming for a remote “spot” will never truly solve the problem, as it will never contain the true meaning of the interval – even if you hit the note by accident after lots of practice, it will still be meaningless…

In the meantime I still followed Herrigle and his struggles. He is now already in his third year of study and still the teaching is about the technique only – no mention at all about actually shooting at something. In Zen terms: “Steep is the way to mastery. Often nothing keeps the pupil on the move but his faith in his teacher…..” That I can attest to! At times I felt I could identify with him when he confessed in his book: “I will not deny that I spent many gloomy hours wondering whether I could justify this waste of time, which seemed to bear no conceivable relationship to anything I had learnt and experienced so far.”

My cello studies in Salzburg came to a favorable conclusion after 3 years, and I landed up next in Geneva, Switzerland at the Conservatoire de Genéve for the next two years. My new French professor was known as a “sound Guru”. I quote him often to my own students as saying to me “You must become ze sound!” and further, “It is not ze notes that are important but, that which happens between them!”  By now I was luckily already fairly schooled in understanding what that might mean and it excited me to be working along the same lines still more.

It seemed to me that Mr. Herrigle had a more difficult time than I did though. At least I was allowed to play music through all this soul searching going on!

In his 5th year of study only was he eventually allowed to shoot at a target! The first obstacle for him to overcome was to get enough energy in his shots so that they would fly far enough. The Master explained: “It does not depend on the strength the bow, but on your presence of mind. In order to unleash this full force of awareness, you must perform the movements differently: rather as a good dancer dances. If you do this, your movements will spring from the centre, from the seat of right breathing. Instead of reeling off the ceremony (the technique of shooting) like something learnt by heart, it will then be as if you were creating it under the inspiration of the moment, so that the dance and the dancer are one and the same.”

Herrigle was still confronted with the typical Western worry about external success. “You worry unnecessarily” the Master comforted him. “Put the thought of hitting the target right out of your mind! You can be a Master even if every shot does not hit.”

I am happy to report that after 6 years of study Herrigle was finally pronounced to be a Zen Master of Archery. In his book he describes what it felt like: Bow, arrow, goal and ego. All melt into one another so that I can no longer separate them. And even the need to separate them has gone. For as soon as I take the bow and shoot, everything becomes so clear and straightforward and so ridiculously simple…”

Back in South Africa I came into contact with the Alexander Technique and I have since been a keen enthusiast of this discipline. It comes from quite another angle, but concepts like: “beware of ‘end gaining’ and finding the ‘means whereby’”, struck familiar chords with me. A new and deeper understanding of how the human body can move within this state of “greatest advantage”, as the AT calls it, has been instrumental in shaping my ideas about teaching and playing the cello over many years. My French professor also often talked about playing “from the inside out” and not from the “outside in.” I found that working with an Alexander Technique teacher gave me new insight into this directive which, at the time I understood, but since it has taken on many more dimensions.

I think that this idea was further expounded for me through the words of the great cellist and teacher, William Pleeth, (he was the main teacher of Jaqueline du Prez) in his book: “Cello”.

“How can a physical action have a separate existence from the emotion which brought it into being and which it is to reflect?”

Later in the same chapter (Technique in Perspective) he says:

“The act of playing – physically and spiritually – must be one of relative balance and completeness in our whole being, for each aspect is carrying the other aspect and all must travel together along the same wavelength. Everything causes everything, everything gives birth to everything, everything feeds everything – the ‘oneness’ of you, your instrument and the music should be so perfect that all three marry into one entity in the end: one seamless whole in which one cannot see where the one part leaves off and the other begins.

Whatever you are conveying musically has to have this perfect unity, because it is only when one has this kind of completeness that one can become a complete creative being.”

Another aspect of the AT that I found fascinating was the obvious link between emotions and the physical body. We all know that if you say to someone: “Oh, I feel so depressed today” that we tend to give the words a physical reinforcement. I suppose the expression; “to read someone’s body language” comes from exactly that. We tend to physically “become” what we feel, but unfortunately mostly in the negative sense like the effect nervousness can have on one.

I experienced first hand how the exact opposite could also happen. I used to drive through from Stellenbosch to Mowbray for my AT lesson in between teaching classes. Often I would be slightly late and a bit stressed by the time I arrived there. Invariably I would notice that, on leaving my lesson (having been put physically “in order”), my senses would be so much more acute. I would suddenly smell the flowers, see the green leaves and hear the birds. All over I would feel better and more positive. I became more and more aware through teaching and playing how an ability to have a free, balanced and therefore relaxed body, allows the player (artist) to became the perfect vessel, bringing about exactly what Pleeth talks about and calls “oneness”, which enables him/her to convey true musical expression.

And so Cello playing, Alexander Technique and Zen seemed to me to merge more and more. Maybe it is not so strange then that, about three years ago I was eventually prompted to do something about the promise I made to myself as a student, way back in Salzburg – to finally take up archery.

In this area the traditional art of Japanese Zen Archery is not taught, as far as I could find out, so I had to settle for modern archery but since there is also a book written about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I suppose one could also practice Zen and the art of modern archery!

And so the circle was completed. When I practice archery I find that I draw a lot on my years of experience, playing and teaching the cello, and when I play the cello, I often have completely new insights that I have, sometimes totally unconsciously, gained through my efforts regarding archery. In a way “oneness” can be practiced where ever you go and in what ever you do and that is a lifelong work.

(Posted on behalf of Dalena Roux, cello lecturer at Stellenbosch University)