Mind Shifts

My two-year-old son once informed me happily, “I want to listen to music with my ear, and with my other ear.” I laughed, “Me too!”

I’ve been looking for new ways to hear music all my life, and I encourage my students to do the same. All my music teachers helped me do this to one degree or another, but three special people—an art teacher, a tennis pro, and a yoga/piano teacher—gave me such valuable insights into the process of unclogging stopped-up creative listening and observing, that before I continue this article, I’d like to introduce them to you.

The art teacher is Betty Edwards, who wrote Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (J.P. Tarcher, Inc, St. Martin’s Press, 1979) The tennis pro, of course is W. Timothy Gallwey, and his book is The inner Game of Tennis (Random House, 1974, Bantam Books, 1979). The yoga and dance teacher—and the artistic guru to so many—is the late Eloise Ristad, author of A Soprano On Her Head(Real People Press, 1982).

All three of these books had a major impact on my artistic life, and I urge anyone I know in the arts to read them. Their authors searched for and found the “Other Ear,” the “Other Eye,” the “Hidden Observer,” and the “the Doer.” Their use of the latest research in right brain functions in the artistic process is invaluable for music teachers at all levels. So, now that I’ve introduced my three secret teachers, I want to share some experiences in what I call “Mind Shifts: breakthroughs in hearing, thinking, and feeling to make chamber music ever more “possible” and pleasurable.


One of the most powerful tools available to bring about mind shifts is called “imaging”—vividly imagining a new hand position, a musical passage, or even an entire composition with the mind’s eye before physically experiencing it. The part of the brain that can do this seems to be the non-verbal, intuitive right hemisphere. To access this powerful half of the brain requires more than just positive thinking. I’ve found it involves quieting the brain temporarily, and allowing the intuitive, non-verbal, extremely observant side to merge, surrender to, and become one with a thing, an image, or an idea.

The “thing” can be tired fingers. A passage of ascending eights notes in the Molto Allegro of Mozart’s Quartet K.499 (measures 98 through 101) always made my hand ache. My fingers were locking up after one of two passes at this devilish solo. I struggled to master it in practice and rehearsal, but couldn’t find the right fingering. Then one morning I was lying in bed, half awake, thinking of my left hand moving over the cello’s fingerboard. I was playing Mozart’s music in slow motion, stopping after each group of notes, and assessing how I felt, and where I could move next. I suddenly realized I wasn’t watching my fingers. I WAS my fingers, and they were me. Like a professional mountain climber, I moved from position to position, never straining or forcing my muscles. A whole new fingering fell into place. I tried it in my head several times at various speeds. Then I leaped out of bed and got out the cello. The fingering worked beautifully, and the old forced fingering was never used again.

The “thing” can be a tense, skittish bow arm that can be made to connect with the strings when an imaginary “Incredible Journey” into the tissue, bone, and muscle of the arm makes a student feel its heaviness, like a sock full of warm, wet sand. The “thing” can be rigid fingers that, while trying to vibrate, are suddenly given permission to soften and flex when the fingerboard is seen as slightly yielding to the touch instead of a hard slab of ebony.

It can also be a composer. I was sitting backstage in Detroit’s Orchestra Hall with an unexpected 20 minutes to myself. I played through two solo passages, and then remembered an uncomfortable cello accompaniment in the first page of Mendelssohn’s Opus 12 Quartet (measures 71 through 74). The backstage area where I was sitting was dark, except for a slim stream of light from the house lights shining on Mendelssohn’s music. Time was not pressing. Here was a chance to make those awkward notes work.

I turned the page and let my eyes rest calmly on the four measures in question, as if they were the only measures I was going to play that night. I put down my bow and brought the music unusually close to my eyes. The notes grew in size and significance. I noticed their topography—not a dramatic mountain range like a solo part, but an undulating, murmuring stream with occasional dips. I observed the dips and their regularities, and their aberrations. Suddenly, I was inside Mendelssohn’s mind. Sure he wasn’t Beethoven, but he was a great composer with a brilliant mind., and he had written these notes, these very pitches for a quartet cellist. Only a cellist could play them, and tonight I was the cellist for whom Mendelssohn had written them.

They were like a personal letter from young Felix to me. I put the music back on the stand, took up my bow, and began playing the rapid passage very slowly, as beautifully as I could, as if it were a special cello solo from a slow movement. My hand remained calm and unanxious. It no longer lurched and groped for emergency fingerings, but quietly found natural groupings. My open and receptive frame of mind saw what had been hidden for days of rehearsals. Like one of those artisan who strove in the the lofty gloom of medieval cathedrals to make perfect designs only God could see, I had illuminated a dark corner of Mendelssohn’s Opus 12, and cleared the way to a much happier and personally fulfilling performance.


This openness and receptive frame of mind works wonderfully in a group of people striving for the same goal. The Bergonzi String Quartet was grappling with one of the most awkward openings in the repertoire—the first two measures of Mozrt’s K. 499, first movement. The difficulty is that all four voices have the same pitches in octaves or unison. We tried the passage slowly, then in pairs, cello loud with all others quiet, each player alone. Finally, I suggested we quietly “image” the first two measures, especially the elusive first F-sharp. “Let’s image this note—exactly how it will feel to play, the sound of all four voices resonating at exactly the same frequencies, the amount of vibrato, the tempo.” We sat quietly for 5 or 10 seconds imaging all this. With my eyes closed, I imagined exactly how it would feel for me to play the opening, exactly how my fingers, hands, and arms would feel playing F-sharp to D-natural on the A-string. I also imagined all four of us feeling the notes exactly together and somehow knowing where our fingers were going to go on our fingerboards. When we opened our eyes and played the first two measures again, it was perfectly in tune. Magic? Give this powerful tool a try. We stopped trying to “make” it in tune, and instead allowed it “to be” in tune. All three of my secret teachers talk about this magical process in their books.

This magic does not work unless everyone in the group empowers it, surrenders to it, and allows it to work. This rarely happens in a jaded and cynical setting such as you occasionally find in professional orchestras. What a thrill to see these same musicians empower a conductor they all respect and enjoy. His verbal images and physical gestures somehow inspire the musicians to play on a whole new level of beauty, subtlety, and power. In a chamber ensemble, the musicians have the chance to empower each other, to remain open to new ideas, to turn colleague’s suggested images into “living images.”


When I was a student, I was admonished not to think of music in images–in terms of, let’s say, “monks walking by a monastery wall.” I sometimes heard music that gave an irresistible impression of monks walking by a wall, but I thought, “No! No! That’s one of those bad images. Bad! Bad! Bad!” It wasn’t until I was out of school that I started thinking, “Wait a minute. How about those monks? Why would the image of monks even occur to me?”

So I took a closer look at the monks, and I noticed that because of their long robes, their feet don’t’ show. This made them look as if they’re floating. They also seemed very centered, serene, and reverential as they mysteriously glided by that impassive stone wall on their way to early morning vespers. Floating, serene, suspended in time, almost surreal. Now how does all this translate into bow and vibrato? As I carefully observed the monks and their motion, I became one with their motion. My bow began to take on the same floating, seamless, serene motion of their procession. If everyone in the group can “be there” with the monks—really see the image—then the sound of the group will change.

Sometimes, painting a whole picture is not necessary, and very evocative words can bring about the shared image. In describing sound, we’ll use phrases such as “in this place, I’m looking for a veiled, perfumed sound; or a hot driving sound; or a cool, icy sound.” The longer the group is together, the more quickly a mind shift can be achieved through brief phrases, and a change in sound can occur.


At the Castleman Quartet Program, the famous chamber music workshop, I was coaching a string. quartet that experienced an important breakthrough in its feeling as a group and understanding of the music because of one “living” image. We were working on the first page of Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet, and everyone’s sound and approach was different. In an effort to find common ground (and a possible mind shift), I explained elemental method acting. Briefly, when actors who feeling quite normal, perhaps even happy, have to perform a tragic scene, they need to recall some tragic memory, some vividly experienced emotion, some desperately real situation of grief in such a way that they are able to eclipse their happy mood and instead experience those black feelings again, as if for the first time. Shostakovich certainly experienced his share of despair, but what about these sincere high schoolers looking at me with smiling optimism. Would they be able to empathize with the victims of fascism and war? Could they understand feelings of betrayal, hopelessness, death?

Then a story came to mind from the novel Only Children by Alison Lurie, about a  young girl’s discovery that her mother thinks she’s ugly. Happily collecting Japanese beetles in the garden, the girl overhears a conversation through the kitchen window between the womenfolk as they shell hard-boiled eggs. The conversation turns to daughters, and the girl hears her mother’s voice saying, “I don’t know what will be become of my ugly duckling. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to marry her.” Shocked, she stands rooted to the ground. Time stands still as she realizes the meaning of these words. Her self-concept, her relationship with her mother, her life itself will never be the same from that moment forward. She can’t breathe. She feels trapped, as if she’s wearing a body cast. She wants to speak, but can’t.

The four high-school students felt the despair of that girl. They felt the body cast around their chests. Without further discussion, they tried to turn that feeling into sound as they once again played through the first page of Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet. Their sound was so paralyzed and pathetic that I had to remind them they were indeed going to be performing this opening in a concert hall, and that they needed bow contact with the string in order to be heard. They had been touched, however—all of them—with empathy for the girl in Lurie’s story, and this intense union with an emotion by the entire group caused a mind shift not just in their performance of the piece, but also in their self-concept as an ensemble. They were proud, excited, and drawn together by their newly discovered ability to understand and translate intensely felt images into sound.


I was pleased that my image had created a mind shift in my students. I wondered , however, if they could have this experience if they themselves tried sharing personal responses to the music. It seems to be easier for students or even professional musicians to be carried away by a conductor’s image or a coach’s story than to accept a colleague’s heartfelt imaging. A real challenge facing every ensemble is to develop a trusting atmosphere full of respect, where everyone in the group can put aside defenses and preconceptions, and follow a colleague into his or her pool of personal responses to a musical passage or composition.

I call this the Snorkel Principle. The amazing leap of fait or mind shift that occurs when one first inhales under water and doesn’t drown because of a snorkel reminds me of overcoming one’s nautral defenses and submerging with one’s imagination into a colleague’s image or idea. A chamber musician needs a strong self-concept and musical personality, but also the flexibility and courage to occasionally put aside cherished personal ideas and try new ways of hearing and playing. If one member of the group is too over-bearing or inflexible, the others may feel they are drowning as their personalities and inner artistic lives are choked off. The snorkel is the mutual respect and trust that can develop if all ensemble members work for balance and a genuine exchange, trying all ideas in good faith.

Snokeling is critical to ringlingly-in-tune intonation. When an inner voice holds on to a pitch because “this is in tune—I can hear the phantom note of my instrument!” the ensemble’s intonation usually suffers. If, instead, the inner voices can surrender to the group intonation (especially the foundation or fundamental pitch of the chord), and let their own pitch concept float until it comes into focus with others, rather than clinging to a predetermined pitch concept, intonation can shift into that extraordinary “power-ring” that is perfectly in tune.


Several years ago, during one of my talks with Eloise Ristad, I was explaining how I had taken this surrendering principle too far. I was losing touch with my own ideas in an effort to adjust to everyone else’s ideas. As a result, I was feeling discouraged and considering dropping out of the group. Eloise said, “Let’s try something. Close your eyes and describe everyone in the group. Tell me what you see when you look in their direction—your image of them.” I did. Now describe yourself.” I said I felt as if I were a single millimeter thick, a layer of paint in the shape of a cellist on the inside of a bowl.

“Now I want you to step outside of yourself. With your imagination, I want you to sculpt a life-size statue of yourself as a cellist. Make it out of imaginary clay. Notice the thickness of the cello, the width of your shoulders, the length of your arms. Capture the size of the chair and the size of your legs as they hold the cello. Feel the volume of clay you are using to create a life-size statue of yourself and your cello.” As I toiled on my imaginary statue, I admitted this was a very big and rather imposing creation. “Good. Now step into that statue. You and the statue are the same size. How do you feel?”

Big, I admitted. “Now spread your arms and swing them around you. This is your sphere of influence. Long thick arms, big cello, and weighty body. A real presence. Powerful. Now look at your colleagues. Describe them again.” I looked around the quartet as an equal, fully participating member. The quartet was now four powerful individuals working toward a common goal. No one was dominant or subservient. It was an amazing mind shift. With my newfound self-image as a complete and influential cellist playing in a string quartet, I was able to rebuild my confidence and begin making a contribution to my group.

In ensemble playing, it is sometimes difficult to feel like an individual performer when everyone else needs so much attention, flexibility, and balance. A healthy ensemble, however, needs everyone to be a complete, independent personality. It is not enough to be just one wing of a bi-plane. If you feel this way, GROW ANOTHER WING!” Everyone needs to be a soloist with the power and personality to play concertos while maintaining the subtlety of a chamber musician. Each one needs to fly with two wings all on his or her own, as does each member of the Blue Angels. Each member of this crack aerial circus team is an expert pilot quite capable of flying on his or her own. When they perform together, however, they fly as an amazingly synchronized and fluid ensemble.

Use whatever image or imaging that works for you. Let it change you, focus you, inspire you. Strap on those snorkels, fly with two wings, and keep a sharp eye out for monks. Approach music with your ear and your other ear listening—your eye and your other eye watching.