When asked how he knew that being able to stand would liberate his cello playing, Mike Block offers an intriguing response: “I didn’t quite realize what I was missing by only sitting until I had the experience of standing.” We are speaking by phone while the Boston-based cellist drives between gigs, from Dallas to Austin.
His comment at first feels a bit odd, considering that he had spent years developing a unique cello-strap design. But Block recalls one memory that sums up its impact: He stood alongside collaborators while performing a bluegrass concert and realized he’d hit on something great.
“When it came time for my solo, I was able to just take one step forward toward the mic, and that was such an incredible feeling—I felt like I could embody the arrangement and make it visible,” Block says.
I was able to just take one step forward toward the mic, and that was such an incredible feeling—I felt like I could embody the arrangement and make it visible.
Block stresses that since developing the special strap—officially called the Block Strap—it’s “opened up new parts” of him. For one, he can play and sing more freely. The strap safely loops and buckles around the pegs, through the endpin, around the underside of the neck, and around the player’s body. It also has an adjustable, padded chest cushion made of breathable and textured-rubber fabric that keeps the cello in place. It allows the cellist to stand, walk, and even dance. Others seem to agree on its comfort; the Block Strap’s testimonial video features such colleagues as Yo-Yo Ma, Natalie Haas, and Boston Symphony cellist Alexandre Lecarme moving while playing.
Block, a multi-style cellist, says he suspects his diverse repertoire and collaborations with musicians of many backgrounds led him to the invention; he doubts he’d have arrived at it if he had stuck strictly to classical performance.
Block’s journey began in March 2013, but the history of strap-like devices being outfitted to cellos is much longer. “There’s a surprising amount of precedence for jerry-rigging ways to stand with the cello, dating back even to the 1700s,” he shares. But he was particularly inspired by singer-songwriter Lindsay Mac and cellist Rushad Eggleston, who outfitted their cellos with guitar straps. Block says he was jealous of Eggleston’s freedom. Block tried their method for himself—but was dissatisfied.
“Normally the cello is probably at a 45-degree angle to the ground, and that allows you to sort of sink in with your bow arm to get a deep and varied sound, because the cello is resisting the bow,” he explains. “But when you’re using a simple guitar strap, the cello unavoidably hangs more vertically. You have to press into the instrument in order to make a sound with the bow; you can’t really use any arm weight in the same way that you’re used to while sitting.” It significantly compromised his physical comfort and expressive abilities, he adds. He tried identifying all the ways he’d need to change his technique. To try out the adjustments, he played Popper études—his Litmus test, he says. But ultimately, it wasn’t working. He realized he had been trying to change his technique, but instead needed to adapt the strap to himself.
“That set me off on two years of experimentation, trying to find different ways to get the cello in a position that felt more familiar and comfortable, and didn’t require me to discard years and years of cello practicing and tens of thousands of dollars of tuition money,” he says.
The Work Around
Early versions involved duct tape, kitchen towels, and rope. He used a bass-guitar strap as the foundation, extending the end and cutting holes. “They didn’t look good at all,” Block says. He went through a number of trials, many of which began when his left hand finally felt comfortable, but then he had to adjust for his bowing hand to work.
Over time, players began asking if they could get one, once it was finished. That pushed him to envision a commercial product, and throughout the process he invited other cellists’ feedback. His first design epiphany was to attach the strap in a third location, near the scroll. The second was to add a textured, customizable chest cushion that grips the cello.
But the true test, he says, was in performance. “The really stressful part was that from very early on it was clear to me that I was only really going to understand this if I performed standing,” Block says. “There was even one concert where I was playing locally, in Boston, when one of the strap’s ropes snapped.
Luckily the instrument didn’t fall because I had a couple different attachments to it, but I remember playing the second half of an entire concert on a cello strap that was half broken.”
The anxiety was motivating. Once he landed on a design, he worked with a textile artist in South Boston before connecting with an overseas pet-toy manufacturing company to produce the strap. In the past year, he’s sold more than 350.
A Newfound Freedom
“I think there’s something about the confidence and the openness you can have while standing and the ability to really command a stage or command a room,” Block says of performing with the strap. The strap has also led to new artistic possibilities. For instance, he found himself wandering around while practicing, ending up in his bathroom. That inspired his “Bach in the Bathroom” YouTube series.
He even prefers to wear the strap while sitting: In February 2015, Block performed with the Silk Road Ensemble, which was collaborating with the New York Philharmonic. When sitting with the cello section, he opted to remain strapped.
“There’s still this freedom of not being tied into the ground by the endpin, so I can still kind of rotate to the left or the right as much as I want,” he says.
The Block Strap might not be as big a revelation for every cellist, however. Block shares that when he introduced the product to New York Philharmonic principal cellist Carter Brey, the reaction was a little lackluster.
“All he said was, ‘Oh. OK,’” Block recalls. “I was talking to some friends in Silk Road about it afterward and they were like, ‘Well, yeah, he’s an orchestral cellist. He has absolutely no need or potential use for a cello strap.’”
But others have put the strap to plenty of use. One school in Santa Monica, California, outfitted its cellists with the strap, allowing for choreography in concert. Block says one musical and a ballet also incorporated it.
When asked what’s next, he stresses that he’s a cellist first and foremost; his business hat isn’t a priority right now. But he is thinking of creating ways for musicians to customize the strap—to “bling it out,” as he says.