By Sarah Freiberg
Cellist and pedagogue Steven Doane has received prizes for his teaching from both the New England Conservatory and the Eastman School of Music, where he is currently professor of violoncello. He is known for emphasizing how to play freely, in a highly ergonomic way. When I spoke to him, he was on his way to teach and lecture at the National Summer Cello Institute, presented by cellist and pedagogue Uri Vardi’s “Your Body Is Your Strad” program, which incorporates Feldenkrais movement principles with “private lessons, master classes, and seminars dedicated to expanding artistic freedom.”
Doane has an interesting take on prospective college students and the audition procedure. In general, he feels that many students play repertoire that is just too hard. “When you are talented in high school, you may spend the last year and a half trying to get the audition repertoire down. Sometimes it’s a ‘reach’ piece—and it seems too far.”
Doane worries that both student and teacher become slaves to the repertoire. “A young player may get tense because the reach piece is really hard. If they come in with physical tension, but have something to say, I enjoy helping them become really comfortable.”
If his new students have concentrated on advanced repertoire before they have gotten the fundamentals down, their skills may be customized to just a few very difficult pieces. Then Doane’s role is to help them fill in the missing technique. He would much prefer that students play less difficult pieces well than try to tackle very challenging works when they aren’t quite ready for them.
Doane suggests playing “a piece that showcases your strengths. It’s much better to play something well at the top of your level. And play something in which your musical voice can emerge. I’m looking for someone who has something to say. I want to see some instrumental fluency, but that can develop. A sense of musical engagement, sense of sound, and sense of fluency are what are most important.”
As a young performer, Doane spent a memorable year on a Watson Foundation grant studying with various European teachers, with a particularly magical time working with Jane Cowan in Scotland, who was Steven Isserlis’ teacher. “She had an intuitive sense about physical playing. She used to say, ‘If it’s difficult, it’s impossible.’ In other words, no matter how hard the music is, it shouldn’t be physically hard to play.
“My goal is to develop a technique that supports and ‘disappears’ into the music making—the best technique (Jane Cowan termed this the ‘transcendental technique’) is that which is not noticed at all.” Incorporating natural movement principles into technical work is key to his teaching. Doane mentioned Feldenkrais work, Tai Chi movement concepts, and the Alexander technique as “superb ways to connect to one’s spatial and postural awareness and skeletal freedom.”
“Whether performing, practicing, or warming up, Doane stresses comfort in playing.”
For Doane, finding ease of motion is central to cello technique. Much of his work is based on circles and ellipses. “If someone plays with a lot of straight lines, or very angularly, we know we need to work on that.” Toward that end, he produced a series of 18 brief videos on cello playing for the European String Teachers Association and produced by the Hidersine Company in the UK, which are all available on YouTube.
In all these brief videos, Doane clearly and colorfully shows how to play in a relaxed and motion-centric manner. In explaining string crossings, Doane references the Karate Kid—going from a lower-string down bow to a higher-string up bow is a “waxing on” or counterclockwise motion, while starting a down bow on a higher string and going to a lower-string up bow is a “wax off” or clockwise circular motion. As you watch his videos, you will also notice that his body is always in motion—his torso rotates slightly to the right on a down bow, and back to the left on an up bow. It is a dynamic way to play.
Whether performing, practicing, or warming up, Doane stresses comfort in playing. “The best warm-up exercises should incorporate a strong kinesthetic sense—comfort is a first priority, and freedom and fluency will follow. This applies to both bowing and left-hand fluency—I sometimes refer to the left-arm motion in shifting as the ‘left bow arm’ as the motions are similar to bowing, but on a different axis.” Doane feels that a beautiful sound created by “a satisfying and comfortable motion is a magical piece of our ‘cello puzzle.’ An emphasis on sound sensations frees us physically; we can then do our job of constantly listening and monitoring the quality of the sound and the musical results.”
Most importantly, Doane wants to nurture the musician rather than the technician. “In practicing and preparing a work, always make the connection between the musical concept and its technical realization—the first must absolutely guide the second or we are putting the cart before the horse.” Doane encourages lots of singing in his lessons, as he says, “The best cello lesson is to sing your phrase with complete musical intention, and then try to realize that shape instrumentally.” He believes that bow distribution must mirror one’s use of the breath in singing. “If you can model the musical shape by singing, you can do so with the bow.”
Doane says that artistry can only result “when the musical goal is paramount, and is supported by a fine technical craft.”
For Doane, it is important to nurture the individual voice of a student, and to help that voice emerge. Prospective students should “play music that really engages you, and shows what you care about and can make a statement with.” At the beginning of the year, Doane and his new students compare their “wish lists” of what both teacher and student think needs to be addressed in the student’s playing, coming to a consensus before starting to work. Sometimes, Doane says, “I need to tell them to slow down.”
He works to instill this mantra in his students: “Don’t play faster than you can hear. Don’t play faster than you can feel.” He hopes that over the course of four years, his students will find comfort, security in “mapping the fingerboard,” and fluency through regular scale and arpeggio work, selected études, and progressive repertoire challenges, and will be ready to go out on their own. As he says, he plans for the “built-in teacher-obsolescence principle.” By then, his students should be feeling physically comfortable and confident as players, having found their own musical voices. His goal is to develop musical comprehension, stylistic awareness, and constantly raise his students’ level of “listening both instrumentally and through active use of musical imagination.” Great ideas for all musicians.
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Strings magazine.