Picture Perfect: When Communicating Musical Ideas and Cello Technique, a Little Imagery Goes a Long Way

Many of today's pedagogues are taking creative approaches to teaching—and playing—the cello, inspiring future generations to unleash their imaginations as well.

By Brian Hodges | From the May-June 2021 issue of Strings magazine

Shortly before my graduate auditions, my teacher, Pamela Frame at Eastman, encouraged me to think of my bow like a paintbrush in order to inspire more nuance in my interpretation of Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 2 in D major. Inviting me to think more creatively about musical expression in the Haydn was also a sneaky way of getting me to relax and to have a looser wrist and fingers in my bow hand. I likened myself to a painter, creating new depths of color and shading—which affected the piece, but also my technique. After all, if I wouldn’t hold a paintbrush with an iron grip, neither should I hold the bow that way. This was much more successful and meaningful for me than if she had simply said, “Play it more musically, and while you’re at it, relax that right hand of yours.”

The use of imagery in teaching has been around for many centuries. From the earliest examples of analogies and metaphors in Classical Greek writing to parables in the Bible, teachers have used pictorial representations to communicate ideas. In the many lessons, coachings, and rehearsals I’ve participated in throughout my career, both as a student and professional, teachers and conductors have often used images to explain their musical ideas. 

However, many of the standard treatises and method books upon which much cello pedagogy has been built are pretty straightforward in their language: simple, direct instructions on how to hold the cello, proper left-hand formation, various bow maneuvers, and intonation. 

One example: In his Violoncell-Schule für den ersten Unterricht, Op. 60 (Violoncello School for Primary Instruction), published in 1839, Friedrich August Kummer wrote: “The left hand holds the instrument in a curved form. The thumb lies on the back of the neck, opposite the forefinger and middle finger, and serves a support to the whole hand…”

This is typical of the writing in these method books, conceived at a time when cello pedagogy was a relatively new concept, but rapidly becoming more codified. More recent cello method books have delved into a more poetic way of looking at the instrument, not as a means to supplant, but to stand alongside the classical instructional books from the past. 

Phyllis Young’s book, Playing the String Game, written in 1978, is a paradigm of creative teaching in its use of allegory and games to translate the basics of cello (and other stringed-instrument) technique. While mostly geared toward younger students, it is no less potent and relevant in its unabashed sense of wonder and discovery about string playing. 


In her foreword, Young explains about the mini-games and activities she created for the book: “I am further convinced that the formation of good hand, arm, and body positions that prove workable for string playing can best be evolved by sampling motions required in advanced techniques… Though cloaked in naive terms and often taking only a few seconds from the actual music making, these little timesavers, when incorporated with any method or music, can assume the gigantic roles of problem recognizers, predictors, and solvers. In addition, they can be uncannily effective communicators.” She goes on to say, “I have frequently chosen to use words not traditionally associated with string playing. It has been my experience that students of all ages and teacher trainees respond enthusiastically to the style of language which they consider relevant.”

In her activity titled “The Buoy,” she instructs the player: “Place your left hand in a good playing position on any string you choose. Fill the room with imaginary water until your left elbow is slightly submerged! Let your elbow bob around like a buoy until you find the location that makes your fingers feel the most clingy.” In another activity named “The Chipmunk,” she asks the student if there is room for a chipmunk to walk between his or her shoulder and the neck of the cello, in order to make certain that shoulder is relaxed. 

Steven Doane, professor of cello at the Eastman School of Music, is a longtime proponent of using creative language and ideas in his teaching, compiling them into a book titled Cello Ergonomics: A handbook to help develop freedom of movement, balance, and fluency at the cello (2006). In his introduction, he writes: “[These exercises] stem from my constant aim, both in teaching and practice, to uncover the essential sound—sensation connection—to find the motion pathways that help us to release sound from the cello more effortlessly, and enable us to make connections more naturally from one musical gesture to the next.”

This approach is inspired largely from his studies with the late Jane Cowan, famed cello teacher and director of the International Cello Centre in Edrom, Scotland, whom Doane says “was a walking-talking musical genius, and was infinitely creative.” Her free use of language influenced his teaching style, which is full of metaphors, analogies, and pictorial representations. (In a master class, he once had me imagine a couple of chubby elves sitting at the tip of my bow in order to achieve more sound.)

In a master class, Steven Doane once had the author imagine a couple of chubby elves sitting at the tip of his bow in order to achieve more sound. Illustration by Bill Evans.

“I loved creative writing and storytelling growing up, so maybe that’s where the propensity comes from,” he says. “I love imagery because I love language. A lot of imagery in lessons comes unplanned. I use it because it has the potential to create that ‘aha’ moment with a student, to see if it triggers a reaction in them.”

Exercises like “The Owl’’ (finding the horizontal axis of movement in the torso) or “The Inchworm” (to develop flexibility, strength, and independence in thumb position) are legendary Doane activities that loosen up the body and mind to get the player away from thinking so hard about playing the cello and into a more free and natural state of playing. In his mind, he says, “Imagery is incredibly helpful psychologically in helping us relax and to transcend any sense of struggle in mastering a particular skill.” Where direct language can force the issue to a certain degree, creative language and visuals can approach the issue from a non-threatening viewpoint. He says that coming up with imagery in teaching, “is as much play as anything else. It adds a real sense of fun and a really enjoyable sense of discovery in teaching that I never tire of.”


His students can attest to this, as many of them continue to use and pass down his unique approach to teaching the cello. Elisabeth Reed, who earned her master’s degree under Doane and is currently teacher of Baroque cello and viola da gamba at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, states that Doane’s approach helped form the cornerstone of her teaching. She says, “He inspires awareness in the lesson with the quality of his attention. He’s so interested in what’s going on with you at the cello that it raises your own level of attention and interest. The imagery he uses particularly affects the physical aspects of playing the cello.”

This is something that Reed strives to bring to her own teaching, particularly through her work with the Feldenkrais Method. She likes to use imagery in a way that “evokes the quality of a movement; it’s not about storytelling so much as it is about creating a specific kinesthetic sense in the body.” 

Another area in which Reed uses imagery to great effect is her work in early music. Because the music from earlier time periods is based so much on dance and involves far less stabilizing equipment (no chin rests, endpins, etc.), she says, “there are many more moving parts. In Baroque music in particular, there is an emphasis on affect—and the primary emotion or feeling being expressed in the music. I’m interested in what you need to do physically to create that effect. Where is the musical gesture initiated in your body? How are the musical gesture and the physical gesture related? I work specifically with imagery by helping people visualize different parts of themselves (the sit bones, the spine, the ribs, the shoulder blades) in order to build a clearer internal self-image, which they can then access to express themselves musically.”

A more recent example of a cello method book based on imagery is Amit Peled’s The First Hour: A Cellist’s Daily Technical Regimen (2018). Peled, who is professor of cello at the Peabody Institute, incorporates what he calls “symbolic images” to instigate the correct and proper movements in cello playing. In his book, he states, “An important component of my teaching is the use of a system of images that convey the essential elements of advanced cello technique.” He explains that these “cello emojis” are an effective means to communicate fundamentals of cello technique. 


The musical examples throughout are technical exercises and are accompanied by simple images, the emojis, such as a cobra or a bridge. Each emoji corresponds with a different technical meaning, and when the player sees the image, it is designed to trigger the correct motion and physical feeling. For instance, when the player sees the strawberry emoji, he or she is supposed to reflect on the sensation of holding a strawberry between the thumb and second finger, instantly releasing tension in the hand. 

Peled says he was inspired to come up with this concept as it stemmed from his experiences with music and sports. In both, he was looking for a simpler way to understand his physical approach in order to be more effective and successful. 

He says his approach is to bring the cello into the player’s world rather than the player adjusting to the cello—something that most of us do. He’s been developing this method of using imagery to teach for many years in order “for students to simplify and to better understand the physical sensations of playing the cello.” He’s always telling his students that they need to “learn to express emotions at the cello with the right motion. I developed the emoji system as a way to do that.”

Peled’s method has expanded since the onset of the pandemic last year. He created an online course in multiple parts based on his cello-emojis concept. It now includes participants from all over the world, something he never would have imagined in pre-pandemic times. He says while there are many accomplishments in his long, distinguished career, this online course ranks among the top projects he is most proud of, as it has opened doors to a whole new crop of students who are learning to approach the cello creatively and naturally. Peled says these concepts aren’t just for the cello either; he recently had an oboist from Turkey join the online class and it helped tremendously.

Imagery can lead to both musical thoughts as well as revealing truths about the physical way we approach the instrument. While a more direct, cut-and-dried approach certainly has its place and can produce solid results, thinking creatively and metaphorically can yield a deeper and more sustainable approach to one’s technique at the instrument. Teachers like Jane Cowan, Phyllis Young, Steven Doane, Elisabeth Reed, and Amit Peled are but a handful of pedagogues who are taking creative approaches to teaching—and playing—the cello, inspiring future generations to unleash their imaginations as well. May we all be so inspired.