Softness is Strength

Softness is Strength Where do you get your power? How can you play with that kind of strength and still keep the body ready for the virtuosity and the quick motions that we need to play the instrument–the fast string crossing, the long shift? I found the answer to these questions and many others regarding the playing of the cello taking tai chi. My tai chi lessons were some of the most important cello lessons I ever had. I was standing one day like this opposite my 90-year-old Chinese master–92 years old. He’s about this high, and he looked up at me and he winked and he smiled and he said, “Paul, I could kill you. But I won’t.” “Do you know how I know that you’re weak?” I was like this and I said, “Well, no.” And he said, “Look at your hands.” “When your thumbs are tight, your whole hand is tight.” That in itself was a revelation. I never heard anybody in the string playing world point that out. And then he continued and he said, “Tightness is weakness; softness is strength.” And then very beautifully he said, “Softness is life; tightness is death.” Of course now he’s in the martial arts context, but in a certain sense that’s true for cellists as well. That’s why I like to talk about soft power. We are stronger, we are more agile, we can make a more beautiful sound, there’s more nuance in our bodies, more flow, more fluency when we’re loose. And when a martial artist puts his hand through a brick wall, he would break it if it was tight, right? It’s soft. Everything is soft. And when it’s soft, it moves with explosive power. And when it moves with the weight of his body behind it, it has enormous strength. We can take those principles and apply them to cello playing as well.

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