Philosopher’s stone? Or placebo?

When my daughter started cutting her first teeth, she was miserable. Babies don’t understand why they’re in pain; they just want it to stop.

My husband and I felt powerless to help her. We wanted to do something, so we got into the car and drove to a pharmacy. There were various teething remedies there, so we picked one called Hyland’s Homeopathic Teething Tablets and headed home.

Sure enough, they seemed to soothe some of our daughter’s pain, so we used them every time she seemed to be having a rough time.

The next time we were at a pediatrician appointment, I mentioned the tablets, and asked if they were OK to use in the long term. The pediatrician shrugged. “Homeopathy is entirely ineffective,” she said, and explained why. “It may be useful as a placebo, though.”

“How would a one-year-old child know enough about medicine at all for it to have a placebo effect?” I asked.

The pediatrician laughed. “It’s not a placebo for her,” she said. “It’s a placebo for Mommy and Daddy so that you can feel like you did something.

I had to laugh at myself. Of course homeopathy doesn’t work, except in that powerful place–our imaginations.


Sometimes I wonder if some of the “magic tricks” I use in my cello teaching and practice are nothing more than placebos. I don’t mean this negatively. Placebos are very useful in relieving students of mental blocks to success in practice and performance. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell what really does improve cello playing and what improves the mental state of the person playing the cello. Does this matter? I don’t think so.

I was thinking about this today as I contemplated an idea I had yesterday in my teaching studio.  I had been reading some vocal pedagogy literature concerning tension in the tongue, and I wondered if that might have ramifications for relieving tension in cello playing. It stands to reason that if your tongue is tense inside your mouth, it can make your jaw, lips, neck, shoulders, and everything else tense. I experimented with self-consciously thinking about my tongue during my own practice. I recorded myself playing this way, and noticed an improvement in my tone.

I couldn’t help wondering: might tongue tension be a root cause of many other types of tension in the cellist’s body?

But just believing this wasn’t enough for me (since it was my idea and I really wanted it to work), so I decided to test it on some of my students. After all, despite their desire to please the professor, they might be more objective. I tried the idea out on my first student of the day, a sophomore who had been struggling for three semesters to release a more resonant tone from the cello.

Well, it worked like magic. A glorious, focused, resonant, rich tone floated out of her cello as a rapturous smile spread across her face. “I’ve always held my tongue in a weird position,” she admitted. “I’ve kind of clenched it with effort. I knew you weren’t supposed to pinch your lips together or bite your lower lip, so I moved it all into my tongue.”

I tried it on student after student. It worked every time. I was convinced I was onto some kind of philosopher’s stone that would solve every tension problem in cello technique. I practically danced around with joy. I wrote a long post about it for my Cello Tips website.


And yet, I doubt I could prove on any kind of scientific level that this ploy improved music-making. I guess if we had unlimited money, we could make MRIs of the great cellists to see what they’re doing with their tongues, and compare them with MRIs of less good cellists, but what would be the point? “Good sound” is ultimately a subjective concept that can’t, I think, be scientifically measured. Sure, we can measure overtones and decibels and the amplitude of vibrato, but could we say in scientific terms what it is that makes Yo Yo Ma great? I don’t think so.

So much of what I do as a cello teacher is motivational. I subscribe wholeheartedly to Brené Brown‘s philosophy that you cannot shame and belittle people into doing their jobs better. You can only build them up, showing them by example that mindset and attitude can work miracles. Maybe instructing my students to relax their tongues was simply giving them a centering, calming thing to focus and meditate upon while playing that helped them release a few other, more neurotic habits? Who knows. All I know is that some of their passionate feelings for music were able to come out of their cellos, instead of remaining inside their minds, when they released their tension.


I started getting interested in the subject of placebos when I read Do You Believe in Magic? by Paul Offit. In a chapter called “The Remarkably Powerful, Highly Underrated Placebo Response,” Offit shows that alternative therapies do have their uses–they don’t work in the way they claim to, but they can afford patients some relief. (Or the patient’s parents, as my husband and I had discovered.) Citing the work of the experimental psychologist Robert Ader, who discovered links between stress and illness, Offit demonstrates that placebos can be used both positively and negatively. People can actually learn to stimulate and suppress their immune responses, since it turns out that the immune system isn’t as autonomous as had previously been supposed. Here’s the bit I find truly fascinating: People can even do this when they know that’s what they’re doing.


I’m no scientist, but I do know how the power of what we think is going on can affect our reality as cellists and performers. (You know that thing where you assume everyone in the audience is judging you? Even though when you’re an audience member yourself, you never think such harsh thoughts about your peers? Yeah, that thing. It’s not reality-based, and yet it drastically affects nervous performers.)

So what if relaxing your tongue doesn’t actually do anything to fix your tension problems when playing the cello? It did enough to persuade my student to relax enough to produce good tone.  And unlike homeopathy or acupuncture, relaxing your tongue is free. I wouldn’t feel right about trying to sell some kind of expensive snake oil, but I think I’m OK with telling people to do something that encourages further relaxation. If they think that’s “fixed” them, that may be all they needed to succeed.


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