Couch to 5K for Cellists, Week 2: Permission to Be Bad

By Miranda Wilson

Image credit:
Wikimedia Commons

Last week, in “P.E. Trauma and Music Trauma,” I blogged about starting the Couch to 5K program even though I thought I couldn’t run. Doing something like C25K might not sound like a big deal to most reasonably fit adults, but it was to me because of a few adverse childhood experiences with running.

One line from the post, “It’s OK to be bad at this for a while,” struck a chord with readers. I had several lovely emails saying that this was a major “aha!” moment. Some were from former P.E.-haters, but many more were people who had been told in childhood that they “weren’t musical” or “couldn’t sing.” Some said they never fully realized how not OK this was until they read my post. One said she hadn’t been able to sing to her children because of being shamed for out-of-tune singing.

This is heartbreaking. I got a little tearful thinking about all the people who’ve had the joys of music and exercise taken away from them by the belittling comments of others. Here’s the thing: it only takes one negative comment to make a child quit an activity for life. What doesn’t occur to us to ask is whether the negative comment is immutably true.

Fact: Everyone is Bad at Cello When They Start

Why wouldn’t they be? It’s not exactly a natural activity. You have to learn to hold the instrument and bow in a way that works ergonomically for your range of arm motion and torso length. You have to learn to tune the thing, which is maddening and takes hours at first. You have to learn to read music. You have to learn to hear what you’re trying to reproduce, and then find a physical way to do it. You have to be able to do all of these things at the same time, and there are infinite ways of doing all of them wrong.

And everyone is bad at it. No wonder, when you consider how much is going on. The real wonder is that anyone gets good at it.

Fact: Music is for Everyone

This phrase is my life’s work. Not everyone is going to become Yo Yo Ma, but everyone can get better at cello. I’m not saying it’s easy: you have to have good habits, stay curious, figure things out, and self-assess. I say these things to students every day.

In theory, therefore, you ought to be able to master any skill like this. “Teacher, teach thyself,” I muttered, pulling on some running shoes.

“Good at Music, Bad at Sports”

Everyone said that about me when I was a child. But why wouldn’t that be the case? When it came to music, I had expert private teachers, parental supervision at home, and lots and lots and lots of praise for being good at it. When it came to sports, I hated school P. E. and my family wasn’t really the sporty type, apart from weekend hikes in forests and that sort of thing. No one ever taught me that there was a special technique involved in running or throwing a ball, so I assumed that either you were good at it or you weren’t, and I wasn’t. People — authority figures — said I was good at music and I believed it. They said I was bad at sports, and I believed that too.

Getting Started: Permission to Quit

I’ve always been pretty good at fulfilling my goals. Here’s my secret: I tell myself that if I try something and I don’t like it (moving to a foreign country! graduate school! buying a house! er…marriage!), I can get on the first plane back to New Zealand. This method was pretty much how I got through my doctorate.

These days I can no longer get on a plane to New Zealand to escape the things I’m scared of on account of having a job and a family and a mortgage, but I did give myself permission to quit running if I hated it. Massive goals intimidate me; small goals get me off the couch. I learn repertoire one note at a time just like everyone else. In theory, if the steps were small enough, I might be able to learn to run.

First Steps

Having made it through the first week of C25K without hurting myself, I decided it was probably a good idea to Google “good running technique.” Here’s the first thing that popped up:

Maintain good posture, engage your core, and gaze forward. Avoid tilting your head down and slumping your shoulders. Broaden your chest, and keep it lifted as you draw your shoulders down and back. Keep your hands loose, and a relaxed arm swing.


“Just like cello!” I thought. You can’t do a whole lot without balancing your head on top of your spine, otherwise known as good posture. Loose hands? Swinging arms? I do that all day.

Running Tips from Pablo Casals

The great cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973) taught cello technique from the principle that you should “only do what is necessary.”(1) He wouldn’t let his students make any superfluous movements. When you watch videos of him playing, his economy of movement is striking. Unlike many modern-day players who flail and grimace in the name of “passion,” Casals keeps his on the inside. The movements of his hands and arms have poetry in them. I can’t think of any cellist who comes closer to technical perfection.

OK, I thought, I can do this.

When I began the first of the six 90-second bursts of running, I noticed my temptation to flail about. I have long arms and legs and significant hypermobility. As a cellist, I aim for fluid, balanced, easy motions, so I tried to find those on the running track too.

Step one of changing an inefficient technique on the cello is to notice what’s going on. I found that I was staring down at my feet and the track, so I reset my head on top of my body and chose a particularly beautiful tree in the distance to look at. I noticed I was lifting my feet further off the ground than I needed to, so I experimented with keeping them softer and lower so that I wasn’t “stamping” so much. (My feet and knees immediately felt better.) I tried to pay attention to how my body felt. One of the top things I noticed was how I was breathing.

Breathing and Bowing

String players tend to hold their breath when they play. We know we aren’t supposed to, and yet, it can be quite difficult not to interfere in any way with the natural cycle of breathing when there’s so much other stuff going on. I devoted a whole chapter of my book, Cello Practice, Cello Performance, to breathing and bowing, and it’s still one of the things I have to be mindful of in my ongoing search for more relaxed techniques.

I got quite out of breath while running on C25K Week 2. Normally I hate being sweaty and breathless, but as I kept running, I became more mindful of the breathing cycle because it was impossible to ignore.

I wondered if there might be a metaphor in there for cello playing. We so often try to ignore aspects of technique until something — pain, failure in performance, losing a competition or audition — alerts us to the need to change. And even then, it’s hard to change. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it, wouldn’t they?

They said I did an awesome job.

© Miranda Wilson, 2021. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without permission of the author.

(1) Vivien Mackie and Joe Armstrong, Just Play Naturally: An Account of Her Study with Pablo Casals in the 1950s and Her Discovery of the Resonance Between His Teaching and the Principles of the Alexander Technique (Bloomington: XLibris, 2006.


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