Joseph Mendoes - cello expert

Unlocking your Expressive Potential

Learn how to improve the expressivity of your cello performances

In this video, Prof. Mendoes offers a few easy steps and concepts about expressivity and how to improve it with your cello playing.

Released on May 2, 2018

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hello everyone. This is Joseph Mendoes with another video for You'll notice today I am... Well, maybe you can't see my desk, but I'm sitting in my desk here. I don't have my cello and that's because I really just wanted to have a little bit of a chat with all of you today about how to play more expressively. Now how to play more expressively, there's obviously some techniques and things like that that you need to have. And, you know, I've done a lot of videos on various techniques and smooth bow changes and all these kinds of things, but, you know, you can have all this equipment and still struggle greatly, with trying to figure out how to express your voice, how really to play in such a way that is uniquely your own way. So that's basically my thought, you know, is that there is... Yes, there are certain techniques that we all need to learn, but those techniques don't necessarily give you what you need.

In fact, you can have actually only maybe, you know, 80% or 70% of what I would call, kind of, a finished technique, and still play really expressively in a way that moves audiences deeply. And what I have noticed is, is that where people normally get hung up, is they get hung up on one particular value. By value I mean, values like rhythm or intonation, your...the beauty of your sound, you know, playing all the right dynamics in the piece, you know. All those kinds of things. We tend to get hung up on one of those and what I find is is that we one that we get hung up on the most is pitch, is intonation. And there is nothing that can stop your creative juices from flowing more than over-obsessing about pitch.

I've had students who are...who get so frustrated when they can't play a particular passage in tune you know, 10 times out of 10. They only get it like 8 times out of 10, or even 7, or something like that. And really, you know, searching for perfection in that way is really damaging because we don't even know how to define perfection in many ways. We think that perfection is, okay, playing every note in just the right way, or trying to play with absolutely perfect intonation, and of course, anything less than that is just completely inexcusable. You know, we set these technical goals for ourselves, but really, that's not the ultimate goal. That's not what perfection really is. You know, when we go to a concert and when we hear a recording that really touches us or moves us, we are never touched or moved because the performance in brilliantly in tune. That's never really what gets us. And I know some will say, that, "Okay, it needs to be that way first and then you actually have the opportunity to be touched." I am not sure that that's true. I can think of many musicians' recordings at least, that I've heard from the past. Somebody like Pablo Casals for example, his recordings of the "Bach Cello Suites" are unbelievably moving, and not altogether in tune. And actually not... The sound itself, even though the recording quality is not so great, the sound itself is actually not that particularly beautiful, but there is something so compelling.

And, another artist that you should listen to, if you have it is the violinist, the great, great Romanian violinist, conductor, and composer and pianist, George Enescu, who is the teacher of the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Enescu's recordings, particularly of solo...the solo violin works of Johann Sebastian Bach are still, to this day, some of the most compelling real playing that I've really, that I've ever heard my whole life. And at the point when Enescu recorded these, he was suffering from a disease in his ears where he couldn't hear pitch, where his pitch center would, kind of, start to float up and down. It wasn't due to age or anything. It was some accident that he had with his ears. And so you hear that in the recordings. You hear that the pitch is pretty wayward. I mean, it's really not that close sometimes. And yet, what we hear is, we hear...when we hear the presence of all of these other values, this richness of musical value, this incredible rhythmic drive, this incredible spirit and completely and totally unique phrasing.

And all these other things carry you through the performance, carry you through the recording when you listen to it. And it was upon listening to those recordings that I realized, that I thought, "Well, what's really going on here?" Do we really need to be so focused on perfection in the sense that, you know, when we hear a recording it's perfect? Of course, because it's been edited and all these things. "Do we really need that in performances, and at what level does that actually interfere with our ability to play expressively? So, the next time you are playing something and you find yourself stuck, and I'm saying this at any level. So even if you've only been playing for, say three weeks, this is true for you too.

If you're playing something and you're kind of getting stuck because you know how it's supposed to sound, you know how you want it to sound, but it's not there, check your values. Check to see if there is one value that you're putting above all the others, and usually, it's actually, pitch. And try something bizarre. Try actually throwing that value out the window. Try actually to not thinking about pitch at all and see what comes out. You might be surprised that what comes out is not really that out of tune. In fact, it might even be, in some cases, more in tune, because you're less focused on the thing that displeases you, and more focused on doing something that is positive, that is beautiful, and that is expressive.

So that's what I'd like you to focus on. I really think if you focus on that, you'll not only understand what kind of technique you'd really like to have and how much further you have to go, but also, it will free you so that however much technique you may have now, you'll be able to play it more freely and more expressively, and with more truth to who you are as an individual. So, I found, over the course of my teaching, that that's really the most important thing, is people that are happy with their playing aren't necessarily the ones that are playing the most perfectly. In fact, those are the people that are usually the most unhappy with their playing. The most unsatisfied. The most satisfied players are the ones that understand that they are really giving something, something really unique and something really special.

So please, don't get so hung up on pitch. Yes, try to play in tune. Of course, you know, if it's 50% in tune, then there is just nothing that can save you. So, of course, there is a minimum. But don't obsess, and don't get stuck. Don't get hung up on those things. So, I beg you to take that to heart so that you don't find yourself in a situation where you start really disliking your practice. If that's ever happening and that level of frustration is creeping in, then ask yourself that question, "Am I really trying to play expressively, or am I trying to play perfectly?"

So, that's it for today. Sorry, there's no cello playing today, but that really didn't fit with the message I wanted to get across here. If you're interested in online lessons, I think, we currently, right now I have maybe one opening, so contact me if you would like to have some lessons and we can work that out. Contact me through the website. The website that you see on the page there.

So, once again, this has been Joseph Mendoes for Please leave comments, not on YouTube, but on the VSM website. There, I can reply to them. So...and I hope you enjoyed the video.

Thanks a lot.
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User Comments and Questions

Comments, Questions, Requests:

seahawk41 * VSM MEMBER * on May 2, 2018 @8:01 pm PST
Hi! I am a 76-year-old who started cello lessons 5 years ago. Actually, I did violin (6-7th grade) and cello (8-9th grade) then quit. I always wanted to go back to the cello, but college, grad school (physics), and the teaching full time prevented it. So when I retired from teaching, I decided to work on learning to play the cello. It has been fun and challenging! Your comments in this video struck a chord with me, because I am currently very frustrated re intonation. Example: my teacher has me working on a sequence from Piatti, that goes D E F# G# F# E and then repeats. I am having a major struggle with this, where sometimes it is right on, and other times it is way off. So you ha ve any suggestions for dealing with this? BTW, I've done choral music all my life, so I definitely hear it when I am off pitch on the cello.
Joseph - host, on May 29, 2018 @11:34 am PST

Is it in first position on the D string? If it is, then the problem is solved by making sure your first finger is not on the string when you are playing the other notes. Leaving the first finger down can cause a host of problems all over the cello, but especially in extended position. Keeping the fingers free is critical for good intonation!

seahawk41 * VSM MEMBER * on June 1, 2018 @3:38 pm PST
Thanks. That is very helpful. And yes, it is in the first position on the D string. I'll check the next time I practice (tomorrow). I'm not sure about the first finger, but I'm pretty sure that I keep the second finger down when I go from F# to G#, and I think that would tend to flat the G#.

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