Pablo Casals

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Last night while I was shelving at the Winters Library, I noticed a book in the stacks, out of place. I’ve seen this book several times, either out of place in the stacks or on re-shelve or floating around in some generally odd location. I don’t take much notice of most non-fiction books and rarely do I come across the same one multiple times. Each time this book and I have crossed paths, I’ve contemplated reading it, but in the end chose not to. After all, what could long-dead Pablo Casals have to do with me? Fortunately, the universe knows how I think and saw fit to make sure this book and I found ourselves in the same place at the same time as often as it could. In the end I succumbed to the universe’s insistence and took the book home. It turned out to be one of the most gripping books I have ever read.

What struck me most was the relevance of this man who lived and died long before I was born. I’m not here to rehash his life story; instead I would like to share with you how what he did is applicable here and now to those of us learning to play the cello.

If you know only one thing about Pablo Casals, it will be that he popularized Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites, which were previously thought to be nothing more than etudes. What you may not know is that when he was 12 years old and receiving his first cello instruction, he revolutionized how the instrument was played. Until then, the correct technique was to hold the bowing elbow close to the body. Young students like Casals were instructed to hold a book under their armpits to ensure their elbows were tucked in properly. They were also instructed to use only three fingers on the fingerboard: it was bad technique to use the pinky because it was so weak. Casals found this method of playing restrictive and was dissatisfied with the sound these techniques produced. Fortunately he had a teacher who allowed him to play as he saw fit. Not everyone accepted this new way of playing, but obviously his innovations won out over the then-standard techniques.

This story is relevant to us in a very obvious way, but that’s not why I’m interested in it. What really intrigued me was that he was both a child and a beginner when he did this. In our society we are taught that we must be an expert before doing anything important. This is total bullshit. It was precisely because he wasn’t an expert that he was able to question and change the status quo; no one who had spent a lifetime becoming an expert cellist would suddenly think you know, this technique is all wrong. I’m not saying that those of us who are still beginners are likely to revolutionize how our instrument is played, but I am saying that we don’t have to wait until we’re experts (or even just halfway decent cellists) for what we’re doing to be important. At the very least, we are each dispelling the myth that adults can’t become proficient classical instrumentalists unless they started playing as children. Even if the only people we ever prove this to are ourselves, we’ve still changed the world for the better.

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