'Just Play Naturally,' by Vivien Mackie, with Joe Armstrong (Duende Editions, 2002, $17.75)

Pablo Casals on the principles of the Alexander Technique


Vivian Mackie's Just Play Naturally is exactly what its subtitle suggests, "An account of her cello studies with Pablo Casals in the 1950s and her discovery of the resonance between his teaching and the principles of the Alexander Technique." Scottish-born Mackie spent three formative years in Prades studying with Casals. Her reminiscences of those lessons form the core of the book. Many years after that career-defining period, Mackie studied and then trained to become a teacher of the Alexander Technique, developed by 19th-century orator Frederick Matthias Alexander who had successfully retrained himself to give speeches after suffering severe laryngitis. Based on his own experiences, Alexander's technique helps people in all professions become more aware of how their bodies tighten and contract in times of stress, and also shows them how to counteract those impulses with an awareness of how to "lengthen and widen."

Joe Armstrong, who also teaches the Alexander Technique, is a flutist who studied cello with Mackie as well. It is obvious from the informal tone of the writing that the two are great friends with the utmost respect for each other. The book is set up as a series of loose conversations between them. Personally, I think that Just Play Naturally would have been more effective had it omitted the many interjections of "Yes! Yes!" or "Ha ha!" and been tightened up editorially. However, the insights into Casals' teaching style and Mackie's deepening understanding of music as art are thought-provoking and fascinating. At her first lesson, Mackie played only two measures of the Haydn D major concerto, but she learned so much more than a few seconds of music. "In the Haydn . . . I learned in the first bar or two that every note . . . is either coming towards you, or going away. It has a direction. It's never just there; and it mustn't go along just plain. The ear demands to be intrigued and fascinated. If you present the ear with a steady, unchanging sound, it quickly loses interest and ceases to pay attention."

The role of body-awareness as related to cello playing is also intriguing. At the close of the book, Mackie includes an excellent introductory article to the Alexander Technique. If you have studied the technique, as I had many years ago, this book may be a welcome reminder about its pertinence to playing and performing music. If not, the book may pique your interest in the technique. Well worth reading for every cellist—really, for any musician.

Duende Editions, PO Box 441963, Somerville, MA 02144

*This article appeared in Strings August/September 2002
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