Philosophy: Follow the Dopamine

Dopamine is the chemical our brains release in response to a victory or reward. Rather than pressuring my students to master a list of skills, I believe that students experience the best sustained motivation when we work together to identify what rewards them- in other words, what they want to play, and how. Then, my job is to figure out what skills will take them where they want to go.

Every place the cello can take you leads to wonderful skills, lessons, and meaningful connections. A student who dreams about getting people up on their feet to dance will have to learn how to keep a strong internal tempo. Then, they can learn when and how to disobey the metronome, when to lag behind or anticipate the beat, and how to maintain tempo when others are dropping behind or jumping ahead.

It is my job to always be able to answer why we are doing something. I try to wrap up a demonstration of a new skill by showing how it helps a student reach their goals. I also talk about how the new skill can open up other expressive forms. For example, the student who wants to get people to dance would also become an excellent member of a string quartet.

The work that offers the most direct route to mastering a new piece or technique can be tedious. We need to use a lot of repetition to teach our muscles to do complicated things automatically so that we can free our brains to make beautiful music that is uniquely our own. Each new piece we finish opens up new worlds of possibility. Sometimes, learning is more rewarding when we take some time to explore those new worlds instead of pressing forward to the next skill. I often bring in tunes from different folk traditions to teach deeper context and richer, more meaningful interpretation.

If this educational philosophy resonates with you, we will likely work well together, and I encourage you to reach out so we can follow the dopamine together to exciting new worlds.

My musical philosophy: I believe that music belongs to everybody, and it grows naturally out of every human body. Even if you don't have two hands to clap or two feet to stomp, you have a heart that beats. Scientists have found musical instruments among Neanderthal grave goods. When you pick up your instrument, you pick up the collective gifts of thousands of generations across many continents.

The most powerful music gives voice to ways of thinking and being our culture has not found words for. Cellos are a little more transgressive than other strings. We can lead melodies, provide support with steady bass lines, or ornament with countermelody and obbligato. Once a cellist steps away from sheet music, they must constantly ask what is missing and how to fill the gaps. The ability to identify and fill these gaps is a powerful tool when turned to politics, culture, and other institutions.

You see this impulse in Pablo Casals' playing against fascism in Spain and in Yo Yo Ma's life of radical idealism. Not all cellists impact global politics, but we can all learn from them to act from a more humanitarian place. After all, it is the cellists' way.


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