jo skates

Skating in the key of life

Teaching cello, learning skating


Maine is for writers. I’ve found my spot at the little kitchen table in the middle of the kitchen, with the morning sunlight streaming in through the window and my cup of tea steaming there to just the right temperature. I can see why this is a special place for writers; it feels as though here the right words just come to when you wish them.

I am here in the town of Brunswick, Maine, and I have yet to find a spot in the world that has been more generous or welcoming. People open their homes to us, smile at one another on the sidewalk, stop for pedestrians in crosswalks (okay, that one is state law but impresses me nonetheless), bake us cookies in the middle of the night (thanks, Janet!), tell us where to get the best lobster rolls, and tell us stories.

It is a wonderful place for music and that is why I am here: to accompany my younger son to the Bowdoin International Music Festival, where he studies cello with the “legendary” Peter Howard. I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of watching Mr. Howard teach Dylan for two years now. Observing and listening to his lessons (he, by the way, is a former hockey coach as well) has given me some wonderful insights into my skating. I am not a cellist (though I do play the clarinet and dabble in piano and voice), so the actual technique is lost on me. Beyond the advice on specific bowings, fingerings, string crossings, and the like, though, there is much wisdom on learning how to practice, perform, and understand oneself as part of something that requires years of dedicated practice.

So Mr. Howard, this one’s for you, a few of the insights that I’ve borrowed for my time at the rink.

ON PRACTICING. The number of hours a day is not so much the goal as is mindful and focused practicing. In both music and skating, the mechanical repetition of movement can be damaging  mentally and physically (the ruts that one falls into in skating are not just in the ice). I shudder when I think of what I used to do when I was learning how to do axels many years ago: I would just keep attempting the jump until I accidentally hit upon something that worked. This meant that I could just as accidentally lose it for days, weeks, or for good. In retrospect, fewer repetitions would have been better, each with the objective of a more natural takeoff edge and motion, using the foot to rock up onto the pick for that last bit of propulsion in perfect unison with the free leg. I saw a young woman at the rink yesterday who did this beautifully; you could see every bit of her blade being used both on the takeoff and the landing. I’m not even tempted to try axels again, even with this wisdom in mind. But in ice dancing this works as well, which brings me to my next point.

ON HONEST PLAYING. This seems self-explanatory. No affectation. No extraneous motion that screams “Look, I’m doing something hard!” No makeup and no frills that don’t have any real meaning or purpose. But everything that is there, every note, every step, every detail is important no matter how small.

ON THE USE OF THE BOW. When we first started lessons with Mr. Howard, we heard that on the cake for his eightieth birthday party was written “Bow change motion, no matter what your age.” One of the most mesmerizing things about watching an accomplished cellist is the movement of the bow arm, which can be as fluid as water, stalwart and relentless as a train, decisive as a rapier. A magic wand. It takes years to learn how to make the linkage of arm and wrist, and hand, wood, and horsehair move like that, and look perfectly natural.

The basic laws of physics govern this movement; they also determine the movement of the skating body. Skating, like bowing, can be broken down to analyze what kind of movement is possible, given the boot, the curvature of the blade, and the moving body. I have not worked on the “moves in the field” (which replaced school figures a number of years ago) for a while, but it may be time to go back to them. In the meantime, I am working on all those basic edges and turns, trying to find what possibilities of movement are available to me. Mr. Howard says that before learning to play repertoire (this piece or that piece), one has to learn to play the cello. I have reached a point where just getting through the steps and pattern of a particular compulsory dance doesn’t cut it for me. So it’s back to what seems like square one. But if John Curry and Tessa Virtue can do this, so can I. Okay, not a fair comparison (much younger, and Olympians, and so on). But if it’s good enough for Dylan at age twelve, it’s good enough for me at age fifty-four.

ON PERFORMANCE. Mr. Howard always asks his students “Why do you play the cello?” He then gives them the answer: “For other people.” Success in music and skating is cumulative; public performance manifests the experience of many hours of practice over many years. Musicians and skaters spend hours a day focusing on what often seems like personal, individual performance. How does one do that without becoming hopelessly self-indulgent and narcissistic, or self-destructively critical? Mr. Howard is always telling Dylan to think about the deaf lady in the back row, to be generous with his sound. Translated into skating terms, we can think of what we do as being generous with our bodies, allowing other people to enjoy our movement as much (or even more) than we do. Skating, like music, becomes not so much about individual achievement as about sharing, building a relationship with other people.

Obviously I have learned a lot from Mr. Howard about what it means to be a good teacher. For my own teaching, I have learned much from my own music teachers as well a number of terrific skating coaches over the years: Barbara, Eric, Bert, Andrea, Kathy, and my current wonderful mentors Laurie and Ari. What they’ve taught me is that good teaching (you know, the kind that sticks) can’t be broken down into a number of hours or a certain amount of information: it’s all about very special people and the relationships we have with them.

Author: Joskates

Don't see me on the ice? I may be in the classroom or at the theater, or hanging out with my family and friends.

2 thoughts on “Teaching cello, learning skating

  1. Thanks for sending me back to this, it’s insightful. So if skating is for other people, how will you manifest that? Do you perform? Or is is just through skating with other people every day at the rink?


  2. Thanks for your kind words and good questions, Mary. I wrote this several months after the last time I competed at Adult Nationals (which I did for five years in ice dance), and I think at the time I was still in “performance mode.” Since then, I’ve definitely become much more into skating for just myself. But as I think about it, it is still important to connect to others at the rink, just checking in about things I’m working on or making sure I say something positive about how someone else is skating. I feel like I get so much out of the sport, it’s hard to keep it just to myself–hence the blog! I know YOU know what I’m talking about!


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