Cello: Mindfulness & Slow Scales

How scales became my meditation

Cello: Mindfulness & Slow Scales

It's easy to find playlists of cello music compiled for relaxation and mindfulness. Listening to the low, rich and reedy quality of this string family member can be soothing and uplifting, perhaps touching a nerve through its similarity with the human voice.

However, it's not just through listening to the cello that I have found a sense of inner peace and stillness. Playing the cello has also allowed me to experience such moments.

Meditation and mindfulness practices help us develop the ability to exist in the moment, allowing thoughts to come and go without being knocked off course by them. We can't stop the river, but we can learn to enjoy the freedom of letting the water flow by, watching it from the comfort of the bank.

It often helps to have a focus, something simple that can bring you to that place at the water's edge. For me, that simple focus is slow scales on the cello. It might sound far fetched, but there are aspects of string playing that correlate well to the disciplines involved in Tai Chi. Movements such as bow changes can be coordinated with the breath, slowing down the usual rush of ascending through the scale. The movement of the bow is actually a series of circles rather than a simple backwards and forwards, and this breathing pace gives time to think about that subtle rotation. When you know your scales well, it's as easy as counting to simply follow the pattern up and down, relaxing more with each gentle repetition.

As an extra layer, I practise with a drone in the background and enjoy the feedback of testing the pitch of each note and the resonance as it falls in line with that drone.

Suddenly, slow scales are no longer a tiresome and often overlooked part of a practise regime, they are a way to still the mind and get lost in the simple and familiar steps of the scales. I can easily lose half an hour to the satisfying climbing and falling through different keys. The scales are just enough to keep my mind on track, and when my thoughts wander and the temptation grows to paddle in the river, the scales are all that I need to refocus.

The drive is not musical perfection, but relaxation. Letting physical tension fall away and not being overly concerned about perfection of intonation. If a note is pulled a little sharp or flat, it can easily be fixed on the next pass.

Pick a simple and resonant scale. On my cello, I find G major has a lovely satisfying sonorous quality across the instrument. Then, let your breath in and out dictate the speed of the bow, using full bows that really sink into the strings. Change notes with the bow, or even give two full bows to each note. There's no need to rush. I like to close my eyes and make sure I can feel the ground under my feet, adjusting the cello to sit comfortably across me, rather than me twisting to accommodate the cello.

Then it's just an unhurried progression up and down the scale. Note any tension and let it relax as you sink into the strings.

If scales are just a step too far and bring with them a level of concentration that stops you sinking into the pattern and finding that quiet mindfulness, long even bows across open strings has the same effect. Keep each bow moving with your breath in and out whilst aiming for an even sound across the bow with gentle changes that exaggerate the elliptical movement of your arm as the bow changes direction. It can still be satisfying to have the drone of a single note in the background for reference, perhaps even a fifth higher or lower than your open string to give a sense of harmony.

Leonardo MacKenzie
Leonardo MacKenzie
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Leonardo MacKenzie

Leo is a cellist, singer and sometime writer with experimental duo The Last Inklings. Rooted in literature and folklore from Campbell to Tolkien, storytelling is at the core of their music.


See all posts by Leonardo MacKenzie