Meet Uri VardiCellist Uri Vardi has been on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1990. And in 2003, became certified as a Feldenkrais practitioner – which is a body awareness method that he was introduced to after suffering a debilitating injury that left him unable to play (from which he did eventually recover). In this 47-min chat, we’ll explore:
- The importance of recognizing that many aspects of our playing may be influenced by unconscious habits we may not be aware of. Movement habits that affect the way we play, and how we sound. (7:39)
- What the Feldenkrais method might look like in the context of a music lesson. (9:16)
- How Feldenkrais is less about diagnosing problems and solutions, and more a process of discovery, and exploring other ways of doing things that might open up new possibilities that facilitate more expressive and effortless performance. (14:42)
- An experience I had in college, where experimenting with the width of my stance helped improve my sound. (20:14)
- How a Feldenkrais practitioner might approach intonation issues. (22:08)
- What one does in a Feldenkrais lesson. And how a musician might proceed with this sort of method if they don’t have access to a Feldenkrais practitioner (30:45)
- How an increased awareness of our habits, and the process of discovering better ways to do things sometimes has the effect of making us less anxious in performance (37:56)
- And the paradoxical – yet intriguing – way he would be inclined to work with a musician who has a fear of bow shakes. (44:17)
Noa: I get the sense that, especially in the way that I’ve heard you describe it, it’s not just about health and being able to play pain-free for longer, but also about playing better in general, if I understood correctly. I read something that you wrote, there was a line that really kind of struck me. Something about the choreography of movement, and expanding a range and variety of movement can also increase our range of expressiveness and allow for a richer, diverse palette of sound, for instance. I’m super intrigued by that idea, definitely want to dig into that. I wonder if a better place to start might be if you could share a little bit about how you were first exposed to Feldenkrais and how it became such a big part of your playing and teaching.
Uri: I actually realized that when I finished the four years training of Feldenkrais to become a Feldenkrais practitioner, I realized that I’ve been teaching Feldenkrais for 30 years prior to that without knowing it. I think the person who influenced me most in understanding teaching and learning in that way I think was [György] Sebök in Bloomington. He was the kind of teacher that was really looking at the person, the musician as a whole and seeing how what they do with the instrument actually reflects much more than just how well they play the instrument, but who they are and what they are doing and how to communicate it.
Uri: Back to your question, I got to go deep into Feldenkrais following a visit to a chiropractor who injured me and pinched a nerve in my neck. He didn’t know that I suffered from cervical spinal stenosis which I didn’t know, either. For about eight months I couldn’t play the cello at all. I didn’t know how to press the strings, how to make the strings touch the fingerboard. I just lost that ability. Of course I was devastated and I was mourning a lot. Somebody told me that maybe I should look into Feldenkrais. It might help me.
Uri: I found a great Feldenkrais practitioner in Milwaukee, Anna Johnson-Chase, who was living in Milwaukee at the time. I started going to see her. Right from the very beginning, just the ideas that she presented fascinated me. I delved into it more and more, and a few months later I discovered that actually if I just very slowly investigate more carefully what it feels that is going on between my left arm and the cello, I might come to some discoveries, which I did.
Uri: I kept doing it, and I can say today that actually following this injury, I became a much better teacher, I gained so much more tools to help myself and my students and also discovered things about myself through this episode that showed me that I’m not the kind of person that would just okay, feel sorry for myself, give up, and okay, that’s, okay, such a bad luck, bad faith, or whatever, no. I wanted to take that as a teaching and learning experience, which I did.
Uri: Following that, years later, I became so curious about my journey but it was not really foreign to me. Looking back, I think it was a lot of what I experienced as a chamber music student of Sebök, and then following him after that, after graduating from IU, just seeing it, it resonated so much with me whatever I experienced with the method. Every year there is a competition among our faculty at UW, at University Wisconsin Madison for award of $30,000 that you have to propose what you’re going to do with $30,000 that will enhance your artistic endeavor, or enhance your understanding of teaching and will benefit your students, will benefit the university, and so on.
Uri: My proposal was to go and study Feldenkrais and become a Feldenkrais practitioner and add that. Telling you the truth, I was very skeptical. I didn’t think that anybody would look into something like that. I was lucky and I got it and I started training in Chicago. It takes about four years and it’s not for full years, there are 40 days of training every year. All together about 160 days. This spread it, the whole method is based on, well, the way I look at it these days is what it is that we are doing is getting more acquainted with our habitual patterns that actually rule the way that we function.
Uri: Very often we are absolutely ignorant about those patterns. Unless you go deep and find out what those patterns are, nothing ordered to run away from them or change them, but first and foremost just to understand them you have no way of changing your way of functioning. That’s why it takes, you go for ten days of training, and then your system needs to absorb all this learning for a while before you go into the next stage.
Uri: The same applies in Feldenkrais lessons. You challenge the habitual patterns with very tiny, small increments. You don’t threaten the patterns, you just offer in a playful way, other options and then you rest. You let it get absorbed. I’m actually already running ahead but this is what fascinated me.
Noa: What I’d love to hear is right where you were just saying now, giving people tiny adjustments or options to experiment with, could you give an example, whether it’s on cello, or some other instrument, about what that might look like in a lesson or a coaching?
Uri: Sure. Actually, this is what I do. It’s true for any human being and for musicians because we deal with such small variations of movements and sound production. The tiniest change will affect the whole way that we look at it. I’m sorry, I’m getting a little bit fuzzy here with the way I am describing it. If I work with a musician, let’s take musicians because it’s true for any human being. What I, as a Feldenkrais practitioner, am interested in, is the fact that I’m a musician first. I am not a Feldenkrais practitioner first. I’m interested in the music that the person who is playing for me is producing, is making.
Uri: What guides me is what do I hear if I can pick up certain things that have to do with the way that the player produces their music. If I can detect certain patterns that I can see, I would highlight those patterns when I discuss with them. For instance, I would see that every time a cellist would play a passage that involves moving the left hand up the fingerboard to higher positions, their eyes always go forward and down in the direction that their hands are moving. It’s across the board. I could see that they do it or if every time they pull the bow to the right, their head moves with the bow also or the eyes move with the bow also. It would never be the head and the arm moving opposite to the bow.
Uri: I would become curious, so what I’m here for is not to change anything for the musician, I’m here to figure out with them whether this is exactly what they intend to do, or they don’t even know that they are doing it, and if they did something different how would the musical outcome happen? What kind of sound that it would get for instance if the head and torso moved opposite to the direction of the bow?
Uri: Or if every time they shifted on the fingerboard up to higher positions, they would look up, or their whole torso will become taller, rather than shorter, or rounder. It’s amazing to hear tiny differences in the sound, in the musical expression, when they do it in different ways. The fun part is the musicians are very astonished about it too, because they don’t expect it. First of all they don’t know that they are doing what they are doing. Again, it’s not something that needs to be corrected, we are not here in the fixing business. We are here in the discovering what they are doing because if the only way you can express yourself on the instrument is by having one safe pattern that you move in, you have no choice by going into that place and following that pattern.
Uri: The pattern is the one that actually dictates to you how your musical outcome is going to be. It’s not your choice. You don’t even know that you don’t have a choice.
Noa: If I’m understanding correctly, it sounds like the first step is to identify movement habits that you’re engaged in, and then to discover whether that’s something that’s planned and intentional, or if it’s just happening out of habit and being used to that. This is a part that was interesting to me it sounds like you’re not necessarily going for a specific outcome, it’s not like you’re saying oh, if you do this it’ll be more in tune, or your sound will change like this. It’s more, let’s see what happens if you do this instead, and that may or may not be what it is that the player wants. At least it gives you more information about how to get that if that is something that you want. Is that essentially what?
Uri: I’m here, I don’t have goals with students. I don’t really identify problems with them. I see the role of a teacher is mostly the role of being nosy. Yeah. Curious. I’m just curious who this person is, and what they are trying to tell me. Because what is music? In music, we want to communicate something that we envision deeply and we find it necessary for us to share it or to communicate it with others. That’s pretty much it.
Noa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Uri: Very often, I find, the patterns, the physical, physiological patterns, have very strong echo in the emotional state of the musician and the spiritual state of the musician. A lot of the patterns really echo elsewhere, not only in the physical area. Very often once they change certain patterns physically, like some of the examples that I gave before, it is not just the sound that changes. Something about their feeling. I’ll put it very simply. The phrasing changes. Very often their imagination changes. All of a sudden there are new things that they haven’t been exposed to and they have to be influenced by those new things.
Uri: My interest is mostly to figure out together with the student what else is there that neither of us know at this moment. Feldenkrais usually looked at the learning experience as going back to the sandbox and finding new toys to play with rather than be so serious and so logical and intellectual. Figuring out cognitively what’s wrong with me, why doesn’t that go and why doesn’t that go? No, okay, this is what I do. Is that the only way I can do it? Oh, no. This is a possibility too. It’s so tiny I haven’t even considered it because I didn’t think that by moving my head against the bow in the opposite direction of the bow would change anything but I realize that it does.
Uri: Those little new toys that we start playing with come into the playground. One difficult challenge that we all face is in order to gain more data into our nervous system, we need to expose the nervous system to new experiences like moving the head this way, moving the head that way, or what I described before. The moment that we discover those, new synapses are made in the brain. This registers. The difficult part is to trust that our system is smart enough that you will know what to do with this new data. Every same system will want to use all the tools that it has in order to get a certain function that it wants.
Uri: It can use only the tools that it has that are available for it. Before our experiments, those little changes were not available to the system. Now that it is, we have to trust that the system is smart enough and get out of the way, and not to try to control it and think about it. Just let it be. Experience the newness of what you can do now and how it affects your music making, how it affects your envisioning in the phrase, how does it narrow the gap between your musical imagination and what you aspire for and the real outcome? Yes, no, if not. Find new tools, also. They might add more and then you slowly, slowly narrow that gap between your aspirations and the musical outcome.
Noa: I’m curious about a personal experience I had. I don’t know if this is the kind of thing that would happen in a coaching. I remember in college I was really frustrated with intonation. At every point in my life. In college in particular I remember my senior year, and I was looking for a solution but wasn’t finding one. I ended up experimenting with my stance, right, how I stood.
Uri: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Noa: Experimented with a really narrow stance where my feet were almost together, and then going really wide, almost like I was doing what’s called a sumo squat.
Uri: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Noa: Almost like trying to do a split, but not, exactly.
Uri: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Noa: My feet definitely well apart more than shoulder width. Kind of staggering them more or less, forward and back. Eventually found a stance that just felt right to me, that was much wider than I would typically have stood. Didn’t look weird, but it was definitely wider and I felt like, I don’t know that it helped intonation per se, but it definitely helped with how I felt and with sound, I think. I ended up finding a solution to a problem that I wasn’t looking for a solution to. I did eventually find solutions for intonation but in a different context.
Noa: I’m not sure exactly what my question is, but-
Uri: Can I say something?
Uri: You are a Feldenkrais practitioner. That’s exactly it. You found that there was something unrelated kind of, but it is related because we are one. Everything that we do really affects the rest.
Noa: It was fun for me. I enjoyed that process. I’m wondering, too, let’s say that I had this competition coming up and my major concern really was intonation or particular shifts. It almost feels to me, and tell me if I’m wrong, but the Feldenkrais approach is not as solution-focused as I imagine some students might want it to be. Does that make sense?
Uri: Yeah, yeah. Feldenkrais is not really goal-oriented. Feldenkrais is all about the learning that occurs in the process. The process is the most important part that you are focusing on. Let’s go back to intonation issues. I’ll tell you something that I discovered with some students. Let’s say the intonation really sucked every time they shifted to long shifts. They did not reach the right note and then the whole area around there was skewed by not having a real center. Everything was out of tune.
Uri: The more I listen to the patterns of the bad intonation, the more I realize that they usually shift to the same, almost the same out of tune area and not random place. My strategy with students was at that point, to ask them to aim at the out of tune note that they actually do unwillingly and unnoticeably. They don’t even know that they do it. To really focus on playing it out of tune. Making it so precise out of tune and practice, really practice it until you can own it, that out of tune. That enemy of you, you become friends with it, actually. Now you’re the boss, and you tell your arm which is not obedient to your will, you tell your arm just to do what it’s doing.
Uri: The arm has no brain of its own, or will of its own. It is you but you don’t even know what is going on. Once you realize, you start listening more. I’m not here to tell you, I mean, come on, just listen. Well of course, if you are out of tune, it could be either sharp or either flat. That’s it. Just noticing what it is that makes it out of tune is an important information.
Uri: I don’t even want to go there. I want you to master that out of tune thing. Tolerate mastering playing out of tune. Once you are able to do it you can do anything.
Noa: So it’s okay, then, to actually target specific problems that you might be experiencing.
Uri: Oh yeah. But again, I do it in a non-punitive way. It’s not about, come on, spend some more hours just listening. Put the tuner, put the drone. Yes, good, all of that is good. It’s not one or the other. There’s a pattern why you end up playing pretty much the same out of tune way that you are accustomed to. You learn about yourself. It’s not that you are correcting you. That out of tune might be some expressional thing for you musically which is not appealing to your listener, but you kind of learn together. The whole point is to discover what that is the case, or if yes, then if you want to stay that way, or play with it a little bit.
Uri: Once you master that out of tune note, then you can decide, okay now it was always too sharp. Now I want it to be too flat. But out of tune. You play with it. It’s like going back to what I said, to the sandbox, playing with new toys. Then, you leave it. In no time you find that your system is going to guide you to a place that would be more satisfying for you and your teacher, or your audience, and everybody else.
Noa: I like the word curiosity that you’ve used already a couple times. It sounds like the approach is really oriented not so much around, I need to play this note in tune, or this shift has to be like this, but being curious about why it sounds the way it does. Based on that, having more information that you can use to better make adjustments, it sounds like, moving forward.
Uri: Yeah. I can detect when I’m listening to somebody performing and it’s planned-ly in tune, I can detect the amount of energy that that person puts into playing in tune. This energy is lacking in other things. Other communicative things that have to do with what are they telling me. How much of themselves they allow me to experience as their audience. What kind of a person is that person who is so focused on the intonation? All those things go in my mind very, very quickly. Why I want to pay in order to go to a concert is to get to know somebody and get to know what they have to share with me that will be fulfilling for me. That will be enjoyable. That will be enlightening.
Uri: This is a spiritual thing that goes on in the concert hall. Music is a certain energy which is sent from one individual to others. That energy can affect the others in many, many different ways. This is what is so much more important for me. That’s why with my students, of course intonation is important, of course they have to know how to play legato in the way that will not involve abrupt interruptions. Of course they have to know how to articulate music well. But what are they telling me as a listener and what kind of tools do they have in order to tell me that?
Uri: All of those things really work together, and that’s why I’m saying it’s not only the physical comfort or discomfort. It is everything else.
Noa: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So even if it has to do with vibrato or different kinds of bow strokes,
Noa: It’s all kind of discovery. Is this something that people can explore on their own, even if they don’t have access to a Feldenkrais practitioner around them? And if so, how would one start? Would they videotape themselves, or would they just experiment with scales when they warm up? How does one start?
Uri: First of all, if you open your mind and see if something like what I’ve talked about echoes in you or interests you. If not, then choose other methods. But if this echoes with you, if this is something that really resonates with you, then the Feldenkrais method has two modalities. One is a class format where a practitioner is instructing a group of people what to do. Most of the lessons are lying on the floor, you can get a yoga mat or have a carpeted area. You lie on the floor, and then you listen to the instructions and just follow them.
Uri: The other way is hands-on. So the practitioner is using their hands in order to communicate with the person who they work with. We call the people students, not clients, because it’s a learning process. It’s not a correcting thing. There’s a client who has a problem and I’m here to fix them or to teach them how to get rid of their problem. We don’t get rid of problems in Feldenkrais. We learn about what it is that we are doing and what else is there and that’s pretty much it.
Uri: The class format which is called Awareness Through Movement, or in short ATM – there’s no cash, unfortunately. In ATM you lie on the floor and you follow verbal instructions. There are many, many ATM lessons online for free where people can just go and search and do. Of course you will get a certain voice of a teacher that is more appealing to you than others and you can choose. Very often it’s not just the content of the lesson, which will determine how you are going to experience it, but very often it is the pace that the teacher uses, their tone of voice, and so on and so forth. People can choose from that.
Uri: Even before you go and look for Feldenkrais practitioner, you can try it online. I would definitely advise people to go audio and not video because you want to be attentive to yourself not go and follow something. Usually you can close your eyes, listen to what you hear, and to the best of your ability do what you perceive is what the instruction is. Everybody really perceives the instruction differently based on their habitual patterns, again. Slowly, slowly, through those little changes, little deviations from the baseline that you start the lesson from, you start discovering what your habits are.
Uri: For instance, you lie on the floor and you realize all of a sudden because the instructor tells you to notice certain things. You realize that your right side of the body feels much heavier than the left side. It’s almost like you are sinking, you’re tilting to the right, when you lie flat on the floor. Or, you realize that your right shoulder blade feels so much wider than the left one. You don’t do anything with it, you just notice. Slowly, slowly, throughout the lesson, lessons are about 40 minutes, 45 minutes. From time to time, the instructor will ask you to notice if there are any changes in the way that you experience your relationship with the floor.
Uri: At the end of the lesson, you scan yourself again and find if there’s a difference. You stand up and all of a sudden, most often you’ll feel some changes. You don’t try to lock it in a safe deposit box and get the key for it. Leave it alone. Just go with your life and see what happens. Then do another one. Slowly, slowly, it accumulates and enables you to get to know yourself so much better and know also that there are tiny small little changes that can change the overall sensation of how you live your life or how you relate to the space around you, to gravity and everything else.
Noa: It sounds almost like the increased awareness of what your habits are will naturally lead to an intuitive balancing out or self correction that’s more efficient. Is it problematic to try to do it deliberately, like you were saying you don’t try to lock it in and put it in a safe deposit box. Is that a problem to try to do that? Does it actually hinder our ability to self correct in the right way, or is it okay to try to do it deliberately?
Uri: Most of our teachers, this is what they do to correct us. Teach us how to do it right and show us how to do it even more right. And so on and so forth. Most people are really accustomed to that way of thinking or experiencing things. It’s not wrong, it’s not bad, because you are doing it anyway. Exposing yourself to the trust, this is a trust issue, also, that your system is smart enough and you provided it with new information and just go and stay out of the way. Let it do its job. Don’t try to control it. Don’t try to dictate to it what to do based on your logic and cognitive thinking.
Uri: Most of us musicians, and I’m part of it, and I’ve experienced very similar experiences that my students experience, and the people that we work with, like at New World Symphony, when we go down, most of them really want to be able to do the audition well and get into an orchestra. This is their goal and they want me to give them some specific tools that will guarantee that they will have a better chance to succeed in the audition.
Uri: I’ve found with many of them, especially those who kept coming back every visit that we have there, that they all of a sudden became so much more interested in themselves and what they do and how they express music, than just gaining, winning a certain audition. Of course the focus is on the audition but what we usually do, they play their excerpts for me for the audition. Through the excerpts, I ask them first, what bothers them. What are they afraid of that might happen in the audition that will prevent them from succeeding? Very often I actually know even before they answer, but once it comes from them, it is much easier for me to access that part with my tools. They already are yearning to find a better way to do something.
Uri: It very often has to do not only with just playing precisely, the notes, in tune, right rhythm, right tempo, all of that. Where are you? How do you feel this excerpt? What is your personal relationship with this excerpt? Do you have a personal relationship or you’re just trying to impress the people who are going to judge you now by showing them that you are flawless? That way of looking at it actually has a chance to also lower their anxiety around all of those competitions or auditions.
Uri: The same with the students here or with any musician, because I think it’s so important that the deliverers of music, the musicians who perform, really focus on delivering something real, important, revealing to their listeners. Not trying to impress their listeners with their amazing capacity to run fast on the instrument, or to play loud, or to play precisely.
Noa: It sounds like it’s more of an approach to playing, an approach to learning, as opposed to a way to identify quick fixes necessarily for technical issues, which I think is easier for me to embrace as an older person now, but I imagine if I was still 18 or 20, I might be a little impatient. Did you run into that?
Uri: Oh yeah, all the time. I’m teaching a full cello class here which includes freshmen. Before I came to teach in Madison, I was teaching a lot in Israel. Many of my students were teenagers, and yes, they’re impatient. A lot is going on, all these hormones popping and doing stuff, and they need to find very fast solutions to the big problems because otherwise they are not going to make it or whatever.
Uri: I empathize with that. We talk about it. I am just not a great believer in quick superficial fixes. I don’t think they last long enough and are not really fulfilling on the long run.
Noa: There’s a quote that I like, I forget who said it, but it’s something like, “there are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going.”
Uri: Right. So much have a certain plan in our head about who we are and what we should be aiming at and how we should get there. This way of thinking is part of our patterns, our habitual pattern. That’s part of it also. I enjoyed so much working with [János] Starker because Starker showed me how to play the cello and how to look at the purity of music and understanding what I am doing. It was very clear and precise. With Sebök it was mostly exploration. Getting to know yourself and what it is that you want to do and how you do.
Noa: A lot of times people ask me about how to deal with shaky bow – or at least string players, obviously. How do you respond when you get that question?
Uri: Skake your bow.
Noa: Like you did with the intonation thing?
Uri: Practice shaking the bow. How can you make the bow shake? Not fight it. You learn what it is that is going on. That’s an easy answer, but at what part of the bow, just investigate. Are there parts of the bow that the bow shakes more? It’s not killing the shaking. It’s not about killing the shaking. It’s about knowing that thing that happens better. Is it mostly at the frog, is it more in the middle, around the balance point, at the tip? Does it shake, yes, everywhere? But still, does it shake more here and more there? If it shakes more in one place, can you make the other places shake as much?
Uri: This is how you learn about what is really going on. It’s not how to fight it. Does make sense?
Noa: Absolutely, no, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I think the better we understand when it shakes and why it shakes, the easier it will be to self correct. It’s not the sort of thing that I think we would generally think to do, to let’s see if I can do it on purpose or make it worse. It does seem like it would be the most illustrative or helpful learning experience that would give us the most data about how to address that in the future. No, I like that.
Uri: For instance, what you have done is getting a wider base by spreading your feet as you stand. That’s a great idea for them to see if the way they stand or sit either enhances the shaking or reduces that. When they sit, how do they sit? Very often, just awareness whether your right sit bone is heavier than the left one or vice versa. Or they’re even, is very good information. Whether your feet are involved at all in the stability of your sitting or not, what’s the relationship between your heels and your sit bones? Is there any relationship there?
Uri: You just get to know it, and then you check it with the shaking. Change the relationship a little bit down there, see if it attracts the shaking.
Noa: That might be a good place to wrap up, then. Thank you for taking the time to-
Uri: Thank you for approaching me to do it. I’m quite excited about it because it’s not that I want to preach anything. I’m just a great believer in that way of teaching. I think it has a chance also to help people become a little bit happier in their lives rather than so anxious to get the goals that somebody, either the teachers or their moms or anybody, thought they should get that goal. Yeah, just okay, learn about yourself and enjoy life.
 The Feldenkrais Method was developed by Moshe Feldenkrais – an engineer, physicist, and intriguingly, one of the first Europeans to earn a black belt in judo (which is a pretty interesting facet of his life and career worth reading – here).
If you’re interested in learning more about The Feldenkrais Method and its history, resources, teachers, etc., the International Feldenkrais Federation has links to lots of stuff, but I actually found the Feldenkrais Guild of North American to be a little less overwhelming.
 If you’re interested in finding a Feldenkrais practitioner (31:35), and live in North America, you can search this directory:
And if you live outside of North American, go here instead:
 Uri mentions that Awareness Through Movement (ATM) classes are one way to start with Feldenkrais, and that you can even find some online (33:39). The FGNA has a sample “Knees and Elbows” ATM session here:
And the IFF has some with Feldenkrais himself here:
 Credit should go to soprano Beverly Sills, in Conquering an Enemy Called Average (1996) by John L. Mason, for the quote “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” (44:06)
 Uri mentions pianist György Sebök several times during the interview. And how he encouraged experimentation and self-exploration in a way that was very Feldenkrais-like (44:57). Here is an example of what I think he meant – in a 1987 master class.
And here’s a playlist of clips from those 1987 master classes, which are all pretty awesome:
Connect with Uri
Uri’s UW faculty page includes his contact info.
And he also runs two annual summer workshops in NY.
National Summer Cello Institute (currently in session)
Feldenkrais for Musicians (also currently in session)