the endpin enigma

Guest post by Zach Preucil

There are many potentials for mishap in a given performance, but none incites greater fear amongst cellists than that of the endpin slip. What fate could be worse than finding yourself performing a great romantic sonata, maintaining a perfect balance with the piano and executing difficult passages with impeccable accuracy, only to go up for a climatic high shift and suddenly find your instrument slip from your hand with a sickening jolt, resulting in a horrible squelching sound that causes the audience to shudder? Indeed, many a cellist's nightmares are likely to have included such a scenario, and unfortunately, many a cellist has had the grave misfortune of having such nightmares realized. We can all recall at least one performance where we had to play on some metallic surface with the friction of an icy sidewalk, resulting in several minutes of terror and a subpar presentation. Even when we take all possible precautions, our stubborn endpins can still manage to get the better of us. The much-lauded "anchor straps" do not always guarantee stability--one exuberant cue and you find yourself facing the pianist instead of the audience--and those God-awful "doughnut" rock-stops that nobody seems to use after high school could be put to better use as hockey pucks. In fact, I suspect that an actual doughnut might be a better solution, if it weren't for the fantastic mess it would create (just imagine the state of a Krispy Kreme after a performance of the Dvorak concerto). Some cellists claim to have found a fool-proof solution in the bent endpin, but even these can't save us when faced with a particularly adverse surface. The only real way to ensure endpin stability is to provide one's own endpin-friendly material--a rug or a carpet, for instance--but that can be problematic for a variety of reasons. For one thing, there still is the potential for such material to come out of place itself (giving a new meaning to the phrase, "It was as if the rug had been pulled out from under me!") and for another, plopping down your grandmother's prized homemade rug on the stage of Weil Recital Hall will probably not bode well with the critics ("While the interpretation of the Beethoven was certainly impressive, one could hardly help but be distracted by the bright colors and utterly inappropriate presence of the tattered floorpiece that was placed somewhat awkwardly under the chair and--even more scandalously--draped over the corner of the stage!").

There's simply no getting around it--endpin slips are just one of those unpleasant aspects of cello playing, like Popper etudes and that impossible-to-find high F# in the second movement of the Brahms clarinet trio. But accepting this fact does not mean we are surrendering to the power of that pesky metal stick; on the contrary, when reacted to with quick thinking and a positive attitude, endpin slips can become an exciting addition to a performance. The initial glide of the cello causes the audience to lean forward in horror, but a clever save makes them relieved and even more impressed with the performing cellist's grace under fire. Perhaps the best "save" I ever witnessed was during a recital given by Laurence Lesser at NEC of the complete works of Beethoven for cello and piano. At the end of a tranquil adagio section, Lesser experienced a major slip, an unexpected slide during a prolonged whole note which he just barely managed to stabilize. The endpin was still precariously balanced against a thin crack in the stage floor, however, and all of us cellists in the audience were on (wait for it) pins and needles--would the pin give way again, resulting in utter desecration of the phrase? Would he regain optimum balance in time for that scary shift in the next section? But Lesser, obviously experienced in these matters, showed no fear. During a brief piano tutti, he actually picked up his cello, jammed it into the floor, and played on like there was no tomorrow. As a young freshman who still used a strap for everything out of sheer paranoia, I was quite impressed.

It's funny that while most of us do give considerable thought to the stability of our instruments, the greats don't seem to be nearly as concerned with such petty matters as endpin slips. Last year, I had an opportunity to witness such a carefree attitude when I saw Yo-Yo Ma give an impromptu performance with Renee Flemming at a food court in Chicago's Thompson Center. Organized in secret by the Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony, details of the performance were not revealed to the general public, but as my Dad is a Lyric Opera cellist, he got word of the event and the two of us excitedly drove downtown to see the two soloists' unexpected appearance. Once we arrived and secured a table fairly close to where the performance was going to take place, my Dad pointed out that the floor would be absolutely terrible for Yo-Yo's endpin--it was metallic and slippery without even a crack between the tiles.

"If he starts slipping, you should go up there and offer him your belt to slip under his chair," he suggested to me excitedly.

"What! That's ridiculous!" I responded. "I'm not going to just stand up in the middle of a food court and give Yo-Yo Ma my belt!"

"Well, how many people can say they've done that?" Dad pointed out.

I sighed; Dad is a big proponent of the "belt" solution, having used an old, brown tattered one exclusively for several years (although he wisely chose to leave it backstage at his 2002 Carnegie Hall debut). Even he will admit, though, that it has some disadvantages; like the strap, it can sometimes rotate unexpectedly, and as Dad once discovered during a performance of Paul Schoenfeld's, "Cafe Music," it cannot be depended upon to stay in place whilst spinning one's cello in an unrestrained burst of excitement. In spite of these shortcomings, however, using a belt is arguably one of the better solutions to the endpin enigma--unlike the strap, it allows for greater flexibility in the positioning of the pin, and offers a reliable surface to sink into without causing a visual distraction like a carpet. Nonetheless, I was not going to present such an option to Yo-Yo; if he didn't have a rock stop, he would just have to deal with it himself.

Minutes before the performance was due to start, word got around in the crowd that the world-class musicians were to make an appearance, and so it was with enthusiastic applause that Yo-Yo and Renee were greeted as they stepped out of a side door and into the center of the makeshift "stage." And lo and behold, Yo-Yo was without a rock stop! I sat on the edge of my restaurant chair as he and Renee began to perform an arrangement of Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise," half-expecting to witness a cringe-inducing slip, but to my amazement, his cello--presumably the famous Davydov Stradivarious--remained solidly in place for the duration of the performance. Dad and I spent a large part of the drive home speculating as to how he had managed such a feat--our best theory was that he had somehow held his instrument in place by gently squeezing it with his knees, but he had been moving about passionately as usual. I guess he's just that good.

But regardless of Yo-Yo's apparent immunity to endpin slips (or the possibility of there being a very distinct hole engraved in the floor of the Thompson center), it is vitally important that we do not allow an endpin's stubborn lack of cooperation to interfere with a given performance. Many a cellist has allowed the misfortune of a slip to become a source of embarrassment and increased anxiety, but if one takes it in stride and goes on to continue performing with a defiant conviction, the performance will be successful no matter how many times the cello attempts to escape. So, the next time you encounter a slip on stage, smile to yourself. Even if it turns out to be a disaster, you'll have a great story to share with your fellow cellists afterwards--or an even greater blog post.

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