When asked how he knew that being able to stand would liberate his cello playing, Mike Block offers an intriguing response: “I didn’t quite realize what I was missing by only sitting until I had the experience of standing.” We are speaking by phone while the Boston-based cellist drives between gigs, from Dallas to Austin.
His comment at first feels a bit odd, considering that he had spent years developing a unique cello-strap design. But Block recalls one memory that sums up its impact: He stood alongside collaborators while performing a bluegrass concert and realized he’d hit on something great.
“When it came time for my solo, I was able to just take one step forward toward the mic, and that was such an incredible feeling—I felt like I could embody the arrangement and make it visible,” Block says.
I was able to just take one step forward toward the mic, and that was such an incredible feeling—I felt like I could embody the arrangement and make it visible.
Block stresses that since developing the special strap—officially called the Block Strap—it’s “opened up new parts” of him. For one, he can play and sing more freely. The strap safely loops and buckles around the pegs, through the endpin, around the underside of the neck, and around the player’s body. It also has an adjustable, padded chest cushion made of breathable and textured-rubber fabric that keeps the cello in place. It allows the cellist to stand, walk, and even dance. Others seem to agree on its comfort; the Block Strap’s testimonial video features such colleagues as Yo-Yo Ma, Natalie Haas, and Boston Symphony cellist Alexandre Lecarme moving while playing.
Block, a multi-style cellist, says he suspects his diverse repertoire and collaborations with musicians of many backgrounds led him to the invention; he doubts he’d have arrived at it if he had stuck strictly to classical performance.
Block’s journey began in March 2013, but the history of strap-like devices being outfitted to cellos is much longer. “There’s a surprising amount of precedence for jerry-rigging ways to stand with the cello, dating back even to the 1700s,” he shares. But he was particularly inspired by singer-songwriter Lindsay Mac and cellist Rushad Eggleston, who outfitted their cellos with guitar straps. Block says he was jealous of Eggleston’s freedom. Block tried their method for himself—but was dissatisfied.
“Normally the cello is probably at a 45-degree angle to the ground, and that allows you to sort of sink in with your bow arm to get a deep and varied sound, because the cello is resisting the bow,” he explains. “But when you’re using a simple guitar strap, the cello unavoidably hangs more vertically. You have to press into the instrument in order to make a sound with the bow; you can’t really use any arm weight in the same way that you’re used to while sitting.” It significantly compromised his physical comfort and expressive abilities, he adds. He tried identifying all the ways he’d need to change his technique. To try out the adjustments, he played Popper études—his Litmus test, he says. But ultimately, it wasn’t working. He realized he had been trying to change his technique, but instead needed to adapt the strap to himself.
“That set me off on two years of experimentation, trying to find different ways to get the cello in a position that felt more familiar and comfortable, and didn’t require me to discard years and years of cello practicing and tens of thousands of dollars of tuition money,” he says.