Are you all thumbs in thumb position? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) You’re not alone — this is one of the most commonly misunderstood advanced cello techniques. Today, I’m going to thumb my nose (OK, I’ll stop now) at a few misconceptions about thumb position.
One of my teachers had no patience for students complaining that playing the cello was hard. “Yes, it’s a hard profession,” he’d say smoothly, right before he gave you his signature death glare. Or “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”
We all know that you have to practice if you want to be good. But practice is sometimes as frustrating as it is rewarding. We don’t want to be good at some nebulous point in the future, we want it now.
I have a nerdy hobby of reading cello method books from the past 300+ years. I also meet a lot of young cellists on school trips and masterclasses. Everywhere I go and with everything I read, I see cello techniques that make no sense. I don’t want to trash talk other cello teachers: we’re all doing our best, and we all make mistakes. What I don’t understand, however, is why certain pedagogical advice gets handed down through generations of teachers as accepted wisdom when so much of it isn’t logical. Today, I’m writing down what I think are the top five misconceptions about playing the cello.
Cello pedagogy has certain fads and fashions, and some of them go out of date. Friedrich Grützmacher’s eccentric nineteenth-century pastiche-arrangement of the Boccherini B-flat concerto used to be standard rep for advanced cello students, and now hardly anyone plays it.
The etude literature has its fashions too, and I think there will always be a place for the chromatic wizardry of David Popper’s High School of Cello Playing and Alfredo Piatti’s Paganini-esque Caprices. But I’ve noticed a decline in popularity concerning the less “musical” etudes by pedagogues like Bernhard Cossmann, and I think it’s a pity.
Have you ever had to learn a score in a hurry, and decided “For now, I’ll learn it so that I can just play it, and add the expression in later”?
A guitarist friend once told me that it’s a point of honour among guitarists not to have too much extraneous noise when they play. “You want to minimize all the bumps and squeaks — anything that’s not music,” he told me.
"Oh yeah, cellists should do that too,” I said.
My friend snorted. “Cellists are the worst,” he said. “They’re always slamming and hitting and grunting and huffing and puffing like they’re the Big Bad Wolf or something.”
The Music Avalanche
Have you ever thought of your list of music you have to learn as a gigantic avalanche that’s about to hit you? Tiny, helpless, and struggling, you try desperately to stand up and run, but…. Yeah, me too. I currently have several hours’ worth of scores to learn, including two major chamber works and a recital program’s worth of solo pieces.
The trouble with the music avalanche is that you sometimes feel so overwhelmed by it, you can’t get started.
How much do you think your head weighs?
Clue: a lot. About 6.8 kilograms (15 lbs). For comparison, the average cabbage weighs around 1.1 kg (2.43 lbs). Bowling balls max out at 7.27 kg (16 lbs).
This blows my mind.You are carrying something the weight of a bowling ball around on top of your neck all day. Chances are you’re also thrusting it down and forward while playing the cello.
Explains why your neck hurts, doesn’t it?
By Miranda Wilson
Every music student knows that when you first go to a new teacher, the teacher is inevitably going to decide that you have a technical problem that needs fixing. Some may be relatively easy to implement. Others, such as a bow hold change, may require a steep learning curve and lots of determination to replace inefficient habits with better ones.
As a cello professor, I can say with absolute certainty that the top technical problem in incoming cello students is excess tension.
Confession time. I didn’t know what “arm weight” really meant in cello playing until I was...well, let’s say I was well past my student years.
It’s become accepted wisdom that we should avoid the words “pressure” and “force”when we talk about bowing, even though technically — in terms of the physics and mathematics of it — that’s what happens. The thinking is that the word “pressure” sounds tense, therefore we should say “arm weight,” which has a more neutral connotation of harnessing the body’s natural weight to get the job done.
…Which sounds great, as long as you understand what it feels like to do that.