Stop, Check, Notice, Release: Eliminating Tension in Cello Playing

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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.

It sure was for me when I first went to university.

I arrived at the University of Canterbury aged eighteen feeling motivated, ambitious, and ready to go. Imagine my horror when my teacher told me at our first lesson that I was doing everything wrong.

“Everything?” I gasped.

“Everything,” said my teacher.

It seemed horrifying, but I realize now that it was 100% true. Photos from the time show me with every technical problem in the book — a tight claw of a bow hold, shoulders raised almost to my earlobes, neck thrust forward, lips pinched tightly together. I was, truthfully, a giant fixer-upper.

The thought of undoing everything I’d ever learned about playing the cello afresh seemed like a gigantic tidal wave looming over me while I paddled away furiously on a tiny inflatable raft.

And yet, the strength of my desire to play the cello better got me through this setback, and now that I’m a cello professor, it’s my goal to help students eliminate their own excess tension on the path to becoming self-sufficient self-teachers. (This was also my primary motivation for writing Cello Practice, Cello Performance.)

We all know that tension = bad, relaxation = good. It’s easy enough to relax while sunbathing on vacation, so why is it so hard to relax while performing an emotionally invested activity like playing the cello?

I’m no psychologist, but I’d hypothesize that our culture of overwork = virtue has something to do with this. We equate hard work with pain. We have control issues. We’re afraid to release arm weight into the string in much the same way as we’re reluctant to “let go” emotionally.

And yet, it can be done, one step at a time. You have to really want it, but you can learn to eliminate excessive tension from your technique by a method that I call Stop, Check, Notice, Release.

“SCNR” is the mindful practice of learning to notice tension in cello playing by asking ourselves what any given body part is doing at any given time while we’re playing the cello. The reason this works is the same reason that if I ask you not to think of a polar bear, you immediately think of a polar bear.

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There’s a simple reason for this. We’re contrary creatures, and the minute anything is forbidden, we want to do it. So it stands to reason that as soon as you draw your attention to a certain body part, you’ll want to flex that body part. And that’s OK, because we’re going to release it immediately.

Here’s how it works. You determine — whether by a teacher’s feedback, your own observation in the mirror or a video, or even by the experience of pain in that body part — where tension is sabotaging your cello technique. Common areas include, but are by no means limited to things like excessive tension in the right trapezius and deltoid from “holding up” the bow instead of releasing weight into the string, or “pinching” the neck of the cello with the thumb. Pick one and set a goal that you’re going to replace an old, tense habit with a new, released one.

Step 1: summon up your determination to release this tension. A strong desire is crucial, because changing old habits is not a simple task and you need to really want to do it.

Step 2: choose a passage of music that you’re going to work on. I recommend an etude that you know well and find relatively easy — perhaps one of the first few studies from the first volume of Dotzauer’s 113 Etudes.

Step 3: play through a line of this etude, stopping still on the first beat of every measure.

Step 4: check the body part. Questions to ask: “What’s my thumb doing? Is it pressing on the neck? Am I busting the joints out backwards?” You have to make it your business to really notice what this body part is doing.

Step 5: release the tension so that your joints can move easily and your body’s weight is balanced. Repeat the steps again and again until you can do the passage with your new habit of flexibility and balance. Repeat daily, ever watchful that the bad habit doesn’t return — and it’s sure to sneak up on you, because bad habits are persistent little so-and-sos.

Examples of how to use SCNR:

  • Do you keep pushing your head forward, buzzard-style, in spite of yourself? Try to imagine that you are a puppet whose body parts are held up and manipulated by strings. When the puppet-master pulls up the string attached to your head, your head is compelled to become centered on top of your body. Stop, check, notice this. Then release: free your neck, and let your head return to being on top of your body.

  • Do you have a tendency to supinate your bow hand by slumping the side of the hand over onto the stick because the weight of the frog seems hard to control? Stop, check, and notice when this sneaks up on your. Release by imagining your thumb and second finger as a kind of balancing fulcrum, and gently return your hand to a more pronated position so that you can continue bowing in a more rational manner.

Further Reading:

“Imaginary Lions: How ‘Effort’ Sabotages Cello Playing, and How To Fix It” http://cellopracticecelloperformance.com/cello-tips/2016/5/30/hokinkazqiskvr7kdwqgg5bkm9m16a

Balancing the Bow Arm's Weight

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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. I wasn’t always a very physically self-aware person, and when my teachers used to say “More arm weight!” in response to my puny tone, I’d obediently do what I thought was applying more arm weight. In reality, I was forcing my shoulder up and my head forward, then wondering why I got so many neck-aches. Meanwhile, my arm’s weight was definitely not in the string — I was “holding” my bow-arm shape up, bicep tensed, which just isn’t a smart use of what Mother Nature has given us. Sometimes, when my performance anxiety was bad, I was so tense I could barely make a sound on my cello. After one competition (which I lost), one of the jury said to me “You have a problem with the C-string.” No kidding, I could barely make a sound on it.

In my teaching practice, I do agree we should choose our words carefully when talking about the human body. But we should also think about how the thing feels as well as how it looks and sounds. It’s easy to demonstrate to a student how a technique should look and sound, but very hard to demonstrate how it should feel. Especially in a concept like balancing your arm’s weight into the string through the bow. It might be natural, but it’s hardly intuitive to someone who hasn’t felt it before.

The following exercises help teach what arm weight feels like. The idea isn’t to use arm weight in the sense of having the arms slump down by the sides of the body. It’s to balance the arm weight, using the contact between bow and string as a kind of fulcrum.

The human arm is very heavy, around 5% or more of the body’s weight. In today’s first exercise, brought to you by the talented students in the University of Idaho cello program, the teacher takes a pencil by both ends and asks the student to hang her right-hand fingers off it. The teacher pulls up, asking the student to pull down. By “hanging” the bow hand off the pencil, the student understands how much arm weight is at her disposal. (Clue: it’s far more than you actually need!)

Next, the teacher asks a student to do the same thing with the bow. She lowers the student’s bow to the string, taking care to check that the student isn’t “lifting” the arm’s weight off the bow.

So where does the see-saw come into it?

Once the student understands how to feel their arm’s weight, the next step is applying it to cello playing.

In this video, the student places her bow on the string at the balance point...which after all is the best place to learn about balance. The contact point between string and bow is the fulcrum of the see-saw. The student places both her hands on the bow and makes a see-sawing motion that rocks back and forth across the cello strings. Both arms are completely “heavy” with relaxation as the see-saw goes up and down.

In the next video, the student takes away the left hand and does the see-saw exercise with just the bow arm, remembering how it felt to harness the arm’s weight.

If you add the see-saw to your daily practice regimen, you’ll be amazed at how much easier and more relaxing bowing becomes — and how much richer your tone sounds.

Target Practice: Getting Tenor-Register Shifts Right Every Time

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By Miranda Wilson

The tenor register of the cello — the part of the A-string that spans between fourth position and the upper positions — can be tricky to navigate. Many of us fear shifts on the “cusp” of the neck and upper positions because the body of the instrument feels like an obstacle to be overcome.

Recently, I was teaching repertoire to two students of very different levels of advancement, but the problem was the same: approaching a note above the A-string harmonic from the neck position. One student, a mature beginner, was studying Tchaikovsky’s Chanson Triste; the other, a music graduate, was studying an excerpt from Brahms’s Symphony No. 2. In spite of their radically different experiences, both experienced a lot of anxiety about “nailing” the shift in tune.

Here’s the Tchaikovsky excerpt:

(m. 30 features a shift up to a high B-flat)

(m. 30 features a shift up to a high B-flat)

And here’s the Brahms:

(mm. 4-5 feature a shift up to a high B)

(mm. 4-5 feature a shift up to a high B)

There are two factors that go into the success of this type of shift.

  1. The arm’s elevation and hand’s shape, which need to remain consistent between the neck and upper positions. If the arm has sagged down beside the body while in the neck position, it’s almost certain that the player will miss the shift because she/he can’t get up and over the body of the instrument fast enough to reach the B-flat. Click here to read my article “Transitioning From Neck To Thumb Position.”

  2. The intermediary that helps us measure the shift: our old friend the A-string harmonic. Most of us can find this place with no trouble at all because we use it so much for tuning, etc.

I wrote the following exercise for Chanson Triste to teach the shift. Follow this simple four-step process and you’ll never miss it again!

  1. Measure the distance of the shift by using the second finger to travel between F and the A harmonic. Check that the arm’s elevation is consistent. What is the most economical trajectory your arm, hand, and finger than make between these two pitches?

  2. Add a B-flat with the third finger, stopping on the A harmonic with your second finger on the way to the B-flat. The A is the intermediary step between F and B-flat.

  3. Practice the shift from 2 on F to 3 on B-flat with a “ghost” A between them. That is, imagine where the A is, but don’t actually play it.

  4. Now attempt the Tchaikovsky passage itself, remembering steps 1, 2, and 3.

A fifth step: rejoice in your success! Now repeat the successful strategy many, many times. If you still randomly miss the shift in among correct executions, go back to the first step and figure out what’s going wrong. Your ability to perform this skill depends on how you teach it to yourself in practice, so only practice the correct way. Enjoy successful shifts! These small victories are as satisfying as hitting the bulls-eye again and again in target practice.

Here’s the exercise written out in notation:

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…And here’s a video of what it looks and sounds like. (The recording quality isn’t great and there’s a lot of background noise — thanks, University of Idaho music students! — but it gives an idea of what to expect.)

The Twin Goals of Practice

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By Miranda Wilson

“How should I practise?” This is the most frequently asked question of cellists at all levels. It’s far more common than “How many hours a day should I practise?”, because we all know the answer to that one: that is, as many hours as we want to, need to, and can feasibly devote without neglecting our human needs and human responsibilities.

I devoted most of my book, Cello Practice, Cello Performance, to strategies for quality practice that works toward a performance goal, and in doing so I made the assumption that the reader had a lot of practice time. Throughout the chapters, I suggested methods for the most efficient uses of our bodies in the service of expressive interpretation. Today, I want to follow up on these with some perspective about planning and purpose in the practice room.

The real question isn’t about how to practise. It’s about what practice is for.

On the most basic level, the answer to this question is that practice is supposed to make you better. Therefore, every practice session must work on producing and re-producing sounds that will compel a listener to keep listening. Every cellist has their own specific goals and structures for practice, and that’s great. But good practice needs only two broad goals. I call them the twin goals. If you use them — searchingly and mindfully — every time you practise, you’ll improve.

  • Fundamentals. The fundamental building brick of music-making is your sound. Intonation is an inextricable part of sound. Vibration, however you augment it or don’t augment it, is part of sound. This is why practice must always encompass the basic movements that go into the service of expression.

  • Musicianship, without which there is no point in making music. We must read and know and comprehend full scores so that we can accurately render pitch, rhythm, and form — in other words, the small- and large-scale architectures of what we’re trying to express.

All cellists who practise using twin goals will get better. Some cellists have more practice time than others, so it’s only logical that those who practise more using these twin goals will get better than those who practise less. If you have an important recital or audition coming up, of course you’ll practise more. If you’re recovering from an injury and attempting to change your fundamental movements, you’ll practise less. And that’s OK. The twin goals make even a five-minute practice session worthwhile.

There are some occasions when we cannot work on both skills in practice. Sometimes we may be without a cello — whether it’s on vacation, or because of injury — but we can still sit with a score and increase musicianship that way.

There are occasions when we have neither a cello nor a score, but if we’re determined nothing can deter us from practising. Even trapped in a plane seat on a long-haul flight, lying in a hospital bed, or — God forbid — in prison, a musician can practice by virtue of memory and imagination. There is evidence that musician prisoners held captive for several years can avoid breakdown by obsessively going over and over the motions of playing an instrument in their minds, by thinking so hard about musical scores that given a pencil and staff paper, they could write down a full symphony from memory.

I find this incredibly powerful. Music and memory and hope are what makes this all worthwhile. Music consoles us, energizes us, keeps us alive.

Music Theory for Cellists Part Four: Seventh Chords

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By Miranda Wilson

A seventh chord is defined as a chord composed of a triad, plus a fourth note that forms the interval of a seventh (diminished, minor, or major) above the root of the chord.

In the classical music theory classroom, students are usually called upon to be able to notate and identify five types of seventh chords:

  • The fully diminished seventh chord (solfege: ti re fa le), a chord composed of stacked minor thirds that functions most commonly as chord viio7 in minor keys.

  • The half-diminished seventh chord (solfege: ti re fa la or re fa le do), a chord composed of a diminished triad stacked under a major third, that functions most commonly as chord viiø7 in major keys or chord iiø7 in minor keys.

  • The minor-minor seventh chord (solfege: re fa la do or la do mi sol), a chord composed of a minor triad stacked under a minor third, that functions most commonly as chord ii7 or chord vi7 in major keys.

  • The major-minor seventh chord (solfege: sol ti re fa), a chord composed of a major triad stacked under a minor third, that functions as chord V7 in both major and minor keys.

  • The major-major seventh chord (solfege: do mi sol ti), a chord composed of a major triad stacked under a major third, relatively uncommon in classical music but still common enough to make it a good idea to study and recognize.

In one of the appendices to Cello Practice, Cello Performance, I wrote an exercise in arpeggios in which I supplied fingerings for these five types of seventh chords, beginning each one on D for the sake of intervallic comparison.

My views on how best to learn these chords continue to evolve, and these days I think it’s even more helpful to learn about seventh chords using their harmonic function as a context. Chords don’t exist in a vacuum — they are always part of something bigger than themselves — so I composed some (I hope) fun melodies that do just that.

In them, I placed the seventh chords in the kind of context that you might find them in when you come across them in repertoire. For example, I place the fully diminished seventh chord in D minor, beginning on ti in D minor (C-sharp) and resolving it, just as the fully diminished chord resolves in diatonic harmony.

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Some of the seventh chords have more than one common function in diatonic music, such as the minor-minor seventh chord. I put a little musical “in-joke” into my exercise here — a quote from Debussy’s Girl With the Flaxen Hair that is one of the most famous melodic uses of this type of chord.

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Click here to download a free, high-resolution PDF of the whole etude.

Leadership, Gratitude, and Experimentation in Chamber Music

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By Miranda Wilson, CelloPracticeCelloPerformance.com

Today, during a chamber music coaching, I decided to stop micromanaging my students and let them figure out how to fix their intonation, time, and group sound themselves. I jumped in when needed, and when I wasn’t, I backed off.

I could do this because I trusted them and trusted myself. I knew I had taught them task mastery: of their instruments in their studio lessons, of the language of music in the theory classroom. Using a set of guidelines, it was now up to them to become their own best coaches.

I call this method inquiry-based rehearsal technique.

Here are the guidelines I gave them.

  1. Every member of the group is a leader.

    • If there’s only one leader, that means there are then three followers, and if you’re following you’re already behind the group.

    • Each member is allowed an allotted time as the director of the rehearsal. That person gets to pick the places she or he wants to work on, and shape the conversation about how to work on them.

  2. Criticize experimentally; listen generously.

    • It’s OK to offer constructive criticism to colleagues. Remember, though, that they have feelings. With this in mind, crux criticism as an experiment:What would happen if Jane put her F-sharp a little flatter in that D major triad?”

    • When you are the one receiving criticism, remember this: criticism is a gift. It is for you, to help you improve. Be available to this gift, even when it feels hard to accept it.

  3. Acceptance and gratitude

    • Be grateful for your colleagues. You could not make this music in this moment if they were not available to you.

    • Accept yourself and your colleagues as the players you are right now. You are all travelers on the same journey. All of you will improve on this journey if you are available to criticism.

    • Be grateful for your colleagues’ ideas, and try them out as wholeheartedly as if they were your own. Accept that sometimes, other people’s ideas may be better than what you wanted to do.

    • It’s OK if your idea that seemed great in practice doesn’t work in rehearsal. Embrace your failures. They are the wellspring of your creativity.

  4. Questions to ask yourselves that no one can answer for you:

  • How will we start?

  • What are our shared goals for intonation, interpretation, and everything else?

  • Is our group sound unified? If not, why not?

  • What is going wrong?

  • How do we fix it?

And the biggest, most important question of all, one that you should ask yourself at all times:

Are we making each other sound good?

Because it’s not about you, the individual, any more. It’s about you, the group.

Further Reading:

Cello Practice, Cello Performance by Miranda Wilson (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)

  • The principles of group sound, Chapter 3

  • The principles of keeping good time, Chapter 5

  • The principles of just intonation, Chapter 6

Music Theory for Cellists Part Three: Compound Intervals

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By Miranda Wilson

I love to begin a fundamentals workout with shifting exercises, since the process of getting from note to note isn’t necessarily straightforward.

In Cello Practice, Cello Performance, I wrote some exercises in shifting between first and fourth positions, and another shifting exercise dealing with octave shifts in a variety of fingerings. These exercises comprise part of my daily workout, and the purpose of them is to help me feel absolutely comfortable with the goals, mechanics, and success rate of shifting.

The Thinking Shift

What do I mean by “goals”? Well, when you have a big shift, you have to know what you’re aiming at. What pitch are you trying to hit, and how will you know if you’ve done it accurately? Therefore, this is an exercise in shifting and thinking. For this reason, I highly recommend the study of moveable-do solfege, a method of speaking the principles of theory so that you can navigate all the intervals with ease.

How to Set a Goal

Audiate — imagine in your mind’s ear — what your goal note sounds like. Make sure you prepare your shifts with the slight backward pull (see Cello Practice, Cello Performance for details) that will give your arm the release it needs to shift. All the while, bow “through” your shift — remember, “all techniques are both-hand techniques.” Learn how far you must measure and judge your distance from note to note. Audiate again: have you reached the goal pitch?

Improve Your Compound Intervals — and Your Shifts

In a previous post, I shared a warm-up exercise that illustrates how best to hear and assign solfege to all the simple intervals — that is, the intervals we can find within the octave. Today, let’s work on compound intervals — that is, the intervals wider than an octave. The benefits of this are multifaceted. You can improve your solfege, your interval recognition, and your large shifts all in one go. Here’s what it looks like:

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Music Theory for Cellists Part Two: Modal Scales

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By Miranda Wilson

I love to multi-task, which is why I've started to compose fundamentals exercises for my students in the University of Idaho cello studio that reinforce the fundamentals they learn in Theory I-IV and Aural Skills I-IV at the same time as building their proficiency in the principles of cello playing.

A couple of years ago, I wrote three posts on creative ways to practise scales (click on the links to read The Multifaceted Gift of Scales Part One; Part Two; Part Three). 

This post is specifically about scales in the diatonic modes. I'll leave it to the music historians to explain why their names are Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. The short explanation is that modal scales are major scales that may not start on the tonic of the key signature. Ionian is the common major scale, and Aeolian is the natural minor scale, and the others all bear various resemblances to other scales -- Dorian has a lot in common with the minor scale, for example.

There are two ways to label modal scales using moveable-do solfege: the "start on do" method, which involves altering degrees of the scale accordingly, so the Lydian scale, for example, would be spelled "do re mi fi sol la ti do." Another method, which I prefer, is to keep the solfege of the Ionian (major) scale and simply say that each mode starts on a different scale degree. By this method, the Lydian scale would be spelled "fa sol la ti do re mi fa."

I've noticed that a lot of college students arrive in Theory I without having heard of the modal scales. I believe it's never too early to teach theory concepts -- in an age-appropriate manner, of course -- and that near-beginners can easily master them. Here's a way of explaining modal scales for a student who isn't yet shifting. (For a free, higher-resolution download with complete instructions, click here.)

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Advanced players can combine the theory of modes with their daily thumb position work. In my chapter on how to practise in Cello Practice, Cello Performance, I demonstrated how a difficult scalar thumb position passage in Beethoven's A major sonata could be made easier through practising it in modal scales. Below is an exercise I use every day in practice and lessons to keep our thumb position in good shape -- and improve my students' recognition of the diatonic modes. (Click here to download a free PDF of the full exercise complete with instructions.)

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In Cello Practice, Cello Performance, I strongly advise against the concept of unthinking mechanical practice, or "mindless practice," as I called it. When we combine the fundamental principles of how music works with those of how cello playing works, the building bricks of expressive cello playing are literally at our fingertips

Music Theory For Cellists Part One: Solfege & Intervals Warm-Up

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By Miranda Wilson

This is my first post in a projected series on learning and using music theory in cello practice. As well as my cello studio at the University of Idaho, I also teach a class in aural skills -- essentially the laboratory class for what students learn in music theory. In most theory methods, the material is taught in a piano-centric way, and I've been looking for a way to make it more applicable to the cello. Over the next few weeks, I'll be sharing some exercises that "kill two birds with one stone" -- that is, teach the principles of music theory at the same time as getting a good cello warm-up.

Intervals and Solfege

Intervals quizzes are the bugbear of many of my students. Most of us hear intervals just fine within melodic and harmonic contexts; what's hard is taking them out of context. I find that assigning certain solfege syllables to every interval based on the commonest melodic context in which we're likely to find that interval is the key to correctly identifying them. I also like to use intervals from the major scale for this in the earliest stages of teaching interval theory, to avoid confusion.

Er, so what exactly is this solfege....?

I'm a relatively late convert to movable-do solfege, since I grew up in New Zealand, where most people use the Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music theory and practical syllabuses. Solfege wasn't really part of the conversation for us. When I moved to America, however, I had to learn the American theory system, which relies heavily on solfege, and I have to say I like it. The syllables -- which it turned out I already knew from The Sound of Music -- provided an easily memorable way of articulating music theory.

Well, mi re do, actually, but who's quibbling?

Well, mi re do, actually, but who's quibbling?

Essentially: "do" is always the tonic of the key we're in (so this may change within the course of a piece, since we'll be modulating to other keys). Therefore, in D major, D=do, A=sol, and so on. We use solfege to train our brains to understand the relationship between a note and its predecessor and its successor -- that is, training ourselves to have relative pitch. (A concept that is far more useful than its more famous relative, perfect pitch.)

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Common Interval Associations

Certain intervals are associated with certain melodic and harmonic roles in diatonic music. There are multiple possibilities for solfege for any interval; however, certain solfege associations are more common than others. For example, the interval of the tritone is associated with diminished 7 chord, and the V7 chord, and for that reason we assign it the solfege ti and fa (or the other way around). The minor seventh is associated with V7 and the dominant function, so we assign it the solfege sol and fa. It's tempting to relate every interval to "do," but I discourage this: there really isn't much of a context in diatonic music for, say, "do-te" for the minor seventh, whereas "sol-fa" is omnipresent in music from the past hundreds of years. (Don't believe me? Try singing "There's A Place For Us" from West Side Story, where you'll hear that intensely strong pull of the dominant seventh towards resolution on mi.)

Why the emphasis on the major mode? Well, I find this the easiest way to teach beginning intervals. Therefore, I like to use "do-mi" for the major third and "mi-sol" for the minor third. Of course "do-me" is a perfectly acceptable way to label the minor third, but I prefer not to do this because the major and minor thirds are commonly muddled, and assigning them both parts of the major triad (do-mi-sol) helps sort them out.

By the same token, the major third is the inverse of the minor sixth, so it makes sense to assign the same solfege syllables to these intervals (and the same goes for the minor third-major sixth combination, since most native English speakers know the very useful song "My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean," which begins with a major sixth).

With this in mind, I created a cello warm-up that goes through the intervals together with their commonest solfege contexts. This is great for multi-tasking because it also gives you a good shifting workout.

Just like for the shifting exercises that I wrote in Chapter Three of Cello Practice, Cello Performance, you'll need to establish a consistent contact point between bow and string, and ensure that your stance is balanced and relaxed.

Step One: sing through the exercise using solfege to the best of your ability (it doesn't matter if you're a bad singer, that's really not the point).

Step Two: play it on the cello! Use the bow from frog to tip. Shift slowly, "feeling" the shifts with your bow. Try to imagine that your shift is "powered" by the efficient pull of your bow, and that your bow's consistency and friction against the string are powered by the efficiency of the shift. As I stated several times over in Cello Practice, Cello Performanceall techniques are both-hands techniques.

Going further: theory is part of practice, and practice is part of theory.

Step Three: Using movable-do solfege, transpose the exercise into any key you like. You can play it on any string, using any finger. Five minutes of this every day will transform your ability to recognize intervals by assigning them with solfege contexts, and it'll improve your shifting and bowing. Win-win!

Exercise below, or download a free PDF complete with instructions here.

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Banish the Buckling Pinky (Bow Hand Edition)

In a previous post, I addressed the technical issues faced by cellists with "double-jointed" (more correctly, hypermobile) left-hand fingers. An equally common problem that you'll see on cellists with otherwise decent bow-hold setups is a hypermobile right fourth finger that "buckles" on the bow. 

This "collapse" isn't so much caused by the person's hypermobility, but by a misconception of what the fourth finger is supposed to do on the bow, in combination with finger shaping that places the finger on the bow in a way that's likely to cause buckling.

What do I mean by "misconception"? Well, I've heard a lot of teachers say that the index finger, fourth finger, and thumb are the fingers that "hold the bow up" so it doesn't fall. I disagree. The force of gravity is on our side: the string is what prevents the bow from falling; the fingers are there to be guides more than holders. In most cases, the fourth finger can sit relaxedly aside the ring finger without overworking.

The second part of this is the hand and finger shaping.  Buckling happens when the cellist's finger touches the bow at a sub-optimal part of the finger, as shown in this photograph of one of my students, J. Unlike me, J. has short arms and small hands, and in this photo she is demonstrating how she used to "compensate" by pushing the top joint of her fourth finger on the stick, causing it to buckle. Some people find this painful and some don't; either way, it's tense and we ought to avoid it.

How not to do it: the buckling fourth finger

How not to do it: the buckling fourth finger

Looking at this from a side view, you can see because the bow hair is "flat" on the string, the fourth finger of J's small hand is forced to touch the bow almost at its tip, violinist-style. (For this reason, I don't use the widespread pedagogical practice of correcting a non-pronating bow-hand by having the student place the tip of her/his fourth finger on the stick to encourage pronation. It's a nice idea, but it simply causes too many other problems to be useful.)

How Not To Do It, side view

How Not To Do It, side view

There's a very simple solution to this very common problem: don't play with flat hair! In the next picture, J. angles the stick towards her so that the bow's hair appears to be "pushing down" to the bridge (this has the by-product of improving tone quality). She's allowing the top joint of her fourth finger to come down the frog a bit so that the tip of her finger nestles in the hollow in the front of the frog. That way, a cellist can maintain good hand shaping without buckling the joint.

Better: bow stick angled towards you, relaxed and curved fourth finger

Better: bow stick angled towards you, relaxed and curved fourth finger

Here's what it looks like from the side:

Rounded hand shape, side view

Rounded hand shape, side view

I sometimes joke that this bow-hold has such a rounded position, you could take the bow out of the student's hand and replace it with a banana!

And because I always like to check the back view of both hands, here's what J's hand looks like from behind. (Questions about the student's thumb placement? Check out my post Rethinking The Bow Hold.)

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