Music Theory for Cellists Part Two: Modal Scales


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


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.)

scale with solfege syllables.jpg

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.)


Long, Long Ago: Wisdom From Your First Cello Teacher

 Turns out it's almost impossible to make a terrible bow hold when you're "spidering" up and down the stick...

Turns out it's almost impossible to make a terrible bow hold when you're "spidering" up and down the stick...

There are some things that are quite common in beginning cello pedagogy that I don't like much. The beginning bow hold with the thumb under the frog, for example, which teaches--for no good reason--a habit that has to be unlearned later. Another is the "left thumb as anchor," which teaches little hands to hit pitches chronically out of tune, and little ears to accept this poor intonation. I know why some otherwise good teachers are doing these things: because we all want to get a student set up with decent hand shaping so that they can advance to playing pieces quickly and not get bored and quit. But the fact is, poor setup leads to fundamental misunderstanding of how the body can be used to our advantage in playing the cello, and this in turn sets the student up for endless technical challenges later on. 

It's not all doom and gloom, however. When I thought back to some of the exercises I was taught as a child, it seems that many of them make a lot of sense, even if children don't know what they're doing them for. When the teacher tests whether the student can stand up from a seated playing position without shuffling their feet or moving the chair, what they're actually doing is encouraging a balanced sitting position. You simply can't stand up directly from sitting if your legs are splayed out or wrapped around the chair legs, or if you're hunched up. This is a great "reset" for those children who grow faster than their cello technique can keep up with. (And a good reminder for teachers to keep checking whether the chair is at an ideal height!)

Another great "reset" is the "bow hold spider." This is universal among string teachers and it's actually a really great exercise. You hold your bow with the stick vertically, and "walk" your fingers up and down it, sometimes while singing "Incy Wincy Spider" (a song my American daughter assures me is called "Itsy Bitsy Spider" here in the United States). It's harder to spider back to the frog than it is to spider to the tip! Back when I taught children in Saturday morning Suzuki classes, they always complained if I forgot to include Spider in our preliminary warm-ups. (I may or may not have sometimes placed Life Saver candies on the tips of their bows...) 

Spider is a fun game, but what's so great about it is that it's practically impossible to do it with a bad bow-hold. I know this, because I just tried to do it. I tried supinating my hand, and almost dropped the bow! I tried spreading my fingers in a widely-spaced, tense "claw," and I couldn't "walk" my fingers at all. I tried wedging my fingers together in a salute, and couldn't do it that way either. I tried "bracing" my fourth finger hard against the bow, and nearly whacked my bow into the wall. Holding the bow in a vice-grip? Neglecting to curve the fingers? Those don't work either.

Spider quite simply trains you to keep your fingers naturally spaced, curved, and relaxed on the bow, with thumb opposing the middle fingers, and the whole hand slightly pronated, playing-style. There's a reason for the hand shaping we have collectively deemed to be good for holding the bow--it's because our hands want to do it naturally. 

The takeaway from this is that despite all the misinformation about cello technique, there are certain exercises that are never-fail "resets" for your technique. Of which the ever-helpful Spider is one.

Want to know more about these resets? Check out Chapter 2 and Chapter 4 of Cello Practice, Cello Performance.

Buckling Fingers & "Double" Joints: Playing the Cello While Hypermobile

By Miranda Wilson

can i play cello.JPG


Open up Google and type in "Can I play cello if I...". The first thing that came up for me was " double jointed?"

The answer is a resounding YES. Cello is for everyone. Humans come in all shapes and sizes and abilities, and that includes people with hypermobile joints. (Technically, there's no such thing as a "double" joint, but I use the term because it's common parlance for a common problem.)

I'm no contortionist, but I do have mild hypermobility, to the delight of my Alexander Technique teacher and the other children at my elementary school. Also, I've taught many college students with joints that can stretch way farther than mine. In cello playing, this manifests in fingers that buckle on the string and the bow, joints that lock painfully, excess tension, and pain.

Here's a little slideshow of some of the different types of wrongness that can happen -- and these are just the ones that have happened to me. (Not pictured is the very common problem of the locking pinky -- more on that in a minute.) Click the arrows to scroll through...


What can a person with hypermobile finger joints do to make cello playing comfortable?

1. Well, you could just ignore it, but that's not an option if it hurts or if you seriously want to improve.

2. You could do what I did with my hypermobile middle thumb joint: make it not buckle by force of will and lots of practice at never, ever hyperextending it. (Not recommended, as this takes a long time and is very frustrating.)

3. Wait to see if you grow out of it. I don't recommend this either -- why wait until a habit is so entrenched as to be unbreakable, and you start hurting yourself

The general consensus is that letting your fingers buckle is bad news. And yet there's so little information out there that can genuinely help the ambitious but confused super-bendy person. So...

4. Find some exercises that encourage rounded finger shaping so that this becomes habit.

I was excited to read this article by the violin teacher Lora Staples, where she encourages students to practice an exercise using a clothespin to build finger strength. Inspired, I found one in my laundry closet and tried it. But after a few repetitions, the tendons of my wrist started hurting, so I had to go to the grocery store to seek one that was more loosely sprung. Even that kind of hurt.

I did want to keep doing the exercise, however, because I was looking for solutions for my undergraduates, so I started thinking of other household objects that might do the same amount of good without causing pain. The answer came to me while I was cleaning my bathroom -- the trigger of a spray bottle! I tried the exercise on that and it worked brilliantly. Much "softer" than a clothespin, but with the same good results.

Here are some of the ways you can practice rounded finger shaping using a spray bottle.

Getting back to the cello...

5. Adjust your technique in a way that encourages rounded finger shaping and discourages buckling/locked finger shaping. For example:

a) Locking, tense left thumb? Avoid having the pad of the thumb press the cello neck. Look at how your fingers come together naturally -- your thumb comes in sideways. Let it do this on the neck too.

b) Fingers buckle on the string (especially in thumb position) and you can't find a comfortable angle that enables rounded shaping? You can, especially at high speeds, play on the side of the string and still get a good sound.

play on side of string.png

c) Fingers keep locking and causing pain? Try moving from finger to finger not by over-exercising the hand and fingers, but by thinking of the arm's weight as the agent that gets you from finger to finger-- like you're swinging from a bar at the gym. Keep your left thumb free (touching the neck with the side of the thumb helps with this, because you can't "press" so easily) so that it can move to "oppose" each of the fingers.

Further reading:

Intonation and the Opposable Thumb

Playing the Cello "Naturally"? Ask Your Hands How


Arm Weight, What It Means, How To Use It

Copyright Miranda Wilson, 2017. No part of this post may be reproduced without the author's permission.


Driving a Car, Driving a Cello

The first car I ever drove was a 1991 Ford Telstar with a manual transmission. At first, I was terrified of grating the gears, stalling, or simply not being able to move at all except in mortifying bunny-hops. After I'd figured out how to use the machinery, I realized that what frightened me more was steering the thing, parking it, judging how much space I needed to change lanes on the highway, and that sort of thing.

My instructor was a cranky elderly lady who was fond of reciting "Remember the six positions of the two-car crash!" as I clutched the steering wheel with white knuckles and tried not to hyperventilate. "Check your mirrors! You forgot to check! Never forget to check! Look behind you! No! In front of you!" The poor thing probably had permanently high cortisol levels from all the things her students did on the road. But eventually I was able to stop grating the gears, internalize the rules of the road, and pass my test (on my third attempt... hmm).

I thought fondly of my driving the instructor recently when I was on a visit to a high school orchestra. The teacher had done a great job of instrumental instruction and aspects of musicianship such as complicated rhythm. But I noticed that the majority of the students were buried in their music stands, barely looking up but for the conductor's cues. As a result, the ensemble's attacks weren't unified and the tempo got slower and slower.

And it occurred to me that playing in any ensemble isn't unlike learning to drive a car. Once you've mastered the task of playing tolerably well and have practised your part and studied the full score so you know "how it goes," when you get to rehearsal your gaze needs to be moving constantly. Of course you're going to look at your stand, but you constantly have to glance at the conductor, the concertmaster, the section principal, and so on. You have to be able to memorize short passages from the score so you can look up to give and observe cues without losing your place. It's as if having mastered how the gears work, now you have to make sure you're looking at the road in front of you, potential hazards in the distance, the rear-view mirror, the side mirrors, etc, with only occasional glances at the speedometer to check you aren't over the limit.

Successful driving and successful ensemble playing depend on having learned to do the thing in itself, i.e. master the equipment, so that it becomes automatic and you're liberated to do more things. If someone breaks a rule of the road and makes a mistake, alert and adept drivers can often adjust their own driving to avoid accidents. Someone comes in wrong in an ensemble? If everyone else is alert, adept at their own part, and knows the score well, they can "save" that person without having to stop.

Making music is inherently exciting. It's like driving down the freeway at high speeds, changing lanes, passing other vehicles, knowing where you're going, dodging hazards. If you can do the same thing in an ensemble -- get your head out of the stand and your gaze constantly moving -- you'll get to your destination much more smoothly.

Cello Cheats


Sometimes we encounter repetitive passages in the repertoire that tire the hands very quickly if we use conventionally "good" technique. Creative compositions call for creative performance solutions, including ways of playing that may initially look like "bad" technique. I call these "cello cheats."

One of my best cheats works well for long pizzicato passages. While pizzicato isn't inherently the hardest action to perform, repertoire that calls for a lot of it, such as the second movement from the Ravel quartet (pictured below), can be tiring to play -- to the point that the cellist may be worried about not being able to go fast enough at Ravel's specified tempo of 92.

If the repeated action of fast pizzicato causes feelings of weakness, try this simple tip: while holding the bow in the fist using the second, third, and fourth fingers, gently press the tip of the thumb into the pad of the first finger and pluck the string that way. You'll find that the strength provided by the thumb opposing the finger is enough to help you gain speed without tension (pictured below).

Another great cello cheat is the "vibrato trill." Most of us are taught that the motion of trilling should be initiated by a "hammering" of the finger that plays the upper note. But in repertoire with long or repeated trills, such as the excerpt from the first movement of the Dvořák concerto (pictured below), the trilling finger and the tendons of the hand can get overly tired if you do it that way. 

Why not play trills using the same motion as a vibrato, positioning the trilling finger so that it touches the string? In the pictures below, I demonstrate how the relaxed vibrating motion of the left arm in a trill can achieve the same effect as conventional trilling technique -- without the tension and tiredness.

I first thought of "vibrato trills" in my teens, and since then I've seen plenty of good players use them. It perplexes me that so many teachers won't let students trill like this. One of my mentors actually forbade me to do vibrato trills with no explanation other than that she thought it wasn't "classy." I wish now that I'd dared to argue. Why should we care what conventional technique is supposed to look like if we can achieve the same sound and feel more relaxed doing something else? Try it!

Want Better Tone on Low Notes? Play Them An Octave Higher.

Sound is everything. That's my mantra. Without a compelling tone quality that makes the audience want to keep listening, every other aspect of a cellist's musicianship will go unnoticed.

On page 27 of Cello Practice, Cello Performance I wrote:

"The ideal tone is one that resonates and projects to the back of a performance space, regardless of the dynamics or the mood of the piece. Under the right conditions, even a hushed pianissimo can be audible in the back row of a large auditorium. The cellist should be able to sustain this tone consistently."

I've written a lot here in Cello Tips about the concept of the Tone Triangle, the three adjustable and mutually dependent qualities that go into sound production: (1) contact point, (2) arm weight, and (3) bow speed. But what happens when you've worked diligently on all of them and your tone still isn't improving?

Sometimes we hit a wall and stop improving because we don't really notice inconsistencies in our playing. Then, under the strain of our nerves in a concert, any technical problems we may have just get magnified because (and here's my second mantra): "What happens in performance directly reflects what you've taught yourself to do in practice."

So how do you improve your tone after you've hit that wall? Mantra #3: "Teach yourself to be better than you actually have to be."

I've written about this concept before, as related to tempo and intonation. But you can also do it for your tone quality in the lower register. How? Simple! Make your pieces harder by playing them up an octave. In the high register, everything you have to do with your fingering and bowing to produce a resonant tone is just that little bit harder because the string is "shortened" by the left-hand fingers. If you're not maintaining a consistent contact point, arm weight, or bow speed in the upper registers, you'll notice a whole lot faster than you do in the neck position. 

This method works best on pieces that are primarily in the lower and middle registers, such as Gabriel Fauré's Sicilienne. Transpose a passage up an octave, making sure to keep comparable fingerings to those you use in the neck position (i.e. replace 3 and 4 with 2 and 3 as appropriate, etc).

Original version:

Up-an-octave version:

Things to notice:

1. You definitely have to choose a contact point close to the bridge when playing high because otherwise your tone will be thin. It's actually easier to play close to the bridge up high than in the neck position.

2. Pay special attention to bow speed, especially in the anacrusis. You may notice that you have a tendency to "swoop" the bow much faster than it actually needs. You may also notice that you neglect the frog and lower part of the bow. Utilize this part! It's where your best sound lives.

3. Your string can take a lot more arm weight when you play high because of the close-to-bridge contact point.

4. After you've done this passage high a few times and made adjustments to your Tone Triangle, take it back to the original pitches and incorporate the bowing techniques you used before. Notice how improved your tone is!

Other pieces that will benefit from the up-an-octave method:

  • Bach Suite No. 1 in G Major, Allemande, Menuets, Gigue
  • Elgar Concerto, third movement
  • Schumann, Fantasy Piece No. 1

Related Posts

Arm Weight, What It Means, How To Use It

Being Better Than You Have To Be

Playing Close to the Bridge

Playing the Cello "Naturally"? Ask Your Hands How.


In the early stages of teaching cello to a beginner, any good teacher is concerned with shaping the student's hands in a rational manner, i.e. fingers curved and not buckled, joints flexible and not locked. 

Much has been written about playing the cello "naturally." My feeling is that the most "natural" thing we could do is to shape our cello-playing and bow-holding hands according to what our hands themselves want to do, rather than according to a preconceived idea of what hand positions ought to look like

The most relaxed and natural state for our hands and arms to be in is hanging loosely by our sides. Here are four different views of my left hand doing just this.

Things to notice:

  • The fingers want to be curved, not straightened
  • The fingers are naturally spaced. The amount of spacing varies a lot between individuals.
  • The fingers want to hang down in a slanted way.
  • The thumb opposes all the fingers, rather than any one particular finger
  • The thumb opposes the fingers at a "sideways" angle

Now let's bend our elbows and bring this "natural" hand up to face us...

 "Violin hand"

"Violin hand"

...and you'll notice that it looks remarkably like a "violin hand"! Remember this, it's important. (Mats Lidstrom has written that his teacher, Leonard Rose, told him "You’ll learn as much from your violinist friends as you will from me.")

Turn your arm around to make a "cello hand"...

 "Cello hand"

"Cello hand"

...and the last step is to replicate this with your cello.

 In practice

In practice

Things to notice:

  • The fingers are slanted (pronated) on the string, per their natural slant when hanging down
  • The thumb touches the neck of the cello "sideways" rather than flat on the pad. This prevents a student pushing the pad of the thumb into the neck, buckling the top joint, creating tension and inhibiting ease of shifting.

Now let's do the same thing with the right hand.

 Hand hangs down naturally

Hand hangs down naturally

 Air bow hold

Air bow hold

 Holding the bow the way the hand naturally wants to

Holding the bow the way the hand naturally wants to