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).
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
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...
...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"...
...and the last step is to replicate this with your cello.
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.
“I’m having trouble motivating myself to practise.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard this, I’d be that mythical creature, a rich cello professor.
Motivation is sporadic. Motivation is elusive. Motivation is not rational.
If we were motivated by rationality, all it would take to make us practise more is reading the famous 1993 study by K. Anders Ericsson et al. that showed that the best musicians are the ones who have done more deliberate practice than the rest.
The paradox of it all is that while you can love music deeply enough to make it your profession, meaning that you’ve already put years of your life into practice, you may still dislike practising to the point that you almost never feel like doing it.
Why not? Boredom, tiredness, stress, and good old laziness are part of it. But for most of us who know just how hard it is to be a musician, the feeling of being overwhelmed is the overriding force that stops us practising. When you contemplate the mountain of rehearsals and gigs and students and trips coming up and family obligations and money worries and music you have to learn, you can lose the desire to even because it all seems insurmountable.
And so it is that you start making empty promises to yourself that you’ll practise right after you’ve had a cup of tea and a nap and folded laundry and tidied up and vacuumed. (Ah, procrasticleaning.)
Of course, if you leave it any longer, the mountain becomes exponentially taller and you feel exponentially more overwhelmed, even though you know that if you don’t start paying down your practice debt now, it’s going to bankrupt you. And all of a sudden it’s three o’clock and you know you don’t do your best work after three o’clock so there’s no point starting now. You’ll do it tomorrow when you aren’t so tired. And so on.
I’m pretty sure most professional and pre-professional musicians feel this way often, or at least sometimes. Practice can be energizing and deeply satisfying, but actually making yourself do it doesn’t get easier.
We might not be motivated by the thought of being better, but most of us aren’t motivated by guilt trips either. The fact is, you can’t berate or belittle yourself into practising more or better. If you could, wouldn’t everyone have already pulled themselves up by the practice bootstraps?
The first step in getting yourself to practise is self-compassionately acknowledging that you are a human being, not a robot. Life isn’t always easy, and you’ve been through painful experiences, stresses, and anxieties that others may know nothing about.
For a moment, forget it all and just...exist. Close your eyes, breathe, count to ten. Then — and this part is single most important step in the process — sit down in your cello chair. That’s it. That’s all you have to do to set the process going. Get your backside in the chair.
Sit in it and see how it feels. Sit and be and breathe.
Then pick up the cello. I am not being sarcastic when I say this is a huge step in the process. Just pick it up and hold it. Maybe pull out the endpin. Tighten your bow. Then sit for a while with it.
Once you’re sitting with the cello, set yourself a ludicrously small goal. You only have to do one thing today. Like tuning your cello. Let's do that.
Well. Now that your cello’s in tune, you might as well play a scale. Let’s set one more ludicrously small goal, like one scale. One one-octave scale. Hooray! You accomplished 200% of your day’s goals!
Notice how you feel when you do this. Does every fibre of your being still resist practising? Ask yourself seriously: why are you resisting?
Have you been through a traumatic experience, such as a fight with a colleague during rehearsal? Did a conductor humiliate you in front of the entire orchestra? Did a recital go terribly?
Or has nothing particularly bad happened, but you feel scattered or sluggish or simply frustrated that your previous efforts haven’t resulted in noticeable improvements?
How do you feel when you think about yourself as a cellist? Bored? Boring? Restless? Inadequate? Ambivalent about your career choices? Or worse: mortified? Deeply wounded? Terrified of failure? Or even — here’s a thorny one — terrified of success, because you might have to stop messing about and actually do something?
Acknowledge the inadequacies and insecurities that are a normal part of your human experience as a cellist. Think about how you would counsel a dear friend who was experiencing your feelings right now. Chances are you’d be far more compassionate with her than you’re being with yourself. Is it self-indulgent to be this gentle in your self-talk? I don’t think so. No more self-beration! You’re in the chair now. The hardest part is done.
OK, well, now that you’re there, you might as well do something else incredibly small. Like an exercise in long tones to try and find your best sound. (Try “Bowing and Breathing” from pp. 12-13 of Cello Practice, Cello Performance.)
And, little by little, remember what drew you to play the cello. No one becomes a professional cellist without first loving the cello. Consider the drama and theatre of the cellist's little rituals, the pulling-out of the endpin, the rosining of the bow, the double-stopping and harmonics and plucking as you tune it. Tapping your fingers on the strings to find a pitch. The visceral pleasure of drawing the bow across the strings to release sound.
Go deeper. Remember the day you knew you had to be a professional musician because something about it called you. Maybe it touched you so deeply that it felt as if it had cracked your chest open and exposed your heart. What was the experience that did this to you? A passionate teacher, a life-transforming concert, a piece of music that became an obsession?
Now think about how cello playing works under those elusive optimal conditions, where it’s going so well that the cello practically seems to be playing itself and you’re so high on music that you’re practically floating in the air.
It’s easy to forget those times when you’re stuck in the daily grind of scales.
(A word about scales. Why don't you just do another one? Now that you're in the chair and everything.)
Look at that. Almost without realizing it, you’ve exceeded your day’s ludicrously small goal by 300%. It’s time to reward yourself.
The concept of rewarding yourself — bribing yourself?! — to practise is a little controversial. We musicians are brought up with that monk-like, ascetic worldview that practice is a form of virtue, and that virtue alone is its own reward. Well, yes. And no. We’re not superhuman. Even if the prospect of success doesn’t motivate us, the prospect of something pleasurable should. (Don’t believe me? Read up on dopamine.)
So go ahead, get out of the chair, and reward yourself with ten minutes of whatever your pleasures might be. Mine are Etsy and Shutterfly. Yours might be ten minutes on social media, or cake and ice cream, or video games. And let's not call it “a guilty pleasure.” I hate that expression. Can we please expunge it from the English language and replace it with “a pure pleasure”? If you're going to do it, why not mindfully enjoy every minute of it until the ten minutes are up?
Can you sit back down in the chair? What would happen if you set one more tiny goal? An arpeggio? A Popper etude? What would happen if you just opened that orchestral score you've been putting off preparing for next week's rehearsal? What would happen if you just looked at it and thought about fingerings for the passage-work in the fourth movement? Two bars? Half a page? The whole page?
Breathe. Notice how you feel. Are you slightly more energized to work on it, now that your backside’s in the chair and the cello’s in your hand? If not, just complete one tiny goal, put the cello down, get up from the chair, and congratulate yourself that you got into the chair today.
No doubt you see where I’m going with this. The idea is to build up the habit of disciplined practice in small steps. When you break the insurmountable into tiny pieces and accomplish just one of the pieces, somehow that feeling of constriction and resistance slowly melts. “Oh well, I’ve started now, I might as well do some more.”
Why does this work?
To put it simply, there’s an overlap between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation on its own is hard to summon up. You think little Wolfgang Mozart loved all those hours of practice from toddlerhood onwards, with Papa Leopold as the original helicopter parent? I keep seeing a social media meme that makes light of procrastination by claiming that Mozart only composed the overture of Don Giovanni on the morning of its premiere, but this scathing rebuttal puts paid to that particular myth. We'd like to believe that Mozart's luminous talents emerged fully-formed and effortlessly, but they didn't. Mozart worked more, and more diligently, than just about any musician who ever lived. He was exceptionally disciplined, often under the most stressful of circumstances.
I can't call Mozart and ask him to verify this, but I'm pretty sure he found the results of his self-discipline highly satisfying. Did he sometimes wake up in the morning not feeling like composing? Almost certainly. If you were Mozart, you might have to reward yourself with billiards or by writing obscene letters to your cousin. But if you pushed through your resistance and did your work anyway until you got into the flow of it, chances are you'd start to feel good about that. (Oh hi, dopamine.) Intrinsic motivation starts as a form of delayed gratification, and you don't even have to be a Mozart to experience it.
Extrinsic motivation is easier to quantify than intrinsic. Most of us have non-negotiable deadlines for mastering repertoire in the form of rehearsal and concert dates that are planned months or years in advance. Showing up at the appointed time with your scores learned to performance standard is compulsory, at least if you care about getting hired again.
The grey area — and the practice room is often a particularly gloomy shade of grey — happens when we have to make our own deadlines for getting our stuff done. In a well-known study from 2002, the psychologists Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch did an experiment with three of Ariely's own university classes, where one group had strict deadlines for submitting three essays, another got to choose their deadlines but were held strictly to them, and another had no deadline at all other than the last day of classes that semester.
Guess what? The class with the strict imposed deadlines did better than the others, and the class with no deadlines did the worst. We humans respond well to structure and routine, even as we rebel against it.
A key point, which Mozart knew very well, is that things don't have to be perfect. They do, however, have to be done. If you don't believe me, look at Mozart's handwriting on some of his scores. Forget glib platitudes like "Practice makes perfect" and its self-righteous friend "No, perfect practice makes perfect." There is no such thing as perfect. The whole concept of perfection is nothing but the publicly acceptable face of our old nemesis, procrastination. If we got rid of it once and for all and replaced it with some good old-fashioned Mozartean discipline. we'd all be much better for it.
Whether it comes from within or without, the discipline that starts with your backside in the chair builds your feelings of motivation until it changes your mood from lassitude to energization. The habit of efficient practising can become a meditative, almost prayerful ritual that becomes as essential to our happiness as our daily soap operas and our feel-good yoga classes.
There's a reason medieval monks chanted all that plainsong so many times a day. Virtue was only part of it.
The trick is to start your practice-room rituals in the first place until practice becomes not just your habit, but your pleasure, your calling, your culture, your way of being.
It starts with the chair.
© Miranda Wilson, 2016. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without permission.
In my last two posts on scales, I focused on using scales for (1) improving bow control in tone production and (2) improving musicianship through counting and cross-rhythms.
Scales are, of course, useful for improving a multitude of things--just about any aspect of cello fundamentals, or of building musicianship. A main argument my book, Cello Practice, Cello Performance, is that "technique is art"--everything is part of the same goal.
One of the biggest goals for most of us is learning to play fast, particularly in the upper register. Scales provide a great opportunity to work on just that. The following exercise, which I call "Divisible By Four," adopts the same slow-bow tactics as Part 1 of my series on scales, but by dividing the bow by ever-greater multiples of 4, gets the fingers going faster and faster.
Set the metronome to quarter/crotchet = 30bpm and play a scale, 4 notes to the bow. (I chose D major in 4 octaves; any scale and any number of octaves will work fine.)
Keeping the metronome at 30, take the scale twice as fast by slurring 8 eighth notes/quavers. Then 16 16th notes/semiquavers. Then slur 32. Then, if you're feeling exceedingly brave, 64. (This one takes a bit of practice to learn to do with your best sound.)
I use the Divisible By Four scales workout almost every day because it covers so many fundamentals. But it's also important to work on speeding up the bow, so you should also work on these scales using separate bows and the détaché stroke.
Of course, it may be hard to do the 64th note/hemidemisemiquaver pattern with separate bows straight away, which is why I recommend using the "Two Steps Forward, One Step Back" technique from Cello Practice, Cello Performance p.46.
Put the metronome on at around 80 bpm, and play up and down the scale in sixteenth notes/semiquavers, four notes to a beat. After you can do this easily, put the metronome on 90 and try it at that speed. It may be a little bit of a scramble at first, but work on it until it's slightly easier. Then take the metronome back to 85 and notice how easy that feels. You just taught yourself to be 5bpm faster!
Continue going "two steps forward" and "one step back"--95, 90, 100, 95, 105...all the way up to 120 or so. The trick is to give yourself time to get good at each tempo.
- Check: are you playing with optimal relaxation? There is no point in teaching yourself to play with tense, stiff habits. Review Part I, "Fundamental Principles," of Cello Practice, Cello Performance.
The advantage of playing your scales in this way is that you never get "stuck" at just one tempo, but rather have the flexibility that you can play at many tempos.
The possibilities for improving bowstrokes in scales are endless. Just one example is how we can use scales to work on one of the trickiest strokes to master--uncontrolled spiccato. (For more about this stroke, see my article on it in the June 2016 edition of Strings on how to practice it in the context of Elgar's cello concerto, second movement.)
It can be good to practice the stroke using many bowstrokes per pitch so that you can work on it without feeling rushed. In the example below, I start with 8 strokes per pitch. Without changing tempo, you then play 4 strokes per pitch, so that your bow continues playing at the same speed, but your fingers speed up. Then 2 strokes per pitch, and finally you scamper up and down the scale with 1 bowstroke per note. Don't feel discouraged if you can't do the last one right away--these things take a lot of time.
These are just some of the ways we can use scales to speed up both hands simultaneously. I'm a big fan of getting both hands working at the same time, whether you're working on getting your left-hand fingers faster or your bowstrokes more coordinated. As I wrote in Cello Practice, Cello Performance, "the best sautillé bowing will be useless if you only practice on open strings, because the minute you stop the strings with the fingers of your left hand, you won't be able to perform the stroke any more." When playing scales, look for any opportunity to give yourself a both-hands workout, even if the goal of the day is to improve just one aspect of fundamentals.
In my last post on scales, I demonstrated how we can use scales as a vehicle to isolate and improve the fundamental cello technique of bow control at increasingly slower speeds. Today, I will show how we can use the familiar exercise of scale-playing to improve a fundamental technique of musicianship, and an essential professional skill--counting.
To be honest, a lot of string players, even advanced ones, have a weakness when it comes to rhythm and counting. Brass, woodwind, and percussion players often have much stronger rhythmic and counting chops than string players--probably because the pedagogical repertoire for those instruments tends to be more rhythmically complicated than that for strings. Changing time signatures, irregular time signatures, complicated rhythms, cross-rhythms? They learn them all, whereas it's an exceptional pre-college string player who can confidently tap three against five, for example, or sightread with ease in the time signature of 11/8.
It's seldom too soon, and never too late, to do something about this. The two exercises below are a way to kill two birds with one stone by incorporating numerical and cross-rhythm counting into everyday fundamentals practice.
Let's start by playing some scales using slurred bowings. Now, most of us can easily play through a scale using slurs of two, three, or four. But it may surprise you to know that when it comes to slurs, most people can't count to five.
That's OK, of course. There are two easy ways to make sure your five-note slur comes out with the correct number of notes in it: think of it as "One, two, one, two, three" OR "One, two, three, one, two." In the tempo of your choice, play the following, concentrating on really counting to five, and keeping all five notes of the slur even. Resist the temptation to place accents on any note.
Slurring six notes to a bow will be easier, since we can count "One, two, three, one, two, three" or "One, two, one, two, one, two" without much trouble. But when it comes to slurring seven notes to a bow, there are three possibilities for counting that we'll find in musical compositions: 2+2+3 OR 3+2+2, or, more rarely, 2+3+2. Slurring seven is actually pretty easy because when you start on do, a seven-note slur encompasses all the pitches of the diatonic scale. That ought to help if you have trouble with the counting.
- Eight-note slurs: easy! 4+4.
- Nine notes: the easiest way is 3+3+3, or you could try 3+2+4.
- Ten notes: adopt whichever way is easiest from five-note slurs, and do it twice!
- Eleven notes: 3+3+3+2, or 3+2+3+3 or another combination of 3s and 2s.
- Twelve notes: 3+3+3+3 or 4+4+4.
Go on through 13, 14, 15 and so on, figuring out how you're going to count them. As you advance through repeated practice, you can go up to 20-note slurs or higher.
Now it's time to have some real fun with this. Pull out one of the cellist's best friends: the metronome. Set it to a slow tempo of 40 bpm to the half note/minim. We're going to play a slow scale in slurs of two half notes/minims per bow to internalize the tempo. And now...we're going to do a scale of three-note slurs against the two-beat pulse of the metronome. This can be tricky for first-time players. The trick is to internalize the overall rhythmic pattern created. When you divide 3 by 2, you get 1.5. Here are two different ways of writing down this pattern:
It's not hard to tap these rhythms on a desk or on your leg if you remember that three must be divided perfectly in half: "One, two AND three." Or you can use a mnemonic such as "Nice cup of tea," which a British percussionist friend taught me many years ago.
Let's apply this to the scale. Keep the metronome on 40, and chant "One, two AND three" or "Nice cup of tea" as you play, if necessary. Avoid tapping your feet, however--it's distracting and doesn't help you keep better time.
With the metronome still on, play a scale slurring four against the metronome's two. (This is much easier--2+2.) Now let's do five against two. This is not hard if you just remember that 5 divided by 2 is 2.5, so the broad pattern will be "One, two, three AND four five."
In the staff, it looks like this.
A good daily cross-rhythm workout could look like this: metronome on 40 to the half note/minim, play scales in slurs of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. Of course, that's not the only way to practise cross-rhythms. Why not put the metronome in 3/4 time and play 2-note slurs against it? Next, play "four against three" and "three against four," using the handy mnemonic "Pass the bread and butter."
Once you get good at this stuff, it's really geeky and fun. The possibilities are endless. For more advanced fun, try 3 against 5 and 5 against 3. I like to use the mnemonic "I like to hug teddy bears."
In other words...
(This post will be part 1 of a 3-part series.)
I'm always surprised to hear scales described as boring, because for me, a daily ritual of scales-playing has a meditative, almost devotional feeling that focuses my energy for the rest of my practice day.
Scales, can be boring, of course--if you're sawing dutifully up and down the cello without understanding what you're doing it for. But practised mindfully, scales are the gift that keeps on giving. For example:
- Scales teach you to audiate melodic and harmonic patterns, and internalize their fingerings on the instrument.
- Scales teach your fingers and bow to go faster and faster. (Try the "Two Steps Forward, One Step Back" metronome technique from p. 46 of Cello Practice, Cello Performance.)
- You can use scales as a "reset button" for any illogical habits that have crept into the trajectories of your tone production, whether that's shifting, bowing, etc.
Today, I'm going to write about how scales can help us work on the Tone Triangle (see Cello Practice, Cello Performance, pp. 28-29) of contact point, arm weight, and bow speed.
Let's focus on bow speed for a moment. One of the commonest problems I see in masterclasses is an otherwise good player who habitually pulls the bow too fast, "skimming" over the top of the string rather than really sinking her arm weight into it. This player usually hasn't figured out how to play close to the bridge, probably because when you can only pull the bow fast, all you get at the bridge is scratchy overtones without a fundamental. Playing like this doesn't project or resonate well.
This exercise helps you self-teach slowing the bow down in small, gradual steps. Starting with the metronome on 60 bpm, play a four-octave scale in slurs of four. It doesn't matter what scale you use, or in what key. For diatonic scales (major, minors and so on), I use the fingerings in W. E. Whitehouse and R. V. Tabb's Scale and Arpeggio Album, or, if you're feeling adventurous, try the octatonic and hexatonic scales using the fingerings on pp. 120-123 of Cello Practice, Cello Performance.
Things to notice:
- Are you making your best sound? Check that both arms are relaxed and sinking into the string.
- Intonation is part of sound! If you have trouble staying in tune, especially in the high register, practise with a drone.
Now we're going to start slowing the bow down. Keeping 60 bpm for the quarter note/crotchet, play the same scale with five notes to a bow...
...six notes to a bow...
...and seven notes to a bow, all the way up to eight notes to a bow, still at 60 to the quarter note/crotchet. Congratulations! You just taught yourself to pull the bow twice as slowly as before.
Things that may happen during the learning process:
- As you add more notes to the slur and therefore slow the bow down, you may worry that you're going to run out of bow and get tense. Check this impulse the second you experience it. (Practise this exercise in mindful relaxation at the cello.)
- Don't fall into the trap of playing with a small, feeble tone just so you can "save bow." What's the point of that? Instead, adjust the other parameters of the Tone Triangle, such as moving your contact point closer to the bridge and making your arm heavy into the string. You'll find that the "resistance" in this part of the string actually makes you slow your bow down.
Now do a "Two Steps Forward, One Step Back" move and go back to playing six notes to a bow. Notice how much easier it is now that you can do eight.
For extra fun, experiment with getting up to 12 notes to a bow, or even 16. Always practise with your best possible sound--don't accept anything less.
For extra extra fun, practise this exercises solely in one-octave scales in the upper register, where the shortened string makes the resistance even trickier to master. This will set you up well for playing extremely slow, often high-pitched solos such as the "Louange à l'éternité de Jésus" from Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps, where the tempo is an excruciating 42 to the sixteenth note/semiquaver.
Moral of the story: when you increase your skills in tiny, gradual increments, you can practically trick yourself into improving.
What cellist hasn't been told this?
Frankly, instructing someone to relax is about as effective telling them to "CALM DOWN!"--i.e., practically guaranteed to produce the opposite effect.
Chances are that a tense player wants nothing more than to relax. Intellectually, we all know that tension is "bad," but in the moment, under the stress of performance, our brains go into fight-or-flight mode. Our primal instinct to escape a marauding lion kicks in, and oxygen-rich blood rushes into our larger muscle groups.
Of course, the lion isn't real, so all the effort we were going to put into wrestling it manifests instead as the cellist's worst enemy: muscular tension.
What we teach ourselves to do
The central point of my book, Cello Practice, Cello Performance, is that the way we perform directly reflects what we've taught ourselves to do in everyday practice. What would happen if we thought of relaxation as a learnable, practised skill, like double stops or sautillé?
Effort = tension?
Here's the thing about cello: nothing about it is inherently relaxing, because getting good at it requires intense physical, intellectual, and emotional effort. But our bodies typically conflate the concept of "effort" with tension--just observe any small child drawing a picture with her brow furrowed and her tongue clenched between her teeth. If we aren't mindful of our tendency towards tension, it can build up into chronic aches and pains. Pain is just part of life for many musicians, to the point that after a while, they barely even notice it.
But if we ignore pain for long enough, one way or another, it will catch up with us. The commonest injuries for cellists--back pain, neck pain, chronic headaches, temporomandibular disorders, muscular aches, tendinitis--are the body's way of alerting us to inefficient playing habits.
Pain is not inevitable. If we take the time to build relaxation into cello practice, we can stop "trying" and replace effort with awareness. That means learning to notice what tension itself feels like, so that we can catch ourselves doing it, and redirect our bodies towards relaxation.
A cure for anxiety...and an "off-label" use for it
Long ago, in the 1920s, a physiologist called Dr. Edmund Jacobson invented a practice called Progressive Muscle Relaxation to help patients with anxiety disorders. According to the Mayo Clinic website, here's how it works:
"[S]tart by tensing and relaxing the muscles in your toes and progressively working your way up to your neck and head. You can also start with your head and neck and work down to your toes. Tense your muscles for at least five seconds and then relax for 30 seconds, and repeat."
This technique helps with a lot of things besides anxiety. If you practise it lying down in bed, for example, you're likely to fall asleep quickly.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation for cellists
I've adapted Jacobson's practice for use in a daily fundamentals workout for cellists. It's a fantastic meditation in the awareness of tension and relaxation, and can be used even by beginning players. Here's how:
Set your metronome to around 20-30 bpm. We're going to play some long tones (four clicks to a note) on a single stopped pitch, preferably using vibrato. Any stopped note will do, and it doesn't matter which pitch or which finger you use; you just want to produce your most resonant, projecting tone using the principles set forth on pp. 28-29 of Cello Practice, Cello Performance. I call this "finding your sound for the day."
We're going to sit on this pitch for a long time, paying mindful attention to every part of the body, and noticing how the tension and relaxation of those body parts contributes to and alters our sound.
- Pay attention to how you're sitting, since this is vital to the efficiency of your technique. (See "Weight In the Chair, Feet On the Floor.") Your weight should be equally distributed so you aren't favouring one side over the other (you may need to wriggle about in the chair to find a balance between your sitz bones). Your feet should be placed so that you could stand up easily without shuffling them; that is, you don't want them tucked under the chair or sprawled out in front of you.
- Tense your toes. Clench them, push them into the floor. Now let them go, noticing how much better they feel when you do this. How does the tension and release of your toes affect your sound?
- Now try digging in your heels and stiffening your ankles. Let them go. How do they feel now?
- Clench and release your calf muscles. Does this change your sound?
- Squeeze your cello between your knees, then release.
- Tense the powerful muscles of your quadriceps, then your gluteal muscles, then relax them. Notice how you can use the power of these strong muscles to affect your cello tone.
- Check your hips and sitz bones again to make sure your weight is balanced and that you aren't twisting your torso into an unbalanced stance. Notice how your chair is really holding your weight--thanks, gravity!
- Stiffen your abdominal muscles, then notice how it feels to let them go. So many people walk around all day with their abdominal muscles sucked in because they're embarrassed about their weight. The beautiful thing about playing the cello is that the size of the instrument hides a multitude of sins. Feel the relief of letting it all hang out, and notice how your sound responds to this.
- How does your lower back want to curve? Are you over-arching it, or forcing it to be unnaturally "straight"? Sit in a balanced way that allows your spine to assume its natural curve. Most of us harbour a lot of tension and big knots in the muscles of our lower backs. Imagine that you're softening these knots. You don't need them any more. Listen to your sound softening into even greater resonance as you do this.
- Travelling upwards, notice how your ribcage expands and contracts as you breathe. Have you been breathing regularly, or have you been breathing in shallow gasps (as many string players do)? Practise the mindful breathing-bowing exercises from page 12 of Cello Practice, Cello Performance, and notice how they increase the resonance and beauty of your cello tone.
- Your heartbeat: can you feel it? Sometimes, particularly when playing extremely regular rhythmic patterns, you can get your heart to beat in time with music. Turn your attention inwards and notice how fast your heart is beating.
- Notice your collarbones. A lot of people don't really think about their collarbones very much, nor realize that this is where the arms begin--what makes them move. Some of the muscles that attach to the clavicle--the deltoid, the trapezius, the pectoralis major--are places where most cellists hold too much tension. Try purposely overworking these muscles (as opposed to the unconscious overworking most of us are already doing). After tensing them, can you then release them? What would happen if we didn't overwork these parts of our body? Moreover, how might we utilize the larger parts of our body to do some of the work these muscles strain to perform when we play the cello?
- Let's take both arms together, even though they perform different actions. (See page 3-5 of Cello Practice, Cello Performance--not to mention page 12, page 27, page 32, and a bunch of other pages--for an explanation of why we should combine the different actions of the hands and arms as one.) What happens when you tense up your biceps while playing? It affects a lot of other parts of your body, doesn't it? What happens if you deliberately stiffen the joints of your shoulders, elbows, wrists, and knuckles? (It's practically impossible to do these separately--tensing one tends to make the others tense up too.) Release all of them as much as you can.
- Grip the bow and the fingerboard tightly between fingers and thumbs. We all know we aren't supposed to "grab" the bow, but many cellists habitually do this out of an underlying fear of dropping it. Release this fear: your bow won't fall because the cello is there. Now, hold it as lightly as you possibly can without dropping it. Space your fingers naturally in both hands--don't "wedge" them together, since while this provides a (false) sense of strength, it increases tension. Let all your joints be free: even if you aren't deliberately moving them, they should move in response to the movements of the other joints.
- Now turn your attention to your neck, jaw, teeth, and tongue. So many cellists hold the bulk of their tension here--the very parts of our body that we most associate with expression. Try clenching and unclenching your jaw, teeth, lips, and tongue. Try to get the tendons of your neck to stick out tensely. Let them all go and feel your face and neck soften. See "Cello Tone Production, Expressive Metaphor, and the Human Tongue."
- Think about your eyes, forehead, nose, and cheeks. Are you staring, bug-eyed, when you play? (It's surprisingly common.) Are you pulling faces? Pull some particularly grotesque ones, then release them. Feel your forehead, eyelids, and cheeks soften.
- Lastly, consider your ears and scalp, and the back of your neck. People don't often think about having a tense scalp, but contracting the muscles of the scalp and neck is a leading cause of tension headaches. Tense them so you can feel them, then let them go.
As you release tension all over your body and channel your weight and balance into the cello, you should notice a difference in your sound--it'll be more open and resonant.
With practice, you'll be able to balance your bow at a point closer to the bridge and control its speed better now that your right arm's weight is in the string. Your left arm, meanwhile, will be vibrating freely and loosely.
Don't beat yourself up if the minute you release one body part, another one tenses up. True mindfulness of what your body is doing takes time. If you incorporate this workout into daily practice, it will soon become second nature to release the imaginary lions of "effort" and replace them with truly efficient means of sound production.
I hear two top problems in high school-aged, college- or conservatory-bound cellists.
- Poor intonation.
- A small, weak tone.
I've written extensively about the first problem in Cello Practice, Cello Performance. The second problem is often related to the first, but not exclusively so.
When I'm teaching prospective students, I ask them "What are three things we can do to make a bigger tone?"
Like the good students they are, they answer "More bow, close to the bridge, more pressure."
Well, yes. And no.
You can read all about the "Tone Triangle" of bow speed, contact point, and arm weight in Chapter Four of Cello Practice, Cello Performance. In short, I'm not a huge fan of "more bow," at least not as an end in itself. Bow speed is a means to an end, but the speed we use is proportionate to, and interdependent with, the other two points of the "triangle."
Whereas contact point? We all know that we're supposed to "play closer to the bridge," and yet many of us can't do it because it sounds so scratchy and awful there.
The third point of the triangle, arm weight, is often the key to figuring out the first two.
But I'm allergic to the term "pressure." Technically, yes, what we are doing when we sink our arm's weight into the string through the bow is applying pressure. But we have to be careful about the language we use when we talk about our bodies. The word "pressure" is suggestive of pushing down on the string to make sound using tense force. To me, it's an ugly word.
Whereas if you call this concept "arm weight" instead, you can adopt the same principle to much more relaxed effect.
Consider how heavy your arms are. According to the experts, your arm weighs around 5% of your total body weight. So if you are a 130-pound (59 kg) woman, your right arm would weigh about 6.5 lbs (2.9 kg).
That's pretty heavy. In fact, it's all the weight you need to pull a giant tone out of your cello. All you have to do is figure out how to channel all that heavy weight into the string efficiently.
Now, this is not necessarily the most intuitive thing in the world. Most of us are guilty of trying to produce tone by forcing and pushing, so it can be a paradigm shift to learn to use arm weight.
In my studio at the University of Idaho, I use a neat exercise for encouraging this, and to illustrate it, I asked two of my undergraduates to demonstrate. This exercise works best with a partner, although it's possible to practise it alone.
Here's how it works.
- Cellist #1 puts her bow down and relaxes the weight of her arm into the right palm of Cellist #2, who is holding her elbow. (Some people find this very hard, because they don't like to relinquish "control" of the arm. It may help to think of making your arm into a dead weight.)
- Cellist #2 puts her left palm on Cellist #1's deltoid muscle (the muscle forming the rounded contour of the shoulder) to notice how different it feels when the arm’s weight is relaxed compared with how it feels when the person is “holding up” her arm. (That’s the difference between relaxing into the string with your bow arm vs. pushing it with tense pressure--is it any wonder so many cellists suffer from shoulder pain?)
- With Cellist #2's guidance, Cellist #1 lowers her bow onto one of the strings, attempting to keep all that relaxed weight in Cellist #2's palm. Cellist #2 "catches" Cellist #1 if she tries to take her weight off, reminding her to stay heavy.
- Cellist #2 lets go of Cellist #1, and they both listen to the big, resonant tone coming from the cello!
- Now they switch partners so they can both learn the exercise.
(Click on the photos below to scroll through the steps.)
if you master really getting that arm weight into the string, you can make a big, resonant tone with very little effort. One pleasant by-product is that you’ll be able to play closer to the bridge, using less bow speed, than you previously could ( = better sound, hooray!). Another is that your shoulder is less likely to go up and/or get tight, giving you less pain and more stamina. If you combine it with my exercise in bowing with my “feet on the floor, weight in the chair” exercise, you’ll never have a problem with getting tired out and/or making a weak tone again.
Don't have a partner today? You can do this exercise yourself, though it can be a little awkward if you have short arms. Simply reach your left arm underneath the cello to weigh your elbow, then repeat steps 3 and 4. Click on the photos to scroll through the steps.
What do I think is the hardest thing about playing the cello in public?
Getting from note to note in tune, in time, with a good sound, and in a manner both determined by expressiveness and contributing to expressiveness.
(Oh, is that all?)
Sometimes getting from note to note is relatively easy. Other times, it isn’t. We all know where the hard bits are, those spots that are high-pitched, or full of awkward double stops, or frenetically fast, or extremely slow, or hard to tune, or hard to coordinate, or all of the above.
The real question is why we keep messing them up in performance even when we’ve practised them repeatedly. The painful answer is usually that we haven’t practised them in a failsafe manner. We might have repeated them a lot, but chances are we’ve “glossed over” the source of the problem without really sorting out how to get from point A to point B under pressure.
Last week, after I published an essay on stage fright on my personal website, a reader shared how he overcame his own anxiety--by unshakably mastering what he had to do so that he was secure in the knowledge that if something went amiss in performance, he could handle it.
This is a great point. I’d take it one step further. In practice, we should be even better than a master, so that if stage fright strikes to the point of lessening our capacities, we can still play like a master.
To do this, let’s assemble some tools. I call these the “cellist’s best friends.” You’ll need a drone device, a recording device, and a metronome. More on those later.
Next, let’s set a goal. This doesn’t have to be “sound like Yo Yo Ma.” A more reasonable one might be “Learn the run at the beginning of the Schumann Concerto so that I can always play it in tempo with every note in tune.” (See page 95-98 of Cello Practice, Cello Performance for my preparatory etude for this concerto.)
The practice methods we’re about to use work best in the early stages of learning repertoire to pre-empt ever having a trouble spot. By breaking difficult sections down into short excerpts, we can figure out intermediary steps for seamlessly getting from place to place. You also can use these methods to relearn a passage that you habitually stumble over, though this takes longer than learning it right the first time. (For an accessible scientific explanation of why, read The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.)
Step One: Tuning, One Note At A Time
Let’s turn on an E drone at a volume of around 70 decibels, i.e. a bit louder than the volume of your playing. You want it to be pretty loud so that you can "play into" the resonance.
Now let’s work on a passage from the standard repertoire. I’ve chosen a tricky spot in the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6. (The fingerings suggested are my own, but the exercise will work with any fingering.)
We’re going to build this up one more note at a time, stopping on each subsequent note to make sure we’re still perfectly in tune relative to the drone.
Repeat each measure 10-20 times accurately before moving on to the next measure, where we’ll add one more note. Caution: this won’t work if you allow yourself to play any of the notes out of tune. If you keep hitting a note out of tune, go back to the previous measure and work on getting the previous notes right so that you can figure out why getting to the next one doesn’t work. You’ll only play accurately in performance if you’re always accurate in practice.
Step Two: Troubleshoot With Self-Recordings
Things won’t always go perfectly. Take a hard look (and a hard listen) at what you’re doing on video. Using your phone, take several short selfie videos from different angles and watch them frame-by-frame to analyze problems.
Factors you should consider include, but aren’t limited to:
- Arm height and trajectory during shifting between the neck position and thumb position
- Hand shaping, both in the neck position and in thumb position
- Excessive tension in the head and neck, which will spread to the hands and arms
- What you're doing with your bowing (since this will support the actions of the left hand)
- ...or a combination of the above. See Chapter Four of Cello Practice, Cello Performance, "Solutions to the Challenges of Cello Playing."
Drone practice should be part of your daily workout. But turn off the drone from time to time too, and notice how much your intonation has improved. When you work on relative pitch, you build muscle memory too, and your body remembers how it feels to play in tune.
Step Three: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
In the first stages of note-crunching a hard passage like this one from Bach’s Sixth Prelude, it’s fine to play considerably under your goal tempo so that you can sort out the logistics of how you’re going to move from place to place accurately. But in general, I’m not a fan of habitually playing very slow, at least not as a cure-all. Slow practice has its place, of course, but we need to get hard passages up to tempo as soon as possible in the learning process, because tempo affects our choices of fingerings, bowings, articulations, and more.
Let’s say the goal tempo for the Bach is dotted quarter = 120. So we’ll start at half tempo (60 bpm) and practice the passage until it’s fluent and perfectly in tune. Now, put the metronome at 70. It may or may not feel like a bit of a scramble, but work for a while to figure out how it feels. Now put the metronome back 5 clicks to 65, and notice how easy this is now. Next, go forward another 10 clicks, back another 5, forward another 10 and so on until you reach 120.
You just taught yourself to play faster using a method that’s far more efficient and effective than the old-school, inch-it-upwards method.
Now, keep working on this until you can play the passage fluently at 140, or 150. That is, faster than it “needs” to be.
Finally, take it back to the hypothetical goal of 120, and hey presto, it’s easy because you’ve trained yourself to be better than you need to be.
(As you get closer to a first performance of new repertoire, you should keep the metronome at the goal tempo so that it sticks in your memory.)
Other Ideas For Being Better Than You Have To Be
- At the opposite end of the tempo spectrum, if you’re playing an extremely slow piece such as Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, where you have to play very long note values at quarter note = 100, try practising it at quarter note = 80, adjusting your arm weight, contact point, and bow speed accordingly. Many of a have the tendency to run out of bow in performance, often getting the dreaded shakes in the process. This method trains you to pull the bow more slowly than you need to so you can “split the difference” when you’re nervous.
- Get better than you need to be at a passage in arpeggiated chords by adding double stops to ensure that your hand shaping and thumb placement are perfectly correct. Click here to download a free PDF of some more preparatory etudes I wrote for Bach's D Major Prelude.
If you want difficult spots to flow smoothly in performance, you have to practise them mindfully. What happens in performance directly reflects what has happened in practice. If you regularly stumble over a spot when you perform it for other people, chances are you’ve skipped over it in the practice room without truly understanding what conditions must be in place for it to be failsafe.
Notes on equipment
- Drone: I really like the Cello Drones CD by Marcia Sloane on my stereo because it brings out the second overtone as well as the fundamental. There are many drone apps, but if you’re using a mobile device, make sure you plug in speakers to get the drone loud enough. If the drone is too quiet, you have to play with a weak tone to hear it, and all you’ll be teaching yourself then is how to play with a weak tone. (You can measure decibels with any number of free smartphone apps.)
- Recording device: the video cameras on most smartphones are perfectly adequate for the practice room. You may also want to invest in a phone tripod. This one has worked well for my Samsung and Nexus phones.
- For occasions that demand a better picture and sound quality, I also use a Zoom video camera.
- Metronome: I use Dr. Beat in my studio, but when I'm on the road I use the Tonal Energy Tuner, a multipurpose app that also has a drone function and a number of other fantastic things.