Weight in the chair, feet on the floor: efficient bow changes using the strongest parts of your body

By Miranda Wilson

Which body part do we use to change bow?

Most cellists would reply "The right hand." 

What would happen if we changed this worldview? What would happen if we decided to initiate bow changes not with the relatively weak human hand, but with the larger, stronger muscles of the incredibly powerful human back and legs?

One answer is that we could release a lot of the tension in our hands, arms, shoulders, and necks. Almost every cellist struggles from time to time with excess tension and although we can resolve to put our shoulders down while playing the cello, chances are they'll go up again five seconds later.

What does it look like to change the hand-centric bowing paradigm to let the strongest parts of our bodies, our backs and legs, do most of the work?

To do this, you must find a way of sitting in a chair that is balanced and relaxed. The knees should be bent at an angle of 90 degrees or more, and the feet should be placed so that you could easily stand up from the chair without shuffling them. (In other words, don't splay your legs out, or hunch your feet under the chair.)

We're going to practice some long tones at approximately 50 beats per minute, with four clicks per bow stroke. This exercise works well with the "Infinity Bowing" section in Chapter Two of Cello Practice, Cello Performance.

1. As you draw a down-bow, make a pushing motion on the floor with your left foot similar to pushing in the clutch on a manual car. (If you only drive an automatic, don't worry--it's much the same as the pressure you'd use for the gas pedal. I only use the analogy because driving is so habitual for most of us, and because it eliminates the need to confuse the issue with lots of "left" and "right.") As you do so, start a gradual right-leaning shift of your weight in your chair.

2. As your stroke reach the tip of the bow, use your right foot to "push down the accelerator" and shift your weight back to the left. If you do this slightly before you change bow, you can get that bow change really smooth.

3. When your stroke is approaching the frog again, begin to "put your clutch in" and shift your weight back towards the right. And so on. Click on the pictures to watch the transition:

There are three great things about this exercise. One is that it eliminates any "need" to raise the shoulders or grip the bow too hard. Another is that the more efficient use of the back and legs helps produce a much bigger, more resonant tone. Lastly, by initiating the shift of your weight in the chair before you change bow, you can get your bow changes to be smooth and seamless--the "Infinity Symbol" bow changes that I wrote about in Cello Practice, Cello Performance.

If you're in doubt about the need for this, consider what your legs and back do for you all day. For starters, they hold you up so that you can walk. If they can carry the considerable weight of the human body, just imagine what they can do for your cello tone.