Arm Weight, What It Means, How To Use It

By Miranda Wilson

I hear two top problems in high school-aged, college- or conservatory-bound cellists. 

  1. Poor intonation.

  2. 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.

  1. 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.)

  2. 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?)

  3. 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.

  4. Cellist #2 lets go of Cellist #1, and they both listen to the big, resonant tone coming from the cello!

  5. 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.