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

By Miranda Wilson

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