Cello Cheats


By Miranda Wilson

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!