Fingerboards Have Feelings Too (Or, Don't Hit Your Cello)

By Miranda Wilson

A guitarist friend once told me that it’s a point of honour among guitarists not to have too much extraneous noise when they play. “You want to minimize all the bumps and squeaks — anything that’s not music,” he told me.

"Oh yeah, cellists should do that too,” I said.

My friend snorted. “Cellists are the worst,” he said. “They’re always slamming and hitting and grunting and huffing and puffing like they’re the Big Bad Wolf or something.”

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Ever since that conversation, I’ve become hyper-aware that my friend was right. Once I started noticing, I couldn’t un-hear the noisy breathing and slamming fingers on recordings, and I now find it so distracting that I really can’t listen to recordings that have too much of them.

Noisy breathing has its own set of issues, and needs its own post (watch this space). But today, I want to write a bit about the habit of thoughtlessly using a noisy, hitting action with the left-hand fingers. I knew I had this habit myself, but like so many habits, once they’re ingrained they’re hard to get rid of. It was only after noticing the extra percussion solos on a CD I’d made that I finally decided I had to quit, once and for all.

This short video clip shows the bad habit I’m talking about.

How NOT to do it:

Notice how loud the hitting is. Who wants to hear that? Also, notice how tense and “pressed” you have to keep your thumb in order to accommodate this inefficient style of fingering. It was clear to me, I had to quit playing like this.

But…

The problem with telling yourself “Don’t…” is that the universe doesn’t understand don’t. Have you ever noticed that if you write “don’t rush” on your score, you inevitably rush? It’s the same with telling yourself not to hit your fingers down.

As in all technique changes, we need a different way of thinking to replace an ingrained habit with a more efficient one. (For more on this process, see the epilogue to my book Cello Practice, Cello Performance, “A Different View.”)

Therefore, instead of telling myself “Don’t hit,” I imagined how it would feel to…be a fingerboard. Yes, you have to pretend to be an inanimate object…but be honest, who among us doesn’t sometimes imagine that the cello is a person with a mind of its own? (Or is that just me?)

You can experiment with this by placing your right palm on your left shoulder and playing some fingering exercises on your arm. (One of my former teachers, Phyllis Young, was a big proponent of this exercise.)

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“Play” on your arm with the percussive, high-action style of fingering. Then find a way to move from finger to finger more sensitively and softly. Notice how little force or weight is really needed to move from finger to finger. You don’t have to give yourself a bruise to make this work.

Now pick up your cello and try to replicate this movement, remembering how it felt to play on your arm. Once you imagine your fingerboard has feelings, you won’t want to hit it any more. Sink in, but when you move from finger to finger, do so tenderly and sinuously. Allow your thumb to move along with your arm so it gently opposes whichever finger is down.

Better Finger-to-Finger Trajectory:

Once you make the mental and physical shift to doing this, you’ll notice a few unintended benefits. One is that your whole arm becomes more relaxed, making shifts easier and more natural. Another is that your thumb moves more freely around the neck, freeing up the whole mechanism. Another is that everything you do is more in tune when you’re expending less energy on getting from finger to finger.

Try it! And if anyone wants to let me know how it went, I’d love to hear from you. Happy celloing!

Further Reading:

Playing the Cello “Naturally”? Ask Your Hands How

Stop, Check, Notice, Release: Eliminating Tension in Cello Playing

Copyright (c) Miranda Wilson, 2019. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without the permission of the author.