Bernhard Cossmann, My Old Friend: In Defense of Mechanical Etudes for Cello

Bernhard Cossmann (1822-1910). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bernhard Cossmann (1822-1910). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Miranda Wilson

Cello pedagogy has certain fads and fashions, and some of them go out of date. Friedrich Grützmacher’s eccentric nineteenth-century pastiche-arrangement of the Boccherini B-flat concerto used to be standard rep for advanced cello students, and now hardly anyone plays it.

The etude literature has its fashions too, and I think there will always be a place for the chromatic wizardry of David Popper’s High School of Cello Playing and Alfredo Piatti’s Paganini-esque Caprices. But I’ve noticed a decline in popularity concerning the less “musical” etudes by pedagogues like Bernhard Cossmann, and I think it’s a pity.

When I was a teenager, my teacher (who loved etudes) assigned Cossmann’s Etudes for Developing the Agility and Strength of the Fingers, and the Purity of Intonation, which contains pages and pages of this sort of thing:

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I went along with this until the day she assigned the chapter where Cossman teaches the use of the fourth finger in the upper register. Sample passage:

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I obediently learned the first one, but after that I got rebellious. “Why do I have to learn this?” I whined, obnoxiously. “You almost never have to use the fourth finger in thumb position in repertoire. There’s no point to this. It makes my finger hurt. It makes my whole hand hurt. It makes my wrist hurt. I think it’s going to give me a repetitive stress injury. Cossmann is boring and has nothing to do with music.

You can imagine how well this went over with my teacher.

I’ve come to realize that I was dead wrong about Cossmann. First of all, he had some of the best gigs in Europe. He was friends with Brahms and Liszt. Mendelssohn chose him as his principal cellist in Gewandhaus. Mendelssohn, one of the finest minds that has ever existed, had his pick of Europe’s top cellists and would never have chosen someone boring and unmusical.

To appreciate what Cossmann has to offer us, we first have to deal with some fallacies about mechanical exercises.

Fallacy #1: mechanical exercises build muscles in your fingers.

Reality: there aren’t muscles in your fingers, at least, not in the way you think.

Fallacy #2: mechanical exercises give you the strength to play the cello.

Reality: you already have as much strength as you need. Good cello technique combines the logical use of the body, the instrument, and the bow using balances, transfers, and releases of weight. No one is too small or weak to play the cello.

Fallacy #3: you need to build stamina on the cello.

You don’t. When you’re under the pressure of a performance situation, your adrenal glands will take care of that. One of the great things about performance anxiety is that it makes you stronger for the task ahead.

Now that we’ve got those out of the way, here’s how I learned what Cossman’s etudes are really for.

  1. Finger-to-finger motion. Cossmann knew every way in which students would screw up getting from note to note, and in the Etudes he makes you work on them all so that you can play better than you have to in difficult repertoire. Further reading: Being Better Than You Have To Be

  2. Hand shaping and forearm rotation. You can’t play Cossman’s fourth-finger thumb position etudes if you don’t use your hand and arm rationally, keeping the first rounded and the second relaxed enough to harness its rotational possibilities. Further reading: Hand Shaping in Thumb Position; Playing the Cello “Naturally”? Ask Your Hands How

  3. Intonation. Poor tuning sometimes occurs when a player’s ear is untrained, but more likely it’s the product of problematic hand shaping. Cossmann’s etudes are simply unplayable with a collapsed hand — to attempt this would likely result in injury. Further reading: Intonation and the Opposable Thumb; Say Goodbye to the Noodle: How to Get Your Double Stops in Tune Every Time.

Is it possible that Cossmann, in teaching us how to get from note to note, is also teaching us the very brushstrokes of his art?

New to Cossmann? Try his etudes today! I’d love to hear about your experiences with his work so please share.