5 Common Misconceptions in Cello Playing That Need to Go Away Now, Please

Image from  The Theory and Practice of Fingering the Violoncello  by John Gunn (1789). Image credit: IMSLP.org

Image from The Theory and Practice of Fingering the Violoncello by John Gunn (1789). Image credit: IMSLP.org

By Miranda Wilson

I have a nerdy hobby of reading cello method books from the past 300+ years. I also meet a lot of young cellists on school trips and masterclasses. Everywhere I go and with everything I read, I see cello techniques that make no sense. I don’t want to trash talk other cello teachers: we’re all doing our best, and we all make mistakes. What I don’t understand, however, is why certain pedagogical advice gets handed down through generations of teachers as accepted wisdom when so much of it isn’t logical. Today, I’m writing down what I think are the top five misconceptions about playing the cello.

Misconception #1: the thumb should be an “anchor” on the back of the cello’s neck.

But see what happens when I try to move between 1 and 4. My hand is tense, I have to stretch, and the tendons of my wrist get overworked.

Better: let the thumb be soft and moveable, transferring my arm’s weight from finger to finger in a “walking” motion. The thumb, being a part of the arm, is free to move to gently oppose whichever finger is on the string. It’s so easy to reach the pitch that the fourth finger needs to play.

Misconception #2: if a student’s bow hand is collapsed and supinated, you can correct this by getting them to put the tip of the 4th finger on top of the stick, violin-style.

I feel this solution replaces one bad habit with another. Doing this can cause a hypermobile 4th finger (and this is very common) to collapse and lock tensely on the stick. In these three photos (click on them to move them around), I show the problematic supination, the well-meaning but problematic pinky-on-stick solution, and a second, better solution: curving the 1st finger pronouncedly around the stick, curling the 2nd finger gently under it, and nestling the tips of the 3rd and 4th into the hollow in the front of the frog.

Misconception #3: it’s easy to find 4th position, just karate chop your hand against the side of the cello!

Nooooooo! First of all, we don’t want to hear any percussion solos in a cello recital. Secondly, this method ensures that the left arm can only accommodate playing in the neck position. You won’t be able to make an easy transition up to thumb position and the upper register if your arm is stuck like this. (Further reading: “Banish the Buckling Pinky — Bow Hand Edition.”)

In the first video, you can hear a disagreeable thump as the hand hits the cello, and see the disadvantageous position of the arm.

Better: you can still find 4th position easily, just let your thumb be your guide. On almost all cellos, if your thumb gently nestles into the little hollow in the place where the neck of the cello joins the body of the instrument, that’ll give you 4th position just as reliably as the “karate chop” — and you can get up into thumb position from there far more easily.

Misconception #4: you should play with flat bow hair because it gives you a bigger sound.

In his 1972 classic, Cello Technique, Gerhard Mantel demonstrated using the principles of physics and physiology that playing with flat hair makes no difference to the sound. What it does do is disrupt the natural flow of bowing. In the first picture, the flat-hair stance makes the wrist bend. According to Barbara Paull and Christine Harrison, authors of The Athletic Musician, it isn’t good for us to have the wrist stuck in a bent stance like this. In the second picture, you can see that angling the hair allows for a much more comfortable wrist stance.

Misconception #5: the action of the left-hand fingers should be percussive, like little hammers.

Again with the percussion solos! No thanks. (Further reading: “Fingerboards Have Feelings Too. Don’t Hit Your Cello.”) This one is in the great majority of cello method books. The problem with the “hammers” method is that it expends way too much energy and creates tension that will be hard to overcome under the pressure of performance. The tension spirals out of control and makes it very hard to play in tune. It’s far better to cultivate finger-to-finger movement that’s as supple and flowing as the tentacles of an octopus. You can even add imaginary suction cups to your fingertips, as one of my teachers, Phyllis Young, suggests in her book Playing the String Game.

In the first video, the “little hammers” method makes an unpleasant noise and distorts the hand into a tense stance where the base knuckles get flattened out — and this causes poor intonation and weak vibrato.

In the second video, the “octopus” stance keeps the hand shape rounded, the thumb moveable, the movement soft and flowing, and best of all, nixes the percussion solo.

What are some accepted ideas of cello pedagogy that you wish would go away? Join the discussion at the Cello Practice, Cello Performance Facebook page!

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