One of my teachers had no patience for students complaining that playing the cello was hard. “Yes, it’s a hard profession,” he’d say smoothly, right before he gave you his signature death glare. Or “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”
We all know that you have to practice if you want to be good. But practice is sometimes as frustrating as it is rewarding. We don’t want to be good at some nebulous point in the future, we want it now.
Have you ever wished we had a USB ports in our brains where we could plug in jump drives with all the necessary information that would make us execute cello techniques perfectly? Yeah, me too. But we don’t, so we go back to the grindstone.
But what if there were some simple, rational things we could do right now that would instantly improve our playing? In my previous post, I argued against the five most common misconceptions about cello playing. Today, I’m going to share five hacks that anyone can master which produce noticeable and instant results.
Hack #1: Balance Your Head On Your Spine
Your granny was right when she told you not to slouch. Your head is very heavy, and hunching it forward the way so many cellists do isn’t just bad for your technique, it’s terrible for your health in general. Make a habit of keeping your head balanced on top of your spine, and you’ll notice right away that your neck, back, and arms feel freer and your energy levels increase while playing the cello…so now you can play the cello more and faster!
Hack #2: Just Breathe
Breathing is necessary for staying alive. So why do so many of us hold our breath for long periods while playing, or let out irregular, loud gasping noises? Good news, learning to breathe efficiently is wonderful for your health and good for your cello playing. In Cello Practice, Cello Performance, I wrote several exercises in “breathing through” long tones and shifts. In repertoire, the best thing you can do for breathing is just not interfering too much with the natural breathing cycle. That said, most of us have been unwittingly teaching ourselves for years to breathe inefficiently while playing the cello. Undoing this ingrained habit isn’t easy, but here’s what you can do right now. Choose an easy piece and play through it, and every time you have a rest or a fermata, check you’re still breathing. If you’re not, “empty” your lungs by exhaling silently through your nose. Your lungs will automatically re-inflate, meaning your only deliberate action is to exhale. Try this until the natural cycle is restored.
Hack #3: Soften Your Mouth and Tongue
All string players tend to pinch their lips together and pull all kinds of faces when they place. Because our bodies are made up of interconnected parts, facial tension makes your neck, shoulders, and arms tense too. Deliberately soften your mouth when you play the cello — and be sure to soften your tongue while you’re at it.
Hack #4: Keep Your Left Arm Up
Having trouble shifting from position to position? Have you checked the elevation of your left arm recently? An arm elevation that works as well for lower and upper positions will save you a lot of time and energy.
Hack #5: Use Your Frog
We all know that the frog is the heaviest part of the bow. It stands to reason, therefore, that it’s very useful for when you want to make significant articulations or loud dynamics. And yet sometimes we think we’re playing at the frog but in reality are closer to the balance point. Incorporate some long-tone scales into your fundamentals workout and check on each up-bow that you really are making it back to the frog.
What hacks have you discovered that improved your cello playing right 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.