Long, Long Ago: Wisdom From Your First Cello Teacher

Turns out it's almost impossible to make a terrible bow hold when you're "spidering" up and down the stick...

Turns out it's almost impossible to make a terrible bow hold when you're "spidering" up and down the stick...

There are some things that are quite common in beginning cello pedagogy that I don't like much. The beginning bow hold with the thumb under the frog, for example, which teaches--for no good reason--a habit that has to be unlearned later. Another is the "left thumb as anchor," which teaches little hands to hit pitches chronically out of tune, and little ears to accept this poor intonation. I know why some otherwise good teachers are doing these things: because we all want to get a student set up with decent hand shaping so that they can advance to playing pieces quickly and not get bored and quit. But the fact is, poor setup leads to fundamental misunderstanding of how the body can be used to our advantage in playing the cello, and this in turn sets the student up for endless technical challenges later on. 

It's not all doom and gloom, however. When I thought back to some of the exercises I was taught as a child, it seems that many of them make a lot of sense, even if children don't know what they're doing them for. When the teacher tests whether the student can stand up from a seated playing position without shuffling their feet or moving the chair, what they're actually doing is encouraging a balanced sitting position. You simply can't stand up directly from sitting if your legs are splayed out or wrapped around the chair legs, or if you're hunched up. This is a great "reset" for those children who grow faster than their cello technique can keep up with. (And a good reminder for teachers to keep checking whether the chair is at an ideal height!)

Another great "reset" is the "bow hold spider." This is universal among string teachers and it's actually a really great exercise. You hold your bow with the stick vertically, and "walk" your fingers up and down it, sometimes while singing "Incy Wincy Spider" (a song my American daughter assures me is called "Itsy Bitsy Spider" here in the United States). It's harder to spider back to the frog than it is to spider to the tip! Back when I taught children in Saturday morning Suzuki classes, they always complained if I forgot to include Spider in our preliminary warm-ups. (I may or may not have sometimes placed Life Saver candies on the tips of their bows...) 

Spider is a fun game, but what's so great about it is that it's practically impossible to do it with a bad bow-hold. I know this, because I just tried to do it. I tried supinating my hand, and almost dropped the bow! I tried spreading my fingers in a widely-spaced, tense "claw," and I couldn't "walk" my fingers at all. I tried wedging my fingers together in a salute, and couldn't do it that way either. I tried "bracing" my fourth finger hard against the bow, and nearly whacked my bow into the wall. Holding the bow in a vice-grip? Neglecting to curve the fingers? Those don't work either.

Spider quite simply trains you to keep your fingers naturally spaced, curved, and relaxed on the bow, with thumb opposing the middle fingers, and the whole hand slightly pronated, playing-style. There's a reason for the hand shaping we have collectively deemed to be good for holding the bow--it's because our hands want to do it naturally. 

The takeaway from this is that despite all the misinformation about cello technique, there are certain exercises that are never-fail "resets" for your technique. Of which the ever-helpful Spider is one.

Want to know more about these resets? Check out Chapter 2 and Chapter 4 of Cello Practice, Cello Performance.

Buckling Fingers & "Double" Joints: Playing the Cello While Hypermobile

By Miranda Wilson

can i play cello.JPG


Open up Google and type in "Can I play cello if I...". The first thing that came up for me was "...am double jointed?"

The answer is a resounding YES. Cello is for everyone. Humans come in all shapes and sizes and abilities, and that includes people with hypermobile joints. (Technically, there's no such thing as a "double" joint, but I use the term because it's common parlance for a common problem.)

I'm no contortionist, but I do have mild hypermobility, to the delight of my Alexander Technique teacher and the other children at my elementary school. Also, I've taught many college students with joints that can stretch way farther than mine. In cello playing, this manifests in fingers that buckle on the string and the bow, joints that lock painfully, excess tension, and pain.

Here's a little slideshow of some of the different types of wrongness that can happen -- and these are just the ones that have happened to me. (Not pictured is the very common problem of the locking pinky -- more on that in a minute.) Click the arrows to scroll through...


What can a person with hypermobile finger joints do to make cello playing comfortable?

1. Well, you could just ignore it, but that's not an option if it hurts or if you seriously want to improve.

2. You could do what I did with my hypermobile middle thumb joint: make it not buckle by force of will and lots of practice at never, ever hyperextending it. (Not recommended, as this takes a long time and is very frustrating.)

3. Wait to see if you grow out of it. I don't recommend this either -- why wait until a habit is so entrenched as to be unbreakable, and you start hurting yourself

The general consensus is that letting your fingers buckle is bad news. And yet there's so little information out there that can genuinely help the ambitious but confused super-bendy person. So...

4. Find some exercises that encourage rounded finger shaping so that this becomes habit.

I was excited to read this article by the violin teacher Lora Staples, where she encourages students to practice an exercise using a clothespin to build finger strength. Inspired, I found one in my laundry closet and tried it. But after a few repetitions, the tendons of my wrist started hurting, so I had to go to the grocery store to seek one that was more loosely sprung. Even that kind of hurt.

I did want to keep doing the exercise, however, because I was looking for solutions for my undergraduates, so I started thinking of other household objects that might do the same amount of good without causing pain. The answer came to me while I was cleaning my bathroom -- the trigger of a spray bottle! I tried the exercise on that and it worked brilliantly. Much "softer" than a clothespin, but with the same good results.

Here are some of the ways you can practice rounded finger shaping using a spray bottle.

Getting back to the cello...

5. Adjust your technique in a way that encourages rounded finger shaping and discourages buckling/locked finger shaping. For example:

a) Locking, tense left thumb? Avoid having the pad of the thumb press the cello neck. Look at how your fingers come together naturally -- your thumb comes in sideways. Let it do this on the neck too.

b) Fingers buckle on the string (especially in thumb position) and you can't find a comfortable angle that enables rounded shaping? You can, especially at high speeds, play on the side of the string and still get a good sound.

play on side of string.png

c) Fingers keep locking and causing pain? Try moving from finger to finger not by over-exercising the hand and fingers, but by thinking of the arm's weight as the agent that gets you from finger to finger-- like you're swinging from a bar at the gym. Keep your left thumb free (touching the neck with the side of the thumb helps with this, because you can't "press" so easily) so that it can move to "oppose" each of the fingers.

Further reading:

Intonation and the Opposable Thumb

Playing the Cello "Naturally"? Ask Your Hands How


Arm Weight, What It Means, How To Use It

Copyright Miranda Wilson, 2017. No part of this post may be reproduced without the author's permission.


Driving a Car, Driving a Cello

The first car I ever drove was a 1991 Ford Telstar with a manual transmission. At first, I was terrified of grating the gears, stalling, or simply not being able to move at all except in mortifying bunny-hops. After I'd figured out how to use the machinery, I realized that what frightened me more was steering the thing, parking it, judging how much space I needed to change lanes on the highway, and that sort of thing.

My instructor was a cranky elderly lady who was fond of reciting "Remember the six positions of the two-car crash!" as I clutched the steering wheel with white knuckles and tried not to hyperventilate. "Check your mirrors! You forgot to check! Never forget to check! Look behind you! No! In front of you!" The poor thing probably had permanently high cortisol levels from all the things her students did on the road. But eventually I was able to stop grating the gears, internalize the rules of the road, and pass my test (on my third attempt... hmm).

I thought fondly of my driving the instructor recently when I was on a visit to a high school orchestra. The teacher had done a great job of instrumental instruction and aspects of musicianship such as complicated rhythm. But I noticed that the majority of the students were buried in their music stands, barely looking up but for the conductor's cues. As a result, the ensemble's attacks weren't unified and the tempo got slower and slower.

And it occurred to me that playing in any ensemble isn't unlike learning to drive a car. Once you've mastered the task of playing tolerably well and have practised your part and studied the full score so you know "how it goes," when you get to rehearsal your gaze needs to be moving constantly. Of course you're going to look at your stand, but you constantly have to glance at the conductor, the concertmaster, the section principal, and so on. You have to be able to memorize short passages from the score so you can look up to give and observe cues without losing your place. It's as if having mastered how the gears work, now you have to make sure you're looking at the road in front of you, potential hazards in the distance, the rear-view mirror, the side mirrors, etc, with only occasional glances at the speedometer to check you aren't over the limit.

Successful driving and successful ensemble playing depend on having learned to do the thing in itself, i.e. master the equipment, so that it becomes automatic and you're liberated to do more things. If someone breaks a rule of the road and makes a mistake, alert and adept drivers can often adjust their own driving to avoid accidents. Someone comes in wrong in an ensemble? If everyone else is alert, adept at their own part, and knows the score well, they can "save" that person without having to stop.

Making music is inherently exciting. It's like driving down the freeway at high speeds, changing lanes, passing other vehicles, knowing where you're going, dodging hazards. If you can do the same thing in an ensemble -- get your head out of the stand and your gaze constantly moving -- you'll get to your destination much more smoothly.

Cello Cheats


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!

Want Better Tone on Low Notes? Play Them An Octave Higher.

Sound is everything. That's my mantra. Without a compelling tone quality that makes the audience want to keep listening, every other aspect of a cellist's musicianship will go unnoticed.

On page 27 of Cello Practice, Cello Performance I wrote:

"The ideal tone is one that resonates and projects to the back of a performance space, regardless of the dynamics or the mood of the piece. Under the right conditions, even a hushed pianissimo can be audible in the back row of a large auditorium. The cellist should be able to sustain this tone consistently."

I've written a lot here in Cello Tips about the concept of the Tone Triangle, the three adjustable and mutually dependent qualities that go into sound production: (1) contact point, (2) arm weight, and (3) bow speed. But what happens when you've worked diligently on all of them and your tone still isn't improving?

Sometimes we hit a wall and stop improving because we don't really notice inconsistencies in our playing. Then, under the strain of our nerves in a concert, any technical problems we may have just get magnified because (and here's my second mantra): "What happens in performance directly reflects what you've taught yourself to do in practice."

So how do you improve your tone after you've hit that wall? Mantra #3: "Teach yourself to be better than you actually have to be."

I've written about this concept before, as related to tempo and intonation. But you can also do it for your tone quality in the lower register. How? Simple! Make your pieces harder by playing them up an octave. In the high register, everything you have to do with your fingering and bowing to produce a resonant tone is just that little bit harder because the string is "shortened" by the left-hand fingers. If you're not maintaining a consistent contact point, arm weight, or bow speed in the upper registers, you'll notice a whole lot faster than you do in the neck position. 

This method works best on pieces that are primarily in the lower and middle registers, such as Gabriel Fauré's Sicilienne. Transpose a passage up an octave, making sure to keep comparable fingerings to those you use in the neck position (i.e. replace 3 and 4 with 2 and 3 as appropriate, etc).

Original version:

Up-an-octave version:

Things to notice:

1. You definitely have to choose a contact point close to the bridge when playing high because otherwise your tone will be thin. It's actually easier to play close to the bridge up high than in the neck position.

2. Pay special attention to bow speed, especially in the anacrusis. You may notice that you have a tendency to "swoop" the bow much faster than it actually needs. You may also notice that you neglect the frog and lower part of the bow. Utilize this part! It's where your best sound lives.

3. Your string can take a lot more arm weight when you play high because of the close-to-bridge contact point.

4. After you've done this passage high a few times and made adjustments to your Tone Triangle, take it back to the original pitches and incorporate the bowing techniques you used before. Notice how improved your tone is!

Other pieces that will benefit from the up-an-octave method:

  • Bach Suite No. 1 in G Major, Allemande, Menuets, Gigue
  • Elgar Concerto, third movement
  • Schumann, Fantasy Piece No. 1

Related Posts

Arm Weight, What It Means, How To Use It

Being Better Than You Have To Be

Playing Close to the Bridge

Playing the Cello "Naturally"? Ask Your Hands How.


In the early stages of teaching cello to a beginner, any good teacher is concerned with shaping the student's hands in a rational manner, i.e. fingers curved and not buckled, joints flexible and not locked. 

Much has been written about playing the cello "naturally." My feeling is that the most "natural" thing we could do is to shape our cello-playing and bow-holding hands according to what our hands themselves want to do, rather than according to a preconceived idea of what hand positions ought to look like

The most relaxed and natural state for our hands and arms to be in is hanging loosely by our sides. Here are four different views of my left hand doing just this.

Things to notice:

  • The fingers want to be curved, not straightened
  • The fingers are naturally spaced. The amount of spacing varies a lot between individuals.
  • The fingers want to hang down in a slanted way.
  • The thumb opposes all the fingers, rather than any one particular finger
  • The thumb opposes the fingers at a "sideways" angle

Now let's bend our elbows and bring this "natural" hand up to face us...

"Violin hand"

"Violin hand"

...and you'll notice that it looks remarkably like a "violin hand"! Remember this, it's important. (Mats Lidstrom has written that his teacher, Leonard Rose, told him "You’ll learn as much from your violinist friends as you will from me.")

Turn your arm around to make a "cello hand"...

"Cello hand"

"Cello hand"

...and the last step is to replicate this with your cello.

In practice

In practice

Things to notice:

  • The fingers are slanted (pronated) on the string, per their natural slant when hanging down
  • The thumb touches the neck of the cello "sideways" rather than flat on the pad. This prevents a student pushing the pad of the thumb into the neck, buckling the top joint, creating tension and inhibiting ease of shifting.

Now let's do the same thing with the right hand.

Hand hangs down naturally

Hand hangs down naturally

Air bow hold

Air bow hold

Holding the bow the way the hand naturally wants to

Holding the bow the way the hand naturally wants to



Backside In the Chair: How to Practise When You're Unmotivated

By Miranda Wilson

“I’m having trouble motivating myself to practise.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard this, I’d be that mythical creature, a rich cello professor.

Motivation is sporadic. Motivation is elusive. Motivation is not rational.

If we were motivated by rationality, all it would take to make us practise more is reading the famous 1993 study by K. Anders Ericsson et al. that showed that the best musicians are the ones who have done more deliberate practice than the rest.

The paradox of it all is that while you can love music deeply enough to make it your profession, meaning that you’ve already put years of your life into practice, you may still dislike practising to the point that you almost never feel like doing it.

Why not? Boredom, tiredness, stress, and good old laziness are part of it. But for most of us who know just how hard it is to be a musician, the feeling of being overwhelmed is the overriding force that stops us practising. When you contemplate the mountain of rehearsals and gigs and students and trips coming up and family obligations and money worries and music you have to learn, you can lose the desire to even because it all seems insurmountable.

And so it is that you start making empty promises to yourself that you’ll practise right after you’ve had a cup of tea and a nap and folded laundry and tidied up and vacuumed. (Ah, procrasticleaning.)

Of course, if you leave it any longer, the mountain becomes exponentially taller and you feel exponentially more overwhelmed, even though you know that if you don’t start paying down your practice debt now, it’s going to bankrupt you. And all of a sudden it’s three o’clock and you know you don’t do your best work after three o’clock so there’s no point starting now. You’ll do it tomorrow when you aren’t so tired. And so on.

I’m pretty sure most professional and pre-professional musicians feel this way often, or at least sometimes. Practice can be energizing and deeply satisfying, but actually making yourself do it doesn’t get easier.

We might not be motivated by the thought of being better, but most of us aren’t motivated by guilt trips either. The fact is, you can’t berate or belittle yourself into practising more or better. If you could, wouldn’t everyone have already pulled themselves up by the practice bootstraps?

The first step in getting yourself to practise is self-compassionately acknowledging that you are a human being, not a robot. Life isn’t always easy, and you’ve been through painful experiences, stresses, and anxieties that others may know nothing about.

For a moment, forget it all and just...exist. Close your eyes, breathe, count to ten. Then — and this part is single most important step in the process — sit down in your cello chair. That’s it. That’s all you have to do to set the process going. Get your backside in the chair.

Sit in it and see how it feels. Sit and be and breathe.

Then pick up the cello. I am not being sarcastic when I say this is a huge step in the process. Just pick it up and hold it. Maybe pull out the endpin. Tighten your bow. Then sit for a while with it.

Once you’re sitting with the cello, set yourself a ludicrously small goal. You only have to do one thing today. Like tuning your cello. Let's do that.

Well. Now that your cello’s in tune, you might as well play a scale. Let’s set one more ludicrously small goal, like one scale. One one-octave scale. Hooray! You accomplished 200% of your day’s goals!

Notice how you feel when you do this. Does every fibre of your being still resist practising? Ask yourself seriously: why are you resisting?

Have you been through a traumatic experience, such as a fight with a colleague during rehearsal? Did a conductor humiliate you in front of the entire orchestra? Did a recital go terribly?

Or has nothing particularly bad happened, but you feel scattered or sluggish or simply frustrated that your previous efforts haven’t resulted in noticeable improvements?

How do you feel when you think about yourself as a cellist? Bored? Boring? Restless? Inadequate? Ambivalent about your career choices? Or worse: mortified? Deeply wounded? Terrified of failure? Or even — here’s a thorny one — terrified of success, because you might have to stop messing about and actually do something?

Acknowledge the inadequacies and insecurities that are a normal part of your human experience as a cellist. Think about how you would counsel a dear friend who was experiencing your feelings right now. Chances are you’d be far more compassionate with her than you’re being with yourself. Is it self-indulgent to be this gentle in your self-talk? I don’t think so. No more self-beration! You’re in the chair now. The hardest part is done.

OK, well, now that you’re there, you might as well do something else incredibly small. Like an exercise in long tones to try and find your best sound. (Try “Bowing and Breathing” from pp. 12-13 of Cello Practice, Cello Performance.)

And, little by little, remember what drew you to play the cello. No one becomes a professional cellist without first loving the cello. Consider the drama and theatre of the cellist's little rituals, the pulling-out of the endpin, the rosining of the bow, the double-stopping and harmonics and plucking as you tune it. Tapping your fingers on the strings to find a pitch. The visceral pleasure of drawing the bow across the strings to release sound.

Go deeper. Remember the day you knew you had to be a professional musician because something about it called you. Maybe it touched you so deeply that it felt as if it had cracked your chest open and exposed your heart. What was the experience that did this to you? A passionate teacher, a life-transforming concert, a piece of music that became an obsession?

Now think about how cello playing works under those elusive optimal conditions, where it’s going so well that the cello practically seems to be playing itself and you’re so high on music that you’re practically floating in the air.

It’s easy to forget those times when you’re stuck in the daily grind of scales.

(A word about scales. Why don't you just do another one? Now that you're in the chair and everything.)

Look at that. Almost without realizing it, you’ve exceeded your day’s ludicrously small goal by 300%. It’s time to reward yourself.

The concept of rewarding yourself — bribing yourself?! — to practise is a little controversial. We musicians are brought up with that monk-like, ascetic worldview that practice is a form of virtue, and that virtue alone is its own reward. Well, yes. And no. We’re not superhuman. Even if the prospect of success doesn’t motivate us, the prospect of something pleasurable should. (Don’t believe me? Read up on dopamine.)

So go ahead, get out of the chair, and reward yourself with ten minutes of whatever your pleasures might be. Mine are Etsy and Shutterfly. Yours might be ten minutes on social media, or cake and ice cream, or video games. And let's not call it “a guilty pleasure.” I hate that expression. Can we please expunge it from the English language and replace it with “a pure pleasure”? If you're going to do it, why not mindfully enjoy every minute of it until the ten minutes are up?

Can you sit back down in the chair? What would happen if you set one more tiny goal? An arpeggio? A Popper etude? What would happen if you just opened that orchestral score you've been putting off preparing for next week's rehearsal? What would happen if you just looked at it and thought about fingerings for the passage-work in the fourth movement? Two bars? Half a page? The whole page?

Breathe. Notice how you feel. Are you slightly more energized to work on it, now that your backside’s in the chair and the cello’s in your hand? If not, just complete one tiny goal, put the cello down, get up from the chair, and congratulate yourself that you got into the chair today.

No doubt you see where I’m going with this. The idea is to build up the habit of disciplined practice in small steps. When you break the insurmountable into tiny pieces and accomplish just one of the pieces, somehow that feeling of constriction and resistance slowly melts. “Oh well, I’ve started now, I might as well do some more.”


Why does this work?

To put it simply, there’s an overlap between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation on its own is hard to summon up. You think little Wolfgang Mozart loved all those hours of practice from toddlerhood onwards, with Papa Leopold as the original helicopter parent? I keep seeing a social media meme that makes light of procrastination by claiming that Mozart only composed the overture of Don Giovanni on the morning of its premiere, but this scathing rebuttal puts paid to that particular myth. We'd like to believe that Mozart's luminous talents emerged fully-formed and effortlessly, but they didn't. Mozart worked more, and more diligently, than just about any musician who ever lived. He was exceptionally disciplined, often under the most stressful of circumstances.

I can't call Mozart and ask him to verify this, but I'm pretty sure he found the results of his self-discipline highly satisfying. Did he sometimes wake up in the morning not feeling like composing? Almost certainly. If you were Mozart, you might have to reward yourself with billiards or by writing obscene letters to your cousin. But if you pushed through your resistance and did your work anyway until you got into the flow of it, chances are you'd start to feel good about that. (Oh hi, dopamine.) Intrinsic motivation starts as a form of delayed gratification, and you don't even have to be a Mozart to experience it.

Extrinsic motivation is easier to quantify than intrinsic. Most of us have non-negotiable deadlines for mastering repertoire in the form of rehearsal and concert dates that are planned months or years in advance. Showing up at the appointed time with your scores learned to performance standard is compulsory, at least if you care about getting hired again.

The grey area — and the practice room is often a particularly gloomy shade of grey — happens when we have to make our own deadlines for getting our stuff done. In a well-known study from 2002, the psychologists Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch did an experiment with three of Ariely's own university classes, where one group had strict deadlines for submitting three essays, another got to choose their deadlines but were held strictly to them, and another had no deadline at all other than the last day of classes that semester.

Guess what? The class with the strict imposed deadlines did better than the others, and the class with no deadlines did the worst. We humans respond well to structure and routine, even as we rebel against it. 

A key point, which Mozart knew very well, is that things don't have to be perfect. They do, however, have to be done. If you don't believe me, look at Mozart's handwriting on some of his scores. Forget glib platitudes like "Practice makes perfect" and its self-righteous friend "No, perfect practice makes perfect." There is no such thing as perfect. The whole concept of perfection is nothing but the publicly acceptable face of our old nemesis, procrastination. If we got rid of it once and for all and replaced it with some good old-fashioned Mozartean discipline. we'd all be much better for it.

Whether it comes from within or without, the discipline that starts with your backside in the chair builds your feelings of motivation until it changes your mood from lassitude to energization. The habit of efficient practising can become a meditative, almost prayerful ritual that becomes as essential to our happiness as our daily soap operas and our feel-good yoga classes.

There's a reason medieval monks chanted all that plainsong so many times a day. Virtue was only part of it.

The trick is to start your practice-room rituals in the first place until practice becomes not just your habit, but your pleasure, your calling, your culture, your way of being.

It starts with the chair.

©  Miranda Wilson, 2016. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without permission.

The Multifaceted Gift of Scales Part 3: Fast Fingers


In my last two posts on scales, I focused on using scales for (1) improving bow control in tone production and (2) improving musicianship through counting and cross-rhythms.

Scales are, of course, useful for improving a multitude of things--just about any aspect of cello fundamentals, or of building musicianship. A main argument my book, Cello Practice, Cello Performance, is that "technique is art"--everything is part of the same goal.

One of the biggest goals for most of us is learning to play fast, particularly in the upper register. Scales provide a great opportunity to work on just that. The following exercise, which I call "Divisible By Four," adopts the same slow-bow tactics as Part 1 of my series on scales, but by dividing the bow by ever-greater multiples of 4, gets the fingers going faster and faster.

Set the metronome to quarter/crotchet = 30bpm and play a scale, 4 notes to the bow. (I chose D major in 4 octaves; any scale and any number of octaves will work fine.)

Keeping the metronome at 30, take the scale twice as fast by slurring 8 eighth notes/quavers. Then 16 16th notes/semiquavers. Then slur 32. Then, if you're feeling exceedingly brave, 64. (This one takes a bit of practice to learn to do with your best sound.)

I use the Divisible By Four scales workout almost every day because it covers so many fundamentals. But it's also important to work on speeding up the bow, so you should also work on these scales using separate bows and the détaché stroke.

Of course, it may be hard to do the 64th note/hemidemisemiquaver pattern with separate bows straight away, which is why I recommend using the "Two Steps Forward, One Step Back" technique from Cello Practice, Cello Performance p.46.

Put the metronome on at around 80 bpm, and play up and down the scale in sixteenth notes/semiquavers, four notes to a beat. After you can do this easily, put the metronome on 90 and try it at that speed. It may be a little bit of a scramble at first, but work on it until it's slightly easier. Then take the metronome back to 85 and notice how easy that feels. You just taught yourself to be 5bpm faster!

Continue going "two steps forward" and "one step back"--95, 90, 100, 95, 105...all the way up to 120 or so. The trick is to give yourself time to get good at each tempo.

  • Check: are you playing with optimal relaxation? There is no point in teaching yourself to play with tense, stiff habits. Review Part I, "Fundamental Principles," of Cello Practice, Cello Performance.

The advantage of playing your scales in this way is that you never get "stuck" at just one tempo, but rather have the flexibility that you can play at many tempos.

The possibilities for improving bowstrokes in scales are endless. Just one example is how we can use scales to work on one of the trickiest strokes to master--uncontrolled spiccato. (For more about this stroke, see my article on it in the June 2016 edition of Strings on how to practice it in the context of Elgar's cello concerto, second movement.) 

It can be good to practice the stroke using many bowstrokes per pitch so that you can work on it without feeling rushed. In the example below, I start with 8 strokes per pitch. Without changing tempo, you then play 4 strokes per pitch, so that your bow continues playing at the same speed, but your fingers speed up. Then 2 strokes per pitch, and finally you scamper up and down the scale with 1 bowstroke per note. Don't feel discouraged if you can't do the last one right away--these things take a lot of time.

These are just some of the ways we can use scales to speed up both hands simultaneously. I'm a big fan of getting both hands working at the same time, whether you're working on getting your left-hand fingers faster or your bowstrokes more coordinated. As I wrote in Cello Practice, Cello Performance, "the best sautillé bowing will be useless if you only practice on open strings, because the minute you stop the strings with the fingers of your left hand, you won't be able to perform the stroke any more." When playing scales, look for any opportunity to give yourself a both-hands workout, even if the goal of the day is to improve just one aspect of fundamentals.

The Multifaceted Gift of Scales Part 2: Counting and Cross-Rhythms

In my last post on scales, I demonstrated how we can use scales as a vehicle to isolate and improve the fundamental cello technique of bow control at increasingly slower speeds. Today, I will show how we can use the familiar exercise of scale-playing to improve a fundamental technique of musicianship, and an essential professional skill--counting.

To be honest, a lot of string players, even advanced ones, have a weakness when it comes to rhythm and counting. Brass, woodwind, and percussion players often have much stronger rhythmic and counting chops than string players--probably because the pedagogical repertoire for those instruments tends to be more rhythmically complicated than that for strings. Changing time signatures, irregular time signatures, complicated rhythms, cross-rhythms? They learn them all, whereas it's an exceptional pre-college string player who can confidently tap three against five, for example, or sightread with ease in the time signature of 11/8.

It's seldom too soon, and never too late, to do something about this. The two exercises below are a way to kill two birds with one stone by incorporating numerical and cross-rhythm counting into everyday fundamentals practice.

Exercise 1.

Let's start by playing some scales using slurred bowings. Now, most of us can easily play through a scale using slurs of two, three, or four. But it may surprise you to know that when it comes to slurs, most people can't count to five.

That's OK, of course. There are two easy ways to make sure your five-note slur comes out with the correct number of notes in it: think of it as "One, two, one, two, three" OR "One, two, three, one, two." In the tempo of your choice, play the following, concentrating on really counting to five, and keeping all five notes of the slur even. Resist the temptation to place accents on any note.

Slurring six notes to a bow will be easier, since we can count "One, two, three, one, two, three" or "One, two, one, two, one, two" without much trouble. But when it comes to slurring seven notes to a bow, there are three possibilities for counting that we'll find in musical compositions: 2+2+3 OR 3+2+2, or, more rarely, 2+3+2. Slurring seven is actually pretty easy because when you start on do, a seven-note slur encompasses all the pitches of the diatonic scale. That ought to help if you have trouble with the counting.

  • Eight-note slurs: easy! 4+4.
  • Nine notes: the easiest way is 3+3+3, or you could try 3+2+4.
  • Ten notes: adopt whichever way is easiest from five-note slurs, and do it twice!
  • Eleven notes: 3+3+3+2, or 3+2+3+3 or another combination of 3s and 2s.
  • Twelve notes: 3+3+3+3 or 4+4+4.

Go on through 13, 14, 15 and so on, figuring out how you're going to count them. As you advance through repeated practice, you can go up to 20-note slurs or higher.

Exercise 2

Now it's time to have some real fun with this. Pull out one of the cellist's best friends: the metronome. Set it to a slow tempo of 40 bpm to the half note/minim. We're going to play a slow scale in slurs of two half notes/minims per bow to internalize the tempo. And now...we're going to do a scale of three-note slurs against the two-beat pulse of the metronome. This can be tricky for first-time players. The trick is to internalize the overall rhythmic pattern created. When you divide 3 by 2, you get 1.5. Here are two different ways of writing down this pattern:

It's not hard to tap these rhythms on a desk or on your leg if you remember that three must be divided perfectly in half: "One, two AND three." Or you can use a mnemonic such as "Nice cup of tea," which a British percussionist friend taught me many years ago.

Let's apply this to the scale. Keep the metronome on 40, and chant "One, two AND three" or "Nice cup of tea" as you play, if necessary. Avoid tapping your feet, however--it's distracting and doesn't help you keep better time.

With the metronome still on, play a scale slurring four against the metronome's two. (This is much easier--2+2.) Now let's do five against two. This is not hard if you just remember that 5 divided by 2 is 2.5, so the broad pattern will be "One, two, three AND four five."

In the staff, it looks like this.

A good daily cross-rhythm workout could look like this: metronome on 40 to the half note/minim, play scales in slurs of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. Of course, that's not the only way to practise cross-rhythms. Why not put the metronome in 3/4 time and play 2-note slurs against it? Next, play "four against three" and "three against four," using the handy mnemonic "Pass the bread and butter."

Once you get good at this stuff, it's really geeky and fun. The possibilities are endless. For more advanced fun, try 3 against 5 and 5 against 3. I like to use the mnemonic "I like to hug teddy bears."

In other words...