I love to multi-task, which is why I've started to compose fundamentals exercises for my students in the University of Idaho cello studio that reinforce the fundamentals they learn in Theory I-IV and Aural Skills I-IV at the same time as building their proficiency in the principles of cello playing.
This is my first post in a projected series on learning and using music theory in cello practice. As well as my cello studio at the University of Idaho, I also teach a class in aural skills -- essentially the laboratory class for what students learn in music theory. In most theory methods, the material is taught in a piano-centric way, and I've been looking for a way to make it more applicable to the cello. Over the next few weeks, I'll be sharing some exercises that "kill two birds with one stone" -- that is, teach the principles of music theory at the same time as getting a good cello warm-up.
In a previous post, I addressed the technical issues faced by cellists with "double-jointed" (more correctly, hypermobile) left-hand fingers. An equally common problem that you'll see on cellists with otherwise decent bow-hold setups is a hypermobile right fourth finger that "buckles" on the bow.
This "collapse" isn't so much caused by the person's hypermobility, but by a misconception of what the fourth finger is supposed to do on the bow, in combination with finger shaping that places the finger on the bow in a way that's likely to cause buckling.
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.
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,
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.
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."
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.
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.