by Richard Slavich
Professor of Cello
University of Denver
Lamont School of Music
7111 Montview Blvd.
Denver, CO 80237

Most cellists regard David Popper's "High School of Cello Playing," Opus 73, as a sure and tested path to a secure technique. Frank Miller considered mastery of them, along with fluency in 4 octave scales and arpeggios, sufficient technique for professional cellist status. Janos Starker's response to my first performance in his master class was a succinct: "There's nothing wrong with your playing that 40 Popper etudes won't cure."

I offer this introduction to the Popper etudes in hopes that cellists eager to hone their technical command of the instrument will be stimulated to visit and revisit this challenging compendium. My purpose in writing is threefold: 1) to identify the specific technical problems most often met in the 40 studies; 2) to guide the reader to those etudes most relevant to his/her specific technical concerns; 3) to offer some specific suggestions that might make the etudes more manageable. (Alan Harris' caveat "Many roads lead to Rome; more do not" is a reminder, however, that a correspondence course in cello technique is a tenuous undertaking; work on these etudes and techniques with your teacher!).

Bow Studies

We usually think of Popper as a set of studies primarily devoted to left hand technique. There are, however, many demands made on the bow arm as well.

Several etudes focus on string crossings (#1,5,11,19,25). Anticipation, preparation of the upcoming bow angle and arm elevation is crucial here. For example, in #1, line 5, prepare the large jump from C to A string by swinging the arm up and "out" (insuring proper A string bow angle) leaving the C string, then reverse the motion down and "in" returning. Pay particular attention to the clarity of stroke on the thicker C string, and tailor a lighter, yet still focused, stroke for the A string notes.

Single string crossings within slurs (#8,12,31,36) require careful listening also, to assure evenness of execution. In #8, measure 1, the goal is to hear the 7th through 10th 16ths as an even, undulating flow despite the continuous string crossings. Keep the bow as close to the A or D string when playing on the other string, and don't forget to account for the new bow angle; a slightly slower bow speed on the first 7 16ths of the bar will provide plenty of room for the string crossings in question. When the string crossings are in a pattern of one note on one string and three on its neighbor (#8, bar 12), keep the arm on the home string, drop the hand down (and in!) for the lower string. Not to quibble with terminology, but the suggestion at the bottom of the page to use a "light, scarcely perceptible bend of the wrist" is a bit misleading; I would replace "wrist" with "hand-forearm continuum". Actions on the cello originating in the wrist itself are very often flimsy, insufficient...."da thigh bone connected to da hip bone!" The single most important factor in string crossings is preparation, the basis of all technical fluency.

One of the most demanding challenges in playing Popper is to maintain a beautiful, spun sound in the etudes featuring long slurs over many shifts and string crossings (#2,7,12,21,23,24,29,31,33), especially in those with asymmetric slurs (#7,14,26). Although a little extra bow speed for shifts and string crossings can be helpful, the budget-conscious cellist cannot always afford such luxury over some of the longer slurs. Some suggestions: 1) begin practicing long slurs in much smaller lengths, perhaps 3 or 4 notes to a bow, to achieve maximum left hand comfort, then slowly increase the number of notes per bow, 2) cultivate an articulate left hand, fingers fully independent, able to make each note speak instantaneously, 3) experiment with a slightly heavier bow presence in the string, coupled with a simultaneous feeling of suspension in the upper arm, i.e., be stingy with your resources. (Compensate, of course, for very high registers with an appropriately lighter bow.) 4) arrive at a tempo fast enough to make the slur, slow enough to hear every note clearly.

Several Popper etudes explore the important issue of bow apportionment (#11,14,15,17,22,29,36). In #11, line 3 or #15, line 7, anticipate the longer note value by working the bow toward the middle before the up bow. Start #14 and #36 in the appropriate part of the bow. Save and spend your bow as required in # 7,17, 22,26 and 29.

Finally, there are three etudes in which specific bow strokes are explored, staccato (defined here as separated notes in the same bow direction) (#14,32), and the "shoe shine", the dotted rhythm down-up stroke so often met in Schubert's chamber music (#25). In staccato, work for an equal bite and amount of bow on each note. In faster tempi, the "reflex" or "stiff arm" staccato may be explored. For the "shoe shine" bowing, make sure the length of the down bow note is the same as the up bow, on the beat, note. Prepare all string crossings.

Left Hand Studies

The greatest benefit in practicing Popper is, of course, achieving ease, comfort , and, eventually, mastery over the entire scope of the fingerboard.

Many studies demand that the cellist create a clear map of the fingerboard, position ("village", in Fritz Magg's lovely terminology) by position. Popper's use of extensive chromatic sequential activity provides ample opportunity to "visit the villages", in smaller shifts in neck positions (#1,11,16,23,24-page 2) as well as in smaller shifts in thumb positions (#4,5,24,26,31,38,39). Wide shifts (#1,2,12-page 3, 13,20,22,23,28,31,35,36-page3,37) over the whole gamut of the fingerboard also appear in abundance. Accurate, dependable shifting can be developed by giving attention to: 1) a balanced, poised hand orientation and sufficient finger weight on the note preceding the shift, 2) appropriate traveling weight during the shift, knowing which finger is actually in contact with the string, 3) a crystal clear pre-hearing of the arrival pitch, and absolute visualization of that pitch's village on the map, and 4) appropriate bow support.

Articulation within the hand, building the strength and independence of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th fingers particularly (#2,3,10,16,26,27,30,35,36,37), is a central concern in Popper. Clearly ringing left hand pizzicato (#15,17,31-end,34) notes require an elastic and potent hand. Balance in the hand between the 1st and 4th finger (#18-page 2,22,26) is another sign of left hand maturity. Double stops (#9,13,15-page 2,17, 29, 34,39) are the royal road to strength, accuracy, balance, and independence in the left hand.

Popper is the anthology nonpareil for establishing a secure thumb position. The four basic thumb position patterns, 1) (from thumb up to 3rd finger) WW1/2, 2) W1/2W, 3) 1/2WW, 4) WWW, are explored in various keys and villages (#5,8,12, 13,15,33). The thumb in thumb positions plays the same role as the first finger in neck positions, defining and anchoring the position; when shifting within the thumb positions (#4,5,7,8,9,12,13,15,18,21,23,26,28,29,33,35,38), the thumb moves with the hand, does not trail behind in caterpillar fashion. In the time it takes to move from one position to the next, reconfigure the hand so that, upon arrival, the new village is entirely laid out, thumb included. Pay particular attention to the relation of the thumb to the rest of the hand in chromatic configurations (#8,26,35). In #8, line 5, the perfect 4th between A string thumb and D string first finger remains intact during the shifts. The thumb is an integral part of the hand at all times and must be accounted for. No slithering or hitchhiking!

Occasionally, the thumb remains in the old position, while the fingers make a short excursion to a higher one (restez) (#15,26,28). For example, in #26, page 2, measure 2, beat 3, establish the thumb on g natural while playing the printed 1st finger a, and leave the thumb on that g natural until it comes into play in the next measure.

In addition to motion up and down the fingerboard, Popper explores lateral motion, moving the thumb sideways for work on the G and C strings (#12-page 4, 18,20-page 2,22,33). Create a temporary alternate anchor on a 3rd or 2nd finger, while moving the thumb quickly and efficiently across from its old to new string pairing.

Several etudes feature extended playing in thumb position, building endurance and strength (#4,8,9,12,13,20,33,38). When working on etudes exploring the low thumb positions (#4,8,10-2nd line from end,13,34), keep the left elbow high enough to assure a straight wrist, strive for suppleness in the wide stretches, and keep the ear vigilant throughout. Secure and relatively comfortable purchase of the string by the 4th finger in thumb position (#4,12,18,22,24,28,35) can be achieved by flexing the lower 3 fingers to a steeper, more finger tip-oriented profile, and by moving the hand to a more perpendicular address to the fingerboard. Octaves (#12-end,13,20,23,27, 31,33,38,39) won't be in tune if the thumb isn't in tune.

Four etudes make extended usage of natural harmonics (#7-end,18,24,40), where attention must be given to the quick release, rather than establishing, of finger presence.

In the rest of the book, however, use of the harmonic is far too liberal. Justification exists if the harmonic is visited quickly and momentarily, as in #12, line 6, or #15, line 4. Otherwise, a solid finger will better establish and clarify the new village. See, for instance, the first two lines of #5.

Some initially confusing harmonics on notes that can't be played as such are actually indications to play the artificial harmonic at the octave. In #15, examples can be found in the last measure of line 3 and line 9 (b and c, respectively).

Coordination between the two hands in rapid tempi (#6,27,38) is best achieved by building from: 1) slower to faster metronome markings and 2) smaller to larger fragments in the desired destination tempo.

For perspective on how Popper etudes sound in the hands of a consummate master of the instrument, listen to Janos Starker's CD "The Road to Cello Playing," on the Parnassus label (PACD 97-008).

I close with a few lists, suggesting several points of departure for the cellist eager to get to know Popper better.

By technique

  1. Separate strokes, mostly in the neck positions, string crossings prominent -- 1,11,16,19
  2. Separate strokes, over the whole length of the fingerboard -- 5,15,18,30,37
  3. Long slurs, mostly in the neck positions -- 2,3,36
  4. Long slurs, over the whole length of the fingerboard -- 7,10,12,21,22,23,24,26,28,31,35,39
  5. Double stops (3rds, 6ths, 8ves): -- 9,13,17,20,29,34
  6. Thumb position -- 4,8,13,33,38,39
  7. Specific bow strokes -- 6,14,15,25,27,32
  8. Character studies:
    * scherzando -- 5,15,40
    * appassionato -- 10,20
    * capriccioso -- 16
    * grazioso -- 22,28
    * parody of Bach Suite #3 gigue -- 36
  9. Coordination between the hands in fast tempi -- 6,27,38
  10. Harmonics -- 18,24,28,40
By key:

Practicing in "the key of the day" provides valuable preparation for the demands of the concert literature. If one is working on Haydn's D Major concerto, playing a few scales, arpeggios and Popper etudes in D beforehand can sharpen the ear to the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of the key.

C -- 1,8,12,16,27,36
c -- 10,17,32
Db -- 35,39
D -- 14,18,33,38,40
Eb -- 9,13,19
E -- 37
F -- 6,11,34
F# -- 4
Gb -- 30
G -- 2,15,22,24
g -- 20
A -- 5,26,28
a -- 21
Bb -- 25
bb -- 3
bv -- 23
ambiguous -- 7,29,31

By degree of difficulty (subjective!):

Relatively easy -- 1,3,6,11,16,19,27(if spiccato),36
Moderately demanding -- 2,5,8,10,15,17,18,21,22,23,25,26,30,31,34,35
Difficult -- 4,7,9,12,14,20,24,27(if sautillé, presto),28,32,37,39,40
Very Difficult -- 13,29,33,38(if presto)

Preparation for...

Bach Suite #3, Gigue -- 36
Boccherini Concerto, mvt. 3 -- 19
Dvorak Concerto, mvt. 1 -- 20,23
Haydn D Major Concerto -- 33
Janacek Fairy Tale -- 30
Rimsky-Korsakov Flight of the Bumblebee -- 27
St. Saens concerto, mvt. 2 cadenza -- 5
Schumann Concerto, mvt. 2 -- 34
Shostakovich Concerto #1, mvt. 1 -- 9.

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