CELLO TECHNIQUE MADE SIMPLE
by Tim Janof
The following article originally appeared in the October 1994 edition of
The Strad (under the name "Tim Finholt"), a string musicians magazine based in England. It is being
re-published here with permission of The Strad.
I am sitting with my cello, clearing my head of the mundane stresses of
everyday life. Nothing else matters, only my cello, my bow, and my own
sense of quiet contemplation. Concentrate on breathing. Concentrate on
relaxing. Concentrate on the feelings of tenderness and love for music and
love for this wonderful instrument I have before me.
I glance at myself in the practice mirror and reflect upon Pablo Casals's
words: "Beautiful playing is beautiful to look at."(1) I think about Yo-Yo
Ma, and how beautiful he was as he played the Dvorak Concerto. Everything
looked so easy, so perfectly balanced, so simple. There were no unnatural
arm positions, no impressions of stressed shoulders or hands, no grimaces
of fatigue or pain. And yet he was playing one of the most strenuous
pieces for cellists. Why don't I look like that when I play?
"As calmly and well-balanced as a cellist may sit with his cello, the
moment he starts to play, a change takes place in his body; suddenly his
head sits lopsided on his shoulders, one shoulder is pulled up, the elbow
is stretched out in a pointed angle, and the wrist of his right hand
becomes stiff like a board, or his hand dangles about as if it were drunk
and the left hand assumes a position that causes one to ask how it is
possible even to strike a note, to vibrate, to move from one position to
What a convicting observation from Emanuel Feuermann."2
I begin to wonder if Yo-Yo Ma makes it look so simple because it actually
is simple. Careful, don't confuse the notion of simplicity with the notion
of ease. Playing the cello is not easy; it's an immensely intricate set of
motions requiring fine motor control that can only be acquired by years of
practice. But perhaps I make it more complicated than it needs to be.
Armed with this realization, I begin to examine my attitudes to cello
playing. Have I been piling up prejudices, anxieties and neuroses about
cello technique? I can still hear the "inner chatter" (3) that has
enslaved me over the years -- "I'll never hit that big shift," "the notes
are too fast," or "thumb position is too difficult." And yet, in cello
lessons, the diagnosis of a technical problem always results in a common
sense solution--a higher arm, better planned bowing, better preparation for
the next note, etc.
"The basic ill of poor playing lies in the absolute disregard of natural
laws." (2) Feuermann seems to have had me in mind when he uttered these
words. Sometimes I feel as if I must defy the laws of physics in order to
play well. But this is ridiculous. If I play out of tune, it's because my
finger is in the wrong place. If I miss a string with my bow, it's because
my bow did not touch the right string at the right time. It all sounds so
simple. Maybe it is.
I remember a concept from my math and science courses--the principle of
linearity--the idea that a whole can be divided into independent parts and
analyzed separately. These parts can then be re-combined to comprehend the
whole. Maybe my cello playing would benefit from this approach. I could
study the bow arm independently of the left hand; then the left hand
without the bow; and finally, link the two together. This sounds
I start with the bow. I look down at my cello and count the strings.
There are only four. (What a relief -- sometimes it feels as if I am
playing a sitar!) No matter how fast or slow I play, I am always playing
on one of these. But it's more challenging to play fast because it's more
difficult to keep track of which string I'm on. This leads me to suspect
that many perceived left hand problems are actually right hand problems.
If I really want to learn a passage, I should play it slowly first and
figure out which string each note is on.
I begin to play a passage from a concerto [see example at the Internet
Cello Society Web Site] with the left hand 'shadow' fingering above the
fingerboard, while I play the corresponding open strings with the bow. As
I play the open strings faster and faster, a pattern reveals itself:
A-A-D-D-A-A becomes a repeating sequence. It's the famous passage from
Saint-Saens' Concerto no. 1 [measure 297]. Repeating this until it becomes
internalized, I add back the left hand. What a difference--it's so much
cleaner! Of course many passages are not this regular. But the general
principle holds: always know what string you're on.
I then note that whatever I play using my bow, it is either traveling up
or down-bow. This observation may seem trivial, but it becomes crucial
when playing fast, when it's often difficult to keep track of the direction
the bow is supposed to be going in: always know in what direction you are
Looking at my bridge I notice that the strings are at different elevations
above the cello body; the D and G-strings are higher than the A and C. I
alternate between playing the A and D-strings. Because of the difference
in heights, I tend to have a broken sound as I switch from one to the
other. How can I achieve a smooth legato? Michael Tree, violist of the
Guarneri Quartet, solves my problem:
"When one hears an unwanted break in the line at the moment of string
crossing, it's usually because the arm doesn't prepare for it in advance.
The arm has a wide potential latitude of vertical movement. You can raise
it to play on the left side of the string or lower it to play on the right,
or you can play dead center. If the arm anticipates the string crossing by
leaning in the direction of the note that's coming, a more fluid, circular
motion is achieved. The difference of a quarter of an inch may be enough
to put the arm in position; the wrist can do the rest. But many players
will do the exact opposite and lean the arm in the wrong direction; the
result is an abrupt, angular movement." (4)
This means the more economical my motions are, the easier it is, and the
better I sound. This is definitely a step towards my goal of simplicity.
I then alternate between playing the open A-string with the open C-string
-- a huge leap over the two middle strings. Again I sound choppy because
of the commotion of my bow arm, which flaps like a wing as I move between
strings. Looking in the mirror, I note how unsettled and ridiculous I
appear as I play. I must try to apply the string crossing lesson above.
In an effort to counter my panic caused by visual cues, I imagine that the
strings are actually on the same level. Instinctively, I raise my bow arm
to a level where I can play the D-string comfortably, in a compromise
position between the A and C-strings. Now I can reach both strings with
relatively little movement, mostly a wrist and lower-arm action. A high
bow arm gives me the flexibility to play on any string with a minimum of
effort. I begin to play the Prelude of Bach's E flat Suite, which is full
of huge string crossings. The notes sound more connected than ever before.
Economy of motion pays off again.
I then play my open A-string, using half my bow for each note. I
gradually increase the tempo while maintaining the use of half-bows. I am
quite irritated by my tone -- it sounds uneven, scratchy, and forced. My
arm is also extremely tired, so I must be doing something very wrong.
While maintaining the fast tempo, I try using less bow. As if by magic, my
sound becomes even and full and my arm is able to relax. I conclude that
the faster one plays, the less bow one needs.
With this lesson in mind, I play a quaver [quarter note] followed by two
semiquavers [eighth notes], and keep repeating this pattern. I notice that
I am using the same amount of bow for the quavers as for the semiquavers.
It occurs to me that semiquavers could be considered as 'fast notes'; they
have half the duration of quavers, so, assuming a constant bow speed, they
should need half the bow. When I try this, it works beautifully. The
notion that cello technique might obey basic mathematical relationships
gives me hope of finding simplicity.
THE LEFT HAND
Putting down my bow for a moment, I direct my attention to my left hand.
I turn my cello around and look at the fingerboard. Some of humanity's
greatest creations lie there waiting to be played: the Bach suites, the
Beethoven sonatas, Bloch's Schelomo. I know they are there because a great
musician like Yo-Yo Ma could take my cello and play them for me. All I
have to do is learn to put my fingers in the right place. But how?
I run my fingers up and down the fingerboard, feeling how straight and
smooth the strings are -- no curves, no bumps. Yet when I begin to play, I
have a different perception; as soon as I reach 5th position, I enter some
sort of forbidden zone -- as if I must reach into a deep chasm to find the
notes. This is ridiculous. The only difference between the upper and
lower parts of the fingerboard is that the notes become closer as I play
progressively higher. I come to the realization that I have been a victim
of the notion that 'higher is harder.'
But how are my fingers going to 'remember' where to go, unless I remind
them? Scales! If the great musicians need them, I certainly do.
I play a few notes on the A-string in first position and look at my left
arm, noticing that my elbow is low. I will not be able to reach the
C-string if my elbow stays in this position. And if I need to go into 5th
or thumb position, my arm will hit the body of the cello. The only way to
avoid these potential hazards is to lift my elbow into a comfortably
elevated position when needed, or better still, save myself some work by
keeping the elbow up at all times.
I play some notes in thumb position and marvel at its simplicity. There
are only three commonly used fingering combinations for the first three
fingers: 1) Whole step between 1st and 2nd and whole step between 2nd and
3rd; 2) Half step between 1st and 2nd and whole step between 2nd and 3rd;
and 3) Whole step between 1st and 2nd and half step between 2nd and 3rd.
Add the thumb, and the basic combinations only double. With this knowledge
I can figure out how to play any combination of notes; I only need to know
the intervals between them. Finding the best fingering is another issue,
but consciousness of these simple truths makes playing in thumb position
much easier. And if I know the required configuration for the notes to
come, I can shift directly into the required finger combination.
Except for chords, cellists play notes in a series; each note has some
connection to the notes surrounding it. If I am not conscious of these
relationships at all times, I will not prepare mentally and physically for
notes to come (this applies to both hands). By keeping my right arm high,
I am preparing for notes that will occur on other strings. And by keeping
my left arm high, I am preparing for notes in higher positions.
Preparation may also involve adjusting my arm position, how I sit, how I
rotate the cello, and so on. This requires experimentation on a case by
Finally, I notice that I tend to stop breathing when I play, especially in
challenging passages. As Robert Dew observes: "Many people hold their
breath while playing, often to a length that would shame a pearl diver."
(5) What could be more unnatural? Am I that paralyzed with fear? Can
something so innocuous as getting a few sounds from a wooden box be that
stressful? Without breathing a giant boulder has fallen in the path to
As I sit with my beloved cello before me, fighting the necessity to join
the outside world again, I reflect upon the true goal of my cello playing:
to experience the art of music. All of the above observations are merely
means to an end: to arrive at a freedom from the artistic bondage of my
poor technique. Yet as Paul Tortelier observed, technique and musicality
can be linked: "I have noticed that when some of my students succeedin
correcting poor technical habits, there is a change in their
interpretation. They become aware that their interpretation has been
mediocre as well as their technique." (1)
Many of the bow and left hand discoveries I have outlined can be found in
the first book of any instrumental tutor: awareness of the four strings, up
and down bows, intervals between fingers, etc. My approach is therefore
akin to Robert Fulghum's theory that "All I really need to know I learned
in kindergarten." In my own playing, I find that when I commit a technical
sin, I have overlooked one of these fundamental notions. We all like to
think that these things have become automatic. But the harder the music,
the more distracted one becomes with the notes, forgetting the basics. As
adults, our lifetime of experiences have produced layers of prejudices,
anxieties, and neuroses. We need to strip away this "sophistication" and
become child-like in our thirst for technical insight. Only then can we
find simplicity in cello playing.
(1) David Blum, Paul Tortelier: A Self-Portrait in Conversation with David
Blum. (London: Heinemann, 1984).
(2) Seymour W. Itzkoff, Emanuel Feuermann, Virtuoso. (Alabama: University
of Alabama Press, 1979).
(3) Barry Green with Timothy Gallwey. The Inner Game of Music. (New York:
(4) David Blum, The Art of Quartet Playing. (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1986) p. 124.
(5) Robert Dew, "Instinctive Responses." The Strad (October 1993, p. 940).
1996 Reprinted by permission of The Strad