“A musician is an athlete of the small muscles“
This is especially true for the cellist’s left hand.
Dancer, gymnast, sprinter, marathon runner, weightlifter, high-diver: the cellists left hand is an olympic athlete, not only participating in all events, but also changing events at a moments notice. When we add to these athletic requirements, the necessary skills of singer, poet, Shaolin warrior, yogi, contortionist, magician and circus performer, then we can start to appreciate the complexity of what our left hand needs to be able to do.
THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE TWO HANDS
The two hands are in many ways like yin and yang …. male and female …… particles and waves …… analysis and intuition …….. science and art: opposites that need and complement each other, working and combining together in every conceivable way to bring about miracles. Each note of the lefthand is a discrete entity, easily separated and distinguished from the other notes around it, sounded by the placing of one finger. In this sense, the lefthand is like a numerical computer, a keyboard, a scientist, a mathematician. In contrast to this is the righthand/arm, which works more like a holistic artist, a dancer, sculptor or painter, thinking more in dynamic waves and operating normally with larger continuous and connected gestures rather than with separate discrete particles.
At first glance, this different functioning of the two hands seems to reflect perfectly the differences between the two sides of the brain because, according to brain science, the left side of the brain is the mathematical, logical, scientific side and the right side is the emotive, creative, artistic side. But brain science also says that the left brain controls the right side of the body, and the right brain controls the left side, so what seemed like a beautiful correlation is now turned on its head! Maybe this is why good string-playing is not an easy task!
It is very easy for the male brain to become overly focused on the lefthand, to the detriment of all the things that come primarily from the right hand (such as sound quality, colours, dynamics, musicality etc.) We can see the same tendency in pianists: there are those (usually men) who can play thousands of notes but will play all of them with little sensitivity, and then there are those pianists (often women) who play much less notes but whose every note is a jewel of expressivity and sensitivity.
One of the reasons we might tend to focus our attention so much on the lefthand is that it is so much easier to see and hear what is going on with that hand than with the righthand. Each note from the lefthand is a clear objective that we can work on, whereas with the righthand the information flow – both visual and auditory – is more continuous and much more complex to observe, with less discrete moments to focus our attention on. Is it any wonder that the more mathematical, left-hand-oriented string players tend to be quite good at Stravinsyesque spiccato, because in spiccato, finally, the right hand is also working with discrete entities!
Together, the right and left hands form a strange dancing couple composed of two totally independent, but completely coordinated, artists. They are engaged in a permanent “pas de deux” on four different stages (the four strings), during which, in spite of their extreme intimacy and permanent telepathy, they are never allowed to actually touch each other!
PRACTICE FOR THE LEFT HAND
Pianists often work on each hand separately and independently. This doesn’t come naturally to string players, especially for our left hand because, unlike for pianists, our left hand on its own makes no sound (Ravel could not have written a “Cello Concerto for the Left Hand” as he did for the piano!). However this can be a useful practice tool. Practicing the left hand without the bow (we can use pizzicato if we want) not only gives our ears and right arm (and neighbours) a rest, but also allows us to concentrate exclusively on this hand.
We can even practice the Left Hand without a cello. One very busy cellist kept a cut-down fingerboard in the car with her for use in traffic jams. In fact, we can even practice the left hand with less than a fingerboard, but that is another subject (see Mental Practice).
A very useful practice technique for the left hand is to transpose any passage (that doesn’t use open strings) into neighbouring keys.
Click on the links below to explore the different areas of left hand technique: