To play well, our left hand – just like an athlete’s or a dancer’s body – needs to be responsive, flexible, and above all ………. warm.
Warmth loosens up muscles and articulations: it favours flexibility. Is it any wonder that people from hot climates are generally so much looser ……. that Indians invented Yoga ….. that Bossa Nova comes from Brazil ….. that Jazz originated with the Afro-Americans (hot African heritage + hot southern USA) etc? Playing the cello at 26ºC (80ºF) is so much easier than playing it at 18ºC (64ºF). And at lower temperatures, not only is it difficult to play, it can even be dangerous for the left hand, wrist and fingers.
Some people can just walk in off the frozen street and start playing – beautifully. Now that is talent (and luck)! They obviously have good metabolism, good circulation (warm hands), good anatomy (large hands) ……….. and probably a tropical attitude (low anxiety).
The “tropical attitude” is very significant, because the sensation of cold is actually very subjective and doesn’t necessarily correspond with the reading on the thermometer. Fear can make us feel cold and will suck the blood out of our hands, making them cold and clammy even on a hot summer’s day. And of course the opposite is true: someone who is full of confidence and looking forward very much to playing, can feel warm even if dressed for summer on a freezing winter evening. For whatever reasons – psychological, physical or both – some people are just naturally warmer than others. Some of us are very sensitive to the cold, regularly wearing winter clothes in summer (like the pianist Glenn Gould), and others seem not to feel it at all, regularly wearing shorts and T-shirts in winter. Many of the most successful string players that I have met have in common the fact that they – or their hands at least – seldom feel cold. One comment was made that “even if my body is cold, my hands are always warm”. What good fortune!!
Cold-handed cellists have to be more careful than the hot-handed ones. We need to warm-up slowly, progressively and for a longer time before our hand gets warm enough to be able to play well. Smaller-handed cellists especially need to be especially careful about warming-up, because a small hand is under more strain than a large one (see Hand Size). I am highly qualified to talk about the importance of warming up the left hand ……. but only because during the last 35 years I’ve had many playing-induced injuries to my (small) left hand, almost all of which have occurred while playing cold!
The absence of a warm-up can cause us two main problems:
- we will sound bad (until we get warm)
- we can injure ourself – especially the left hand
When we hear ourselves sounding bad, we are horrified – especially if other people are listening. We immediately start to work harder – to force our body in order to try and make it sound better. We try to do “more” vibrato and use more finger and bow pressure. But when our bodies are cold and stiff, all that extra vibrato and pressure are dangerous. See Overtry, Vibrato, and Musicians Injuries.
So, how can we get our hand warm as quickly as possible ? Let’s start with things we can do to be (and to stay) warm even before we get the cello out of its case.
PRE-CELLO WARM-UP POSSIBILITIES
It’s a good idea to get the hand warm before actually starting to warm up at the cello, so let’s first look at different ways of doing this.
1. Prevention: try to avoid getting cold! Make sure that the rooms in which we will play and warmup are kept warm. If that isn’t possible, then wear gloves, warmer clothes ……… and do anything else possible to stay warm (moving vigorously is a good start as it gets the blood pumping out to the extremities).
2. We can warm ourselves up from the inside by:
- Having a hot drink (or hot food). It’s surprising how well this works. And it has, of course, nothing to do with the calorie content of what you consume – just its temperature. A large mug of hot water will warm us up immediately whereas a big bowl of frozen ice-cream will freeze us off just as quickly, even though it is full of “calories”.
- Movement. All movement creates heat in the working body tissues. An essential part of any warm-up is stretching and actively using the muscles. Unfortunately the hands and fingers use rather small muscle groups so hand and finger movements, while comprising an essential part of any hand warm-up, are, on their own, a slow way to produce significant heat and blood flow to the hands. Vigorous movements of the large muscle groups (arms, shoulders, back and legs) will warm the whole body much faster.
3. We can warm our hand up from the outside by applying heat.
- Fritz Kreisler’s pre-concert warm-up consisted of soaking his hands in a basin of very warm water for 10-15 minutes (I imagine he wore rubber gloves).
- a fan heater or blow-dryer is a great warm-up aid, as we can move and stretch the hand in the hot air instead of having to hold the hand immobile on a warm object.
- we can buy nowadays little sachets of gel that become instantly hot (and for 20 minutes or more) when you bend a little piece of metal floating in the gel. They are very convenient to have in your pocket while waiting to play (but beware of the hand getting sweaty).
4. We can create heat in the hand also through surface friction.
- rubbing the hand vigorously with a hand-scrubbing brush (fingernail brush) stimulates very strongly the circulation to the fingers and hand. A few minutes of “scrubbing” (dry of course) makes the whole hand pink and glowing – perfect for playing the cello ! A fine but firm brush is ideal but not essential.
- in fact, rubbing the hand vigorously against just about anything (our other hand, our trouser leg etc) creates heat by friction, and in addition to this friction-heat effect, the active movements of the left-hand also help to warm it and to loosen it up.
- using our right hand to massage the fleshy side (palm side) of our left hand all the way out to the fingertips (with especial importance to the fingertips) also creates a lot of warmth and blood flow. If this massage is done by a fellow human being (a warm one) then we not only get the benefit of their physical warmth but also of their psychological warmth!!
WARM-UP AT THE CELLO
Playing the cello while wearing (warm) gloves with the fingertips cut off is like doing vigorous physical activity with full winter clothes on: we get very warm very quickly. If our hand is really cold, we can start playing with normal gloves on (with both the fingers and the finger-tips covered), This is a very strange but educational feeling. For a small-handed cellist we suddenly feel what it would be like to have thick, chunky fingers (nice!).
A warmup can be usefully subdivided into two phases, according to what we are actually warming up.
THE SLIDING (SHIFTING) WARMUP
Often it’s not just our hand that is cold but the instrument also. The metal strings warm up very quickly through friction if we run our hand up and down the length of the strings while pressing firmly. To avoid injuring the fingers it’s probably safer to do this initially with the palm of the hand (like a big Neanderthal glissando) and gradually work out towards the finger-tips by which time the strings will be positively hot! (and will thus rapidly warmup the fingertips). If we play on two strings at once (double stops) this doubles the warming effect and really gets the cello vibrating, but we should remember to keep all the fingers bunched up closely together to avoid “extension-strain” (see below). These big, sweeping, glissandi-warmup exercises quickly warm up the strings, the fingerpads, and our large shoulder and arm muscles. Another advantage of them is that they establish immediately our left arm trajectory up and down the entire fingerboard.
In this part of our warmup, our objective is to be “sloppy and floppy”, sliding gently and smoothly around the entire fingerboard with a slow loose vibrato and not worrying about anything except ease and looseness. In order to give absolute priority to this looseness, smoothness and ease, we want to avoid any movements that are even remotely uncomfortable, difficult or tense for the hand. We will thus avoid, at this stage of our warmup, all extensions, rapid jerky movements, fast vibrato and intense finger pressure.
The other main sources of tension in playing come from the desire/need to play in tune and in time. Total warmup looseness will be encouraged if we can temporarily switch off our instinctive control centers for intonation, coordination and rhythmic accuracy. We will have plenty of time afterwards in our practice session to dedicate to playing in time and in tune. For now, let’s play in Indian and Chinese styles (quartertones welcome!), and leave those difficult scales, arpeggios, shifts, passages and pieces of music till later. Improvisation is actually a very safe way to warm-up as we rarely do anything that feels “difficult” when we improvise. If we put the metronome on (a slow pulse), we may find it more fun. As long as we don’t get tense with complex or snappy rhythms, the pulse will give us something to gently play with (or against). Just like when we play with a ball, it can be more enjoyable if we have something to bounce it off!
As mentioned above, double-stopped sliding exercises (without extensions) moving all over the fingerboard are a “turbo” way to warm up our hands and strings. If we play recognisably tonal, controlled intervals (like the arpeggios of the following exercises) then they also warmup our ears. The drawback of these tonal double-stop sliding warmup exercises is that they require intonation control which can create additional tension, so we need to be careful with them. Try these ones: they move all over the cello fingerboard, use all the strings, but have no hand strain. All the shifts are slurred glissandi for easy flow and easy aural control:
Now here is another one, this time also involving the thumb.
THE FINGER ARTICULATION WARMUP
All this shifting and slithering around doesn’t do much for our finger articulation movements. This is the next phase of our warmup.
Once our hand is more or less warm, we can start with some fast, light, flowing, finger articulation patterns in one position, that we will then move snakelike up and down through the three different fingerboard regions as shown in the examples below. We will favour long slurred bows and simple repetitive rhythms. For a warmup, light fast movements are probably better than heavy slow ones because the fact that each finger releases its playing pressure so quickly after articulating makes these exercises quite safe in terms of avoiding “sports injuries“. Most spontaneous sports injuries occur during the first 10 minutes of a game and it is during this “critical period” that we have to be especially careful. These exercises not only serve to warm up the finger articulation movements but also to warm up (refresh/update) our mental map of the fingerboard positions.
It is easy to invent our own repeating, rapid-articulation, finger patterns. Here below are some of the most basic. These fingering patterns have been notated in the following way: 1 = first finger, M = middle finger, T = top finger. They might look as unintelligible as algebra, but this is actually the most efficient way of showing finger patterns in a way that is valid for all of the fingerboard regions, and this form of “notation” saves us a lot of unnecessary writing out (and reading) of the musical exercises. Click here for some written out examples of these finger-articulation warmup exercises. The variants shown in parentheses are the identical finger sequence, but with the beat displaced)
“1-M-T” (and its variants “M-T-1” and “T-1-M”)
“T-M-1” (and its variants “M-1-T” and” 1-T-M”
“1-T-M-T” (and “T-M-T-1” and “M-T-1-T” and “T-1-T-M”)
“T-1-M-1″ (and” 1-M-1-T” and “M-1-T-1″ and” 1-T-1-M”)
As our hand warms up, we can gradually add more extensions into these exercises.
A NOTE ABOUT THE THUMB IN OUR WARMUP
We need to make sure that we include all of our fingers in our left-hand-warmup. This of course includes the thumb – in all the fingerboard regions! Very rarely do we actually articulate with the thumb, so shifts on the thumb will need to be included in the sliding-slithering part of our warmup (shifting on the thumb) and the thumb will need to be used as the base (lowest) finger in the articulation part of our warmup. With the thumb, the number of possible repetitive finger-articulation patterns is greatly multiplied. Now we have the following possibilities:
TH-1-2-3 (and 1-2-3-TH, 2-3-TH-1 and 3-TH-1-2, all of which are the identical sequence but with the beat displaced)
However, in our need to be careful in our warmup to avoid all strained postures, we will not use many of these possibilities, especially in the lower fingerboard regions.