“Glissando” is the italian word for “sliding” (or “a slide”). If we keep to italian for our musical terminology, then the plural would be “glissandI” but if we want to be less purist (snobby) then we could just use “glissanOS” as the plural. Take your pick! Either way, glissandi (glissandos) are an absolutely fundamental tool for both expressivity and shifting technique.
THE GLISSANDO AS AN EXPRESSIVE DEVICE
Sliding up (or down) into a note (glissando) is a magnificent expressive and dramatic device. It allows us string players to connect our notes with a beautiful legato, no matter how far apart or close together the notes are. In gentler music, sliding up into a note gives it a lyrical, vocal, expressive beginning, whereas in more intense music it gives drama and intensity. Singers use glissandi all the time quite naturally. It is often much more beautiful, gentle, natural and “organic” to start a note by sliding up into it rather than with a clean, crisp, mechanical, metronomic, robotic start (such as heard in MIDI computer music). We can even use sometimes an upwards glissando to start a note after a silence. Singers – especially jazz singers – do this very often.
GLISSANDO AS A TECHNICAL AID FOR SHIFTING
Glissandos not only sound beautiful but are also a beautiful technical aid for finding a new position. Sliding audibly into a note is the easiest way to find it safely and securely: just think about the way violinists tune their instrument, finding and tuning their perfect fifths by sliding up into them. An audible glissando is the most important facilitator of accurate shifting because it allows us to do two absolutely vital things:
- to accurately measure (aurally) the distance travelled by the hand
- to control the arrival at the target note with absolute intonation precision
Even when we have absolutely no idea of the position of the target note, an audible glissando alone can give us sufficient spatial/aural feedback to be able to find our new note safely and accurately. This situation occurs especially in the high Thumb Region, where we have no physical spatial references to help with our positional sense. Play the following intervals firstly using same-finger shifts (because these give the smoothest glissando). Then try the shifts with other fingerings, but always with an audible glissando.
Even when a shift must be silent (without an audible glissando) for musical reasons, we can still practice it with an audible glissando. We do this in order to program our brain (and hand) with the aural memory of the interval. If we practice the shift with an audible glissando enough times, then when we finally do the shift with the “silent” glissando, we will still hear it in our inner ear and our hand will go to the correct place, as though we were actually hearing the glissando.
GLISSANDI UP TO NATURAL HARMONICS: THE FIRST STEP
Perhaps the easiest way to start learning the principles of how to do (control) glissandi is to practice sliding up to natural harmonics. The arrival note is automatically in-tune and sounds very easily, which means that we can do these shifts without tension. In this way we can get used to doing our shifts with relaxed, easy, smooth glissandi, which is ultimately one of the most essential skills of good string playing. We can start with smaller shifts to the midstring harmonic (on different strings), and then progressively shift from further away. The next step is to choose increasingly higher (natural) harmonics as our destination note. This also helps us to familiarise ourselves with the higher regions of the fingerboard (Thumb Region). There is no need to write out these exercises: just improvise !
GLISSANDI TO AN “INTERMEDIATE NOTE”: GERMAN SHIFTS OR FRENCH SHIFTS?
The simplest glissandi occur in samefinger shifts, where, by definition, our target note is played with the same finger as our departure note. But glissandi don’t always have to be necessarily on the finger of our target (destination) note. Some assisted shifts want to have the target note articulated cleanly, and in these cases our glissando, rather than being on the target-note finger, will be on the finger of the note that precedes the shift. In these shifts, rather than sliding into our target note, that target note is sounded cleanly, with an articulation. In the case of upwards shifts, once the lower finger has slid into its new position, we simply articulate the (higher) destination finger. In the case of downwards shifts, the target note is sounded by the removal of the higher finger. This is why we can call these shifts “articulated shifts”. In both upwards and downwards shifts the note that we shift to is like a “stepping stone”. We can call these “stepping stone” notes “intermediate notes”.
This type of shift is less romantic, less sensuous, less seductive than those shifts in which we slide into the new note on the new finger. Perhaps this is why the technique of the articulated shift has sometimes been called “the German shift” while the slide on the new finger is called “the French shift”. In the “German shift” the shift distance is measured mathematically on the old finger, like a computer, while in the “French shift” the distance is measured aurally, like a singer.
SLIDING UP DISCREETLY TO A “STARTING NOTE”
Glissandi are not only useful in shifts. As mentioned above, even when we have to find a note after a silence, it can be very helpful for our intonation security to do a discreet slide up into it, especially when our other little tricks for finding notes after silences such as left hand percussive articulation for example (see Positional Sense) would be musically disruptive. This technique for finding a new note is most suited to imperceptible, vocal-like note-beginnings in the upper half of the bow because this allows us to make our little glissando so softly that it can, if necessary, be completely inaudible to the public. Note that this glissando comes before our starting note – it’s like an introduction to it – and therefore requires starting the bow also before the “correct” rhythmically stipulated moment.
In the above example, our little glissando up to our high note was basically just an invaluable technical device, only audible to the ears of player but not to the public. We can however also make this type of glissando quite audible, in which case it becomes a very potent expressive and stylistic device. The return, in the higher octave, of two of the themes shown in one of the above examples provides a good illustration of this:
This gentle anticipated slide/glide up into our note, with its gradual increase in bow speed and pressure, is a very sensuous way to start a note. It really is like a caress, and gives the music that liquid, unctuous, “extra-smooth” feeling. This is when music really starts to “melt in your mouth”, but just like with the delights of chocolate and honey, we need to use this technique with moderation! And in some musical styles it is not at all appropriate: this is definitely not a “Baroque” nor “Classical Period” technique.
FINGERING FOR GLISSANDI
Playing in a singing, lyrical style requires staying on the same string as much as possible (singers have only one) and joining the most appropriate notes with warm, tastefully calibrated glissandi (examples). In both sentimental and dramatic music, some notes are literally crying out for a glissando. In this type of music or phrase, an expressive musician will decide how and where to do their shifts exclusively for expressive reasons rather than for technical reasons. In fact, often we do a glissando into the new note even when a position change isn’t even necessary, purely for expressive reasons. And we can even do a glissando while playing the very same note in order to make a harmonic change more expressive. Thus, not only may we do more shifts than technically necessary, but we might also make them very obvious, once again purely for expressive reasons. Repertoire examples for all these situations can be found on the Expressive Fingerings page.
WHY ARE GLISSANDI SO BEAUTIFUL?
The use of glissandi, the connection of notes by a left-hand finger slide, is one of the most beautiful expressive tools in music. This expressive power, that can make music so human, comes perhaps from an unconscious philosophical and emotional parallel with creating connections in life in general, not just between notes but between people, between peoples, between people and nature, and between the different conflicting elements within each one of us. A musician who doesn’t connect their notes (who doesn’t like glissandi) is a person who doesn’t look for connections. And an institution that doesn’t like glissandi is equally cold, aseptic,and unfriendly. How symbolic then – and how sad – to arrive for the first time in a professional orchestra and be told from the first day “no glissandi” (see Orchestral Playing).
CHOOSING OUR GLISSANDI: WHEN, WHERE, HOW MUCH, AND WHY ?
GLISSANDI AND STYLE (MUSICAL AND PERSONAL)
Even if we love glissandi, we mustn’t forget that the prominent expressive glissando is very much a romantic-and-afterwards phenomenon. Much of the music of the Classical and Baroque epochs (and before) was written for palaces and churches. Religious and royal decorum have never been renowned for their public shows of emotivitity and sensuality and often, in music of these styles, this expressive device is inappropriate and will need to be avoided (see below, section 5: “Avoiding Glissandi”). Before the Baroque period, most of the stringed instruments including the Lira (Viola) da Gamba and Lira da Braccio (precursors of the cello and violin family) had frets, so even if they had all wanted to, the only musicians who could really join the notes together with glissandi were singers and sackbut players (the sackbut was a precursor of the trombone). For this reason, in music of these early epochs we will probably only use expressive glissandi in passages that use a melodic, singing style (usually slow movements).
Choosing where we will do glissandi and how prominent we will make them is a lot like choosing what to wear, or what to say. It says a lot about both our sense of style, and our understanding of the different historical periods in music.
GLISSANDO UPWARDS OR DOWNWARDS?
Why is it that we so often (but not always) choose to do an expressive glissando upwards into the new note rather than downwards? Perhaps it is because in music, as in life, going “up” is normally associated with a rise in energy, tension and drama (working against the force of gravity), whereas going “down” is associated with release and relaxation (going with gravity). It is very curious that, even when our next note is lower than (or even at the same pitch as) the preceding note, we can still slide “up” into it not only with perfectly good taste, but even with great expressive effect. We use this technique very often, shifting “up” to the new note on the (lower) string instead of continuing down on the same string. Examples.
Of course there are many, many exceptions to this tendency to favour the upwards glissando. Perhaps the biggest, most “famous” downwards slide is the closing cadence of the cello solo introduction to the Elgar Concerto.
Shifting with consecutive up-down (or down-up) glissandi both to and from a note (or position) will often sound ugly or in bad taste, especially if the shifts are close together in time. Rather than a bird singing, this is more like a bird swooping, or a roller coaster ride, and can make us feel a little seasick. Normally, when shifting both to and from a note (or position) we will choose only one direction for the prominent, expressive glissando. In the following example, from the Second Movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, we will “hide” the downwards shift (see below for how to do this) but will do exactly the opposite for the upwards shift immediately afterwards.
- avoiding a “double glissando”
- favouring the upwards glissando instead of the downwards one.
We have several ways to avoid audible, prominent glissandi between the notes:
- relaxing our bow speed and pressure during the shift. This idea works equally well for slurred shifts (see Portato Shifting in Shifts and the Bow) as for shifts on a bow change
- articulating the “new” finger directly on the destination (target) note rather than sliding into it
- changing our fingering (finger the passage across the strings, or finger it so that the shifts come on bow changes).
In the previous musical example (Elgar Concerto Movt. II), we can use the first two methods to reduce the prominence of the downward glissando. And we will do the exact opposite to bring out the upwards glissando!
THE SECRET “RESONANCE GLISSANDO”: A MAGIC TRICK
When we have a short rest, silence or musical breath before a supposedly silent shift on the same string, the resonance of the previous note is often sufficiently strong that we can use it to make a secret, privately-audible glissando to the following note. This glissando is not part of the musical line (because it occurs during a “silence”) and nobody will hear it except the player, but it can be an invaluable aid to finding the new note safely and surely. This trick works the best for same-finger shifts as any change of finger during the glissando will dampen the string’s residual resonance and risks making the glissando inaudible.
We can also use this “trick” for silent shifts to another string. Here our resonance glissando is on the “old” string (and the “old” finger), enabling us to find the new position accurately:
When shifting down to the Neck Region we normally don’t have as much need for the resonance glissando because we “know” where our notes are in this region. But when shifting down to notes in the Intermediate Region (or to Thumbposition in any region) the resonance glissando can be very useful:
THE FRICTION FACTOR IN SLIDING SHIFTS
Fingerboards need to be absolutely uniformly smooth. If our fingerboard (and/or strings) are too slippery, too sticky or simply not uniformly resistant to the friction of the sliding fingers on the string, then we can have all sorts of problems with the control of our sliding position changes (glissandi). Imagine a fingerboard with oil or soap on it: this would be too slippery. In the opposite (frictional) direction, fingerboards can sometimes be too resistant to the sliding movements of the fingers. This could happen if the fingerboard was not smooth enough. Also, some strings have a fairly rough winding on them which creates additional drag. The normal cause of excessive “drag” however is not a problem of poor workmanship but rather a problem of accumulated sticky filth!
Over time, fingerboards (and strings) – like carpets, clothes and any exposed surfaces – tend to accumulate all the various dusts and dirts to which they are exposed. If we don’t clean our strings and fingerboard periodically with alcohol (with a make-up-removal cotton pad, a cloth, tissue etc), then we can find our shifting seriously disturbed by this sticky mess. It is astounding the amount of black-brown goo that comes off after a few months – especially after hot weather – and it is equally astounding how much our sliding finger contact is improved after this cleaning operation. We do however need to be careful not to get alcohol on any part of the cello’s body except the fingerboard: alcohol can damage the varnish unless removed immediately.