In faster pizzicatos, by definition, the problems are usually to do with speed, coordination and accuracy (plucking the correct string at the correct time) rather than with the quality of each individual note.
THE IMPORTANCE OF A STABLE POINT OF CONTACT FOR THE RIGHT HAND/ARM WITH THE CELLO
Trying to pluck the strings from a free-floating right-arm is a recipe for insecurity. For isolated pizzicato notes, or in slower pizzicato passages, it is our preparatory contact of the plucking finger with the string that gives us our positional security. In other words, if we have time to comfortably touch/find the string with our plucking finger before we pluck it, then this contact is perfectly sufficient to give us (right hand) positional security. However, in faster pizzicato passages in which by definition we don’t have time to make this preparatory contact, our right hand can easily become “lost in space” and we may therefore find ourselves plucking the wrong string, or two strings at once, especially in passages with many changes of strings. How can we avoid this?
THE USE OF THE THUMB AS STABILISER AND POSITIONAL REFERENCE
Try the following fast pizzicato passage:
A tightrope walker never loses contact with the high-wire. Likewise, in faster pizzicato passages it can be very helpful, for our right hand’s positional security, to maintain the thumb in permanent contact with the right edge of the fingerboard. This gives us simultaneously a fixed spatial reference as well as a stable point of anchor. In other words, even though we may not use it to pluck the strings in fast passages, the right hand thumb can be nevertheless vitally important in their smooth execution, thanks to this stabilising and securising contact with the fingerboard. As mentioned above, this is especially useful in faster pizzicatos because here, by definition, we don’t have the time to prepare the finger-string contact before each pluck. If we just let the arm float in the air (without this thumb contact), then we have no secure spatial reference. Without this “contact point”, it is hard to sense (feel) exactly where the right hand and fingers are in relation to the strings.
WHEN TO GLUE IT AND WHEN TO RELEASE IT?
Doing pizzicatos while having the thumb glued the the fingerboard edge is less visually interesting (expressive) than when the hand and arm are free to move. It feels mechanical, dry and restricted as we can have neither a beautiful approach to string nor a beautiful follow through after the note. This is why we only use this technique in faster pizzicatos, where the need for technical security, control and stability is primordial. Whenever we have enough time before and/or after the notes, we can once again release the thumb and allow the arm/hand to move freely and expressively as in the following examples from the Shostakovitch’s Piano Trio Op 67 where the curved arrow represents the follow-through that we can do when we have time before the next pizz:
AN ALTERNATIVE TO THE FIXED-THUMB ANCHOR POINT
Having the thumb glued to the edge of the fingerboard in faster pizzicato passages reduces our right-hand’s range of movement considerably. To avoid this, we could release the thumb and choose instead to have the right forearm touching the edge of the cello’s belly as an alternative means to achieve this necessary function of positional sense and stability. This frees up our right hand somewhat, allowing both hand and wrist a greater range of movement. Try the Brahms Symphony excerpt in this way also, as well as this page of fast pizzicato repertoire excerpts. The third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is all fast pizzicato. For a very practical “study” in fast pizzicatos, we can download the cello part from imslp.org and play along with a recording.
As with so many elements of cello playing (and life), for each different situation we need to balance the contrasting needs for “security and reliability” on the one hand with “freedom and expressiveness” on the other. Some people have a better sense of where their body parts are (kinesthetic sense) than others. Those lucky ones will have less need to maintain the thumb-fingerboard contact.
Guitarists (and bass players) would probably laugh at us cellists when they see how often we get tangled up in knots while struggling to play fast pizzicato passages with only one finger. Guitarists have many tricks to help them choreograph (play) fast plucked passages. Most of these “tricks” involve using more than one finger. Trying to do fast pizzicatos with only one finger is like trying to run fast with only one leg: a hopping race. There are multiple possibilities for using more than one finger in faster pizzicato passages:
1: THUMB-FINGER COMBINATIONS
Pizzicato passages with leaps across strings show us one the most simple ways to use two fingers: making use of the thumb on the lower string(s) while we use our normal pizz finger on the higher string. Because the thumb plucks the string in the opposite direction to the fingers, we can set up a very rapid alternating hand oscillation which uses both directions to pluck the notes. This can go much faster than anything we could ever do with one single finger alone. With the finger and thumb we can now run.
In the following examples of this use of the thumb as well as another finger, the arrows indicate the direction of the pizz movement. “F” means “pizz with a finger” and the inverted thumb symbol means “pizz with the thumb” :
The thumb/finger combination is also useful in dotted-rhythm figures, especially (but not exclusively) when the two notes of the figure are on different strings. In the following examples both situations are present:
2: MULTIPLE FINGER PIZZICATOS IN FASTER PASSAGES (NO STRING-CROSSING OSCILLATIONS)
In faster passages without the string crossing oscillations we may find it easier to use only the fingers (and not the thumb) to pluck with. We can (like guitarists) develop the skill of playing with 2 (or more) fingers to make the fast playing easier. This does not come easily so we need to develop it progressively as with the following very amusing coordination exercises. Use different combinations of plucking fingers (for example: 1-2, 2-1, 1-2-3, 3-2-1 etc) and finish off by playing simple scales with different combinations of plucking fingers.
3: SLOW MOTION GUITAR STRUM TECHNIQUE FOR BROKEN CHORDS
In broken chords we can sometimes play several notes consecutively with the same pizzicato movement. This is like a slow guitar strum, the pizzicato equivalent of a slur with the bow. This, in faster playing, is much easier than trying to pluck each note individually with a separate impulse. “F” means “pizz with the finger” .