FOR CELLISTS: AMATEUR, ASPIRING ............... AND CURIOUS

Bow String Crossings: Two Strings: Repertoire and Study Material

On the Basic String-Crossing page, the mechanics of simple crossings to a neighbouring string are dealt with in great detail, so we won’t repeat that discussion here. We will instead look now at specific examples of tricky (for the bow) 2-string crossing passages  and different ways of working on them.

On that “Basic” page, we looked at how to use chord sequences as the basis of a huge variety of bowing exercises for working on our string crossing skills. For 2-string passages, almost any series (progression) of double stops can be used for this task. Simple scales in thirds, sixths or octaves require neither written music nor imagination, and can be used anytime and anywhere as practice material. And following the same process but in reverse, almost any problematic string-crossing passage on two adjacent strings can be converted into a series of double stops which can then be used to make exercises to work on the original passage and on our crossing skills in general.

Although any double stop passage can be used to create string crossing exercises, the greatest isolation of the actual string crossing problems is achieved in those sequences in which there are neither position changes (shifts) nor hand contortions (extensions/contractions). This allows us to dedicate our entire attention to the string crossing problems and can be considered the “pure” starting point for working on the string crossing aspects of cello technique. Therefore double stopped scales in octaves, thirds or sixths, in spite of the convenience of not requiring written music, are not really the ideal starting material for working on our crossings because of their left-hand difficulties.

The absolute starting point is the complete elimination of the left hand component by playing the passage only on the open strings. This is a very pure way to work on a particularly complex passage, but is painfully boring for longer practice on our general string crossing skills. To make our work more interesting, we can add the left hand on only one of the strings: on the top string is easier because we don’t have to worry about our stopped fingers interfering with the other open string. We can use any pair of adjacent strings:

We could also have the left hand fingers placed only on the lower string, but here we need to be careful to play sufficiently on the finger-tips so that the fingers are not diisturbing the higher open string. What’s more, as we go up higher on the lower string we have the additional brain problem of coping with the unusual situation of playing higher notes on the lower string than on the top string (see Upsidedown String Crossings):

Of course real music is almost always a combination of technical factors (skills), in which the string crossing factors (for both the left and right hands) are mixed up (combined) with other “problems” such as shifts, extensions (contortions) and “music” (dynamics, bow articulations etc.). So adding these complexities into our “pure” exercises is not a problem but rather a natural progression. The following examples illustrates the addition of left hand technical complexities into basic 2-string-crossing material:

Piatti’s Caprice Nº 1 Op 25 is a study in broken doublestops that we present here simply as a doublestopped chord progression. It can be played as pure or broken doublestops, with any different variety of rhythms and bowings.

SLURRED STRING CROSSINGS ACROSS TWO STRINGS

For smooth, fluid crossings between adjacent strings, see the detailed discussion about “blurred” crossings on the Basic String-Crossing page.

RAPID SLURRED OSCILLATIONS

If we try the following repertoire examples, we can see that it helps to have the “beat” on the lower string (first 4 bars) as compared to when the beat coincides with the higher string (last 4 bars).

oscillation Bach III gigue

This is not surprising as the “beat” needs an impulse (accent) that feels much more natural when it coincides with a ” downwards” movement of the hand/wrist than an “upwards” movement. When the beat (pulse) comes regularly on the lower string, we can play these rapid oscillations more easily if we think of them more as a “accent” than as “fast string crossings”.

If the crossings come under a long slur, we can think “portato” (accents in the same bow, without stopping) rather than “fast crossings”.

portato crossings

Play the above example now starting on the higher string to see just how much more unnatural it feels.

For violinists (and violists) this phenomenon is inverted: it is easier for them to do these rapid slurred oscillations with the beat on the higher string, because their higher strings (pitch) are actually physically lower, which means that their accent/impulse comes more easily to the higher string, unlike for us cellists. Perhaps if Mozart had been a cellist instead of a violinist he might have written the following passages inverted (as in the second line):

moz both oscillations

In creating the “Easier Versions” of the cello transcriptions found in the Repertoire Library, we have sometimes made these adaptations in order to make these rapid string crossing oscillations somewhat more natural.

SPICCATO CROSSINGS

In dealing with spiccato string crossings we have a large overlap between the two subjects of “Spiccato” and “String Crossings”. When our bow is bouncing, the string crossing is doubly susceptible to the bow’s own inherent “desire” to go where it wants to go. During (and after) a downbow, the bow’s natural tendency is to want to go to the lower string, whereas during (and after) an upbow, its tendency is to want to go to the higher string. This subject is discussed in detail here.

CLOCKWISE OR ANTICLOCKWISE WRIST ROTATION ? BOUNCING BETWEEN TWO STRINGS

This is a very significant factor in achieving and maintaining the bounce in faster spiccatos. The clockwise wrist movement not only helps the bounce, it is in fact one of the essential ingredient required in order to get the bow bouncing. The anticlockwise movement by contrast, is a very efficient bounce-eliminator. The best way to see this is by doing some passages where the bow alternates between any two adjacent strings.

Lets start with some examples where the down bow is always on the upper string and the up bow on the lower string. Here the string crossings actually help the bow to bounce because they require the clockwise circular movement of the hand/wrist. We can gradually change from doing the exercise on two strings to only doing it on one (it doesn’t matter if it is the lower or the higher string of the pair) but we need to make surethat we keep the wrist circles going as if we were actually doing the exercise on the two strings. Feel how the bow actually wants to bounce.

Next, we will do the absolute opposite, using string crossings bowings which automatically impose the exact reverse wrist movement (an anticlockwise circular movement of the hand). Suddenly it becomes very difficult to make the bow bounce.

To take a musical example, in the following accompaniment passage from the first movement of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony Nº 6 (bars 29-53) we have 24 bars of uninterrupted semiquaver oscillations between the bottom two strings. Even though Beethoven didn’t write any dots over the notes we will probably want the bow to bounce because that will give clarity and articulation to the passage.

If we start with an “upbow” then we are are going with both the natural bouncing and crossing tendencies of the bow, in which case the bow will bounce and the passage will both sound clearly and be perfectly easy to play. If on the contrary we start with a “downbow” for whatever reason (perhaps because the Neolithic bowing bible says  “downbeat = downbow”) then we are bowing against both the natural bouncing and crossing tendencies of the bow, in which case the bow will not bounce and the passage will not only sound muddy but will also be very tense and uncomfortable to play for the right arm and shoulder.

These hand (wrist) circles are not however uniquely associated with oscillating string crossings. The oscillating string crossing just helps to make this phenomenon more unavoidably obvious. When playing short fast repeated bowstrokes on one string we can experiment with doing hand circles in these two opposite directions and observe (feel) the completely different consequences on the bow’s desire (or not) to bounce.

If we want our bow to bounce, then we need to do the clockwise hand rotation. If we want it to bounce even more, then we can exaggerate the verticality of this rotation. If we want it to bounce less, we should exaggerate the horizontality of this same rotation. Likewise, the best way to ensure that our bow doesn’t bounce at all (to achieve a  smooth legato), is by deliberately using the anticlockwise wrist movement. This phenomenon gives rise to some curious bowing situations in spiccato string-crossing passages where, in order to get the bounce, we need to put the up-bow on the beat where that would otherwise seem unnatural. This sometimes involves putting a little slur in somewhere to turn the bowings around:

The bowing complications get worse when we try to coordinate bowings with violins and violas. Because they hold their instruments upside-down (with respect to cellists and bassists) the bowing situation for bouncing string-crossings is the absolute reverse. While we need an up bow on the lower string in order to achieve the clockwise hand rotation, they need an up bow on the higher string to achieve this same rotation.

Especially when a crossing is in the opposite direction to where the bow wants to go, we really need to make double the effort in order to control the crossing and part of that effort is in knowing which way the bow is going on the crossing (downbow or upbow). Spiccato crossing exercises in 9/8 time are useful in this regard because of the alternation of bow directions and beat accents. We can improvise a huge variety of 9/8 note patterns, on any doublestop sequence, for example: