Although we talk a lot about the wrist in the articles dedicated to Bow Changes, Bow Trajectory and Bow Hold, the wrist deserves its own special page because this complex articulation connecting the hand to the arm, is like a magic key that unlocks the door to the wonderful world of Right Arm (Bow) flexibility and fluidity.
The wrist joint is very complicated, as anyone who has ever broken their wrist will know (there are 8 bones in there). It is the most complicated joint in the human body. So why does it have so many bones? Why is it so complicated ? It is all these things in order to allow the enormous flexibility that the human hand needs to operate our sophisticated tools (of which the bow is perhaps the most ultra-sophisticated). The eight little bones of the wrist allow the hand to move in every direction independently of the arm: up (flexion) … down (extension) … left … right … and also to combine these directions to make circular movements in both clockwise and anticlockwise directions. In this sense, the wrist is rather like the neck, except that the wrist – unlike the neck – doesn’t allow the hand to rotate independently from the arm.
This flexibility (fluidity) in our use of the right hand and arm is one of the most important aspects of both musicality and a good cello technique. A stiff, wooden right arm makes it so much more difficult to play a string instrument well. Smooth bow changes, starts, stops and crossings along with a beautiful sound and delicate control of dynamics (and articulations), are just some of the treasures that unblocking our wrist can give us access to.
Here are some very simple basic exercise models that do wonders for for freeing up the wrist. Improvise with these rhythms on any note sequences, but pay attention mostly to the wrist, which must move freely, amply and vigourously. Try them in every part of the bow, but be aware that the entire back and forth movement should be done by the wrist and fingers alone. The rest of the right arm should basically do nothing other than support the wrist (and change the arm level for the string crossings). In the first exercise, the downbow has the energetic impulse whereas the upbow is just the passive “bounce-back”. In the other two exercises the up and downbows are evenly balanced.
Bowchanges, spiccato and string crossings all benefit greatly from a mobile, flexible and strong wrist. Along with the exercises shown above, another of the best ways to encourage – even oblige – our right wrist to develop these qualities is by practicing material that uses spiccato and/or string crossings. And if we combine the three (bowchanges + spiccato + string crossing) in our practice material, then we will be giving the wrist a triply efficient workout!!
THE UTILITY OF A FLEXION/EXTENSION COMPONENT IN WRIST MOVEMENT AND HOW TO ACHIEVE IT
Even when our bow changes are all on the same string, the above examples work much better when we incorporate a flexion/extension component into our wrist movement rather than doing the bow changes exclusively in a right-left horizontal (downbow-upbow) axis. “Flexion/extension” is another way of describing the up-down movement that we make with the hand when our palm and forearm are parallel to the ground. Rotating (turning) the hand slightly in an anti-clockwise direction (called pronation) on the bow is a simple way to allow the incorporation of this magical “floppy wrist” flexibility axis into our bow changes. If we don’t do this “pronation” then the flexion/extension movement of the wrist is at 90º to the upbow/downbow axis, which means that it is no use at all in our bow changes.
This point is so important that it deserves to be explained twice for maximum clarity, so, in other words now, the problem caused by keeping the wrist flat (the hand un-pronated on the bow), is that it eliminates the possibility of using the “up-down” flexibility of the hand at the wrist (the floppy-wrist syndrome) for anything other than string crossings. With the wrist “flat” during a normal bow change, we are limited to using the “left-right” flexibility of the wrist. This is a shame because the wrist is so much more flexible in the up-down (flexion-extension) axis than in the left-right axis.
Surprisingly, even tremolo can often benefit from the incorporation of this vertical wrist component into the standard “left/right” movement axis. The flexion/extension movement is so natural and effortless that its use in long tremolo passages makes them significantly less strain for the right hand and arm. But it is not only fast bow changes that benefit from this pronation and the corresponding use of flexion/extension wrist movement: almost all aspects of our bowing technique can be helped by this little postural trick. Adding this movement (“flexibility vector”) to our bow technique is like adding oil to dried up machinery, a cushion for a hard surface, carpet onto a hard floor etc. In fact, this movement is probably almost as important for our right hand expressivity as vibrato is for our left hand expressivity. With this movement, our bow arm becomes a dancer rather than a backwards-and-forwards machine.
This took me a long time to realise as my main cello teachers had all advised “keep your right wrist flat” (on any one string). It worked for them and it certainly worked for Tortelier also ………. but the flat wrist caused this writer general bowing stiffness, inhibition, mechanicalness and discomfort, all of which amplified to catastrophic blockage on the upbow! Perhaps these teachers – all male and muscular – were afraid of the floppy wrist? I have never seen this rigidity – neither of wrist nor of mind – in women cellists!!
Having looked at bow changes, let’s look now at the ways in which this same wrist movement helps other aspects of our bowing technique:
UTILITY OF WRIST FLEXION/EXTENSION IN OUR BASIC BOW TRAJECTORY
Adding a little bit of this flexion/extension movement of the wrist, combined with its pronation, adds a whole new world (well, one more axis, to be exact) of movement and flexibility to our basic bow trajectory. It does this mainly by acting as a facilitator, a fluidifier, for whatever will happen at the end of the bowstroke. Any bow stroke ends in one of three ways, only one of which is a bowchange:
- we take the bow off the string
- we relax the pressure and leave it hovering (floating) weightlessly on the string, awaiting a new bowstroke
- we change the bow’s direction
We have talked already about how the wrist flexion/extension can help bow changes, but this same movement actually helps with the other two end-of-bow events also. So let’s remind ourselves again just what are these helpful movements:
1. allowing the wrist to rise up during the upbow (“flexion”), especially at the frog.
2. allowing the wrist to do the exact opposite (i.e. collapse, or, in anatomical terms “go into extension”) when we are at the tip of the bow, especially on the higher strings. This movement, apart from giving flexibility, also removes a lot of tension from the hand when playing at the tip of the bow.
UTILITY OF WRIST FLEXION/EXTENSION IN BOW STARTS AND FINISHES
When we start a gentle, slow downbow stroke, we can use this wrist movement as a “clutch” to give us a nice gentle fluid flowing start rather than an abrupt blastoff. If we have the wrist slightly flexed (raised) before we start moving the bow, then our arm movement can start at the wrist with the removal of this wrist flexion (in other words, we start the arm movement by flattening our wrist) before the bow actually starts moving. In this way we can start our note rather like a singer – in a very natural, beautiful way in which the moment in which the sound actually begins is almost imperceptible. Singers start to expel air before their note begins to sound. With this little wrist trick, we can do the string-players equivalent: starting to move our arm before our bow begins to move.
This same wrist movement – but in reverse – greatly facilitates the difficult bow technique of gentle note-finishes on an upbow in which we want to finish ppp and lift our bow smoothly off the string. Here, it is the ending of the note which can be made beautifully imperceptible, thanks to the continuation of the wrist flexion as we diminuendo and lift the bow off the string.
UTILITY OF WRIST FLEXION/EXTENSION IN FLYING UPBEATS: LOADING THE SPRING
Try the following little exercise, loudly and energetically. The bow movement is made only with the wrist and hand. There is as much time between the notes as we need to be absolutely comfortable:
In order to play these flying upbeats (not to be confused with flying upbow staccato nor spiccato) with energy, vigour and freedom of movement, we need to “load the spring” before we play each note, so that the energy is released in a sudden and short impulse. The effect of sudden release of high energy is like a gunshot, a catapult, a mousetrap etc. If we incorporate our flexion/extension wrist movement axis into this spring-loading then we can achieve these energetic flying upbeats much better than if we were only to use our left/right wrist axis. Loading the spring is done therefore by putting the wrist into considerable flexion (as well as being displaced to the right) before we start the bow stroke. In each short bowstroke, this flexion is suddenly released and the wrist goes into extension. Exaggerating both the amount of flexion before the bowstroke and the amount of extension after the bowstroke, is a good way to encourage the wrist to be free, energetic and expressive.
We can also try this exercise with all downbows to experiment with how we “load the spring” for the short downbow explosions. Do we do this in the exact opposite way – by starting in extreme extension and with the wrist displaced to the left?
COMBINATION OF VERTICAL AND HORIZONTAL = LOOPS
The combination of “flexion-extension” movements of the wrist with the “left-right” movements of wrist and fingers, produces “loops”: circular or elliptical shapes. These loops are made by the right hand most clearly in the transformation period at the end of each bowstroke, when we either remove the bow from the string or start a new bowstroke. We have only two possible loop directions – clockwise or anti-clockwise – and normally our favorite loop direction with the bowhand (for unknown anatomical reasons) is clockwise, rather than anti-clockwise. Certainly, in the above example, the upbow “flicks” undoubtably make clockwise loops. Try now the same exercise but with all the notes on downbows. Are our loops clockwise or anticlockwise?
The clockwise wrist loop definitely favours spiccato and string crossings, while anti-clockwise loops strongly inhibit the bow’s bounce. We really need to be aware of this so that we can choose our wrist-loop direction according to the effect we want to achieve: trying to do spiccato with anti-clockwise wrist loops is destined to failure, whereas a nice smooth on-the-string tremolo will be greatly favoured by this loop direction (see Spiccato and String Crossings).
MISCELLANEOUS POINTS TO DO WITH WRIST FLEXION/EXTENSION
- when we raise the wrist at the frog, the fingers/hand can actually point slightly more to the right (away from the body), whereas at the tip of the bow, when we “collapse” the wrist, the fingers/hand can point slightly towards the left.
- at the frog, if we raise the wrist slightly, the hand can “hang ” a little from the wrist – especially in soft playing.
- when we are coming in towards the frog on the up-bow on the C-string, we may find our wrist colliding with the corner of the cello’s body. This is because the ergonomically comfortable “flat” wrist that most cellists (unlike violinists) tend to favour in the upper half of the bow, just doesn’t give our hand enough clearance to pass over the obstacle of the protruding point at the cello’s “waist”. This problem only occurs on the C-string and is at its worst in soft playing (because the point of contact of the bow is further over the fingerboard). To avoid this problem, when coming in towards the frog on an up-bow, we may need to use a higher (more arched) wrist on the C-string than on the other strings. To get used to this “unnatural” posture, we could practice the exercises given at the top of this page, but always on the C-string, and always exactly in that part of the bow where our hand is closest to hitting the side of the cello.