When the cello is played well, it is an extraordinarily beautiful, wonderful instrument. But making it sound like that is not an easy task. In fact, playing the cello well, is an extremely complicated activity requiring a combination of specific and highly developed physical, intellectual and emotional skills that very few other activities come anywhere near to. On this page we will be looking at the physical skills required for “good” cello playing: which we generally refer to as “technique”.
An instrument, like a language, is best (easiest) learned young. A child who has the luck to have a fine teacher, can grow with, and adapt to the instrument intuitively and effortlessly, learning and mastering the instrument with relative ease and naturalness largely through copying. After the end of childhood, however, learning and improving our instrumental skills becomes a much more difficult task. It requires more conscious effort and more intellectual understanding (see Pedagogy).
Working it out for ourselves, solving the constant variety of playing problems which we face, requires a large dose of scientific method (as well as lots of intuition and copying). Often we need to be like a doctor, looking constantly for the correct diagnosis for each of the many problems we will encounter. But unfortunately, we are like a doctor “in reverse” because, unlike for life, the default position for cello playing is zero ….. off ……. nothing …… horrible !
Nobody is born playing the cello. This is an unnatural activity that we have to make natural. So, rather than being like a doctor and restoring someone to their natural, healthy state, we are like a building engineer, creating an extremely complex building from nothing, using our body, our intelligence, our emotions, our instrument and some vague plans that the composer has left us. Our job is not only to construct that building in such a way that it be both strong and beautiful, but also we have to then permanently maintain and reinforce it to resist the forces of nature which would tend to make it fall down over time. And on top of all that we have to make the process look (and feel) easy and natural !!
TECHNICIAN OR ARTIST?
Every human life (especially our secret imaginary inner life) is an emotional drama worthy of a novel, and because of this, we are all potentially great artists. In the Musicality/Interpretation section, there is a large area devoted to Psychology which deals with this fundamental component of artistry. However, great artists don’t only need to have great things to say, they need also to have a great technique in order to be able to say them. Having something great to say is not usually the part of artistry that we are lacking: we all have plenty to say …….. we just don’t have the tools (technique) to say it. The great teacher Ivan Galamian, about whom it was said “he could teach a table how to play the violin” used to say to his students “when you practice, don’t play from your heart” !
Mechanical skill is necessary in order to be able to express the emotions that we all have (i.e to play “musically). Without these mechanical skills, even the most sensitive, artistic, poetic, musical person will struggle to make the music sound as they would like it to. And in fact, the more sensitive the musician, the more painfully they will suffer the lack of these mechanical skills. Instrumental technique opens the door to communication, allowing us to express, through music and our instrument, all the depth and richness of our inner lives. Improving our technique doesn’t improve or influence what we have to say (our inner emotional life) …… but it can do a huge amount to give us the tools to express whatever we do have in there. And that is the objective of this “Technique” section.
Here we are talking about “simple” physical, mechanical, technical skills. About how to make the instrument feel like a natural extension of our body in the same way that driving a car (or bicycle) ideally becomes eventually a completely natural, comfortable – and thus easy – activity.
REPETITION AND HOURS AND HOURS AND HOURS …….
Every cellist – just like every athlete – has practised their craft for thousands of hours in order to automatise and make easy, the complex movements involved in playing. In fact, researchers have compared the number of hours of practice required to acquire various different skills. Learning to drive a car requires dozens of hours, learning a language hundreds of hours, mastering tennis requires several thousand hours, but mastering an instrument – especially a string instrument – requires tens of thousands of hours. More hours in fact than almost any other skill. And these are not hours spent thinking about musical factors such as phrasing, harmony, interpretation, musical style etc but rather hours of actual playing, of technical, physical, mind-numbing, repetitive work.
But it’s not just the number of hours that makes the difference. Ten thousand hours of playing is no guarantee of becoming a good instrumentalist. What we practice, and how we do it is supremely important. Breaking down the problems into their simpler components and then acquiring the necessary skills in small manageable steps, makes the difficult job of learning the instrument more enjoyable. It is this process that converts “The Art of Playing the Cello” into “The Science of Playing the Cello”.
ART, SCIENCE AND MAGIC
Let’s talk for a moment about the difference between “Art” and “Science”. Throughout history, anything that was not understood, was automatically considered as religion, magic or art. Centuries ago – in the “Dark Ages” – so little was understood that almost everything fell into these three categories. But little by little, as our understanding of the world has deepened, science has pushed back the triple frontiers of magic, art and religion.
In the same way that the science of chemistry began as the magic art of “alchemy”, instrumental technique can evolve from being an “Art” to being a “Science”. We might start off by considering good playing as an “Art” as in, for example, “The Art of Bowing ….. Fingering ……. Cello Playing ….. Vibrato …. Shifting etc “, but ultimately it will be a sign of progress if we can also convert this art into “The Science of Bowing ….. Fingering … etc”. This definitely doesn’t imply that we are taking the “Art” out of music. It just means that, in our practice sessions, and in learning the cello in general, we can separate artistry from technique. “Artistry” has basically two components: on the one hand, our inner emotional life and on the other hand, the way we communicate with others. Let’s consider “Artistry” then as belonging to the Psychology department, and “Technique” as belonging to the science department. When we put the two together …….. that is when we get pure magic!
In fact, magicians and string players have a lot in common. Both are considered “artists” but both in fact need to be first and foremost very highly skilled technicians. Magicians can explain and teach their “magic” tricks ……… likewise, musicians can often (but not always) explain and teach the “secrets” of their musical craft. We can and should treat all aspects of cello technique in the same way that magicians treat their magic tricks – but without the need for secrecy.
CHEMISTRY AND COOKING
Chemists can analyse any substance to find out what its basic ingredients are. Cooks (chefs) know which raw materials have gone into the preparation of their delicious dishes. Music is a lot like both chemistry and cooking: the finished product is made up of many different ingredients, combined in different proportions and all prepared in special ways. The “consumers” of this finished product (the listeners, in the case of music) don’t need to know about how it was made in order to enjoy it …….. but those who make it do (usually) need to know how they made it, in order to be able to reproduce it again.
Making music, like cooking, involves two processes:
- the writing of the “recipe” (the act of composition) and
- the practical act of preparing the ingredients and doing the actual cooking.
We instrumentalists are the food-preparers – the vegetable choppers: we don’t need to know why or how the recipe was made (composed) but we do need to have the tools, ingredients and know-how necessary to follow the instructions, bring it to life and to make it taste (sound) wonderful every time. In order to play well, we need to know – either consciously or intuitively – how to solve the many diverse technical problems that can cause any passage (or any note) to not sound good.
ANALYSIS OF TECHNIQUE
In the same way that a chemist (or a cook) can analyse a finished product, breaking it down into its basic components, we cellists can analyse our technical problems, breaking them down into their simplest components in order to be able to work on them more efficiently. The alternative is a little like banging our head against a wall: practising for hours and hours and hours and just hoping that it will all work out with lots of effort, natural talent (and a very hard head!). For some people of course this old-fashioned method does work out – they are the lucky ones. But even the most naturally talented instrumentalists will always find some problem that their talent alone cannot get them through. An analysis of technical needs and problems resembles both the root system and the branch system of a tree: the deeper (or the higher) we go, the more the system divides into smaller and smaller sub-branches. The Technique section is divided up into four principal areas:
Ideally and ultimately, for every technical problem (or, in other words, for every specialised skill) – small or big, difficult or easy – several different types of material will be available, allowing us to approach it from the complementary angles of both intellectual understanding and physical mastery:
1: Intellectual Understanding
- a scientific analysis of what the difficulties really are
- an effort to present the problem (and its solution) in non-scientific terms using analogies taken from other aspects of life
2: Physical Mastery (Practice Material):
We can divide our practice material into “Mechanical Exercises” (to start with), “Music” (to finish with), and “Studies” (a halfway point between the two). To elaborate on this a little, and to place these three categories in a pedagogical order:
- “Mechanical Exercises” (drills): this is highly concentrated material, specifically designed to both illustrate and work on any technical problem in its purest, most isolated form possible. Here, we are in our laboratory and are looking at our problem “under a microscope” (and with the maximum possible magnification). This is purely mechanical work with zero “musical” (emotional) content. This type of work is the equivalent of an athlete working carefully and slowly on a particular gesture/movement/aspect of their sport.
- An ideal “Study” is somewhat more diluted and, hopefully, a little more enjoyable than our simple exercises because it incorporates some more interesting musical content (rhythm and harmony) while still remaining very focused on our specific problem. Sometimes we can make a “Study” by simply finding a nice key progression for our basic exercises and adding some rhythmic or articulation interest.
- “Repertoire Excerpt Compilations” are collections of material from the repertoire in which our problem appears. These excerpts can often serve as the basis for our exercises (and even for our studies) and are the ultimate test of our level of skill. Now we are out of the laboratory and into real life!
Studies (and long sequences of exercises that move through the different keys) are the equivalent of a swimmer swimming laps. To swim really well, it is not enough to “know” how to swim: a swimmer has to put in hours and hours of physical, muscular, repetitive mechanical “practice”. Swimmers can switch their brains onto “standby mode” while doing laps. We cellists can switch off our emotions entirely in this technical material, but not our brains, as we need to control (check) our intonation, to know at all times what notes we are playing, and to control our rhythm.
The “Technique” (instrumental skills) section of the cellofun website is enormous, like an encyclopedia or a tree of knowledge, but the most important concepts for working on our mechanical technique are actually very simple:
- use a metronome
- practise the material without emotivity, saving our nervous energy for “musical” situations. Use only a small, relaxed, slow vibrato (a wide, intense, fast vibrato is often a mask to cover up insecurity)
- practice complicated tasks slowly at first, without any tension
ON THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE LEFT AND RIGHT HANDS
The two hands are in many ways like yin and yang …. male and female …… particles and waves …… the right and left sides of the brain ……. analysis and intuition …….. science and art: opposites that need and complement each other, working and combining together in every conceivable way to bring about miracles. Each note of the lefthand is a discrete entity, easily separated and distinguished from the other notes around it, sounded by the placing of one finger. In this sense, the left hand is like a numerical computer, a keyboard, a scientist or mathematician. In contrast to this is the righthand/arm, which works more like a holistic artist, a dancer, sculptor or painter, thinking more in dynamic waves and operating normally with larger, continuous, and connected gestures rather than in separate discrete particles.
It is very easy, especially for the male brain, to become overly focused on the left hand, to the detriment of all of the things that come primarily from the right hand (such as sound quality, colours, dynamics, musicality etc.) We can see the same tendency in pianists: there are those (usually men) who can play thousands of notes but will play all of them with little sensitivity, and then there are those pianists (often women) who play much fewer notes but whose every note is a jewel of expressivity and sensitivity.
One of the reasons we might tend to focus our attention so much on the lefthand is that it is so much easier to see and hear what is going on with that hand than with the right hand. Each note from the lefthand is a clear objective that we can work on, whereas with the righthand the information flow – both visual and auditory – is more continuous and much more complex to observe, with fewer discrete moments to focus our attention on. Is it any wonder that the more mathematical, left-hand-oriented string players tend to be quite good at Stravinsyesque spiccato, because in spiccato, finally, the right hand is also working with discrete entities!
The visual difficulties in observing our right hand/arm while we are playing also favour a bias towards giving our attention to the lefthand. The lefthand is sufficiently compact that, while playing, we can easily focus our eyes on it. In contrast to this is the righthand/arm/bow which occupies so much space and moves through such large distances that it just doesn’t fit into our own field of vision while we are playing. This means that if we want to focus on our rightarm/hand while we are playing we need to decide which part of it we will focus on: either the hand/wrist, the point of contact, or the tip.
If we want to focus our eyes permanently on the tip of the bow or the frog then our head (or at least our eyes) will need to turn sideways with every full bowstroke! Only when we fix our attention on the point of contact do we not need to move our head. To be able to observe the full rightarm/hand/bow unit we need to get further away. This is not a problem if we are observing other cellists, but to see our own right hand/arm/bow in its globality we will need either to look at ourselves in a mirror while playing or to watch video recordings of ourselves.
Ivan Galamian – who Leonard Rose described as being his most invaluable teacher – insisted that more than 80% of “good playing” comes from the righthand/arm.