Strength – Flexibility – Stability – Security – Freedom
A healthy balance of these fundamental elements of engineering, ergonomics and life in general, is vital for good cello playing. Too much, or too little, of any one of these elements, can be a problem for our playing. Let’s look at them one by one:
“Strength” can be usefully divided into two types:
- endurance (fitness): the type of strength that allows us to withstand thousands of fast, repetitive movements without muscular exhaustion and injury. This is the strength we need to play prolonged fast passages
- power (weightlifters’ strength): that which allows us to exert great force and maintain sustained muscle loads, often with quite slow movements. This is the strength we need to play long passages in doublestops and to sustain long forte passages
Musicians are high-performance athletes ……. but of the small muscles. Most of the time, but especially for fast playing, our fingers need to be more like world-class decathlon athletes, dancers, gymnasts or acrobats rather than olympic weight-lifters. Big, bulky muscles might look good in the mirror but they tend to make people stiff and “muscle-bound” which is not particularly useful for musicians. Although the muscular power we need to play the cello is considerably more than what is needed to play the violin, the cellist’s strength must be coupled with enormous flexibility and speed (= agility) as well.
This is not to say that we don’t all need to look after and exercise our large muscle groups (back, legs, shoulders etc.). Even though it is our hands that require the most strength-and-endurance training, our large muscle groups need to be strong, fit and flexible in order to help the hands do their hard work. Unfortunately, musicians often have a tendency to neglect their general body fitness and strength. Almost certainly, one hour per day taken away from our practice to devote to general physical exercise will benefit our playing more than if we had just practised for that extra hour.
The best way to develop strength in the hands is simply by practicing. Studies are often relentless and are thus usually good training material for strength/endurance. Normally our need for strength training is greater for the left hand than for the right hand. This is because what the right-hand does at the cello is normally well within its strength capabilities for normal life. Nothing however in normal life prepares the left-hand fingers for what they need to do at the cello. While we need to work hard to build up the left hand’s strength, for the right hand we need to do almost the contrary: working especially on delicacy, control, flexibility and sensitivity.
Doublestops in general are like a power workout for the left hand and the Cossmann Double-Trill Exercises, in all the cello’s fingerboard regions, are like perfectly designed weightlifting machines. Strength in thumbposition tends to be a weak point for many cellists and this can be remedied by doublestopped exercises and studies (for example Popper High School Nº 13 which is constantly in thumbposition doublestops).
For the right hand and arm it is usually the wrist and fingers that tend to get tired, especially in long fast spiccato passages across strings, so, obviously, string-crossing studies, played with a loud fast spiccato (with lots of finger and wrist movement) are good training material to develop strength. We need to be careful in choosing how widely to space our fingers for our bowhold. When we spread out our fingers widely on the bow we gain leverage and power (strength), but at the risk of losing flexibility. When, by contrast, the fingers are closer together, we gain stability and flexibility but possibly lose some power and some control (see Bowhold).
For the left-hand the situation is quite different because we don’t need this leverage power. The more closely we keep the left-hand fingers bunched up together, the more they support and reinforce each other. In fact, keeping the hand compact (with the fingers bunched up closely together) not only gives the fingers of the left-hand maximum playing strength but also maximum flexibility, maximum stability and minimum tension. The only reason to ever open out the left-hand fingers (extensions) is to be able to reach more notes within the hand’s range (without shifting).
Playing the cello requires constant juggling and balancing between the need for strength and the need for flexibility. While strength is produced by working the muscles, flexibility is produced by stretching them. Muscles that are only trained (worked) but never stretched just get tighter and tighter. As a general rule, female musicians and sportswomen tend more towards having an excess of flexibility and a deficit in strength, whereas males are more likely to show exactly the opposite condition. In both cases, the imbalance between strength and flexibility can cause repetitive strain-type injuries. So, in fact, it is the ladies who need to go and pump weights while the men need to do Yoga! Unfortunately, this seems to go against our inner natures: most men prefer a hard, physical, muscle-building workout to a Yoga session, and vice versa for the ladies, so nature seems to want us to do what was suitable for the Stone Age rather than what we really need nowadays! See Male/Female.
HOW TO STRETCH
There are several important things to remember in order to stretch in the most beneficial, efficient way, and thus not hurt ourselves: these are the basic principles of Yoga.
stretch gently (no forcing) ……… maintain each stretch …….. breathe as you hold the stretch
STABILITY + SECURITY (+ STRENGTH + FLEXIBILITY) = FREEDOM
Stability and security are almost the direct consequence of a good balance between strength and flexibility. If our hands and fingers are both strong and flexible – and if the movements we make with them are reasonably ergonomic – then we will feel that our hands (and our playing) are stable, solid, reliable, easily controlled. This gives us a sense of freedom and ease at the instrument.
If, on the other hand, our hands and fingers are weak (or stiff and muscle-bound) then it will be very difficult for our movements to be ergonomic, and our feeling will be one of instability and insecurity: of lurching from one position to the next, from one note to the next, of being always close to an accident, of the need for great effort in order to keep control of the hands.
Instability in buildings is seen: they wobble and fall. Instability in a cellists hands or fingers is not only seen (as stiffness, jerkiness, difficulty, strain and a general lack of control) but is also immediately heard: as bad sound and bad intonation. If we don’t have a feeling of stability in our hands then it is very difficult to play well. It is as though we were trying to play while drunk, or with a neurological disorder.
ON THE VALUE OF A COMPACT LEFT-HAND
One immediate and easy way to assure a maximum of stability is simply to keep the hands compact. When the fingers are close together (i.e. when the hand is compact) we have great stability and very low tension. This lack of tension and strain usually means that the hand, in this compact position, is also at its most flexible. Keeping both hands in this compact position as much as possible is a very useful fundamental concept for good, sustainable, relaxed, ergonomic string playing.
For the left hand, this means maintaining our Extensions for only the minimum necessary time and no more. We can also choose our Fingerings To Avoid Extensions. See also “Bowhold” and “The Paw or the Claw“