The Anticipation Principle In String Playing

The orange (middle light) on traffic lights represents a giant evolutionary step forward in human intelligence. Only the most primitive human systems (and computers) function exclusively with a simple autistic binary logic of yes/no (or stop/go). Initially, the orange light was used only as an anticipation of the stop sign, but nowadays the most highly evolved traffic-light engineers make use of the preparatory orange light before both the “yes” (starting) and the “no” (stopping) actions. These preparatory phases make movements fluid and comfortable that would otherwise tend to be stiff, jerky and mechanical. It is this anticipation, this preparation of a movement, that makes the difference between it being brutal or beautiful, abrupt or smooth, difficult or easy.

Other words that we could use to describe these fundamental situations in which two or more “events/actions/movements” merge into one another are “overlap” and “fade in/fade out”. It is this overlapping, this merging/blending that makes changes smooth. Overlap is a phenomenon found very much in the living world, but also in natural cycles. Think for example about the seasons and how the relative lengths of night and day anticipate the depths of winter cold and the heights of summer heat: the shortest day comes well before the coldest period of winter and the longest days of summer come well before the hottest days. This overlap cushions the change of the seasons. It has the same effect as a shock absorber in a vehicle – it makes the “bumps” smoother. When we are in the depths of a frozen winter, the extra daylight hours are already announcing the arrival of spring, and vice versa for the end of summer.

When vehicles or living creatures start moving, they gradually accelerate, rather than going from immobile to cruise speed instantaneously, and the same phenomenon happens in reverse when stopping. When we turn on a tap also, the flow increases gradually as we open the tap more, and vice versa when we turn it off which is in direct contrast to using an electrical switch, in which case the on/off effect is immediate. Even in the silent, static world of shapes and architecture, the anticipation/overlap principle can be seen as a fundamental means of expression of artistic and emotive humanity, with curves softening the abrupt contours of straight lines and right angles. And think also about the delicate beauty of watercolours, in which the borders between one colour and another blend together imperceptibly ….

Getting back to movements, and to cello-playing in particular, anticipation is a fundamental component of overlap. It is the anticipation of a change that allows/creates the overlap between one movement and another. In the case of the seasons, day-length anticipates the change of seasons by at least a month. We use exactly the same concept in many of our movements at the cello, especially when we have to quickly and smoothly change direction completely (180º) such as in Bow Changes.

As a general rule, every potentially abrupt change of body position can be helped if preceded by anticipatory, preparatory movements in order to make the change smooth, fluid and thus easy. Anticipation is like preparing for a voyage: in order to avoid last-minute panics, missed connections and other disasters that are so often caused by a lack of sufficient foresight and planning, it helps to know what is coming and thus be always one step ahead.

Anticipation is one of the most important components of fast playing and is what can make even the most difficult shifting, string crossing or bow-change passages look, feel, and sound easy. But anticipation is also one of the most important components of beautifully smooth and delicate playing.

When our note-starts are “prepared”, they can begin gently, organically, like living beings. Having the body already comfortably in place (and perhaps also already involved in a preparatory movement) before we actually start to play the note can not only make even the most simple Slow Pizzicato or Bowed Note Start beautiful, but also makes their rhythmic placement simultaneously more flexible and easily controlled.

The simple fact of placing the bow on the string – or perhaps better said, lightly touching the bow to the string – a tiny moment before we start to play, makes a huge difference to our control of that note start. This is always important, but is particularly necessary when the bow is coming “from the air” (which can be after a silence, after a spiccato note or simply after a string crossing). If we don’t do this preliminary touching of the bow to the string then we risk some rough note starts. This is especially important when going over to the A string from a lower string, as the A string tends to be much more strident than the lower strings.


But it is not only for speed and smoothness that anticipation is important. For clean, crisp, accented bowing articulations also (the opposite of smoothness) it is important that the bow is gripping the string before we start the note. This is especially noticeable (and necessary) for the short notes in Dotted Rhythms. This also is an anticipatory movement.


Does the word  “coordination” mean simply “doing things at the same time”? No ! Often it actually means the contrary. Separating a complex movement into a flowing succession (chain) of its different components can make that complex movement easier to coordinate. Usually, this means anticipating certain movements – doing them before they would seem to be strictly necessary according to the rhythm and the music. These movements can thus be considered as “preparatory movements”. Some very good examples of this can be found in the timing of our finger articulations. Play the following progression:


Notice how we prepare (place) the lower finger always slightly before we need it. This means that there is only one movement associated with the sounding of the lower finger:  the release of the higher finger. Because we have already placed the lower finger previously, we don’t need to worry about coordinating the higher finger’s release with the articulation of the lower finger. This allows us to separate and streamline the movements in a smooth flowing chain, which is a great advantage. If we don’t have the lower finger prepared, we can get into a tangle in faster passages. In the following example, the arrow indicates that we should already have the first finger down (stopped) and in position one tone below the second finger, in preparation for its imminent sounding:

prep lower finger fast haydn exmpl

Of course we can’t always do this. This luxury of being able to prepare our new finger in advance is not possible in a slurred ascending passage on the same string because the placement of the new finger would be heard (see bar 1 of the following example). If however there is a space (silence) between the notes, then we can prepare the new higher finger (bars 3 and 4 of the following example). And even when there is no official “written” rest between the notes, sometimes the simple bow change gives us enough time to do this. In the second bar of the following example we can observe our finger articulation timing: don’t the new fingers articulate a few nanoseconds ahead of the new bow starts???



This identical principle can be seen very clearly in our Left-Hand String Crossings. Let’s take the example of a downward scale across open strings and look at how we anticipate the placement of the new finger on the new string.

preparation artic higest finger scale down

Here, the placement of the highest finger on the lower string does NOT coincide with the bow’s change of string but rather anticipates it. Thus instead of the string crossing and new finger articulation being simultaneous, they are “staggered” or, in other words successive (separated). This may sound difficult but in fact, this separation of Left-Hand String Crossing and Right-Hand String Crossing is the key to making the crossing easier. It may not seem to make a huge difference in slow playing, but it certainly does for fast playing, which now becomes smooth and flowing. Of course, in order for this type of anticipatory (preparatory) movement to become automatic, we need to practice it first at slower speeds.

We used the scale with open string/thumb, and no position change, in our example above because it is the easiest case to start with. But, in fact, we use this same left-hand string crossing anticipation technique almost always when we change to a new string: with shifts or without, to a higher finger or to a lower finger, and to a higher string or to a lower string as in the following examples:

 preparation artic LH crossing


Above, we have looked at finger anticipation in “broken doublestops”. Exactly the same principle applies to “real” doublestops. Sometimes in doublestops we will place both the fingers simultaneously – in anticipation of the bow, of course. This is especially common when we have plenty of time to do so comfortably:

dble stop together artic bach 3

At other times however it may be helpful to place the two fingers at different times. Normally this means, exactly as with the left-hand string crossings (broken double-stops) above, that we will place the finger on the “new” (silent) string slightly before we actually need to sound it with the bow. By doing this we don’t need to coordinate its articulation (placement) with the bow’s arrival on the new string: the finger is already there. It also means that we don’t need to coordinate the simultaneous articulation of both fingers of the double-stop, once again because one of the fingers is already prepared. This can make double-stops much easier, as in the following examples.

To make the anticipated placement exaggeratedly obvious, we could even deliberately sound it with the bow.  This is a good way to practice this little trick as it makes the anticipatory placement of the finger audible and thus much more deliberate.

dble stop anticip artic bach both


In the above examples we have looked at the anticipation of the finger articulation to a new string (Lefthand String Crossings) but this same basic, essential principle of anticipation is a vital component of many different aspects of string-playing technique such as:

The detailed anticipatory (preparatory) movements for these different aspects of technique are described in their respective sections/articles.

To watch these multiple anticipatory movements in action, we can set our metronome to 110 bpm (approximately) and play anything (scales, arpeggios etc) at one beat per note and with very short bow strokes, lifting the bow off the string immediately after sounding each note. During the “resonating silences” between each note, we can consciously and deliberately do all the movements that may be necessary to prepare the next note: finger articulation, bow placement on the string, bow string-crossing, shift etc. We can observe that although the audible music always sounds on the beat, in the space between any two beats (sounds) is at least one silent movement (and often several).

anticip all staccato scale

We can also do this exercise pizzicato. In fact, pizzicato is in many ways better than arco for understanding and observing this “silent preparation” because plucking the string never gives a sustained legato effect. This means that, in pizzicato, we almost always have “resonant silences” between the notes in which to do our preparations.

In general, the greater the change, the larger and more visible will be the preparation. This is why it can be useful to analyse and practice the anticipatory movements at first using the biggest possible change. This means:

– for string crossings, use the jump across four strings
– for shifting, use a large leap (for example a jump of two octaves on the same string).


The utility of anticipation is however not just applicable to the physical, bodily aspects of cello technique playing. It is also a vital component of other, more purely mental aspects of playing.

When driving a car, running, skiing etc we need to be looking ahead always, rather than just looking at what is directly in front of us. The faster we are going, the further ahead we need to be looking. The same principle applies to reading music. Especially for sight-reading and for reading fast, hard, busy and tricky passages in general, it helps very much to be reading the music ahead of what we are actually playing.  In other words, our eyes need to be in advance of what our hands are doing.  This gives us time for mental preparation: we now know what we have to play, before our hands actually need to do it and can thus anticipate the difficulties. See “Fast and Tricky Passages”.

When playing from memory we follow exactly the same principle but instead of our eyes reading ahead, we need to be imagining the music (and its required bodily movements) always slightly before we actually play it.

Perhaps all this explains why it is so common for orchestras to play slightly “after” the beat of the conductor: the conductor’s movements are interpreted as the anticipatory signals (the orange preparatory traffic lights) that we always need to be able to execute a movement comfortably!