To play well, our left hand – just like an athlete’s or a dancer’s body – needs to be responsive, flexible, and above all ………. warm.
Warmth loosens up muscles and articulations: it favours flexibility. Is it any wonder that people from hot climates are generally so much looser ……. that Indians invented Yoga ….. that Bossa Nova comes from Brazil ….. that Jazz originated with the Afro-Americans (hot African heritage + hot southern USA) etc? Playing the cello at 26ºC (80ºF) is so much easier than playing it at 18ºC (64ºF). And at lower temperatures, not only is it difficult to play, it can even be dangerous for the left-hand, wrist and fingers.
Some people can just walk in off the frozen street and start playing – beautifully. Now that is talent (and luck)! They obviously have good metabolism, good circulation (warm hands), good anatomy (large hands) ……….. and probably a tropical attitude (low anxiety)!!! This “tropical attitude” is very significant, because the sensation of cold is actually very subjective and doesn’t necessarily correspond with the reading on the thermometer. Someone who is full of confidence and looking forward very much to playing, can feel warm even if dressed for summer on a freezing winter evening, whereas anxious and/or frightened people tend to be more sensitive to the cold, regularly wearing winter clothes even when it is warm (like the pianist Glenn Gould for example). As a fundamental component of the “flight-or-fight response” to stress, fear moves the blood supply to the large muscle groups and away from the extremities, effectively sucking the blood out of our hands, making them feel cold and clammy even on a hot summer’s day. In terms of hand and general body warmth, a “tropical attitude” seems to be worth as much as, if not more than, gloves and many layers of clothing !
For whatever reasons – psychological, physical or both – some people are just naturally warmer than others. Many of the most successful string players that I have met have in common the fact that they – or their hands at least – seldom feel cold. One fine cellist commented that “even if my body is cold, my hands are always warm”. What good fortune!!
Cold-handed cellists have to be more careful than the hot-handed ones. We need to warm up slowly, progressively, and for a longer time before our hand gets warm enough to be able to play well. Smaller-handed cellists especially need to be especially careful about warming-up, because a small hand is under more strain than a large one (see Hand Size). I am highly qualified to talk about the importance of warming up the left hand ……. but only because during the last 35 years I’ve had many playing-induced injuries to my (small) left hand, almost all of which have occurred while playing cold! We learn from our mistakes (hopefully) ………
The absence of a warm-up can cause us two main problems:
- we will sound bad (until we get warm)
- we can injure ourselves (especially the left hand)
When we hear ourselves sounding bad, we are horrified – especially if other people are listening. We immediately start to work harder – to force our body in order to try and make it sound better. We try to do “more” vibrato and use more finger and bow pressure. But when our bodies are cold and stiff, all that extra vibrato and pressure are dangerous. See Overtry, Vibrato, and Musicians Injuries. So, how can we get our hand warm as quickly as possible ? Let’s start with things we can do to be (and to stay) warm even before we get the cello out of its case.
PRE-CELLO WARM-UP POSSIBILITIES
It’s a good idea to get the hand warm before actually starting to warm up at the cello, so let’s first look at different ways of doing this.
1. Prevention: try to avoid getting cold! Make sure that the rooms in which we will play and warmup are kept warm. If that isn’t possible, then wear gloves, warmer clothes ……… and do anything else possible to stay warm (moving vigorously is a good start as it gets the blood pumping out to the extremities).
2. We can warm ourselves up from the inside by:
- Having a hot drink (or hot food). It’s surprising how well this works. And it has, of course, nothing to do with the calorie content of what you consume – just its temperature. A large mug of hot water will warm us up immediately whereas a big bowl of frozen ice cream will freeze us off just as quickly, even though it is full of “calories”.
- Movement. All movement creates heat in the working body tissues. An essential part of any warm-up is stretching and actively using the muscles. Unfortunately, the hands and fingers use rather small muscle groups so hand and finger movements, while comprising an essential part of any hand warm-up, are, on their own, a slow way to produce significant heat and blood flow to the hands. Vigorous movements of the large muscle groups (arms, shoulders, back and legs) will warm the whole body much faster.
3. We can warm our hand up from the outside by applying heat.
- Fritz Kreisler’s pre-concert warm-up consisted of soaking his hands in a basin of very warm water for 10-15 minutes (I imagine he wore rubber gloves).
- a fan heater or blow-dryer is a great warm-up aid, as we can move and stretch the hand in the hot air instead of having to hold the hand immobile on a warm object.
- we can buy nowadays little sachets of gel or powder that become instantly hot (and they last for 20 minutes or more) when we follow the instructions (bend a little piece of metal floating in the gel or shake the powder). These are very convenient to have in our pocket while waiting to play and can be lifesavers, but beware of the hand getting sweaty through overdoing it.
4. We can create heat in the hand also through surface friction.
- rubbing the hand vigorously with a hand-scrubbing brush (fingernail brush) stimulates very strongly the circulation to the fingers and hand. A few minutes of “scrubbing” (dry of course) makes the whole hand pink and glowing – perfect for playing the cello ! A fine but firm brush is ideal but not essential.
- in fact, rubbing the hand vigorously against just about anything (our other hand, our trouser leg etc) creates heat by friction, and in addition to this friction-heat effect, the active movements of the left-hand also help to warm it and to loosen it up. If ever we are lying in bed with our cold feet keeping us awake we can try this same technique but now applied to the feet: instead of waiting for a long time for the feet to warm up naturally, we can greatly speed the process up by rubbing them vigorously against the sheet (or against the other leg). The amount of heat produced is extraordinary …..
- using our right hand to massage the fleshy side (palm side) of our left hand all the way out to the fingers (with special importance given to the fingertips) also creates a lot of warmth and blood flow. If this massage is done by a fellow human being (a warm one) then we not only get the benefit of their physical warmth but also of their psychological warmth!!
WARM-UP AT THE CELLO
Most spontaneous sports (and musician’s) injuries occur during the first 10 minutes of play and it is during this critical starting period that we have to be especially careful not to hurt ourselves. Playing the cello while wearing (warm) gloves with the fingertips cut off is like doing vigorous physical activity while wearing full winter clothes: we get very warm very quickly. If our hand is really cold then we can start playing with normal gloves on (with both the fingers and the fingertips covered). This is a very strange, but also very educational, feeling. For a small-handed cellist, we suddenly feel what it would be like to have thick, chunky fingers (nice!).
A warmup can be usefully subdivided into phases, according to what we are actually warming up.
PART 1: WARMUP THE CELLO STRINGS
Often it’s not just our hand that is cold but the instrument also. The metal strings warm up very quickly however through friction if we run our hand up and down the length of the strings while pressing firmly. To avoid injuring the fingers it’s probably safer to do this initially with the palm of the hand (like a big Neanderthal glissando) and gradually work out towards the finger-tips by which time the strings will be positively hot! We can cover (warmup) all four strings at once. Once the strings are hot, then we can try some normal playing. Now the strings will actually warm up the fingertips rather than the other way round.
PART 2: GENTLE SMOOTH IMPROVISATION
We want to avoid all sources of tension in our playing during our warmup. The main sources of tension in playing come from the desire/need to play in tune, in time, and with a beautiful sound, therefore total warmup looseness will be encouraged if we can temporarily switch off our instinctive control centres for intonation, coordination, beauty and rhythmic accuracy. We will have plenty of time afterwards in our practice session to dedicate to all those higher goals. At the very beginning, let’s play in Indian and Chinese styles (quartertones welcome!), and leave our gorgeous vibrato and all difficult scales, arpeggios, shifts, passages, pieces of music etc for later. Improvisation is actually a very safe way to warm up as we rarely do anything that feels “difficult” when we improvise. If we put the metronome on (with a slow pulse), we may find it more fun. As long as we don’t get tense through trying to do complex or snappy rhythms, the metronome’s pulse will give us something to gently play with (or against). Just like when we play with a ball, it can be more enjoyable if we have something to bounce it off!
PART 3: THE FAST FLUID FINGER-ARTICULATION WARMUP
Once our strings are warm (or even better if they are hot) and our hand is starting to warm up, then we can start with some fast, light, flowing, finger articulation patterns in one position, that we will then move snakelike up and down through the three different fingerboard regions as shown in the examples below. We will favour long slurred bows and simple repetitive rhythms. For a warmup, light and fast movements are better than heavy and slow ones because the fact that each finger releases its playing pressure so quickly after articulating makes these exercises quite safe in terms of avoiding “sports injuries“. We mustn’t hold our fingers down for too long, nor press too hard. Relax the pressure on the lower fingers (especially the first finger) when we are not actually playing a note with them. These exercises not only serve to warm up the finger articulation movements but also to warm up (refresh/update) our mental map of the fingerboard positions.
The above link shows us just four possible finger sequence combinations (patterns), notated all the way up and down the fingerboard. There are however many other possible finger combinations from which we can choose our repeating, rapid-articulation, finger patterns. Writing (notating) each of these patterns all the way up and down the fingerboard would take up a huge number of pages and is not really necessary (there are 12 possible useful quadruplet finger sequences and 6 triplet ones). If we close our eyes, concentrate, and just follow each pattern up and down, we will not only warm up our hand but will also warm up our brain: it takes a lot of mental power to know at all times which note we are playing without having them written in front of our eyes. Inventing these without any written music makes us really think about where we are on the fingerboard and what notes we are playing. We can follow the patterns with our brains (note names) or simply with our ears (controlling the intervals without necessarily knowing the note names). If we “get lost” up high it is an interesting and instructive game to guess (with our kinesthetic and visual positional senses) which notes (note names) we are playing.
Here below are some of the most basic patterns. The variants shown in parentheses use the identical finger sequence but with the beat displaced. These fingering patterns have been notated in the following way: 1 = first finger, M = middle finger, T = top finger. This might look as unintelligible as algebra, but it is actually the most efficient way of showing finger patterns in the sense that it is valid for all of the fingerboard regions. As our hand warms up, we can gradually add more extensions to these exercises.
“1-M-T” (and its variants “M-T-1” and “T-1-M”)
“T-M-1” (and its variants “M-1-T” and” 1-T-M”
“1-T-M-T” (and “T-M-T-1” and “M-T-1-T” and “T-1-T-M”)
“1-M-T-M” (and “M-T-M-1” and “T-M-1-M” and “M-1-M-T)
“T-1-M-1″ (and” 1-M-1-T” and “M-1-T-1″ and” 1-T-1-M”)
The link below opens several pages of these different triplet and quadruplet warmup exercises taking us through all the fingerboard regions. Each finger secuence is notated only for the first few bars, after that, we are on our own, with only our brain and ears to tell us which notes come next.
We are not obliged to use only triplet and quadruplet groups of notes: sextuplet and quintuplets are equally useful. In fact the sextuplet finger sequences (as well as the last of the quadruplet ones above) are “cyclical” in the sense that the hand can roll between the top and bottom fingers via the middle ones. This makes them the most comfortable (ergonomic) to play.
123432 (and 234321, 343212, 432123, 321234, 212343)
Is there anything missing from the above exercises? You may have noticed that they do not use the thumb. This is unfortunate because we need to make sure that we include all of our fingers in our left-hand-warmup, and this of course includes the thumb, in all the fingerboard regions. With the thumb, the number of possible finger-articulation patterns (cells) is greatly multiplied because we now have four notes of the scale under our hand. Below is a list of all the possible finger sequences using each of the four fingers only once in each “cell” (therefore these are patterns of four notes). The patterns inside parenthesis use the identical finger sequences as the first in each line, but with the beat displaced. “Th” = thumb.
Th-1-2-3 (also 1-2-3-Th, 2-3-Th-1 and 3-Th-1-2)
Th-1-3-2 (also 1-3-2-Th, 3-2-Th-1 and 2-Th-1-3)
Th-2-3-1 (also 2-3-1-Th, 3-1-Th-2 and 1-Th-2-3)
Th-2-1-3 (also 2-1-3-Th, 1-3-Th-2 and 3-Th-2-1)
Th-3-2-1 (also 3-2-1-Th, 2-1-Th-3, and 1-Th-3-2)
Th-3-1-2 (also 3-1-2-Th, 1-2-Th-3 and 2-Th-3-1)
We can also use repeating patterns (cells) of six notes each, which have the advantage of allowing us to find sequences that give “cyclical” hand movements in which we can roll the hand between the thumb and the top finger:
Th-1-2-3-2-1 (also 1-2-3-2-1-Th 2-3-2-1-Th-1 3-2-1-Th-1-2 2-1-Th-1-2-3 1-Th-1-2-3-2)
We can improvise on these patterns but we do need to be careful, in our warmup especially, to avoid all strained postures. We will, therefore, probably avoid the lower fingerboard regions for all but the most comfortable finger patterns (those with the fingers the closest together).
PART 4: THE GLISSANDO-SHIFTING WARMUP
Now we can enter a totally different phase of our warmup, in which we forget about finger articulation and incorporate instead the shifting/sliding aspect of our lefthand’s playing into our warmup. We need our warmup shifts to be smooth, relaxed glissando shifts. When we play on two strings at once ( double-stops ) this doubles the warming effect and really gets the cello vibrating, but we should remember to keep all the fingers bunched up closely together to avoid “extension-strain” (see below). These big, sweeping, doublestopped, glissandi warmup shifts quickly warm up the strings, the fingerpads, and our large shoulder and arm muscles. They also establish immediately our left arm trajectory up and down the entire fingerboard.
In this part of our warmup, our objective is to be “sloppy and floppy”, sliding gently and smoothly around the entire fingerboard with a slow loose vibrato and not worrying about anything much except ease and looseness. In order to give absolute priority to this looseness, smoothness and ease, we want to avoid any movements that are even remotely uncomfortable, difficult or tense for the hand. We will thus avoid, at this stage of our warmup, all extensions, rapid jerky movements, fast vibrato and intense finger pressure.
As mentioned above, doublestopped glissando shifting exercises moving all over the fingerboard are a “turbo” way to warm up our hands and strings. If we play recognizably tonal, controlled intervals (like the arpeggios of the following exercises) then they also warm up our ears (because playing double-stops in tune requires much more computing power than playing single notes in tune). The drawback of these tonal double-stop sliding warmup exercises is that they require intonation control and the stopping of two strings simultaneously. Both of these factors can create additional tension, so we need to be careful with them. The following exercises move all over the cello fingerboard and use all the strings, but have no extensions. All the shifts are slurred glissandi, for smooth flow and easy aural control:
The above warmup exercises do not use the thumb. Here then are some that do:
There aren’t many things that feel quite as bad as having to play with cold hands, especially in front of other people, but a good, safe warmup takes time. Without a doubt, arriving early before our rehearsal or concert in order to have the time to do a gentle, tranquil warmup is well worth it ……
Another advantage of a good warmup before a performance is that while our body is warming up, our mind is simultaneously calming down. Normally these two needs are perfectly correlated: the greater our need for a physical warmup is, the greater our need also is to calm down, and vice versa. This seems to have less to do with external temperature than with our psychology (see above).