The term “Left-Hand Pizzicato” is usually applied indiscriminately to two very different techniques:
- the normal “pluck-pizzicato” technique in which, instead of a right-hand finger, it is a left-hand finger which hooks itself around the string, pulls it and then releases it. These pizzicatos are often indicated with a “+” sign and this is a surprisingly important technique that we will use frequently.
- a second type of LH pizzicato, in which we make a note sound pizzicato simply by doing a very energetic percussive left-hand finger articulation on it. To differentiate this technique from the “pluck”, we could call this one the “whack!”. This word is perfect for describing the sudden release of explosive energy involved in hitting the string in these pizzicatos.
Left-hand “plucks” and “whacks” are surprisingly frequent and useful, but their use is rarely specified by the composer. The following example is an exception because Brahms, by placing a slur over groups of two pizzicato notes is clearly indicating that the second of each group is to be played using a LH pizzicato.
In the above example we have added the “+” and “snowflake” symbols to differentiate between the “pluck” and the “whack”. While some composers know enough about the cello to indicate left hand plucks with a “+” symbol, I have never seen any special sign for the “whack” which is why we have invented our own. Normally it is the cellist who must write these symbols in their sheet music part, because Left-Hand pizzicatos are a technical “trick of the trade” with which most composers are unfamiliar.
Both these techniques could be considered as “tricks” in the sense that we use them to simulate the sound of a normal right-hand pizzicato in situations where it is impossible or impractical to use the right hand. But they do have other more subtle uses also. Let’s look now at some of the different situations in which these techniques can be used.
1: TO CHECK A NOTE BEFORE PLAYING (SOUNDING) IT
This is undoubtedly the most common and important use of the LH pizzicato techniques. When we are finding our left hand position without the help of an audible glissando (this occurs usually after a silence/rest) then we will almost always check the correct pitch of our new finger with a very light LH pizz, before sounding it with the bow. We can use either the “whack” or the “pluck” technique. For checking a note played by the thumb, we will be obliged to pluck it with a higher finger, whereas for checking the higher fingers we will have to do a “whack”. For the first and second fingers however we have the choice – both the whack and the pluck (with a higher finger) are possible. Normally the pluck is easier to do very softly (imperceptibly) than the whack .
We will probably use this technique very many times in any piece of music, although it is less often necessary in studies because studies don’t usually have rests!! In a piece with non-stop legato and no rests we may only have one opportunity to use this technique: to find the starting note! This trick is especially useful for silently finding notes in the higher fingerboard regions because up there our positional sense is weaker.
Sometimes the pitch of our starting note might be very hard to imagine because of the tonality of what has come before (or because of what other instruments are playing as we are trying to find our note). In these cases we may want to find our hand position by using an “intermediate note”: this would be a note in the new position that is easy to imagine (because it fits in with the surrounding harmony) and from which we can easily find the new note that we will need to play. For example, if the note we need to play is a “C” on the third finger but the previous chord is “B”, then we can simply find the “B” on the second finger. Once we have found and checked that “B” then placing the “C” on the third finger is very easy.
2: THE USE OF “IMPERCEPTIBLE” LEFT-HAND PIZZICATOS TO HELP THE BOWED OPEN STRING TO SPEAK
These are the next most common uses of Left Hand Pizzicato, but, just like the “note-checkers” above, they are also never specified by the composer. These are cellistic trade secrets that we use to help make our bowed open strings sound cleanly and immediately.
Open strings, more than any other notes, often need a little bit of help to start sounding cleanly (without a scratch). I’m not sure why this is, but it is probably due to the fact that they are not stopped by our fingertip, but rather by the hard edge of the wood at the nut (top of the fingerboard). This difficulty of setting the open strings cleanly and rapidly into vibration makes them more susceptible to “false” starts, with squeaks, whistles, scratches and other undesired noises occurring at the slightest maladjustment of bowspeed, pressure and point of contact.
When the open string coincides with a bow change, this articulation (bow change) is often (but not always) enough to start the string vibrating cleanly, thus eliminating this need for the left hand pizz articulation. It is in slurred bow strokes that the open string needs the most help to sound cleanly from the very beginning, With some cellos, bows and strings we may however still need to use this LH pizz technique even on a bow change or on a bow start.
This plucking of the open string with a left-hand finger can be on the same string, to a different string, during a slur, on a bow change etc. Let’s look at some of the different ways in which we will use a LH pizz of the open string:
2.1 ON THE SAME STRING, ON A BOW CHANGE
The most basic use of this technique is simply to start the open string vibrating with a LH pizz just a microsecond before we start our bowstroke at the start of a phrase or after a silence. The pizzicato is not actually heard, but it gives a clean and precise start to the note and allows us to start the bowstroke on the open string without fear of a scratch or squeak. We won’t, of course, need this technique for smooth soft gentle starts.
2.2 ON THE SAME STRING DURING A SLUR
Another common use is in slurred passages on one string. Plucking the open string with the preceding finger as we remove it from the string, sets the open string in vibration. This is especially useful when we are playing up high on the string and then suddenly need the open string. When playing “up high”, our bow is closer to the bridge than it would want to be for playing the open string, thus the danger of a squeak or scratch is multiplied. And thus the benefit of a LH pizz is also multiplied …..
Sometimes these LH pizzicatos can disturb the bows legato, making the bow actually bounce – or at least judder (shake) – especially when the pizz comes in the middle of the bow. That is why we might want to break the long slurs in the following passage in order to be able to stay in the upper half of the bow where it has less tendency to be thrown off the string by the LH pizz.
Unfortunately, after playing a note with the thumb we can’t pluck the same open string. This means that, if we need an LH pizz to sound the open string, then we will need to change our fingering in order to have any other “normal” finger on the note before the open string:
Open the following link for material to practise this skill:
2.3 TO A NEIGHBOURING OPEN STRING DURING A SLUR
The most frequent use of this technique (LH pizz of the open string) is however in slurred string crossings to a neighbouring open string. When we pluck the “same” open string, we naturally use the preceding playing finger to do the pluck. When we cross over to a different open string however, the plucking finger will be – unlike in the above examples – any other finger than the finger which we have just used. Normally we will probably favour the first finger.
However, there are of course times when the first finger is the finger preceding the new open string, in which case we have two choices:
- change our fingering so as to be able to liberate the first finger for the pluck
- use another finger for this LH pizz:
2.4 THE USE OF LH PIZZ TO HELP CLEARLY ARTICULATE A LOWER FINGER (IN A BOWED SLURRED PASSAGE)
Try the following passage:
In order that the lower finger might sound clearly (without a scratch or a squeak), it helps to remove the top finger each time with a slight horizontal plucking movement rather than just lifting vertically off the string. The greater the distance between the top and bottom notes, and the faster the alternation between the two notes, the more this plucking motion will be useful. The distance between the thumb and third finger is the largest interval that we play on the cello within one hand position, which is why the use of this lefthand pluck-on-release trick (by the third finger) is especially useful for this finger combination:
This is exactly the same technique as we used above for helping the open strings to sound cleanly and immediately after a higher finger. In these cases of great distance between the thumb and the higher fingers, in order to get a clean start to each new note, not only do we need to pluck the thumb note, but we also need to articulate very clearly the top notes with our “hammer attack”. Because every note requires a LHpizz-assisted attack, these types of passages can be usefully practised without the bow: every note should sound with its respective LH pizzicato:
All the examples we have looked at above concern the use of LH pizzicato in bowed passages. Now we will look at their use in pizzicato passages, in combination with (or substitution of) the right hand.
3. THE USE OF OCCASIONAL LEFT-HAND PIZZICATO NOTES DURING NORMAL (RIGHT HAND) PIZZICATO PASSAGES
We can very often make use of our left-hand pizzicato (and whack) techniques to overcome certain difficulties in “normal” (right hand) pizzicato passages. Even though most composers just write “pizz” for any pizzicato passage, we cellists can use our judgment and intelligence to find ways to make some complex or rapid pizz passages easier by giving some of the notes to the left hand.
4. LEFT-HAND PIZZICATO OF AN OPEN STRING TO FACILITATE RAPID CHANGES BETWEEN PLUCKED AND BOWED PASSAGES
A very useful benefit of LH open-string pizzicato is in facilitating rapid changes between arco and pizz. If the first pizz note after a bowed note – or the last pizz note before a bowed note – is an open string, then we can pluck that open string with a left-hand finger to give us more time to comfortably make the change between arco and pizz as in the following example:
Sometimes, these changes from arco to pizz via L.H. pizzicatos can involve quite complicated “choreography” of the two hands.
5. OCCASIONAL LEFT-HAND PIZZ IN FAST PIZZICATO PASSAGES TO AVOID IMPOSSIBLY RAPID PLUCKING
Almost all the previous examples used Left Hand Pizzicato on an open string in connection with the bow: firstly as an aid to clean articulation of the open string in slurred passages, then to aid transitions from arco to normal pizzicato. Now we will look at some different types of LH pizzicato: those that we can use in purely pizzicato passages. We will use these almost exclusively in situations in which the right hand simply cannot pluck fast enough to play all of the notes comfortably. The use of LH pizzicatos on occasional notes to give the right hand a rest in fast pizzicato passages can be real life-saver. Before looking at extended fast passages let’s isolate some of the fast movements by using dotted rhythms (see Fast Playing). How would you pizz the following passage at a fast speed?
Using only Right-Hand pizzicatos it is extremely difficult (or impossible) to play this passage fast. By using Left-Hand pizzicatos however we can make this passage not only playable but even easy. In this passage we will make use of three different types of LH pizzicatos:
- where a higher finger is articulated so fast and so forcefully after a lower finger (or after an open string) that the note sounds almost as strongly as if we had plucked it (indicated in the following examples by a red circle or oval). We could call this technique the “whack”. Guitarists use this technique very often, usually in fast playing.
- where the preceding (higher) finger plucks a lower finger (red rectangle)
- where the preceding playing finger plucks the same open string (green rectangle)
The use of slurs and + signs can be useful to help us remember how to “choreograph” these complex mixed-hand pizzicato passages. The first note of any pizzicato slur will be plucked with the right hand, while the next note under the slur is sounded either by a “whack” (ascending progression) or by a LH pizz (descending progression). In the above example, the “+” sign is ambiguous because it indicates both LH pizz and the “whack” technique. Perhaps we could use two different signs to indicate these two very different techniques: + for a LH pizz and * to indicate a “whack”, as shown in the following rendition of the previous example:
Of course, it is the cellist who has to “edit” the part by adding the slurs and the + or * signs.
Before looking at “real” fast passages (with continuous fast notes), let’s look at some more variations of these same dotted rhythms. Here, the dotted rhythm allows us to isolate the different fast movements:
And, to finish with these dotted rhythm examples, let’s return to the repertoire passage using both plucks and whacks with which we started this article:
Now we can try some more continuous rapid passages. Here the alternation between LH and RH pizzicatos is faster, with less resting time in between, and the coordination and choreography problems increase:
The “Scherzo Pizzicato” movement of Benjamin Britten’s Cello Sonata in C Op 96 uses just about all these Left Hand (and Mixed Hands) pizzicato effects and, apart from being real music, is also one of the best studies imaginable for acquiring and perfecting these skills.
3. SPECIAL EFFECTS: PLUCKING OPEN STRING(S) WHILE BOWING ON ANOTHER STRING
There are not many passages that use this technique. This is fortunate because it is very destabilising for both the left hand and the bow. The Kodaly Solo Sonata is however full of these types of passages, especially the slow movement. They are not shown here because playing them in the correct key requires retuning our bottom two strings down a semitone. Whereas in the Kodaly Solo Sonata there is nobody else available to pluck those notes and we have no choice but to play them, in the following concerto examples it would be very tempting to give those LH pizzicato notes to the cello section (or the timpani?)!!!
Click here to open a page of mixed repertoire excerpts which make use of all the different types of left-hand pizzicatos.