Cello Left Hand Pizzicato
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 and frequently-used technique.
- the second type of LH pizzicato is not, strictly speaking, a pizzicato because we don’t actually pluck the string. Here, we make the note sound simply by doing a very energetic percussive left-hand finger articulation on it, which does in fact produce a sound rather like a “pizzicato”. 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 “pizzicato”.
While some composers know enough about the cello to indicate left-hand plucks with a “+” symbol, no sign seems to exist to indicate the “whack” which is why we have invented our own: the “snowflake” symbol (∗). 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.
Play the following note sequences only with the left hand:
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.
Both of these techniques could be considered “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 an 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 an LH pizz is also multiplied …..
Sometimes these LH pizzicatos can disturb the bow’s 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 shaken/bounced/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 that we used above for helping the open strings to sound cleanly and immediately after a higher finger:
In these cases where we have a large distance, for example 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 now in fact every note requires an LH-pizz-assisted attack, these types of passages can be usefully practised without the bow: every note should sound with its respective LH pizzicato:
Here is some practice material for working on this skill:
CONCLUSION: LH PIZZ TO HELP BOWED OPEN STRINGS AND LOWER FINGERS TO HAVE A CLEAN, CLEAR START
Whether we use them to help sound open strings or lower fingers, it is surprising just how useful all of these “invisible” (not notated) LH pizzicatos are during bowed passages, and how often we will use them. Let’s use the first three bars of the Allemande from Bach’s First Suite as an example. During these 44 notes, mostly slurred across the open strings, 14 LH plucks (indicated with a + sign) could be used to help sound the lower notes. Of these, 11 are to facilitate the sounding of a slurred open string, and 3 are to help sound a lower finger.
3. SPECIAL EFFECTS: LEFT-HAND PLUCKS OPEN STRING(S) WHILE PLAYING BOWED NOTES 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?) !!!
WHICH FINGER TO USE FOR OUR LH PIZZICATO PLUCKS ?
Sometimes, we have no choice as to which finger we will use for our LH pluck. To help a lower finger to sound after a higher finger, or to help the open string to sound after a finger on the same string, the plucking finger will in both cases automatically be the previous finger.
But when we are helping a neighbouring open string to sound, usually during a slurred string crossing, we will have a choice as to which finger to use:
Our first finger will probably be our preferred finger for LH plucks of the neighbouring open string for the intervals shown in the green enclosures but when we are using (playing on/stopping) the first finger just before the open string (shown in the red enclosures), then we won’t be able to use it for our LH pluck. This is why we need to practice using the other fingers also for these types of LH pizzicato.
In cases where, as in the above example, we can’t use the first finger for our LH pizz, it might be a good idea to pluck the open string with the finger that is going to be used just after the open string because, in that way, this little pluck could be felt as a “rehearsal” for its imminent placement on the string. And when we are going from first finger to first finger, via the open string (blue enclosure), it may be a good idea to use the second finger as our plucking finger because it is the closest finger to the stopping finger. Unfortunately, there is no simple way to indicate in the notation which finger we will use to do this open-string pluck.
We have the same problem with our “special effects” LH pizz while bowing on another string. While our first finger is our preferred LH pizz plucking finger, if it is being used to stop a string at the time we need the open-string pluck, then we will have to use another finger (see the examples from the Dvorak and Shostakovitch Concertos above.
Click on the following link to open a page of mixed repertoire excerpts that make use of all the different types of left-hand pizzicato:
In certain circumstances, we will use LH pizzicatos to facilitate a right-hand pizzicato passage. These “mixed-hand” pizzicato passages are dealt with on their own dedicated page: