The Cellist’s Right Hand And Arm

Sometimes an artist’s paintbrush, sometimes a hammer ……… sometimes a Ferrari, sometimes a steamroller …….. sometimes a microsurgeon, sometimes a butcher …….. sometimes a harpist and other times a rock bassist: our right-arm and bow need to be able to perform an incredible variety of movements, from the ultra-delicate to the savagely brutal. Although the left-hand does contribute to sound quality, it is the right arm, with or without the bow, that sets the strings and cello in vibration and “makes” the sound. For us string-players, it is the equivalent not only of a singer’s (or wind player’s) breath but also of their tongue: we sing with the bow, but we also talk, whisper, scream, shout, groan, whimper and cry with it (see Bow Articulations). Although we automatically think of “Right Arm Technique” as referring to our use of the bow, pizzicato is also an important, revealing (and neglected) component of what this hand needs to do.

The great violin pedagogue Ivan Galamian (1903-1981) – who Leonard Rose described as being his most invaluable teacher  – insisted that more than 80% of “good playing” comes from the righthand/arm.


The stereotypical cello sound is a sustained legato singing line such as we find in the slow movements of all the great romantic concertos (Schumann, Dvorak, Brahms Double, Beethoven Triple, Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations, Elgar, Saint Saens, Lalo). Because this type of legato, vocal playing is so powerfully attractive it can become almost addictive, and we can easily become blinded to the many other situations in which our notes could be more like bells, with a clear beginning followed by a passive resonance which fades away (which is also like other tuned percussion instruments, piano keys or plucked strings). The sostenuto sound is very much associated with the music of the Romantic period, and also with musicians of the “Russian School”, whereas the “bell” approach is much more frequently applicable to music of the Classical and Baroque periods and characterises the playing style of their more “authentic” practitioners. Even in the above-mentioned great Romantic cello concertos, a lot of the final (or faster) movements feature frequent use of the “bell” sound to contrast with the heaving legatos of the preceding slower movements. These two playing styles represent two very different ways of using our bow.


We also have two very contrasting worlds at each extremity of the bow. The characteristics of bow response (mechanics, sound, bounce, ease of manipulation etc) vary enormously between one end and the other. The tip and the frog are like two different worlds that gradually morph into each other as we move the bow across the string. The terms “tip” and “frog” are not particularly descriptive or attractive. The term “frog” – used in english and the germanic languages – seems particularly inappropriate: why would you use the name of a little animal that jumps everywhere, to describe the only part of the bow where the bounce is impossible? The term “heel” of the bow, used by the french, italians and spanish, is more descriptive because it evokes the difference between stomping on something or walking on tiptoes (“on the points/tips” in these romance languages). Perhaps “the butterfly” and “the elephant” would be more communicative for children. This would certainly make clearer the difficulties of playing ff at the tip (the angry butterfly?) and pp at the frog (the elephant in a tutu)?. But now what would we call the middle of the bow …..  ? A medium-sized animal that likes to jump ……. ?? Well that could only be a kangaroo !!


We tend to think of music as being just sound, but when we go to a concert (or watch a video recording) a large part of our enjoyment comes not only from what we hear but also from what we see. For a live audience, musical performance – especially string playing – also has a large “dance” component. We have all had the experience of watching a musician (or group) play all the notes perfectly but with such economy of movement that the overall effect is quite boring and mechanical even though an audio recording of the same performance might sound wonderfully expressive and musical. Jascha Heifetz and Janos Starker are two examples who come to mind. How much to “dance” and how much to be economical and sober with our body movements is a permanent subject of discussion amongst professional musicians, with those who move lots often being accused of cheap showmanship and attention-grabbing by their more formal colleagues.

For a good illustration of the communicative power of body language, think about simple finger snaps. Often used in jazz pieces to set the pulse, or as a sort of informal percussion instrument (almost always used off the beat, on the syncopations), finger snaps are just not the same if performed drily, without the accompanying “dancing” gesture of the arm and even the upper body. But not only do they “look” better when “played” with the dancing gesture, they are also much easier to play in time if we move our body with the music. In fact, it is almost impossible to be out of time if we are dancing to the rhythm.

Compared to most other musicians, we cellists have much less possibility to dance with our bodies while playing because not only are we stuck to our chair but also our instrument is stuck to the floor. In spite of these attachment points, we still have some movement possibilities. We can move our upper body, swaying sideways, rocking forwards and backwards, and combining these movements. We can also move our head in many different directions, but it is our right-arm that has by far the greatest possibilities of expressive movement at the cello. It is as though our right-arm was our principal dancer, with the other parts of our body having far inferior roles (certainly as dancers). Most of this dancing takes place in the air, before and after the bow’s contact with the string (see Bow Trajectory In Air). We have great freedom to choose the amplitude of our gestures when we both take the bow away from, and bring it to, the string. Normally, our choice of the size of these movements will be determined by both the musical context and the nature of our personality. Shyness, introversion and intellectualism will tend to keep our dancer very close to the string, while exuberance, extraversion and emotivity will encourage our arm to use a much greater expressive range. These movements of the right-arm in the air become an even more important element of our expressive toolbox in pizzicato, because the hand is in contact with the string for such a tiny fraction of the playing time, thus giving the approach to the string and the follow-through after the pluck, even greater expressive, choreographic potential.

We can also do some dancing during the bow’s trajectory on the string, most notably with the elbow. Click on the highlighted link for more on this subject.


The french expression “son filé” translates into english literally as “threaded sound”, meaning a long unbroken “thread” of sound whereas “messa di voce” translates from italian as “the vocal emission”. While both of these terms refer to the same fundamental right-hand skill of making long perfectly-controlled slow bow strokes, the “messa di voce” refers more precisely to the art of starting and finishing each long bowstroke very softly but with a crescendo to the middle. This “swelling in the middle” technique was a universally accepted standard bowstroke, perhaps even the most common bowstroke, certainly at least for the Rococo Period (second half of the 18th century). But around the end of the 19th century this most-sensitive of bowings seemed to disappear from cello manuals and treatises, being replaced by the aesthetically quite different long, held notes, which could have crescendos or diminuendos but without the effeminate swelling to the middle.

We can easily find places for this “messa di voce” bowstroke in the music of Schubert and Mozart, but it becomes much more difficult to find uses for it in the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak and other later composers in which longer phrases tend to predominate:

messa di voce arpeggione I

Perhaps this development was a reflection of the Industrial Revolution and the increasing presence of machines in society, but what is certain is that with this loss of the “messa di voce” mid-bow swelling, we string players lost not only a very expressive musical device but also lost one of the most beautiful ways of developing our fine control in the lower half of the bow. Starting very softly at the tip and doing diminuendos as we move the bow towards the tip and are both very easy, natural skills, but very soft bow starts at the frog and doing diminuendos on upbows (especially as we get near the frog) are not at all natural. Achieving the fine control necessary to do this opens up the huge expressive world of our bow enormously. See also Bow Trajectory and Pressure, Speed, Point of Contact


The two hands are in many ways like yin and yang, male and female, particles and waves, analysis and intuition, science and art: opposites that need and complement each other, working and combining together in every conceivable way to bring about miracles. Each note of the lefthand is a discrete entity, sounded by the placing of one finger, and easily separated and distinguished from the other notes around it. In this sense, the left-hand is like a numerical computer, a keyboard, an accountant or an analytical scientist. In contrast to this is the right-arm, which works more like a holistic artist, a dancer, sculptor, singer or painter, moving more in dynamic waves and operating normally with larger, continuous, and connected gestures, rather than with separate discrete particles.

At first glance, this different functioning of the two hands seems to reflect perfectly the differences between the two sides of the brain because, according to brain science, the left side of the brain is the mathematical, logical, scientific side and the right side is the emotive, creative, artistic side. But brain science also says that the left brain controls the right side of the body, and the right brain controls the left side, so what seemed like a beautiful correlation is now turned on its head. Maybe this is why good string-playing is not an easy task!

Science also tells us that males have a greater tendency to use the left (logical) brain, while females tend to use more the emotive right side, so it is not surprising that musicians tend to be more androgynous than your average Ken and Barbie. When we listen to a fine musician, we can never tell if they are male or female because music requires that the player be able to be both, using both sides of the brain (and both sides of the body) with equal mastery according to the characteristics of the music at any moment.

It is very easy for the male brain to become overly focused on the left-hand, to the detriment of all the things that come primarily from the right-arm (such as sound quality, colours, dynamics, musicality etc). We can see this same tendency in pianists: there are those (usually men) who can play thousands of notes very fast and with absolute accuracy, but will play all of them with very little sensitivity, and then there are those pianists (often women) who play much fewer notes, but for whom every note is a jewel of expressivity and sensitivity. The greatest musicians combine both skills !

One of the reasons we might tend to focus our attention so much on the left-hand is that it is so much easier to see and hear what is going on with that hand than with the right-hand. Each note from the lefthand is a clear objective that we can work on, whereas with the right-hand the information flow – both visual and auditory – is more continuous and much more complex to observe, with less discrete moments to focus our attention on. Is it any wonder that the more mathematical, left-hand-oriented string players tend to be quite good at Stravinsyesque spiccato, because in spiccato, finally, the right hand is also working with discrete entities!

The visual difficulties in observing our right hand/arm while we are playing also favour a bias towards giving our attention to the lefthand. The lefthand is sufficiently compact that, while playing, we can easily focus our eyes on it. In contrast to this is the situation of the righthand/arm which is so big, with movements so large, that it just doesn’t fit into our own field of vision while we are playing. This means that if we want to focus on our right-arm/hand while we are playing we need to decide which part of it we will focus on: the hand/wrist, the point of contact or the tip.

If we want to focus our eyes permanently on the tip of the bow or the frog then our head (or at least our eyes) will need to turn sideways with every full bowstroke! Only when we fix our attention on the point of contact do we not need to move our head. To be able to observe the full right-arm/hand/bow unit we need to get further away. This is fine for watching other cellists, but to see our own right hand/arm/bow in its globality we will need either to look at ourselves in a mirror while playing or to watch video recordings of ourselves.

Together, the right and left hands form a strange dancing couple composed of two totally independent, but completely coordinated, artists. They are engaged in a permanent “pas de deux” on four different stages (the four strings), during which, in spite of their extreme intimacy and permanent telepathy, they never actually make physical contact!

In the same way that pianists practice their two hands separately, it can be useful – and very revealing – to play a bowed passage without using the left hand at all (using only open strings). This allows us to concentrate exclusively on the bow and right arm, without any distractions from left-hand difficulties. This is useful not only for complex string crossing passages (for which we may have to actually write out the part for open strings) but also for surprisingly simple melodies.

Click on the links below to explore the different areas of Right-Hand Technique.

Bowhold     The Wrist     Bow Starts, Stops, and Changes        Warmup         

Bow Trajectory On The String          Bow Trajectory In, To and From The Air

Pressure/Speed/Point Of Contact/Hair    Bow Division     String Crossings     

The Bouncing Bow      Portato/Staccato       Choosing Bowings