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: the 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. 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.
SINGING OR BELLS?
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, Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations, Elgar, 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 (like a bell, other tuned percussion instruments, piano key or plucked string). 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 the 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.
ON THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE LEFT AND RIGHT HANDS
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, easily separated and distinguished from the other notes around it, sounded by the placing of one finger. In this sense, the lefthand is like a numerical computer, a keyboard, a scientist, a mathematician. In contrast to this is the righthand/arm, which works more like a holistic artist, a dancer, sculptor or painter, thinking 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!
It is very easy for the male brain to become overly focused on the lefthand, to the detriment of all the things that come primarily from the righthand (such as sound quality, colours, dynamics, musicality etc.) We can see the same tendency in pianists: there are those (usually men) who can play thousands of notes 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.
One of the reasons we might tend to focus our attention so much on the lefthand is that it is so much easier to see and hear what is going on with that hand than with the righthand. Each note from the lefthand is a clear objective that we can work on, whereas with the righthand 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 rightarm/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 rightarm/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 ourself.
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 are never allowed to actually touch each other!
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.