FOR THE CURIOUS CELLIST

Cello Pizzicato

pizzicatoPizzicato, on any string instrument, takes us into a whole new musical world ……..and also into a whole new technical world, not only for the right-hand but also for the left-hand. Suddenly, we stop singing (bowing) and start playing the guitar, harp or piano. Now, all our notes are like bells: after the initial pluck (sounding), we are left with only the resonance, the sound gradually fading away because there is no motor (bow) to keep pumping energy into the sound. Once the resonance has faded away, our left-hand can relax, giving us more time to prepare for our next note and freeing up more brain space to observe what is going on between the notes. This is why converting a normally-bowed passage into pizzicato (at a slow or moderate speed) can be a very useful practice technique for working on our left-hand: it is like watching it in a slow-motion video or putting it under a microscope. Open the following article for a more detailed look at this question:

Anticipation and The Preparation Principle

Pizzicato is also a great way to study and improve our basic body language at the instrument. Because we don’t need to keep our bow glued to the string, the movement possibilities for the right-arm in pizzicato suddenly become enormous. Like a pianist, we can now choose to play each note with the minimum necessary movement (which is unbelievably boring and uncommunicative) or we can let the right-arm participate in the musical communication, becoming more of a dancer and adding expressivity to our music-making. The following link looks at this question in more detail:

Body Language

It is possible to be a very good cellist but at the same time a very bad “pizzicato-ist”. This is because pizzicato is rarely used in the solo parts of the most popular concertos, sonatas and virtuoso showpieces, and is therefore rarely taught or studied. For example:

  • pizzicatos were not used in the Baroque cello repertoire
  • the concertos of Haydn, Saint Saens and Schumann have absolutely no pizzicatos in their solo parts
  • Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations has two, the Lalo concerto has four, and the Dvorak concerto has none but does have eight (tricky) left-hand pizzicatos

The following table gives an overview of the frequency of pizzicatos of some of the most well-known pieces of the cello repertoire, presented in (approximate) chronological order:

SOLO REPERTOIRENUMBER OF PIZZICATOSSOLO REPERTOIRENUMBER OF PIZZICATOS
Bach Suites0Schumann: Cello Concerto
Pieces (complete)
0
2
Vivaldi Sonatas and Concertos0Lalo Concerto4
Telemann Fantasias0Brahms: Double Concerto
Sonata Nº 1
Sonata Nº 2
8
11
164
Haydn Concertos0Saint Saens Concerto0
Beethoven Sonatas (complete)68Tchaikovsky Rococo Vars.2
Beethoven Variations (complete)23Dvorak Concerto0 (+ 8 tricky LH Pizz)
Beethoven Triple Concerto32Elgar50
Schubert Arpeggione112Strauss: Don Quijote35
Chopin: Sonata
Polonaise
0
44
Shostakovitch: Sonata
Concerto Nº 1
255
40 (+12 tricky LH Pizz)

In the Classical and Romantic Periods, even those cello pieces that make more frequent use of pizzicato tend to use it in a very simple way. Brahms’ F Major Cello Sonata breaks this tradition and is one of the first big cello pieces in which we find pizzicato being used in more imaginative and demanding ways. It makes great use of a variety of thematic pizzicatos in both the second movement (Adagio) and the final movement. Then, in the 20th century, pizzicato takes off and becomes a much more frequently used effect. Although Shostakovich uses it very little in his First Concerto, his Cello Sonata uses around 250 and his Trio uses well over 400, often in complex, thematic and fast passages.

Although pizzicato is not used much in pre-20th century standard soloistic cello repertoire, it is used a lot by the cello in chamber and orchestral music of the Classical and Romantic Periods. Its use – normally in an accompaniment role – is especially common in operas, and often has a very important musical function, as well as posing specific technical problems.

One of the handicaps for doing pizzicato on any string instrument is that we are usually holding the bow at the same time as we are plucking. Imagine if a guitarist had to play while holding a long stick in their right hand! Holding the bow causes two significant problems for our pizzicato, especially for our rapid pizzicato passages:

  • it limits the use of our fingers (because we have to pluck and at the same time hold the bow securely to prevent it from flying off)
  • the weight of the bow waving around in the air has a destabilising effect on the hand and arm.

For these reasons, when possible, for a long or complex pizzicato passage, we may want to put the bow down and have the right hand and arm completely free.

We can divide the study of pizzicato into different categories.  Click on the following links to open each different area.

Slow And Moderate-Speed Pizz             Changes Between Arco And Pizz   

Pizzicato Chords       Left-Hand Pizz       Fast and Mixed-Hands Pizz