Changing Between Arco and Pizzicato

Doing pizzicatos is one thing, but the transition between arco and pizzicato (in either direction), especially when it has to be done quickly, can be quite problematic.

Most of the difficult (fast) changes between arco and pizzicato that we will come across will be in the orchestral repertoire – especially in operas (and music by Ravel). These situations can, fortunately, be resolved very easily by simply organising a “divisi” in which one side of the section plays the pizz and the other plays the arco. In other words, one side of the section plays the “old” movement all the way to the end (whether it be pizz or arco) but misses out on the start of the new movement, while the other side does the exact opposite (starting the new movement at the correct moment but missing out on the end of the old movement). That way all the notes – both arco and pizz – are sounded without anyone having to do any circus tricks. On paper, it sounds perhaps complex, but in reality, it couldn’t be more simple. Unfortunately, this level of initiative is rarely to be found in orchestras because normally a military ethic of “following instructions to the absolute letter no matter what the difficulty” tends to prevail.

If we are the only cellist playing our line, then it is not possible to make use of this type of intelligent cooperation to eliminate the problem. Now we actually have to solve the problem with our own physical dexterity (and a little bit of thinking as well). There are several possible ways by which we can make these difficult transitions easier:

  • we can organise our bowings in such a way that an up-bow (rather than a down-bow) comes before the pizz. This favours the transition from arco to pizz because an up-bow will always tend to bring our right hand towards the strings (which is where it needs to be in order to do a pizzicato).
  • if the pizzicato note just before (or just after) the bowed note is an open string, then we can probably play that open string pizz note with a left-hand pizzicato (click on the highlighted link for more details)
  • in passages in which we alternate rapidly and frequently between arco and pizz, especially when there are only a few pizzicato notes, we can often play the pizzicatos with our second or third finger while maintaining all the other fingers on the bow in an otherwise normal bowhold