Bow String Crossings On The Cello: Two Strings: Study Material

On the Basic String-Crossing page, the mechanics of simple crossings to a neighbouring string are dealt with in great detail, so we won’t repeat that discussion here. We will instead look now at specific examples of tricky (for the bow) string crossing passages over any two strings, and different ways of working on them.

On that “Basic” page, we looked at how to use chord sequences as the basis of a huge variety of bowing exercises for working on our string crossing skills. For 2-string passages, almost any series (progression) of double stops can be used for this task. Simple scales in thirds, sixths or octaves require neither written music nor imagination and can be used anytime and anywhere as practice material. And following the same process but in reverse, almost any problematic string-crossing passage on two adjacent strings can be converted into a series of double stops which can then be used to make exercises to work on the original passage and on our crossing skills in general.

Although any double-stop passage can be used to create string crossing exercises, the greatest isolation of the actual string crossing problems is achieved in those sequences in which there are neither position changes (shifts) nor hand contortions (extensions/contractions). This allows us to dedicate our entire attention to the string crossing problems and can be considered the “pure” starting point for working on the string crossing aspects of cello technique. Therefore double-stopped scales in octaves, thirds or sixths, in spite of the convenience of not requiring written music, are not really the ideal starting material for working on our crossings because of their left-hand difficulties.

The absolute starting point is the complete elimination of the left-hand component by playing the passage only on the open strings. This is a very pure way to work on a particularly complex passage, but is painfully boring for longer practice on our general string crossing skills. To make our work more interesting, we can add the left hand on only one of the strings: on the top string is easier because we don’t have to worry about our stopped fingers interfering with the other open string. We can use any pair of adjacent strings:

We could also have the left-hand fingers placed only on the lower string, but here we need to be careful to play sufficiently on the fingertips so that the fingers are not disturbing the higher open string. What’s more, as we go up higher on the lower string we have the additional brain problem of coping with the unusual situation of playing higher notes on the lower string than on the top string.

This subject is dealt with on its own dedicated page:

Upside-down String Crossings

Of course, real music is almost always a combination of technical factors (skills), in which the string crossing factors (for both the left and right hands) are mixed up (combined) with other “problems” such as shifts, extensions (contortions) and “music” (dynamics, bow articulations etc.). So adding these complexities into our “pure” exercises is not a problem but rather a natural progression. The following examples illustrate the addition of left-hand technical complexities into basic 2-string-crossing material:

Piatti’s Caprice Nº 1 Op 25 is a study in broken double-stops that we present here below simply as a doublestopped chord progression. It can be played as pure or broken double-stops, with any different variety of rhythms and bowings. Study material doesn’t get much better than this because not only is it perfectly targeted (specialised) towards working on two-string crossings (and doublestops) but is also very musically satisfying.

Piatti: Caprice Nº 1 Op 25


Perhaps one of the best ways to develop a very careful, precise awareness of our bow levels is by experimenting with “half-crossings” in which we find the point at which we touch the neighbouring string but without losing contact with our original string. In this way, we alternate between single notes and doublestops. We can do this in both slurred and separate-bow crossing passages:


For smooth, fluid crossings between adjacent strings, see the detailed discussion about “blurred” crossings on the Basic String-Crossing page.


If we try the following repertoire examples, we can see that it helps to have the “beat” on the lower string (first 4 bars) as compared to when the beat coincides with the higher string (last 4 bars).

oscillation Bach III gigue

This is not surprising as the “beat” needs an impulse (accent) that feels much more natural when it coincides with a ” downwards” movement of the hand/wrist than an “upwards” movement. When the beat (pulse) comes regularly on the lower string, we can play these rapid oscillations more easily if we think of them more as “an accent” on each repetition of the lower string rather than as “fast string crossings”.

If the crossings come under a long slur, we can think “portato” (accents in the same bow, without stopping) rather than “fast crossings”.

portato crossings

Play the above examples with the string crossing inverted (starting on the higher string) to see just how much more unnatural it feels.

For violinists (and violists) this phenomenon is inverted: it is easier for them to do these rapid slurred oscillations with the beat on the higher string because their higher strings (pitch) are actually physically lower, which means that their accent/impulse comes more easily to the higher string, unlike for us cellists. Perhaps if Mozart had been a cellist instead of a violinist he might have written the following passages inverted (as in the second line):

moz both oscillations

In creating the “Easier Versions” of the cello transcriptions found in the Repertoire Library, we have sometimes made these adaptations in order to make these rapid string crossing oscillations somewhat more natural.


In dealing with spiccato string crossings we have a large overlap between the two subjects of “Spiccato” and “String Crossings“. When our bow is bouncing, the string crossing is doubly susceptible to the bow’s own inherent “desire” to go where it wants to go. During (and after) a downbow, the bow’s natural tendency is to want to go to the lower string, whereas during (and after) an upbow, its tendency is to want to go to the higher string.


The direction of the wrist rotation is not only a significant factor in the ease or difficulty of our separate-bow string crossings but is also a vital element in achieving and maintaining the bounce in faster spiccatos. The clockwise wrist movement not only helps the bounce, it is in fact one of the essential ingredients required in order to get the bow bouncing. The anticlockwise movement, by contrast, is a very efficient bounce-eliminator. The best way to see this is by experimenting with these two rotation directions in passages where the bouncing bow alternates (oscillates) between any two adjacent strings.

Let’s start with some examples in which the down bow is always on the upper string and the up bow on the lower string. Here the string crossings actually help the bow to bounce because they require the clockwise circular movement of the hand/wrist (which so much favours the bounce). We can gradually change from doing the exercises on two strings to only doing them on only one (it doesn’t matter if it is the lower or the higher string of the pair) but we need to make sure that we keep the wrist circles going as if we were actually doing the exercise on the two strings. Feel how that clockwise wrist rotation actually makes the bow want to bounce.

Next, we will do the absolute opposite, using string crossing passages in which the bowings automatically impose the exact reverse wrist movement (an anticlockwise circular movement of the hand). Suddenly it becomes very difficult to make the bow bounce.

To take a musical example, in the following accompaniment passage from the first movement of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony Nº 6 (bars 29-53) we have 24 bars of uninterrupted semiquaver oscillations between the bottom two strings. Even though Beethoven didn’t write any dots over the notes we will probably want the bow to bounce because that will give clarity and articulation to the passage.

If we start with an “upbow” then we are going with both the natural bouncing and crossing tendencies of the bow, in which case the bow will bounce and the passage will both sound clearly and be perfectly easy to play. If on the contrary, we start with a “downbow” for whatever reason (perhaps because the Neolithic bowing bible says  “downbeat = downbow”) then we are bowing against both the natural bouncing and crossing tendencies of the bow, in which case the bow will not bounce and the passage will not only sound muddy but will also be very tense and uncomfortable to play for the right arm and shoulder.

Often we will have to decide whether to bow “with the beat” (which means with the downbow on the beat) or whether to bow “with the crossing” (which means with the downbow on the top string and the upbow on the bottom string). The need for the bounce increases the significance of this question and tends to tip the scales in favour of the crossing: where we have both crossings and the need for the bounce, the favourable bow direction becomes even more important than in those passages where we don’t need the bounce. Try the following little examples to see this: the first two bars are bowed “for the beat”, while the last two bars are bowed “for the crossing”. Which bowing is “better”? Does it depend on the speed of the passage, on the dynamic, on the degree of bounciness that we want ????

Sometimes, in order to get our upbow on the beat (to favour our spiccato crossings) we may need to put a little slur in somewhere to turn the bowings around:

The bowing complications worsen when we try to coordinate bowings with violins and violas. Because they hold their instruments upside-down (with respect to cellists and bassists) the bowing situation for bouncing string-crossings is the absolute reverse. While we need an upbow on the lower string in order to achieve the clockwise hand rotation, they need an upbow on the higher string to achieve this same rotation.

Especially when a crossing is in the opposite direction to where the bow wants to go, we really need to make double the effort in order to control the crossing and part of that effort is in knowing which way the bow is going on the crossing (downbow or upbow). Spiccato crossing exercises in 9/8 time are helpful in this regard because of the alternation of bow directions and beat accents. We can improvise a huge variety of 9/8 note patterns, on any doublestop sequence. In the following example we are using a scale in doublestopped sixths as our base material:

The following link opens up four pages of mini-studies which explore in detail the effect of the favourable or unfavourable bow direction in string crossings involving neighbouring strings. The effect, positive and negative, of the bow (and wrist circle) direction at the string crossing is greatly amplified when we want the bow to bounce, which is why it is especially interesting to play this material spiccato.

Mini-Studies Exploring Effect Of Bow Direction In Crossings Across Neighbouring Strings