Category Archives: Adult Beginners

2. Mixed Note Values

Needless to say, you will rarely find yourself playing nothing but semibreves on the cello. Once you have become accustomed to timing your down and up bows carefully and accurately, it’s time to divide the bow up to play a variety of note values. At first, this should be done with a consistent bow speed, allocating proportionate amounts of bow to each note value. The following pattern is a good place to start.

mixed note valuesIn the above exercise, which should be played several times on each string, is valuable for several reasons.

  • It helps us to understand the vital relationship between the bow speed and rhythm
  • It teaches us to change the bow direction in the middle of the bow as well as the frog and tip
  • It teaches us to play in the upper half of the bow, and should encourage us to explore ways to refine the movement of the bow arm in this section of the bow.

The temptation when playing the first crotchet from the tip to the middle of the bow is to speed up in order to return to the frog where the arm feels more comfortable and the bow more stable. The more you are using your upper arm and raising your shoulder in the upper half of the bow, the greater this urge will be. For this reason, it is important that you concentrate on gradually unfolding the arm as you move towards the tip of the bow in your down bow, gradually straightening and reaching forward instead of raising the shoulder to reach the tip. The less tension you accumulate in your shoulder and upper arm, the easier you’ll find it to play crotchets in the upper half.

Once you are able to play the above exercise with an even tone and in time with the metronome (set to 60 – 80 per crotchet), try the following more challenging exercises:

mixed values 2-3Listen closely to your sound during the quavers and maintain a consistent amount of weight on the string. These exercises should also be applied to scales and arpeggios, and you should aim to increase the tempo as you improve the sound and comfort.

An Introduction to Chords in Music

This post is a diversion from Bowing Technique 101, which will continue soon. I recently gave an introductory harmony lesson and thought I’d share it here. Although this does not relate specifically to cello playing, I have always found that an understanding of harmony and chords greatly enhances the study of any repertoire, especially when it comes to the interpretive stage of learning the music.

This lesson deals with the triads and seventh chords found in the key of C major. The chord labels (based on the baroque system of figured bass or Basso continuo) are relevant to the triads and seventh chords of all major keys, making it a wonderfully diverse system. As the building blocks of music harmony, chords are best studied in their simplest form in order to understand their use in music. So without further ado, I present to you An Introduction to Chords in Music!

Cover Sheet

C major triads and inversions 1C major triads and inversions 2The Dominant 7th in C Major

Seventh Chords and Inversions in C Major 1 Seventh Chords and Inversions in C Major 2

1. The Basic Down and Up Bow

Once you have learnt how to hold the bow and made your first attempts at getting an even tone on each string, you must learn to judge the speed of the bow, use the full extent of the bow, change direction smoothly and maintain a 90 degree angle between the bow and the string. From this point onwards, a metronome is an essential tool and not an optional accessory. In the early stages of playing it is impossible to keep the bow moving at an absolutely consistent speed without the assistance of the metronome. At this stage, you will find that you still have many things to actively concentrate on: your posture, bow hold, maintaining a straight line on the string and keeping the bow on only one string at a time. These things will become background processes in time, but while they are all vying for your attention, it is unrealistic to expect yourself to count four perfectly even beats per bow.

As dull as the following exercise may seem, it really is the cornerstone of good bow technique. When you’re aiming to get the best possible sound, stay in time with the metronome and avoid bumping the adjacent strings along with maintaining a balanced posture, keeping your shoulder down and keeping your bow hold relaxed and flexible you’ll be fully engrossed with the execution of the exercise, not bored by it. You should repeat it at different metronome speeds: start at 60bpm, increase to 72bpm and finish at 80bpm, each time with 4 ticks per bow. I have made a downloadable recording of the second part to play along with: this will make for a more musical experience.

Some points to remember before playing this exercise:

  1. Before you begin your first down bow, make sure your cello is properly supported (without gripping).
  2. Place your bow on the string at the frog at a 90 degree angle to the string.
  3. Apply weight onto the string – not by pressing down with the hand, but from the root of the arm, i.e. the muscle group around and over the shoulder blade.
  4. Make sure you have mobility in your bow hand: don’t grasp the bow and keep your thumb joint mobile at all times.
  5. As you move the bow along the string, be aware of all joints in your arm, especially your elbow. If the elbow joint locks the shoulder will have to be raised and the bow will not maintain a straight line.
  6. Keep applying arm weight to the string throughout the bow, especially in the upper half of the bow.
  7. By the time you reach the tip of the bow, your arm should be straight or nearly straight (depending on its relative length).
  8. Avoid lifting the elbow in anticipation of the bow change.
  9. Keep the bow on the string, applying weight to the string at all times. Avoid ‘lifting off’ at the end of the note.
  10. Always think about the sound you want to make and keep listening for it. When you hear it, observe what you’re doing.

With these points in mind it is best to practise this exercise on your own before playing it with the recording or with another cellist. In the recording there is a 4 beat introduction and a 4 beat rest at the end of each line.

View enlarged printable version (opens in new window)

Bow Technique 101

Ever since studying Teaching Method in the second and third years of my music degree I have been a huge fan of the Practical Method for Cello (or ‘Praktischer Lehrgang fuer das Violoncellospiel’) by German cellist, pedagogue and editor Folkmar Längin. Although the methods have never been translated into English (and my German is seriously limited), this 5 volume method has always been the cornerstone of my own teaching method.

One of the many reasons I am such a big fan of Längin’s method is the highly detailed and thorough approach to bow technique in the first volume. The majority of the bow’s language heard in the cello’s rich advanced repertoire is introduced in this volume, in a way that is completely accessible to beginner students.  My next set of posts will be focusing on these introductory techniques, presenting each one with a brief description, exercises and videos or images showing the technique in action. Here’s the content list for the next 4 posts:

1. The Basic Down and Up-bow

Once the beginner cellist has learnt how to hold the bow and made his first attempts at getting an even tone on each string, he must learn to judge the speed of the bow, use the full extent of the bow, change direction smoothly and maintain a 90 degree angle between the bow hair and the string.

2. Mixed Note Values

The next step after learning to use the full bow consistently (playing a semibreve with the metronome), is to use varying amounts of bow, playing in different parts of the bow according to note value. This begins with a combination of minims and crotchets, and is followed with more challenging note value combinations.

3. String Crossing

Although the exercises up to this point have been played on all four strings, they are generally approached one string at a time. String Crossing is one of the most important techniques for a string player to master and optimise (i.e. refine the means by which the bow is moved from one string to the next). We begin with separate bow string crosses, crossing only at the tip and frog (4 beats per note) and crossing between adjacent string pairs. We then move on to bigger crosses, skipping out one string (C – D and G – A), then two (C – A). Finally, we explore slurred string crosses: first slurring 2 minims in a bow, then 4 crotchets.

4. Tenuto Articulation

A very common articulation for bowed strings, tenuto is by far the most sensible articulation to study when bringing the bow and left hand together for the first time. Tenuto has more than one meaning depending on its context: it can mean playing the note for its full (or slightly longer than its full) duration; placing stress on the note, or playing the note slightly louder than the surrounding dynamic. Whichever of these directions is applied, a series of notes with tenuto markings will have a broadly detached quality. This is ideal when concentrating on two very different physical activities at the same time, giving the player a little extra time to prepare for a change of direction in the bow, and to coordinate this with a change of pitch managed by the left hand.

Minor keys and their scales Part 3

Melodic Minor Scales

I like to think of the melodic minor scale as the chameleon scale as it changes its colours. The ascending scale creates more tension by sharpening the sixth and seventh steps, and the descending scale relaxes that tension by flattening the seventh and sixth steps. The sequence of intervals for the ascending scale of A melodic minor is as follows:

Step 1 – 2 (a – b): whole tone

Step 2 – 3 (b – c): semitone

Step 3 – 4 (c – d): whole tone

Step 4 – 5 (d – e): whole tone

Step 5 – 6 (e – f#) whole tone

Step 6 – 7 (f#g#) whole tone

Step 7 – 8 (g# – a) semitone

The descending half of the melodic minor scale is identical to that of the natural minor scale:

Step 8 – 7 (a – g) whole tone

Step 7 – 6 (g – f) whole tone

Step 6 – 5 (f – e) semitone

Step 5 – 4 (e – d) whole tone

Step 4 – 3 (d – c) whole tone

Step 3 – 2 (c – b) semitone

Step 2 – 1 (b – a) whole tone

So the ascending scale shares its first five steps with the natural and harmonic minor scales, and its sixth to eighth steps with its major counterpart (note: the major key with the same keynote and NOT the relative major). As already mentioned, the descending melodic minor scale is identical to the descending natural minor scale. We now know that harmonic minor scales form the harmonic basis of minor keys, so it stands to reason (and the name suggests) that melodic minor scales form the melodic basis. The raised sixth step prevents the dissonant augmented second interval found in harmonic minor scales and the raised seventh provides a strong resolution from a leading tone to the tonic. Since descending passages don’t require the tension and definition provided by a leading tone, the descending melodic minor offers a sound truer to the overall minor structure.

The diagram below shows the structure of A melodic minor ascending on the keyboard:

Here’s a video diagram showing the lowest octave of A melodic minor ascending and descending on the cello.

A Bit of History

The development of melodic and harmonic minor scales as we know and use them in Western music happened over a long period. Their predecessors are modes, which date back to ancient civilisations - notably the Ancient Greeks. Mediaeval modes and scales share certain similarities, but follow different rules and form the basis of two different musical languages with distinctly different sounds.  It was during the Renaissance period, when polyphonic¹ music really came into its own that the modal system, which had served the simpler homophonic² and monophonic³ musical styles of the Mediaeval period perfectly well, began to prove inadequate, as did the notation system. The rise of polyphony meant that music was becoming considerably more harmonically complex. The need for stronger definition in harmonic resolution drove the development of major and minor keys, and in particular the need for different types of minor scales to cater for a strong leading tone (the raised seventh) and the avoidance of awkward dissonance in melodic vocal lines (the augmented second interval in the harmonic minor scale). Dissonance was a major consideration and was avoided wherever possible in the harmonic structure of renaissance music. For this reason we see elements of all three minor scales in minor keys.

By the early baroque era (from 1600 onwards), a harmonic language based on tonality (harmony based on a key center) rather than modality had emerged. Melodic and harmonic minor scales and major scales were in common use. The range of key signatures increased considerably, and the use of key signatures with sharps was introduced. Equal temperament tuning, a system whereby the octave is divided into twelve equal semitones gained wider acceptance by keyboard makers by the 1630s. Although it did not become the principal tuning system for another two centuries, it enabled the 24 keys found in the circle of fifths - the cornerstone of Western art music from 1600 - 1900.

¹Polyphonic: Musical texture in two or more (usually at least three) relatively independent parts [The Oxford Companion to Music Edited by Alison Latham, 2002]
²Homophonic: Music in which one voice or part is clearly melodic, the others accompanimental and chiefly chordal. The term 'homophony' has also been used to describe part-writing where all parts move in the same rhythm; a more precise term for this is homorhythm. [The Oxford Companion to Music Edited by Alison Latham, 2002]
³Monophonic: A term used to denote music consisting of only one melodic line, with no accompaniment or other voice parts (e.g. plainchant, unaccompanied solo song). [The Oxford Companion to Music Edited by Alison Latham, 2002]

The following table shows major keys, their relative minor keys and the associated key signatures.