Simple and Effective Warm-up Exercises

My regular readers may recall my previous post on warming up. Whether you’ve read it or not, I’ll not be repeating myself, except to remind you of the importance of warming up before you launch into your practice session. It makes no difference what level of playing you’ve achieved – warming up is about being kind to your body and ensuring healthy playing habits. The following exercises were devised for some of my students whose practising habits needed improvement. The students in question are at very different stages in their technical development, but the exercises have made a noticeable difference to all of them. For anyone who is either unconvinced of the importance of warming up, or uncertain of how to, these exercises are for you.  What you will come to realise is that not only do they make a difference to the comfort and success of each practice session; they make a difference to your overall progress. No matter where you are in your technical and musical journey, you will always benefit from revisiting basic technical cornerstones: bow control, string crossing, left hand stability, and agility. If you’re new to doing more than a cursory scale or two to warm up, try these and keep a diary to monitor the difference they make. Not over a few days or a week, but over several months or a year.

At least two of the following warm-ups (one for left hand, one for bow) should be done at the start of every practice session. Rotate them to ensure that all are covered.

1.  Open String Bowing

Set the metronome to 100. On each string play the following:

i.    4 bows with 8 ticks per bow

ii.    4 bows with 12 ticks per bow

iii.    4 bows with 9 ticks per bow

iv.    4 bows with 6 ticks per bow

Points to remember:

  • Bow hold: always check before you start. Relaxed, soft hand; no pressing with the thumb; use the WHOLE arm from shoulder blade to fingertip.
  • On the string: 90˚ angle between the string and the bow AT ALL TIMES; always halfway between the bridge and the fingerboard.
  • Don’t change the speed or weight while bowing – keep the sound as EVEN as possible.
  • Do you like the sound? If not, why not? Always aim to make the very best sound you can.

2.  Left Hand Pizzicato

Set the metronome to 120. On each string, pluck with the left hand fingers one finger at a time, one metronome tick per pluck in the following orders:

 i.       1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th

ii.       4th 3rd, 2nd, 1st

 iii.       1st, 3rd, 2nd, 4th

 iv.       4th, 2nd, 3rd, 1st

Points to remember:

  • Keep the left hand in exactly the same position you would if you were playing in first position – fingers curved and spaced away from each other; thumb RELAXED and only touching the neck.
  • Keep the thumb touching the neck when the finger pulls away from the string – the left hand must remain stable and in the same place throughout the exercise.
  • Keep the sound of each pizzicato even and clean; avoid bumping next-door strings.
  • Keep the tempo very stable. If 120  is too fast, try at a slower speed and gradually work your way up to 120.

3.  String Crossing (separate bows)

© DC Cello Studio
© DC Cello Studio

Points to remember:

  • All points from “Open String Bowing”
  • Use the whole bow for minims.
  • Use half the bow for crotchets. Practise the crotchet exercise in the LOWE HALF of the bow and the UPPER HALF of the bow.
  • Use around a quarter of the bow for the quavers and play towards the MIDDLE of the bow.
  • Adjust the bow when crossing strings so that you always maintain a 90˚ angle.
  • Turn your whole upper body around from the hips to get to the A string. DON’T lift the right shoulder.

4.  Finger Press-ups

i.  Sit at a table or desk with a good cello posture

ii.  Place your left hand flat on the table directly in front of you with your fingers a small distance apart from each other (just like they would be in first position on the cello), keeping your arm heavy and completely relaxed

iii. Very slowly begin curving your fingers so the fleshy tips are on the table

iv. Keeping your shoulder relaxed and down and your fingers curved with the tips on the table, slowly lift your hand and arm so that you can feel the weight of your arm being transferred into the fleshy tips of your first, second, third and fourth fingers. Your thumb should be relaxed and gently touching the table.

v. Transfer the weight of your arm from one finger to the next beginning with the first finger and finishing with the fourth finger.

vi. Relax and flatten the hand again

vii. Repeat the exercise several times; imagining the cello string being trapped underneath the fingers each time the arm is raised.

Points to remember:

  • Maintain a true cello posture throughout the exercise: sit tall, keep your head on top of your body, and keep shoulders completely relaxed.
  • Left hand fingers must remain curved and FIRM but NOT STIFF – imagine holding a raw egg in your hand.
  • Keep your feet flat on the floor underneath your knees. Do not pull your heels off the floor, or your feet underneath the chair.

5.  String Crossing (with slurs)

© DC Cello Studio
© DC Cello Studio
© DC Cello Studio

Points to remember:

  • All points from “Open String Bowing” and “String Crossing (separate bows)”
  • Slurs must be LEGATO and CLEAN (i.e. very smooth string crossing with no scratches or “holes” in the sound)

6.  Left Hand Agility

© DC Cello Studio

 Points to remember:

  • Curved fingers falling down from the top knuckle
  • Thumb: relaxed, touching the neck, NO PRESSING
  • Straight line from hand to elbow – no bend in the wrist
  • Stable unmoving hand – only the fingers should move
  • Keep fingers OVER THE STRING at all times – no curling under the hand
  • Repeat these exercises on the D, G and C strings

© D C Cello Studio

Introduction to the Three Finger Positions on the Cello

Once you have thoroughly learnt the neck positions (from half position to fourth position), it’s time to break into the higher register of the cello. Beyond fourth position, we encounter a new fingering system to accommodate the diminishing physical space between the fingers and the changing angle of the left arm. Hence, positions five to seven are called the three finger positions. Mastering this portion of the fingerboard is an exciting time. The extended range unlocks the door to a vast amount of repertoire, much of which is not transcribed or arranged, but unaltered and intended for the cello. It also presents a steep learning curve. If you haven’t encountered it already, you’ll have to begin reading in the tenor clef. Although the difference between bass and tenor clef is easy to grasp, it can take time adjusting to the new layout and getting used to switching between clefs within one piece. And of course, there is a new and rather different fingering system to learn.

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fig.1 Equivalent notes in bass clef and tenor clef

Let’s begin with a bit of revision in order to highlight the essential differences between the neck positions and the three finger positions. In the neck positions, we cover an interval of a minor or major third from the first to fourth fingers – a minor third in closed positions and a major third in stretch or extended positions. In closed positions we play semitones between adjacent fingers and whole tones between the first and third fingers or second and fourth fingers. In stretch positions we play semitones between the second and third or third and fourth fingers; whole tones between the first and second or second and fourth fingers; and an augmented second (equivalent in sound to a minor third) between the first and third fingers. This is shown in fig. 2 and 3 below:

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fig. 2 Closed Position

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fig. 3 Extended Position

When we consider the position of the left arm beyond fourth position, it is easy to understand why we stop using using the fourth finger. With the arm extended forward, even when the fingers remain at roughly a ninety degree angle to the strings, it is difficult to use the fourth finger without introducing a significant level of strain to the forearm. For this reason, and the fact that the intervals are physically closer together, we adopt the three finger system form fifth position onwards.

Now whole tones can be played between the first and second fingers or the second and third fingers, which maintains the maximum interval of a major third within one position. Just like first to fourth positions, each position from fifth to seventh has variants (upper and lower versions) and extensions.

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fig. 4 Closed Fifth Position (a)

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fig. 5 Closed Fifth Position (b)

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fig. 6 Extended Fifth Position

The three images above show the three versions of upper fifth position on the A string. Fig. 4 shows the closed position with a semitone between the first and second fingers (F# – G); and a whole tone between the second and third fingers (G – A). Fig. 5 shows the alternate version of the closed position with a whole tone between the first and second fingers (F# – G#); and a semitone between the second and third fingers (G# – A). Fig 6 shows the extended position where there is a whole tone between the first and second fingers (F# – G#); and the second and third fingers (G# – A#).

Chromatic variations within the position must be addressed by moving one finger while keeping the rest of the position stationary. Take a look at the following sequence, which occurs within one position (upper fifth) in the range of a minor third:

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fig. 7 Chromatic variation within one position

The second finger is a semitone above the first finger in bars 1 and 2; and a whole tone above in bars 3 and 4. The first and third fingers remain in place so that the position itself remains stationary. The following exercise will help to develop stability in a stationary three finger position with chromatic variation, and should be repeated in all variants of fifth, sixth and seventh positions as you become familiar with them.

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fig. 8 Position Stability Exercise

Typically, the first three finger position we encounter on the cello is upper fifth. The easiest way to find this position is to play the natural harmonic (an octave above the open string) with the third finger, then find the correct places for the second and first fingers. The following exercise will help you to find and settle into this part of the fingerboard.

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fig 9. Fifth Position Orientation (a)

The next step is to find upper fifth position from fourth position – an area of the fingerboard that you are familiar with and overlaps fifth position. These exercises will help you to become familiar with the shift from fourth to upper fifth position.

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fig. 10 Shifting from Fourth to Upper Fifth Position

All of the above exercises should be practised on all four strings.

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© D C Cello Studio 2012

Stretch Position on the Cello

The technique of stretching is one of the great challenges faced by progressing beginner cellists, and must be approached with care and precision. In spite of this it is often neglected or glossed over as a technique, and becomes a real sticking point in left hand technique. When stretch position is not properly studied or understood it causes intonation issues, tension in the left hand and forearm, and is always noticeable to the listener as a technical flaw.

To understand how the stretch works, let’s examine the familiar closed position. Your fingers are placed an equal distance apart and the interval between each is a semitone. The interval from first to fourth finger (on the same string) is therefore a minor third.

In the closed position we do not have access to the semitones between the open string and first finger; or the fourth finger and the next open string. We reach these by extending backwards or forwards. When in stretch position we also extend the interval between the first and fourth fingers to a major third without having to shift the entire hand forwards or backwards.

As shown in the image below, a backward stretch means that the first finger extends towards the topnut by a semitone while the second, third and fourth fingers remain in place. This means that there is a whole tone between the first and second fingers and semitones between second, third and fourth fingers.

In a forward stretch position, the only finger to remain in place from the original closed position is the first. The second finger extends forwards towards the bridge by a semitone, pushing the second third and fourth fingers forward by a semitone each.

So the only difference between the backward and forward stretch positions is the notes under the hand. The physical position for the fingers and hand is identical. A common mistake among cello students is to extend the fourth finger away from the third to achieve the forward stretch. This should be avoided at all costs – especially for those with smaller hands. The hand simply isn’t built to accommodate a whole tone stretch between the third and fourth fingers for any length of time, especially when playing across two strings or playing in keys that require frequent and prolonged stretches.

It takes time and regular practice to become comfortable with stretch position, but there are a few tips that will greatly facilitate the learning process:

  1. Allowing the first (and largest) knuckle of the index finger to collapse will facilitate the stretch between the first and second fingers.
  2. Allow the thumb to move slightly down the neck (in the opposite direction to the first finger) or let it leave the neck altogether.
  3. Avoid pressure from the thumb at all costs. Smaller hands may find it necessary to release the thumb from the neck altogether – if this facilitates the stretch better, always remember to bring the thumb back to the neck when returning to closed position. To maintain overall stability it is best to have the thumb making gentle contact with the neck at all times.
  4. Allow the elbow to move slightly down and forwards, and keep the shoulder completely relaxed and mobile.
  5. Remember that the stretch is always between the first and second fingers.
  6. Familiarise yourself with and ideally memorise the notes belonging to forward and backward stretches on each string
  7. It is best not to attempt stretching in other positions until you have mastered it in first.

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© D C Cello Studio 2012