Some Thoughts on Intonation

“Intonation is a question of conscience.” – Pablo Casals

So true on so many levels! A burning issue for all us bowed string players and the bane of many of our lives, intonation tends to remain a work in progress for many years. When examined up close this topic becomes less of a discussion and more of a doctoral thesis. And like so many aspects of cello technique, you’ll encounter significant differences of  opinion amongst players and teachers on how to tackle intonation problems.

I suppose this comes as no surprise – when I try to analyse precisely how I play in tune (I should point out that even after twenty-four years of playing this doesn’t always happen), I’m frankly stumped. There are obvious elements essential to good intonation such as accurate finger placement, an excellent grasp of the geography of your cello and well developed relative pitch (assuming you don’t have the rare gift of perfect pitch). But there is definitely more to it than that. Casals called it a question of conscience. Bunting suggests (quite refreshingly) that perfectionist attitudes to intonation annihilate freedom of movement in the fingers essential to so much more than just intonation. Both philosophies point to something other than a technical or mechanical  process. There is a strong  psychological aspect which I believe is all too often forgotten or discarded.

We all have specific feelings about intonation. For many of us those feelings may include fear, frustration and often denial – leading to a high tolerance for inaccurate tuning. Perhaps the ideal relationship with intonation is to view it as part of the artistic palette. Emphasising certain intervals (such as marginally sharper major thirds and sevenths in major keys, or flatter thirds in minor keys) can colour and define keys quite beautifully. To reach this ideal I believe one has to allow for a margin of error, which gradually diminishes as the physical memory becomes more accurate and the ear more exacting. This allowance should not be confused with the previously mentioned tolerance for poor intonation, which I have seen developed to an alarming degree in some cellists despite most of them having a “good ear”.  For a long time I was one of those intonation “deniers”, often thinking my performances had gone rather well only to listen back to those which had been recorded and cringe in horror at the glaring intonation errors.

Based on my own playing experience and that of my students, I believe there are three main negative emotions associated with poor intonation: fear, uncertainty and low self confidence. The first two are relatively easy to combat (although they take time to get rid of); the latter is trickier and varies a great deal from one individual to the next.

So, fear and uncertainty first! High register playing and large interval jumps are prime candidates for inspiring apprehension, which lead to physical tension, and we all know what impact that has on intonation. Take your pick of the major cello concertos for passages in the instrument’s upper range. How often do we hear (or give) performances of these works that are let down by those upper register passages when the sound is thin and some or all of the notes are off-pitch? Even after hours of repeating those passages ad nauseam in the practice room, they often let us down in performance. All too often the practice we do to eliminate the fear factor only perpetuates it. The root of the problem is not in the passage, but in the irrational fear of that portion of the fingerboard. So it stands to reason that getting familiar with that highest octave-and-a-half through slow, relaxed work on scales, arpeggios and studies is a much better use of our practice time than repeatedly trying to play a phrase or passage in an area of our instrument that frightens us because we don’t know it well enough. No matter how hard we try to make it sound beautiful, our attempts are undermined by inaccurate finger placement and incorrect bow placement. With enough repetition of the same high register passage, we might eventually become more familiar with that area of the cello. Equally we are in danger of constantly reinforcing incorrect finger placement and excess tension because our focus is more on trying to play the passage the way we think it should sound and not nearly enough on the mechanics behind the music.

There is certainly no shortage of technical material for the cello that covers the entire range of the instrument or concentrates on perfecting the upper register – Feuillard’s Daily Exercises for Cello, Yampolsky’s Violoncello Technique and the Galamian Scale System for Cello to name a few. Until we can comfortably play such technical material covering every inch of the fingerboard, it is unreasonable to expect ourselves to be able to play repertoire with these technical demands. However you choose to approach familiarising yourself with the full range of your cello, familiarise yourself you must and you really are better off using a method designed specifically for this purpose. When Elgar was composing his sublimely beautiful cello concerto I seriously doubt he ever stopped and thought: “Ah, this will do wonders for the bow technique!” He composed the work with those whose technique was already fit for purpose in mind. But I’m digressing somewhat. The point I’m trying to make is that through consistent, concentrated practising of scales and arpeggios of every shape and size we give ourselves a much better chance of making that magical and essential connection between internal pitch and physical memory – the marriage between the sensitive fingertips and attentive ears.

Low self confidence, as I’ve already pointed out, is a more elusive problem which can have its roots in such a vast range of places that it is not really possible to tackle with a single suggestion. I do believe however, that investing enough of one’s time in the aforementioned study of the fingerboard will at least serve to relieve some of the symptoms of the problem. I also know from my own experience and from watching my students develop, that intonation is often bad because we expect it to be. That expectation is built up over years: the majority of us start out with poor intonation, not because we can’t hear it but because we don’t know where or how to place out fingers. For some cellists the development of a dependable left hand technique happens in a nice upward trend and their fear of intonation disappears as their command of the instrument improves. But for many more – perhaps most – it is more of a jagged affair with frustrating flat lines and almost as many downward as upward spikes. Surely this trains us to feel negative about aspects of our playing and gives us reason to believe that we are more likely to be wrong than right in the placement of a finger or a shift to a new position.

Again, I refer you back to the good old-fashioned daily dose of scales and arpeggios. Add a metronome to that, and remember: it is impossible to practise too slowly whereas practising too fast is not only possible, it’s disastrous.

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© D C Cello Studio 2011

 

Tips for Cooling Down After Practice

In the same way that a vigorous exercise session needs to be followed with cooling down and stretching, the same goes for a practice session – especially a demanding one. Cooling down and stretching are just as important as warming up for injury prevention. Where the function of warming up is to prepare the body and mind for a strenuous practice session, Cooling down should gradually step down practice activity, returning your body to a pre-practice state. A gentle stretching routine after cooling down will also help your muscles to recover after intense activity, but over-stretching can have the opposite effect.

There are many different ways to slowly reduce your level of activity as you wind down your practice session. I have always found the following suggestions to be very satisfactory:

  • A selection of scales which decreases in tempo, bowing complexity and range
  • Three short studies that you are familiar with of moderate to light difficulty – each played under tempo with a metronome, starting with the most difficult and finishing with the easiest
  • Three short pieces as above
  • A selection from the piece or study you worked on during your session played 3 – 4 times at a slower tempo each time

At the end of your cool down session, which should take around ten minutes, stand up and stretch your arms above your head as you would just after waking up. Stretching is a fairly instinctive activity: you’ll know which muscles feel most in need of it. Generally the wrists, forearms, shoulders and neck benefit from gentle stretching movements. But as already mentioned, gentle is the keyword here. If you notice tension building in any of your muscles during your practice session, standing up to stretch and breathe deeply and slowly for a few minutes is a very good idea. While it is perfectly normal to experience tension or even aches and pains while working on demanding repertoire or new techniques, it should not be perceived as part of the technique but rather as a message from your body asking you to find a more efficient way of performing the task. Beware of entering into a “no-pain-no-gain” approach. You’ve heard me say it before and you’ll no doubt hear me say it again!

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© D C Cello Studio 2011

Effective Practising: Making the Most of Your Time

Whether you’re studying music and devoting many hours to practising and playing, or a keen amateur with a full time day job, a family and very limited time to practise, it really is essential that you use your available time as productively as possible.

Making the Most of Your Time

I remember my music college days, when many of the first year students (myself included) suffered from a terrible condition: eight-hours-a-day syndrome. When we weren’t in classes, we could all be found in our practice rooms furiously hammering the most challenging studies, sonatas and concertos in our repertoire, desperately trying to outplay each other. Every now and then one of us would stumble out of a practice room looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights, and outside you would always come across a couple of us nervously chain-smoking and discussing the terrifying notion of our lessons – only two or three days away. Very few of us were spending quality time locked behind those sound-proofed double-doors. We were far more focused on “doing time”, and being able to proudly boast about the seven or eight hours we’d spent turning ourselves into nervous wrecks.

Not long after I started at music college, my teacher made what I thought was a radical and utterly ridiculous statement: that it was not possible to put in more than four genuine hours of practice a day. The rest, she said, was just playing. That can’t be right, I thought: everyone here seems to practice for at least six hours a day. And they all seem to be practising – going through their Kreutzer and Popper studies in minute detail, repeating the same two bars for anything up to an hour at a time. Surely that was practising? It must be, because the students who took that approach were very good, and very intimidating. If it worked for them, I was determined it was going to work for me too! By the last quarter of my first year I was rewarded for my manic practice routine – not with the effortless, impressive technique I had expected it  would produce, but with persistent and painful tendinitis. Being inclined towards and surrounded by melodramatic attitudes, I took myself off to doctors, physiotherapists, homeopaths and counselling. Cortisone injections, therapeutic massage, herbal remedies, sage advice: some brought temporary relief, some nearly convinced me that the problem had disappeared and some made not the slightest difference. For the next year I was plagued with injury, finding myself unable to play for weeks and sometimes months at a time. It wasn’t until I started thinking back to my teacher’s wise words about practice and considering what she really meant that I started to overcome my tendinitis. It wasn’t simply a matter of cutting back on the number of hours I spent in my practice room. I began to realise that I needed to get a lot more forensic about what was wrong with my technique, and stop bucking against my teacher’s insistence that certain fundamental techniques such as my bow hold, my posture and how I held my instrument needed serious attention.

At the other end of the spectrum are those aspiring cellists whose time is taken up with a challenging career (not connected to playing the cello) and often also a busy family and social life. It’s hard enough finding an hour in the week to squeeze in a cello lesson, so where on earth is that hour a day for cello practice going to come from? Many of my students face this problem and it is often a source of frustration for them. They sheepishly tell me how little practice they’ve managed this week as they unpack and tune up their cellos. While all of these students have very different lives: different careers, different working hours, different family commitments; they all tend to have one thing in common: they admit to sitting vacantly in front of the telly most evenings when they know they could be using some of that time to practise. I understand why they don’t: I’ve had my own brief experience with the nine-to-five corporate lifestyle, and I remember how  exhausted I felt at the end of my working day. I spent many of my evenings half-asleep or snoring in front of the TV, and at times my cello was like a distant memory. I realised that getting into a regular practice routine required me to set aside time for my cello that was sacred. No matter how tired I thought I was, no matter how much I thought I wanted to watch a certain program, however pressing my need to take myself off to my local for a pint seemed, for that time my cello needed to be the undisputed priority. It was difficult at first – like trying to get back into an exercise routine after a holiday of relaxation and culinary indulgence. But after a couple of weeks I found myself looking forward to my sessions, even when I felt bone-weary to start with. I was feeling a positive difference in my playing and I felt energised by the time I had tuned my cello and begun warming up. It didn’t work absolutely every night, and I also learnt to tell the difference between feeling superficially tired and being so exhausted that it was better to call it quits.

Changing my understanding of what practising means saved me from giving up on playing the cello on more than one occasion. The psychological and emotional aspects of this transformation, as fascinating as I find them, are a topic for an entirely new article. For now let’s focus on what makes a practice session truly productive. I’ve already discussed the importance of warming up, and in that article I touched on the benefit of using warm-up exercises that serve to improve fundamental techniques such as sound, bow control and vibrato as well as getting us physically prepared for a practice session. Once your warm-up is complete, these are useful points to consider in terms of how to structure the rest of your session:

  • In the pieces you’re playing, what are the main technical challenges? Don’t just think about the bars that tend to trip you up and settle for playing them over and over again. While repetition certainly can be a valuable learning tool, it only works when you know what you’re repeating and why. Analyse what happens in those troublesome bars: are there unexpected string crosses? Is there a position change you’re struggling with? Perhaps there are complex events for both the bow and the left hand and you’re struggling to co-ordinate them. Whatever your conclusions, find some exercises and studies that focus on these technical challenges.
  • If you play in an orchestra or chamber group, what aspects of your playing do you think holds you back the most in this activity? Perhaps you’d like to improve your vibrato, or you freeze every time you see a trill above a note. Whatever the technical shortcoming, there’s an exercise for it. Make a list of the things you’d like to improve and ask your teacher to help you find suitable exercises and studies. Remember that in order to give your body the chance to learn the necessary movements that each technique involves, you need to work SLOWLY at first.
  • If you’re planning to spend your session working on one of your pieces, think back to the last time you played it. Were you able to play the whole piece at the recommended tempo or did you find yourself slowing down in the sections you find more challenging? If you’re slowing down in parts, you need to bring the overall tempo down relative to those sections. You’ll also do well to spend more time working on the tricky sections and less time playing through the bits you’re more confident with. As obvious as this sounds, it’s a common issue and worth mentioning. When I get my students to think back on what they spent most of their practice hours on, they often realise that it was the sections they felt more confident with rather than those that they knew were giving them trouble. This is not to say that no time should be dedicated to playing pieces you know you can play well – it’s a good boost to your confidence and generally good for the soul. But pay attention to just how much time you spend doing this and try to balance your sessions with good developmental work.
  • Don’t forget to cool down and stretch at the end of your session.

I’ll be writing more about this soon.

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© D C Cello Studio 2011

Effective Practising: Warming Up

Practice makes perfect? Well, that really depends on the quality of the practice sessions. We all know that without practice there is no progress – playing a musical instrument is a never-ending learning curve. But we also know how hugely frustrating it is when we’re putting in hours of hard work and feeling a distinct lack of progress, or perhaps even a sense of one step forward three steps back. If this is the case, the first thing you need to examine very closely is how you practise. It’s a sad fact that many teachers offer outstanding advice and wisdom in lessons but forget to teach their students how to practise. For some students there is little need to focus on the art of practising, but for most of us it is not a natural skill. And the more time we spend doing something incorrectly, the harder it becomes to undo the damage.

So what makes a good practice session? Quite simply, it is time spent reinforcing and ideally improving on a technique, a section of a study or even half a bar of a piece. How is this achieved? That really depends on you as an individual and how you learn best. But fortunately there a few constant rules that apply to everyone regardless of skill level or personality type.

Warming Up

You wouldn’t start any kind of physical exercise or sports session without warming up, so why should your cello practice session be any different? Just because you’re spending the session sitting down doesn’t mean you wont be engaging in intense physical activity. Those new to cello playing may not be doing anything acrobatic on the instrument just yet, but they will be using muscle groups in ways that they are not accustomed to. More advanced players find themselves performing complex physical tasks which depend on the muscles being warm. You’re just as likely to injure yourself by launching into complicated, blindingly fast scale and arpeggio exercises as you engaging in any intense physical activity such as running or dancing without warming your muscles up first.

Warming up can be done just as effectively away from your instrument as it can doing dedicated warm-up exercises on the cello. During the cold winter months warming your hands before getting down to any serious playing is essential and can be achieved by doing gentle finger exercises in a basin of warm water or whilst wearing thermal gloves. The following exercises are great for getting the blood flowing to the fingertips:

  • Alternate between making a fist (not too tight) and stretching the fingers out
  • Flicking each finger against the thumb
  • Gently squeezing juggling balls or anything of similar size and malleability
  • Hold a squash ball in the palm of your hand and gently push each finger against the ball

Balancing and breathing exercises are an excellent way to get your body in the ideal state for playing. As cellists we easily forget the importance of regular deep breathing when we play and all too often unwittingly hold our breath when we’re wrestling with difficult passages or new techniques. Soon the shoulders become tight and hunched, and nothing good can come of that. Breathing exercises for singers are perfect and easily found all over the Net. Combining slow controlled breathing with simple balancing exercises is a great way to focus on posture and finding our centre of gravity, without which all playing is severely limited. When I say simple, I mean simple. Don’t feel that you need to consult advanced pilates, yoga or martial art manuals. Standing on one leg for a few seconds, then switching legs and repeating the exercise attempting to increase the time spent balancing on each leg. Having a mirror in front of you will help you to ensure that you are standing tall, keeping your shoulders relaxed and square, and your head on top of your spine (as opposed to inclined or slightly in front of your spine). You can also step things up a little by gently swinging your arms to and fro, ensuring that they move freely with no restriction in any of the joints.

Warms-ups on the cello should engage both left and right hand, but not necessarily at the same time. It is perfectly acceptable to begin with bow warm-ups on open strings, or bow exercises without the cello itself (a fine example of this is on the very first page of Christopher Bunting’s Portfolio of Cello Exercises Book 1). Using a metronome to time bow strokes and maintain discipline is something I can’t recommend enough. Not only is it an important means of keeping your exercises precise, it also helps to develop a keen sense of timing and speed in your bow technique, which will make all the difference in your search for a beautiful and artistic sound. Again, I refer you to the first page of Bunting’s Portfolio Book 1: the bowing regime. I’ve had a job and a half convincing my students to make this dry, seemingly dull approach to bowing part of their daily warm-ups. But those who have succumbed to my endless nagging have come back beaming, especially once they have been doing it for weeks or more and begun to feel and hear the difference it makes to their playing. It makes sense to find warm-up exercises that serve more purpose than simply waking up the muscles and getting the blood flowing to the extremities. I guarantee that the bowing regime does just that, and I strongly recommend reading Bunting’s Essay on the Craft of ‘Cello-Playing for a detailed description on approaching the exercises. Of course the left hand needs warming up just as much as the bow arm does, and should also be given a gentle wake up rather than overly demanding exercises. I find the trilling exercises (number 1) in Feuillard’s Daily Exercises for Cello to do the job very nicely. For the purpose of warming up I ignore the fast variations and stick to the quaver exercises, which I do on all strings and in all of the neck positions. Again, the metronome is crucial as a means of keeping the finger work steady and balanced, preventing any urge to speed up. I find it equally beneficial replacing trills with slow timed vibrato on each finger, each string, and in each position – either working through the neck positions or through the mid-positions (5th to 7th).

Not only should your warm-up session perform the obvious task of warming the muscles and getting you physically prepared for a good practice session, it should relax you physically and mentally, helping you to focus your mind on what you wish to accomplish in the following 40 – 60 minutes. The amount of time you spend warming up depends on how long you plan to practise for, and how demanding your practice material is. I recommend a minimum of ten minutes for your first hour long session of the day; and at least five minutes for each subsequent session.

© D C Cello Studio