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Cello students who have studied the entire range of the cello will almost certainly have discovered a recurring pattern of similarity between certain positions one octave and string apart. Recognising this pattern can be very useful when it comes to getting secure in the higher positions, the fear of which often causes poor intonation and inferior tone production. The pairing I’ll be discussing in this and the following four posts is as follows:
1. First and fourth positions:
1.1 First position on the D string and fourth position on the A string
1.2 First position on the G string and fourth position on the D string
1.3 First position on the C string and fourth position on the G string
1.4 Half position on the D string and upper third/ lower fourth position on the A string
1.5 Half position on the G string and upper third/ lower fourth position on the D string
1.6 Half position on the G string and upper third/ lower fourth position on the D string
2. Second and fifth positions:
2.1 Second position on the D string and fifth position on the A string
2.2 Second position on the G string and fifth position on the D string
2.3 Second position on the C string and fifth position on the G string
3. Third and sixth positions:
3.1 Third position on the D string and sixth position on the A string
3.2 Third position on the G string and sixth position on the D string
3.3 Third position on the C string and sixth position on the G string
4. Fourth and seventh positions:
4.1 Fourth position on the D string and seventh position on the A string
4.2 Fourth position on the G string and seventh position on the D string
4.3 Fourth position on the C string and seventh position on the G string
The first pairing (first and fourth positions) shares identical fingering patterns since both are neck positions. The same applies to lower second and lower fifth positions. From extended fifth position onwards, the three finger system comes into use, so the notes of the paired positions remain the same but the fingering does not. The changes are as follows:
In the higher positions, the second finger plays notes that would be covered by the second and third fingers in the lower positions.
In the higher positions, the third finger plays notes that would be covered by the fourth finger in the lower positions.
This discrepancy applies to closed and stretch (or extended) positions.
The following four posts will show these pairings through simple exercises and melody lines.
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:
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:
3. String Crossing (separate bows)
Points to remember:
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:
5. String Crossing (with slurs)
Points to remember:
6. Left Hand Agility
Points to remember:
© D C Cello Studio
We all have different levels of motivation, and these can vary a great deal according to circumstances such as the time of day, emotional well-being, physical well-being and workload. If you’re the type of person who has the right combination of organisation and drive to keep your practice routine regular and effective, you probably don’t need to read this. If you’re anything like me you’ll have times when your practice routine is smooth and enriching, and times when opening your cello case seems like a challenge on a par with climbing a mountain. I believe everyone has the odd day like this, and it is important to allow ourselves a bit of time off when we simply don’t have the stamina and concentration necessary to practise well instead of dragging ourselves through a frustrating and unprofitable practice session or feeling guilty about missing a session.
When we encounter days, weeks or even months of sporadic practising and low motivation it is important to make every effort to understand why, and to find ways to reignite the spark. Throughout my career I have encountered bad patches where I feel as if I’ve run out of steam. I’ve seen it happen to many of my students at some point too – sadly some of them were unable to get back into a progressive routine and decided to call it quits. I’ve also had my fair share who were on the brink of giving up and after regaining their inspiration, were back on track and better able to cope with future dips in their motivation.
Since there are many potential reasons for loosing motivation to practise, and it’s often difficult to determine the cause straight away, you might find these questions helpful:
1. What am I working towards?
This always tends to vary quite a lot for young progressing cellists: there are orchestra auditions, seating auditions, recitals, competitions and exams to name but a few of the challenges that feature in a young musician’s busy schedule. If one of these is looming ahead and you’re feeling reticent about practising even though you know you still have work to do perfecting those tricky sections, perhaps your fear of the event is getting in the way of your progress. It helps to remind yourself that no matter how scary and life-changing that audition, recital or exam might seem, it’s only one of many milestones along the way. Try to think beyond the event itself: what piece do you hope to be learning in six months’ time? Or remind yourself of previous performances that have gone well for you: think about how you felt and what your routine was like in the weeks before the performance.
Perhaps your problem is the opposite of this. You may feel that all you’re practising for is your lessons, and that your teacher has not given you any milestones to work towards. This can be a major cause of losing motivation and even interest in playing your instrument. Speak to your teacher about it! Perhaps when you started out you specified that you were not interested in playing exams and just wanted to learn for fun. It is fine to change your mind about this, but your teacher is not a mind-reader and will not put you forward for potentially stressful playing opportunities or challenges if he/ she thinks that you don’t want to.
2. What have I been struggling with in my recent practice sessions?
I have often found that when something just isn’t improving from one session to the next I start to feel despondent about my playing in general and I have seen this in other cellists too. Of course some things take longer to get to grips with than others, and those of us with a less patient temperament may simply be expecting too much too soon. But when a technical issue constantly puts a blemish on the repertoire you’re working on, it can be incredibly frustrating and demotivating. If you’re taking lessons you will no doubt have discussed it with your teacher, who will hopefully be exploring new ways for you to approach and understand the problem. Remember that you should also take some responsibility for your learning process. Your teacher sees you once a week or less and cannot be there to guide you every time you sit down to play or practise. You need to be your own teacher outside of your lessons, and when you hit a brick wall you should do what any good teacher would do: read as much as you can on the subject and ask other cellists for advice. Look for footage of great cellists containing the technique you’re struggling with and watch it over and over again. If possible, watch it in slow motion, or pause it at crucial points to observe the player’s posture and balance. Bring your observations to your lesson and discuss them with your teacher so that between you, you can come up with a new ways to learn and master a challenging technique. This problem-solving approach can be a wonderful means of reigniting that magical spark as it always leads to discoveries – not only about your playing and practising habits, but also about yourself.
3. Am I struggling to motivate myself elsewhere?
We all face those periods of low ebb where we feel exhausted all the time, struggle to concentrate for longer than five minutes at a time and generally need a holiday. If getting away for a few relaxing days isn’t an option, try “micro-holidays”: go for walks, take time out to watch your favourite film and try getting earlier nights. You’ll know best what helps you to relax and when you need to rethink your daily routine.
4. Is my instrument holding me back?
Is your instrument in need of a fresh set-up or even an upgrade? It is often said that only a poor workman blames his tools and sometimes that is very true where musicians are concerned. I once worked with a conductor who fined any member of the orchestra (in his preferred currency of a pint) who dared blame a mistake on their instrument. But if you’re playing on a cello with a poor set-up, a warped or balding bow, or an inferior instrument that simply doesn’t stand up to the technical demands of your repertoire it is more than fair to blame your tools. As an example: a cello with excessively high string to fingerboard action is the worst enemy to left hand technique, especially for smaller hands. If you’re fighting with your cello every time you try to play it, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be looking forward to your next practice session.
There are many other factors that can and do influence how we feel about practising. Some of these are covered in my earlier posts on this subject: Effective Practising – Warming up, Making the Most of Your Time, and Tips for Cooling Down. This and the previous posts by no means cover the entire topic. I recommend The Advancing Cellist’s Handbook by Benjamin Whitcomb as a comprehensive guide to practising for intermediate cellists.
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© D C Cello Studio 2011