Introduction to Pairing Positions on the Cello

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

Also:

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.

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

What’s Stopping Me from Practising?

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

 

The Race to Grade 8: a Cautionary Tale for Teachers and Students

I was browsing a forum for classical music students the other day. My eye was caught by a thread entitled something like this: “What is the shortest time you can take to get to grade 8?” At first I was annoyed at the silliness of such a question. I was about to write an admonishing response, telling him how ridiculous he was to be so obsessed with racing toward a relatively meaningless qualification when he should be focusing on how to become the best he could at expressing himself on his instrument. But then I thought about myself at that age – around fifteen.

In my mid-teens I was fiercely ambitious and deeply dissatisfied at not yet having passed my grade 8 cello exam with distinction. I had only been playing the cello for around five years, but had already managed to perform Bruch’s Kol Nidrei (rather messily) at the local Youth Concerto Festival, and was regularly taking repertoire far beyond my ability to my lessons and nagging my teacher to let me play it: the Saint Saens Concerto No. 1; the Lalo Concerto; both Haydn Concertos and more. I wore him down and he let me take on the Saint Saens. I can honestly say I put a brand new spin on it, and not in a good way! I used eye-wateringly bad fingering patterns throughout – especially in the double-stop passage. My tempi were all over the place and bore no resemblance whatsoever to the score directions; dictated instead by my technical inadequacies, which were numerous and getting worse rather than better with my hours of hacking away at music beyond my reach rather than working on my weaknesses.

I eventually abandoned the Saint Saens Concerto: by the time I got to the third movement even I had to admit defeat. I never touched that concerto again except in a few sessions in my practice room many years later, when I would set down a pile of my favourite pieces next to my chair and systematically read through bits and pieces of them. But I certainly didn’t stop taking on repertoire that required much better chops than I had in those days. I wasn’t alone either. There were several cellists in my age group at the music school I attended, and the competition between us was stiff to say the least. We all played in the regional and national youth orchestras together, and the annual seating auditions were a tense, unpleasant affair. This was typical behaviour for young people of our age, and perhaps it was a valuable introduction to the fiercely competitive and political nature of the world we were planning to enter. Part of the problem was that our teachers were no better, and in hindsight seemed a little too focused on who had the most advanced students; whose students had played the most challenging repertoire and whose students had the most achievements behind them. Amongst those achievements of course, should be the coveted certificate proclaiming Grade 8 Passed with Distinction. This meant that we were never discouraged from our competitive behaviour – far from it in fact.

I played my Grade 8 exam at seventeen and by some unfathomable miracle, managed to scrape a distinction for it. I played the Allemande from Bach’s Third Suite in C; the second movement from the Lalo Cello Concerto and an arranged piece by Hindemith called Meditation. Each of those pieces was a struggle to perform with the accurate performance of certain sections always a matter of hoping for the best but expecting the worst. I remember coming out of the exam room in a state, having barely managed to avoid crying during the exam itself. I was convinced that I would achieve a low pass at best, and during the agonising wait for my results began to have rather sensible thoughts about slowing down and paying more attention to my desperately unreliable technique. Then the certificate arrived in the post and lo and behold: it was a distinction! All thoughts about sensible and necessary technical practice went straight out of the window and once again as my ego expanded beyond its previous inflated size I began to think of myself as a performer of great and terrifying repertoire.

When I arrived at music college around six months later I felt ready to conquer the classical music world. I was going to enter and win all of the major music competitions, play in all of the concerto festivals and make my way abroad on some fabulous music scholarship. I hadn’t bargained for the fact that my teacher – one of the most sought after in the country – had attracted a frightening number of cellists from all over the country, many of whom had been given a far more disciplined grounding than I. I was now a very insignificant fish in a much bigger sea. Furthermore, she did not suffer fools gladly and was certainly not going to indulge over-inflated egos in need of a reality check.

I recall my first lesson with her as if it was yesterday. I needed to prepare a piece to play for her, and I decided to play it safe with something I had learned three years previously and played many times since: Vocalise by Rachmaninov. I gave my customary emotionally over-the-top performance with much face-pulling and moving about. Instead of the flattery I had come to expect at the end of it, she gave me the brutally honest and detailed feedback I was to become accustomed to from her. Although I failed to see it at the time, it was in fact very encouraging, and essentially told me that I had raw talent and musicality in abundance, but that my technique was really in need of an overhaul. I was a little put out – if she thought my technique seemed insufficient on a piece like the Vocalise, what would she have said about my rendition of the Lalo Concerto? I was going to become more than a little put out as a battle of wills ensued. Of course many of you already know this part of the story as I touched on it in my previous post about efficient practising. At the risk of boring you with tails of my youthful foolishness, I shall continue this story as it relates directly to the point I wish to make in this post.

It went like this: I – still flush with the success of my distinction and a few other orchestral and performance achievements that year – was in no mood to be told that I needed to go back to basics in order to develop better and more reliable habits. My teacher, by no means confronted with the first upstart of her career, put her foot down firmly and used my attempts at proving her wrong to prove me wrong instead. I would bring something like Beethoven No.3, Op.69 to the lesson, and crash spectacularly within the first twenty-four bars. I would then mutter about how much better it was working in my practice room and have another few unsuccessful goes at it. Then she would calmly and patiently explain why things weren’t working. She would turn the focus of the lesson to working on whichever aspects of technique had shown up as weak. Then she would provide me with relevant studies or exercises which would inevitably end up at the bottom of a neglected pile of books in my practice room. It was about six months into my first year at music college when she handed me a study I had played sometime in my early teens. It was a very sensible approach to working on my spiccato bowing without having to focus too much on tricky notes, keys or upper register playing. Unfortunately I didn’t see it that way at the time, instead taking it as a personal insult. Surely such elementary studies were far beneath me?! I didn’t do much to conceal my indignation, and my teacher quite understandably began to lose patience with me. How she had managed to be quite so patient up until that point is anybody’s guess.

At the same time I was starting to experience prolonged bouts of muscle soreness, tennis elbow and tendinitis. I was also beginning to realise that I really wasn’t all that. I was on the back desk of the college orchestra cello section, I was not getting invited to play in chamber groups and I knew that I was surrounded by musicians – not just my fellow cellists – who were a great deal more accomplished than I was. A slow and painful process eventually lead to me overcoming my RSI issues and changing my mindset so that I began to listen to and apply what my wise teacher told me. More than a decade later I am still enjoying the benefits of her wisdom, and I hope that my students are too.

The moral of this story is, quite simply, don’t be hasty. Aiming to pass Grade 8 is a fine goal and a satisfying one to work towards. But it isn’t the be-all and end-all of musical achievements. It doesn’t imply that you have reached cellistic genius. It is no guarantee that you have truly mastered the technique required to play the pieces you chose. If you’re a teacher, exciting as it is to see your students reach Grade 8 level, you will do them far more good in the long-term if their focus is more on becoming a musician than passing exams. All it really means is that you’re no longer a beginner.

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© D C Cello Studio 2011

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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

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