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

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

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Mastering Simultaneous Shifting and String-Crossing on the Cello

String crossing and shifting are two fundamental techniques that present stumbling points on their own. Put them together and they can become an unfortunate blemish in an otherwise good performance. Without the necessary co-ordination between the left and right sides which are performing different physical tasks and a thorough understanding of the positions visited, this particular technique will lack good tone and accuracy of rhythm and intonation. Amazingly, it is all too often skimmed over by teachers who assume that if their students are reasonably capable of each individual technique they will easily be able to combine them. Just because I can easily pat my head and rub my belly doesn’t necessarily mean I can perform both actions simultaneously!

The first step towards mastering any technique is to understand why it exists and what it will enable you to do. The simultaneous string-cross and shift presents itself in two particular situations. The first of these and typically the first time we encounter the technique in our study of the cello is when we play in more remote keys which eliminate the use of some or all of the open strings. The second is when we need to avoid open strings in order to play sustained passages with consistent tone and vibrato or to avoid awkward string crossing in faster passages. One of the great advantages of being able to manage this technique well is the significant increase in potential fingering patterns that become available, which means that we have a much better and more varied sound palette at our disposal.

Most of us first encounter the need to shift and cross in scales: most notably, E Major. However students who play with orchestras frequently come across techniques they have not yet covered in their lessons and this is often one of them. To me it has always made sense to introduce the technique earlier on – while the neck positions are being studied – using home key scales such as F and D majors (two octaves) thus giving the student and early introduction to alternate fingering patterns and making remote keys far less daunting to play and sight-read. All it takes to comfortably manage a piece, study or exercise in a key with four or more sharps or flats is a sensible fingering pattern and the instinct to determine where extended positions are required – a simple matter of knowing where you are in the given scale.

I believe the reason it is easier to learn scales such as D or F majors with fingering patterns that avoid open strings is simply that they are already familiar territory. Furthermore, there are open string targets available to test intonation along the way. Any student who has been introduced to the first four positions on the cello should be comfortable with major keys containing up to three sharps and two flats, and minor keys with two flats and one sharp. They will also have covered extended positions; and string-crossing* is one of the first techniques we are introduced to on the cello. By combining these techniques we can introduce the valuable technique of simultaneous shifting and string crossing to avoid open strings.

Below are two versions of the scale of F major (two octaves); the first with conventional fingering and the second with a fingering pattern that avoids open strings and happens to be identical to the conventional fingering of E major (two octaves), thus making F major an ideal means of preparing for E major.

In the second fingering pattern, each string cross coincides with a position change. Most students find this confusing at first because with the exception of the shift from first to fourth position on the D string, backward shifts lead to a higher pitch in the ascending scale and visa-versa in the descending scale. So to grow accustomed to this counter-intuitive event, the following exercise can be practised until the left hand knows precisely how to move from one group of notes to the next.

Once you’ve mastered this exercise, you should be able to play the new F major fingering pattern fluently with no obvious gaps at the string crosses. Don’t rush: if you can’t play it slowly, there’s no reason why you’d be able to play it three or four times faster! Learning new shifts and fingering patterns, along with hearing the pitch you’re aiming for before playing it takes time and careful, well-planned practice.

The next step is to apply the F major exercise to the scale of E major as follows.

*The fact that it remains one of the most important and subtly difficult techniques to master is another article entirely!

© D C Cello Studio

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Essay on the Craft of ‘Cello-Playing by Christopher Bunting: A Short Review

An essential read for any serious cellist or cello teacher. Christopher Bunting (1924 – 2005) was a world-renowned cellist and pedagogue whose methods and compositions have become an integral part of the cello-verse. He singled himself out as a teacher with his deeply intellectual and holistic approach to the learning process, stressing the importance of the psychological influence over the physical act of playing in each individual.

Essay on the Craft of ‘Cello-Playing goes into great detail on the psychology of playing, offering a great deal of food for thought and encouraging each cellist to closely examine his or her emotional and intellectual workings in order to assess why they encounter certain (well-known) physical hurdles on the instrument, and work out how to overcome them. Bunting clearly didn’t believe in short-cuts, and his playing was certainly a testament to this fact. Described by the Daily Telegraph as “a Master” and Die Welt as having “highly developed musical comprehension, prodigious technique and outstanding artistry”, we are left in no doubt as to what incredibly good hands we’re in from the first word to the last.

Christopher Bunting was by many accounts an intense and inspiring teachr with a fertile musical imagination and a dry sense of humour, all of which is evident and comes across rather beautifully in his writing. Expect silly puns at unexpected moments along with fabulous analogies and comparisons that put difficult concepts into sharp perspective.

Essay on the Craft of ‘Cello-Playing is more than a treatise on playing the cello, and also contains imaginative and hugely helpful exercises (many of which feature in the much more condensed Portfolio of Cello Exercises) with detailed explanations on what each is for, and how best to approach it.

Not an easy read, being fairly dense and packed with a remarkable amount of information and thought, but I can’t recommend it enough. Persevere if you find it heavy-going at first!

© D C Cello Studio

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Holding the Bow

There’s that undesirable word again: hold. In this case it can’t be supplemented with anything else, because in order to get the bow from a resting position to the cello we have no choice but to hold it. Furthermore, we continue to hold it (if as gently as possible) once it is on the string. What we need to avoid right from the start is that urge to grip the bow, pushing the thumb against the frog and squeezing against the thumb with the fingers. Most people who pick up the bow for the first time without any instruction from a teacher or experienced player will approach it as an everyday task, closing the hand firmly around the frog without considering the impact this physical action has on the mobility of the wrist and even the elbow joint. This is not a problem when picking up a coffee mug, opening a door or opening a jar. All of these actions are over in seconds and often require a short burst of strength. But if we maintain that level of tension in the hand and forearm for a longer duration we soon start to feel it. Furthermore, the fluid movements required of the entire arm for producing good, well-controlled sound on the cello will simply not happen if there is excess, unyielding tension in any of the muscles.

It is not my intention to provide an overly prescriptive description of where to place each finger on the bow. There are many different schools of thought on this subject, and many readers will already have been given very detailed and specific instruction on it. All cellists settle on something that works best for them depending on the size and shape of their hands along with what they’ve been taught. Not only can it be desperately confusing when you’ve learnt one thing and someone comes along suggesting you do something quite different, I believe it shifts the focus from the important points of using the correct muscles, keeping the joints mobile and learning about fluid, balanced motion to battling with reshaping your hand and fingers, potentially building up the very tension you need to avoid.

I do, however have a few basic but useful tips regarding your hand. Firstly, you need to look for a natural shape which allows for free, independent movement of your fingers and thumb. Let your hand hang loosely in front of you, palm and fingers facing downwards. Your thumb should be roughly behind your index finger. If you gently bend its first joint, the right corner of the thumb tip will be opposite the middle finger, which is where it will be most comfortable and flexible when holding the bow. Secondly, you need to be aware of and maintain sensitivity in each finger. As bow technique develops and the cellist works on what will become his signature sound, the sensitivity of his fingers plays a major role in making subtle changes and articulations.

To become used to the idea of letting the bow hang out of the fingers rather than gripping it, it is very useful to practice with something of roughly equal width and weight, but much shorter length such as a marker pen, small bottle or container. Find the same natural relaxed hand shape (ensuring that the entire arm is engaged but relaxed and the shoulder is not pulling up) and place the object lightly between the fingers. There will be sufficient resistance between the fingers and object to prevent it from falling, but not so much that the fingers cannot feel its weight. Maintaining a relaxed shoulder and supporting the arm from the muscles around the shoulder blade (the infraspinatus muscles – see image a below) and in the chest (the pectoralis muscles or pecs – see image b below), practice drawing a straight line in front of you using the second joints of your fingers. You should start with your arm at your side and your hand slightly to the left of your shoulder; and finish with your elbow joint more-or-less straightened. At no point should your shoulder come up. Getting used to this movement, thinking in straight lines and using the arm as a fluid unit will make life a lot less daunting when you first take the bow in hand and draw it across the string. It will also help you to overcome your very natural first instinct to grasp the bow rather than letting it rest on the string.

An additional factor adding to the desire to grip the bow tightly is the understandable notion that one can’t get sound out of the cello without pressing the bow onto the string, which would require a strong grip. Many novice cellists use this approach with or without guidance to the contrary from their teachers. It serves them well enough – sometimes for several years. But they will always get to that painful turning point where they realise their bow technique can no longer progress, and they have to re-learn how to use the bow. I was one of those cellists, and it was not until I got to Music College, seven years after my first cello lessons, that I took that painful, time-consuming and hugely frustrating U-turn in my technical approach. I don’t recommend it!

So how is it possible to get anything other than a whispery, insubstantial sound without pressing the bow into the string? The answer is simple, but takes time to put into practice: arm weight and leverage. When we start a down-bow the weight of the arm is on top of the string, making it easy to apply as much or little as we want. As we draw the bow across the string, that weight moves further and further away, making it necessary for the arm to act as a lever in order to maintain the same amount of friction between the bow hair and string. The entire movement is driven by the infraspinatus and pectoralis muscles, which support the entire arm and make it possible to maintain a loose hold on the bow from frog to tip. This is another reason why I emphasised the importance of free movement in the hips in my seat and support articles. Being able to move the torso from the hips makes it possible for the body to stay balanced on the point of contact, or point of friction between bow and string. A skilled cellist practically dances around this point with well-co-ordinated, fluid movements.

Finally, it really helps to think of the bow as an extension of your arm. You may well have heard this before: many teachers find it a useful way to get their students to blend instrument, bow and body. Observe how much amazing movement is possible in each of your joints. Think of the join between your hand and the frog as another of those beautiful, flexible joints that enable us to use our bodies in diverse ways.

a)

Infraspinatus Muscle

b)

Pectoralis Major Muscle

© D C Cello Studio

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