Whether you’re finding your way around first position or you’re venturing into the tenor and treble clef registers, an understanding of the note layout is essential. The more demanding your repertoire, the more you need a detailed internal ‘sat-nav’ to find your way effortlessly through challenging passages. The less you have to calculate your route map, the more you can focus on musical shaping, phasing and interpretation.
The map below is a visual aid to indicate the location and content of each position from first (including half) to seventh. You’ll notice that some positions go by 2 names (e.g. upper first/ lower second), and some of the notes on the fingerboard include enharmonic equivalents (different letter name for the same pitch). Positions are named according to the note names they accommodate. For example, the notes in upper first position on the A string are B#, C#, D and D# – predominantly the same letter names as those in first position, while lower second position – C, Db, D, Eb share the letter names of upper second position. As a rule, positions with the upper label tend to favour sharps, while those with the lower label favour flats.
A huge thank you to all my readers. Wishing you all an exciting and musical 2013!
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
19,000 people fit into the new Barclays Center to see Jay-Z perform. This blog was viewed about 70,000 times in 2012. If it were a concert at the Barclays Center, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
Today did not start well. I hadn’t even taken my first sip of tea before I noticed an unread text message on my phone from one of my new students. I knew what it was going to be about. Nonetheless, I opened it and was faced with a lengthy excuse for why she would not be able to make her lesson scheduled for 10 am. I felt the temperature of my blood threatening to reach boiling point, and decided not to reply until I had finished my first cup of tea. This was in the hope that I would feel less inclined to send a message that would make a sailor blush. There are further reasons for why I should react quite so explosively to a cancelled lesson, but they are not important or ultimately what this post is about.
You see, this particular irritation has happened in the middle of what I can only describe as a major reassessment of my role as a teacher and the business I am running. It highlights issues that private teachers (not only in the field of music) face the world over. This is only one of the many issues we wrestle with in our day-to-day professional lives. Other transgressions sure to raise my blood pressure include late or missed payments, failure to practise, and constantly changing what should be a regular lesson time. Some of these problems create financial discomfort, while others are frustrating to my pedagogical sensibilities. In other words, some students can be bad for business while others can be bad for our professional progress. Here I should point out that such students are always in the minority. The majority of people who make the investment in private lessons for themselves or their children do so out of a genuine desire to learn, or to enrich the educational and personal development of their children.
However, it only takes a few time-wasters to cause a disproportionate amount of frustration and stress. At the earlier stage of one’s career, the notion of terminating lessons is unthinkable unless it’s the student doing the terminating, and that’s never easy to accept. This was certainly my perspective when I was building my practice and really needed more students, not fewer. But thinking back, there was never a “problem” student who didn’t end up quitting their lessons within one year of starting. I might have saved myself a good deal of that frustration and stress if I had shown them the door as soon as I realised that they weren’t going to be long-term prospects. One of the reasons I never did (apart from the obvious fear of reducing my earnings) was the voice of my idealistic inner teacher, which told me I could inspire them to become committed cello students with persistence and the exploration of every possible avenue. I am pleased to say that I haven’t lost that nagging voice. I believe it is a very important aspect of what makes me a good teacher. Everyone who embarks on the journey of learning to play an instrument experiences periods of self doubt and despondency. At times like these they need a teacher who recognises what they’re experiencing and refuses to let their self doubt win. Fifteen years after giving my very first cello lesson I have learned to determine when to embrace the idealistic inner teacher voice and when to listen to my business head, which has taken some time to find its voice.
When I began teaching professionally my philosophy was that anyone – no matter what age, background or experience – could learn to play the cello if they really wanted to. Fifteen years later my philosophy remains the same, but I have learned that a person who decides to take cello lessons isn’t always a person who really wants to play the cello. I used to think that only young children who were forced into music lessons fell into that category. I have since learned that the most enthusiastic adult beginners can lose interest very quickly, and the most unwilling young beginners can turn into passionate players. You can never really tell from first impressions.
What I have also come to realise in my gradual epiphany, is that I am running a business which makes up a significant percentage of my overall income as a musician. That may sound like a feeble epiphany, since any freelance activity in which money is charged for a professional service is a business. But we musicians are not known for having business heads. We work in a nebulous, subjective and ever-changing industry which is notoriously difficult to succeed in. Qualifications, while often required depending on which avenue we choose, do not make us musicians in the way that they make doctors, accountants or lawyers. So we enter our field with gnawing doubt and uncertainty, never convinced we’re good enough to do what we do and always convinced that we shouldn’t charge too much for fear of being arrogant or simply being laughed out of the room. It takes a while to shake those feelings and some never do. But the sooner you realise that your students (the bad apples aside) keep coming back to their lessons because they have confidence in what you do, the better. When you realise that, you’ll realise that there is nothing wrong with telling people you’re good at what you do, and nothing wrong with expecting a certain level of commitment and respect from your students. If they have no respect for your business and the value of what you are doing for them, it is unlikely that they will have any respect for your expertise. Would a lawyer or an accountant take on such a client?
You might be wondering about the content of my reply to the hungover student. I told her to get well soon, and that I looked forward to hearing back from her on Wednesday. Does that negate everything I have just written? No. There has to be a certain amount of leeway. She has two strikes, but she has also shown real enthusiasm. She has only just begun and she knows exactly what my expectations are because I have explained them and given them to her (and every other student I teach) in writing. I still see in her the potential that I see in all of my new students. Should she strike again, she’ll have to find another teacher, and perhaps she’ll treat that teacher with a little more respect when she realises that we’re not mugs who were born yesterday. And she may turn out to be a very capable amateur musician under my guidance. I hope it’s the latter, but I’ve made peace with the fact that not every student who comes through my door will turn into a joyful story to add to my memoires.
The following worksheets are designed to help your younger beginners associate notes belonging to the key of C major on the stave with notes on the fingerboard in first position. They combine music theory (learning to write neatly and accurately on the stave) with basic cello theory (learning the notes and fingering of first position). Each document is arranged in the order of an ascending C Major scale (2 octaves) – one page per note. By mixing up the pages you can make the worksheet more challenging. Kept in their current order they will be much easier to do, but a good way to introduce the C major scale.
These worksheets are free to download and print out, but please observe the copyright: no selling, no incorporating into other works or documents. Feedback welcome – especially from those who try them out!
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)
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)
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
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