Supporting Your Cello

I specifically chose the word “supporting” rather than “holding” in the title of this section, and you may be wondering why. The simple reason is that holding things often implies grasping or clutching, neither of which promote pain-free, balanced technique. Most people playing the cello for the first few times notice an overwhelming tendency to hold it by squeezing their knees against it and using one or both of their hands to steady it. By creating an accurate mental image and understanding of how to interact with your cello from the earliest possible stage, you have a much better chance of laying a solid foundation for great cello technique.

Now that you’ve explored your ideal sitting posture and the concept of balancing on your seat, you’re ready to bring your cello into the equation. Your first task is to pull out and fasten the spike, and you’ll want to know precisely how long it ought to be. The answer is annoying, but get used to it because you’ll be hearing it a lot in response to pertinent questions about playing the cello: It depends. You see, it’s not only your height that will influence the length of your spike; it’s the length of your legs, your torso, your arms and your seat. Then there is the terribly inexact science of personal preference, which will take a while to discover. As a rough guide: when you are sitting with your cello, the C tuning peg (the lower right-hand peg) should be level with or just behind your left ear. If you feel as if the cello is pushing you backwards and it seems to hobble around just above your knees rather than rest between them, the spike is too long. Conversely if the angle of the instrument is too vertical, the spike is too short. You will find yourself experimenting with different lengths for a while in the early stages. When you have found a length that works for you, use a permanent marker to make a small mark on the spike. This will avoid wasting time lengthening and shortening it before you can settle into your practice sessions.

As I have already pointed out, your cello should rest against you, supported by your posture as opposed to gripped and held in place. By placing your feet roughly in line with your hips and turning your toes out, you will find that your knees can fall further apart without creating any tension in your thighs. This also creates more surface area for the lower half of the cello to rest against and ensures that the instrument won’t move about as soon as any weight is applied to it from the bow or left hand. It helps to think of creating a nest with your legs for the cello to lie in – well supported but not squeezed or gripped. The left hand side of the cello should be slightly higher so that the A string is turned inwards towards the bow or plucking hand. The lower ends of the C-bouts (the c-shaped curves forming the cello’s narrow “waist”) should be just above or at the top of your knees. Placing your left foot slightly in front of your left foot will help to achieve the subtle angle necessary for comfortable bow technique. The upper end of the cello body should rest very lightly against your sternum; the bulk of the instrument’s weight being supported by your knees. An excellent and very simple way to test whether your cello’s weight is correctly distributed is to lean slightly backwards away from the instrument. If it follows you and stays against your chest, you haven’t quite created that nest it needs between your knees. If the cello stays where it is and feels secure, you’ve got it! Now check the mobility in your hips: you should be able to turn your upper body around by a few degrees to either side from the hips. Make sure you’re not just twisting your shoulders and upper back – it needs to be your entire torso.

To help you make your cello part of your body space as you sit with it as opposed to an external and rather awkward object, put both arms around it and give it a hug – even if it makes you feel a little silly. You need to bond with the instrument physically, mentally and emotionally. The latter two happen with time and practice, but won’t happen without the former.

© D C Cello Studio

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Are You Sitting Comfortably?

You may well be tempted to skip past this section and get straight down to the business of holding and playing your cello. After all, everyone knows how to sit don’t they? It’s one of the very first things we learn to do with our bodies, which means that we’ve had plenty of practice! But we’ve had just as much time to apply all the bad physical habits we pick up along the way, such as slouching, arching the back and forgetting our centre of gravity. Even those whose activities include the likes of martial arts or ballet – both of which focus heavily on posture and balance – can easily forget all of those valuable lessons when sitting in class or at a computer. So it is certainly worth following guidelines and actively observing our seated posture before picking up the cello.

First, we should discuss the height of your chair. A chair that is either too high or too low can cause a great deal of tension throughout the body which will only increase when you attempt to hold and play your cello. The ideal height enables an angle slightly larger than 90 degrees between the abdomen and thigh. The seat of your chair should be flat and firm. Some cellists prefer a seat with a slight forward incline (with the front of the seat lower than the back). This type of seat is also endorsed by many physiotherapists and practitioners of Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais Method because it encourages the upper body to lean forward towards the cello. However it takes getting used to and is not a recommendation I would make for beginners. To be avoided at all costs is the bucket seat, commonly found in schools and public halls and enemy number one of the human posture. Likewise any seat with a backward incline or excessively soft cushion should not be used. For anyone 5 foot or taller, an adjustable piano or keyboard bench is ideal. For those shorter than this, a child’s chair with a flat seat will do, so long as the angle between the abdomen and thigh is correct.

Balance is crucial. Many of my students look baffled when I tell them this – how difficult can it be to balance on a chair? Well, not at all difficult, but unfortunately it’s just as easy to sit with poor balance and unless we can tell the difference, we’re more inclined towards the latter. To begin with, it is best to sit towards the front of the seat, and to sit on the bones of your buttocks. Feet should always be flat on the floor, and should always be in a position that allows you to stand up without having to move them. Considering that you’ll need space between your knees for the cello to rest comfortably, you’ll need to place your feet a small distance apart from each other. Turning them outwards will allow your knees to fall further apart from each other than your feet, which in turn creates plenty of surface area from above the knees down to the calves for the cello to rest against. A good cello posture always implies motion, as if you were about to get up from your chair and walk in fluid motions. To enhance this it helps to incline your upper body slightly forward from your hips. Feel your weight going straight into your seat through the bones in your buttocks and don’t try to hold your upper body in any particular position. Swing your arms backwards and forwards to ensure that they move freely and easily. Now test the mobility in your hips by turning your entire upper body to the left then to the right. If you’re feeling the urge to do the Time Warp, leave the room and take a cold shower.

Finally, your neck should be tension-free and your head should be on top of your body, not in front of it. Remember this when you have your cello in hand and feel tempted to peer at your bow or left hand. It is easy to forget just how heavy the head is. When it’s hanging in front of the body it will create unwanted tension in the neck and back. A well aligned body, with the head balanced at the top of the spinal cord, allowance for the natural curvature of the spine and no “blockage” in any of the joints will feel light and will perform inordinately better than a misaligned body.
© D C Cello Studio

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Can Cello Really be Self-Taught?

Speaking as a classically trained cello teacher who herself underwent years of tuition at school and Music College, I won’t deny that I am extremely biased. I simply can’t get away from the notion that learning an instrument like the cello can only be a successful endeavour under the instruction of an experienced and capable teacher, and even under those circumstances it certainly won’t work out for everyone. Am I being close-minded? As I conduct research for my own video/ e-book companion for cello students, I keep stumbling across teach-yourself cello methods that promise to enable literally anyone to play. Since none of the methods I have encountered thus far have actually given a definition of what “playing” actually is, I suppose they are not necessarily offering false hope – providing those subscribing to the methods do not equate playing with being able to perform great repertoire or play in a professional level orchestra. Many might argue that drawing the bow across the string to make a passable sound is also playing.

Furthermore, I don’t deny that certain instruments have a long list of outstanding self-taught players. It is more than possible to teach oneself to play an instrument and even take that skill to a professional level. However, I don’t believe that certain instruments – particularly the violin, the viola or the cello – lend themselves at all well to self instruction. I should add at this point, that I will not be drawn into the utterly pointless arguement of which instruments are “easier” or “more difficult” to play, and I am not suggesting that stringed instruments fall into either category. What I am considering, is the accessibility of these instruments when the student has no idea how to hold them, how to hold the bow, or where to place their fingers. I’m sure we can all agree that one of the most disagreeable sounds in the world is that of a violin or cello in the hands of a beginner. Whereas a piano or guitar – both instruments being more “user friendly” with a more intuitive interface to those who have never attempted to play them – may sound dull or uninteresting in the early stages, but never quite as dreadful as a stringed instrument.

Perhaps you think I’m being a snob, and that my concern is not based on the actual practicalities of learning the cello without a teacher, but on the implications of this actually being possible. If more and more people begin to realise that playing the cello is an achievable goal without the costly help of a tutor, people like me will be out of a job. I’ll tell you why I don’t lose sleep over the prospect of losing my business to self-instruction methods: even if it is possible to become a skillful cellist with only the assistance of a book and a few videos, there is a limit to the number of people out there who prefer the “DIY” approach.

As for whether anyone can learn to play the cello as well as they’d like to by following video and book instructions, I believe I’m looking beyond my personal bias when I say that I am far from convinced. Without regular feedback and correction on fundamental issues such as posture, balance, intonation and bow technique (and that’s just for starters) it simply isn’t possible to develop technique that isn’t fraught with tension and bad habits. One of the greatest sources of frustration for musicians is physical tension, pain and injury caused by inadequate technique. So even if your motivation for learning the cello is “just for enjoyment”, there is very little enjoyment to be found in trying to do something that just makes us feel out of our depth. Am I saying that those who study cello with a teacher will not encounter these problems? Sadly not. You may find yourself with a perfectly good teacher but simply not “gel” with him. You might end up with a less than capable teacher whose motivation is to earn a few extra bucks as opposed to helping you to find and develop your musicality. Or you might have an inadequate practice routine. There are many factors that can hinder the development of a music student of any instrument. My feeling is that without a good teacher, all of these factors will be stacked much more heavily against you. A good teacher gets to know her students on a number of different levels – personality, intellect, physical aptitudes, musicality – in order to develop an individual approach to each student. She will never take a one size fits all approach when helping a student to solve problems. A book or video series, no matter how well written and demonstrated, can only offer one approach which won’t work for everyone. It cannot offer several alternative means of explaining each concept without becoming saturated, unreadable and far too lengthy.

I would welcome comments from anyone who is currently teaching themselves to play the cello or has ever attempted to do so. What method did you chose and why? How would you describe your progress? What are your goals for your cello playing?

© D C Cello Studio

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Developing Cello Technique


Tips for Avoiding RSI

There is no getting away from the fact that an effective practice schedule must include scales, technical exercises and studies. At face value these are boring, repetitive and lacking in any aesthetic value. The good news is that with the correct approach, none of the other adjectives will matter to you; only the good results.

There are also potential problems associated with repetitive exercises which many cellists will be familiar with. RSI or repetitive strain injury is every musician’s enemy – worse for some than for others. Whether you are prone to RSI or not, you can rest assured that a consistently incorrect approach to practising and playing will lead to injury in one form or another and for some musicians that can spell the end of their playing career. On the brighter side, being aware of this danger is an important step towards preventing it from happening.

From my experience based on the valuable advice my college teacher gave me and subsequent professional playing and teaching, the following three tips are indispensible when it comes to developing technique without developing injuries.

1. Choose your exercises according to the demands of your current repertoire

The whole point of developing the best technique we can is to be able to play challenging repertoire effortlessly. We want our focus can be on expressing the music, not managing the difficulty. Take time to study the pieces you are working on away from your instrument and identify the areas you know you’ll struggle with, or that you know other cellists tend to struggle with. Analyse those technical difficulties: do they relate to the bow or the left hand? Have you encountered them in previous repertoire you have played or are they new to you? If new, it is essential that you get your teacher to show you how to approach them and suggest what material you can use to practise and develop the technique in question. Avoid immersing yourself in the piece before you feel comfortable with the new technique – you will only frustrate yourself and grow tired of the piece if you keep hitting a brick wall in certain parts.

Also take time to analyse the keys covered in the piece, and identify any arpeggios, scales and diminished or dominant 7ths that occur. If you can’t play them from memory with a sensible fingering pattern, there’s a very good chance you’ll stumble when you encounter them in the piece. The same applies to difficult rhythm patterns and irregular time signatures, both of which can be applied to scales with great results.

Feuillard’s Daily Exercises has a complete section dedicated to scales and arpeggios and all of their variants across the entire range of the cello with alternate and uniform fingering patterns. I have found this section to be an invaluable resource for familiarising myself with the entire geography of the instrument as well as being completely comfortable playing in remote keys and reading difficult accidentals. For those of you who thought scales and arpeggios could go out the window once you passed your grade 8 exam, think again!  They are the fundamental basis of everything you play – whether it’s a concerto or a cello part in a symphony.

Many editions also offer valuable advice about the finer points of the piece, but these are more often to do with interpretation and should be consulted when you’ve settled on your supplementary exercises.

Finally, the Bärenreiter edition of Popper’s High School of Cello Playing comes with a text volume which gives an overview of the studies as a whole, a more detailed overview of each study, and a list of repertoire that each study resembles in technical challenges. Although the repertoire lists are by no means exhaustive, they are extremely useful and encourage the player to think of more pieces to add to each list.

2. Avoid the “no pain no gain” approach

We musicians all have a tendency to get overzealous in our attempts to better ourselves, and all too often we end up convincing ourselves that physical pain is a natural and necessary part of becoming a good player. Nothing could be further from the truth. If what you’re doing hurts you, you haven’t found the best way to do it. In everything that we do, we need to find the most energy efficient way to do it, constantly watching out for unwanted tension creeping in. This often occurs when we get impatient with slow practice.

However frustrating you find it practising at a slow and controlled tempo, you have to give your mind and body the opportunity to learn each movement specific to the technique you’re studying. You wouldn’t attempt tightrope walking without a considerable amount of training and guidance, would you?  This may seem a silly analogy as the prospect of attempting the latter without really knowing how to do it is physically dangerous. Attempting a technical exercise at a faster pace than you’re capable of may not be life threatening but it can and often will lead to pain or injury.

Avoid exercises that are obviously beyond your physical reach. I have encountered advanced exercise volumes devised by cellists whose hands were obviously considerably bigger than mine. Short of magically growing my hands I will never be able to play this without considerable discomfort so I avoid them. The same applies to certain studies and repertoire.

It is important to distinguish between technical weaknesses which can be overcome and technical impossibilities which are best left alone. The cello is gifted with such a vast and diverse repertoire that not being able to play a few pieces due to physical limitations is really not something to feel downcast about.

3. Know what each exercise is for

It is often perfectly clear what exercises are for – either because they are accompanied by the composer’s or editor’s notes, or because they cover an easy to identify technique. But this cannot be said for all exercises, and even those that come with descriptions are not always straight forward when it comes to executing them correctly. A good example is spiccato and sautillé bowing. Simply knowing that an exercise is aimed at improving one of these types of bowing is not enough if you’re unsure of the actual execution or the differences between the two bowing types, which are often confused. If you’re ever unsure, ask your teacher and try to find literature relating to the volume of exercises you’re working on from specialist magazines, journals or books.

This is even more important when it comes to studies, as they often cover more than one aspect of technique which may not be immediately apparent. As already mentioned, many editions come with comprehensive notes by the composer or editor, and these are always worth reading before starting work on any of the studies.

In conclusion, technical exercises, although potentially a double-edged sword, are an essential part of your practice diet and if used well, make up the building blocks of a solid, well-rounded technique that can be relied upon in as many settings and circumstances as possible. Technical exercises should not be seen as a separate entity, but rather as a means to facilitate your musicality and to promote physically balanced, relaxed technique.


Tips for Getting the Most out of Your Practice Routine 

Every developing cellist who longs to play the great repertoire for our instrument–whether to a packed auditorium or simply in the quiet comfort of their practice room–knows that getting there is a long hard journey with no short cuts and many hurdles along the way. We reach a point in our development where we begin to develop a personal voice through our instrument and start to realise that the importance of knowing our scales and arpeggios reaches far beyond a tedious exercise in keeping our teacher or examiner relatively happy. It is generally at this point in our journey that we begin to appreciate the importance of thorough daily practice.

This new mind set is one of the most important steps any musician can take in their musical development. It is also the point at which many musicians become frustrated and lose interest or give up playing altogether. The most common reason for this is spending hours practising and not making the desired progress.

Developing a truly effective practice regime takes time and a certain amount of experimentation to find what works best for each individual, but there are a few guidelines that will always get you off to a good start.

1. Know your weaknesses

In my previous article, “Tips for Avoiding RSI” I discussed the importance of using technical exercises and studies as material to support and aid your study of cello repertoire.  Constant self assessment is equally important and often one of the more difficult and frustrating parts of playing the cello, or any other instrument for that matter. If I had a pound for all the times I sat down to a nice session of vanity practising – cherry picking scales, exercises and pieces that I knew I could play well – I’d own a strad by now.  We all do it and it’s hardly surprising.  Learning to play an instrument to anything beyond an intermediate level means that you are constantly opening yourself to criticism from your teacher, your peers, examiners and audiences.  Every now and again it does us good to sit down and remind ourselves what we do well.

But not so often that we lose sight of what we need to work on and end up stagnating in our development.  Finding the right exercises to work on is entirely dependent on identifying technical weaknesses and understanding what is required to work on these weaknesses.

Whilst it is extremely important to be honest with yourself about what you’re not that good at, beware of becoming overwhelmed.  Remember that this type of learning is a lifelong process and without a patient, focussed practice routine you’ll only slow down or grind to a halt.  Remember also that identifying a weak area is not an exercise in self flagellation, but a positive step towards crossing it off your list.

The most frequent technical shortcomings I see in my more advanced students tend to be elemental issues such as string crosses, shifts and a lack of forward planning with the bow. Although the symptoms are often alike, the causes of these problems can vary and require a certain amount of analysis from both the teacher and the student to get to the route of the problem.

2. Know the benefits of going back to the basics

Regardless of how advanced you might be you can always benefit from revisiting more basic techniques.  One thing I realised in hindsight about my development as a cellist, was that the steeper my learning curve got, the more I focussed on the most difficult aspects, often at the expense of things as basic as drawing the bow parallel to the bridge or allowing tension to build up in my left hand.  The fact is, if the basics aren’t working well, there’s no chance of mastering anything more challenging.

There is an outstanding series of method books for the cello by Folkmar Längin called “Praktischer Lehrgang fur das Violoncellospiel”.  It consists of five volumes which cover every basic aspect of cello technique from open strings to thumb position and beyond.  Although there is no English translation available for these books, the exercises are extremely well written with excellent excerpts from cello studies and repertoire as well as arrangements of folk tunes and well-known classical repertoire for other instruments.  Furthermore, the method is the most thorough and best organised I have ever encountered, and as a teacher I’ve spent a great deal of my time examining and trying out every method I can get my hands on.  The fact that these books are written for cello students of any age also means that they are a much better source for older advanced cellists to use as technique refreshers as they are not covered in illustrations and large print notation aimed at younger learners.

3. Don’t be disheartened when your progress slows down

Even with the most focussed and attentive practice methods, progress often doesn’t follow an upward trend and can be governed as much by factors outside of your musical life as it is by those within.  It’s frustrating when there is no discernable improvement in your playing – especially when you’re under a lot of pressure to learn difficult repertoire and show results.  These two things are also often linked: the more stress you’re experiencing, the more distracted you’re likely to be. You may also find yourself somewhat more susceptible to fatigue and tension, neither of which will do your overall progress any favours.

There is no magic fix for times like these, but it pays to remember that when you’re already under a lot of pressure that you can’t do anything about, it’s best not to add to it by forcing yourself to practise when you’re not physically up to it.  More often than not, 3 hours broken up into 3 or 4 sessions will get better results than 8 manic hours with insufficient breaks and subsequently failing concentration.  We’re often told not to watch the clock when we practice so that we don’t end up simply “putting in time”.  Good advice for sure, but there are times when it pays to set your alarm clock to tell you when to stop and have a break.

Most importantly, remember that these frustrating times in your career may come up from time to time, but they’re never permanent and are quite often followed by a burst of enlightenment and progress that is equally intense.

The rest is very much up to you. Practising is the essential tool for developing your musical and instrumental ability and it pays to remember that it is not a ready-made tool. Learning to practice well is an integral part of learning to play. It requires equal measures of discipline, organisation and self-awareness, and will teach you as much about yourself as your instrument.


© D C Cello Studio

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