The cello challenge

In the past, such cellists as Jean-Louis Duport, Friedrich Gruetzmacher, and David Popper wrote études that have since helped us surpass a variety of common technical problems. We dread practicing these études, sometimes forgetting that when we play them, it is as if we were studying with one of these stupendous cellists from history—and for free!

Famous performers already share their interpretations with us by editing concertos and sonatas. But wouldn’t it be exciting to play a Mstislav Rostropovich or a Yo-Yo Ma étude?

There is a way, however, to participate in great music making while learning the cello: write your own étude. As a teacher or performer, writing an étude enables you to communicate with the future, as well as with people from different parts of the world, who sometimes do not have ready access to quality instruction

Break it Down

The main purpose of an étude is to isolate and solve a technical problem by turning it into an exercise or short piece of music to practice. The cello literature is crowded with demanding passages, a fertile land of problems ready to be tackled. The Beethoven string quartets are an excellent resource for cello challenges. In these 17 quartets, the cello often plays a subdued role for several minutes, only to burst out in a sudden display of awkward virtuosity. Some of these outbursts are rather complicated—a fast-paced origami with fingers, bow, and strings. The task of the étude writer is to decipher the intricate pattern of fingers, bow, and strings and determine what is the most crucial barrier to their swift performance.

Overcoming that barrier will be the chief component in writing an étude.

Two other necessary elements in an étude are a fair amount of repetition and some imagination. Neither element should overshadow the other. Too much repetition and the étude is pointless, as students could have repeated that passage by themselves; too much imagination and the étude is also wasted, as performers require a certain amount of mechanization to execute an automatic motion. A successful étude will entertain and inspire while teaching us to move in complex ways more or less automatically, so that we can focus on the music rather than on the motions themselves.

For didactical purposes, let’s subdivide cello problems into three main categories: those related to the right hand, those related to the left hand, and those related to the coordination between both hands. Passages belonging to the first category of problems require slow bowing or apparently random string crossings. To the second category belong those sections that provide difficult or fast fingerings. The last category deals with the relationship between bow and left hand, usually requiring the left hand to anticipate bow changes.

Op. 18, No 1

Right at the outset of Beethoven’s quartet cycle, the second movement of Op. 18, No.1, exhibits a long and sinuous melodic line that winds its way through the cello part. This adagio line is usually performed with long whole-bows, projecting nine eighth notes through the quartet texture and across the performance space. This problem clearly belongs to the first category—that of the right hand. String crossings play a major role in using up the precious bow length, so they must be performed as “vertically” as possible; that is, the player should cross the strings using an arch and use as little bow length as possible while still maintaining an ample tone. A well-adjusted choice of contact-point, weight, speed, and execution of the arch motion are essential in overcoming this type of problem.

The last movement of the same Op. 18, No. 1, features dazzling sixteenth-note triplet runs, requiring acute deftness in the left hand. An étude based on these runs should exploit the possibility of modulation while always preserving the original fingerings. It is harder to build an étude based on fingerings, especially if there are open strings, because there are only so many possibilities for transposition that might keep the fingering the same. If there are open strings, the possible number of transpositions is only three, not counting the original version, as the cello has four strings. In an étude based on bowings and string crossings, the melodic imagination of the author is granted far more freedom.

The first movement of Op. 59, No. 1 (measures 83–84, 114–121, 330–331, and 378–385), and the fugato theme from the last movement of Op. 59, No. 3, offer first-class material for études on coordination problems. A functional way to approach this type of problem is to divide the passages into cell-like portions that can be reiterated and intermingled in various ways, as well as separated by appropriate rests to give the player desirable mental breaks. These cells can gradually come together over the course of the étude until they grow into a whole excerpt. You can use more than one excerpt to make the intertwining of cells quite captivating as different keys and rhythms are mixed.

These études do not even need to sound like Beethoven; they could end up sounding like chance music

Cellular Communication

A word of caution: always present identical material in an identical manner; for example, don’t change the part of the measure or beat in which a certain cell appears in the original excerpt, as this rhythmic displacement will needlessly complicate matters. Before choosing the appropriate cells, however, you should decide on bowings and fingerings, because these will dictate the division of the excerpt into cells. It is wise to start the étude with cells based on the most uncomfortable problems, and repeat them throughout the étude until the full passage is presented. The player should learn through the étude how to play an excerpt, instead of having to learn the étude on top of learning the excerpt.

By writing your own étude based on an excerpt from the literature, you will share with others your interpretation of that passage and teaching them how to perform it your way. There is no other way out of this puzzle. When you divide passages into shorter motives, select when to repeat them and how many times to repeat them and when you choose fingerings and bowings, you are unavoidably making musical decisions based on your personal tastes. The same passage could yield a thousand études if there were a thousand people interested in how to solve it.

That is the beauty of our art.