While playing the cello, make the forces of nature work for you
Think about this, cellists: gravity doesn’t need your help when you play your instrument. The force is already with you: use it, with finesse, to maintain the proper relaxed balance on your instrument that will allow you to play well.
You need to work with gravity, says cello instructor Elizabeth Morrow of the University of Texas–Arlington, to establish a sense of balance at every point where there’s contact between your body and something else—the chair, the floor, the bow, the fingerboard. “Over any of these places,” she says, “we need a feeling of equilibrium.”
1. First Step: Relax
The first step, Morrow says, is essentially to stop trying so hard to make your body fight gravity. Borrowing an idea from cellist and teacher Cornelia Watkins, Morrow suggests that before you bring your hands up and around to your cello, imagine that you are a marionette, utterly limp, and a puppeteer is lifting your arms via overhead strings. Feel the natural weight in your hands and arms as they’re “pulled” up.
“That’s the sensation you want when you lift your arm to play,” she says. As you play, that weight may be suspended (manipulated by the deltoid muscles), or it may rest on the string, or work in some combination of the two. Remember, the idea is to rest the bow or finger on the string, not to press.
2. Ease Up on Bow Pressure
Your bow hand should not be exerting its own pressure; Morrow describes it as a lever that transfers the weight of your arm through the bow to the point of contact with the string.
To feel how it works, hold your arm straight out in front of you as if you’re holding a soft-drink can. Now, rotate the imaginary can as if you were turning a doorknob, and notice which parts of your body are working, and which are resting. You’re not lifting your shoulder, and you’re not bearing down on anything. All you’re doing, essentially, is rotating your forearm. That’s exactly the rotational force you use to transfer your arm weight through the bow hold to the contact point with the string.
“At the frog we can direct the weight over the first finger,” Morrow says, “but as the arm draws the bow and moves further away from the body, we have to increase that rotational force, feeling the suspended weight of the arm, not lifting the arm to create pressure.”
And don’t squeeze—do not use either thumb to create pressure in opposition to the fingers. Otherwise, your right thumb will cause problems in your bowing, and your left thumb will make it harder to get around the fingerboard.
3. Balance the Left Arm
“You have to balance the left arm on the fingerboard in a way that doesn’t require the thumb to press when you hold down the string,” Morrow says. “Imagine a hanger with a hook at the top. It’s pliable but firm. Think of your fingers as the hook of the hanger; we want to hang those fingers from the fingerboard with the arm as a unit, all suspended from the point of contact on the fingerboard.”
4. And Relax Some More
Remember Morrow’s description of the hook: pliable. Keep that in mind in every way you embrace the cello and bow. “Our body has to remain spring-like,” she says. “When we put the bow on the string, we don’t want to experience any rigidity in the fingers. They need the capacity to give. We create a form, but within that form we need to maintain flexibility. With the left hand, when we hang the hook of the hanger onto the string, we need to feel that those finger joints, each of the knuckles, have the capacity to give, so as the weight sinks down into the fingers we can find the most advantageous point of energy transfer—we can feel the optimal point of balance.
“With the right hand, we want to feel the spring in our wrist, and we want to feel the spring in our fingers, feel that they’re absorbing the weight and transferring it to the contact point, not holding the weight.”
5. Stay Flexible
Flexibility is especially important because the cello is not a simple, flat surface—the fingerboard is curved, each string level is different, and when you go from the A string to the C string, either with your left hand or the bow, you’re following a curve.
6. Coordinate the Left and Right Hands
“Envision each string as a separate plane, with space on either side of it,” Morrow says. “When we talk about balance, we have to look at both the left and right hand on that plane. As we go from one string to the next, our balance has to shift to a new plane. You have to conform your playing around the instrument.
“As I go from the A string with the left hand to the C string, on the A string my arm is much lower and back toward my body. Going to the C string, I shift my arm and rotate my body; the arm comes up and forward, so when I go to the C string I can rebalance its weight over on that far plane.
“The same thing is true with the bow, drawing it on a different plane for each string. One way to visualize that plane is to put the bow on the string, either having someone hold it for you or holding the bow yourself with the left hand, so that the tip of the bow is at the bridge and the rest of the bow is hanging out in space at a right angle to the right. Now, bring the right hand up and slide it up and down the bow while the bow is resting on the D string, as if you’re drawing the bow from frog to tip.
“As you do this, your right arm can experience the path it needs to follow on that plane. Next, when you define the plane of the A string, you can really see how much further out and forward the arm needs to extend, reaching up and out to keep the bow perpendicular to the string in order to pull a straight bow.
“To experience balance on each string, you have to keep your weight working on its particular plane.”