By Louise Lee

THE PROBLEM: Tension is affecting your cello playing, and you can’t seem to relax.

THE SOLUTION: Try these troubleshooting exercises to evaluate your grip and help you loosen up.

Do you squeeze thumbs, grab tightly onto bows, or play with tight arms and stiff shoulders?  If so, Cornelia Watkins, cello instructor in the preparatory division at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, is sympathetic. “The instinct is to grab on and squeeze, but it’s the worst thing to do,” says Watkins, who years ago experienced so much tension in her playing that she “shredded” her tendons.

Watkins has developed a set of exercises and imagination tricks to help you drain tension from your playing to let you instead play freely and comfortably.

Convince yourself that you can choose to use only certain muscles while keeping others relaxed.

Here’s a guide and links to the sections in this article:

  1. Learn to isolate muscles
  2. Feel the weight
  3. Rest while you play
  4. Spring load
  5. Shift with the correct muscles
  6. Play mind games

1. Learn to isolate muscles. Convince yourself that you can choose to use only certain muscles while keeping others relaxed. Try Watkins’ “dead arm” exercise. Let your left arm hang lifelessly. Then tense up only the muscles needed to move just one finger. Repeat until you have the feeling that you can use only the muscles needed to keep your fingers on the fingerboard while keeping your arm loose.

On your right arm, you can keep your fingers relaxed if you think of them as “sticky.” Imagine your fingers sticking to the bow, much like a tree frog sticks to trees, and you’re less likely to grab your bow tightly, even when your right arm is working.


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2. Feel the weight. Think of your left arm as a coat hanger. Imagine hanging a coat on it, creating a steady weight that allows you to hang your fingers on the fingerboard. “Let your arm hang, and don’t grab with your thumb,” Watkins says.

When you’re playing in upper positions, feel your arm weight “pouring down through your arm to your fingertips, instead of just pushing fingers into the fingerboard,” Watkins says. “Think of raising your elbow up so your arm is standing on your fingers.”

3. Rest while you play. When you’re practicing vibrato and feel your arm tightening up, even after only one or two shakes, simply drop your hand off the fingerboard, relax, and then resume your vibrato.  “This process will eventually ‘starve’ the old tight habits out of existence,” Watkins says. “Doing battle with the old vibrato—trying to force it to be wide and loose—only contributes to the problem. But dropping your arm at the slightest inkling of tension teaches the muscles to respond with immediate release. Eventually the muscles will learn to release without the need to drop the arm away from the cello.”

4. Spring load. When playing certain bow strokes, such as a fast détaché, imagine a large rubber band connecting your bow hand and the fingerboard. Imagine that your right-arm muscles are active in the down-bow, but allow the imaginary rubber band to bring your hand back on the up-bow. Of course, you’re using some muscles to do the up-bow, but the sense of release will relax your extensor muscles and allow your flexors to bring the bow back to the starting position with minimum effort, Watkins says. Think of a down-bow followed by an up-bow as one stroke, not two.

It’s the same idea for trills. Instead of thinking that you have to actively move your trilling finger up and down, think of it as spring-loaded or bouncing. The sense of bouncing will help you relax.

5. Shift with the correct muscles. Use the large muscles in your shoulder, upper arm, and back when you’re making a large shift from a low position to a high one. “If you start from the back or upper arm muscles, the hand moves to the higher position more quickly, so you’re not just shoving your hand,” Watkins says. When you’re practicing big shifts, work on mastering the movement first, initiating it with the large muscles and not forcing small muscles in your wrist and hand to do all the work. Only then worry about intonation. “Don’t react if it’s out of tune—just observe what happened” and gradually make adjustments, Watkins says.  

6. Play mind games. “Words can have a powerful effect on the way we play,” Watkins says. Words like “drape,” “float,” “silky,” and “soft” are relaxing. When you need more volume, avoid “louder” and “stronger,” which imply the need for more force, and think of “flowing,” “expansive,” “generous,” or “exuberant,” which don’t suggest tension or effort.

Feeling “playful” about a tricky passage can optimize your chances for success and is less burdensome than, “I hope I can get through this without screwing up,” Watkins says.

This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of Strings magazine.

For more physical wellness tips from the pages of Strings magazine, check out Healthy String Playing.



The complete edition of the Care & Repair of Cellos series gives you a library of video and written instruction that will provide you with extensive knowledge that will help you understand your instrument and, in turn, be a more informed owner and user of stringed instruments and bows.