How to Play the Cello

10 lessons to sharpen your cello-playing technique

Play Cello with Less Effort in 6 Easy Steps

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. . . . ” [Read More]

Unlock Your Thumb for Fluid Cello Technique

I often give students a little quiz. It’s simple, yet what it reveals is of paramount importance to the development of any cellist’s technique. Here it is: hold either of your hands in front of you, and with the index finger of one hand, simply point to and count the number of knuckles (joints where you can bend) on each finger of the other hand, thumb included. Start with the little finger, and go on to each of the others in turn. Do you notice any patterns? For each of the first four fingers you counted, I trust you came up with three knuckles each. Now, on to the thumb. I’m guessing that you found only two. If so, count again! [Read More]

Learn to Devise the Best Cello Fingerings

In the world of the cello, it’s no secret that good playing requires good fingerings. But how can you decide what distinguishes a good fingering from a bad one, and what criteria can you use to figure out the best possible fingering solution? Find the answers by following a simple set of steps. A discussion of cello fingerings is largely a discussion of when and where to shift (along with which finger to shift to and from, which position to shift to, and on which string). Since there are both technical and musical reasons for shifting, you can further divide the criteria for good fingerings into these two categories as well. Most situations involve both musical and technical reasons for shifting, but it is useful to keep their different purposes distinct in one’s mind. [Read More]

Play Your Stringed Instrument Faster


Rhythm doesn’t always come easily, let alone naturally—it can come with a cost when players fail to control speed or to prepare by studying études. It’s like driver’s training. There’s such an intense desire to play fast and with great emotion that rhythmic relationships can easily be distorted. When a player rushes, over-emotes, or plays like a runaway truck, it may be time to focus on the rhythm side of the equation and get a handle on your speed, even if that means going back to the driver’s manual—the tried-and-true études. . . . [Read More]

Further Resources

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Improve Your Cello Spiccato Stroke in 3 Easy Steps

To achieve the detached, distinct sound of spiccato on the cello, there are two strokes: uncontrolled (a light, fast stroke) and controlled (a stronger, slower stroke). The controlled spiccato is a pure saltato stroke, a “jumping” stroke or an “off the string bounce”—you have control over both the down and the up bows. The uncontrolled spiccato is a weighted, on-the-string stroke that “sounds” as though it is bouncing more than actually being “off”—you only have control of the down bow. [Read More]

Posture Pointers for String Players


How one looks, feels, and sounds is inextricably linked when it comes to playing stringed instruments. Good posture is often the easy solution to melding these three pieces. When posture is “good,” bones are properly aligned and joints, muscles, ligaments, and tendons are strain-free, promoting movement efficiency and stamina. Muscles like to be in positions of the least strain and the least effort. Data indicates an increased risk of injury if work necessitates adopting awkward postures, fixed (or held) postures, or stiff body positions. These are undesirable as they load or put stress on joints in an uneven or asymmetrical way. Yet, many times these postures are unavoidable, especially when the nature of work seemingly yields no other options. But what exactly is good posture and how can players know when they are practicing it? It can be a tricky thing to recognize and often requires breaking a series of bad habits… . [Read More]

3 Player Tips from Yo-Yo Ma

Short, but sweet goals for the successful cellist . . . . [Read More]

How to Fix, or at Least Control, a Wolf Tone


By 1974, when the grey wolf became one of the first animals to be protected under the then year-old Federal Endangered Species Act, the predator had been hunted almost to extinction. But it became apparent that the wolf must be saved—not in spite of being a predator, but for that very reason. As feared and reviled as it might be, the wolf serves an indispensable role in preserving the balance of the overall ecosystem; to preserve the balance, mankind must learn to accommodate the wolf, rather than the other way around. . . . [Read More]

Learning to Write Cello Études for Beethoven’s String Quartets

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. . . . [Read More]

Tips on Finding Cello Repertoire

In my two-part article “Cellists’ Choice” (In Print, December 1999 and January 2000), I presented my view of the standard cello repertoire. While most of the selections on my list are readily available, some probably have gone out of print or might be difficult to locate. Newly published works and older ones that are still in print can be found by browsing through music stores, checking mail-order catalogs, reading magazine reviews, and surfing the Internet. However, there is also a galaxy of lesser-known but worthwhile works by important composers, original works by obscure composers, arrangements, compositions by cellists of the past, and newly composed pieces. Knowing about and tracking down this off-the-beaten-path repertoire can be a greater challenge. . . . [Read More]