A Little Flash: How to Practice David Popper’s Gavotte in D

By Benjamin Whitcomb | From the March/April 2020 issue of Strings Magazine

David Popper’s Gavotte in D major is a delightful, short work that intermediate cellists have been learning and performing for decades. Like so many of Popper’s works, it contains a variety of cello techniques, which makes it a great teaching piece. It is also considerably easier than many of his other works, making it a good introduction to Popper’s compositions.

As with any piece of music, the more efficiently you practice it, the better and more quickly you will learn it. A good first step is to scan the piece to look for the technical challenges and then practice these in isolation. In this case, there are four things that stand out.

Scores for David Popper’s Gavotte in D are available at imslp.org.

1. Bowings

Try applying the bowings of various short passages to your scale practice to familiarize yourself with the various techniques required (Ex. 1). 

Ex. 1

2. Ornaments

When you see that ornaments such as trills, turns, or mordents are called for, it is good to practice these during your warm-up routine. For example, you could apply mordents to your scale practice as seen in Ex. 2. Notice how your bow has to anticipate the change of direction for the ornamented notes. In effect, you are playing what is notated in Ex. 3. Although you do not need to start the mordent quite as early as I do in Ex. 3, when you begin practicing them it is good to start the ornaments as early as possible. 

David Popper's Gavotte in D
Ex. 2
David Popper's Gavotte in D
Ex. 3

3. Thumb Position

Since this work contains some passages in thumb position, you would benefit from spending some time working on your comfort level, accuracy, tone, and intonation in thumb position as well. Working through the four common patterns of tetrachords (i.e. collections of four notes) is one good possibility (Ex. 4). In the fingerings in Ex. 4, T = thumb, L = low, H = high, and R = regular (i.e. neither high nor low). Next, try spending some time practicing various scale patterns with the thumb on the half-way harmonic (Ex. 5). Be sure to practice the pattern for F-sharp minor as well, as it is the key that the longest and most difficult thumb position passage is in (Ex. 6). 

David Popper's Gavotte in D
Ex. 4
David Popper's Gavotte in D
Ex. 5
David Popper's Gavotte in D
Ex. 6

4. High-Register Harmonics

In this gavotte, the groups of harmonics in the treble clef certainly catch one’s attention. Become as comfortable as you can with the various harmonics in this register: They appear with some frequency in the advanced repertoire, plus they will be useful landmarks for finding other high notes in the future. Practice the harmonic arpeggios in Ex. 7 until they become comfortable and familiar. You might also try manipulating them in various ways, such as by using them to play bugle tunes, like in Ex. 8. For these harmonics to speak well, place the bow closer to the bridge and move it faster than you would for a stopped (i.e. non-harmonic) note.


David Popper's Gavotte in D
Ex. 7
David Popper's Gavotte in D
Ex. 8

Now that you have accomplished a significant amount of the preparatory work that will make learning the piece much easier, it is time to walk through the sections and identify specific practice strategies for each passage.

Measures 1–8

The bow stroke here is perhaps the most important feature. Try isolating the right hand by practicing the open string pattern, such as in Ex. 9. Experiment with different lengths of articulations. Find the exact stroke that sounds cleanest and that best fits the perky mood of the piece. Really lead with the wrist on the up bows, not only for good technique and articulation, but to help the up-beats sound directional—like they truly pull the music into the following downbeat.

David Popper's Gavotte in D
Ex. 9

Although the meter is indicated as common time, it really benefits from having a cut-time feel. Strive to create a longer line by having only one or two goal notes (i.e. strong arrivals) per phrase.

Carefully tune the F sharp in m. 2 and the D in m. 4. In m. 3, ensure that the second-finger E is absolutely identical in pitch to the first-finger E.

Be sure to play the piece very steadily and rhythmically. When you hear a recording or see the piano part, you will notice that the piano has steady eighth notes with which your part should always line up.

Measures 8–15

These are the most difficult measures of the piece, so be prepared to spend extra time with them. Be sure to practice challenging passages like these as slowly as necessary in order to be comfortable and accurate at all times.

Beware of the intonation of the G sharp in m. 10 and the E sharp in m. 11. Aren’t you glad you already spent time practicing different finger patterns in this position? Practice these two onerous notes by isolating them, and then by pausing on them. Be sure that the tone quality does not suffer as you cross to the D string. On some cellos, one must significantly boost the volume on the D string in order to sound connected to the notes on the A string.

The other challenge in this passage is provided by the mordents, which you also practiced beforehand. Again, pay close attention to the timing of the bow (Ex. 10). It is easy to underestimate the importance of the right hand in a passage like this. Do not overlook the huge dynamic change in m. 13 from piano to fortissimo. This change will best be accomplished with a significant increase of both arm weight and bow speed. 

David Popper's Gavotte in D
Ex. 10

Measures 16–19

Exaggerate the articulations and dynamics in this passage. Isolate and practice the staccato stroke in mm. 18–19. With a stroke like this, be sure to save bow. Try practicing even longer groupings, such as in Ex. 11. The amount of bow that each note gets is extremely small indeed. Again, ensure that the G sharps are in tune, and that they are precisely the same pitch every time.

David Popper's Gavotte in D
Ex. 11

Measures 20–24

Sing through the dotted half notes. Keep this passage interesting—the effect should be one of anticipation, rather than of sounding stuck or static. Make a clean and accurate shift in m. 22, ensuring that the pitch of the two F sharps is exactly the same (but in different registers, of course). Make a large crescendo in mm. 23–24, but also save bow so that you keep control of the tone and have enough bow left for the last two notes in m. 24. To accomplish this, move closer to the bridge and be sure to start the note near the tip. You may wish to stop the bow one instant before the reprise in the middle of m. 24.


Measures 24–32 

These measures consist of a repeat of earlier material (mm. 1–8). Whether or not you decide to play this passage slightly differently from the opening material, ensure that it sounds every bit as engaging as the beginning. When you take the first ending (m. 32), place a breath in the middle of the bar to separate the musical ideas and help define the form of the piece.

Measures 33–46

Try practicing scales with the bowing in mm. 33–34. Avoid letting this sound stilted or mechanical—rather, it should sound light and attractive. Try Ex. 12 to isolate and practice the shifts in mm. 35–36. 

David Popper's Gavotte in D
Ex. 12

Also, practice saving bow in these two measures. Bowing a bit closer to the bridge can significantly help you slow the bow down without losing tone quality.

Isolate and practice at length the harmonics in mm. 36 and 40. A few tips to keep in mind:

  • Ensure that the left elbow is able to move as you cross strings.
  • Practice placing and lifting the fingers instantaneously (as one finger touches the string, any other finger already on that string should lift as quickly as possible).
  • You may find that the harmonics speak better if you place the finger on the far side of the string (as opposed to being on the top of the string).
  • Until you get used to playing high harmonics, you may also wish to use a tiny bit of portato bowing (slightly rearticulating each pitch).

Experiment a bit with timing and dynamics in mm. 42–44. As with mm. 22–24, there should be a sense of anticipation (and perhaps some humor as well). While mm. 8–15 make up the most difficult passage in the piece, this passage (mm. 33–41) sounds the most difficult and dazzling. Your goal should be to master the technique of the passage to such an extent that you can project how much fun it is to play it.

Measures 47–55 

This passage is another repeat of the refrain. Consider the possibility of slightly delaying your entrance in the second half of m. 47.

Measures 55–64

Carefully tune each note in mm. 55–56. In particular, make certain that the B in m. 55 is both in tune and beautiful. The finger should be all the way down against the fingerboard and feel balanced right before the bow articulates the note. To help with this, you might consider the possibility of not playing the preceding A as a harmonic. Save bow in mm. 58–59. Again, moving a bit closer to the bridge is very useful. Carefully tune these pitches as well. For example, is the pitch of the first-finger E in m. 58 exactly the same as that of the fourth-finger E that precedes it?


Isolate and practice the shifts in the beginning of m. 62 (Ex. 13).

David Popper's Gavotte in D
Ex. 13

Measures 64–72

Practice these harmonics in a similar manner to how you practiced mm. 36 and 40. You may find yourself using even more bow here in order to get a clear and beautiful sound. Try to make mm. 64–66 sound final—as though this is how the piece is going to end. Do not hold anything back in the middle of m. 67! Use a broad, full, unapologetic stroke. Maximize the contrast and the surprise. Similarly, in the middle of m. 69, instantly switch to a light, innocent, and well-behaved piano dynamic. Try using a circular stroke here—one that allows you to stay in the same part of the bow.

The perfect fifths in mm. 69–71 must be perfectly in tune, as must the final two chords in mm. 71–72. If these are sometimes out of tune, try adjusting the height and angle of your left elbow. (You will probably find yourself raising it somewhat.) Some editions mark these last two chords arco and others as pizzicato—which is what I prefer. If you do choose pizzicato, be sure to use a nice, big motion and follow through (despite the piano dynamic) to result in a resonant tone. The B section of this piece is
a musette (a type of dance in duple meter with a held drone note) in D minor that can move at a considerably quicker tempo if you wish.

Measures 73–80

Again, fortissimo with accents should be very loud. It is wonderful to learn how to play truly loud dynamics on a cello. Careful with the intonation of the shift to third position in m. 74. Isolate it and repeat it, very slowly at first. In mm. 7–76, you have the opportunity to tune your stopped pitches against an open string, which is always one of the many good ways to practice intonation. The major ninth from E to D may not sound right at first, but you can quickly learn to hear the precise placement of this interval that makes it “in tune.” Practice leaning more on the A string than the D string in this passage (mm. 75–76) so that listeners hear more melody than accompaniment.

Measures 81–94

Here, you need to lean the bow much more on the D string than the A string in order to hear the melody well. Tune all of these notes carefully. Slow practice is indispensable. Do not neglect the accents in mm. 82–84. You may find that you have to work harder to bring them out on the D string than on the A string. Be sure to bring the dynamic level down five levels (from ff to pp) in mm. 85–94. However, keep the sound quality beautiful and vibrant.

Measures 95–102

As with mm. 20–24 and 42–44, here is another passage that can sound quite effective if played with a sense of anticipation, playing with the listener’s expectations. If played matter-of-factly, as though following a set of instructions, it will fall flat. And try adding a ritard and a diminuendo into the fermata in m. 102.

This delightful and charming little composition is fun to play and easy to listen to. Non-cellists generally have no idea how easy or difficult it is, and it is just flashy enough to be a nice encore or stand-alone piece worth learning and keeping in your repertoire. Happy practicing!