By Anita Graef
Congratulations on beginning your study of cello! Learning to play a musical instrument can be an enormously rewarding, challenging and joyful addition to your life at any stage. Here, we’ll cover your first cello lesson and some basic tools for getting started with the cello.
How to Hold the Cello
Everyone’s bodies are different, so everyone’s set up may look slightly different, but there are some basics that hold true throughout. Don’t be surprised if the way you hold the cello looks slightly different than the way someone else may hold their instrument. Before picking up the cello, practice sitting comfortably without the instrument first. When choosing a chair of proper height, look for a seat that allows for a slight downward slope from your upper thighs to your knees. You should hold your back in a straight, but not in a stiff position, and your feet should be planted about shoulder-width apart. Try going from a sitting to a standing position without adjusting your feet. Wherever you place your feet, that is generally a good placement for playing cello, as well. You want to make sure that you are not leaning too far forward or too far backward when seated.
When you pick up the cello and place it in front of you, your seated position should not alter much. Adjust the endpin to a length that enables you to sit as comfortably as before. We usually think of the cello as being positioned in the center of your body, though the endpin should likely be placed slightly closer to your right foot than to your left. Everyone’s knee positions will differ somewhat as people’s heights are disparate but, in general, your knees should meet the cello around the bottom of the “C” curves on the side of your cello. It may help you to have the body of the cello angled toward your right side, as well, which would place your left knee further behind the cello than your right knee. In many cases, this can help you navigate the higher strings and upper registers of the cello with more ease.
What Gear Do You Need to Get Started Playing the Cello?
Some things to bring with you to your first lesson include:
- metronome (some metronomes come with built-in tuners)
- cleaning cloth
- extra strings
How to Position Your Hands When Playing Cello
In general, the most useful basic hand position is closest to how your hands fall naturally. Try this exercise: Shake your hands out, hold them in front of you, and flip them over, palms side up. Take a moment to observe the natural curvature of your fingers. Now take your arms and hold them the way you would if you were going to play the cello. Your natural hand position is not dissimilar from how you will use your hands to play cello. This exercise is also a great way to remind yourself how it feels to hold your hands without unnecessary tension, which is crucial to playing any instrument.
Both your left hand and right hand play are equally integral, but have unique roles in your study of the cello. If, for a moment, we equate playing a phrase with speaking a sentence, then your left hand would be responsible for choosing the words, while your right hand would be responsible for the way the words are said; the volume, force, and cadence of the sentence. In other words, your left hand dictates the content of your expression while the right hand determines the manner in which it is expressed.
Regarding the position of both arms when playing, a general guideline is to have a gentle downward slope in both arms, from your shoulders to your hands; like a ski-slope. Much of your power when playing will originate from your back muscles and travel through your arms; this is most feasible when you keep your arms in a downwards slope angle, without odd angles at your wrists and elbows. Think of your elbows as a source of support; it is easy to fall into habits of either holding tension in your elbows or keeping them too loose and allowing them to flop down—avoid this!
Left-Hand Tips for Cellists
There are many options, variations, and combinations of approaches that one uses in both hands when honing musical skills; in this case, we will be discussing general practices for getting started on the cello.
While your fingers will be the ones on the strings, your left thumb plays an important role as well in helping you navigate the fingerboard and balancing your hand. A good position for your thumb is just about directly behind where your 2nd (middle) finger is on the string. Your thumb should more or less be in contact with the neck at all times when playing in lower positions, but not with so much force that you are pressing it into the back of the neck or squeezing your hand.
Much like with the downward slope shape we discussed for arm position, your left hand should have a similar shape: the knuckles at the base of your fingers should remain above your finger knuckles and finger tips- forming a soft “C” shape with your hand. An excellent point of contact for your fingers on the strings is about midway between the very tips of your fingers and the center, pad area of your fingers. As you gain proficiency on the cello, you can vary your finger placement based on the demands of the music, but this should serve you well as you embark on your studies.
How to Learn Vibrato on the Cello
Vibrato, like many of the other topics discussed in this article, is a subject with nuance, but there are some general principles that will help you get started. I tend to think of vibrato as a hinge movement in your elbow, but the movement is made so small that just the tip of your finger ends up in motion. As you get started with your study of the cello, developing a smooth, “rolling” vibrato motion will enable you to develop varying speeds and width of vibrato as you progress.
Bowing Tips for Cellists
The right hand is one of your primary tools for expression. Some of the main factors that affect the sound production are: the speed with which you draw the bow, the placement of the bow between the fingerboard and the bridge, and the weight of your arm and how much of that weight you are applying to the bow. There is no “right” answer as to how to implement those three factors, it will change constantly based on the musical material, as well as your personal preferences. Feel free to experiment with making lots of different sounds!
Bowholds will differ among players, but there is a basic position that will get you started. Your thumb, your first finger, and your pinky finger are going to be the most active tools you have for using the bow. Keep a soft bend in your thumb; tension is the enemy of good music-making. It is easy to have your thumb “lock” into a straight position, so make sure to check on this frequently as you begin your studies. Your first finger will help to add or release weight into the bow. Your pinky finger will help to navigate and determine bow angle and direction, much like how a rudder on a sailboat directs the ship. Your pinky should rest somewhere on the frog, not on top of it, as you might see with violin bow holds. Your 2nd and 3rd fingers are a source of support and stability for your whole hand. Many players rest their 2nd finger against the ferrule (the silver bit on the frog of the bow).
A general tool for how to conceptualize the angle of the bow is to form a 90-degree angle between the string and the bow. If you’re in position holding the cello, look down, and observe that the strings should form the y-axis, with the bow forming the horizontal, x-axis. Try placing the bow on the string at different points of contact; the midpoint, the tip of the bow, and look for this perpendicular angle. Observe how your arm, elbow and fingers feel at each point. This is just a general guideline, but should help you to keep a steady path of motion as you bow.
How to Use Pizzicato on the Cello
Executing pizzicato on the cello is another technique that has more nuance to it than it may originally seem. For example, where you pluck the string—higher or lower on the fingerboard—will affect the tone and volume of the sound. Feel free to experiment with this. It may help you to think of the pizzicato motion as being directed to the side, rather than drawing the string upward. You can also experiment with using different fingers to pizz, usually either your first or second finger.
I hope these various tips and tools help you as you embark on your new adventures with the cello! Starting your studies with a comfortable and comprehensive setup will enable you to progress more quickly and master increasingly advanced techniques with ease.
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.