Long Bow, Please

December 13, 2009

The Suzuki method I am working through in my cello lessons adds new techniques or challenges with each new piece as you progress through the book. Playing the pieces over and over helps to train my right hand and arm proper bowing techniques, and trains my left hand the proper fingering - provided I am practicing the technique correctly.

The dojo maxim I learned years ago applies to music study as well, "Practice doesn't make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Only perfect practice makes perfect." So one of the key things I look for in my lessons is corrections to minor (or major) errors in my technique and approach to the pieces I am playing.

One area that is especially hard for me is playing dotted quarter and dotted half notes long enough. And a corollary issue is giving rests their due. With many of the first pieces in my method book the emphasis is on playing different rhythm patterns, and one way to "count" the rhythm in your head is to find a word or phrase with the right number of syllables to use as a mnemonic to help you count. You could count numbers, but it is surprisingly easy to get off as you end up counting similar notes and restarting the count in the middle of measures rather than at the beginning.

One of my pieces, French Folk Song, is in 3/4 time and has several dotted-half notes, which should get the full three beats of the measure. I've been saying "French folk song" in time with the beats so the quarter notes each get one word, "french" "folk" "song", but the dotted-half notes are still consistently too short even with "french folk song." My teacher explained in my lesson on Friday, that you need to slow the bow down for notes with a longer duration. I had been bowing at the same speed for the longer duration notes as for the quarter notes. Using the same bow speed would require three times as much bow length to produce a note of the right duration. Slowing the bow down gives you enough bow to sound the note properly. Of course a different bow speed alters the note quality and sound, so I have to adjust my right-hand technique to compensate. He uses the words, "long bow, please" for the dotted-half notes in French Folk Song.

It turns out that without having been told or shown how to move from one string to another I am doing it properly. The right-hand has to move away from the body to move to a higher string, and toward the body to reach a lower string. Apparently many students want to lift their hand vertically to move the bow to higher-pitched strings, which results in the bow not crossing the strings perpendicularly. Since I've been moving my arm in the correct fashion, I've been getting a better sound.

My practice sessions are beginning to sound more musical to me, which is wonderful. I've been playing new pieces pizzicato at first which allows me to focus on the sound and fingering independent of bowing. Only when I feel like I've gotten the melody figured out do I add the bow to my practice. Even so it is difficult at times to translate the sound of the melody in my head to physical actions on the cello. Sometimes I have great difficulty hearing the melody in my head. Being married to a pianist helps tremendously as I can ask Sibylle to play the tune for me on the piano or for her help in finding a good rhythmic mnemonic.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.