Windows, Push Ups, and Double Strokes

December 18, 2009

Today's lesson, my fourth since starting with my teacher, focused on smaller details, primarily those that lead to better tone quality. The art in playing cello, and I would imagine any bowed instrument, is using the right amount of pressure and bow speed to get the desired tone.


Some passages are more difficult than others and there is a certain feeling of panic when confronted with a measure that changes strings twice and fingering three times. This panicky feeling leads to tenseness which makes it all the harder to play the passage. Trying to play a piece all the way through that contains a difficult passage leads to frustration. So my teacher has me eliminate all but one measure or even a part of one measure and play only those notes. By imagining a window that only lets me  see a handful of notes I can focus just on the part that is troublesome. Since I'm not playing the entire piece the panic is gone; it's just 4 or 5 or 6 notes and done. Once the difficult section is sounding a bit better, he had me add a note or two that leads into the difficult section. This allows me to practice the transition from the rest of the piece into the hard part. Once that is sounding pretty good he has me add the notes that follow the difficult passage, the transition out of the section. In just a few minutes this windowing style of practice nets several iterations over the hard part, including the notes leading into and out of those measures.

Going back to the whole piece now it is far easier to play through the formerly difficult passage. A variation on this is to start with the last measure, or even the last note in the last measure. Play that note or measure, and then add the second to last measure  and play through the end. Then add the third to last measure, and so on.

Many of the pieces I am learning now have whole sections that repeat, an "A-B-A" pattern for example. Working on just the "A" part until it is smooth, and then the "B" part until it is smooth, is far easier and quicker than trying to play the whole piece through.

Push Ups

Getting good, consistent tone requires consistent pressure of the bow hairs on the strings. Playing near the frog end of the bow it's easy to apply plenty of pressure to the strings. Playing near the tip of the bow it is much harder to apply the same amount of pressure. The exercise I have is to place the bow hairs against any string and gradually press the bow into the string - making the bow emulate a push up. Too much bow pressure generates a gritty, crunchy sound, whereas too little pressure makes a wispy or glassy sound. The bow push up helps to show you how much pressure you can apply to a string.

The next step is to slowly move the bow back and forth just a tiny bit. With the right amount of pressure the string will flex back and forth with the bow. In other word there is enough friction between the bow hair and the string to allow the motion of the bow to push or pull the string without letting go. Once this wiggle has been accomplished my teacher had me play a up or down bow. If I was using too much pressure I'd get the crunchy sound, too little pressure I'd get a wispy sound. Practicing the push up, wiggle and bow stroke several times rapidly showed me how much pressure was just enough.

Double Strokes

Another trick I learned today was using double bow strokes for passages with lots of finger changes. By playing twice as many notes you give your fingers more time to change position. After a few repetitions with double strokes, going back to single strokes seemed easy. The only analogy that comes to mind for me is the image of the baseball batter on-deck. He swings two bats at once, or a bat with a weight added, to warm up. Then when he's at the plate, swinging his single, unweighted bat is easy by comparison.

Finger Exercises

All of the Suzuki pieces I have been learning so far have been in the key of DMajor, and played on the D- and A-string. My F# on the D-string, and my C# on the A-string tend to be wispy, even with the correct bow pressure. My teacher explained that I'm not getting my third finger set firmly enough against the finger board. I know from my martial arts studies that the musculature in the hand makes the ring finger the weakest, so I'm not surprised that it fingers the weakest too. My teacher wants me practice pressing my fingers one at a time into a desktop or table top several times a day. Keeping a good arch shape to hand and finger use the forearm to press the finger tip into the surface. Over time this will reenforce the proper finger shape (curved) and strengthen all the fingers, including the ring finger.


Overall I am pleased with my progress after just five weeks of playing, and after four lessons with Dr. L, he said he is pleased with my progress too. I find that I am able to pick up new pieces fairly quickly, and I am enjoying the whole process immensely. This evening at the end of my practice session I told Sibylle that has been since I started karate-do nearly 20 years ago that I felt this good about a new activity. Moreover this feels very much like that experience as I am progressing without being aware of the effort involved. All of which makes me feel good to say, I am a cellist.

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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.