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Mastering the Cello

The cello is a very natural instrument to play and having proper technique goes a long way towards mastering this bowed stringpiece. Playing should be relaxed and effortless. If young cellists in your orchestra are experiencing pain as they play, then there is a problem with tension and positioning. Below, you’ll find some helpful suggestions and exercises to help ensure your students are playing their cello with comfort and ease.

Because the cello is a larger instrument, one of the most common myths is that it requires more striving and effort. That is not the case. When it comes to playing the cello, it’s all about balance and preparation, the use of natural body weight and relaxation.

When teaching your students, it’s important to be aware of the words you are using while you instruct. Expressions like “grip,” “push,” “press,” “hold,” “squeeze,” and “tight” should be avoided as they deliver the wrong message that could affect the way a cellist plays. Because proper technique goes hand in hand with relaxation, using words like “hang,” “drape,” “relax,” “draw,” “weight,” “breathe,” “balance,” and “hold” are more appropriate and best describe how a cello should be played.

Also avoid saying “bow grip” as it implies tightness. Use the term “bow hold” because a good tone is not produced by pressing harder, it’s created by the right combination of bow placement, bow speed, and arm weight.When the left hand is not in good contact with the fingerboard and notes are weak and squawking, squeezing or pressing the string down will not improve the situation. Byemphasizing the release of pressure from one position to the next when shifting, they should naturally sink into the fingerboard upon arrival.

Holding the cello in the correct position is also vital for relaxed playing. First, the knees should be even with the points of the bottom bouts. If they’re not, adjust the endpin to this height. For optimum balance and posture, the feet should be directly under the knees. Next is the placement of the cello body. The top of the body should rest as close to the breast bone as possible and the weight of the student should be thrown forward into the instrument. Sitting on the edge of the chair while playing is preferred as leaning backwards leads to back strain. To ensure the scroll doesn’t hit the student’s head, angle the endpin 2-3 inches right of center. Students should not rest the scroll on the shoulder but above the shoulder with the bottom peg close to their left ear. Finding the most comfortable position may take a few tries but students will find that it’s well worth the effort.

Bow Hold

The bow hold for a cello is quite square, which helps to provide good balance for the heavier bow. First, hold the bow in your right hand like a club. Then unroll the fingers and place the thumb at the edge of the frog and the middle finger directly across from it at the end of the tape/leather at the first knuckle. All the other fingers support by hanging or draping over the bow at the first knuckle.Curve and point the thumb towards the ceiling for full flexibility when playing. Once you place the bow on the strings, try to keep the hand flat except at the frog and tip where it should be angled slightly.

Left Hand Position

The thumb should be centered under the second finger for flexibility and balance. Curving the thumb slightly instead of flattening against the back of the neck keeps the student from pressing up with the thumb to bring the fingers down onto the fingerboard. This also helps with shifting as the thumb is more slippery on its side and can’t hold the hand in position by squeezing. To give students a visual for proper hand positioning, have them imagine hanging from a cliff by their fingertips. The arm weight should pull the string toward the fingerboard and the thumb should be relaxed at all times. Most hands need a slight adjustment for perfect intonation between fingers one and three in first position. Students will experience greater success if they have a slight rotation forward toward fourth finger, and backward toward first finger, rocking like a see-saw aroundthe thumb, which is the balance point.

Finding Third and Fourth Position

Achieving secure placement of these positions has everything to do with your left thumb. To find open third position, put your thumb where the neck meets the body so the second finger is directly across from it. For fourth position, the first finger will be across from the thumb.

Extensions

First finger backward is the extension students should be taught first as it’s the easiest and causes less strain on the hand. This might be a little difficult as most intermediate string literature uses sharp keys and sometimes finding suitable literature can be a problem. Once the student’s skill level advances, they can be taught the forward extension which moves the entire hand.

Exercise

There are exercises students can do to help them master the two distinct types of extension. For the first finger backward extension, pretend the left hand is an elephant with the forefinger as the trunk and the other fingers and thumb as the body. When an elephant wants to get a peanut outside the cage, it needs to extend its trunk. Keep the thumb under the second finger as the first finger rotates backward for the extension. Once the extension is complete, the first finger immediately returns to a closed position.

The forward extension is slightly more difficult. For this,students need to pretend the elephant’s trunk is tied to a tree and the body is pulling away. The second, third, and fourth fingers move forward with the thumb following under the second finger. The position of the hand should look very similar to when you ask a 4-year old his age. Another helpful hint is T-H-E: thumb, hand, elbow.The extended hand will be supported by the elbow, which will rotate slightly forward to support the weaker fourth finger. Move the hand back to normal positioning once the extension is complete. Some band directors teach the forward extension as a an actual half-step shift, moving the hand forward for the extension and back into closed position. If you’ve placed tapes on the fingerboard, the third finger should cover the fourth finger tape as you release the weight on the first finger completely. Then use the second finger for balance and support in its new extended position. Ensure this technique is done correctly from the very beginning as it may cause tendon damage in young hands and serious tension problems. Emphasize to students that this is an extension between the first and second fingers which happens more naturally, and not an extension of the fourth finger.

Thumb Position

Beginning cellists should start off by placing the thumb on the natural harmonic D and A. This divides the string exactly in half between the nut and bridge. They can play “Twinkle” in thumb position and first position but thumb position is actually easier and more comfortable. The top of the hand is almost flat in thumb position. If the student has longer than average fingers, the hand will be slightly angled. Curve and relax the thumb as you place 2 strings under it above the first joint. The top string should be directly above. First tunes should remain within an octave and this is achieved by placing the thumb on the lower string and the third finger on the string above. The other fingers should be curved so the joints don’t collapse. Playing within an octave helps cellists get comfortable with this position as well as strengthens the fingers.The thumb can then move around on the fingerboardproviding a “stop” from which other scales may be played. The fourth finger is rarely used in thumb position with the exception of advanced repertoire. Since all hands vary with their stretching capabilities, deciding when to have the thumb come up on top of the fingerboard or leaving it behind is determined by the personal comfort of the player. Usually, the thumb is behind the neck in fourth position and moves around to the side of the neck for fifth, sixth, and seventh positions. Any position above that would have the thumb on top of the fingerboard.

While thumb placement is of utmost importance when teaching young cellists, your very first priority is to promote relaxed, effortless playing. Once that concept is fully realized, the rest is sure to follow and your students will be mastering the cello in no time.

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