A cello open-string warmup exercise (free pdf)

Here is a simple bowing exercise inspired by the teaching of George Neikrug. The point is to be aware of how the curve of the bow can be utilized to pull the string in either direction, and how it should take advantage of the cylindrical cross-section of the string to maximize the tonal output for the leverage which the bow-arm, shoulders, back, torso, and hips put into that string, taking into account the angle required by the string's position on the bridge. The angle of the bow is exaggerated in the graphics here, but the idea is to almost but not actually touch the adjacent string at either end of the bow stroke when using the whole bow to roll over on either side of the string (but you can start by playing a double stop with the adjacent string to get used to moving from one side of the string to the other, then work on avoiding it). 

One other thing not on this sheet: I generally prefer to play on the edge of the hair with the stick turned towards me, even at the tip. If you want consistency in your foundation tone, the string expects the same degree of focus at any point in the bow, so rather than play flat hair at the tip which can lead to a harder edged sound, I engage the core of my back muscles and rotate around my spine to help maintain strength and leverage (remember the baseball slugger on this blog?), and keep the same narrow amount of string under the bow hair to maximize how much of the string is vibrating. Of course, with variety of musical expression there should be variety of tone color, so in actual music making one needs to be flexible in bow usage, but this is a good way to start a practice session.

Open string bowing exercise, free pdf download

A project and to-do list, Eisenhower matrix style (free pdf)

Like many musicians and other creative people, I'm can always stand to be more business-minded. In an effort to get more organized, I customized a version of the famous task list matrix first thought up by President Eisenhower. My wife wisely encouraged me to make it so that I have to write items in by hand, for that extra cognitive connection to the mind (it's been proven). Along with the standard 4 quadrant list [Urgent and Important, Important but Not Urgent, Urgent but Not Important (Delegate), Not Urgent, Not Important (Delete)], I also included a daily repeat box for things like exercise, going to bed earlier, meditating, etc.. Here's a blank pdf template you can download and print out letter-size; I laid it out so that if you fold it along the dotted lines into two columns across and three sections down, it'll fit in most wallets (at least it does in mine).

Task list matrix pdf, free download

Useful apps for practicing intonation

I often get asked to recommend apps for practicing intonation. Different apps have different strengths, and the most useful app is the one most relevant to your need while being easy to use. I'm an iPhone user with an ancient iPhone 4, but it still works great for practicing music, so here's an short list of intonation apps:

All-in-one: TE Tuner (Tonal Energy Tuner, iOS only) is my Swiss Army knife app which includes:

  • a tuner that uses the iPhone mic to listen to and measure your tuning
  • a tone generator that allows you to sustain up to 6 drone tones simultaneously
  • the ability to record either a sequence of the above drone tones or your own live sound
  • waveform pitch analysis (I can't say I've used this feature)
  • metronome with tap tool and lots of subdivisions
  • a practice loop tool for slowing down excerpts of audio tracks, similar to apps like the Amazing Slow Downer (I already have that particular app, which has a better interface)

My favorite part of TE Tuner is the tone generator, which looks like a pitch pipe wheel and can cover all octaves necessary. You can use it with earphones, the iPhone's built-in speaker (not very loud), or an external speaker (Bluetooth or wired). If for example you're faced with a difficult shift, then you can play drone tones for both the starting and ending pitch, providing your ear with a sonic model before you play it on the cello. You also can change settings from equal temperament to Pythagorean tuning, just intonation, etc.. The app can work with a small portable piano keyboard like the Akai SynthStation 25, but a recent upgrade bug has temporarily messed up the MIDI setup for that, although the developer is working on a fix to be available in an update soon.

Tuner-only apps:

  • iStrobosoft (iOS and Android) has a display big enough for a whole chamber group to see it if you put it up on a music stand. No drone tones, but it's made by the company that makes Peterson Tuners, so a very solid measuring tool.
  • ClearTune is a perennial favorite for both iOS and Android, and is especially good if you need to find quarter tones and other microtuned pitches between the standard 12 tones. It can play one drone tone at a time.
  • A unique iOS app is Pitch Primer which can record your passage, play it back as you played it, then play it back auto tuned. The sound quality isn't always ideal, but you get the idea of how it should be, at least for equal temperament.

Hold the bow

This blog will eventually get into much detail about music making, cello playing, and cello technique. For now, as a teaser, here's a look at the bow grips of some of the greatest cellists (and maybe the greatest violinist). If I seem biased towards bow grips with the pinkie on top of the stick: well, yes. But there are always exceptions, and one should be flexible and adaptable.

  Jascha Heifetz, whose favorite cellist was...    

Jascha Heifetz, whose favorite cellist was...

 

  ...Emanuel Feuermann. Their recording of the Brahms Double Concerto is one of the all time great recordings, stupendous playing.

...Emanuel Feuermann. Their recording of the Brahms Double Concerto is one of the all time great recordings, stupendous playing.

  Another look at Emanuel Feuermann.  Check out his video on YouTube .

Another look at Emanuel Feuermann. Check out his video on YouTube.

  A former pupil of Feuermann, George Neikrug became a devoted student and proponent of D.C. Dounis, a legendary teacher who tackled many physical issues of playing.

A former pupil of Feuermann, George Neikrug became a devoted student and proponent of D.C. Dounis, a legendary teacher who tackled many physical issues of playing.

 Pablo Casals

Pablo Casals

  Mstislav Rostropovich

Mstislav Rostropovich

  Jacqueline Du Pre

Jacqueline Du Pre

  Anner Bylsma

Anner Bylsma


Another baseball analogy

Wouldn't it be cool if you could analyze a motion backwards and forwards, whether a baseball batter making a home run swing or a cellist playing a soaring passage leading to a difficult but heroic sounding shift? Here's the baseball player...

AndresTorres_10.10.30_WS_Game3_CF_HR_ToRF_R.gif

Some baseball analogies

 Josh at bat

Josh at bat

We all know Alex Rodriguez has had a rough year, but you can still learn from studying him in his prime, even about cello playing. This article made the front page of the New York Times in the spring of 2007. I keep this graphic from it taped to the wall outside my studio. Regardless of how you might feel about baseball, it is worth looking at some of the physical parallels between the motion and efficient body movement required to swing a baseball bat and that which is required to pull a cello bow across a string in either direction, or move the left hand up and down the fingerboard. The principle of rotating around a stationary spine was revelatory for me as a cellist, and has helped me be much more solidly planted while dealing with both bow-arm movement and left hand / arm movement. Keeping my head stationary was one of the first suggestions I ever heard from Harvey Shapiro (himself a baseball fan, years later we watched on his TV as the New York Mets won the 1986 World Series final game).

A web page devoted to the subject of rotational hitting can be found here. 

Introduction

In a moment of cheekiness (or perhaps geekiness, or cheeky geekiness or geeky cheekiness), I once told a student that cello technique is the study of geometry, physics, and ergonomics put in the service of musical expression. It is endlessly fascinating trying to figure out the best way to use a stick with horsehair (or your plucking fingers) to get four strings and a big ungainly wooden box to make exactly the sound you want, to create the character you want, at exactly where you are in the musical line or phrase. With this blog I hope to gradually introduce various thoughts and ideas regarding cello technique, covering a range of examples and issues that we face in multiple genres of music, whether in solo works, chamber music, or orchestra playing. I suppose this is a bit like writing a book or treatise in publicly viewable fragments, rather than waiting until everything is compiled and edited before publishing it all in one fell swoop, but I'd rather get any piece of useful information up as soon as it's presentable.

I also will write about various works of cello repertory that interest me and their challenges, whether technical or interpretive. There will be postings about the nitty gritty of balance, voicing, and unity of conception in an ensemble, and what it takes to learn a score and get to its expression and character. I expect to occasionally be guilty of being opinionated, but I'll leave the comment box on so you can feel free to engage and/or challenge anything here I write.

It may seem weird to be starting a blog on September 11, but I also gave my first cello lesson at Brandeis University on September 11, 2002. Life goes on and so does music. So here we go...