Blog 3 – Preliminaries

Blog 3 – Preliminaries: The first lesson

As I mentioned in the Introductory Blog (#1), I am assuming for this series that I am working with an intermediate level student, building or re-building his or her right hand technique. This may be because this student has a poor basic sound, is playing with too much tension, or doesn’t understand the mechanics of how the body works in playing the cello. With more advanced students it may be because they have never really analyzed or thought about various aspects of bow technique, and as a result they are deficient in executing different strokes or rhythms or styles.

The first step, starting in the very first lesson, is to make sure that the student understands the basic principles of the bow arm. These include knowing the difference between a “core” sound and a “resonant” sound, knowing the “Three Principles of Tone Production” (Contact Point, Weight, Speed), and knowing where the fingers go on the bow and what the function of each finger is on the bow. They must know how to play with a “straight bow” (i.e.- the bow parallel to the bridge), having figured out how it feels to keep the bow moving at the correct angle, and having an understanding that a “straight” bow is something of an optical illusion from the perspective of the player’s eyes. They must be able to play with a “block of sound”, meaning controlling the same sound from the frog to the tip. They have to know the different parts of the arm and how they control the bow. And they have to understand the basic concepts of balance and coordination in playing the cello. All of this preliminary information can be covered in one or two lessons, before getting into the actual Feuilliard exercises.

I usually start by asking the student to play an open G-string. I watch the student to see if he/she is using the full bow and to hear if he/she is getting a good sound. It tells me a lot about the player – what kind of contact point they choose; what kind of sound they use; will there be a sense of pulse; will they use the arm correctly; how is the bow hold, etc etc.

Then we start in. First of all I usually ask for what I call a “core” sound. The following video clips are taken from my very first lesson with Caroline, on August 2, 2018.

The reason that I ask for this “core” sound in the beginning is that this is the sound which will project in a hall. The cello often has a problem with projection, and the “core” sound has little barbs that can help reach the back of a hall. The opposite of a “core” sound is a “resonant” sound. We use the core sound for something like Dvorak concerto; we use the resonant sound for something like Bach (vast over-simplification, but I hope you get the point!). The other reason that I ask the students to practice playing with this kind of sound first is that it is more difficult to produce – hence they need to practice it. Most students like the pretty sound that is produced with a higher contact point (further from the bridge), and that is easier to produce. But they have to train themselves to play with the core sound. And, as I said in the video, playing with this core sound on the open G-string helps to change a student’s “sound concept” very quickly. When I do this exercise in master classes or clinics students come out of a session with a completely different understanding of tone production and the sound that they are producing.

The next concept is to play the open string with what I call a “Block of Sound”.

The reason I use the open G-string at first is that the arm in the most natural position on this string – not too high or too low. It is a good starting place for feeling arm weight (even though I haven’t talked about that just yet). Soon after the first lesson I will ask the student to do all the other open strings in order to figure out the different properties of each string and what will be required to get a good sound. But it is best to specialize on the G-string in the first few lessons, until the student has internalized all of the fundamental issues.

Now we need to refine the sound at the beginning of the stroke. This is especially difficult on the G and C strings on the cello because of the size of the string. I ask for a “ke” sound, and show the “Getting into the String Exercise”:

Next we need to start to understand the physical motions involved in playing with the bow. For this I identify the Four Parts of the Arm. These different parts of the arm will be used for everything from string crossings to sautillé, and the cellist must understand intellectually and kinesthetically which part does what.

The four parts of the arm for cellists are: the upper arm, the lower arm, the wrist and the fingers. In later lessons we will isolate each part of the arm, with various exercises to sensitize how the different parts work.

First we need to start to explore which part of the arm controls which part of the bow when playing from the frog to the tip:

I like to have the student say the part of the arm as they are playing because speaking involves a different part of the brain – so it is kind of like multi-tasking, which in this case is a good thing. It involves coordination, and it checks to see if the student is having to think so hard about the arm motions that there is no brain power left to actually speak. I use this technique a lot in training physical motions (e.g. saying the names of the notes while playing, or telling me their telephone number while doing a vibrato exercise).

So, from the frog to the middle of the bow we use the upper arm; from the middle to the tip we use the lower part of the arm. Or, another way of saying that is:

“the upper part of the arm controls the lower part of the bow; the lower part of the arm controls the upper part of the bow”.

I like to put these technical concepts into little formulas or mantras that a student can repeat – and I usually quiz them on these quotes in subsequent lessons to see if they have learned them deeply.

The next concept involves how the elbow works when going from the frog to the tip:

You will notice that I like to ask lots of questions in the lesson. I find that rather than just giving the students the information, it is better to ask them to try and figure it out for themselves. This is the ancient Socratic Method (or the Talmudic Method) of learning. At first some students may find this unusual and perhaps uncomfortable, since they are often used to teachers just telling them everything. They may be shy at first, but as they get used to this system they often start asking themselves questions and then finding answers for themselves.

The next concept that needs to be addressed involves the angle of the bow. In order to keep the same contact point, so that the sound doesn’t change unwittingly, the bow must be parallel to the bridge (or perpendicular to the strings):

In the next blog we will continue with preliminary information from the first and second lessons, including the the “Three Principles of Tone Production”, the concept of balance, and Left/Right Motion.

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