EVIDENCE FROM THE CELLIST'S RIGHT HAND
by BRET SMITH
As performers and teachers of musical instruments, we are all vitally concerned with the development of technical facility in both ourselves and our students. The progression from beginning levels to mastery involves learning an ever-increasing body of knowledge, at ever-smaller levels of detail; this information must become so deeply internalized that we can essentially forget it in performance and simply let the music emerge. This has, no doubt, always been the case with fine players, even at the earliest stages of the development of the art form. As the technology and equipment for music-making has grown more complex and refined, so has the pedagogical "equipment" which allows us to approach the goal of fine performance.
In this article I will explore some of the pedagogical literature of the cello, focusing on tone production and legato bow technique, to point out ways that both the amount and types of knowledge available to cello teachers have grown and changed in the last six generations.
NINETEENTH CENTURY PRACTICE AND PEDAGOGY
Gradual changes in the construction and musical role of the cello took place during the 16th and 17th centuries, and by 1800 both instrument and bow reached forms very similar to those of the modern era (Pyron 262-267). Charming descriptions of the playing of such masters as Duport, Romberg, and Kummer can be found in contemporary accounts; the purity of tone and "singing" qualities of their musical voices are mentioned in superlative terms (Ginsberg 27-58). The pedagogical writings of these virtuosi are among the earliest for the instrument.
Duport's Essai sur la DoigtÚ du Violoncelle, published around 1804, is a fascinating work, dealing with every aspect of the cello technique available to the soloist of his day. Duport's system of fingering is still the accepted standard, and the 24 Útudes included as an appendix are also widely used. However, it is in his approach to the position and use of the right arm in tone production that we can appreciate the changes of the last two centuries.
Duport stresses the importance of keeping the bow parallel to the bridge at all times. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the cello was supported by the calves of the player's legs, which resulted in a more vertical orientation of the strings and fingerboard than is common today. The right arm motion, consequently, was expected to occur primarily from the lower arm, beneath the elbow: "...le haut du bras doit rester dans la mÆme position..." (159). Although he recognizes the need for a "petit mouvement" of the upper arm to change the bow direction at the tip, it is the flexible wrist which is responsible for achieving a straight bow.
Strange as these ideas now seem, Duport was wthout question a virtuoso of the highest order. Many of his comments are timeless; he stresses that all "goõt (taste) et sentiment" come from control of the bow, and that "la chose la plus dificile et la plus rare" in all of cello playing is "monotonie," or absolute evenness of tone from frog to tip (162).
Bernard Romberg's School for the Cello was published in 1840, yet it "appeared too late and was definitely outdated in what it had to say on hand position and bow holding...." (Ginsberg 27). The engraved illustrations of the playing position show again the relatively vertical orientation of the instrument, as well an oddly pronated left hand. However, the right upper arm clearly moves toward the body at the frog of the bow. In fact, Romberg makes a remarkably "modern" statement about tone production:
It is quite erroneous to imagine because a player produces
a strong tone from the instrument, that he must possess
great bodily strength; for strength of tone is so far from
being produced by a strong pressure of the fingers upon
the strings, that it is well known this has a directly
contrary effect: it stiffens the sinews of the fingers, which
are so often weakened by the extreme pressure, that they
require whole years of rest before they can again be used
for playing. (90)
One can imagine several reasons for such a change of opinion among performers. Perhaps the demands for volume from the instrument in the early Romantic literature were simply too great to be achieved with a Classical-era technique (Romberg was cellist in a quartet in which Beethoven himself was violist, and the piano was now capable of drowning out a cellist). By allowing the entire arm to move with the bow stroke, the large muscles of the upper arm and back can contribute to the overall transmission of energy to the string, greatly reducing the player's fatigue.
Romberg, like Duport, stresses the importance of maintaining an absolutely straight bow at all times (8). This is achieved with wrist flexion, and "the less the motion of the hand in changing the bow... the finer and more connected the playing. In changing the bow, the position of the fingers... should not undergo the slightest change, as the least alteration in their position would make the change of bow audible" (8).
F.A. Kummer's Violoncello Method, originally published a year before Romberg in 1839, was in fact greatly influenced by Romberg (Ginsberg 27). Although, presumably in his playing and teaching, Kummer "approached the contemporary idea of the function of certain fingers on the frog of the bow, and considered the freedom of its movement more important than the force of the pressure" (Ginsberg 33), his statements on the position and motion of the arm show the tenacity of the established practice. Drawing a straight bow "is to be accomplished without any essential help from the upper arm, i.e., almost exclusively by the forearm alone; the motion of the arm should, therefore, be more from the elbow than from the shoulder" (Kummer 4). He also emphasizes that the first three fingers of the right hand, "having to hold the bow, never shift their position" (4).
THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY: CASALS AND HIS STUDENTS
The influence of Pablo Casals (1876-1973) extended well beyond cello performance and technique to touch nearly every aspect of the musical art. As a cellist, Casals inherited the techniques of his day, yet from his earliest lessons realized there was something wrong with the current approach to the instrument. Recalling his first lessons at age 12 in Barcelona, he states "although I followed the classes quite diligently, I started revising (the teacher's) instructions, and as soon as I got home I created a technique of my own." He was "disturbed by all sorts of queer and conventional things which seemed absurd" (Corredor 24). In particular, he remembers:
We were taught to play with a stiff arm and obliged to
keep a book under the armpit! What rhyme or reason
is there in such an idea? I have always advocated
complete freedom in the movement of the right arm,
including the elbow (this new theory caused something
of a furore among the traditionalists). This free action
makes the whole bow technique stronger and easier. (25)
Maurice Eisenberg, a close associate of Casals, also recalls this bizarre pedagogical device. "In some old-fashioned methods books were placed under the upper arm to ensure the independent action of the lower arm. But this device defeated its own object" (24). In an effort to instill freedom in the lower arm, the overall bow technique is compromised. "It is impossible to achieve continuity of tone unless the arm weight is evenly distributed and this cannot be done if the 'hinges' are forced to act individually and the different portions of the arm are treated as separate entities" (24). It is important to note, however, that a technique of "sectional bowing" is still useful and desirable in some musical contexts; in the upper half of the bow, the dÚtachÚ stroke occurs below the elbow (29). It is a case of a cellist's repertoire of bowing styles being expanded, and what was once the only "proper" way to draw the bow is now one of many available options.
Eisenberg's detailed descriptions in Cello Playing of Today can perhaps be viewed as a summation of Casals' pedagogical thinking; Casals taught Eisenberg, and reviewed the manuscript before publication (xviii). It is interesting to note that there is still an emphasis on staying "in line" with the bridge throughout the bow stroke (7).
Another important principle, which appears to have its origin with Casals, is the origin of the impulse for the bow stroke occuring in the center of the body. "Only this impulse, coming from the centre of the body instead of each extremity, will group the different movements in a unified whole, producing better results and less fatigue. This impulse... is rather like an image of what I feel at the time, not an easy thing to identify or name" (Corredor, 200). This subtle distinction implies the further involvement of the large muscle groups of the back, as well as shifts of body weight to either side of the center line.
These pedagogical principles found greater clarity of formulation in the "New Approach" of violinist Kato Havas. However, the debt to Casals is acknowledged. "On the cello the 'new approach' made itself felt at the turn of the century with the emergence of Pablo Casals, although it took several decades for its effects to permeate all layers of cellistic thought" (Stanfield, 173). The New Approach continues the progress to the center of the body, and the coordination of all aspects of technique in the expressive impulse. Kenneson and Bewley apply the Havas principles with reference to a particularly cellistic technique.
Kenneson stresses the importance of "ideation," or the presence of a clear auditory image before the player, as a means of unifying the technique (88-90). He also relates the bow impulse to the interval patterns of the left hand; he calls this "reflex bowing" (61), bringing an an increased integration of the action of the bow to the overall musical demands. The balance of the body is also a primary concern, and freedom of weight transfer is discussed in detail. In the New Approach, the body is seen as equipped to accomplish many tasks quite automatically, and the goal of technique is to establish the balances which make the realization of the sound-concept most natural (91-93). "The striking thing is that no more than a mechanical rhythm can be produced with the bowing if the bow movement is not an integral part of the total body response" (62). This integration of bow motion with natural gesture and expression of an inner musical idea is also very prominent in the writings of William Pleeth (52-57), the teacher of Jaqueline du Pre.
We also discover that the bow motion is now described in circular terms, rather than as a linear back-and-forth track. Kenneson relates all bow motions, both long and short, to a basic arc described by the right hand (33-34).
It is only natural, as the teaching philosophy of any physical skill develops, that the revolutionary ideas of the previous generations are absorbed and eventually viewed as self-evident and commonplace. We can assume that the goal of the 'cellist has always been the same; to produce the most beautiful and affective sound possible in the most natural way. In our time, pedagogy (of all instruments) has been greatly influenced by increased understanding of the overall function of the human being as a psycho-physical whole.
Victor Sazer's New Directions in Cello Playing continues the liberation of the cellist from rigid formulae of posture and position. He advocates the placement of the cello well to the left of the center line, free from the right knee (73); Sazer notes that this cello alignment is evident in portraits of Duport. In this position, the body weight can contribute more to sound production at the tip of the bow, as the right arm no longer has to reach so far away from center . A wide stance, high seat, and weight balanced firmly on both feet allow the player greater freedom to rotate the body from side to side during the bow stroke. Gerhard Mantel, in his highly scientific Cello Technique, echoes this idea: "Every whole-bow stroke and every position change shifts the center of gravity of the body and necessitates small corrections in posture" (20). However, Sazer believes that "the body movements drive the arm movements, rather than the other way around" (Letter 1). It is essential that a cellist's posture allows a constant and subtle flow of movement.
Sazer also describes the circular bow stroke, in which the tip of the bow changes its angle (upward for the down-bow, downward for the up-bow) at the bow change (98), and Mantel illustrates the possiblility that the bow can be held at an oblique angle through its entire length, with no loss of friction, as long as the vector of force is travelling perpendicular to the string (166). It seems that many "bad" positions are better than a single "good" one.
Sazer and Liebermann bring a variety of insights to performance drawn from such sources as sports medicine, Eastern philosophy, and physical therapy. The anatomy of the body and its relation to the particular motions involved in playing an instrument are now described in medical detail. We also see the subtle interactions between muscular tension (previously seen as a technical issue), stage fright (a psychological issue), and tone quality (a musical issue) being treated as part of the same basic, integrated, process. As the technical and professional demands on performers have increased, both authors also cite prevention of injury and pain as a source for their new teaching ideas. Mantel sums up the current situation: "Much study is still needed in order to present, in a way that can be used pedagogically, the relationship between the exterior, physical side and the inner, psychological aspects of cello playing" (229).
An author of great wit and musical wisdom, Christopher Bunting opens yet more doors for future explorers. "Every mental configuration has its concomitant physical configuration: every mental impediment will associate with a physical impediment" (4). Yet this psycho-physical link is in some important respects a one-way street; Bunting is a bit skeptical of the cult of the Alexander Technique, recognizing the importance of the ideas, but wary of the "church" (9). As he states, "the body can be trained to tell a lie, to be beautifully 'coordinated' when the informing soul is in a vastly different state" (9). This caveat is supported by the opinions of Lamb and Watson, who, in their work on human gesture and body language, find evidence that since our movement patterns are "given more or less from birth, the person we are intended to express is ourself. To attempt to behave like anyone else, in the fundamental sense, is damaging, leading to behaviour that is awkward and contrived, and putting us under stress" (177-78).
Though it seems we have left cello-playing behind, Liebermann brings us back to the point with the title of her book: You Are Your Instrument. In this, the broadest perspective, we can improve our musical performance by utilizing techniques and therapies of a more general nature. The intuition of Casals, that "impulse from the center" so hard to put into words, can be approached through such physical means as acupuncture, massage, and biofeedback; exercise systems such as yoga, weight training, and aerobics; and spiritual systems of meditation (see 129-132 for a complete listing). Although the actual efficacy of a particular approach in the musical development of an individual is hard to determine, future research will likely point to those which are widely helpful. Sazer's ultimate rule of cello posture and motion is the "breath test;" echoing yogic breathing exercises, he believes that the best techniques are those which allow the breath to remain deep and free (28).
The Parnassus of musical freedom is improvisation, and it is no surprise that Liebermann is a noted improviser on the violin. Another is Stephen Nachmanovitch, whose book Free Play deals entirely with the type of creative mental processes and flights of fancy which allow one to effectively express one's true musical self through improvisation. This skill, prized highly as late as the end of the 1800's (David Popper was a masterful improviser), has all but disappeared from the training of today's cellists. Nachmanovitch (6-7) points out that Leonardo da Vinci, playing the viola da braccio, and his friends would stage entire operas where both music and poetry were made up on the spot! If we regard the Útudes and original compositions by the masters of the past as, on some level, improvisations, it is clear we have lost something of value.
In contemplating the development of these concepts of cello playing since 1800, one can see a definite trend. The focus of attention moves from the forearm to the whole arm, which is joined with the left hand by a central impulse. This central impulse is linked to musical ideation and imagination, a purely mental process. This in turn is linked to a holistic activity of the cellist's entire being. What implications does this have for cello pedagogy today and in the future?
I feel strongly that teachers need to recognize the levels of instruction in the new holistic model do not form a hierarchy, but are all equally important for total cellistic growth. We should develop our students' physical technique, extend their powers of musical ideation, and as much as possible expose them to ideas of breathing techniques, relaxation, and the related disciplines mentioned above (naturally, the age and ability of the students will dictate what methods are appropriate). All of these levels can be addressed in a program of ear-training which includes rote playing, transposition, improvisation, and composition.
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Bunting, Christopher. Essay on the Craft of 'Cello Playing. Vol I. Cambridge:
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l'Archet. Paris: Imbault, [1806?].
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Romberg, Bernard. School for the Violoncello. Boston: Ditson, 1840.
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Stanfield, M.B. Rev. of A Cellist's Guide to the New Approach, by Claude
Kennison. The Strad 85 (1974): 173-175.
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