starDeveloping Tone Color

Okay, I've come far enough I don't usually have to worry about intonation/rhythm anymore, so now my biggest concern is creating a range of different tones/colors. I know to experiment with bow speed/pressure, different articulation, playing high on lower strings, low on higher strings, etc. Do any of you have suggestions on developing tonal/color range? For example, I've heard of using scales and picking different emotions each time through the scale. I suppose this works for some people, but I tend to need a more analytical approach. I listen to a lot of recordings and many times, I'll hear something I want to duplicate but can't figure out what the player is doing. Any ideas/suggestions/experience you might be able to relate would be appreciated.

Laura Wichers

Tim Janof replies: This is a difficult question to answer without lapsing into useless cliches or annoying psychologizing, but I'll do my best to avoid both.

From your description it sounds like you know what tones/colors you want to achieve, but you just aren't sure how to create them. It also sounds like you understand what many of the ingredients are that you can alter in order to vary your sound. It seems that what you want is some sort of cookbook that will tell you what ingredients to use and in what proportion, depending on the color or sound you want to achieve. Not a bad idea!

It sounds like you are at a wonderful cross-roads in your playing. You realize that there is more to playing the cello than noodling and you are feeling the frustration of your own technical limitations. Congratulations! This is a good thing! As Paul Tortelier once said, "I have noticed that when some of my students succeed in correcting poor technical habits, there is a change in their interpretation. They become aware that their interpretation has been mediocre as well as their technique."

It seems that you have learned many of the "rules" and now it's time for you to question them, to look outside your current assumptions. The great news is that you are not the only one who has struggled with this issue:

"I ... went more towards the Rostropovich model, a very deep, 'sloppier' bow grip, where the stick is held more in the palm, which helped me to get the sound I wanted." -- Carter Brey

"I found out from Rostropovich that this 'rigid' approach sometimes prevents the production of certain sounds, thus narrowing one's expressive palette. Certain sounds were not available or even in my imagination because I was following Starker's technical rules too strictly." -- Maria Kliegel

It's interesting that Rostropovich was the "corrupting" influence in both of these players.

So it sounds like it's your turn. Of course I encourage you to try to achieve your colors through "sound" technical principals first. But maybe it's time for you to experiment with other ideas, perhaps playing with flatter fingers for certain passages, flatter knuckles (yikes!), sagging elbows, over-pressing with the bow, bowing above the fingerboard, lengthening your endpin, or whatever you have been telling yourself is wrong or bad! Just try out new ideas! I'm not saying you should use these techniques ALL the time, but maybe there are times when they will come in handy.

As an example, you won't find Lynn Harrell's ideas on his ever-changing bow 'grip' in any textbook:

"One hold is when the fingers are very shallow over the bow, so that they don't come down nearly as far as the hair, as they usually do with the 'standard' bow hold. The thumb touches the stick and maybe touches the top of the crook of the frog. The hand is in a relatively high position so that you can twist the stick between your thumb and fingers. The little finger may be on top of the stick, like a violinist, and the wrist dangles naturally. This bow hold is for a more delicate sound. The disadvantage of this grip is that there's very little ability to stop the bow from rotating back and forth, because you're gripping something that's round and it can just move under the force of playing, particularly on the lower strings.

"For a more powerful bow hold, I lower the third and fourth fingers. The third finger is lowered so that it can grab underneath the frog, and the fourth finger is almost underneath the frog too. The thumb slides down and presses directly into the crook of the frog, but at an angle, so that it doesn't slide through. My wrist is flatter when I use this bow hold. With this hold, it's almost impossible to twist the bow at all, it's almost like holding the bow like a baseball bat, which gives one a very strong grip. "

My guess is that your challenge is going to be that, as an intelligent analytical type, once you figure something out you probably say to yourself, "I figured that out. Now on to the next thing." Well, maybe now it's time for you to go back and re-examine the things that you think you have figured out. I guess it's about "letting go."

What the heck, maybe you would benefit from taking Nick Anderson's "Inner Cellist" seminar. Another cellist I know is delving into the Feldenkrais Method: "The more aware we are of our body mechanics and motions, the wider our tonal palette becomes. What kind of sound can I produce if I move my left foot while playing, for example." Maybe you need a new teacher or a change of scenery just to get the creative energy flowing.

I hope that there's something useful in this post. The quotes from the big-names were meant to give you ideas on specific things to try, not just casual examples of "thinking outside the box."

Erik Friedlander replies: While the left hand contributes a lot to tone color with vibrato (wide, narrow, none) the bow is really the tone-meister so I think being able to control bow speed, contact point are huge in terms of tone color.

I like the long tone exercises I learned from Zara Nelsova which I have at my website: (look for "Olympic Cello Workout"). It's a very basic exercise but it's not easy and I think after practicing it for a few days you'll start to feel more control over your bow.

This exercise will give you some tools to work with but the real key to all this is what you can imagine the music sounding like before you play. This aural "vision" will guide your hands, which with training, will produce the effects you're looking for.

Jon Pegis replies: I prefer to use my ear rather than an analytical approach. I've listened to both instrumental and vocal pieces and tried to imitate the sound. Lynn Harrell always encouraged his students to listen to vocal music. If you do this long enough you begin to incorporate certain breathing and phrasing ideas without even realizing it. For example, when I was in high school I had a recording of Aida that I just about wore out. Placido Domingo sang "Celeste Aida" on this recording, and I tried to imitate his sound and phrasing. You don't need a long piece or even a lot of time -- just a few minutes listening and then playing. When I "got it" I would then look in the mirror and see if anything had changed in my playing that I could see. Some of my other favorite challenges are:

Heifetz in Chausson Poeme

Zukerman in the Elgar Violin Concerto with St. Louis and Slatkin

Lynn Harrell in just about anything.

Different vocalists in Schubert and Schumann art songs.

Great arias sung by both men and women to get the feel of the different vocal registers. Look for singers with voices that are both big and full/rich, never tight or strained.

I hope these ideas work for you, and that you come up with your own list of "inspirations." After all, you can never have too many colours on the cello!

Paul Tseng replies: I think you are well on your way. Someone once said "In order to have that beautiful sound, you must WANT it." Well, duh... but seriously, it's true. Finding methods and understanding tone production concepts are only the beginning. They are a means, not the end. Definitely experiment and learn from others. Get that sound you want in your ear.

There's a lot of conventional wisdom that can be reversed.

Try playing ppp in the bow and vibrato ff!

Play in higher positions on lower strings (choose the D string instead of 1-3rd positions on the A string and likewise d-g and g-c). The string you use has a greater immediate effect on the color than sounding point, weight and bow speed.

Find different kinds of vibrato. Practice vibrato in rhythms so that your hands can become used to vibrating at different frequencies and amplitudes.

Try using MORE bow when playing big instead of more pressure.

Of course, these are some very simple ideas that you may already have heard of. Watch, listen and learn from cellists you admire. Indeed, obsess over the detail of how they sound, look, etc. Imitate where you can and better yet, understand what they are doing and feeling when they do something you like. Take all that you gathered and create your own colors too!

jet bulletClick on the jet to return to the main tips page.