Interview with Orlando Cole

An Excerpt from
The Way They Play, Vol. 1
by Samuel and Sada Applebaum©
Published in 1972 by
Paganiniana Publications

Orlando Cole, eminent cellist of the Curtis String Quarter, has had a notable career as performer and pedagog. He has taught a large number of our country's prominent young cellists

"I strongly feel," he told us, "that the artist or the performing teacher should communicate very closely with the music educator in an effort to improve teaching skills. Only in this way can a larger percentage of the present mass of string students be brought to a level of professional usefulness and musical satisfaction.

"In my view," he went on, "the most serious flaw in much of the cello instruction concerns the teaching of fundamentals. The foundation too often is incorrectly taught. It sometimes is almost entirely ignored. It is too tempting for teachers to rely on the innate gift of the talented students and then to rate the ones who only achieve mediocre results, as 'untalented.'

"Since so-called 'natural talents' are extremely rare, it is the student of average or little talent who most needs the help of better teaching methods and also a very clear analysis of his problems," he stated firmly.

"In my lectures throughout the country," I said, "it is very frequently observed that there are more girls than boys studying string instruments. Do you think that if we relate study of a string instrument to athletic skills, it would help?"

"Why, yes. I consider the physical basis of string playing as being akin to any branch of athletics. Good form is as vital in string study as it is in golf, or tennis or swimming. And in the early stages, at least, string teaching should be as specific and meticulous as good athletic coaching!

"Many fine performers who could help to improve teaching standards acquired their own physical-technical basis in their dim childhood. If ever they knew the steps they then took, they have long since forgotten them," he decried.

"Don't you agree that the concert artist should share in the responsibility of raising the standards of string teaching?"

"Yes! Definitely! I am sure that in a discussion of the art and science of teaching, all roads would lead to a solution of the basic problems," he added. "The artist, if he wishes to teach, has a responsibility to explore; to think through the mechanical aspects of his skill. In addition, he has the task to organize this knowledge in a way that appears logical and understandable to the average student. Throwing up a smoke-screen of unnecessarily technical, pseudo-scientific language only adds to the mysteries of string playing.

"One goal," he emphasized, "should be to simplify and work toward a musical result. As obvious as this sounds, it regrettably is not the practice of many of our cello teachers.

"And it is obvious, too, that all methods and matters of good form have to be adjusted to the individual physical makeup of each student. Therefore, writing or reading about the basis of string playing, even with photographs, has its limitations. Despite these limitations, it is very important that we formulate and express ideas which have been proven to be successful and are indeed valuable."

He added, "These can be modified slightly. I would, therefore, recommend the following procedures for holding the cello and placing the bow grip, and for the left hand:

"The player sits at the edge of the chair with the body straight and slightly forward. Both feet are flat on the floor as though ready to stand, with the knees low enough so that the bowing will not be obstructed. The end pin should be set in such a way that the scroll of the cello should just clear the player's left shoulder, about an inch from the player's neck. The adjustment of the end pin will vary according to the length of the player's arms. The longer the arms, the lower the end pin.

"The corner of the lower bout will contact the left knee. The right knee will brace the lower side of the instrument. The cello should be tilted slightly from the left to the right in order to make playing on the A string more comfortable. However," he added, "the cello may be gently rotated to favor the lower strings if necessary.

"Now, as to holding the bow," he continued. "With the left hand hold the bow stick around the middle of the bow, the hair facing the floor. With the right hand place the little finger so that it covers the pearl piece underneath the frog. Hook the first finger under the stick in the first joint. The second finger as well as the remaining fingers are placed loosely together in a relaxed manner, they are not spread apart.

"Place the right side of the tip of the thumb on the edge of the frog so that a part of the thumb also touches the stick itself, with most of the thumb on the frog itself. We might say," he added, "that two-thirds of the tip of the thumb will be on teh frog and one-third on the stick itself.

"Make sure that the thumb is curved, particularly in the middle joint. when the bow is held in playing position, the fourth finger should be perpendicular so that the four knuckles are directly above the stick. The bow is to be drawn at right angles to the string.

"Place the bow gently on the string about one and one-half inches below the end of the fingerboard at right angles to the string, with the stick tilted slightly toward the scroll. Below the middle we start each stroke with the whole arm from the shoulder. As a general rule," he pointed out, "we introduce the lower arm independently from the upper arm at the elbow joint when we play from near the middle to the tip.

"On the A and D strings, the lower arm is used exclusively from about the middle to the tip. On the two lower strings, it is not necessary to introduce the lower arm until we have well passed the middle of the bow going toward the tip. The important thing," he reminded, "is to keep the bow traveling parallel to the bridge at all times.

"As for placing the fingers on the cello, the little finger is practically straight and at right angles to the string. The fingers should be arched. The left thumb is slightly curved," he piinted out, "but it does not exert pressure on the neck. The tip of the thumb is placed opposite or behind the second finger.

"In the 'extended' position, the fourth finger is still straight; the thumb always following the second finger and remaining opposite to it. For the backward extension such as playing B flat on the A string, the first finger is straightened to form a whole tone. In the forward extension the position of the second, third and fourth fingers is not altered. The fourth finger is the guide and remains at right angles to the string. It is important to avoid any rotation of the hand or slipping of the first finger," he cautioned.

Continuing: "Pressure on the bow is acquired mainly by using the relaxed weight of the arm and shoulder. This will have to be supplemented, chiefly in the upper part of the bow, with pressure of the first finger and the bent thumb. The motion," he explained, "might be described as a 'pinch' or 'squeeze'-an upward pressure of the thumb, resisted by a downward pressure of the first finger.

"This can be practiced first without drawing the bow, and always without involving the tension of the upper arm and shoulder. Neither the arch of the hand nor the level of the wrist should collapse during this process," he reminded.

We greatly enjoyed this meticulous analysis as he went on. "The companion element to the improtance of good form is relaxation. I do not mean relaxation of the muscles in use," he said, "but of other muscles. If they are tense, they impede the exercise of the muscle being used. This is true of the athlete also. And you know," he observed, "that most tension results not just from emotional anxiety, but from muscular weakness."

He advised, "Exercises can be devised for strengthening the fingers of both hands while keeping the upper arms and shoulders relaxed. This allows free use of the weight of our bodies to provide much of the strength; the endurance which is required. And it is vital to the production of a free, unforced sound.

"The most subtle commandment of cello playing?" he replied to our question: "Intensity without tension!"

"Let us talk about tone production," we asked.

"Since the cello is a singing instrument," he complied, "the cello instructor, like the voice teacher, should stress tone quality from the very first bow stroke. Yes, a student's ear must be cultivated, not alone for good pitch, but for a keen sense of sound. The teacher sets the example. He should demonstrate the varieties of tone qualities, good and bad, by bowing closer or further from the bridge; by exerting greater or less pressure; and by quicker or slower speed of the bow.

"The student, by understanding these three elements of tone production, can thus experiment by himself. The tonal image in his own ear is the precious factor to cultivate. The player will draw from the instrument as beautiful a sound as he demands from it. That is a surety," Cole promised.

"And in teaching the vibrato?" we asked him.

"I would use caution until the student has developed a good sense of pitch, a reliable hand position, plus strength enough so that tension can be controlled. A tensed-up shiver is worse than no vibrato at all," he noted. "It establishes a bad habit which can be overcome only by starting again, slowly, from the beginning.

"I advocate a motion which derives from the elbow," he told us. "Only the vibrating finger should be permitted to touch the string. The other fingers group above it, touching each other, adding weight and unity to the hand. The thumb, bent slightly, should touch without pressure opposite the vibrating finger-except in the case of the fourth finger, for which I recommend removing it. And unlike the violin vibrato," Cole observed, "the use of the wrist is to be avoided."

He continued, "The hand and lower arm should swing as a unit. A good preliminary exercise is the rapid shifting of the hand, without pressure, from first to fourth position. Then, without using the bow, place the second finger on low E flat on the C string. Pressing it as in playing, the above motion should be contained and applied to produce, without jerkiness, a smooth continuous rotation of the finger tip.

"This, of couse," he added, "should be followed with each finger in turn. I repeat, there is to be no independent motion of the wrist and fingers. The finger, hand, wrist and lower arm are molded into one level unit which swings from the elbow, and which remains in a steady position. And another thing, the upper arem and shoulder should be relaxed to avoid tension. A metronome can be used to establish evenness," he suggested.

"When regularity has been achieved, though the speed is slow, the bow may be applied. And if the vibrato goes out of control or tenses up, delay further the use of the bow. Through patient and careful practice it should be possible to gradually quicken the vibrato to a musically desirable speed, not too fast and not too slow.

"Here again," he said, "the teacher sets the example and stimulates in the student this sensitivity for a singing tone. From single, long tones he will progress to a continuous vibrato, while changing ever more rapidly from one finger to another, or from one position to another.

"And, of course," he went on to say, "the teacher should demonstrate vibratos of various widths and speeds and their application to music of various styles and moods. Thus the student will develop a sense of color and the means to express it in his own, individual way.

"Vibrato is very personal, and perhaps not completely teachable," he averred. "However, this does not mean that it should not be taught. Few pupils will find their way through instinct. Most of them will stumble into unmusical habits which will, regrettably, cling to them for their whole lifetime. Most unfortunate!"

Orlando Cole's aristocracy of outlook endeared him to us. His noble sincerity, his lucidity and clarity of expression, and his disciplined exuberance fuse into a unity of purpose toward the constant advancement of excellence in the art. And he believes in development of truly musical players through wise teaching.

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