by Tim Janof

The following article originally appeared in the October 1994 edition of The Strad (under the name "Tim Finholt"), a string musicians magazine based in England. It is being re-published here with permission of The Strad.

I am sitting with my cello, clearing my head of the mundane stresses of everyday life. Nothing else matters, only my cello, my bow, and my own sense of quiet contemplation. Concentrate on breathing. Concentrate on relaxing. Concentrate on the feelings of tenderness and love for music and love for this wonderful instrument I have before me.

I glance at myself in the practice mirror and reflect upon Pablo Casals's words: "Beautiful playing is beautiful to look at."(1) I think about Yo-Yo Ma, and how beautiful he was as he played the Dvorak Concerto. Everything looked so easy, so perfectly balanced, so simple. There were no unnatural arm positions, no impressions of stressed shoulders or hands, no grimaces of fatigue or pain. And yet he was playing one of the most strenuous pieces for cellists. Why don't I look like that when I play?

"As calmly and well-balanced as a cellist may sit with his cello, the moment he starts to play, a change takes place in his body; suddenly his head sits lopsided on his shoulders, one shoulder is pulled up, the elbow is stretched out in a pointed angle, and the wrist of his right hand becomes stiff like a board, or his hand dangles about as if it were drunk and the left hand assumes a position that causes one to ask how it is possible even to strike a note, to vibrate, to move from one position to the next.

What a convicting observation from Emanuel Feuermann."2

I begin to wonder if Yo-Yo Ma makes it look so simple because it actually is simple. Careful, don't confuse the notion of simplicity with the notion of ease. Playing the cello is not easy; it's an immensely intricate set of motions requiring fine motor control that can only be acquired by years of practice. But perhaps I make it more complicated than it needs to be.

Armed with this realization, I begin to examine my attitudes to cello playing. Have I been piling up prejudices, anxieties and neuroses about cello technique? I can still hear the "inner chatter" (3) that has enslaved me over the years -- "I'll never hit that big shift," "the notes are too fast," or "thumb position is too difficult." And yet, in cello lessons, the diagnosis of a technical problem always results in a common sense solution--a higher arm, better planned bowing, better preparation for the next note, etc.

"The basic ill of poor playing lies in the absolute disregard of natural laws." (2) Feuermann seems to have had me in mind when he uttered these words. Sometimes I feel as if I must defy the laws of physics in order to play well. But this is ridiculous. If I play out of tune, it's because my finger is in the wrong place. If I miss a string with my bow, it's because my bow did not touch the right string at the right time. It all sounds so simple. Maybe it is.

I remember a concept from my math and science courses--the principle of linearity--the idea that a whole can be divided into independent parts and analyzed separately. These parts can then be re-combined to comprehend the whole. Maybe my cello playing would benefit from this approach. I could study the bow arm independently of the left hand; then the left hand without the bow; and finally, link the two together. This sounds encouraging.


I start with the bow. I look down at my cello and count the strings. There are only four. (What a relief -- sometimes it feels as if I am playing a sitar!) No matter how fast or slow I play, I am always playing on one of these. But it's more challenging to play fast because it's more difficult to keep track of which string I'm on. This leads me to suspect that many perceived left hand problems are actually right hand problems. If I really want to learn a passage, I should play it slowly first and figure out which string each note is on.

I begin to play a passage from a concerto [see example at the Internet Cello Society Web Site] with the left hand 'shadow' fingering above the fingerboard, while I play the corresponding open strings with the bow. As I play the open strings faster and faster, a pattern reveals itself: A-A-D-D-A-A becomes a repeating sequence. It's the famous passage from Saint-Saens' Concerto no. 1 [measure 297]. Repeating this until it becomes internalized, I add back the left hand. What a difference--it's so much cleaner! Of course many passages are not this regular. But the general principle holds: always know what string you're on.

I then note that whatever I play using my bow, it is either traveling up or down-bow. This observation may seem trivial, but it becomes crucial when playing fast, when it's often difficult to keep track of the direction the bow is supposed to be going in: always know in what direction you are bowing.

Looking at my bridge I notice that the strings are at different elevations above the cello body; the D and G-strings are higher than the A and C. I alternate between playing the A and D-strings. Because of the difference in heights, I tend to have a broken sound as I switch from one to the other. How can I achieve a smooth legato? Michael Tree, violist of the Guarneri Quartet, solves my problem:

"When one hears an unwanted break in the line at the moment of string crossing, it's usually because the arm doesn't prepare for it in advance. The arm has a wide potential latitude of vertical movement. You can raise it to play on the left side of the string or lower it to play on the right, or you can play dead center. If the arm anticipates the string crossing by leaning in the direction of the note that's coming, a more fluid, circular motion is achieved. The difference of a quarter of an inch may be enough to put the arm in position; the wrist can do the rest. But many players will do the exact opposite and lean the arm in the wrong direction; the result is an abrupt, angular movement." (4)

This means the more economical my motions are, the easier it is, and the better I sound. This is definitely a step towards my goal of simplicity.

I then alternate between playing the open A-string with the open C-string -- a huge leap over the two middle strings. Again I sound choppy because of the commotion of my bow arm, which flaps like a wing as I move between strings. Looking in the mirror, I note how unsettled and ridiculous I appear as I play. I must try to apply the string crossing lesson above. In an effort to counter my panic caused by visual cues, I imagine that the strings are actually on the same level. Instinctively, I raise my bow arm to a level where I can play the D-string comfortably, in a compromise position between the A and C-strings. Now I can reach both strings with relatively little movement, mostly a wrist and lower-arm action. A high bow arm gives me the flexibility to play on any string with a minimum of effort. I begin to play the Prelude of Bach's E flat Suite, which is full of huge string crossings. The notes sound more connected than ever before. Economy of motion pays off again.

I then play my open A-string, using half my bow for each note. I gradually increase the tempo while maintaining the use of half-bows. I am quite irritated by my tone -- it sounds uneven, scratchy, and forced. My arm is also extremely tired, so I must be doing something very wrong. While maintaining the fast tempo, I try using less bow. As if by magic, my sound becomes even and full and my arm is able to relax. I conclude that the faster one plays, the less bow one needs.

With this lesson in mind, I play a quaver [quarter note] followed by two semiquavers [eighth notes], and keep repeating this pattern. I notice that I am using the same amount of bow for the quavers as for the semiquavers. It occurs to me that semiquavers could be considered as 'fast notes'; they have half the duration of quavers, so, assuming a constant bow speed, they should need half the bow. When I try this, it works beautifully. The notion that cello technique might obey basic mathematical relationships gives me hope of finding simplicity.


Putting down my bow for a moment, I direct my attention to my left hand. I turn my cello around and look at the fingerboard. Some of humanity's greatest creations lie there waiting to be played: the Bach suites, the Beethoven sonatas, Bloch's Schelomo. I know they are there because a great musician like Yo-Yo Ma could take my cello and play them for me. All I have to do is learn to put my fingers in the right place. But how?

I run my fingers up and down the fingerboard, feeling how straight and smooth the strings are -- no curves, no bumps. Yet when I begin to play, I have a different perception; as soon as I reach 5th position, I enter some sort of forbidden zone -- as if I must reach into a deep chasm to find the notes. This is ridiculous. The only difference between the upper and lower parts of the fingerboard is that the notes become closer as I play progressively higher. I come to the realization that I have been a victim of the notion that 'higher is harder.'

But how are my fingers going to 'remember' where to go, unless I remind them? Scales! If the great musicians need them, I certainly do.

I play a few notes on the A-string in first position and look at my left arm, noticing that my elbow is low. I will not be able to reach the C-string if my elbow stays in this position. And if I need to go into 5th or thumb position, my arm will hit the body of the cello. The only way to avoid these potential hazards is to lift my elbow into a comfortably elevated position when needed, or better still, save myself some work by keeping the elbow up at all times.

I play some notes in thumb position and marvel at its simplicity. There are only three commonly used fingering combinations for the first three fingers: 1) Whole step between 1st and 2nd and whole step between 2nd and 3rd; 2) Half step between 1st and 2nd and whole step between 2nd and 3rd; and 3) Whole step between 1st and 2nd and half step between 2nd and 3rd. Add the thumb, and the basic combinations only double. With this knowledge I can figure out how to play any combination of notes; I only need to know the intervals between them. Finding the best fingering is another issue, but consciousness of these simple truths makes playing in thumb position much easier. And if I know the required configuration for the notes to come, I can shift directly into the required finger combination.

Except for chords, cellists play notes in a series; each note has some connection to the notes surrounding it. If I am not conscious of these relationships at all times, I will not prepare mentally and physically for notes to come (this applies to both hands). By keeping my right arm high, I am preparing for notes that will occur on other strings. And by keeping my left arm high, I am preparing for notes in higher positions. Preparation may also involve adjusting my arm position, how I sit, how I rotate the cello, and so on. This requires experimentation on a case by case basis.


Finally, I notice that I tend to stop breathing when I play, especially in challenging passages. As Robert Dew observes: "Many people hold their breath while playing, often to a length that would shame a pearl diver." (5) What could be more unnatural? Am I that paralyzed with fear? Can something so innocuous as getting a few sounds from a wooden box be that stressful? Without breathing a giant boulder has fallen in the path to simplicity.


As I sit with my beloved cello before me, fighting the necessity to join the outside world again, I reflect upon the true goal of my cello playing: to experience the art of music. All of the above observations are merely means to an end: to arrive at a freedom from the artistic bondage of my poor technique. Yet as Paul Tortelier observed, technique and musicality can be linked: "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." (1)

Many of the bow and left hand discoveries I have outlined can be found in the first book of any instrumental tutor: awareness of the four strings, up and down bows, intervals between fingers, etc. My approach is therefore akin to Robert Fulghum's theory that "All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten." In my own playing, I find that when I commit a technical sin, I have overlooked one of these fundamental notions. We all like to think that these things have become automatic. But the harder the music, the more distracted one becomes with the notes, forgetting the basics. As adults, our lifetime of experiences have produced layers of prejudices, anxieties, and neuroses. We need to strip away this "sophistication" and become child-like in our thirst for technical insight. Only then can we find simplicity in cello playing.


(1) David Blum, Paul Tortelier: A Self-Portrait in Conversation with David Blum. (London: Heinemann, 1984).

(2) Seymour W. Itzkoff, Emanuel Feuermann, Virtuoso. (Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1979).

(3) Barry Green with Timothy Gallwey. The Inner Game of Music. (New York: Doubleday, 1986).

(4) David Blum, The Art of Quartet Playing. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986) p. 124.

(5) Robert Dew, "Instinctive Responses." The Strad (October 1993, p. 940).

1996 Reprinted by permission of The Strad

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