This last weekend, I performed The Swan at a recital. Despite the difficulty of the piece and the surprise presence of a microphone a couple feet from my endpin, the 1700 hours of preparation worked, and I managed to not fall flat on my face. Yo Yo Ma, I was not, but honestly, I cannot imagine how I could have played it any better at this point in my cello career, and in many ways I felt like I played it much better than I have any right to at my age and experience level. Yet it was not a fluke either, and I know that my ability to expressively control my tone has improved rather dramatically since my recording of the Minuets. In the weeks leading up to the performance, I was beginning to feel increasingly confident that I finally stumbled upon a recipe to consciously improve the sweetness and sensitivity of my tone rather rapidly – or at the very least, decrease the raspy clumsiness. During this time of preparation, I have been writing and adding details to this post, but I wanted to wait until I tested these practice techniques in a public performance before I posted them here.
Now, with the help of my teacher, I have a set of focus points and exercises that have allowed me to rapidly improve tonal and expressive control. This is truly amazing because for the longest time, the path towards attaining a smoother and sweeter tone seemed so incremental that the totality of it was very abstract and shrouded in mystery. It feels like a fog has lifted and I am seeing the cello again for the first time, and I am excited to share with you what I have gleaned so far…
DISCLAIMER: THE FOLLOWING INFORMATION HAS TRANSFORMED MY TONE, BUT BEAR IN MIND, THESE ARE MERELY THE MUSINGS OF AN ENTHUSIASTIC AND CURIOUS AMATEUR. IF ANYTHING YOU READ HERE DISAGREES WITH YOUR OWN MORE EXTENSIVE EXPERIENCE AND/OR YOUR TEACHER’S INSTRUCTION, PLEASE DISREGARD IT.
Smoother Bow Starts:
The sweetest notes enter the scene like a whispering wind or a prowling cat. I have often wondered: how the heck do cellists do this? It is such a cool trick, yet it turns out that the basic principle of this technique is fairly simple. It rests on the fact that the pressure required to get the string to begin oscillating is a great deal less than the weight used in the middle of a stroke. Through a very instructive bow exercise learned in my lessons I found that for each location on the cello, there is a precise minimal pressure to activate the string and that there is a rather easy way to learn this pressure:
Begin by lifting the bow off of the string and then lowering it slowly until it makes contact again. Now wiggle the bow back and forth across the string in tiny movements, less than a millimeter. If the bow pressure is too light, the hair will slide over the string making a small raspy hissing thin sounding tone. However if you use too much pressure, the hair will latch onto the string and you will hear an audible accented “chirp” or “crunch” sound if you continue the motion into a full bow stroke. In between these two extremes of force is a “Goldilocks Zone”, where the hair just barely latches onto the string during a micro-wiggle. At this precise minimal pressure, if you continue the motion into a full bow stroke, the string will activate smoothly and cleanly without hiss or scratch or chirp. Voila! You have found the pressure needed to make a string sing without making it cough first.
It’s important to note, that the amount of force required varies greatly depending on the stroke you use, the position of the note, the part of the bow used, the bowing direction, speed, acceleration, and other physical parameters (rosin build-up, string thickness, etc) As a result of this exercise, I am also far more aware of my bow speed and am now using a small fraction of the rosin that I used to.
Handling the bow:
I recently had the opportunity to rehabilitate my bow hold. Without going into the details, which in all likelihood don’t apply to your unique grip, I discovered that much of the issues of handling the bow with accuracy revolve around maintaining leverage. You will notice this if you try the previously mentioned exercise of lifting bow off the string and slowly lowering back down again at various parts of the bow on either side of the balance point.
Go ahead and try it right now both at the tip and at the frog. Notice what is happening in your index and little finger when the bow is lifted. Notice what happens to the angle of the wrist and any tension in your arm or hand. Is the tip of the bow steady when you lift it? Does it flop around a little when the hair leaves the string? Does the grip seem to change when the bow is no longer supported by the string? Does your hand lock up with tension when holding the bow in the air?
By practicing raising and lowering the bow to the string at various lengths of the hair and paying special attention to how the weight is transferred between the string and the hand, you can discover exactly what a relaxed and steady bow hold requires. So far, I have found that two things should be true of any bowhold: 1) it should be a relaxed and flexible grip with supple fingers, wrist and arm, and 2) it should be a steady grip that doesn’t collapse, shift, or wobble when you lift it slowly off the string. These two traits will allow you to get a fuller undamped sound from your cello and give you the control necessary to alter the weight in fine increments and smoothly throughout the bow stroke (without bouncing).
The amount of bow weight you support and the direction of that support varies dramatically depending on which string you are playing on, the position of the note, and distance of the bow from the bridge. All of this variation can make it difficult to make a consistent sound, however if the dynamics and color of your tone are being primarily steered by the variation in playing conditions, then we aren’t really in control of our tone.
One way to regain a measure of control is to try making a consistent tonal color and loudness regardless of contact point or which direction or part of the bow I am using. As my teacher puts it, this is done by varying the bow speed & pressure so that the force the string sees remains constant regardless of the contact point. Of course, the bow will seem much shorter near the fingerboard and nearly endless when playing near the bridge. This consistency drill is an excellent way to work on bow dexterity with direct audio and tactile feedback, while training the ears to really hear these differences as well.
It is very easy when doing these kinds of exercises to get into the habit of using too much pressure, especially near the tip of the bow. To correct these habits, simply start over by lifting the bow up and finding the minimum activation pressure again. This is a relaxing reminder, and reassures the body of how little effort is actually needed to make a solid tone.
Slow and Low:
Continuing on the theme of consistency: playing slow is a good idea for getting better accuracy and muscle memory, but it is also a way to improve the fluidity of your tone. When you play slower, you are pretty much forced to move your bow down closer to the bridge just to maintain the same bowing patterns without running out of bow. Playing near the bridge is generally more challenging than playing anywhere else because it requires both deep relaxation, reduced bow speed, and significantly more weight to activate the string in a clean tone. As a result, any sudden changes in speed or pressure are immediately audible as hiccups or gaps in the sound. This is an excellent way to put a microscope on your bowing technique and smooth out any rough spots in your stroke.
Developing the Ears:
The ears are the most important tools in a musician’s tool box. Yet our minds are overwhelmed with so many technical aspects of creating sound that our ears are often neglected or ignored completely. This presents a grave problem because playing the cello while focusing only on the visual aspects of your hand position is like driving on the freeway with your eyes squeezed shut. This is because you “drive” the cello with your ears, and you can’t control what you can’t hear. My teacher put it to me this way. There are four progressive stages of acquiring any musical skill: 1) unconscious incompetence, 2) conscious incompetence, 3) conscious competence, and finally 4) unconscious competence. While we move through four stages for any particular dexterity skill on the cello, the degree of consciousness that allows for this journey to take place depends entirely upon the ear’s ability to perceive the countless subtle nuances that become increasingly apparent as we develop musically.
The development of the ears depends entirely on how much we are actually relying on them. It will not happen simply as a side effect of practice. It requires intense concentration. Human beings are primarily visual creatures, so it is not surprising that we often try to play the cello with our eyes: watching our hands or looking at a tuner. However, when our eyes are busy watching our fingers or a dancing tuner needle, our ears are operating at a dramatically diminished capacity because the brain behind both of these sensory organs is effectively multitasking. A study at the University of London showed that multitasking can lower your IQ by as much as 10 points. This is a greater mental deficit than losing an entire nights sleep or from maintaining a prolonged cannabis habit. The logical inverse of this finding suggests that playing with your eyes closed could potentially focus the mind enough to effectively raise your “auditory IQ”. This increased “auditory IQ” can be used for both more accurate intonation and better tonal awareness.
My teacher has even recommended such drastic measures as playing in a pitch black room or while wearing a blind fold. I am fairly clumsy even in a fully lit room, so I usually do these kind of sightless drills with my eyes simply closed. When I do, I can hear so much more in the music. It’s so mentally liberating that it’s almost as effective as listening to a recording of myself. Almost…
Record Your Best Sound (and then imagine a better one):
Owning and using a microphone is possibly the single greatest first step you can make to improve your sound. Maybe I should have put this first on the list? Well, if you don’t have a decent digital microphone like a Zoom HX series or an Apogee MiC, it is possibly the most worthwhile accessory purchase in your musical career besides maybe a metronome. I cannot stress this enough. Without it you might think you can hear how you sound, but you will be wrong. Oh so wrong. Trust me… it’s always better to know.
The only downside of having a mic (and it’s a big one!) is the often crushing disappointment when you listen to the first recording of yourself after endless hours on work on a piece. Pleasant surprises are few and far between whenever you hit the record button. However, whatever you discover on the playback, it is simply information. The objective reality is that information itself is neither good nor bad. It is merely a crucial tool to start making adjustments and trying new approaches. It is often during these exploratory adjustments that we can begin to start asking the right questions, so any initial pain or disappointment is well worth the cost in bravery or ego when staring down the red blinking record light.
In general, the more you use a mic, the more benefit you will get. But there is a limit. The human ego can be fragile thing when we open ourselves up to new experiences, and the feedback we get can occasionally be like having ice cold water dumped directly into the soul. To ward against drowning my nascent cello ambitions in a bath of ice water, I also devote plenty of time to letting myself soar free of a microphone’s woeful ear, and imagine for several precious minutes that I sound more like Yo Yo Ma. The illusion is tenuous and evaporates soon enough, but I think is a necessary white lie because these kinds of imaginings push me to aspire to things which are far beyond my current capability. In a very real way, this kind of exercise opens a door of possibility that may have remained forever closed otherwise. It also builds up the ego so that it can withstand a few solid doses of tough medicine from a callous microphone.
Beware of Bow Drift:
It is especially difficult for unseasoned cellists to keep the bow at a precise distance from the bridge. This distance is often referred to as the “contact point”. Intentionally changing the contact point during a bow stroke is usually done to get a certain tonal color or also during (de)crescendos within a bow stroke. Unintentional changes in contact point tend to produce uneven tone, excessive string noise, and unintended dynamics and tonal color changes. To a certain degree we begin controlling this distance by using our eyes, but as with ear training, we want to eventually graduate to using our other senses. Learning how a steady controlled contact point feels and sounds is the ultimate goal so that we can eventually make subtle intentional dynamic and color changes even with our eyes closed.
Tenderizing the Wood:
The tone of your cello will depend to a certain extent on the amount of time it has been played, and more importantly which notes you have played the most. The more you play certain notes on the cello, the more responsive, open, and resonant those notes will become. This is part of the reason why older “vintage” instruments are so valuable: they have been played in every note in every position for generations. The wood on your cello may look like it is motionless, but in reality it is alive and vibrating in what are called Chladni patterns:
Below you can see the outline of these Chaladni patterns created by the black dust sprinkled onto the wood that being vibrated mechanically at specific frequencies. The places where the black dust gathers is where the wood is vibrating the least. The empty spaces in between are areas where the wood is moving rapidly up and down between the nodes. The pattern for each note and each octave is unique:
Perhaps you have noticed that the first time you play a note on the cello its sounds stuffier and feel less responsive than more commonly played notes? This is because the cello has not vibrated in that specific Chladni pattern before. The more you play that note, the clearer and more resonant it will sound as the wood relaxes like a soft old cotton shirt. The process can take years. If you are impatient, there is a device called a ToneRite that can more rapidly “mature” your instrument’s wood by subjecting it to intense vibrations while you are off doing other non-celloy things. I cannot confirm the claims that it opens up your cello safely, however I can confirm that my own experiments with playing loudly into the bridge by hand have altered the overtones of my cello.
In general, the amount of resonance a cello has is directly linked to the bandwidth of resonant vibrations for that note and for the resonant frequencies of the wood itself. That means that after years of playing with consistent intonation, those notes will sound more clear and defined when compared to out-of-tune notes, and the more you use techniques like vibrato and double stops, the more depth and warmth each individual note will have. Playing the same note in a higher position (eg playing D3 on the C string) will encourage lower overtones and more depth and warmth in the sound when played in first and fourth positions. Playing an open string D close to the bridge at very high volume will encourage the wood to vibrate with more clarity and with higher overtones. There is some debate as to how much of this effect is caused by the physical properties of the wood being altered, and how much is due to the ears of the musician growing and changing as the skill improves to draw more colors out of the cello. After a grand total of two years and three months behind a cello, I am leaning towards the opinion that it is a good bit of both. A relationship with a cello has been compared to a marriage of sorts, and the more you get to know your partner, the deeper the relationship grows. To extend the analogy further, it is normal and expected that both partners in the relationship will grow and change over time.
On a related side note: I just installed a Wolf Eliminator on my cello and I am finding that some of my tonal issues were the result of wrestling with a fairly strong Wolf on the F# that greatly altered the responsiveness of the cello on several adjacent notes and in almost every position. Now my cello is much easier to play on any given note and the evenness of the response makes the notes sound and play much smoother.