cello

Action Study Exercises
for Beginning and Intermediate Cello


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The term "Action Study" was coined by famous violinist and pedagogue, Paul Rolland. Actions studies are exercises that help string students isolate and practice particular movements ("actions") necessary to play the instrument. The exercises are often practiced off the cello and then applied in context on the instrument.

"Shoulder Drop"
Both Arms

The shoulder drop is to help the shoulders relax while playing the cello

1. Hold your arms in playing position on or off the instrument. Tuck shoulders up. Drop shoulder down. Maintain this feeling in shoulders while playing the cello.

2. One caveat: When raising the elbow, such as playing on the A string, the teacher should not discourage the shoulder blade from upward rotation. This will be noticeable by a slight rise in the shoulder. This is a natural movement necessary to prevent shoulder impingement (stay tuned for an article on this important topic for cellists).


Right Arm and Hand

"Look through the Telescope!"
Right hand bow hold

To teach the student that the thumb is curved and goes across from the second finger. It also is important later when you teach the pivot motion in the right hand.

1. Curve your right thumb and position the tip of the thumb in the middle of your second finger. Look through the telescope at your neighbor!

"Stay on the Lines"
Right hand bow hold

This is to show the student that the bow goes on the first creases of the first and fourth fingers. Use a pencil first before trying it with the bow.

"Star Trek Docking Method"
Right hand bow hold

This is to demonstrate that the hand should remain relaxed and that the fingers should be spaced apart in a "natural" way, not overly spread apart nor squeezed together.

  1. Hold the middle of the bow with the left hand with the frog in front of you
  2. Shake out the right hand above the proper position on the bow
  3. Bend the right thumb and put the tip across from the middle of the second finger
  4. Gradually bring the hand down to the bow as if "docking" the Starship Enterprise (sound effects are good at this point!)
  5. "Dock" the hand on the bow.

"First Finger, Mr. Rapper!!"
Right hand bow hold

This is to teach the student the importance of having the first finger "wrap" slightly around the stick to hold up the tip.

Said with a rap rhythm,

I'm Mr. "wrapper" and I'm here to say, I hold up the tip so I can play!

"Eat Some Steak" or "Cut a Cauliflower!"
Right hand bow hold

This is to teach what to avoid! Hold the bow hand in an overly supinated fashion, using the same technique as when you cut steak (or cauliflower if you are a vegetarian!). This is what happens when First Finger, Mr. Rapper isn't "wrapping"!

"Thumb Aerobics"
Right Hand (Active Motion: Thumb; Pivot Joint: Thumb Joints)

This exercise is to help reduce thumb tension in the right hand. This is much easier with a Foohy Gooshi pencil grip!

  1. While holding the bow in the right hand in the air, bend and flex thumb. You can support the bow stick with your left hand.
"Grandfather Clock"
Right Arm (Active Motion: Whole arm; Pivot Joint: Shoulder)

Teaches the motion from the shoulder for lower half of the bow.

  1. Relax your whole arm and let it hang from the shoulder. Swing your entire arm left to right like a grandfather clock.
"Swing"
Right Arm (Active Motion: Whole arm; Pivot Joint: Shoulder)

"Swing" is designed to help the student become more aware of how the arm moves from the shoulder (pivot joint) for the lower half of the bow.

  1. While doing the "Grandfather Clock" gradually bend the arm from the elbow. Keep swinging the arm from the shoulder. Keep you hand relaxed and hanging from the forearm.
"Door on a Hinge"
Right arm (Active motion: Forearm; Pivot Joint: Elbow)

Door on a hinge is designed to teach forearm freedom while playing in the upper half of the bow. The "door" is the forearm and the "hinge" is the elbow.

  1. Hold up the right upper arm away from the body. "Open and Close" forearm (door) while keeping upper arm from moving left to right. The left to right motion should be accomplished only by the forearm.
"Windshield Wiper"
Right Hand

This teaches the student that the index finger helps to control the bow in order to keep it parallel to the string.

  1. Place the bow on the string at the upper half.
  2. Using the index finger, slide the bow on the string as if it were a windshield wiper. The tip points up towards the ceiling and then down towards the floor.
"Chicken Wing"
Right arm (Active motion: upper arm; Pivot joint: shoulder)

This teaches the student that the upper arm (or elbow) rises and falls when you bow from the tip to the frog.

  1. Bend your arm at the elbow and hold your arm to the side. Raise and lower your elbow like a chicken wing.
"Basketball Pass" or "Wing on a Hinge"
Right arm (Active motions: upper arm, forearm; Pivot joints: shoulder and elbow)

This is a combination between the "chicken wing" and "door on a hinge". This teaches the somewhat complicated motions necessary in the upper arm and forearm for whole bows. The motion starts from the shoulder with the whole arm, the elbow gradually rises and at the end of the bow the forearm takes over. There is also a slight pronation in the forearm and hand as you come to the tip of the bow.

  1. Alternate between four "chicken wings" and four "door on a hinges". Then alternate between three chicken wings and three door on a hinges. Then do two, then one. Now you have "Wing on a hinge"!!
  2. For "basketball pass" crumple up a piece of paper. Practice a basketball pass with the piece of paper. It's amazing how similar the whole bow is to a basketball pass!!
"Row Boat"
Right arm position (Active motions: whole arm; Pivot joints: shoulder and elbow)

This action study teaches the student the different angles necessary on each string to keep the bow straight with the bridge. On the high strings, especially the A string, the arm must reach out more and the tip of the bow must point up more. On the low strings, especially the C string, the arm must pull back some and the tip needs to point downward more towards the ground.

  1. Do a row boat motion with both arms.
  2. Place the tip of the bow on the C string. Pull the arm back and think of pointing the tip down. This position is similar to when your arms are bent when rowing a boat. Have your left arm also bent like you are rowing a boat.
  3. Now gradually move to the A string and straighten both arms just like rowing a boat. When you get to the A string your arms will be straighter (but not totally straight!)

Corny saying: String is low, point to your toe, string is high, point to the sky.

"Hand Wave"
Right Hand (Active Motion: Hand; Pivot Joint: Wrist)

This motion is used in string crossings primarily at the frog and for controlled spiccato.

  1. First, wave to your neighbor.
  2. Try it while holding a pencil like a bow.
  3. While holding the bow in the right hand in the air, wave to the teacher with the same hand.
  4. Combine this with Wax on Wax Off (see below) for the controlled spiccato motion.
"Wave Like a Monkey!"
Right Arm and Hand (Active Motion: Upper arm; Passive Motion: hand; Pivot Joints: Shoulder and Wrist)
  1. Similar to "Hand Wave" but instead of an active motion when waving use a passive motion.
  2. Also try it while holding a pencil like a bow.
"Touch Your Nose"
Right hand (Active Motion: Whole Arm; Pivot Joint: Wrist)

This action study is to teach a slight bending in the wrist as you play an up bow. A Suzuki violinist showed me this but I think it is helpful for the cello too.

  1. Hold your right arm like playing the violin. Move your wrist towards your nose and touch your wrist to your nose.
"Princess Wave"
Right arm and hand (Active motion: Forearm; Pivot joint: elbow)

This motion is a pronating and supinating action in the forearm. This motion is use in the right hand and arm for articulations and for applying force into the string.

  1. Wave like a princess.
  2. Keep waving and put your arm into more of a playing position.
  3. Later you can combine this with the telescope action study (see below).

Facility and Shifting

"Traveling Up the Road" (beginning)
Action Study to practice shifting and passage work
  1. Place your 1st finger somewhat on the inside of the string (if playing on the D string this would be the side of the string closest to the G string).
  2. Slide the 1st finger up the string (towards the bridge) on the inside of the string and pizzicato with the same finger at the end of the fingerboard.
  3. Repeat with the 2nd and 3rd fingers.
  4. Repeat with the 4th finger but substitute the 3rd finger when you get to the heel of the neck.
  5. Try this on all 4 strings.

"Traveling Up the Road" (intermediate)
Action Study to practice fast passage work up the string using the scale fingering
  1. With just the left-hand, play 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, etc. quickly in 1st position somewhat on the right side of the string (if playing on the D string this would be the side of the string closest to the G string).
  2. Place 1st finger somewhat on the side of the D string and play 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, etc. quickly as you slide up the string (towards the bridge).
  3. Be sure to bring the thumb up and around at the heel of the neck as you travel up the string.
  4. Pizzicato with the 3rd finger (ring finger) of the left-hand at the end of the fingerboard.
  5. Repeat on the other strings.

"Traveling Up the Road" (advanced)
Action Study to practice fast passage work up the string using a chromatic fingering
  1. With just the left-hand, play 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, etc. quickly in 1st position somewhat on the inside of the string (if playing on the D string this would be the side of the string closest to the G string).
  2. Place 1st finger somewhat on the inside of the D string and play 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, etc. quickly as you slide up the string (towards the bridge).
  3. Pizzicato with the 1st finger of the left-hand at the end of the fingerboard.
  4. Repeat on the other strings

"Harmonic Fun"
Action Study to practice shifting and passage work
  1. Gently touch 1st finger on the D String (if playing on the D string this would be the side of the string closest to the G string). Be careful not to push the string down. Only lightly touch the string with the finger. Be careful to only touch the string with one finger.
  2. Slide 1st finger up and down the string all the way to the end of the fingerboard, only lightly touching it. You can keep the thumb above the string.
  3. Add the bow: Slide up and down the string with your 1st finger while bowing. See how many times you can travel up and down the string in one bow. Listen to all of the cool harmonics!
  4. Repeat with different fingers and on different strings.

More Advanced Right Hand and Arm Technique

"Wax On, Wax Off" or "Polish the Counter"
Right Arm (Active Motion: Upper arm; Pivot Joint: Shoulder)

This motion is used for controlled spiccato.

  1. With your elbow low and pretend you are waxing a car or polishing a counter top!
  2. Hold your right elbow down as if playing at the frog. Move your forearm left to right while allowing the upper arm to swivel in the shoulder socket.
  3. Try it holding a pencil as in a bow hold.
  4. It is also helpful to roll up a hand towel and put it under the arm.
"Robot Wave"
Right Arm (Active Motion: Upper Arm; Pivot Joint: Shoulder)

This motion is used for string crossings at the upper half of the bow.

  1. Make sure the upper arm is up away from the body (elbow high). "Wave" using your entire forearm. The upper arm will "swivel" in the shoulder socket. Resultantly, as the forearm points down, the upper arm points up in the opposite direction.
"Stir the Cake"
Right arm (Active Motions: Upper Arm and Forearm; Pivot Joints: Shoulder and elbow)

Stir the cake is to teach the mechanics of string crossings. It is a combination of "Door on a Hinge" and "Robot Wave".

  1. Hold the right upper arm up away from the body. Alternate between Robot Wave and Door on a Hinge. Combine them. Using only the forearm, make a circular clockwise motion as if "stirring a cake" using the whole forearm. Try it again counter-clockwise. The upper arm should have a counter reaction in the opposite direction. In other words, when the forearm circles down, the upper arm points up as in the "forearm wave."
"Telescope"
Right Hand

This exercise is to teach the pivot between the thumb and middle finger.

  1. Hold bow with left hand on the stick.
  2. Look through the telescope (circle using middle finger and thumb).
  3. Put middle finger on metal piece and thumb in nook.
  4. Hold 1st and 4th fingers out.
  5. With the left hand, raise the tip of the bow up without moving the right hand until the bow touches the index finger. Feel the pivot in the right hand.
  6. With the left hand, drop the tip of the bow down without moving the right hand until the bow touches the pinkie. Feel the pivot in the right hand.
  7. You can also try this with a pencil.
"Telescope II"
Right Hand

This exercise is to teach the pivot between the thumb and middle finger.

  1. Hold bow with left hand on the stick parallel to the ground.
  2. Look through the telescope (circle using middle finger and thumb).
  3. Put middle finger on metal piece and thumb in nook.
  4. Hold 1st and 4th fingers out.
  5. Keeping the bow parallel to the ground, raise the elbow and pronate hand until index finger touches stick. Feel the pivot in the right hand.
  6. Keeping the bow parallel to the ground, lower the elbow and supinate hand until index finger touches stick. Feel the pivot in the right hand.
  7. You can also try this with a pencil.
"Free Fall"
Right Hand, French Hold

This exercise is to teach the pivot between the thumb and middle finger. Caution: Only do this on a carpeted surface or if you have a fiber glass or carbon fiber bow!

  1. Face palm to ceiling while holding bow.
  2. Allow stick of bow to rest on index finger.
  3. Release 2nd through 4th fingers from bow (this is the pronated position).
  4. Gradually turn hand over so palm faces ceiling.
  5. Allow bow to "free fall" while it pivots between thumb and middle finger.
  6. Catch with pinkie.
"Bow Clicks"

This teaches how to use the pronating action of the forearm and hand, through the index finger, to create articulations.

  1. Review "Princess Wave" and "Look Through the Telescope", "Telescope", "Telescope II", and "Free Fall".
  2. Hold the bow on the string at the middle point without any weight or pressure.
  3. Push the stick into the hair and immediately let up. Try different tempos.
  4. Add slight down and up bows doing the same motion and hear the bow clicks.
"Shock Absorbers"
Right Hand (Passive Motions: Fingers: Pivot Joints: FInger Knuckles)

This exercise is to teach finger flexibility in the bow hand.

  1. Place all five fingers on your knee while sitting.
  2. Bend and straighten fingers.
  3. Hold bow and bend and straighten the fingers (this is much easier with a Foohy Gooshi Grip!).
"The Finger Tap"
Right hand

This exercise is to teach the back of the hand in the upper half of the bow to remain loose. This motion is not actually used while playing. Rather, it helps the brain to differentiate the back of the hand from the front of the hand.

  1. With the bow on the string, establish a pronated position in the upper half.
  2. While "pressing" or applying weight through the index finger onto the top of the bow, tap the back three fingers on the frog. Do not let up on the index finger while tapping.

Left Hand and Arm

"Soda (Pop) Can"
Left hand, First finger

This exercise is to teach the proper hand position for the 1st finger.

  1. Hold your left hand as if you are holding a soda can.
  2. Bring it up to your mouth as if you are going to take a sip. This is your position for the 1st finger.
"Spock Sign"
Left Hand

This is to acquire more flexibility between the 2nd and 3rd fingers of the left hand.

  1. Without help from other hand, separate the 2nd and 3rd fingers while keeping the 1st and 2nd touching and the 3rd and 4th touching.
"Thumb Circles"
Left hand

This action study is for teaching the student to use gravity instead of squeezing with the thumb.

  1. Place any finger or combination of fingers down on the finger board. Use arm weight to push the strings down. Now make thumb "circles" without touching the neck.
"Don't Crush the Paper!"
Left hand

This exercise is to teach the students to maintain as much as possible an open C in the left hand.

  1. Roll up a piece of paper length-wise.
  2. Make a soda pop hand.
  3. Place all four fingers on the D string.
  4. Place the rolled up piece of paper in the open C space of the left hand. Hold it in place or tape it to the side of the neck while the student plays. Don't crush the paper!!
"Robot Wave" and "Robot Goes for a Drive"
Left Arm (Active Motion: Upper Arm; Pivot Joint: Shoulder)

The forearm wave is to teach the swivel motion in the upper arm necessary for vibrato. See vibrato for beginners for more information.

Wave using your entire forearm. Make sure the upper arm is raised but tilted slightly downward. The upper arm will "swivel" in the shoulder socket. Resultantly, as the forearm points down, the upper arm points up in the opposite direction. Sequence: "While driving you make a left turn signal in your arm, you see a friend so you wave, your AC breaks so you fan yourself, you get home and decide to clean so you polish the string, you want to do some gardening so you plant the finger."

"Polish the Fingerboard"
Left Hand and Arm (Active Motion: Upper Arm; Pivot Joint: Shoulder)

This is to teach the necessary motions for vibrato.

  1. Do "robot wave."
  2. Gradually move hand closer to string.
  3. Place 1st and 2nd fingers on D string and "Polish the String"
  4. Make the polishing motion smaller and plant 2nd finger on string.
  5. Continue same motion in arm and let arm pivot around finger. Vibrato!
"Mr. Muscle"
Left Hand (Active Motions: Fingers; Pivot Joints: Knuckle at Base of Fingers)

This exercise is to strengthen the fingers of the left hand and increase finger independence.

Put 1st finger on lowest string, 2nd finger on next highest string, 3rd finger on next highest string and 4th finger on top string. While pushing down strings with other fingers, raise and lower 1st finger. Do 5 reps to start with. After 1st finger, repeat process with other fingers.


More Advanced Left Hand and Arm

"Friendly Pairs"
Left Hand

This is to teach finger support and wean students off all fingers down for vibrato.

  1. Place 4th finger down with 3rd finger. Keep other fingers over respective notes without touching string.
  2. After this, support 3rd finger with 2nd finger. You will need to lift up the 4th finger and put down the 2nd finger.
  3. Place 2nd by itself.
  4. After this, place down 1st finger by itself.
  5. Reverse process: Place down 1st - 2nd - 2nd with 3rd - 3rd with 4th.
"Forearm Roll"
Left Hand and Arm (Active Motions: Upper Arm and Forearm; Pivot Joints: Shoulder and Elbow)

This is to teach the necessary motions for vibrato. Keep the arm working as an entire unit.

  1. Plant 2nd finger on D string.
  2. Slowly pronate and supinate entire forearm while pivoting on 2nd finger. Make sure the upper arm is swiveling in the shoulder joint. If the arm is working as a unit, the upper arm will roll in the opposite direction of the hand.
"The Trampoline"
Left Hand and Arm (Active Motions: Upper arm and hand; Pivot Joints: Shoulder and Wrist)

A somewhat advanced action study to teach the preparatory motions for shifting.

  1. Place thumb (optional) and 2 or 3 fingers on an open string.
  2. Raise and lower the wrist and elbow in a bouncing motion. Think of the motion coming more from the wrist.
"Diving Board: 1-2-3 Go!"
Left Hand and Arm (Active Motions: Upper arm and hand; Pivot Joints: Shoulder and Wrist)

A somewhat advanced action study to teach the preparatory motions for shifting.

  1. Raise and lower wrist and arm 3 times while keeping fingers on string like bouncing on a diving board.
  2. After the 3rd time, allow the momentum of the upward motion of the wrist and arm propel the hand upward in the direction of the bridge. Allow the fingers to slide along the strings. When you come to a stop and repeat the process. Also, try reversing the direction of the shift when you have reached the upper positions.
"Bunny Hop"
Left Hand and Arm (Active Motions: Upper arm and hand; Pivot Joints: Shoulder and Wrist)

Similar to the previous action study minus the 3 preparations.

  1. Place thumb (optional) and 2 or 3 fingers on an open string.
  2. Allow the raising of the wrist and elbow to propel the hand upward towards the bridge in successive "hops". Remember to slide the fingers along the string.
  3. Reverse the directions of the "hops."
"Thumbs of Steel"
For Thumb Position

This teaches the basic position of the thumb for thumb position and also helps to strengthen the thumb.

  1. Place the thumb across the A and D strings somewhere in the lower positions. Be sure the thumb nail is touch the D string and that the elbow is up.
  2. Press the A and D strings down with the thumb and move around to different parts of the fingerboard, pressing the strings down each time. Keep an "open C" on the hand with your index finger and thumb while doing this.



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