Basic Principles of Cello Technique
One of my fascinations as a cello teacher is to uncover the causes of excessive tension in cello technique and to come up with solutions. I believe that one great way to release excessive tension is to analyze the motions necessary on the cello and identify three main areas; the pivot joints, active motions, and passive motions. I cover this is my article called, Understanding Active and Passive Motions in Cello Technique here. I would like to expand on that article to include some basic principles of what I believe are a solid foundation on which to build cello technique. I am particularly interested in principles that can help prevent overuse injuries in cellists. I believe these principles apply to other instruments as well, such as violin and piano.
As mentioned, the first principle covered in "Understanding Active and Passive Motions" is to;
- Know your active motions
- Know your passive motions
- Know your pivot joints
In this article we will look at the following principles;
- Know Basic Anatomy
- Use anatomically neutral positions
- More motion can result in greater efficiency (but not necessarily)
- More motion can result in greater technical accuracy (but not necessarily)
- More Motion can loosen excessive tension (but not necessarily)
- Do not hinder passive motions
- Use dynamic rather than static technique
- Divide up the work
- Use large muscle groups
- Tension and Release
- Use gravity
I will not give a detailed application of each principle as that is covered in the articles on this site. So for the moment we will speak more in generalities.
One last point; these principles are not meant to be hard and fast rules. They are more in the spirit of guidelines. Each one of these principles can be broken. It is necessary to do so from time to time. But when we do go against one of these principles we should at least realize it and have good reasons for doing so.
So let's get started. Principle #1...
Know Basic Anatomy
In the various schools of cello technique, not much attention has been paid to certain anatomical realities that we cannot escape. For example, flexing the wrist (i.e. bending it towards the body) greater than 30° puts one at risk for carpal tunnel syndrome and and other overuse injuries. In addition, the higher one raises the elbow the smaller the subacromial space becomes in the shoulder, putting one at greater risk for subacromial impingement. It is also known that poor posture not only puts one at risk for back problems but also thoracic outlet syndrome, subacromial impingement, and ulnar nerve entrapment at the elbow.
All of these need to be taken into account when developing a cello technique. Many of the injuries cellists face are completely preventable with the proper set up. We need to understand the angles that put us at risk for injury and develop strategies and techniques for avoiding them, if at all possible. We can tilt our cello to the right, for example, to avoid raising the right shoulder too high. If a cellist has a long arm, he or she can develop a bow hold technique to avoid over-flexing the wrist. We can also take Alexander Technique lessons or research about posture strategies. We should establish a proper posture and bring the cello to our bodies instead of bringing our bodies to the cello. Some cellist should invest in a posture peg for the C string.
These are just a few ideas of how a basic knowledge of anatomy can inform our cello technique.
Use Anatomically Neutral Positions Whenever Possible
What do I mean by "anatomically neutral positions"? By anatomically neutral positions (ANP) I mean positions that the body maintains with the least amount of tension. They are the "default" positions of your body, so to speak. One example of this would be the spacing between the fingers. If you shake out your hand and let your fingers hang down, the fingers adopt a position that is "anatomically neutral". It may be a little different for each person but whatever finger spacing your hand adopts is the ANP for you. To give an application, I prefer to use that same spacing when I hold the bow. If my fingers spread apart further on the bow than the ANP then that creates unnecessary tension. If I squeeze them together, then I also create tension because I deviate from the ANP.
When looking for ways to release excessive tension we need to ask ourselves, "Can I or my students adopt positions that require no variation or at least little variation from ANP? It may or may not be possible but it needs to be asked. Here are some examples;
- The left arm is pulled to far back when playing in the lower positions, especially when playing on the A string. Our upper arms naturally fall to our side so pulling them back deviates from the ANP causing some tension in the back.
- The right thumb on the bow is across from the third finger. Actually, the ANP of the thumb is by the first finger, for most people at least. As you move further away from the neutral position the thumb muscle gets tighter. The tighter the thumb muscle the tighter the hand. The tighter the hand the tighter the arm and so forth. Try keeping your thumb across from first finger and bend it so the tip is across from the second finger. This is only a slight variation from the ANP.
- Using a cello that is too large. In first position, most of us have to spread our fingers further apart than the ANP, but having a cello that is simply too large causes the cellist to deviate even further from the ANP. When teaching young students, they often want to make a step up to a larger cello too early. It is important that the teacher not have the student switch too early.
- The left thumb is always across from the 2nd finger. This one gets controversial. The anatomic reality is that the thumb's ANP is by the first finger. Because of this I use that position whenever possible. There is a direct correlation between a tense thumb and a tense hand. So I keep the thumb by the 1st finger for 1st finger vibrato and in fast passages. See my article on the left thumb.
I think you get the idea. Look for the anatomically neutral positions and see if you can apply them to your playing.
More Motion Can Result in Greater Efficiency
This principle can raise some eyebrows among string pedagogues. I can already see the emails coming in! It is often assumed without challenge that economy of motion necessarily results in economy of energy. And likewise it is assumed that greater motion necessarily results in greater expenditure of energy.
Let me first say that there is, of course, truth in this assertion. There are extra motions that are not helpful to cello technique and do result in inefficient playing and should be avoided. My objection is to the assertion that more motion necessarily results in more energy expended and that economy of motion necessarily results in more efficient playing. Allow me to give some examples outside of cello technique where more motion actually results in greater efficiency.
The Wind Up or Back Swing
The "wind up" or "backswing" is one example. To illustrate, imagine pounding in a nail into a wood board without a backswing or wind up (going in the opposite direction). Let's say you held the hammer three inches from the nail and attempted to pound the nail into the wood without first going the opposite direction. There certainly would be economy of motion but the energy expended pounding in the nail, if you could actually accomplish it, would be far greater than if you employed the wind up. Consider how the "backswing" is a nearly universal technique in sports such as golf, baseball, tennis, soccer, and basketball. So here is the first example where greater motion (i.e. the "wind up" or "backswing") results in greater efficiency. What are the lessons here? The wind up can be employed before a shift or in the fingers of the left hand (but don't overdo this!). Or we can utilize the wind up in the bow arm before bringing the bow to the string.
Circles and Arcs
Circles and arcs are two more examples. It has long been observed that objects in nature rarely if ever move in straight lines. As Professor Alejandro Garcia points out in Physics of Paths of Action,
Objects rarely move in straight lines; it’s much more common for them to move in arcs.
Moving in circular or arced motions, as observed in nature, results in greater distance traveled (i.e. more "motion") but is often the most efficient path. And nature is incredibly efficient. Cello strings vibrate in circles, water goes down your drain in circles, wind swirls and moves in circles and arcs, ocean currents move in arcs and circles, planets orbit in circles, and galaxies move through space in circles. The list could go on and on. There are many reasons for this but suffice it to say that we must not assume that straight lines are always the most efficient manner for us to move our bodies.
True, Newton's laws of motion state that "Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it." In other words, objects in motion will move in a straight line unless an external force is applied to them, causing many to improperly infer that straight lines are always the most efficient trajectory for cello technique. However, we live in a world of many forces and our body is comprised of many joints that serve as pivot points and pendulums for motions, favoring arcs and circles (think of how we swing our arms and legs when we walk). We also employ many changes of direction when playing the cello, which necessitates circular or oval motions for efficiency.
Circles prevent us from continually stopping and starting, like the car in rush hour traffic, which is incredibly inefficient. Like the Olympic swimmer who changes directions in a pool via circles thereby keeping momentum going, we can and should look for areas of our technique to apply circles when changing directions. Bow changes can be circular or, as some prefer, in a figure eight. When playing spiccato the hand can move in a circular motion. Vibrato can also be circular or oval.
Our shoulder is essentially a pivot for a pendulum in our right arm, favoring an arc for up bows and down bows seen in the rising and falling of the elbow. As in any pendulum, gravity then can be used to our advantage in keeping the pendulum going. Our strings also serve as pivot points for the bow, resulting in arcs and circles for many bow strokes, particularly those involving string crossings. Arcs can be employed when preparing a shift (also related to the "wind up") to establish momentum before the change of position and arcs can be employed in the follow through of our bow.
In short, economy of motion does not necessarily equate with economy of energy. In fact, quite the opposite can be true; a dogmatic insistence on economy of motion can paradoxically result in inefficient playing.
More Motion Can Result in Greater Technical Accuracy
Yes, I said it; more motion can result in greater accuracy. First a disclaimer; I am not saying that any additional motion can result in greater accuracy. As I said in the previous section, there are extra motions that are not helpful to cello technique and should be avoided. So what do I mean?
Allow me make more comparisons to sports. Besides creating momentum, what is the purpose of all the addition preparatory motions when, for example, shooting a free throw in basketball or pitching in a baseball game? Simple: "Data". Yes, data. Have you noticed that in sports when the pressure is on and more accuracy is demanded the greater the amount of preparatory motions are made by the athlete? Consider the golfing professional who makes all kinds of test swings before the final putt. Consider the free throw in basketball at the end of the game. What is the point of all the preparatory motions, wind ups, and back swings? With all of these additional motions being performed the brain is receiving an enormous amount of "data" regarding where the body is in space and the speed at which it is traveling. All of this additional data enables the brain to adjust accordingly to produce more accurate motions. The brain doesn't receive as much data regarding a part of the body that is stationary.
Additional motions are not necessarily wrong or harmful to cello technique. It gives our brain more information with which to work. What we need is the wisdom to understand which motions get in the way and which are helpful.
For additional reading on this subject see Movement as Gestalt in Mantel's book, Cello Technique.
More Motion Can Release Tension
Famous violin pedagogue, Paul Roland observed what he called "static tension." That is, immobile (static) parts of the body tend to tense up. The violinist can lock up the knees and ankles so introducing some small motions in those areas can release tension. After all, it is more difficult for tension to build up in a part of the body that has some motion. Perhaps you can see how all of these points relate.
Some people will say, "OK, but look at Heifetz, he has extreme economy of motion. He hardly moves at all". Not really. It isn't true that he hardly moves at all. In fact, he moves a great deal! If you ever get the chance, just watch Heifetz played back in slow motion. He has a myriad of little motions all over his body. In that sense he moves a great deal.
So these motions do not have to be excessive, only present. Look for areas where you may have static tension and look for ways to introduce some small motion to loosen up the area.
Problem areas are,
- The joints in the fingers of both hand
- The thumbs
- The wrists
- The shoulders (see articles on Active and Passive Motions and Vibrato)
- The forearms (see articles on vibrato and basic right arm technique)
- The left hand in vibrato
Do Not Hinder Passive Motions
This relates to "motion can loosen tension". Essentially, all motions on the cello are either active or passive motions. Each motion has a "pivot joint". An active motion is one where the motion is produced directly by muscle contractions. One example would be waving your hand. A passive motion, on the other hand, is a reaction to an active motion. Try moving your whole arm and shake out the hand. The hand can move passively as a reaction to the active motion in the arm.
But you may have noticed that the passive motion in the hand cannot happen unless your forearm muscles are loose enough.
Passive motions are extremely important in cello technique because they give us concrete areas to focus on tension release. The other great advantage of passive motions is that they relieve some of the work of the active motions. This means more efficient playing (less energy expended)
We can use passive motions in these three main areas;
- String crossings
- Bow changes
Use Dynmaic Rather than Static Cello Technique
One of my complaints about "traditional" cello technique is that it tends to insist on hand and arm positions that are fixed an unchanging (i.e. "static"). In traditional technique the same bow hold is used for the frog and tip, the left thumb is always across from the second finger, the height of the right elbow is the same for all parts of the bow, the left hand position never changes (it is always in a "box" or "square" position). This is all in the name of efficiency. The less motion the better it is reasoned. The problem is that playing at the frog and tip pose different challenges entirely; this is a matter of physics. Vibrato on the 1st finger is quite different from vibrato on the 4th finger. When we insist on fixed playing positions we are actually opting for a compromise; positions that work reasonably well for all the different challenges faced.
What I propose, and many other cellists for that matter (see Cello Technique by Gerhard Matel), is a dynamic (changing and adapting) technique; one that adopts different positions depending on what one is playing. And think of this, when using a "dynamic" technique you too can give annoying answers to questions on cello technique!
- Do you use a low right elbow or do you raise it up? Yes! (but not to be overdone)
- Do you slant (pronate) your left hand or use a square hand position? Yes!
- Do you teach your students to put their left thumbs across from the 2nd finger? Yes, sometimes
- Do you play with flatter fingers or curved? Yes!
- Do you play with a low left elbow or a raised left elbow? YES!!
Where is it written that we must always adopt the same hand and arm positions on the cello? Why not vary it according to the demands of the passages we encounter?
Divide Up the Work
This relates directly to the previous principle. It makes sense to avoid overusing one set of muscles when playing the cello. If you have a fluid (changing and adapting) rather than a static (fixed an unchanging) technique, you avoid over working one set of muscles. For example, you will use different sets of muscles at the tip of the bow than at the frog. Your vibrato will be different on the first finger in comparison to the fourth finger.
We can also divide up the work by having several different ways to do the same motion. Let me give you an example. Some of my students tend to always bow with the whole arm with the shoulder as the pivot joint. They haven't realized that you can play up bows and down bows in at least four different ways. Each way of doing up bows and down bows is most efficient depending on the passage. Also, you can combine the motions as well, which also divides up the work.
Use Large Muscle Groups
Using large muscle groups instead of small or using large muscle groups to assist small muscles is especially helpful. Large muscle groups are less prone to injury. There are many motions that can be initiated by large muscle groups or supported by large muscle groups. We can use our back muscles to assist in shifting and tone production. We can employ rotating motions in our upper arm to initiate string crossings and vibrato.
Tension and Release
Jonas Starker often talks about tension and release. Tension is a necessary to perform any task. We obviously have to contract muscles to play the cello. However, as Starker points out, we need to avoid a build up of tension in any part of our body. The key is to release the tension (cease contracting the muscle) when we complete the job that is required for the task. We contract the muscle again only when we need it.
A disclaimer is in order here. A complete cessation of muscle contraction is not possible while playing the cello. Besides moving a part of our body, we often need to maintain a position of readiness for the next task, which demands a minimum amount of muscle contraction. As Gerhard Mantel said, it is similar to the boxer who holds a position between punches. Another analogy would be the tennis players who holds a ready position between swings. We often hear about "tension free" cello playing but this really isn't accurate because it is not possible. It would be more accurate to say we should avoid excessive tension while playing the cello. And one way we can do this is by releasing unnecessary tension between muscle contractions. Those with excessive tension problems tend to hold unnecessary muscle contractions without releasing them.
One such situation is the "extension" or "stretch". Unless your hand is exceptionally flexible, stretching between fingers is a tense but necessary position for the hand from time to time. However, it is imperative to let go of the stretch between the fingers (i.e. tension and release) as soon as possible and re-balance the hand.
Another problem area is the right thumb. For example, when playing the triple stops in the beginning of the Dvorak Cello Concerto, the upward force of the right thumb should release between the triple stops. The tension cannot release completely, of course. You still have to hold up the bow! These are just two examples of tension and release.
Always look for ways to apply tension and release.
Gravity is a force that we can use to our advantage when playing the cello. We can use gravity to,
- Use the weight of the left arm to push down the strings
- Use gravity in shifting from the lower to upper positions
- Use the weight of the bow arm when playing at the frog
- Use gravity to keep the pendulum of our right arm in motion
So there are some of my thoughts on basic principles of cello technique. I try to apply them whenever possible in my playing. Remember, they are not absolute rules but guidelines. I hope you find them helpful.