Understanding Active and Passive Motions in Cello Technique

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This article is about understanding how your body moves in relation to cello technique by distinguishing between three main elements;

Mosby's Medical Dictionary defines "active movements" as,

The movement of parts of the body as a result of voluntary effort (emphasis mine).

The same dictionary defines "passive movements" as,

The moving of parts of the body by an outside force without voluntary action or resistance by the individual (emphasis mine).

In others words, active motions are motions that are produced directly by muscles contractions (i.e. the hand wave - the hand moves "actively"). Passive motions are produced indirectly as reactions to active motions (i.e. the shaking out of your hand - the hand moves "passively").

All active and passive motions are made possible by pivot points we call joints (i.e. the elbow joint). The joints serve as pivot points for motions that are either active or passive movements; hence the term, pivot joints. Note: Often the pivot joint is confused with an active or passive motion, such as in the imprecise description, "move your elbow". What is usually meant by "move your elbow" is "move your forearm".

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of misunderstanding and imprecision among cello students regarding all three elements. Passive motions are confused for active and vice versa and the proper pivot joints go unidentified. This imprecision can only serve as a source of confusion for our students when attempting particular technical motions and results in inefficient playing.

Describing cello technique in terms of active/passive motions and pivot joints not only gives us a terminology to describe cello technique but provides greater clarity regarding how our body moves. This precision in understanding hopefully results in more precise practicing and better results in our students. Clarity can only aid our students as they seek to gain greater technical mastery over their instrument.

In my own teaching, I find that precision regarding movements and pivot joints goes a long way in preventing what Starker calls "a build up of tension". Being told, "Play with less tension", can only go so far. We need concrete ways to identify excessive tension and specific ways to practice releasing tension. Playing with less tension must be learned. Even the most "relaxed" cellist can find areas to release tension.

A related concept is momentum. I have found that tension often shows itself by a lack of freedom of motion or momentum (inertia). Momentum, used so well by athletes, is absolutely necessary for string players as well. So practicing the active and passive motions can be coupled with practicing momentum in the movements. This can be particularly effective in releasing excessive tension.

So to recap, the three areas to identify are;

All of these elements help us to better understand how our body works when performing certain motions on the cello. In fact, most of the motions we do on the cello encompass these three elements.

Application to Bow Arm Motions on the Cello

For the purpose of illustration, I will concentrate on the right arm. When teaching beginners I identify four main ways to play up bows and down bows. Remember, these are just the most basic ways to do up bows and down bows. In more advanced playing, you can combine these motions and there are many different types of bow strokes used in sophisticated playing. But it is important to first identify the most basic ways to perform up bows and down bows and identify the Pivot Joints, Active Motions and Passive Motions (if this applies) and practice them separately.

One thing I find in my teaching is that students tend to favor one or two of these motions. Some cellists tend to be forearm players, some tend to be whole arm players, etc. And the reason for this is almost always - yes, you guessed it - excessive tension. If the shoulder muscles are tight (hold excessive tension), the student will probably be more of a forearm player. If the bicep and tricep are tight, the student will tend to use the whole arm for bow strokes and avoid the forearm. The result of this is a cellist choosing a motion that may not be the most efficient for the particular task.

1. Forearm Active Motion: This bow stroke is primarily used in the middle to upper half of the bow, though it can be used in any part of the bow. For teaching cello technique to beginners, I recommend first teaching it as an upper half bow stroke. So let's identify the primary components:

Now, this is also a motion that is a weak point for many cello students. As cellists we often prefer to play at the lower half of the bow where we can utilize the weight of our arms. Because of this, I recommend introducing this motion to beginning cellists early. You do beginning cellists a big favor by doing so.

Besides learning to be comfortable in the upper half, if we are to play fast passages with separate bows, there is virtually no other way to execute them except with the forearm. And no matter where in the bow we wish to play (upper half, lower half, middle) the forearm can be used. The reason the forearm motion is the most efficient motion for fast passages is because the cellist only needs to move a part of the arm. One can add some upper arm with it but moving the entire arm exclusively would be impossible with fast separate bows, yet many students attempt this very thing. Try playing the entire last movement of the Haydn C Major Concerto using your whole arm for example.

We can debate over whether we hold our elbows up when we play or low, but with this motion it is necessary to have the elbow up (but not too high), no matter which part of the bow is being used. The elbow joint only allows motion in 2 directions. If the elbow is down, the forearm moves floor to ceiling, not left to right (up bow and down bow).

With playing at the tip while using the forearm motion, I recommend a slight increase in pronation in the forearm and hand. See this article on right arm/hand technique.

Remember, Cellists tend to be weak in this motion. Introduce students to this motion early.

2. Whole Arm Active Motion: This is the one cellists tend to favor from the beginning. This bow stroke is best used for slow to moderate playing. We can use it for legato or for a "brush stroke". It can be done in any part of the bow, though it is used more often in the lower half. For beginner cellists, I recommend teaching it as a lower bow stroke first. So what are the components of this stroke?

In my opinion, it is better to have a lower elbow when bowing in the lower half of the bow so as to better transfer weight into the string. Please see this article on the bow arm

3. Whole Arm "Swivel" Motion: I personally do not use this motion for much other than controlled spiccato or as part of a brush stroke but it could be used for legato strokes as well. This would especially be true in baroque performance practice. So let's identify the components of this movement:

Often when we think of the shoulder as a pivot joint we think of a "chicken wing" motion with the upper arm moving up and down. But the upper arm can also "swivel" in the shoulder joint.

The elbow needs to be down for this motion to create a left to right (up bow down bow) motion. If the elbow is high the hand tends to go front to back.

One great exercise for this motion is to hold a roll of toilet paper (yes, a roll of toilet paper!) or a rolled up hand towel between the upper arm and body. It keeps the upper arm from doing a chicken wing.

4. Whole Bows. This is the most difficult bow stroke because the cellist must transition from the lower half of bow to upper half of the bow and involves several active motions and pivot joints.

Transition involves:

So let's identify the components of this bow stroke.

Because this motion involves connecting the lower half and the upper half, I like to teach this only after the student can perform the upper half bow stroke and lower half bow strokes separately. After all, you cannot connect them if you cannot do them separately.

Action Studies

Here are some "Action Studies" to help teach the motions described in this article. In case you are not familiar with the term "Action Study", it was coined by violin Pedagogue Paul Rolland who taught at the University of Illinois in the 1950s and 60s. The idea of these action studies is to have an individual motion that can be practiced separately, enabling the student to focus on loose technique and freedom in the active motions. This is where technique becomes kind of fascinating for me.

When I began to teach these action studies I discovered some very revealing issues in my students. The first thing I discovered is that any tension issues become immediately apparent. If tension is present, the motions become restricted. For example, if my shoulder is tight, the whole arm motion becomes restricted.

Tension always shows itself around the pivot joint!

What I also discovered is that cellists with tension try to control the motions instead of using momentum. If there is any concept I'd like for you to remember in regards to cello technique it is momentum. Think over and over while you practice: momentum, momentum, momentum! When you wake up in the morning, the first thing to come to your mind should be, "momentum"!

Cellists with tension do not use momentum when they play.

Think of any sport. When professional basketball players throw a free throw they use momentum; they don't control the motion all the way through. How about a pitcher in baseball or a soccer playing kicking a goal? They get the motion started and they use momentum to their advantage. How about when you walk? Do you control the movements with tension or do you use momentum? It would be kind of funny to see someone walking not using momentum. I bet all of you use momentum when you walk. Motions on the cello shouldn't be any different than the examples cited above.

The good news is that tension free playing can be learned and practiced! And these action studies give students a concrete way to practice releasing tension. It simply will not work to say, "Play with less tension". The cello student needs something more specific to work on. And that is what these action studies are for. They are simple yet can be very effective if practiced. Again, in this article I am concentrating on the bow arm and hand. For more action studies see, this page.

Remember: When practicing these action studies, work on momentum (I don't mean to beat a dead horse but momentum is key).

Relaxed Shoulders

Action Study: Shoulder Drop: Teaches to relax the shoulders while you play.
Hold arms in approximate playing position. Raise and lower shoulders. Exhale while you drop shoulders. Relax!

Upper Half of Bow

Action Study: Door on a Hinge: (Active motion: Forearm; Pivot Joint: Elbow)
The "door" is the forearm and the "hinge" is the elbow. This Action Study is designed to help the student become more aware of how the forearm moves from the elbow (pivot joint).

Hold right elbow up (but not too high!). "Open and Close" forearm (door) while keeping upper arm from moving left to right. The left to right motion (up bow and down bow) should be accomplished only by the forearm.

Remember momentum!

Lower Half of Bow

Action Study: Grandfather Clock (Active Motion: Whole arm; Pivot Joint: Shoulder)
Relax your whole arm and let it hang from the shoulder. Swing your entire arm left to right like a grandfather clock.

Action Study: Swing (Active Motion: Whole arm; Pivot Joint: Shoulder)
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.

Grandfather Clock and Swing are designed to help the student become more aware of how the whole arm moves from the shoulder (pivot joint).

Action Study: Polish the CounterorWax on Wax Off (Active Motion: Upper Arm; Pivot Joint: Shoulder)
Primarily for controlled spiccato. Point the palm of your right hand to the ground with a low elbow. Move your forearm left to right while allowing the upper arm to swivel in the shoulder socket.

Action Study: Basketball Bounce. (Active motion: Hand; Pivot Joint: Wrist) Have the student move the hand like a basketball bounce. This movement will be added later for controlled spicatto .

Remember momentum!

Whole Bows

The most difficult so should be taught last.

Action Study: Chicken Wing (Active Motion: Upper Arm; Pivot Joint: Shoulder)
The Chicken Wing is designed to help the student become more aware of how the upper arm rises and lowers for whole bows with the shoulder as the pivot joint.

Action Study: Door on a hinge (Active Motion: Forearm; Pivot Joint: Elbow)
Door on a hinge helps the student become aware of how the forearm extends at the upper half of the bow.

Action Study: Telescope I (teaches pivot between thumb and 2nd finger)
This exercise is to teach the pivot between the thumb and middle finger.

Action Study: Telescope II
This exercise is to teach the pivot between the thumb and middle finger.

Action Study: Touch your nose (Active Motion: Hand; Pivot Joint: Wrist)
Touch the back of your bent wrist to the tip of your nose. Do a Door on a Hinge and straighten wrist. Bring wrist back to tip of nose while gradually bending it. Keep repeating!

Remember momentum!

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