Right Hand and Arm Position on the Cello
Efficient Tone Production
Remember these Principles
Know your pivot joints
Know your active motions
Know your passive motions
Use anatomically natural positions
Motion can loosen tension
Do not hinder passive motions
Use fluid rather than static technique
Divide up the work
Use large muscle groups
Tension and release
One thing I keep repeating on this web site is to avoid a set or "static" technique. In other words, avoid technique that doesn't adjust to the differing demands on the instrument. Analyze exactly what you need to accomplish technically and think of how you need to execute it using the principles above. Do not assume that you need to have the exact same hand and arm position for every passage or every part of the bow. Set positions are compromises and may not work as efficiently as positions that are fluid or adjusting.
Regarding bow technique, one needs to keep in mind that playing at the tip of the bow poses an entirely different set of challenges to playing at the frog.
Consider this two main difference:
Playing at the Frog
Arm is close to point of contact on string
Playing at Tip
Arm far away from point of contact on string
The manner in which a cellist most efficiently transfers a downward force into the string will therefore be different at the frog and tip due to the differing distances between the hand and point of contact with the string. So we need to approach the question of left hand and arm technique with this in mind.
So what are the most efficient ways to transfer force into the string at the frog and tip? Let's start by examining the lower half of the bow.
Lower Half of Bow
One of the advantages of the hand and arm being close to the point of contact with the string is the ease with which one can transfer weight into the string. In fact, when placing the bow on the string very near to the frog, the string can almost hold up the entire weight of the arm. So the main question at this point is what is the most efficient way to transfer weight into the string while bowing at the lower half? I believe the answer is found in three concepts;
- Lower elbow
- More Supinated hand
- Low Wrist for forte playing
Let's look at each of these concepts separately.
Why would a low elbow be better suited to transfer weight into the string at the frog?
To hold your elbow high necessitates that the shoulder muscles hold the upper arm up, not allowing it to drop. If your elbow is high at the frog, you are using your shoulder muscle, preventing the arm weight from being transferred in to the string. The downward force into the string by using a high elbow is by necessity through a pronating action in the forearm (i..e. the use of muscles).
On the other hand, a relaxed shoulder muscle allows the upper arm to drop and take advantage of gravity. So your choice is this; the downward force of the bow into the string at the lower half can be entirely by means of muscle activity (pronating action) or the downward force can be through gravity. Why not have gravity help out? It leads to less work for the arm. One word of caution...
Now, just because a cellist has a low elbow, doesn't mean that arm weight is being utilized. It is still possible to have a tense shoulder with a low elbow, preventing arm weight from being transferred into the string.
If your elbow is down, but your shoulder is tight, not allowing the weight to fall into the string, the only way to activate force into the string is by means of pushing your first finger down into the bow. This means that the downward force into the string would be totally by means of muscle force without the help of gravity.
So how can we practice relaxing our shoulders and allowing our arms to drop into the string? Try this simple exercise.
Get the assistance of a fellow cello buddy. Relax your arm completely in the hands of your cello friend. Have your friend move his or her hands up and down, forward and backward while keeping your arm totally relaxed! Allow the weight of your arm to relax into the hands of your cello friend at all times. It will be obvious if you are holding up your arm (tense shoulder); it will tend to "float" when the hands are moved down. The arm will not want relax into the hands. It is a great exercise.
I also believe that a supinated hand allows for a better transfer of weight into the string. Well, perhaps I should say a hand that is more "square" to the bow as opposed to a slanted or pronated hand. Here is why...
First, as was pointed out when discussing left hand technique, there is a direct correlation between how pronated or supinated the hand is and the height of the elbow. A "square" hand position tends to feel more comfortable with a lower elbow. The forearm and hand naturally pronate as the elbow rises.
Try this experiment...
Bend your arm at the elbow and raise and lower your upper arm. Watch the angle of the right hand and forearm. As you raise your elbow you will probably notice that the hand supinates and pronates.
So if we desire to transfer weight into the string by allowing our upper arm to drop (low elbow), the best position for the right hand is the traditional "square" hand position.
Upper Half of Bow
It is a common misconception, I believe, to maintain that weight can be applied at the tip of the bow. Allow me to explain. Because the arm and hand are far away from the point of contact (the string) the thumb must exert an upward force into the bow (at the frog the string can be seen as a counteracting "upward" force to arm weight). The base of the thumb is attached to the arm (the end of the thumb go all the way to the wrist) and so would also have to fall to the ground with the arm, if gravity and weight were to be used. Also, gravity and weight necessitates that the object fall to the ground, yet the direction of force into the string is not necessarily down as the strings are at differing angles due to the curve of the bridge. So the force applied to the string is not necessarily down towards the ground.
All of this must be taken into account when looking for a technique that can be used for the tip of the bow. In the case of the upper half of the bow, we must not look for the most efficient way to apply weight but the most efficient way to apply leverage. I believe that leverage can best be applied by,
- A rise in the elbow (important: do not to overdo this)
- A slight pronation of the right hand and forearm (important: do not overdo this either)
Raising the Elbow for Playing at the Tip of the Bow
Try this experiment; place you cello bow at the tip. Position your elbow low and try to exert force into the string. Now try raising your elbow to the height of the string and try exerting force again. Which arm position allows for the most efficient application of force? For me I find that having the elbow higher at the tip allows for a more efficient application of leverage into the string. to
One qualification: When playing softly it isn't necessary to have a higher elbow. In my opinion it is perfectly OK to have a lower elbow at the tip for softer dynamics. Leverage isn't needed so a higher elbow is not necessary.
It is also important to keep in mind that raising the elbow to high can be taxing on the shoulder. I always try to maintain a downward slope in my upper arms. An 80° angle to the floor should be the maximum for the A string and even lower than that for the other strings. I recommend tilting the cello to the right when playing on the A string so that the right elbow does not have to be too high. For those who are tall and have long arms, I also recommend a lower end-pin, which allows the elbows to be lower than a higher end-pin.
Slight Pronation at the Tip of the Bow
The first question that needs to be addressed is how to apply force into the string at the tip of the bow. As has been pointed out, weight is impossible to apply when playing at the tip. If weight is impossible, what are the other options? Essentially, to apply a downward force into the string the right arm must employ a slight pronating action that originates in the forearm with support from the shoulder and is transfered through the first finger into the bow. The forearm and the right hand turn in towards the body (pronation) while the first finger resists. If the first finger did not resist the pronation would continue too far. The resistance of the first finger to further pronation causes the force generated by the forearm to be transfered directly into the bow. This way of transferring power into the string is quite efficient and even generates support from the shoulder and upper back.
Also, if one does not pronate the right hand when playing at the tip, the wrist tends to "cock back" and adopt a bend to the left, which is tension producing. A slightly pronated right hand allows for a straight wrist (or straighter wrist is your arm is short), which is preferable for transferring power in forte passages at the tip.
I also prefer to place my 1st finger a little lower on the bow (i.e. in the direction of knuckle) so that the pronating action can be quite small. Over pronating causes tension and if it causes the humerus to internally rotate can lead to shoulder problems.
So the positions of the bow arm and bow hand need to be thought through carefully to make for the conditions necessary for an efficient production of sound. The cellist must take into account the different challenges of tone production at the lower half and at the tip of the bow.