Today I had what I feel is my first real cello lesson. The differences between instruction and teaching are numerous but they include mastery of the subject matter being taught, and mastery of the techniques necessary to transfer that knowledge to the student. Details are explained, but without presenting so much information that the student overwhelmed. A teacher creates an immediate sense of trust, a place of safety, for the student, which lowers inhibitions and resistance to change. Instruction relies more on rote exercises and glosses over details. My previous cello experiences were more toward the instruction end of the spectrum, so I am very pleased to be firmly at the teaching end now.
The lesson started with how to sit and hold the cello. It’s one of those things that takes far more words to describe than would seem necessary, but today was the first time I sat and played for 30 or so minutes without having soreness in my mid-back, so getting this right is vital.
Start with both feet together and the right foot directly in front of the right leg of the chair. Move the left foot out about shoulder width, a comfortable, relaxed standing position, and then sit down. I was on the front half of the chair, comfortably seated without feeling like I was going to slip off (i.e., not perched on the edge of the chair) nor slouching against the back of the chair. The chair height was such that my legs neither pulled me forward (chair too high) nor pushed me backward (chair too low).
The cello should rest against the torso, with the top bout to the right side of the neck (looking at the cello from behind) touching the player’s chest. The cello should be ever so slightly turned to the player’s right. The end spike should be adjusted to put the top bout even with the end of the player’s sternum. The player’s legs should be next to the cello with out actually holding it in place. The cello should feel secure here, without a need to hold on to it.
The bow is a foreign object, that is, it isn’t something that occurs in everyday life. Unless, of course, you are a string instrument player. In order to get used to the proper grip a pencil or pen can be used; this eliminates the foreignness aspect.
The pencil should lie against the crease between the last two joints of the fingers and is held in place by the thumb. The thumb is opposite the second, or middle finger. The grip should be firm but not tight. Moving to the actual bow it is best to first practice on the stick itself rather than down by the frog and leather grip. Again making sure the stick is resting against the joint between the last two digits of the fingers and held in place by the thumb opposite the second or middle finger.
When gripping the bow in the proper position, the little finger rests against the pearl inset on the frog with the rest of the fingers spaced along the bow stick. The spacing is the same as the natural spacing that occurs when your hand is relaxed and dangling. The thumb is placed in the space between the end of the frog and the start of the leather grip on the bow stick and should be roughly opposite the middle finger. The point of contact between the thumb and the bow, should be slight to the forefinger side of the tip of the thumb.
When initially practicing holding the bow it is best to orient the bow vertically. Holding it horizontally adds weight of the bow to an already unfamiliar grip and will result in distortions of a proper hold. Once the grip looks and feels correct, then you can rest the bow against one of the strings of the cello and start to feel what it is like to hold the bow in its playing orientation.
One way to practice proper grip of the bow and addressing of the strings is to hold the bow in your left hand against a string and then grasp it with your right hand. Hold your right arm as if it were resting on the armrest of a chair, letting the hand drape downwards in a relaxed fashion. Lower your right arm so the right hand can grasp the bow taking care to align the little finger over the pearl, and the thumb opposite the middle finger, making contact between the end of the frog and the start of the leather grip.
When the bow is held properly the back of the right forearm should be level, and the hand very slightly turned toward the little finger. The back of the hand is slightly lower than the forearm, and the fingers drop off sharply from there.
In this lesson we practiced only short bow strokes. A short, continuous back and forth bowing called détaché and a short single stroke bowing called martelé. These shorter strokes are easier to learn since the arm doesn’t travel very far. Keeping the bow in proper placement against the string through the full range of bow movement possible, requires a complex motion combining the shoulder, elbow, wrist, and hand - shorter is easier to perform.
You want to feel the bow dragging across the strings. One exercise to simulate this feeling is to lightly rub the fingers on your right hand across the back of your left forearm.
The left hand frets or fingers the strings. As there are no embedded frets in the fingerboard on a cello the finger must do all the work to shorten the string and produce the desired note. The length of an open string is determined by the bridge at one end and the nut at the top of the fingerboard at the other end. The fingers of the left hand must act as the nut, shortening the strings to produce higher pitched notes as needed. You need to imagine the fingerboard as a firm foam rubber, something you can sink your fingers into. Granted its made of wood and you can’t actually sink your fingers into it, but imaging so helps to allow you to apply the correct pressure.
Shaping the left hand is important. The fingers want to be arched, not flat and not kinked. By imaging holding a softball or grapefruit the hand assume the correct shape. When the curved fingers are viewed from end-on the first and little fingers (#1 and #4) should be slightly rotated away from the center of the hand. The finger tips, not the pads, make contact with the string. The left thumb also makes contact with the neck using its tip. The tip of the left thumb should be just slightly left of the center line of the neck and roughly opposite the middle finger.
Using a Suzuki method book we practiced several short rhythms, taking care to pause and prepare anytime a new string or fingering was introduced. The goal isn’t fluency at first but rather practicing as accurately as possible the correct finger placement and bowing technique. By focusing on short 6-note passages, and pausing to prepare for the next measure, adjustments can be made almost continuously.
One striking difference in this lesson was that my teacher had his own cello and frequently demonstrated to illustrate the points he was making. At the end of the lesson he played along with me as we worked through Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
It was an invigorating experience, one I cannot wait to repeat.