Rosin, Bow Weight, and Variations

December 04, 2009

Today I had my second lesson with my new cello teacher. It was a wonderful 40 minutes that left me excited about playing and eager to have my next practice session.


My chromatic tuner arrived this week and I’ve been using it to tune the cello before each practice. It makes the instrument sound the best it can and it helps me to hear what the notes are supposed to sound like. Today at the start of the lesson we tuned our cellos using my tuner. I pointed out that the fine tuner for the G-string was almost completely tightened, so he loosened it, tightened the peg a bit and re-tuned it for me. Midway through the lesson he checked the tuning again and one of the strings was slightly flat. It is very cold outside today (20º) and the cello was readjusting to inside temperatures. I only have to drive about 10 minutes to the lesson, and walk maybe 3 minutes more outside from the parking lot to the music department on campus, but even that short exposure to cold air effects the instrument. I made sure I was 15 minutes or so early to the lesson to give the cello more time to warm up before playing it.


Since I wasn’t entirely sure I was properly applying rosin to the bow I asked about it, my teacher showed me using a short scrubbing motion, back and forth over a small section of the bow hairs, and then slowly moving down the length of the bow with that motion. He was careful to hold his thumb over the metal plate where the bow hairs join the frog, so as not to chip the rosin cake. And he was carful to apply rosin to the entire length of the bow.


One of the exercises he showed me 10 days ago was to practice placing the bow against the strings with my right hand properly holding the bow - no playing involved just getting the right grip on the bow and then properly addressing the string. This is something I haven’t been doing enough of, so I need to add that to my practice routine. The idea is to develop muscle memory of the proper grip and arm position when addressing the string correctly. As practice only makes permanent, careful, correct practice will make perfect.

We worked on how much weight to use when pressing the bow against the strings. Too much “crunches” the string and the sound. Too little gives a glassy or wispy sound. The larger strings require an ounce or two more pressure than the smaller strings. He pointed out what I had discovered, that when properly bowed the string’s vibration is nicely visible. The variation in bow weight is something measured in ounces or grams, not pounds. The imagery he used was that of doing a push-up. When the bow hairs are only just touching the strings that is equivalent to the push-up starting position with your arms straight. When the bow is pressed hard enough against the string to pinch the hairs between the bow stick and the string that is the same as having your chest on the floor. Proper bow weight in most cases would be somewhere in the middle. The sound of the string is the best indicator of proper weight. Not wispy and not crunched.


We played through the Twinkle Twinkle variations I’ve been working on. My teacher again reiterated that these rhythm patterns occur over and over again in cello literature, that by practicing them I am building a foundation for later pieces. In one I am playing more legato than he would like, but for the most part I’ve got the patterns down fairly well.

He wants me to work on the transitions between fingerings and strings. He had a piece of paper with windows cut into it that was then laminated that he laid over the music to show just 4 or 8 notes around a transition, say from A on the A-string to G on the D-string. He wants me to work in playing 8, then 4, then 2 notes on A followed by 8 or 4 or 2 notes on G. By isolating the transitions from the entire piece I can improve that aspect of it. Practicing the transitions in isolation will allow me to play the entire piece fluently and without pauses.


He pointed out that the 3rd finger is the hardest one for everybody, and that I am no exception. It tends to be flat, i.e, too close to the first finger. He was pleased with how close to the proper fingerings I have already and noted that I self-correct. He said it is always easier to hear someone else play and tell if a note is flat or sharp than to hear yourself. Particularly when you are in the middle of playing something; he said there is a lot going on (bowing, fingering, et cetera) and the adding hearing the note too is sometimes difficult.


He was pleased that I have the CD for the book and wants me to listen to it a lot. Like learning language, where you hear things as an infant long before you can say them, I need to listen to music in the book that I am not yet playing, so I’ll be familiar with it when I do start playing those piece.. Having heard language from birth helps an infant to know when the sounds he or she is making are correct; listening to the music over and over will help me to recognize it when I play .

He wants me to start working through the Suzuki book on my own and he’ll make corrections as needed. He wants me to memorize as much as I can - being able to focus exclusively on the bowing and fingering will be enough with out trying to add reading the “hieroglyphics” this is written music.

All in all it was another very good lesson. I leave there excited and ready to sit down and play for an hour or two. :) I am extremely happy about learning to play the cello and thrilled with my teacher and he approach to teaching.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.