CelloGeek (but aren’t we all?) submitted this quandry:

…”I struggle with 2 things with my bow hold (I’m sure there’s more but these seem to be the peskiest)
1 – my thumb starts nice and curved but gradually will get straight and I lose that nice flexible grip.
2- the position of my other fingers starts off nice – middle finger in a very similar position to your picture, but then my fingers start moving towards the tip so that my pinky may end up on the middle of the frog –

is that related to problem #1?”

Concerning #1, I think the real issue is awareness. A lot of people have habits that might seem inexplicable. Straightening the right thumb is probably second only to the various foibles of the left thumb, where a player is left thinking, “How’d that get there?” The answer is simple…and it requires a sense of humor.

You put it there, that’s how.

I used to swear that there was a Death Grip gnome that would seize my right hand during loud playing. We’re talking numbness in the thumb joint, nearly dropping the bow from weakness, a sort of “headache” throughout my hand, even in the palm, and a tone that was not reliable. The breakthrough came when I had a practice session before a competition and the power went out. I was grossly underprepared, and I decided to remain in the darkened practice room rather than trainwreck the Elgar in front of the late Eleanore Schoenfeld. Without the distraction of reading the music or scanning the practice room window for familiar faces, I began to experience the physical elements of playing in a very direct way. I closed my eyes and focused all of my attention on my right thumb and felt the twitchy squeeze that was plaguing me. And then, slowing the passage down and repeating it at perhaps less volume, I peeled away the layers of tension, one repetition at a time.

You see, we think we’re paying attention, but what we’re actually doing primarily is listening, because so much of cello is end-result oriented. Sound first, everything else comes after. Well you all know how I feel about that approach. It’s unsustainable! Sometimes you have to crap out and resurrect basic elements of technique. What’s cool if you are able to do this is that you’ll return to your practice much further down the road than where you were when all you wanted was good sound.

It is the cellist’s cosmic joke: To snatch the rock from the Master’s hand, you have to not really care about the rock. To get a sound that is truly of your own choosing and comfortably under control, you have to abandon the artifice of good sound for a while.

So agree that from now on, you won’t straighten your right thumb. Establish the parameters of acceptable movement (it has to flex a little, right?) and then practice only at a speed where you can notice and prevent the tension setting in. This speed may be slower than you are used to: students of mine will tell you that “glacial speed” as I call it, is the foundation of my practice style.

Another thing to consider is whether the bend in your thumb and location of point of contact works for you. I would love some more pictures of different cellists’ bow hands to sort of get an idea of how much difference there is in where the thumb goes. I think that thumb curvature and where it sits on the frog is one of the only big differences one sees from cellist to cellist. Arm mechanics, vibrato technique, the look of the left hand, are all very similar even though people’s proportions are so different. Be open to moving the entire location of your grip. Even if it makes it worse, you can check it off of the list of “Nope! Doesn’t work”, and I find that the longer that list is, the stronger the list of things that are successful, is.

Lastly, in relation to #2, make sure that your bow strokes don’t force your hand to migrate up the stick. The up bow is the perfect tonic for the down bow’s tendency to push your hand out of shape. So, without turning “inside out”-with the hand rotated onto the pinky…for shame!- feel a little pull on your index finger as you draw your down bows and then a push onto the other, outside surface of your index finger on the up bow. Your hand should move and be pliable. Just make sure that one bow stroke balances the effect of the other.

I hope this helps. Let us know what this approach does for you. 🙂

I invite students and teachers alike to weigh in on any of these technical discussions!

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11 Responses

  1. Actually, it wasn’t Rich Rodriguez, a.k.a The CelloGeek, but me, CelloGeek at cellogeek.blogger.com that posted the comment. appreciate the tips and will try them out during my next practice session.

  2. Thanks Emily! I found your comments and gottagopractices comments about the hand reacting to the arm extremely helpful too – it made me think entirely differently about my bow stroke and is really helping…will post again about trying out your advice later after I actually get some time to practice!

  3. Re: #2 – I’m so glad to have read this! That is the exact problem I often have when bowing & usually it’s on the up-bow that I notice things have begun to go wrong… then all of a sudden I discover my hand has inched closer to the tip… particularly I have this problem on the A string… the other strings seem to work better with me…

  4. Emily, you’re always perfectly free to use things from my blog.

    Also, in doing some work in the last few days, it appears that my culprit for problem #2 is that I’m straightening my thumb on upbows… good to know!

  5. Ok, I’m putting on my devil’s advocate hat here. Emily, you say: “…we think we’re paying attention, but what we’re actually doing primarily is listening… Sound first… Well you all know how I feel about that approach. It’s unsustainable!”

    Yet, often enough, my teacher points out things that I should have heard but didn’t. Or if I record myself, I hear things I hadn’t noticed. What would you say to the person that says “But I don’t listen well enough as it is! Don’t I need to listen even better? Don’t the really great musicians listen to themselves to a remarkable degree?”

  6. …But it’s what you listen for. There is a kind of listening that I find almost destructive, and it is characterized by a busy inner dialogue and the feeling of “performance”, not practice. Being aware is perceiving the whole, and avoiding practice myopia. And yes, there are times when I still think the sound should be downright ignored on the way to new technical heights. It happens less and less as more elements of technique become secure, but even the late intermediate to advanced cellist needs to forgo the initial sound in order to progress.

    In the book “Zen Guitar”, the author refers to this as “putting on the white belt”. So even if you are very advanced, you approach the instrument permanently as a student. In the end, I don’t mean that you ignore the sound. What you have to do is not let it affect the task at hand: forgive yourself the sound, and be able to notice it without lapsing into an inferior technique to change it.

    Windy night, eh?

    …and I still need a few more subjects to post, although I am working on a Bach bowing podcast…

  7. I need to get batteries for my camera, but once I do, I’ll try and get someone to take some pictures so that I can be a subject.

  8. hi there:
    so nice to find other cellists. Im a part of a cello trio- http://cellosound.blogspot.com – i have arranged music to play at parties, churches, christmas gigs, and weddings, etc, (We have over 200+ songs in our play list) maybe we can share music, infor., and keep in touch, 🙂 chuck (qtetman@juno.com)

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