small change, big results 3: improving your practice as illustrated by Dr. Who

In the third installment of this series, I’m going to encourage you to do something fairly radical: pay much MUCH more attention to your bow during your practice. Favor it. Examine it. Look to it as the cause of 80% of your difficulties, even those of intonation. I am compelled to ask this of you because of the following truths:

1. The bow is harder than the left hand.

2. While the left hand has goals that can be accomplished by writing down numbers on a page and measuring pitch on a tuner, the right hand is the ultimate analogue: there are infinite options, and nearly all of them are not what you’re looking for right now.

3. The bow sets the tone literally and figuratively. It tends to reflect how you’re feeling, collect tension, do its own thing, and generally be an arse.

Dear colleague, I promise you this: if you shift the lion’s share of your emphasis to the bow side of the equation, the entire experience of playing will improve, including left hand stuff. It’s like the first time you get into the TARDIS. You’ll realize it’s bigger on the inside. Not sure if that analogy works, but I’m leaving it in.


Okay. So here’s the Tenth Doctor, who as far as I know is not a cellist, but you can just tell he feels your pain acutely. You’ve reached a point where maybe you’ve sounded good from time to time, but perhaps that was a dream, a fantasy, a lie. Maybe you sounded okay on that other song, but now this new one is taking you behind the woodshed and thrashing you every chance it gets. Maybe you want to put the cello down. Like all the way down.


Don’t do it! Remember the first rule: the bow is harder than the left hand. Your goal right now is to get just a little bit better, so let’s do it. Take a breath, maybe a sip of tea, and refresh your outlook. Let’s get back to fundamentals. Here are the main variables in terms of the bow on the string:

  • placement between bridge and fingerboard
  • amount of weight being delivered to the string
  • angle of bow as compared to the string
  • amount of hair on the string
  • speed

There are others, and there are varying and equally valid philosophies for each. I’ll give you my take, but if your instructor has put forth something else, go with that.

  • placement: every cello has a slightly different “sweet spot” (like a tennis racquet) where you get the best sound for the least effort. For most of us, it’s a 2-inch swath right between the bridge and the fingerboard. Play close to the fingerboard, and there isn’t enough tension on the string to vibrate evenly- it sounds nasal, muffled and can actually make your pitch inaccurate. Don’t do this. It takes unbelievable sensitivity and control to get a sound sul tasto. Playing too close to the bridge gives an awesome horror movie vibe, because the string has so much tension that it actually won’t vibrate at all, so it sounds like what it is: metal. Whee! I want you to see these areas as danger zones for your sound. Venture into them accidentally, and there’s only awfulness waiting for you. And maybe Cybermen, which have a real way of lousing up a practice session. Don’t invite the Cybermen. Be aware of the placement of your bow- it is perhaps the most important determiner of your sound quality.


  •  weight: you can call it pressure, but I like the idea that the bow is heavy on the string because your arm is super relaxed. Oh, and for the purposes of practice, I ask students to foster a medium-to-loud tone, even for things that will eventually be played softly. Get control of the notes and articulations and add dynamics last. I also have them cultivate a “consonant” sound on the initial attack of a note, a trick Ron Leonard taught me. So instead of a wishy-washy beginning, there is a slight “k” (said “kuh”) or “p” (said “puh”) sound to indicate that the bow is resting IN (not on) the string. Start when you want to, and don’t let the note begin without your full consent and agency. Realize ALSO that as your hand moves away from the point of contact, you have to do stuff in order for the sound to sustain– otherwise, physics says this is how to decrescendo.
  • angle: by and large, play with a bow that is perpendicular to the string. Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, I see Alisa Weilerstein. We are not those people. Let’s practice in a mirror and behold the absolute nightmarish optical illusion that makes a crooked bow look straight. Realign your compass so that you can see the top of your bridge and the bottom edge of the fingerboard as the true arbiters of angle, and then try to make the stick of your bow a parallel line between them. Drawing a straight bow prevents some of the crunching and scraping sounds that make practicing seem like a test of will.
  • amount of hair: I am one of those “more hair is better” folks. There are other schools of thought that ask you to roll the stick towards the fingerboard nearly all the time. I see lots of incredible cellists doing it, so it can’t be truly sinister, but my thought is always: well, why have so much hair in the first place? I say, play loud and proud with the hair flat on the string, and then roll it to induce changes in tone color and dynamics. FYI: most students roll the stick naturally, creating a divot in the wrist that prevents the weight of the arm from transferring to the string. Whatever camp you’re in, don’t contort the wrist like this- unless you enjoy nerve pain and crap sound. And you don’t like those, do you, sweetie?

  • speed: we talk about weight and speed separately, but they are so intimately intertwined that they should actually be called a single term. Weigeed. No. Speight. Spressure? This post is starting to get away from me, I can feel it. Anyway, pressure and speed relate in a kind of bell curve: within certain tolerances, you can add one or the other to gain effect, but outside of those tolerances, the string won’t react predictably. Some examples:
    • very slow bow/very light weight: works! dolce!
    • very slow bow/medium weight: works! richness.
    • very slow bow/very heavy weight: nope. crunchy.
    • medium speed bow/very light weight: works! ooh, transparent.
    • medium speed bow/medium weight: works! full-bodied and flexible.
    • medium speed bow/very heavy weight: works, mostly. don’t slow down, though.
    • very fast bow/very light weight: nope. all skittery.
    • very fast bow/medium weight: works, mostly. depends on what note shape you’re after.
    • very fast bow/very heavy weight: works! who’s up for Berlioz?
  • One last note about speed: the number one cause of awful sound at the beginning of the bow is hesitation. You know the sound. The throat-clearing, car skidding out, non-starting chainsaw sound. Relax from your shoulders down, take a slow breath in, let it out even slower, count yourself in (so in 4/4, I’ll do 3+4+) and start. Pick a speed and stick to it. You may get other gnarl in your sound, but you won’t get the Sputtering Clamor of Death™ if you don’t hesitate at the outset. It’s another example of how crucial speed and pressure are.

Although this can seem overwhelming, this list of variables is reassuringly finite. Even if you have absolutely no idea why you don’t like your sound or the way a passage feels, you can run down the checklist fairly easily and I can almost guarantee that you’ll unearth an issue.

So why do all of this? Why should you slow down and get into this meticulous soundcraft?

Because the essence of the cello is its sound. Without it, there is no music available to you, no matter how many notes you churn out. 

Sound is produced by the bow, so that’s where the work, love, time, energy and attention should go. Remember also that the bow is an indicator of your approach. During a lesson, when I’m leaning on a student to do something difficult, the first thing that gives is bow speed. Even very advanced students will whizz through a bow and wonder what the hell happened. No matter what you’re working on, zooming thoughtlessly from frog to tip will diminish the quality of the end result. You’ll end up on the fingerboard, the tone will go all wibbly-wobbly and you won’t have enough timey-wimey to do what you need to do. Seriously, if you haven’t seen Dr. Who, this episode is one of the better places to get started.

Rushing through the bow deprives you of the one thing you need to make meaningful changes in your technique (which is what you’re doing when you’re practicing, right? Right? RIGHT?): time. When you get to the end of the bow before you’re really ready to be there, a sense of anxious haste takes over, making it impossible to calmly monitor, assess, or repeat the right stuff. Here’s the cool part, though: while the super fast bow is your mind influencing matter, you can also use the matter to influence and calm your mind. Physically slowing the entire gesture down, from picking the bow up, to readying your left hand, to the actual speed of the bow stroke has a calming and clearing effect on your mind. It’s the way I learned to take my manic bonkers brain and find a meditative space through practice. It may be the only thing keeping me from completely descending into the unkempt wildness of my mind. Not that any of you have experience with that. 🙂

So what have we learned today? Let’s recap:

1. The bow is everything because sound is everything. 

2. Don’t let Cybermen into your practice by being careless with the bow. 

3. Slow down, check the variables, give yourself time. Even your left hand will thank you.

See you soon! Happy practicing. I welcome and appreciate questions and requests.

Excellent Fourth Doctor/Nyan mashup gif courtesy of DeviantArt member Mr. Haberdasher. 

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6 Responses

  1. How did you know what I was working on? Here’s my version of Meghan Trainor’s tune: It’s all about the bow, ’bout the bow, ’bout the bow! Thanks for a terrific post.

  2. I second the advice about using plenty of bow hair (and, by extension, plenty of bow). As my teacher often has reason to remind me, “You’ve paid for all that hair, why not use it?|

  3. Thanks for your excellent advice Emily! I’ve had an almost instant improvement from this episode!

    Now, can you just have a word with your friendly local Time Lord about taking me back a few decades, so I can get some extra practice in?

    Superb stuff!

  4. You give us a framework with which to remember the bowing points we need to understnd and practice. Thanks!
    In my lesson at Scor!, I had us work mainly on my left arm for consistency across strings. Applying that teaching has definitely improved my intonation. Now, I will put this bow lesson to work (or to play).

    Something else I have discovered — in the past, when I set the bow, I was just letting weight fall downward into the string, probably dampening the string from the very start. Now, my “setting” is to pull/push the string, as if I had already started the bowing but then stopped in time. I hope this is correct. I wonder how many students set their bow in that downward direction.

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