Eigen John T was telling me about a student of his that collapses her left arm when playing on the A string. This is fairly common, and universally destructive, as it causes tension, injury, and unreliable intonation. Try this exercise at the next lesson, and see if it helps:

1) Put all 4 fingers on the C string. This tends to be the string where most students have the best looking technique. The two things to look for are a flat wrist, so the top of the hand is in line with the elbow, and a thumb that is resting lightly between 1 and 2 or 2 and 3.

2) Keeping the hand/elbow ratio, take that left hand shape and, by lowering the elbow, drag it across to the A string. The idea to a lot of the corrections I suggest is getting the larger muscle groups to do the hard work, so that your fingers are left with small, dextrous, light work. Fyi: If you want to be precise: the arc that the elbow should travel in transit from C to A is not going to be more than 20 degrees.

3) If your student ever needs a complete reset of left hand concept, I like to start by simply grabbing onto the neck as if I am going to pick the cello up, and from there, you should see a flat wrist, a lot of the top of the hand, and nothing weird like a raised shoulder or torqued hand. From here, slowly move the arm down and back, and open the fingers onto the fingerboard. The good old fashioned C scale is what I would prescribe here to work on keeping everything solid and sustainable. Have her practice in the mirror and ask her to be pickier than even you are when it comes to being aware of the collapsing habit.

4) Eigen jokingly talked about taping a metal rod to the inside of the arm to keep it straight. As an exercise, I would forgo the rod and instead rubber band 2 popsicle sticks there instead! These sort of remedies are easy, very physical, and sometimes work when finesse and nuanced description do not. If you try this, I would also suggest cupping the student’s elbow in your hand, and moving it as she traverses the strings. Moving onto the A should feel like down and back, if the goal is to preserve a flat wrist.

So leave the caving to the spelunkers, and let us know if any of this helps. Happy (early) summer!

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3 Responses

  1. Interesting. I would have thought the change in arm angle to be more like 30 or more degrees, but as I think about it, only 20 makes more sense.

    But I have a somewhat idiot question, being that I’m sometimes dense in these things. What does straight wrist really mean? A popsicle stick on the underside of my wrist results in a different wrist placement than a popsicle stick on topside. Logically, I’m inclined to think that straight on the underside is better, but that feels and looks just slightly caved when viewed from the top.

    Ok, I’ll stop being weird now.

  2. OK, I wrote up a response to this on Sunday, previewed it, then had to run off and didn’t post it (she said in a disgusted tone of voice). Then I saw cellogirl’s comment on your LH post, and feel compelled to recreate it.

    I thought I had dealt with this problem decisively until this week when I, too, was working on those double stops in Haydn C 1st mvmt. That wandering thumb? It was because my arm was sagging and pulling my wrist, and thus my thumb, out of alignment. What I discovered is that if I imagine that my elbow is sitting on a shelf at the appropriate height for my position on the fingerboard, my wrist stays straight, my thumb relaxes and stays in place, and my double stops are in tune. It took a couple practice sessions to activate those muscles that allow me to feel like I am sitting on a shelf without creating unnecessary tension in my shoulders. Then, huge difference.

    The other exercise my teacher has me do is to hold a tennis ball in my hands while I move it up and down the cello. You can explore the elbow height necessary in different positions to keep the wrist straight, and practice the motions needed when moving from one position to another.

    I humbly submit this exercise, and the idea of practicing double stops to point out any lapses in this area.

  3. Terry: Never stop being weird! A straight wrist refers to the angle across the TOP of the arm, so there is a little bit of natural curve on the underside, unless your arms just kind of turn into hands. Then, well, that is really weird. So maybe instead think of placing popsicle sticks on both sides! Keeping the underside straight is a wrist killer and tends to lead to a freaky “electric” vibrato and big trouble with 4th fingers.

    GGP: Totally. My teacher used a ping-pong ball for the same thing. Bummer about the non-post and then need to recreate it! Hate it when that happens.

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