Originally published 18 June 2007. I’m still a bow-centric teacher. Maybe even more so now, even though there are lots of really insightful instructors whose philosophy centers intonation as the first goal. It’s not that I don’t think intonation is important. It’s just that producing a beautiful sound is much harder. Work on both, of course. But when you work on intonation, give the sound some love, too. It’s the tone, not the pitch, that makes us human.

To me, the left hand is academic and the right hand is, though rigorously technical, laced with the perfume of mystery and tacit knowledge of finesse. [Edit 8/31/19 I’ll add that right hand technique requires things being allowed to happen, where facility resides in a true understanding of the interplay between various physical forces as they act upon the arm, the bow/hair, and the string. So, for instance, what exactly happens when the elbow falls below the wrist? At what speed does the bow begin to bounce of its own accord? Where in the stick does a hooked bow produce a delicate sound? A resolute one? Where in the string can you apply the most pressure and still get a clear sound? These phenomena must be understood, and then you have to create the conditions under which these things happen. It should not be forced or excessively controlled. Rather, the natural properties of the bow, the string, and the mechanics of the arm work together to produce the desired sound. It is vitally important to make sure this is not about form alone. The form leads to the function- and since there are a lot of different hand shapes and body types, there will be slight differences in what this looks like, but with few exceptions, the overall impression should be similar. Imagine ice skaters performing a jump. Every piece of the technique happens for a reason dictated by physics, so while someone with long legs might give a different aesthetic impression than someone with a compact frame, the lead up, entry, jump, and landing are all dictated by specific demands of the skill.]

There is much talk of the independence of the hands. I understand the genesis of this: don’t shoot through a mile of bow when you shift, fast notes do not equal fast bow, etc. but in the end, I think a better way to approach it is to make them as interconnected as possible. The right hand should contribute to the efforts of the left hand. It colors, emboldens and, at root, voices the left hand’s otherwise silent input.

This topic warrants more than a multi paragraph blog, but we have to start somewhere. I had a little back and forth with another cello blogger who was duking it out with a triplet passage in a concerto. One thing I mentioned was the idea of a digital bow motion. By digital, I mean 1 or 0. On or off. Moving, or not moving. I find that many of my advanced students (and this guy is definitely advanced) struggle with this issue. They get “garbage” creeping into their sound: little pops and pings during string crossings, maybe a little bit of lag on the uptake between the left and right hand, lumpy rhythmic execution, and tension, of course, that stems from habit and frustration. When your bow moves in a less than deliberate way, this is just what you get. Fixing it is, luckily, a matter of discipline. Here’s the checklist to run down each time you work on this:

1) When you begin a bow stroke, don’t get fussy or try to prepare. That’s where you get garbage. Just plant your bow, pick a speed and move. Consistent speed and location are so huge in building confidence.

2) Play IN the string. The native environment of the bow is resting deeply in the string. Too many people do small lifts between bows, or even over the course of the bow stroke. Let each bow be an investment in your left hand. Implicit in this is that your left hand knows where the notes are and that your shifts are clean, and that you move with a compact, singular confidence. Any flailing from your left hand, and there is nothing your right hand can do to cover it up. So, for your right hand to invest, it means that it moves with the left, with phrasing coming from equal parts bow and fingering. It stops being about two hands and becomes about the player. The interpretation. Your right hand leans into the string, with no fear or hesitation. This does not mean no mistakes. What it means is that when you make a mistake, the tone is solid, and you can easily quantify what it was that went wrong. And if no mistake was made? Then you have a fabulous note that speaks with integrity and ease.

3) Try to pivot when changing strings. Don’t make the motion of crossing strings the same motion that starts the new bow. That’s a recipe for garbage in your sound. Get to the new string, and then take the new bow, following rules 1 and 2 above.

This is not exhaustive, but still a good start for any of you wanting to excavate the issues in your bow technique. Always be open to exploration. I liken it to a cavity at the dentist. If you have decay, you want the dentist to get all of it right? No sense in calling it finished and putting a filling over even a small part of rot. (gross, I know!) So get to the bottom of it. Look forward to finding things that hold you back. Developing an awareness for your weaknesses is halfway to destroying them. And that’s enough to make any cellist smile.

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2 Responses

  1. could you elaborate on point 3?? I’m not entirely sure what you mean by pivoting when you cross strings…

    actually, I think I get it, but still, would be interesting to hear just exactly what you have in mind

    Also, something I’ve found extremely helpful for smooth bowing is slow scales (like playing a scale in whole notes or at a slow metronome speed) … seems to develop the larger muscles (I don’t know if that’s technically correct – my knowledge of anatomy is pretty limited) & force your body to relax.

    Great post!

  2. Pivoting: as opposed to swinging across the stings. Practice first by stopping the bow, then pushing onto the new string, then start the new bow stroke. Also, when you move up (from a lower to a higher string) push your hand forward, NOT up. Keep that shoulder neutral, and the motion should feel sort of like 2nd to 3rd gear on a manual transmission. It’s all designed to remove excess motion, which leads to garbage in your sound. Eventually, you’ll be able to pivot without stopping, but it’s a good thing to practice slowly, and sure makes the 1st prelude of the 1st Bach Suite a lot easier.

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