Though we sometimes hesitate to admit it, even professional cellists and teachers have bits of technique that we develop “work arounds” for. It seems like forever ago that I developed one such habit to adjust for my weak left pinky (weakened from a nerve condition caused by tension and bockety technique) when it came to trilling between 2 and 4 or 3 and 4. I just assigned myself the label of unusually frail and developed very quick shifts and finger replacements so that there was no audible jiggery-pokery when a piece called for such a trill.

While my pinky (and yours) is indeed short, puny, and not as happy to do acrobatics as the rest of the hand, there is proof that it is possible to quickly, accurately and artistically move between 3 and 4. I have access to YouTube. I go check out performances. I know lots of ex-Schoenfeld students. I decided to reexamine my work around, and pulled out the Cossmann studies. For 6 days, there was no palpable progress, and I just tried to fight tension while letting the sound and evenness just sort of…happen. About 2 days ago, the thing started working itself out! After all of these years! It sounded nearly as good as a 1-3 trill after just over a week of concerted effort and 18 years of avoidance.

The moral of the story here is that there are good reasons to modify technique. Developing a work around so that your performance in an immediate concert is not a blight or injurious to your body is a necessity. But it is also crucial to continue pouring your efforts into standard elements of technique, even if certain areas mature far behind the rest of your ability. The cello is the ultimate demonstration of doing something that is wonderful even though it is very difficult. Take that philosophy with you when you realize that you have favored 2nd finger, or that you don’t vibrate well in a certain position, or that your bow does y or z when asked to do x.

If anyone has a specific issue they’d like to tackle, feel free to leave a comment and I can write a “prescription” for you: a 10 minute a day cocktail of etude recommendation, technical tip, and mini pep talk. It makes a fine New Years Resolution, you know.

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7 thoughts on “The impossible dream”

  1. “Dovetailing”. I don’t know if this exactly fits in to what you have in mind, but when I play fast my left and right hands can get a bit out of sync. ta-a ta-a ta-a. I think typically the left is a bit behind the right, and it seems to come up more on the lifting of the finger than the coming down. Maybe that downed finger is too tensed and doesn’t easily want to let up. What pieces, for example, you might ask? Uh, well, that’s the embarrassing part. Simple Christmas melodies at, shall we say, “fiddle speed”, like Holly and the Ivy, or Deck the Halls, which those guys take like a bat-outta….

  2. Having hands out of sync is very easy to do. Here’s my plan for you:

    1) play 2, 2-octave scales, one with open strings, one with the universal fingering with the metronome. Each one gets 3 goes.

    a) standard dotted rhythm, single bows (long, short long, short long)

    b) the deadly reversed dotted rhythm, also single bows (short long, short long) Start in the middle of the bow so you don’t end up choking at the frog.

    c) setting the metro so it’s 2 quick beats per note, play the scale one bow for the way up, one bow for the way down. The rapid subdivision that the metro is providing should illustrate where you’re tugging. For most it’s between 3 and 4, or a string crossing, or maybe the transition from open to 1.

    2) if you have Schroeder, look at #18. If not, gimme a minute and I’ll come up with an alternative. Play it at my favorite “glacial speed”. So, so, so slow. So slow that you get bored. Have a feeling of fullness to each note, like you’re holding it as long as possible before the next note. Be aware of early bow movement. Only go to a new string, a new bow, when your left hand is ready for the note. Also be careful not to “lunge” at the new finger. This is characterized by suddenness of bow change and a grab at the note, instead of the kind of attack you might use to type or dial a phone with. (unless in a bad mood, then most of us have a right to punch the keys) Try to think of your hands agreeing as to when the next note comes. And you know that I think that the majority of note mishaps stem from the bow hand. Just monitor yourself and see what’s happening.

    Practicing slowly is the only way to get fast. I think that 4 days of utter mud-speed playing will yield you many bats, straight out of you know where. 🙂

  3. OMG, this is GREAT! Ok, here’s my issue – and maybe it’s too basic for this blog, and that’s ok too. But I bet you have some tricks up your sleevless blouse Emily! So my issue is INTONATION. In particul, that first note of a piece. Let’s say I’m playing a piece that starts on the ‘A’ string, 2nd finger C note. I hit the note and after I check it with the open C I find it’s flat (or maybe sharp – whatever). I would normally then slide (or roll a bit, if I’m close) my finger in the appropriate direction to correct. My teacher says that’s a bozo no no. He has me drop my left hand, and start over from scratch, using muscle memorty to make the next try spot on. I see his point, but it can get frustrating. I try and “sing” the right note (out loud, or in my head) before placing my 2nd finger on the A string (in this example), and that helps some. Any suggestions?

  4. Brian: Your teacher has a great point! Don’t get too attached to finding a pitch via a place in space, or by hanging onto the fingerboard for 10 seconds before starting a piece. It tends to not work, anyway. As soon as you breathe, or sit on another chair, or start thinking things like, “I sure hope I don’t miss this note”, your beloved reference goes right out the window. A few ideas:

    1) Practice being in tune for its own sake. Take 10 minutes before even doing scales and tune to your next adjacent string, not a distant one. So you’re aiming for C on the A string. First check that your A and D are in tune. Then play your B 1st finger against the open D. Chances are you’ll be sharp. Find it 5 times in a row in tune. (If you go 4 times and then biff the 5th, start over. You know my rule: 5 times is good, 50 times is better, 500 times is best) From there, leave your first finger down, and sustaining both A and D strings, put 2nd finger down as well. Yes, it’s a minor 7th, but it tends to be pleasing when it’s in tune. Alternate between 1st and 2nd fingers and check that they are true against that open D. Take your hand all the way off of the cello and do the whole thing again.

    2) Don’t be in denial about what it is that we are asked to do. Much of what we do on the cello is equivalent to a gymnast doing a blind landing. There is no clue as to where the floor is until you are either sticking the landing or eating the mat. The manner in which we throw ourselves at the task helps. And unlike gymnastics, if we miss the blind landing, the worst thing that happens is a dissonance. So make a point to seek out the challenge. Take your hand away and reset the position frequently. Drop your hand on the open strings in your scale and then see how well you do finding first finger again. Move slowly so that you don’t develop panic. This is a game that is winnable. So meet the challenge head-on and with unbelievable amounts of repetition.

  5. Grace:

    I used the Cossmann “studies for developing agility, strength of fingers and purity of intonation”. There are no exercise numbers, but the International publishing edition’s pages 4 and 5 were the bane of my existence for about 2 weeks at the beginning and end of my practice, 10 minutes each time. I just went through them like a checklist, trying not to be too fussy, finding that it was more a coordination issue than a strength/agility problem.

  6. Emily,
    I just discovered your blog and I Love it!! I studied for years and years with some really top notch cellists, but I’m just starting to “get it”. I started playing cello when I was 9 (it was 1974) and studied, played, and practiced most of those years until I had my daugher 11 years ago. I still played, but just simple things. I’ve decided I need to get back to basics and really appreciate all of your “prescriptions”. I also have adhd and being told “practice more” never quite cut it. (Practicing 10 hours is worthless if you’re not paying attention!) Having a precise workout to follow is exactly what I need(ed). I just discovered that even I can play fast passages! Who knew??? Thanks again.


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