I’ve been sitting here trying to come up with the right opening for this post, and nothing is working.

You know that thing that happens with the stuff and the other thing? Well I’ve 

Once upon a time there was a cellist named Emily who lived in a magical

Fourscore and seven years ago our Fathers brought forth

That last one had a special ring to it, though. I was making an effort, through analogy, to show that I am still learning about teaching: and not in a subtle way. After over 15 years, I finally assigned long tones to my students!

This is not to say that I haven’t advocated sustained tone over a few bows before: of course I have. These long tones are more akin to those that bass and wind players I knew in college went nearly mad doing for hours upon end. You see I’ve been on something of a practicing tear lately, reeducating my left hand and reworking fingerings now that I don’t have to compensate for a numb 4th finger. During a slow, lyrical section of Dvorak (yes, he’s back), a reedy sound that some would surely attribute to over-enthusiasm or too much pressure popped out when I passed about 2/3 the way through the bow. I lightened up the pressure, and the reedy patch moved to another quadrant of bow. I made my pressure absolutely even and varied the speed. Still it remained.

That was because I had only tried 4 different things! The cello, if nothing else, is the ultimate crucible for charting progress over time by simply refusing to pack it in. So I said, “Ok, note. We’re going to find out just where you like to be played and with how much pressure and speed and then, once I find that, I’m going to play you until my arm wears out.”

I sustained that A flat for about 15 minutes. After the initial first few bows, where freak out can happen:

“What will the people listening think?”

“This is weird.”

“I need to be practicing my orchestra music.”

“I can’t even play one note beautifully, what’s the point?”

You’ll find a groovier part of yourself elbowing in for dominance. This part of you understands that music is tone, that the busy cerebral machinations that easily invade complex tasks are not contributors to anything at all: except perhaps getting good at ignoring distractions. Some pointers:

1. Choose one note. I like G on the D string, played with 2nd finger because it’s strong, even in beginners. Plus, if you’re working on vibrato, it has a nice center of gravity.

2. Start out just by noticing. I seemed to have a reedy patch in my bow. I didn’t alter anything for a few strokes to see if it wasn’t some alien influence. As soon as I see a tendency repeated over time, I go to work on one at a time. You probably won’t like your bow changes at the frog, but I would work on artifacts that present themselves in the other parts of the bow first.

3. Sustain, sustain, sustain. Don’t stop. Don’t start over. Starting over makes me chuckle. It’s as if to say, “I want a perfect run through this time, and seeing as how I’m not going to ever make another mistake, the beginning needs to be flawless.” Yeah right. You and me both! We’re in the business of finding and provoking mistakes. Let’s get real about this stuff. The truth is double edged:

You will make lots of mistakes, so you might as well not develop a “starting over” pathology.


You want it perfect from the outset? Then slow down and do it right. Every student I have worked through a starting/stopping habit is in a hurry and ignores at least one major element of solid technique. I’m a supportive teacher and every beginner’s cheerleader, but if you’re going to slam your bow on the string, talk a mile a minute up until you play and hyperextend your right thumb, all I can wish you is good luck.

4. Do big time reps. This week, I assigned most of my students 2 or 3 minutes per note, a few notes in succession. In the end, I’d like them to do more, and I have a feeling that as they see results, they’ll up their minutes without too much coaxing from me.

What we’re doing here is weaving. Weaving a giant sheet of sound that you can use as much or as little of as you need, once you’ve figured out how to make it consistently. Realize also that the cello is analog. If a certain combination of speed and pressure works for B, in may not be exactly the same for C#. Overtones, string tension, and resonant properties of wood make each note a variation on the general concept.

Every student showed immediate positive results after a little guidance, so I encourage you to join the Long Tone Army and see if it doesn’t help your sound as well. I’m doing it every day. But maybe you’ve already gotten your tone sorted out and don’t need to.


Astonishingly lovely picture from Castle Town Heritage.

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11 Responses

  1. The cello is analog.


    I mean, I knew this, but this phrasing really brought it home. I explain to people over and over again that I can't 100% reproduce a sound because everything is constantly in flux as a result of the design of the instrument, but wow; new imagery.

    Yay, long tones! I love them. Very meditative.

  2. Also, PS: I love the picture and the idea of weaving a big sheet of sound I can then apply to whatever I need it for. But you already knew that.

    Can I argue now that when I'm weaving I'm reinforcing my cello technique?

  3. AH: And yes. Just like when I'm having a glass of wine, I'm "staying present".

    MT: Oh yes, don't you know the Unibow? 🙂

    No, one note, multiple bows. Multiple MULTIPLE bows. I probably sawed through 200 bows by the end of my A flat mania.

  4. I'm a former trombone player – high school, Penn State, and on/off in adulthood. I learned the value of long-tones early. I think it's fair to say, for a non-serious, non-music major, I had an especially sweet and controlled tone. I don't remember any trombonists, even music majors that could play as softly but cleanly without breaking as I could (Soft is much harder than loud. Everybody can play loud).

    As of yet, I've still not gotten hooked on long tones with cello. I need to revisit it. Maybe I also need a lesson on it some day, to better understand what I need to pay particular attention to.

  5. There's a story about cello long tones that Roger Voisin, the former principal trumpet player of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, told me about Sammy Mayes, the former principal cellist of the Boston Symphony. It seems that Mayes would always arrive to rehearsal early with a newspaper, and he would play long tones while reading the newspaper, which would be propped on his stand. I imagine that it was probably one long tone per page.

    It isn't fifteen minutes (I couldn't imagine doing fifteen minutes on one note myself), but it is impressive. It was also his habit to do this.

    As a former wind player, I prefer my long tones to be useful for connecting two (or more) notes with vibrato. Eight beats at 60 to the quarter is enough for me!

    There are issues to be considered. Practicing long tones while playing out of tune really teaches you to play out of tune. Practicing long tones with incorrectly-made vibrato can really cement less-than-ideal left hand problems. Practicing long tones without varying dynamics can get you into the habit of always playing at one dynamic level.

  6. We are the long tone army
    every one of us cares
    we all hate carelessness, speed, and impatience
    unlike the rest of you squares

    With apologies to Tom Lehrer

  7. MT: I LOVE THIS!!!

    You have just been promoted to Lt. Colonel. Use your long-toned power wisely. 🙂

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