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.