Spring is near, the Cellospeak summer Workshops are approaching, and you might be asking yourself, “How can I prepare for camp?” Workshop music will be available in June, but in the meantime there’s much you can do! Below is a checklist you may find useful in preparing for the upcoming Workshops. This list is based on some of the more common issues the faculty see every summer. There are lots of suggestions below, so don’t try to do all of them! Pick a few that you feel are directly relevant to your experience level and leave the rest for another time. If you are currently taking private lessons, ask your teacher to help you with any items you select.
We have to be forever vigilant in keeping our bows straight. One exercise that may help is to do “zip” bows: Place your bow at the frog half-way between the fingerboard and the bridge and in a straight position, then “zip” quickly to the tip, stopping suddenly with the bow still on the string. The bow should still be straight and half-way between the fingerboard and bridge. Make sure the bow doesn’t point slightly up when at the frog or slightly down when at the tip.
Most music has uneven bowings (e.g. 3 quarter notes down-bow and only one individual quarter note up-bow). These can leave you at the tip, or, worse yet, the bow races back to the frog, eliciting an unwanted accent or surge on the individual note. If you must get back to the frog, make the up-bow fast but very light. For the last half of the up-bow you might just barely touch the string. If you can, just stay at the tip. Either way, it’s good to map out your bow distribution with air-bowing.
Unwanted Bow Swells
Don’t swell just before turning the bow around. You may not even notice this, but your listeners certainly will. We start to move our fingers on our left hand to the next note and, since both hands want to work together, our bow reacts too (usually going faster). On a scale, practice stopping the bow, keeping constant velocity until you end the note, change your finger to the next note, then start your bow again in the opposite direction. As you go from note to note, reduce the time you stop until there is no longer a break.
Make sure you keep the bow slightly tipped towards you when you change strings. For example, when you go from the A string down to the D string, don’t let the bow hair become flat on the D string. Keep your bow rolled towards you on the inside hairs. Also try to move your elbow up or down to change strings. Avoid wiggling your wrist to get to the next string.
Remember to release your thumb and move it forward a half step whenever you extend forward. No need to move the thumb when you extend backward.
Avoid flying fingers in faster passages by keeping all of the lower numbered fingers close to, or even touching, the string. For example, when you play 4th finger, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd finger should lightly touch the string, ready to play whatever note comes next. Avoid letting lower numbered fingers fly in the air or lift up just before they are used. Practice keeping your fingers close to the string when you play a fast, descending, one octave scale.
One common shifting issue is “hopping” from one position to another on the same string. No matter how you do your shift, don’t let the string completely up. Some finger (old or new) needs to keep the string at least partially down while the hand (including the thumb) moves, guided by the string, to the new position. Practice this on your scales especially when shifting down from a 1st finger in 4th position to a 4th finger in 1st position. Another common shifting issue is shifting too quickly, particularly on longer shifts. Feel free to cheat the previous note, leaving early, shifting slowly, and arriving on time. It can add gracefulness to your playing.
Vibrato A big subject but to keep it simple here, try three things:
There are lots of ways to become more familiar with where the notes are on your fingerboard. One helpful way is to say aloud the note names while you are playing your scale. Another might be to play a 1st finger in 1st position on the A, D, G and then C string and name the notes aloud. Then try other fingers and other positions to step up the challenge.
5th through 7th Positions
Here the second finger has to cover two notes since we rarely use the 4th finger in these positions (it’s just too short). Therefore, unlike with lower positions, we need to know if we are using a high or low second finger or if we need to stretch between each finger. To improve intonation in this range, practice identifying the whole and half step pattern that you are playing.
If you are starting to play in 5th through 7th position, it’s time to master tenor clef. There are many ways to identify notes in tenor clef but one method is to play the note as if it were in bass clef but over one string (a fifth higher). Try practicing this by playing a very easy bass clef etude that doesn’t go out of first position and play it both as written and in tenor clef.
Here are a few general rules when working in thumb position:
Staying together can be difficult but with practice can become more routine. Play in an ensemble of any type, orchestra, quartet, duet, etc. Play in any situation where you have to stay together with others. If you can’t find a partner, practice with your metronome.
Do you keep your feet flat on the floor and your back upright or perhaps slightly leaning forward? Is the peg box off of your shoulder and your “C” peg slightly behind your head? Is the cello high enough that you can easily place the bow fairly close to the bridge, especially when near the tip of your bow? Check that your posture is providing you the needed support and, if you can, ask you home teacher to check it with you.
Thumbs always seem to give us extra grief. Make sure your left thumb doesn’t squeeze the back of the neck. If you find tension here, practice temporarily with the thumb not touching the neck at all, allowing the correct muscles to hold the string down. It’s always good to have a flexible right thumb, keeping it slightly bent but not overextended into a banana shape. Playing an open string in your warmup while observing your thumb may help.
If you were at a Workshop last year, recall what the faculty discussed with you personally and make sure you are making progress on this!