Want more beauty in your sound?

Well, you would be crazy not to! Everyone who plays the cello is searching for a more beautiful, expressive sound. It is a large part of my daily work at the instrument! However, getting less scratch and more beauty in your sound is easier than you think.

One of most common reasons for an unattractive cello sound is your equipment. How old are your strings? Has your cello been dropped recently with no visible damage? Was there a large change in the weather? These can all be reasons why you don’t have a beautiful sound, so if you haven’t already go to your local repair guy and have him look things over. It may be that your instrument is not working properly!

After you have taken any cello related variables out of the picture, you can then start to work on beautifying your sound. Try running your bow across an open string. See how it rings so beautifully? You should always try to get your instrument to ring this beautifully on every note you play. This is accomplished by making sure you always get the string down all the way against the fingerboard with your left hand fingers. When we depress the string with our fingers we sometimes don’t get the string all the way down. This can deaden the sound, and even occasionally produce a scratch. Try not use counter pressure from the left thumb when doing this, this will make you too tight and you won’t be able to shift or use vibrato!

The next step is to work on your bow technique. I find that most string players over press when they play, the reason being is that they want a big sound. A lot of effort equals a big sound, right? No!!! Sorry, I got a little angry there, I need a paragraph break to cool down…

O.K., I am back. And calm. Pressing does little to help you make a big sound. All it does is make your sound ugly and pinched. If that is what you want, then press away! If you want a beautiful sound rich in overtones, you have to learn to pull your sound out of the cello. When we pluck the string we are actually pulling it up or to the side, right? We should always imagine the same when we are bowing.

After doing all of these things you should notice a big improvement in your tone quality. Remember, playing loud and with an ugly sound is like being that guy at a party that laughs way too loud at every joke. He is the only one enjoying himself!

Happy practicing everyone!


Playing by heart

I love the phrase “playing by heart.” It sounds much better than “playing from memory.” To play by heart means to have the music living inside of you. To play from memory means to simply regurgitate stored information. So why is it important to play by heart?

The answer is simple. When the music is living inside of you it has genuinely become yours. When you play from your soul with no music in front of your eyes you can envision the music close to what the composer heard in his head before he wrote it down. Music does not live in the printed notes. It lives in the fired imagination of a creative artist. How do we achieve this stage in performance? It requires work of a very specific kind.

We must first understand that how we learn a piece in the beginning will do much to determine how we will eventually perform it. That is why I feel it is so important to try to commit to memory every detail of a piece as early as possible. So much time can be wasted practicing with the music in front of you, struggling to find the musical direction and technical perfection that we all desire. It is better to study the piece away from the cello and absorb it into our mind. It will help us to discover what the piece is asking of us before we start practicing it. Then when we start learning the piece at the cello we already have a much clearer idea of the way the work should sound. This will help us to commit the piece to memory much earlier along with diligent practice. Try to memorize one line at a time. Do not try to do too much all at once!

I would like all of you who have never played from memory to try doing it during your next practice session, no matter what your ability level is. You should notice a certain freedom in your playing along with a little more technical security. This is the first step to learning how to “play by heart!”


Thoughts on technique and music

When we practice, what is our goal? Is it simply to “get better?” What does it mean to get better? Certainly there are some purely objective standards such as intonation, smoothness, controlled bow changes, clean articulation, clarity, etc. Is the ultimate goal to play with a high technical standard?

It is arguable that from a purely technical point of view performance standards in classical music are much higher than they were 50-100 years ago. For proof of this all one needs to do is listen to the top 20 competitors of any major international competition. What you will hear is a level of technical perfection that would make even Jascha Heifetz blush. Absolutely perfect intonation, beautiful sound, crystal clear runs and and a very polished visual presence are all there with every performer. And yet most people would agree that something is missing. While these performers are impressive, the audience is left with an empty feeling. Very few of these outstanding players become stars, and even the ones that do still don’t have the public adoration that Heifetz, Kreisler and Casals had in their lifetimes. As great as a player as Maxim Vengerov is, it would be crazy to put him in the same league as Heifetz and Oistrakh.

So what is the difference between the older generation (players from 50-100 years ago) and players of today? To get back to my original question, I think it has to do with what our goal is when we practice. The players of the past were great communicators. They had something to say about the music they were performing. When they practiced their aim was not simply technical perfection. It was to be expressive. Naturally there needs to be a certain level of technical perfection in order to express anything, but what we have today are many players who say very little.

Why were these older players such great communicators? I have several theories, ranging from how careers are made all the way to differences in equipment.

Let me start with equipment. During the last 50 years an enormous change has occurred in the materials that are used in string making. Almost all violinists use synthetic (nylon) strings instead of gut. These strings are more stable in terms of their intonation but lack the beauty of gut strings. Another factor is that nylon strings can be played rather aggressively without the sound breaking, so it is possible to press and make a decent sound. For the cello an even larger change has occurred. The cello now is almost exclusively strung with metal core strings. These strings are at a significantly higher tension which creates a radically different sensation while playing. Most cellists prefer these strings because of there quick response, but they still lag far behind gut in terms of beauty.

I personally think that these changes have had an effect of how we play. You can press an enormous amount on these new strings. This I think has had a huge effect on our ability to play expressively. One of the big distinctions between players of today and players of the past is phrasing. Players of the past pulled their sound more. Today they press more. Pulling a sound with a lower tension gut string is the only way to make a good sound, and it is this pulling feeling that results in the ability to make long, connected phrases. Pressing causes the phrases to be chopped up. This change in string technology is certainly a primary factor in how players play their instruments, and if we want to emulate players of the past it makes sense that we should use the materials that they used!

Another theory I have has to do with the rise of the international competition. I believe that competitions are poisonous to great music making. They automatically put a player in a position of thinking about purely technical matters. If you play just slightly out of tune in a competition you can be eliminated. This drives performers to treat music much more like an athletic event and less like art. I think that a full recital is a much better way to judge a performer. In a full recital a player must captivate an audience with his or her imagination. Of course the technical level must be high, but the level of inspiration must be much higher! If there are some missed notes in a recital it is not a very big deal, which leaves the performer more time to focus on developing a beautiful interpretation. The players of the past made their livings through recitals and understood that expression and communication are far more important than total technical perfection.

I have many other theories about this, but I should stop before this blog gets too long!

To get back to my original question, I think the answer lies in keeping expression in mind when we practice. Practicing can seem like a very dull thing sometimes, but if you are always thinking of an expressive goal then your practice will be much more rewarding!


You mean I have to practice?

Yes! But it it is not a prison sentence. Maybe you have heard of the 10,000 hour rule (http://gladwell.com/outliers/the-10000-hour-rule/)? After many years of reading a wide variety of biographies of famous musicians, I can hardly believe that it is true. Gladwell’s theory says nothing about prodigies such as Mozart, Mendelssohn and Korngold, who exhibited huge natural talent at an age where they would not have been able to have had practiced that much! These composer/performers worked hard, but there is simply no way they could have practiced 10000 hours by the time they were 6. Gladwell also says very little on the nature of practice, in fact he uses as evidence the fact that the Beatles performed all-night shows in Hamburg! Performance and practice are very different, and for him to associate the two and count them as “practice hours” is simply naive.

So how should we go about mastering our craft? The first thing to do is to stop worrying about how much you practice, and worry more about what you are doing when you practice. Sitting in a room and making noise for an hour will get you nowhere. Practice needs to be purposeful! Do not beat yourself up for not practicing enough, just practice smarter!

How do we practice smarter? First you need to clearly lay out your objectives. What are you trying to achieve? When I ask students this question I sometimes get an answer like “I try to make it sound good.” I would hope so! But what does it mean to sound good? This is where the principle of evenness comes in. Most people’s solitary goal is intonation, but I have heard many players play very well in tune but still sound awful. There are many other factors! Are your bow changes smooth? Is your sound consistent? Are you able to sustain a phrase for longer than one bow length? Are your shifts well hidden when you want them to be and expressive when you want them to be? How about your stamina? Are you playing effectively and efficiently? The list goes on!

To practice smarter, focus on fundamentals, and you will find that 10000 hours are not necessary at all!

A note for beginners…

Starting to play the cello can seem like climbing Everest. There are so many things to try and remember! How to sit, how to hold the bow, how to play only on one string, where do I put my left hand fingers,the list goes on! However there are a few things that if overlooked can make the experience even more difficult!

Here are 5 ways to make you experience of learning to play the cello easier.

Make sure you are renting or have bought a quality instrument. This is critical! If the instrument is of a really low quality you will only get frustrated. There are dealers in most areas that will have the best value, you just have to make sure you shop around and compare! Do not simply take the first instrument you see on ebay!

Once you have a good cello, make sure the strings are not too high off of the fingerboard. Chances are that if it is a good instrument then it will also have a good setup, but if it seems like that it is too difficult to get the strings down with your left hand fingers then it is not your lack of strength! Take it to a shop and have the strings lowered, you will love the result!

Make sure that you put rosin on your bow WHENEVER you play. I know there are many different opinions on this, but in my experience one of the things that will improve your overall experience is to remember to put rosin on your bow. Rosin dust falls off of your bow even while you are not playing, so put it on whenever you practice!

Find a good teacher. Do not be afraid to shop around. Many students stick with a teacher for really bad reasons. If you are not happy with your progress, don’t be afraid to talk to your teacher about it. If you are getting more and more frustrated, it may be time for a switch!

HAVE FUN! I know this seems silly to say, but playing the cello should be fun. If you are not having fun when you are practicing then something is wrong. I am not saying that playing the cello is not hard work. It takes everything you have, every ounce of mind, body, and spirit. But it is fun! Do not take yourself too seriously and enjoy the process of learning the most beautiful of all instruments.

I hope this helps, happy practicing!