As with any aspect of cello playing, the bow hand serves us best when used in line with our anatomy. Not only will we avoid injury by using the body in the way it was intended to be used, but our sound will ultimately improve, as well. Let’s start the discussion by looking at a skeleton.
The Arm Structure
Take a look at three of the joints that we commonly think of in the arm structure, the shoulder, elbow, and wrist. Notice the order of the joints from highest to lowest – shoulder joint (glenohumeral joint), elbow, and wrist. Maintaining this position takes little to no energy as the arm dangles at our side, and this ordering of joints from top to bottom in space should be the default position of the arm when playing cello. More on this later.
In addition to the three joints already mentioned, our arm structure also includes one more joint that is often overlooked. To find this joint, raise and lower your right shoulder while touching the right collar bone with your left hand. Move your left hand until you find the place where the movement originates. Your left hand should now be touching the joint connecting your sternum with the collar bone, the sternoclavicular joint.
|The sternoclavicular joint – the fourth arm joint|
Maintaining an awareness of this fourth joint of the arm will give you more freedom of movement and will likely free up tension held in the shoulder. Our 4D movements require freedom in this joint to experience our full range of motion. For a more involved look into how an understanding of anatomy can positively impact your playing, consult Body Mapping resources available online and in your local area.
Adding the Bow
Watch your language!
In my teaching, I often remind students that “press” is a bad word (this applies equally to both the right and the left hands). Instead of pressing, we want to use our natural arm weight to produce the desired sound through the bow. Our arm weight flows naturally in the above mentioned order of joints, shoulder, wrist, and elbow through pronation, the same motion we use when pouring out a cup of water. The following video demonstrates the difference between pressing and pronating.
Bariolage, or repeated string crossings, are one example where cellists must be aware of the motion of the elbow. For our purposes, we will be considering bariolage between two adjacent strings, not across all four strings. Three possible options exist for the movement of the elbow in this case. The elbow can (1.) alternate levels based on the string being played, i.e. when playing on the A string, the elbow will be higher than when playing on the D string. Otherwise the elbow can (2.) remain on the level of the higher of the two strings with the forearm dropping to reach the lower string, or (3.) the elbow can remain on the level of the lower string with the forearm lifting up to reach the higher pitched string. The first two of these three motions are useful in varying types of passages, and the third motion should be avoided. For slower passages, the first motion of allowing the elbow to move between strings will produce a wonderfully robust sound as demonstrated below.
However quicker passages often do not allow enough time for the elbow to move such distances. In these instances, the elbow must remain on the level of the higher string, allowing the forearm to drop the bow to the lower string as in this example from the Haydn Cello Concerto in C Major.
Why is choosing the elbow position of the higher string preferable to the lower string? This is because leaving the elbow on the level of the lower string necessitates a forearm movement that lifts the wrist above the elbow. This position breaks the natural order of the arm joints discussed earlier (shoulder, elbow, wrist), thus hindering the transfer of weight into the strings. This often results in weak or scratchy tone.
Another instance in which we are often tempted (or taught) to raise the wrist above the elbow is when playing at the frog. I humbly acknowledge that many fine teachers encourage a supple wrist at the frog. Indeed a stiff wrist will cause tone to suffer in any part of the bow, and a higher wrist can be advantageous in order to take weight out of the bow. What I caution you to avoid, however, is habitually raising the wrist higher than the elbow. Try the following exercise to better understand why. First form a fist and place it on the nearest surface such as a table as if you were punching downward into the table.
As you lean into the table, notice the feeling of stability in this position. Next place your forearm on the table so that both wrist and elbow are flat on the table.
Again lean your weight into the arm and notice the stability in this position such that it takes virtually no energy to maintain this position. Finally place both your elbow and knuckles on the table so that the wrist is raised above the table.
Notice the immediate uncomfortable sensation when you lean into the table. Once the wrist is above the elbow, we have little hope of transferring weight through the wrist into the string. The late violin pedagogue Trevor Williams agrees. In the December 1985 Strad magazine, he writes, “I believe it is not good to raise and lower the hand to compensate for the strength and weakness of the nut and point of the bow. The varying quality of sound thus squeezed and floated, however slightly, in alternate bows is noticeable.”
In addition to the above exercise, also consider the hanging position as in the bottom of a pull-up. Trying to complete a pull-up with bent wrist would be next to impossible. Conversely completing a pull-up a stable, flat wrist is definitely within the realm of possibility for most people, even musicians!
The above exercises demonstrate why we must develop the habit of a stable wrist even at the frog of the bow. A raised wrist is a very weak position, making us prone to injury. Again flexibility is most definitely encouraged, but always with the natural ordering of the arm joints.
As you practice this week, raise your awareness of the arm. Notice how the collar bone moves when you play and be sure you are not holding it in a rigid position because it is in fact designed to move. Also remind yourself of the natural order of the arm joints and play within the framework of your body. Continually experiment to find where you can eliminate tension and add a sense of ease into your playing. Happy practicing!
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