Chinese Proverb

"Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I'll understand." - Chinese Proverb.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Lesson #59 (Jazz 4/6/2012): Tone

We had a couple of interesting conversations regarding what it means to "grab a string" and the different tones and sounds a cellist can achieve. Clayton recommended googling the cellists listed below and listening to the same Bach Suites; paying close attention to their tone and sound. Being the newb that I am, I only knew of two of the cellists he gave me, and have only listened to Pablo Casals within that list!  I've listened to the cellists that have come up in my "general" cellist search on YouTube (e.g. Yo-Yo Ma, Dupre, Maisky, Rostropovish, Starker, Finckel, Hauser & Sulic) and some alternative cellists (e.g. Sollee, Baker, Friedlander & Freudmann), but I'd never heard of most of the cellists he mentioned! Yikes - I've got to listen to a wider list of cellists! And do better with my YouTube searches!

Anyway, I was able to find Bach Suite BMW 1007 Gigue for all but Pablo Casals. I'll have to post my findings in another blog entry.
This was very similar to an exercise I did last year which I also bloggged about here, but I was listening more for phrasing, not tone or sound:

I told Clayton I was working on more volume and getting a better tone, so he asked that I play the Minuet in C how I thought Adam wanted me to play it. This led to an interesting discussion on what it meant to "grab a string" and how that's interpreted differently by each cellist. Grabbing a string for one cellist may mean putting a lot of the weight into the bow and string, while another cellist may interpret it being able to feel the "friction," or being able to grab the string and release it and use the momentum, or like me who thought grabbing a string meant that I could feel the bow and string "connecting" the entire time. I think I didn't understand what it meant to "grab a string" or what it entailed!

Clayton mentioned, that to him I always seem to be too heavy and choke the sound, whereas Adam thinks I'm too quiet and light. I wonder if I play differently when I play for them individually, or if they have different tastes in tone, or if its the room, or if it's a combination of all of the above. Although I think Adam and Clayton may have opposing views on sound production and tone, which I voiced to Clayton. He replied that can get frustrating sometimes since his two teachers have opposing views on some concepts as well.
Although I like getting two different perspectives - more tools in my toolbox!! :). I think it would definitely be fun to be able to play a piece to sound differently, which I'll try to do with Minuet in C when I post my video! Should be interesting... or a disaster! ;).

We went over the 3 variables to get a good tone, which was bow location, speed and weight, which I knew from my previous lessons with both Adam & Clayton, but he had me do some great exercises in trying to determine the tone.

Exercise #1:
  • Play sul ponticello which means to bow close to or on the bridge. I had to look that up since I forgot to write it down! First he had me play lightly over the strings so it sounded very light and glassy, then he had me play so it was overly loud and heavy, and then just enough so I was "right on the edge of loosing the string"
    • He also played this for me, and tested to see if I was able to hear when he lost the string, which surprisingly I was able to! I could definitely feel when I lost the string as well. 
  • Then sul tasto, playing over the fingerboard, and try the same exercises above and then compare how it felt playing over the fingerboard versus near the bridge, and what I had to change when I was "right on the edge of loosing the string" to get a good tone. 
  • Finally, right in the middle of the strings with the same exercises. 
    • He mentioned that bowing over the fingerboard should feel like stirring water and by the bridge like honey! I guess the middle would be like jello or pudding! Lol! His analogies always crack me up! :). He uses it for his students who are little kids, but the thing is, it's so entertaining and so simplified, that the concepts just "click and make sense!

Ironically, it was really difficult for me to "loose the string" because I was working so hard to keep constant contact between the bow and string for the last few weeks. Which led to another great discussion regarding the relationship between speed and volume.

We did some experiments/exercises to test this. He put the metronome on 90 and had me play from frog to tip within 2 beats, which is a tempo I do NOT normally practice. Typically I have my metronome at 60, so this was definitely a stretch for me! 

Exercise #2: 
  • Use two beat with the metronome at 90 and play the G Major scale with the bow in the middle. 
  • First he had me play over the fingerboard, sul tasto
    • Discovery: I do not play well very fast! Lol! :). My bow kept sliding all over the place and kept drifting past the fingerboard. I was definitely afraid I was going to hit the C-bout! Wow, I need LOTS of practice on this one. I normally practice at 60 bpm, and maybe once in a while at 70 bpm, so it was very uncomfortable playing past 80 bpm! 
  • Then he had me play in the "middle of the highway"
    • I played this a few times and after a few tries finally got one to sound decent, but he commented that I "looked so uncomfortable trying to get the sound" that it really didn't matter, and we should find another way. Wow - I wonder what I was doing to make him think that, which he was absolutely correct! LOL! ;). LOTS of practice on this one as well!!
    • He turned the metronome down to 85 after that, which helped a lot, although it must have been a mental thing, since a decrease in 5 bpm is NOT that much! 
  • Next we did this using the upper C Major scale, so I could have some practice on the A string as well
    • The focus and purpose of the exercise was to use lots of speed, but also to feel when I was "right on the edge of loosing the string" so I could start feeling and be aware of how much weight needed to be added. 
This led to another interesting topic on friction!
Instead of thinking about weight, location and speed, some cellists think of feeling friction instead, which to me seems to be a much simpler way to find the correct tone. This led to a conversation about having an open tone versus a closed tone, and it's relationship to volume and speed.

Clayton recommended that I work on the different variables, especially speed and increasing my tempo, feeling the string, and to play in different areas of the strings, which Adam had recommended as well.

He also recommended that I check David Finckel's Cello Talks on bow location and such. I've watched every video his, but this will be a good opportunity to revisit the ones regarding speed and tone.

I swear I've heard all this information before! I guess I just need to hear it a few times for it to click - building one small layer of info on top of the other before another part of the concept can really sink in!


  1. hey ya, have been long since last post right? I've been in the busiest time of my life as well, that I haven't touched my cello for days now (plus that i couldn't bring my cello travelling with me, how I wish every hotel on earth can rent us cellos!)

    anyway, about the tone thingy, the way I am being taught is based on strings vibration. If I am understanding it correctly, my teacher always taught me to let the strings ring, no matter the position relative to bridge/fingerboard I am playing in. There are so many variables in bowing we can actually employ in phrasing and dynamics, of which I could recall being taught about:-

    1)Weight :- more weight/pressure via index means more volume, but too much will choke the sound and flatten the note + scratchy sound. Too little then you'll lose the ring and sound steely.

    2)Elbow height:- very much related to the 1st one but my teacher separately taught this to highlight the pros and cons of both positions. High elbow allows for better control, steady vibration and stable acceptable tone but lower position enables more varieties of tones. He played a passage that has so many color (silky to darker to very intense) using low elbow and explained low elbow offers more weight control. I originally thought with low elbow with this intention but it's only when I switched to purely high elbow that I finally pleased my teacher with my tone.

    3)Speed and bow length: I still fail in bow planning but this is the greatest tool when it comes to dynamic and phrasing! I failed terribly on my 1st try to 'humanize' my gossec's gavotte (my teacher told me in a lesson I was playing it right if I were to play notes, instead of to play music). What I need to do is to study the music a bit, notify when is the big phrase, what notes to use more bow etc. etc. still have very little idea on this, especially for 4/4 music.

    4)Hair amount: Haven't learnt much on this but basically more hair = more volume. my teacher recommended me to use more hair for flight of 16th notes (czardas, etude variation) so that I dont have to feel rushed while maintaining the volume (since 16th notes = short bow). While playing Air in G string, I was told to use less hair for the long notes with p dynamic. Wonder if it's a matter of preference but I wish I know how make my own decision soon.

    I believe there's a lot more angles to view tone in bowing, but these are what I learnt so far. I also believe it t might change in future (to suit my preference, and maybe 'vehicle').

    By the way, I notice I was forced to play lower to the bridge as I touch upper register (even at upper 4th position) to get decent tone and intonation..wonder if this is normal. Good luck with your own tone discovery!

    Bye now, hope life will be easier on our cello-ing time :) (already missing my cello so much!)

    1. Hey stranger, it’s been a while! :).

      Yeah, I’ll be traveling during the summer and will be away from my cellos for awhile. Just thinking about it makes me sad… poor cellos!

      It’s so interesting to hear how other teachers present things differently but use the same concepts. You touched on and wrote those points out quite nicely!

      As for the ringing, it’s only been recently that I could differentiate a “closed sound” versus an “open sound” and whether ANOTHER cellist’s cello was ringing. I could hear it in my own cello, but never anyone else’s, so it was a very cool experience once I realized that I could hear it!

      My main issue is with weight and speed at the moment, well…I think mostly weight.
      I haven’t quite been able to utilize hair amount yet either, since I’m still too busy trying to get my bow to stay on the “correct path!”

      Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to practice the way I normally do, so my tone and intonation has been way off lately, and now that I can hear ringing and resonance in my cello, it totally bothers me when I’m off…

      Hope you get some cello time too!

      …practice some air cello? ;)