Tone Quality for a young cellist


Kerri said: Mar 17, 2012
 2 posts

I am posting in this forum mainly out of frustration, and the need to hear if anyone has been in my position.

I have a 7 year old cellist who is a wonderful, bright little girl. She has been playing since the age of 4. She is the only cellist in the family, her two older siblings play the violin.

We seem to be in a bit of a rut at the moment, with the tone quality and bow control that she is able to display. We are currently polishing Chanson Triste for a performance, and it is becoming frustrating for both of us. Technically she has no problem with the notes/shifts, etc., but bow control and tone is an issue.

I’m not sure how to improve on this, or is this simply something that will come with age? She has a wonderful teacher, but this is what we have been asked to work on, and we are really struggling. This has led to several teary eyed practice sessions, stemming from my daughter’s frustrations.

Looking for any suggestions that any of you may have?

Thank you!

Sue Hunt said: Mar 18, 2012
Sue HuntViola, Violin
403 posts

I remember the frustrations when my children were learning the violin and cello. I personally found it difficult not to show mine and it made matters much worse. I was far too focussed on what was going chronically wrong, to be able to notice all the wonderful things that they were accomplishing.

Tone is not helped by tension. The more upset your daughter becomes, the more tense her shoulders and arms will become and this will make it even more difficult to make a lovely sound.

Practice looking for the good things about her playing and mentioning them as she does them. Don’t make a fuss, just quietly mention them. By the look of your post, there are lots from which to choose.

Stop concentrating on how uneven the tone quality is. When she does make a good sound, point it out gently. After a bit of success, you can ask her what she did to achieve it. Don’t worry if she doesn’t know yet, she will get there in time.

Don’t let this issue take over the entire practice. Make a few minutes to have fun turning this problem into a game. We all learn better when we are enjoying ourselves and no one is too old to make a game of it. You can get several free simple ones, when you click the Opt In Button at Music in Practice.

Start small with softening her shoulders or whatever the teacher asks for:
-1 Away from the cello,
-2 Sitting with cello between knees,
-3 Moving her bow arm without the bow,
-4 Moving her bow arm while holding the bow,
-5 With bow on the strings etc.
Check that the shoulders feel soft before and after, by moving them gently. DON’T put your hands on her while she is bowing. Any red blooded child will resist this. Remember, “more haste less speed.”

It is amazing what can be achieved by only mentioning what is going well in a practice session. When my 2 children where learning, I was told to mention at least 2 good things before attempting to correct. The result was, that when I had finished my compliments, my children would snarl “But?” and shut down, before I could draw breath for a correction.

As a teacher, I would say, your daughter has years of happy cello playing ahead of her when you stick to positive comments only. Keep focusing on the tiny moments of success and watch your her blossom.

Kerri said: Mar 18, 2012
 2 posts

Hi Sue,

Thank you so much for your reply. It has made me feel much better.

It also has served as a reminder to focus on positives. I think due to her rapid progression and her many accomplishments, I forget that she is only 7.

I know that she has been sensing my frustration, and that has led to her feeling frustrated and probably a bit confused.

I will definitely try working on softening the shoulders, and I really appreciate your comment about not letting this issue take over the entire practice.

So very much appreciated.

Barb said: Mar 21, 2012
Barb Ennis
Suzuki Association Member
685 posts

Good advice, Sue. You are so right about tension strangling tone, and positive reinforcement.

A few other practical things … though I imagine your teacher has probably already mentioned them, just in case…

When my students’ (in books 1-3 so far) tone suffers, the most common issue is bow placement. I sometimes have trouble convincing students that it really does sound better closer to the bridge, or not so close to the fingerboard. I used to be there, too! The sound under the ear (to the player) is “nice” when close to the fingerboard, but weak to the audience. (Hmm, good idea for a group lesson in a larger space!)

Have your daughter listen to great cello recordings of all kinds. I have a family with an older violinist, and they thought that they didn’t need to listen to the cello recording much because the violin recordings had the same tunes and the younger one had also heard the older one playing them on the violin. But they do not teach the tone of the cello. Of course you are past that stage of the same music, but I encourage you to invest in listening to the Suzuki recordings AND OTHER great cello music, and listen a LOT.

In addition to the tight shoulders and arms, if a student is squeezing with the knees it can dampen the tone somewhat. Or squeezing the bow in the hand. Tension anywhere is bad news, really.

Here is a great video lesson from Paul Katz on CelloBello about sound production and “resting vs. pressing”.

Does your daughter improvise? I think there is a lot of value in this—it can be very relaxing to just play with no worry of wrong notes, wrong rhythms, criticisms of any kind, etc. Take a look at Alice Kay Kanack’s Fun Improvisation for Cello.

And I’m sure you are still playing the tonalization exercises. Even Casals practiced slow open strings!

Sue’s advice about games is great, too—keep it fun! Enjoy your daughter and your journey together!

Music Teachers Helper—for individual teachers
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Barb said: May 1, 2012
Barb Ennis
Suzuki Association Member
685 posts

I had another thought on this. Has her teacher demonstrated the tone she wants your daughter to work towards on your daughter’s instrument? A smaller instrument will not sound like a full-sized one. And even some full sized instruments will be limited. One of my adult students to get more sound at the climax of a piece recently, but when I tried to demonstrate using his cello I discovered he already was getting as much sound as was possible with his cello. Attempting to sound like me with my cello while using his own was frustrating him.

Music Teachers Helper—for individual teachers
Studio Helper—for entire music studios or schools

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