Tone without tension


Lisa said: Oct 7, 2010
 Cello, Violin
5 posts

My first grader has been taking cello lessons for over two and a half years. Currently playing pieces well into book 3 and seemingly making great progress, my question is how to advise so as to produce a better TONE. The pieces all tend to have very light, airy or whispery tone. I’ve always been impressed by young Suzuki violinists in that their tone is so beautiful, but with the cello it seems more difficult to obtain that beautiful tone possibly due to the angle of the bow arm (not naturally hanging like a violinist’s). My child knows not to press or squeeze the bow excessively to improve the tone and while teacher suggests “play closer to the bridge”, this doesn’t seem to be terribly helpful. I understand that tone actually begins from muscles in the shoulder blade area, but how can I get this across to such a young person?

Gabriel Villasurda said: Oct 7, 2010
Gabriel VillasurdaViolin, Viola
81 posts

Try the following.

  1. With the cello in normal position, check the bow hold, and place the bow on the open G string with the bow at the middle.

  2. Check to see if the bow is making a 90 degree angle to the string. Teacher or parent: help with this; it is difficult for the player to know this.

  3. Reach down with the left hand and hold the bow stick near the tip end. Now the player is holding the bow with two hands.

  4. Reach out with the bow (off the string) and come back to the string drawing inward moving both arms (backward) equally. Elbows end up beside the ribs, relaxed. No chicken wings with either arm.

  5. Draw both ends of the bow so the hair sinks one millimeter into the string; you are “in” the string (not just “on” the string). This is certainly more a “pulling” feeling towards the cello (and our body) than a “pushing” or “jamming” from above.

  6. Now move the bow with short strokes staying at the middle. Adjust the “in” factor at one end or the other to achieve a good, loud, full tone. Experiment with distance from the bridge to get the right balance of proximity to the bridge, bow speed, and “in-ism” (coming into the string).

You will be amazed with the size and fullness of the sound.

Of course, in reality we have to control the bow with only the right hand and arm. What needs to happen is for the right arm and hand to be able to control both ends of the bow. The elbow and arm bring the frog end of the bow into the string, and the leverage of the fingers, wrist, thumb bring the tip end into the string. Of course, the exact role of each part of the bow arm varies depending where in the length of the stroke the string intersects the bow hair. So there is a constant redistribution or rebalancing of how the bow meets the string as the bow travels from one end to the other.

I suppose some mathematician or physicist could make a fancy equation or graph showing how this happens. Unfortunately it wouldn’t mean much to the average player.

Dr. Suzuki used to say were we able to play with one hand at each end of the bow, we would all have good tone.
(My recollection; does anyone have a better, more authentic quote?)

Let me know if this helps you.

Gabriel Villasurda
Ann Arbor MI

Martha said: Oct 8, 2010
Martha Brons
Suzuki Association Member
12 posts

Congratulations on the good progress you and your child are making with the cello!
I’m sure you’ve discussed your concern with depth of tone with your child’s teacher.
I like my students to rest the bow on the D (or G) string near the balance point, then support the bow on the string with the left hand while checking the bow hold. Then just relax the arm weight to allow the bow hair to “squish” into the string, let go the left hand and move the bow. There is a video demonstrating this on the website. It works the same, with or without the CelloPhant® bow accessory.
You have correctly observed that the violin bowing and the cello bowing, although looking similar, are very different. For example, many cello teachers start beginners near the balance point, while violin teachers like to start in the middle of the bow.
Martha Brons
Inventor, CelloPhant® bow accessory

Lisa said: Nov 21, 2010
 Cello, Violin
5 posts

Thank you for the detailed suggestions. I tried these little exercises with my daughter and somehow after numerous trials, over time, her tone seems fuller. It amazes me how easily and quickly kids can pick things up (and without a lot of wordy explanations). Anyway, I hope we can address future technical challenges this easily.

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