Random Thoughts on the Cello and Chamber Music

March, 2014

On the Art of the Bow

When a student of Tartini asked the great 18th century violinist how she should practice, his response was: “Make yourself the master of the bow in all its parts”.   Good advice for string players today.

It’s interesting, though understandable, that string players  -  and particularly cellists  -  focus so much of their attention on the left hand when, in fact, it is the right hand (because it controls the bow)  that actually makes the sound. We forget that sound is our medium.  Sound is to musicians what oil paints and water colors are to the artist, or marble and wood are to the sculptor. Without the bow there would be no sound, and without sound no music.

When you come right down to it, the role of the left hand, though absolutely essential, does not create the sound – it only modifies the sound created by the bow. The fingers, by stopping the strings, determine the pitches, and the whole of the left hand, through the use of vibrato and tread*, modifies the sound created by the bow.  What we and our listeners hear when we play is the sound we have created with the bow (pizzicato excepted)  -  the dynamics, from pianissimo to fortissimo, the crescendos and diminuendos, the overall shape of the line…..and the emotion. For this reason I would like to see string players devote more attention to what is happening with the right hand as it directs and guides the  bow.

I don’t mean to play down or diminish in any way the difficulties we have all experienced in learning where to place our fingers in order to play something as simple as a scale. That is a bedrock essential in all music-making on a stringed instrument. But I would like to see it put in proportion. I would like to see string players devote far more attention to what is happening with the bow because that is where our sound creation, and therefore our music making,  happens. Simply pushing the bow back and forth , as if the only purpose of the bow is to confirm the “rightness” of what the left hand is doing, doesn’t cut it.

There are so many things that determine the sound we produce with the bow: the speed of the bow, the variation in speed (starting slow and growing faster, or beginning fast and gradually decreasing the speed of the bow), the placement of the bow between the fingerboard and the bridge, the weight we allow into – or take out of – the bow, which part of the bow we use for a certain effect, the degree of lift between strokes.  With the bow we can attack or caress, we can soar or turn inward, we can be passionate or cool – in essence, we can express virtually any emotion the human voice can. That is the great expressive potential of the bow – and it is ours to use.


* By tread I am referring to the way in which our fingers come down on the string: it can be forceful or gentle – and everything in between.


This concludes this week’s Random Thoughts on the Cello and Chamber Music  -          next week: On the Life of the Left Hand

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