The Role of the Left Hand in Cello Playing

The Role of the Left Hand

April 7th, 2014

In the first blog in March I stressed the importance of the bow in string playing because the bow creates the sound  -  and sound is the medium of our art.  This wasn’t intended to downplay the difficulties of the left hand, but just to put it in context.  Now, however, after pointing out what the left hand doesn’t do, it is important to give some thought to the role of the left hand in modifying the sound created by the bow.

The use of vibrato is critical.  ”Vibrate every note!” How often we have heard that from teachers and conductors!  Cellists are frequently encouraged to play with a “rich, warm vibrato.”  Nothing wrong with that, provided it is appropriate to the intent of the music at a given point.  However, it is important to bear in mind that if we use the same vibrato on each and every note, it becomes meaningless as an expressive tool.  To play a whole work  -  or even an extended passage  -  with an unvarying vibrato, however rich and warm, is to rob the music of its subtlety of expression.  Imagine an actor who spoke all of his lines in the same declamatory voice.  However rich and resonate his voice might be, I think that you would find it incredibly boring.  All great acting requires modulation of the voice in order to reflect the nuances of the spoken word and give it meaning and emotional impact.

It follows that vibrato is not a single thing.  It is as infinitely variable as the expressive intent of the music.  One passage may call for a slower, wider vibrato, and another for a quick, intense vibrato  -  and yet another for a barely discernible vibrato  -  just a slight warming or sweetening of the note or notes.  Sometimes the music is best served by the cool, pure sound of no vibrato at all.

It is interesting to note that in the 18th century vibrato was considered an ornament  - and, like all ornamentation, to be used sparingly for maximum effect.  Tartini, in his Treatise on Ornamentation (1748), illustrates varying degrees of vibrato:  starting slow and growing faster, beginning fast and becoming slower, as well as slow-fast-slow, or the reverse, fast-slow-fast on a single note.

These varying degrees and speeds of vibrato require a mastery of the speed and width of vibrato which may be a new concept for many modern string players,  but it is essential if we want to do justice to the expressive demands of the music.  A constant and unvarying vibrato is meaningless   –  not only in the Baroque and Classical eras, but in the later Romantic and Modern eras as well.  Brahms often admonished musicians playing his music for using too much vibrato.  Brahms!

Tread is another important concept.  The way the finger strikes the string is what we call “tread”.  There must be a thousand treads  -  probably more!  If you are playing the opening of the Haydn C major Concerto you will want a crisp, articulated tread.  While the opening of the Brahms e-minor Sonata asks for less articulation and a more gentle pressing of the finger into the string.  The same tread, though a bit more delicate,  is appropriate for the first movement of the Franck Sonata.  The opening of the second movement of the Franck Sonata, however, requires not only a quick articulation, but also weight and power in each stroke of the fingers.

Unfortunately, much of our early training on the cello robs us of an awareness of the subtlety of tread.  Many of us were taught to bang our fingers down equally on every note.  Looking back, I realize it was well-intentioned on the part of the teacher, and perhaps it played some role in strengthening the fingers, but it blinded us to the myriad possibilities of tread as an integral part of expressive playing –  something which should have gone hand-in-glove with even the early pieces we were playing.

However, it is comforting to know that ultimately the appropriate tread in a given passage of music is so intimately tied up with the emotion we feel about the music that, once we begin to think about it,  it quickly becomes almost instinctive to play with an appropriate tread.  It isn’t something we have to spend a great deal of time practicing because it is so natural.


The next time we will touch on another important aspect of the role of the left hand:  intonation.

On the Role of the Left Hand

Part Two

Some Thoughts on Intonation:

Cellists, facing a rather vast length of string, have a daunting task in knowing where to put their fingers to produce a given pitch.  So how do we find our way around this uncharted sea?  One solution frequently used for beginners is to put strips across the fingerboard to indicate where the fingers should be placed.  I rarely use this method in my teaching for two  reasons:

1) It overlooks – and can eventually override – the natural instinct of the hand, working in conjunction with the ear, to produce the pitch the ear is imagining.  Strips draw our attention away from the ear and direct it to the eye.  But playing a stringed instrument is not a visual thing.  Out medium is sound  - and it is the ear that should direct out fingers to the pitch we wish to produce.

Secondly – and this is the most important consideration – strips lead us to the presumption that there are only twelve notes within the octave when, in fact, there are an infinite number of pitches within the octave.  There is, for instance, no single “E”, but many slightly different pitches within the compass of “E”.

You can test this by playing an E in first position of the D string simultaneously with your open A.  Get it perfectly in tune  -  and then, without moving your finger, play that pitch against your open G and C strings.  What you will hear is a very out of tune E.  Now move your finger slightly to get the E perfectly in tune with the G and C strings and then test that pitch against your open A.  Ouch!

The inescapable conclusion is that the pitch we call “E” (or any given pitch) varies slightly as it is played in different harmonic contexts.  If this all sounds very complicated, relax  -  the good news is that because it is instinctive, you will discover that you have been making this kind of adjustment all along in your playing without thinking about it (assuming you listen sensitively to what you are playing).

An illustration:  I was coaching a violinist on the Chausson Piano Trio and he questioned why the composer had tied a B-natural to a C-flat when they were actually the same pitch.  I went to the piano and played the two relevant chords in the piano part while he held the tied note(s).  He was completely unaware that he instinctively moved his finger a microscopic degree as the piano chords changed.  In essence, his ear heard the difference between a b-natural and a c-flat in the two harmonic contexts and his finger instinctively adjusted the pitch by a micro degree.

A bit of history might be helpful here.  Five centuries before Christ the Greek mathematician, Pythagoras, discovered that if you go up a cycle of perfect fifths  -  C – G – D – A – E -etc.,  you will eventually reach B-sharp which is the enharmonic equivalent of C. In other words, you should come full circle and arrive at the starting pitch.  But there’s a slight problem:  the cycle of perfect fifths (the way we tune the cello) produced a B-sharp that was a quarter tone higher than the original C.  This difference  -  very discernible, incidentally, even to the untrained ear –  is known as the “Pythagorean comma”.

An interesting theoretical fact, but musically of no great import until we reached the early Baroque and composers began to write music that modulated to foreign keys.   They found that “fixed pitch” instruments (such as the keyboard instruments), which sounded fine in the home key, and even in closely related keys, sounded excruciatingly out of tune when the music modulated to foreign keys.  Various solutions were sought  -  all under the heading of “tempered tuning”  -  and eventually a compromise was found.  You can hear the result in the modern piano, where the fifths are tuned slightly smaller than perfect fifths in order to spread the discrepancy of the Pythagorean comma over the span of many octaves.

You can test this yourself: tune your A string to the piano’s A, as you normally do.  Then tune the other strings to your A.  Now test your C string to the piano’s  C.  You will find that your C is noticeably lower.  In the Baroque era performers got around this problem by tuning each string to the keyboard’s pitch (usually given in arpeggios up and down the keyboard  -  more pleasing to audiences).  What this yields is slightly smaller fifths for the string players, but music that is beautifully in tune with the keyboard.  Try it  -  it works.  I use it all the time, as do many other players..

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