Learning To Play Cello:
As An Adult
New To String Instruments
Preliminary self-teaching by the book
and then with instructors
Updated: 14 August 2022
Started: 19 February 2021
As an adult new to cello as a first bowed string instrument, this summarizes
experiences starting with self-guided education “by the book” and then with
I had never touched a cello prior to 2021.
At roughly two months, face-to-face sessions with an instructor began before
any “bad habits” would have possibly formed. After a year and cross-border relocation, purchased a cello and found a local instructor.
Topics covered here include: techniques, tips, on-line resources, relevant
apps, published books, so-called “print” sheet music (now widely on-line,
apps, etc.), accessories, sequence in which to upgrade each and of course
the cello itself and future considerations.
Having started in Canada, I began with– and highly recommend–
Royal Conservatory of Music materials. After returning to America, I
switched to Suzuki Method due to my second instructor’s familiarity.
This will be updated with new information as appropriate yet represents one
person’s current state of learning. This document gets continuously edited
and updated– rather than expecting you to wade through a series of blog
posts from incremental learning. See Changelog for major
updates and corrections.
Potentially, you could learn on your own.
Books referenced below were written as the means to that end.
However, having your own personal guide makes more efficient use of your
Let this document augment your own teacher’s (or author’s) instruction as
secondary guidance for perspective or counter-point.
Not everyone has access to an instructor who has been playing cello for
decades around the world, performs in a major metropolitan symphony
orchestra, is an accomplished soloist and chamber performer– who is
also excellent at teaching.
Hopefully, this saves someone a few months of background effort– beyond
actual practice time, because there’s no substitute for practicing.
As many others also advise, having a private instructor is ideal.
Having in-person 1:1 sessions are best because your teacher can directly
inspect your posture, fingering, bowing and intonation which leads to
immediate corrections and avoiding bad habits.
In my sixth weekly lesson, I was beginning an activity that closely
resembled “sightreading” but obviously using that word loosely and with
humble apologies to anyone within earshot at the time.
That lesson corresponded with my three month anniversary of having first
touched a cello or any other bowed string instrument. Daily practice was
typically 30-45 minutes with cello plus time on either side for warm-up and
stretches indicated by a qualified physical therapist (physio therapist).
Details of all that follow.
At six months, I relocated back to America. Physical practice paused for
one month during that transition. Picking the cello back up began with a
thorough review from these notes alone. After 12 months of daily practice,
the rental was returned and a more advanced model purchased.
In-person lessons continued with a graduate student in her final semester
under a notable professor and beyond until she moved away. At my 17th
month, we began Shifts from First Position through Fourth without aid of
tape or any markings on the Fingerboard.
The Least You Need To Begin
Begin with items in this summary for an excellent place to start an
- Begin learning and practicing without a cello or bow, at least initially:
- You can practice a bow hold and some exercises with just a pencil
- You can practice fingerboard positioning from printing one on paper
- Learn to sing the notes before playing them: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si
of the solfége or solfeggio method’s syllables
- Start doing stretches for cellists from physical therapists (physio)
- Start building dexterity for fingering with “spock hand” exercises
- Learn the difference between isometric vs isotonic physical exercises
for building strength and precision, respectively
- Get books:
- Complete Cello Technique,
The Classic Treatise on Cello Theory and Practice,
by Diran Alexanian with preface by Pablo Casals, 2003 Edition
with original 1922 French and English translation side-by-side;
- Cello Technique:
Principles and Forms of Movement,
by Gerhard Mantel and translated by Barbara Haimberger Thiem
- Cello Playing for Music Lovers,
by Vera Mattlin Jiji, and once in possession of the physical book,
you may then download MP3s; very approachable for a contemporary perspective
- Sheet music for Preparatory Level, such as from a music conservatory;
Royal Conservatory of Music
- The First Hour
by Amit Peled is a 35 page companion to his
Cello Emoji Video Guide
and intended for advanced students– for when tape on your fingerboard
becomes unnecessary– as aspirational material
- Later… when it’s time for études, you’ll know where to go by then
- Get apps to help you practice while being in tune:
- Recommended for practical beginner exercises and quality basic tuner:
- Recommended advanced tuner with scope and reporting multiple notes of
overtones, each with octave:
Tuner by Bill Farmer
- other apps
- While initially learning scales or otherwise unintentionally making
squeaky/screechy noises, consider using a practice mute
- Your family / housemates / neighbors will thank you
- With practice, experience and discovery, those “squeaky” and “scratchy”
noises become meaningful, and increased dexterity perseveres
- When you discover for yourself that recommendations from various books,
videos, articles, etc. appear to contradict one another…
- Get an instructor for quality 1:1 lessons!
- Inquire with local orchestras, as many players also offer tutoring
- Check with your local music shops, as many offer instruction
- Check with local colleges and universities for faculty and students
because an advanced student will have teachable pointers top-of-mind
from experiencing diversity of their classmates
- Search the internet for a potential candidate to learn about their
methods as indication of good fit
- Regardless of whether you would use Suzuki Method or not, those
instructors require certification which offers a short list of
where to look; e.g., Suzuki Association of the Americas
and regional affiliates such as
- Important accessories:
- Sturdy music stand: should hold a heavy music book or tablet/iPad;
e.g., minimum capacity of 0.5 kg or 1 lbs
- Metronome: lots of quality free apps for various mobile devices;
(Tip: if its noise bothers you, some apps offer a visual or vibration mode)
- Rosin: wherever you obtain the cello, they will recommend one based
upon your bow and strings,
but ensure that it’s Cello rosin!
- Potentially unexpected items:
- Full length mirror to watch yourself playing;
ideally, wider than the type that easily mounts on a closet door;
consider a minimum width of 50cm or 20”
- Video camera on tripod for recording yourself playing
- The means to view those videos– ideally with much larger screen than
on a mobile phone or tablet
- Flannel or microfiber cloth for wiping rosin from strings after each practice
(but maintain enough rosin on strings so the bow performs adequately…)
- Break through the Bootstrapping Paradox (or “Catch-22”)
- You’ll eventually produce proper intonation, but this requires calluses
be developed on fingertips of the Left Hand
- You’ll eventually allow Left and Right arm weight alone to apply
pressure on strings for fingers and bowing respectively, but excessive
tension often stems from overcompensating for poor intonation
- You’ll eventually attain proper posture, but incorrect posture can come
from a cascade of excessive tension elsewhere in the body
- You’ll eventually perform well while sightreading, but this comes
after much practice with reading and playing phrase-by-phrase
- You’ll eventually read phrases of notes, but it’s necessary to first
read the note, say the note, find the note and then play the note
- The most important point here is to begin, and then continue
Further elaboration on each point above is sprinkled throughout this
Other items will be revealed all in good time.
You’ll find those along with further instructions when searching as you need
them, so there’s no rush for such things prematurely.
If you must…
The impatient may jump to results of self-learning, 1:1 instruction and
discoveries along the way of both paths. It’s full of spoilers, so that
section is towards the end of this document with only appendix material
following. If you must, cut to the chase, but remember that the
journey is at least as significant as the destination– and possibly more
so– for someone new to cello as an adult.
Mentally Prepare For A Spiritual Journey
Learning to play a new instrument as an adult can be a spiritual journey.
Learning requires discipline: commitment, regular practice, effort for
cresting the learning curve and mental fortitude of perseverance.
That same description could easily apply to honorable military service or
As an adult new to cello as a first bowed string instrument– release any
combative stance stemming from unfortunate childhood music lessons. That’s
water under the bridge and now gone.
Read words of guidance. Watch videos of others' experiences. Hear wisdom
of your personal instructor. Yet when practicing, also heed your own
intuition such as when you’ve had enough for that day.
Begin. Then continue.
Hearing someone learn to bow or learn fingering positions while still
developing dexterity can be unpleasant, but this is where we are at this
stage of practice. Be okay with that. (Yes, there are such things as
“practice mutes” covered in another section, but this is about one’s
For the student, focus on one thing at a time.
Without spoilers for early lessons with an instructor:
For instance, find your Left Hand finger position first and hold it here
without playing the note. Return to proper posture. Position your Right
Hand for bowing that note but still without playing the note. Go through
your mental checklist to release any tension and maintain healthy angles for
wrists, elbow, shoulders, etc. Then and only then, play the note. Again,
focus on only one item at a time.
My first instructor noted that even as someone playing cello for forty
years, it continues being the same sequence. Of course, it eventually all
happens much more quickly as experience and dexterity mature.
Also as a student, focus upon what you’ve accomplished by each stage!
Consistent tone will come.
Squeakiness will fade.
Keeping the bow in its lane will happen.
Fingers will find their positions for accurate notes.
These things require “muscle memory” which takes practice to develop.
Most importantly, be grateful at each stage for what has been accomplished
Lesson Sheet Music Files & License
Exercises below with links to sheet music downloaded from this site
generally use files for Musescore software.
It’s open-source free software available for BSD Unix, Linux, Mac and
Windows. Apps for mobile devices are also available on their sheet music
repository and community website, Musescore.com.
Downloading sheet music associated with exercises below are offered with a
full liberty for using or modifying those pages for your own interests,
including commercial use.
Links to other sheet music, blogs, videos, etc. each are the property of
their respective owners.
Sheet music recommended by my first instructor– for those who would rather
avoid nursery rhyme style songs commonly used for teaching young children:
- From The Royal Conservatory of Music
which offers international shipping
- Each piece in the Preparatory Level booklet is a single page for cello
with separate sheets for an accompanying piano
- Apparently, purchasing directly from them includes downloadable versions
of the solo and duet performances on the bundled music CD
Collected research, annotated over the course of self-learning and working
with an instructor via in-person lessons:
Searching For Videos
It began with a simple search on a video platform:
came up first.
From there, recommended videos included those of
Note that many video streaming platforms rank search results based upon
several factors. These include age of the content, number of views of the
video, time since most recent upload, etc. Recently active channels are not
necessarily an indication of the best content for learning, but the ones
above provided an excellent starting point.
With more specific searches, such as “cello bow hold” (not “grip”), the
following emerged. Be sure to also explore their channels and playlists.
Please send each of them some Cello Love by perusing their videos, channels
and patron offerings (e.g., Patreon). Many of their videos contain valuable
resources within descriptions of videos.
Violoncello or just ‘cello to friends and modern players
For deeper research, note that the word cello was originally an
abbreviation of the historical term violoncello. Expand search results
further with spellings from other languages, such as violoncelle and
Early sheet music where copyright has long since lapsed into Public Domain
may refer to it as such.
Rent vs Buy
Rent for 6 to 9 months, and only if still committed, buy.
- See Jonathan Humphries channel (linked above) for excellent points.
When buying, aspire for an intermediate to advanced model instead of a basic
student version. However, be careful to not get a cello– or any tool for
that matter– that is too far beyond your abilities because that leads to
frustration, which in turn limits chances for success. This will make more
sense after six months of dedicated practice and more so after tape on the
fingerboard has become completely unnecessary for you.
If considering a used cello, comparison shop on
reverb.com to determine a fair
base price. However, when purchasing from a local shop with an in-house
luthier, you are also establishing a relationship with them. Therefore, a
lower price via internet or mail order isn’t always worth the discount!
Necessitating such a relationship with a local luthier:
- Ask about temperature and humidity accommodations for your climate and
elevation, as this will help keep your instrument in tune
- Have them replace your first string when one breaks, and ask them to show
you as they do it
- A seemingly harmless bump of the cello while in its case may potentially
disrupt the sound-post or bridge, so have it reset by a local shop that
- You might want upgrades to a cello that you own, such as geared pegs or
swapping steel vs carbon-fiber end-pin (for reasons beyond scope in this
Some maintenance requires specific tools and specialist knowledge for using
those tools, and for that, become friends with a local luthier or music shop
with one in-house.
Selecting A Music Store
Search for “violin shop”, as the violincello exists within the violin family
of instruments. However, a quality general music store might be just as good.
Finding a local music store from which to rent a student cello involved
disregarding reviews about each merchant from familiar websites like Yelp.
Complete context is almost always omitted in those reviews, and many reviews
have probably become irrelevant due to staff or ownership changes.
Instead, go and make up your own mind.
Visit each shop and speak with relevant staff directly.
In smaller cities and towns, there might be only one “orchestra” or
“strings” person for that store, and that person might not be available the
day you go. Likewise for their luthier: ask about their experience with
setup for a cello specifically.
Visiting each store myself was best, as the websites didn’t match the
reality of each store’s inventory.
For instance, one has far more selection available to rent or buy than
appears on their website. Another is a national chain, so their website
includes entire categories unavailable within the local store, such as
orchestral strings being completely absent locally.
More than simply speaking with the correct person, engage in a dialog about
where you are as a student, what are your aspirations, how much you would
ideally spend, etc. Be especially realistic about your current level and
Help them so they can help you!
Suddenly, nearly all negative on-line reviews of various music stores become
For those curious:
- In Vancouver, British Columbia my choice was Long & McQuade on Terminal
Avenue; their entire Strings staff was excellent but especially Colin
- After relocating to Boise, Idaho my initial choice was a general music
store, Dorsey Music, on State Street with inventory delivered from their
nearby Nampa store
- While there are also shops in town with an in-house luthier strictly
dedicated to the violin family, always confirm experience of each
Traditional Acoustic vs “Silent” Electric (or Avoid Disturbing Neighbors)
Learn the traditional instrument for building a proper foundation.
For some, practicing with a conventional acoustic wooden cello appears to be
a non-starter due to risk of disturbances to neighbors.
Fortunately, there are options:
- Use a removable practice mute on a conventional acoustic cello (least expensive)
- Buy a “practice” cello (median)
- Rent or buy a “silent” electric cello (most expensive)
After migrating to a cello that is the last step before
intermediate/advanced models and playing an acoustic with a quality practice
mute, I recommend that configuration over an electric (unless, of course,
you have the luxury of having two cellos).
However, there are other factors that may be more significant due to physics.
Consider that the cello endpin propagates vibration/sound to the floor, and
materials for constructing the room and floor might function like a giant
speaker cabinet (resonance chamber).
- Conventional house or apartment building with less than 7 storeys:
- Wood frame structure with wood floors (regardless of carpeting or other
- The entire room becomes a sound propagation and resonance chamber
- A cello may seem louder to someone above/below the room than in it
- Notice how soloists in orchestras are usually on a small wooden
platform, because this arguably helps sound projection
- To counter this effect, get a rubber cap for your endpin and play on
carpet, cork or other sound-absorbing material
- Modern mid-rise or high-rise apartment or office building:
- Steel reinforced concrete structure (including cast concrete over re-bar)
- Dampening of sound propagation was probably a factor of the design and
materials; e.g., concrete recipe
- If neighbors are unable to hear the words of your conversations, it’s
a good indication that a student cello practice will be reasonably
quiet (low decibels) from the neighbors' perspective
- Such structures may have relatively thin walls made from sheet-metal
studs and gypsum drywall, so concrete floors won’t matter to lateral
- Sound propagation beyond the room can be mitigated and managed:
- Acoustic panels
- Bass traps– though, these assist primarily with acoustics for those
within the room
- See Miscellaneous Resources below.
Categories of mutes
available that get placed temporarily on the bridge:
- Clam-shell clamp style:
- Ensure that it has spring-loaded action
- Ensure that is has rubber or cork where it grips the bridge to stay in
- Made from solid brass or alloy with suitable acoustic-dampening
- Those properties above will prevent it from loosening during practice
until you intentionally remove it
- e.g., WMutes
or The Heifetz Mute
- Round friction-fit “tourte” style
- This style mounts on middle two strings
- Commonly seen hanging below the bridge of cellos played by professional
musicians, because it’s always within reach for compositions requiring
a “concert mute”
- Beware of all-metal friction-fit models, because those can damage the
bridge or cello body when they vibrate loose
- Metal-framed rubber-coated “hotel” mutes
- These also rely on fiction to stay put
- Reported to eventually vibrate loose several times during same practice
- The rubber coating makes it unlikely to cause serious damage cello when
it vibrates loose
- All-rubber mutes
- Arguably, these just make the sound of your cello muddy
- Will still be heard by your neighbors
- These tend to vibrate off too easily several times during practice
The best is sold by WMutes
which ships from Spain:
- Highly recommended! (See Richard’s comparison video linked below.)
- Clam-shell clamp style
- Spring-loaded action
- Rubberized cork to grip bridge safely
- Made from solid brass coated in silver, onyx or gold
- Won’t mar your bridge! (I’ve used this with French and Belgian bridges)
- As of early 2021, price is EUR €107
- Shipping & handling to western Canada in 2021: add EUR €11
(or grand total of CAD $187, waylaid over one month in Canadian Customs
without updates to tracking websites, yet zero import Duty and arrived
- Very much worth the price and wait!
(I maintain this perspective even after learning about the Heifetz mute;
- Compared to cost of renting a Yamaha Silent 50 cello, the cost of buying
from WMutes was recouped within two months of returning the Silent 50
and getting a (non-laminated) student cello instead!
- Their blog has a sound analysis
based upon the violin mute
- No affiliation other than happy customer with happy neighbors
- The Heifetz Mute
- Named for Twentieth Century cello great, Jascha Heifetz, who
collaborated on its creation
- Similar in concept to those from WMutes
- Metal core construction that attaches to bridge via spring-loaded clamp
with rubber grip which prevents it from vibrating off while playing
- Might be comparable to WMutes' concert mute
(rather than their practice mute)
- The 1989 redesign edition sells in 2021 for USD $10.99
- Original editions based upon the 1947 USA Patent sell for USD $500
- Also available from
- No affiliation and no direct knowledge of these being used for cello,
but for a mere ten bucks, it might be worth trying!
(I already have the WMutes version and am quite happy with that)
- Artino is the
“best cheap practice mute”
- Consider using Jonathan Humphries' affiliate link after watching that
video, if you wish to purchase one; the link adapts to your regional
locale served by Amazon, when outside USA
See an informative comparison of the Artino versus WMutes by
Richard Narroway so that you
may make an informed decision.
YUMI Travel Cello:
- Available from
André Theunis, Luthier,
- Design includes an acoustic sound chamber, albeit much smaller than a
- Approximately 2 months to be made
- Available in any size: 4/4, 7/8, etc.
- (No direct experience or relationship with this)
- Full range of a traditional acoustic cello, just not as full-bodied
- Omits the sound chamber, f-holes, etc. for far less acoustic projection
- Fits in airline overhead luggage compartment
- Unfortunately fingerboard not made from ebony, thus tone may differ
- Approximately USD $1450 in 2021
- (No direct experience or relationship with this)
Electric or “silent” cello:
Yamaha Silent cello series
- e.g., Yamaha Silent 50 cello
- Playable and functional without an amplifier or headphones
- Not zero decibels but quiet enough with sufficient acoustic response
“under the ear” (to the musician)
- Loud enough when performing for friends and family members– without an amp–
in an average room within a conventional home
- Genuine ebony fingerboard (ebony wood– not just “ebony” in color)
which resonates properly when strings are played
- People in adjacent room will hear every note of a student playing it
- Neighbors in adjacent apartment/flat with thin walls did NOT hear it
- Points of contact are consistent with a traditional acoustic cello,
but there are distinct tactile differences
- Rental fee rate is on par with an “intermediate” grade cello, or
approximately 3x the monthly rental rate of an entry-level student cello
- Happily learned/played on this model for initial two months (before
learning about WMutes) yet never used an amp with it!
- Several models available
- Several models, including with additional strings
- Amp required
- Ideal for studio musicians; e.g., performing looped & layered tracks
- With their strap/harness, old jokes of
cello in marching band
become possible reality
- (no direct experience or relationship with these)
Others reviewed by Cello Central
and Electric Cellos, what NOT to
Accessories & Environment
- Tuning apps
- Audio reference tracks
- Vera Mattlin Jiji’s book,
Cello Playing for Music Lovers,
includes a CD (or MP3s) with cello open string samples
- See section below on MIDI reference for generating your own
- Cello practice mute from WMutes
- Spring-loaded clamp with rubberized cork grips without marring bridge
and without slipping while playing
- independent review by Richard Narroway
- Crucial for those of us living/practicing within modern structures that
have poorly engineered walls and floors!
- Music stand:
- Get a classic model such as Manhasset, which are highly recommended by
orchestras and instructors due to stability
- “Don’t waste your time with a cheap folding/collapsible model; you’ll
–according to cellists and instructors everywhere
- For home/studio use, it
doesn’t have to be matte black any more
if the old stands may seem
dull and drab
- Even without the Soundbrenner wearable
vibrating gadget, their mobile app is free and functional by itself
- Functions well as a visual metronome by muting sound from within the
app (rather than for the entire device)
- Rock Stop, for keeping end pin from slipping on smooth floors
- An area rug or carpet fragment also works for practice
- Cello stand / holder:
- Best Cello Stand for Electric Cello or Acoustic Cello
- For the Hercules stand holding a Yamaha Silent 50, it helped to manually
depress the padded bar since the cello’s “scroll” is more like a modern
acoustic guitar than a traditional cello; otherwise, it works great!
Self-Guided Lesson Planning
Initial lessons without an instructor were going “by the book” which is
Vera Mattlin Jiji’s
Cello Playing for Music Lovers.
Her book is best when augmented with other books:
First is the true classic,
Complete Cello Technique,
The Classic Treatise on Cello Theory and Practice.
It was written by Diran Alexanian with preface by Pablo Casals, who
commented that “everything worthy of note will be found in it” as
paraphrased by the translator.
The 2003 Edition contains the original 1922 French and English translation
Next is another classic,
Principles and Forms of Movement.
This was written by Gerhard Mantel and translated by Barbara Haimberger
Thiem. It includes practical physics immediately of use for the musician
and describes physical exercises to build dexterity and strength that would
benefit any cello player.
An excellent point recurring through that book is, “a movement executed
with the least effort is easiest to control.” (Chapter IV, p.39)
That may be restated or augmented with: playing becomes easier when we stop
trying so hard, or don’t think so much, and just feel it.
“Mistakes are not failures but conditions of learning.” (p.62)
Other resources for adult learners:
See also other sections such as
Bow Hold & Bowing Technique.
Posture & Ergonomics
Ergonomics is not a luxury!
- Endpin of cello should be approximately equal distance from each foot
- Cello body will be rotated slightly along axis of endpin
- This rotation should favor your bowing arm to maximize its reach
- Observe that the bridge has an irregular curve that when the cello is
rotated, this curvature becomes symmetrical– easier seen than explained
- Cello body rests on sternum between solar-plexus and collar bone
- Note that this person
considers himself “taller”
- cello is often a
30-45 degree angle
from vertical (which may depend upon your chest measurement [girth])
- Some cellists recommend that the cello rests at top of niche of
solar-plexus, and others recommend higher on the sternum
- The sternum is longer than many people might have guessed without that
knowledge of anatomy, so spend time with different variations of
- On a wooden acoustic cello, where the fingerboard mates with the
body (resonance chamber), there is a protrusion which may feel
uncomfortable at first
- By third week, I found my posture and cello positioning along with
familiarity with the instrument such that this protrusion went barely
noticed by that time
- Wedge-shaped cushions:
- While some teachers recommend these, many more consider it ill-advised;
see Cello Technique: Principles and Forms of Movement
book by Gerhard Mantel,
because anything less than vertical leads to a cascade of undo tension
- Tush Cush recommended by Cello Coach
- Cello Seat Cushions
- others from The Foam Shop
in British Columbia, Canada
- Depending upon your preferred angle for the cello, you may want to
eliminate the C peg’s knob to keep from hitting your neck or interfering
with your posture:
Joining posture with motion, Amit Peled’s video is
the most comprehensive and self-contained explanation that I’ve found to
- Video begins with metaphor of “dinner posture”
- It’s ultimately about making the cello an extension of your body
- Amit Peled makes copious use of metaphor and analogy for making the
instruction easy to grasp
- Each is accompanied with a totem by way of an emoji
- Each emoji makes it easier to scan through the video again later when
seeking a refresher on any one particular point
- The Cello Emoji Video Guide - Amit Peled Cellist
- Positively worth watching the entire video, yet calling-out notable items
- Note that during a close-up of his feet with cello endpin, it isn’t
fully revealed but he uses a bent endpin; its proximity to his feet will
be very different than if it had been a conventional one
Hand shape like when eating an apple
Cobra (stands proud before striking) when going up
Picking (like plucking a guitar string) when going down
anticipating slides, “fingernails should face the bridge”
which also helps eliminate undue tension in thumb and wrist
more about slides (or jumps), where the slide ends one note shy
of the target before striking the target note– with noted exceptions
Vibrato when practicing/learning versus when performing
Bow hold with close-up
Exercises illustrating why flexible fingers of Right Hand
while bowing is so important
infinity (or figure 8) bow motion
playing a rapid sequence of notes, because playing it too slowly is a
- His book,
The First Hour
- 35 page companion to this video containing sheet music
- Preface contains several pages summarizing each icon (“emoji”) and
its meaning within scope of cello practice
- Appropriate after attaining intermediate to advanced levels;
e.g., a student no longer utilizing tape on the fingerboard and playing
without looking at fingerboard
Additional material on Right Hand bow hold and
Left Hand fingering with classic instruction from
notable cello great, Andre Navarra, are below in the following subsections.
- Consider that my barefoot standing height is 185 cm or 6'1" tall:
- My ideal seat or bench platform would be 51-55cm (or 20-21.5 inch)
- Previously tried a slope of 5° for a forward-leaning tilt towards the
cello, but this required engaging thigh muscles which contributes to
undo tension throughout the body
- While practicing at home, I use a chair with level seat from a dining
- It happens to be comparable to the “orchestra” chair in the music school
- Its seat may be perfect for me while eating and for lengthy dinner
- Consider that one chair may be your ideal height while practicing at
home while barefoot or wearing indoor footwear but too low when
performing and wearing different shoes
- Beware that many chairs have a reclined sloping seat/platform bad for
- Ensure a level, horizontally flat seat while playing
- Too little or too much padding can become uncomfortable for longer
- Alternatively, sit on a stack of two orchestra chairs
- The standard variety found on many orchestra stages and studios
accommodate easy stacking
- Since these are routinely stacked when not in use, these chairs should
be able to take this additional load
Sheet music stand: position, orientation and ergonomics:
- Remember to adjust music stand to within easy gaze:
- Position and orientation may change over time and with experience
- As a beginner, it may seem appropriate keeping music stand in line of
sight with also seeing fingers on Fingerboard; i.e., slightly to your
left by about 15 degrees from center
- However, that leads to bad ergonomics:
challenging neck position that contributes to poor posture and a
tendency of leaning/listing to avoid your neck or chin touching cello’s
- Intermediate to advanced players often place sheet music stand
to their right and about 30-45 degrees from center
- Their positioning accommodates slight head turn atop proper alignment of
neck and spine for good posture
- That positioning, in turn, benefits from playing without looking at
fingerboard and obviously takes time to attain
- Finally, positioning a music stand to your right also keeps it clear
from interfering with the cello’s acoustic projection while performing
to an audience or camera
- For the Manhasset stand, there is virtually no extension in height, even
for many taller cellists
- Sheet music on the stand should be just beyond arm’s reach while playing
- The little hook at tip of the bow accommodates catching an individual page
which comes in handy for turning/sliding pages of sheet music just out of
- A good music stand should accommodate three sheets of music side-by-side,
even if only two side-by-side would lay without extending beyond the edge
- This makes reading the music much easier while maintaining good posture
Eyeglasses / corrective lenses, if applicable:
- Consider having a dedicated set of eyeglasses just for sheet music while playing
- The goal is to minimize head motion while allowing full range of eye motion
- There should be zero distortion anywhere in the lenses
- Avoid “progressive” lenses
- Frames should be taller than minimal “reading” glasses
- Else suffer awkward neck angle (because of tuning pegs) which constrains
- Focal length should be 100-110cm (or 40-48 inches)
- If you can otherwise see well enough to not wear glasses full-time,
consider frames proportioned to be more rectangular:
- Wide enough to cover peripheral vision for three sheets of music on the
stand and possibly sheets of your adjacent band-mate’s
- Short enough to look above them such as to observe the conductor, Master
of Ceremony, etc. and to look under them for seeing Left Hand on
- Opt for UV filter which is transparent or “blue blocker” coating which
gives a slight amber tint
- This can help reduce eyestrain when reading from a computer screen or
- Also reduces eyestrain caused by common indoor lighting
- However, these treatments are inappropriate to use as sunglasses!
If doubtful whether eyeglasses may assist:
- Try non-prescription eyeglasses from neighborhood drugstore/pharmacy:
- Prices were low– around that of two coffees with two croissants
- In my case, the lowest non-prescription magnification (125%) significantly
improved my performance while reading both familiar and unfamiliar sheet
- I didn’t realize that I was straining while simultaneously reading and
- This was because (spoilers) reading individual notes, saying the note
and then playing the note worked easily enough
- My first instructor and I both went through this at approximately our 8th
lesson together; otherwise, it may have been missed and led to undue
- Remember to take lots of breaks when first using corrective lenses:
- e.g., pause after the equivalent of a sheet or two of music, even if
playing the same four lines repeated 3-4 times
Bow Hold & Bowing Technique
- Be relaxed– eliminate all tension throughout your body!
- Let gravity apply the pressure (weight of your arm)
- The motion of the arm begins in the lower back
- The arm pulls the fingers
- Yet video may inadvertently appear to imply fingers leading the motion,
- Fingers leading the action should rarely be the case (except for very
- Andre Navarra - My Cello Technique Part 1 (New English subtitles): The Bow Technique of Navarra
- Andre Navarra (1911-1988), great French cellist
- Video begins with posture
- Importance of the Bow
- Bow hold t=2m53s
“the dead hand”
The grip is different for each of us; some have fingers closer
together, while others may have fingers 1 and 4 wider with 2 and 3
- Regardless, your correct grip requires that it be without any tension
Finger 4 (pinkie) goes above eyelet of the frog with first joint
wrapping around the baguette (stick)
Finger 1 (index finger) second joint wraps around the baguette
“This gives the hand a tilt, with the wrist direction towards
Finger 2 “The middle finger, in order to control the bow,
rests between the metal part and the hair.”
- That is, Finger 2 on the metal thingy attached to the frog controls
roll of the bow along axis of baguette for playing with:
- all hair (square) to the string
- little hair (edge) to the string
- RECAP at t=4m45s
Thumb’s “right side” [edge that touches Finger 1 with a gentle
clasp] touches where frog meets baguette, as this gives the hand its
natural tilt while holding the bow
- REPEAT at t=6m5s
- Bowing t=7m30s
- “The tone depends on the weight of the shoulder on the bow”
- “each individual must have their own sound, just as each singer has
their own voice”
- Start with elbow close to body when frog is near the string;
- then open the arm while naturally raising the elbow.
“This allows you to effortlessly produce the same sound at the frog and
the tip– or at the tip and the frog.”
- But bending the fingers– all fingers– including thumb
in order to find the grip of the bow on the string.
Demonstrates without the bow: motion is sweeping of hand,
like pushing something away, opening elbow and arm as you go.
“That way, the Weight of shoulder always reaches the bow.”
clarification on finger motion
“The weight of the shoulder transfers to the pinkie finger in
that direction, that is from top to bottom.”
Bow changes at the frog, “what we call a bow return.”
“not anticipating the movement”
(otherwise that would potentially introduce a slight pause!)
“And when I go back,” motion begins with the arm (not fingers)
importance of the pinkie
(because fingers 1 & 2 take care of themselves, automatically)
“Pull your fingers with your arm.”
when practicing, “Don’t look at your hand but at the tip of the
bow. If the movement is good, the bow shouldn’t move (wiggle). It
“when you have a bow change, always watch the tip of the bow.”
Bow Changes At The Tip
“Don’t concern yourself with the sound quality (yet). Work on the
“Find in the
a G minor étude.”
“… use it as a foundation…”
- Use the arm, not the fingers or wrist
- First, use whole bow
- Then, from the (bow) tip to the middle but not beyond
- Then, from frog to middle; start with the wrist high
- Then, practicing the ends of the bow
- Andre Navarra - My Cello Technique Part 2 (new English subtitles): Bow Technique & the Left Hand
- “You don’t play with your [right hand] fingers. You play with your arm.
But the fingers need to be flexible enough so as to be pulled by the arm.”
“Here’s what you do without moving your arm or write.”
[playing the same
G minor étude
from Jean Louis Duport
as from end of Part 1]
“Of course, these exercises need to be practiced daily.”
“… 10 or 15 minutes, but every day.”
“Once you’ve mastered your bow stroke, practice faster until you
With example of playing the etude fast.
begins The Left Hand.
- German cellist, Alban Gerhardt, about how to use the bowarm
- Entire video is filled with excellent insights, tips and exercises
- Close-up of his bow hold at
- Alban also has on Patreon for his subscribers:
- As my second instructor prompted, what holds the weight of the bow?
- The string holds the entire weight of the bow
- The Right Arm (not hand!) is merely for balance and steering the bow
- For “bow hold”, the concept of holding incorrectly implies using force:
- Instead, fiction of Right Hand fingertip alone is sufficient to
“hold” the bow
- Any less friction from fingertips should be cause for the bow falling to
the ground under the force of gravity
- When changing bow direction:
- A scratchy sound comes from the bow traveling too quickly
- Andre Navarra - My Cello Technique Part 2 (new English subtitles): Bow Technique & the Left Hand
- t=8m25s begins
The Left Hand
“The position of the left hand [fingers to thumb orientation] is
exactly the same [as that of the right hand bow hold].”
Thumb gets placed between Finger 2 and Finger 3
Tip of thumb touches center of neck
Wrist-to-forearm should be a straight line; use side of bow’s
baguette (stick) to confirm
When changing strings, elbow moves slightly– with no other
“The thumb doesn’t move. It always stays in the same place.”
- t=13m observation: with articulation for Finger 3, Finger 2 releases
thumb always stays in the middle
“always slide with the finger that’s about to play.”
Fourth Position to Fifth Position
Position of the Thumb (before discussing a shift towards the thumb)
preparing thumb for leading the shift/slide
(Again, lead with the finger that’s about to play.)
While some Left Hand positions may be comfortable enough for early pieces
when learning, those same positions become limiting for intermediate and
advanced pieces. This single issue tends to limit many self-taught
musicians and applies to several instruments including guitar.
At various stages of learning, continue experimenting with different
positions of the Left Hand. Be mindful that some hand positions accommodate
extensions and slides (such as the one described next), while other
positions optimize playing across strings within the same position
(e.g., a phrase entirely within First Position).
The cello is a very ergonomic instrument but takes experience to
recognize it as such.
For understanding proper angle of fingers as each meets the Fingerboard, try
- Place your Left Hand palm-down on a flat surface such as a table:
- Set the seat of your palm and fingertips to be the only points of
contact with the flat surface
- Curl finger just enough so that each fingertip is aligned as if along
a string for four notes in First Position
- Spread your fingers as if reaching to spread across five notes, only if
you can do so easily and without pain
- But a sixth note becomes problematic for all but those with very long
- Next, roll your Left Hand towards its thumb:
- Base of Thumb now contacts the flat surface– rather than heal of palm
- Side/edge of each fingertip touches the flat surface
- Now, spread fingers as if reaching further along that imaginary string
- You should find greater range to span more notes!
- Translating this to the Fingerboard:
- n.b., while the follow elbow position contradicts instructions such as
of Andre Navarra, begin here for tactile orientation of fingers on the
string before lower to the regular arm position– as an exercise
- Elbow will likely be aligned with both shoulders
- Someone should be able to hold a meter/yard-stick and have it nearly
touch your elbow and both shoulders
- Wrist-bones should likewise be aligned approximately with shoulder
- If there’s any perceivable difference within either of these alignments,
you will eventually experience pain and possibly tendinitis or worse
(e.g., carpal-tunnel syndrome)
- Changing from string to string then becomes a “simple” matter of raising
or lowering the elbow from the shoulder
- As bonus, it becomes easier to play notes by applying minimal pressure
- This is due to shape of the bone at fingertip at this new point of contact
- That in turn relieves the tendency for new students gripping the
Fingerboard tightly– both thumbs should always be relaxed!
- Finally, it’s easier to let fingers “hang” from the Fingerboard when
playing any note from First Position to Fourth and beyond
- The only pressure on strings should be from weight of the arm– gravity,
That description corresponds to the diagram on
Cello Technique: Principles and Forms of Movement, p88 of
Barbara Haimberger Thiem’s translation.
A decent instructor will correct each of these aspects– all in good time:
Starting with a slightly incorrect Fingering positions may be appropriate in
the beginning. Playing out of tune due to slightly misplaced finger
positioning may be appropriate in the beginning.
After adjusting to proper Finger Positioning, returning to earlier exercises
for a while again may be appropriate.
These are all things where a good instructor will guide you as you progress,
and as you progress, your Left Hand frame and finger motion will change.
But remember: what may be easy/comfortable in the beginning could become
limiting when playing more advanced pieces.
From Pablo Ferrández:
From the late cello great, Andre Navarra:
From Sarah Joy
Playing Higher vs Lower
Note that “up” with respect to notes or key means “closer to the bridge” and
is a reference to pitch.
My first instructor suggested this memory device:
Rather than looking at the instrument as being nearly vertical, perceive it
as if laying flat on its back (but never lay it on its back, even if
only briefly– ever).
Then, top of the bridge becomes its highest elevation.
Thus, “up” and “down” seem reasonably applicable.
I never paused to ponder up/down again after that advice!
There’s a problem for a beginner musician with an untrained ear for that
particular instrument. How would you know if the instrument is in tune?
While you might find it by harmonics, is it possible to accidentally tune it
to the wrong key?
This can be done with another instrument of the same kind.
Without a second cello available, searching the internet for recordings of
open strings became problematic. Each sample was too short for use as a
reference by this beginner student. One day, a brief note should be enough
but not yet.
There are generic devices for tuning any instrument, but again: what octave?
There are apps for tablets and other software available dedicated to the
cello, yet there’s a more musical way to go about this. This is less about
proper calibration of the instrument from an engineering perspective than
also training the ear of the student.
Developing the ear is more important than perfect calibration, like the
parable about teaching someone to fish rather than feeding them a single
Search the Internet for name of instrument plus “drone” and the desired
Cello Drones Circle of Fifths –
See also the section,
Frequencies & MIDI Reference.
When using a tuner or app with tuner function (e.g.,
tuning or playing “higher” is with respect to acoustics, not physical
direction. Therefore, higher means “closer to the bridge” along the
fingerboard when playing a note, and it means “tighten the string” when
Likewise, “up” with respect to notes or key also means “closer to the
bridge” in position.
(While on the subject of up and down: “up” bow vs “down” bow can be
remembered by holding the bow across the strings as usual and then rotating
your wrist such that the bow’s tip points to the ceiling. From that
orientation, “up” and “down” bowing would match the physical directions.
That might be easier than remembering pushing the pointy end means up and
pulling the frog means down.)
When tuning with traditional wood pegs, turn each peg slightly. See
How to tune a cello with the pegs
for Nan’s concise instructions.
With wood pegs and most geared pegs, forget about rules when using a
screwdriver or light-bulb. (It’s more like threads on bicycle pedals which
are threaded relative to which side is being tightened.) Therefore, think
in terms of rotating the shaft to which each string is attached:
Rotate as if rolling away from the bridge when tightening.
Another tip when tuning if you have fine-tuners on the tailpiece below the
bridge, occasionally loosen the fine-tuners almost completely and then
tighten the pegs more. This resets capacity for fine-tuners to do their job
as strings stretch over time. If they’ve been tightened and tightened,
eventually there will be no more tightening available.
For geared pegs, expect a 4:1 (or 8:1) exchange ratio: four turns of the
knob is required for one whole rotation of the shaft to which the string is
attached. When geared pegs are used, the instrument likely omits
Finally, when strings break it’s most likely to occur while tightening a
tuning peg or immediately afterwards. Therefore, hold the cello away from
your head while tightening a peg and plucking the first note. Ideally, hold
the cello at arm’s length (rather than merely turned away).
Frequencies & MIDI Reference
The driving question for “day one” with a rented cello was how to acquire
an adequate reference of each note, suitable for tuning a cello by someone
completely new to playing the instrument. (Vera Mattlin Jiji’s book had not
yet been delivered, and she addresses this situation.)
This was only an issue because of my own ignorance with music theory and naming
conventions. This could have been simply resolved by searching an audio or
video service for “cello” plus “drone” and the desired note.
e.g., Cello Drones Circle of Fifths – playlist
- Wikipedia entry for Cello
- Linked to MIDI file with ten seconds of: C G D A D G C
- Orchestral strings are usually tuned for Twelve Tone Equal Temperament
(also known as 12-TET or just Equal Temperament, as opposed to tuning
by harmonics alone
with Perfect Fifths due to the “Pythagorean Comma”)
- From high to low, cello strings are A3, D3, G2 and C2:
- Left to right when holding cello in playing position and from player’s
- Consider that a Piano’s Middle C is C4 and is 261.63 Hz
- On a piano, octave numbers count up from lowest notes (left-most keys
from player’s perspective) starting with A0, B0 and then C1 immediately
follows because octaves are from C to C
- Concert pitch tuning forks are A4 at 440.00 Hz (MIDI note 69)
and on a piano, five ivory keys higher than– to the right of– Middle C
- C2 is two octaves below middle C and 65.40639 Hz (MIDI note 36)
- G2 is 97.99886 or 98.00 Hz (MIDI note 43)
- D3 is 146.8324 Hz (MIDI note 50)
- A3 is 220.0 Hz, which is one octave below A4, 440Hz (MIDI note 57)
and is two piano ivory keys lower than– to the left of– Middle C
- Edited MIDI file via
- Generated four .midi files, each with 30 seconds of open string:
A D G C
- Generated four .WAV files from those MIDI files:
A D G C
- Played MIDI file via TiMidity++
MIDI note numbers and center frequencies
Caveats When Applying Tape To Fingerboard
Each piece of tape applied to the fingerboard slightly alters acoustics of
Maximum width for tape to use is 1/8th inch (0.5mm).
Ensure that the tape is acid free which may be stated as
pH neutral (or pH balanced) on the label.
The wider the tape, the more it may disturb the acoustics. (Otherwise
when applying tape, find each note, apply tape, and confirm
that one note before continuing to find the next note and definitely
before applying the second piece of tape. Otherwise, each subsequent
note may be slightly off key, especially with student grade cellos that
might have less than true ebony wood fingerboard. Re-confirm tuning after
applying all tape as a precaution.)
When applying tape, play the D string because it’s easier to read for some
low-end tuners bundled with student cellos.
Beware of tape other than the ChartPak brand specifically. Alternatives
may have different adhesives that are difficult to remove. ProTape is
another good brand but may need to be cut down to 1/8th inch width.
Regardless of which tape you use, change it seasonally because adhesives
break-down over time and with use. As a student, we tend to apply more
pressure than necessary, which compounds this issue.
Locating First Position
First, some background.
The sequence of notes along each string begin with the note for which the
string is named, of course. After open strings and starting from the Half
Position above First position, each note follows the progression of notes
A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
(Remember that an octave is nominally written with same note letter at
beginning and end. Also, G♯ is identical to A♭, yet E♯ is identical to F,
which is consistent with the omitted ebony keys on a piano keyboard.
Whether to use G♯ versus A♭ should make sense within context of the Circle
When facing the fingerboard from perspective of the audience:
C G D A
C♯ G♯ D♯ A♯
D A E B First Position finger 1
E♭ B♭ F C
E B F♯ C♯
F C G D Third Position finger 1
F♯ C♯ G♯ D♯ Fourth Position finger 1
G D A E
A♭ E♭ B♭ F
A E B F♯
B♭ F C G
B F♯ C♯ G♯
C G D A Higher octave than open string
C♯ G♯ D♯ A♯
D A E B
E♭ B♭ F C
E B F♯ C♯
Distance from the nut to the first note on each string (C♯ G♯ D♯ A♯,
respectively) decreases for the next note (D A E B). This span to reach
each subsequent note continues to decrease along the Fingerboard until the
Bridge. For most players, this tapering within each clustering of 4 or 5
notes should be imperceptible, but changing from First Position to Fourth
Position requires a noticeable adjustment.
For initially locating First Position without tape or other markings:
On a full size (4/4) cello, my hand’s width is sufficient to span from edge
of the nut to approximately where my fingertip would go for First Position.
Your hand is likely a different width, so you’ll need to discover an
equivalent for yourself while using a tuner or after tape has already been
That’s a useful exercise for trying different cellos even when you might
otherwise rely upon tape being on the Fingerboard.
Preliminary: Physical Warm-Up & Stretching Afterwards
- Day usually begins with Hatha Yoga
for 30-60 minutes
- Hold each pose for long, slow breath count of 20-60 for most positions
- Certain postures such as “plow” (Halasana) held for 100 slow breaths minimum
- Alternating days for some postures
- Generally only one day per week omits Hatha Yoga
- Always end with quiet meditation
- Rehab For Better Life: 5 must-do stretching exercises for cellist
- 30 seconds each for warm-up
- 40-60 seconds each for stretching afterwards
- Instead of both arms on the door frame, try alternating; this was
suggested by my physical therapist, but I also had prior shoulder
- One adjustment to these instructions from my physical therapist was to
the Stretching for Thumb Cramp: opposite hand’s fingertips should
apply pressure equally along entire length of Thumb, so tips of
Fingers 3 4 contact palm since Thumb starts at center-line of wrist
Isometric and Isotonic Exercise
Physical exercises pertaining to musicians come in two varieties: isometric
and isotonic which mean “equal strength” and “equal tension” respectively.
One without the other leads to an imbalance.
Exercises in the book, Cello Technique, describe several.
Finger push-ups: with fingertips on a flat surface, explore different finger
motions such that all fingers move fairly equally.
Fist-to-palm rotations: one hand held as a fist presses into the palm of the
other, and rotate the fist back and forth. There should be a fair amount of
friction felt at the contact area, but also feel the muscles in the fist
hand around that arm’s elbow.
Roughly 2/3 energy should be used. That’s not enough to become exhausted
but enough to engage appropriate muscles.
Inquire with your personal physical trainer, physical therapist (physio) or
similar professional to accommodate your individual needs before embarking
on any course of physical exercise.
First Lessons: Self-Learning
This should obviously be seen as an incomplete method, so see also:
First Lessons: Self-Guided and
First Lessons: with instructor 1:1 below.
Reading Notes From Sheet Music
See also Vera Mattlin Jiji’s book, as noted below.
Hand Positions: Left & Right
See also Finger Positioning and
Bow Hold & Bowing Technique above.
From Hans Zentgraf
From Virtual Sheet Music
Taking a break from practice for absolute beginners and delving into a bit of
history maintained the overall cello theme without adding fatigue.
A recommended video somewhere along the way included the making of a
violin. It might also be suitable as “ASMR” for strings-geeks,
making of a violin by Mirecourt, Dominique Nicosia,
Lots of recommendations for videos and other products seem to conflate
members within the family of stringed instruments, so be vigilant of that.
A quick search for making of a cello brought a few short clips
plus a lengthy presentation from Museum of Science, Boston.
Solving the Stradivarius Secret - William F. “Jack” Fry and Rose Mary
Harbison covers physics of
acoustics including materials, position of the bass bar, position of the
peg, strategic wood scraping of inside the instrument for fine adjustments,
the “tongue” and why there are two pieces of wood glued together to form
One of the various history or “making of” videos also mentioned that the
glue used is weak enough that the instrument should come apart rather than
crack under certain conditions. That’s a feature, not a bug.
See also Cello Physics section below.
Circle of Fifths
The cello is based upon half tone intervals and fifths.
(A half tone may also be called a “half step” or “semitone” and varies by
nation and culture.)
From Music Matters
- Music Theory - Understanding The Circle of Fifths
- 3 circles forming a clock face
because there are 12 keys: A-G plus sharps & flats
(except that C doubles as B-flat)
- Major scales
- Minor scales
- sharps and flats
- However, it’s not a perfect circle as explained and corrected via the
which works like a familiar Leap Day or Leap Year in
From Gracie Terzian
From Brian Kelly
- 8 Facts About the Circle of Fifths that you May Not Already Know
- e.g., E Minor is “sadder” emotionally toned version of G Major
and vice-versa, “happier”
- Useful for writing songs:
the 6 diatonic chords for each key are grouped together;
i.e., Visually, the diatonic chords appear as a geometric sector, where
the diatomic chords for C forms a keystone shape at top of the circle;
e.g., F C G D-minor A-minor E-minor
- Sympathetic out-of-key chords may be found within adjacent,
non-overlapping sector of Minor (counterclockwise),
such that C Major’s would be C Minor, A Major’s would be A Minor, etc.
First Lessons: Self-Guided
This began by following guidance from the book,
Cello Playing for Music Lovers,
by Vera Mattlin Jiji, PhD. (Other books were discovered later.)
For me, her directions were complemented by instruction from videos, blogs
and podcasts from current noteworthy cello soloists such as
Johannes Moser and
Alban Gerhardt, who has most of
his full-length content on Patreon.
The late great cellist, André Navarra, is also represented in following
Earliest videos that laid the crucial foundation were mostly from
As a taller person (over 6ft/185cm), guidance from Johannes with added
context from Alban– despite describing himself as not tall– were most
suitable for my circumstances. (Interesting
point of view of a player
with long fingers and broad reach; try playback speed of 0.25 to appreciate
Ultimately, all of that self-learning and discovery was further corrected
once working with an in-person instructor.
It’s too easy for self-learners to dwell on insignificant details for our
stage of practice while also being completely blind to more serious flaws
that could be easily corrected. A good teacher helps with finding that
balance with you.
The major section below on First Lessons
addresses those points.
The first book used here:
- Cello Playing for Music Lovers
- Ordered book via Amazon Canada, shipped from USA
- Book doesn’t seem to be available from anywhere else than Amazon
- Last page facing the back cover provides instructions for obtaining MP3
versions of audio tracks, if the CD isn’t viable for you
- Requires your order ID number
- Used versions may be found on Reverb.com, but then you won’t be able to
request MP3 versions of tracks from the included CD
As noted in a subsection just below:
The simple act of bowing open strings carries multiple nuances to consider
at the beginning, middle and end of each stroke, and this number is larger
than our minds can possibly consider simultaneously.
While professional soloists describe their first hour for warm-ups that
might also begin with bowing open strings while reading the daily newspaper,
the student however requires devoting full attention to this particular
Early lessons when beginning or returning after a hiatus should have bowing
of open strings as the sole daily practice for at least a couple of weeks.
Augmenting the physical practice with reading about music theory proved
fruitful later when the instructor introduced certain material.
Using this book strictly for these exercises was worth the price in my
- Other instruction for absolute beginners uses pizzicato
- i.e., plucking a string instead of bowing it
- Others begin with immersion in fundamentals of music
- Runs deeper than any particular instrument
- Begin with singing or humming notes
- Occurs before ever touching an instrument
- In hindsight, a solid companion and traditional first book:
As mentioned earlier, recording video of yourself playing helps you observe
details too numerous to track while playing as a new learner.
(Eventually, a full length mirror may suffice. Small steps…)
- Place webcam/camera on a steady tripod
- Tripod set to a height of approximately 3ft/1m
- Position tripod to be square with (perpendicular to) cello
- Cello should be located within direct center of camera frame
- Webcams and cameras on mobile phones have the least distortion in center
of the frame
- Maybe mount that camera inside a ring-light:
- e.g., Sunpak’s 12” has standard camera threading and sturdy stand for
approximately USD $50 in 2022
- As with all models under USD $300, it will be very fragile due to a
plastic frame of the light itself (oddly, everything else is metal:
stand, camera-mount threads, camera-mount ball joint, etc.)
- Use natural lighting from window to illuminate cello & player
- e.g., north-facing window will yield soft light throughout the day
- Alternatively, use a “ring light” of sufficient diameter that the
webcam/camera lens fits inside the circle, as this eliminates nearly
all problematic shadows from the foreground
- Distance of tripod should be enough to see bow hold at extreme extent of
bowing on each string.
- This helps observing the bow’s tip through each stroke
- Students especially have the least control over their bow’s tip
Avoid plugging a webcam into a hub.
For attaining best audio/video quality:
- Use ports that attach directly to the computer’s main-board
- If using a laptop, any port on the chassis should suffice
- If using a tower or mini-tower, convenience ports on the front are possibly via
an internal hub; therefore, use ports at rear of the machine instead
- When the case is open, if you can follow the cable from each port to the
main-board, this point doesn’t apply to you
- However, if there are several ports encapsulated within a little box
with a single cable to the main-board, that almost certainly a hub and
should be avoided for purposes here!
- A USB-C connected “dongle” with ports is the allowed exception, as
that’s equivalent to an expansion card plugged directly into the main-board
OBS Studio is commonly used software for
capturing high quality video or for streaming.
It’s free (Libre), open source software of high quality, and it’s available
for Linux, Mac and Windows. (Apparently no direct BSD support at this time,
but Linux emulation might work; sorry, friends.)
- File -> Settings
- Output tab: Recording -> Recording Path = /data/recording
- Consider storing to a dedicated physical device other than the one
containing the operating system
- Sources: Video Capture Device (V4L2)
- You should then see webcam image within Preview panel
- Adjust framing within Preview pane
- Move slider (located between Preview and Program panels) until you see
same image in both Preview and Program panels
- Only need to do this once, ever per camera
- Defaults for everything else provide acceptable results for self-learning
- For uploading or streaming, you may want to change resolution of the video
Using settings above, OBS Studio produces
- MKV Pros and Cons
- Video codec is the commonly used H.264 - MPEG4 AVC (part 10)
- Audio codec is MPEG AAC audio (mp4a), stereo
- resulting resolution is 1280x720, which qualifies as “HD”
(rather than “Full HD”)
- Depending upon your camera, it may be 30 or 60 frames per second
- File metadata may be edited via MKVToolNix
When you can perform the exercises with sufficient quality and grace,
there’s a simple test to confirm that you are ready to move on to the next
Can you perform while maintaining a natural smile?
When the answer is yes, you’ve habituated to the actions such that those
motions are now part of your subconscious.
Bowing Open Strings
Based upon Vera Mattlin Jiji’s book with further assistance from
Andre Navarra - My Cello Technique
(English subtitles by Cello Australia), focus is on:
- Slow, consistent motion
- Staying within center of area between bridge and end of finger board
- This requires a mirror, camera or another person’s point of view to get
right at first
- Even with a mirror, beware of parallax when viewed from playing position
- Working towards consistent sound across full length of bow
- Recording video of practice
- Multiple video recordings per practice session
- Each clip focuses upon a different technique: bow hold, music from book,
sheet music, etc.
- Wipe strings between each recording for visual of where bow/rosin touched
Beware of visual anomalies due to wide angle of most webcams and their loss
of depth-of-field, so ensure that you’re actually measuring what you think
Feedback from watching videos of self:
- You may think that you’re going slow, but cut that in half, and half it again!
- By day three, speed was sufficiently slow to accomplish consistent motion
- Many months into practice, this remains the first stage of warm-up
involving the actual cello & bow (which follows
exercises recommended by physical therapists)
- Open bowing also warms-up the cello and is an important beginning of
practice each day
- Each day indicates visible improvement in steadiness of consistent bowing:
- However, there’s still some unintended wiggle and unintended vibrato
- Watch the bow’s tip, not just where the bow hair meets the string,
because physically you have the least control over the tip
- The tip exaggerates any inaccuracies of bowing or string changes
- (Update: many months in, the wiggle diminished but slight unintended
- Wrists aren’t as flexible yet as would be preferred:
- Therefore, finger 4 (pinkie) is straight but ideally would be curved
- However, it’s not quite “tea time with the Queen” pinkie
as described by Johannes Moser in his video on
- Work for improving thumb:
- Thumb occasionally reverses (curves outward / hitchhiker thumb)
- Thumb occasionally slips off the frog
- Finger 4 or Pinkie of Right Hand:
- Once this finger straightens, playing notes become disrupted when
- Therefore, returning pinkie to its original bow hold position
tends to only occur during rests or between sheets of music
- When the bow bounces on strings without the intention of that outcome, try
one of these:
- Ultimately, it’s due to lack of dexterity– which will come with practice!
- Apply more weight from arm through wrist through hand to Index Finger
where pressure through that finger increases proportionally to playing
closer towards the bow’s tip
- Maybe tilt the bow, so instead of hairs flat against the string, only
the edge of the hairs engage the string, as this requires more dexterity
- Draw the bow faster across the string
- Become aware of the quality of your bow hold:
- Not too loose, not too tight– but just right
- Should be almost loose enough that the bow falls to the ground from
gravity alone, which is also why students begin with a cheap fiberglass bow
- Andre Navarra’s technique didn’t work for me (yet)
- Tone was far to screechy
- (Spoilers: that “screechy” sound will make sense soon enough)
- Next, trying Jonathan Humphries’ bow hold
- Finger 3 on eyelet of frog
- Without any fingers below bottom of frog / hair line
- Pinkie is curved and hangs slightly over baguette (stick), close to the nut
- Pinkie adds stability
- Keep experimenting
- This became a recurring topic with my first instructor later
- (Update: many months in, bow hold remains a work-in-progress)
Further exercises and considerations from
–and my first instructor–
- Before bowing with entire bow, start with roughly one third closest to
the frog, and check your bow hold between each up bow and each down bow
when beginning this exercise
- Similarly for string crossings:
- Use roughly one quarter of the bow per string
- Focus on smooth transitions with even duration per string
- Add metronome:
- 60 BPM is a good beginner’s target, but start slower
- Begin using metronome while performing basic scales
- see Accessories & Environment above
for apps used
- (Update: in my practice, use of metronome was inadvertently lowest
priority and became a significant issue during year two)
Playing From Simplified Sheet Music
Various simplified versions of J.S. Bach’s Suite 1 Prelude may be found by
searching the Internet.
This is the one that I have been using:
- Sheet music extracted from
How To Read Sheet Music On Cello Part 3
by Jonathan Humphries
- Starting at time 3m13s
- With bowing– not plucking
- A direct link to this sheet music is omitted:
- Respect copyright of a composer (Bach) as well as the arranger
- In this case, the arranger is presumed to be Jonathan
- Donate or send some
Patreon-love his way,
and he’ll send a copy of this or comparable sheet music
First Lessons: with instructor 1:1
Initial sessions should be in-person because video chat becomes cumbersome
for crucial early instruction.
There are lots of little things that a good instructor will observe and be
able to make recommendations. There are questions that the student is
unlikely to know enough to ask. There are so many reasons for having an
It’s a privilege being taught by someone with forty years of cello
experience and an active member of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra,
Vancouver Cello Quartet, an accomplished soloist and chamber musician.
I’m especially grateful as an adult new to the instrument.
(Spoilers: Without his guidance, it’s highly unlikely that I would have
begun sightreading after a mere three months since first touching a cello or
any other string instrument.)
A good instructor is one who knows those squeaks and choppiness for what
they actually are. Many students have been overly apologetic for believing
their early playing to be torturous to their instructor. The “good”
instructors have the patience to help you through this phase at your pace.
Moving at your own pace is key:
Much of learning comes through discovery.
Therefore, a good instructor facilitates discovering things like overtones
for yourself– all in good time.
One footnote to “moving at your own pace” is that good instructors nudge
their students along to ensure progress, which keeps you from fixating on
insignificant details or on aspects that naturally develop with practice,
perseverance and dexterity in due course.
Video conferencing with an instructor
Initial instruction would be best with a teacher in the same room, but
circumstances may prohibit that.
Next best thing is using video conferencing app/software over the Internet.
However, video chat services are typically optimized for human voice and may
need to be configured to prevent a musical instrument from being considered
background “noise” to be filtered-out.
Tips to improve the quality of calls between instructor and student:
- Use an external microphone rather than a built-in one
- But if using built-ins, keep device at least 18cm or 1ft away from cello
to keep the device from clipping the audio
- Disable automatic adjust for mic/input volume
- Disable suppression of background noise
- Disable suppression of intermittent noise
- Disable all visual effects such as background blur or background
- Ensure lots of light on the subject
- Soft, even “fill” light works better than harsh spotlights that may have
a specular hotspot
- Webcam “ring” lights are relatively cheap and widely available;
e.g, London Drugs in Canada
- Consider an external webcam on a tripod
- Then, you can easily move the point-of-view for the other person
- Allows focusing on finger positions, bowing, posture, etc.
- Avoid connecting any external camera or mic through a hub
- Some USB Hubs can slow the data transfer thereby reducing quality
- Ensure USB 3.0 or higher devices
- Use wired Ethernet (rather than Wireless) when possible
- Modern WiFi works best when device is within line-of-sight of
base-station (router) antenna
but not without controversy regarding potential impact to your health
- Use separate microphones for instrument versus voice
- Because an acoustic cello range is within range of human voice, a quality
voice-over mic should be suitable
- To start, use a condenser mic for the cello
- A classic
dedicated for the cello gets the
sound quality for strings but is an investment:
mic plus pre-amp with phantom power
- If considering a separate instrument mic from one for your voice, such a
setup would require an audio mixer, either hardware or in software
- Use headphones rather than built-in speakers
- If you have a choice, use an Internet Service Provider offering dedicated
- Such as DSL/ADSL/VDSL from a company that historically offered wire-line
(POTS) telephone service
- Avoid Internet service from a traditional cable TV provider which is
typically bursty which leads to inconsistent lag/latency
- Dedicated bandwidth beats bursting for consistent, sustained throughput
required for a video conference or streaming
Search the Internet for your particular app/software for more current
- jitsi for music lesson
- Jitsi is free, open source, Libre video conferencing
- The brand name derives from the Bulgarian “жици”, or “wires”
- Apps for Android, iOS; or use a regular web browser
- No account needed
- Commercial features available from 8x8
- Optionally host your own server for better privacy
- Sit on edge of chair
- Sit square to the chair
- Both sit-bones resting evenly on the chair’s platform
- Both feet flat on the floor
- Keep back close to vertical yet leaning slightly towards cello
- This lean will meet the weight of the cello.
- (For contrast: it’s not quite as aggressive of a posture as some concert
piano players– those who appear to be attacking the piano keyboard)
- End pin should be positioned directly in front of you
- Approximately equal distance
- (Others advise a slight angle off-center of 5-15 degrees, but that
requires further compensation, reaching, adjustments, etc.)
- Relax shoulders
- Now, relax your shoulders even more
- Before thinking about the bow hold, relax your shoulders!
- Start with “dead hand” as indicated by Andre Navarra’s instructions
- Middle finger touches edge of metal thingy
- straddling metal thingy and bow hair but not necessarily touching hairs
- Index finger’s second bone is in contact with baguette (stick)
- Pressure translated from arm weight through this finger increases
gradually as you play closer to the bow’s tip
- Imagine a slight rolling action of the Index Finger as the bow arm
- It’s so slight as to be imperceptible
- This rolling action facilitates translating the arm’s weight as
increasing pressure on the bow’s baguette as you play from frog to tip
- Pinkie may initially start close to being straight
- Pinkie will eventually be able to curve in due course of practice,
- Overall angle of fingers close to 45
- For someone new to cello, this angle is what would be necessary when tip
of bow is on a string and arm is extended.
- However, even when frog is close to the string, fingers should retain
this same angle!
- Orientation of bow hairs should be as if resting on the floor
- parallel to the floor
- only edge of bow hairs in contact with strings
- this way, when you apply pressure (transferred from weight of the arm)
more hairs come into contact with the string
- relax the shoulder
When you see someone like Johannes Moser’s video on bow hold, bow arm and
related exercises, understand that those are advanced lessons– not
necessarily suitable for an adult new to cello.
The handle “wiggle” observed of many accomplished cellists will come in
due time. Expect that this may take years to develop. Account for longer
period of time for adults new to cello who might not be as flexible as a
child that is still growing and body still changing.
Understand that all this will become automatic through “muscle memory” and
is how the cello can be an ergonomic device when used correctly.
Right Hand: Bowing Technique
- Relax shoulders
- Practice with a full length mirror to check yourself as you go
- Entire arm moves as a single smooth motion:
- wrist, elbow, rotation at shoulder
- but shoulders always remain relaxed
- Keep angle of bow hairs parallel to the floor
- but this doesn’t apply to angle of the bow to any string!
- Relax shoulders
Exercise to get the feel of the elbow motion and upper arm rotation:
- place your right hand on a flat surface
- Such as top of a closed grand piano (which you have in every room, no?)
- Something a bit taller than a kitchen or dining table will do
- While maintaining that shoulder at a fixed height
- enforce right shoulder height by resting the left hand on it
- Raise your right elbow slightly
- This requires a slight rotation at wrist and shoulder joint
- Again, height of shoulder remains fixed while that joint rotates
Augmenting my teacher’s instruction: for maintaining bow to be perpendicular
to each string, rotate with fingers (rather than at wrist) for
- Maintain proper head/neck posture
- When looking at bowing, neck naturally protrudes forward too far
- Maintain lane when bowing
- Keep bow to middle of region between end of Fingerboard and Bridge
- Be mindful of parallax view where bow placement appears different when
looking along Fingerboard versus from an objective observer seated in
front of the cello
- Go with the objective reference point; e.g., use a mirror
- Maintain consistent tone when bowing
- Arm motion produces choppy sound
- (Spoilers: this “choppy” effect will soon make sense)
- For maintaining bow to be perpendicular to each string,
rotate with fingers (rather than at wrist)
- Might be reaching with Right arm/shoulder too far
- With tape on bow’s baguette (stick), measuring quarter lengths of bow
- Play open strings for each quarter of bow
Left Hand: Fourth Position
My first instructor guided through the use of First Position but exercises
begin with Fourth Position.
Fourth Position is easier to find for new students than First because it is
where the fingerboard meets the cello body (resonance chamber).
Exercise 1 – Finding Notes:
- Find proper finger position for Fourth Position for your cello
- Each cello’s nook at base of neck behind fingerboard may differ
- Play the note of Finger 1 on a string, and then play the open string
equivalent for that note
- But before playing each note, stop!
- With Left Hand finger in place, now ignore that hand
- Focus entirely on Right Hand bow hold
- Focus on bowing for quarter of bow length:
- Play down bow
- Play up bow
- Repeat for other fingers
Exercise 2 – Finger Dexterity:
- No bow required
- With tape on fingerboard for First Position, focus on approximate placement
- Place Finger 1, then 2, then 3, then 4
- Place Finger 1, then 2 & 3, then 4
- Place Finger 1, then 2, 3 & 4
- Use different patterns:
- Use varying sequences, but choose the sequence with intention
(rather than randomly)
Once comfortable with those basic exercises– even though notes will still
be played out of tune– name each note before playing it!
That is, say the name of each note out loud before actually playing it.
Begin as usual by finding the note with Left Hand, then focus on Right Hand
bow hold, and before playing the note, say the note’s name. Finally, then
and only then, play that note.
Of course, make subtle refinements until your Tuner indicates that the note
is correct, and play it again correctly more than the number of times that
- For fourth position, begin with D string
- For fourth position, starting with Finger 2 was more successfully accurate
than other fingers
Left & Right Together Again
Third lesson with instructor:
Exercise – Spock Hands:
- No cello or bow required.
- This improves finger dexterity
- It’s ultimately for Left Hand
- But for balance, repeat with both hands– individually, at least in the
beginning– for proper focus and attention
- Begin with hand on perfectly flat, rigid, smooth surface such as table or wall
- Maybe remove rings to avoid damage or to be free from concern about damage
- Begin with all fingers together and in straight line with palm: completely
- Start with fingers together, and then make Spock hand gesture
- Safeguard against the natural tendency to cup the palm during these exercises
- Next: spread each finger individually and then bring all fingers together
- Do this for each combination of creating space between index and middle
fingers, then middle and ring fingers, then ring finger and pinkie
- Regularly check and adjust against palm raising
- When flat palm may be maintained, use of flat surface may no longer be
- but allow for many weeks before that plateau
Exercise – Bowing near and far from bridge:
- This develops control over sound volume
- Consider speed of bowing versus pressure exerted by index finger
- Speed can increase sound: bowing faster
- Pressure can increase sound: bowing with more pressure applied from
- However, bowing closer to bridge exhibits a decrease in string vibration
due to less freedom of movement by the string, which in turn is due to
constraints of the bridge
- Therefore, more pressure is generally required when bowing close to bridge
- Bowing closer to fingerboard accommodates little pressure
- Pressure applied by index finger ultimately starts from forearm
- Index finger need not change its position on bow
Exercise – Half & Quarter Bowing:
- This alternating-direction bowing builds timing, consistency of bowing and
- The alternates down bow and up bow using patterned counts:
- One long bowing
- Followed by two short bows (to the middle and back)
- For instance:
- Down bow: 1 2 3 4 for full length
- Up bow: 1 2 for half
- Down bow: 3 4 to return
- Up bow: 1 2 3 4
- and so on
- Begin with a slow count: 1, 2, 3, 4
- Cross the halfway mark on 3
- Change direction on the subsequent 1
- Try tapping right foot to keep time
- Maybe use a metronome later after having acquired the rhythm of this
- Initially, your own count may likely be uneven, and that’s fine for the
first few sessions practicing this exercise
- Being able to count without one is also an important skill
- Your shin and particularly calf muscles may get sore quickly when in
playing posture; it’s yet another muscle to develop and strengthen
- Put tape on bow baguette (stick) indicating half and quarters
- Begin with using just the middle two quarters of the bow
- Sequence of bowing, using only middle-half of the bow:
- On count of 1-4, down bow from first quarter mark to third quarter mark
- On count of 1-2, up bow to halfway mark
- On count of 3-4, down bow back to third quarter mark
- On count of 1-4, up bow all the way to first quarter mark
- On count of 1-2, down bow only to halfway mark
- On count of 3-4, up bow back to first quarter mark
again, ending where this sequence started
- Focus on the counting while bowing
- Even if you have tape or other markers on your bow’s baguette,
change bowing direction on the count rather than at the marker
- Use those markers to check yourself during video playback
so that you can measure what needs to be improved next time
- Strive for consistency in bowing speed and tone
- Strive for consistent speed before, during and after changing direction
- This is much more challenging than it may seem at first
- The tendency is to go faster just after changing direction,
so focus on consistent speed at this particular region
- A few attempts may be necessary before keeping smooth time while bowing
- Simply begin again, and continue
- For each round with a mistake, do it twice correctly;
one of those merely cancels the mistake,
and the other cements the correct approach
- Repeat by beginning with up-bow versus down-bow
- Repeat by using different halves of the bow:
- Quarters 1 and 2
- Quarters 2 and 3
- Quarters 3 and 4
Exercise – Left hand finger press & lift combinations:
- This builds dexterity of Left Hand finger positioning and string touches
- Begin with Left Hand in First Position
- Begin with D string, because it’s convenient
- Begin with Finger 1 above its placement position for the string
- Play the open string
- Place Finger 1 on its position
- Observe yourself for posture: back, shoulder, elbow, wrist, fingers
- Observe yourself for relaxed: back, shoulder, elbow, wrist, fingers
- Observe your thumb has only a light touch on back of fingerboard
- With that finger in place, forget about it, and focus entirely on bowing
- Play the note with at a full bow
- Repeat for each finger in progression
- Repeat in reverse, starting with Finger 4 down to Finger 1
- Repeat with each string
- Repeat for Fourth Position
- Later, this exercise may incorporate the Half & Quarter Bowing exercise
Exercise – Slide from First Position to Fourth Position:
- This build awareness and dexterity for finger placement combined with motion
- This begins arm and finger familiarity, comfort and dexterity for later use
- Bowing is optional for this in the beginning
- Begin with Finger 1 in First Position
- Slide Finger 1 down to Fourth Position
- Slide Finger 1 back to First Position
- Repeat with Fingers 1 and 2
- Repeat with Fingers 1, 2 and 3
- Repeat with all Fingers
- Tendency to lean right, as if subconsciously avoiding fingerboard from
- Bring awareness of body weight being equally distributed across sit-bones
- Tendency with fingering in First Position to hold thumb as if in Fourth
Position, so that needed awareness and to be corrected
- Tendency when lifting fingers in First Position– in playing position but
without touching any string– was to raise fingers too high, which is
Purchased a wedge-shaped seat cushion (10lb density foam) for improving
posture in playing position.
Scales in one and two octaves
First and foremost at this stage, go back and re-read the section on
mentally prepare for a spiritual journey.
Fourth lesson with instructor:
He suggested improvements in technique on bowing the lower strings, G and C.
When starting on an up-bow at the tip, more pressure needs to be applied.
By way of analogy for those who have driven cars without adaptive
all-wheel drive, when the drive wheel slips such as on wet pavement, it’s
because the wheel accelerated too quickly.
Just as a wheel that slips continues to slip until releasing and starting
again with proper traction, so too a bow that slips continues to slip
and never quite gets traction on the string.
It’s all about balancing sticking (friction) and slipping (inertia).
Pressure gets applied via index finger without any perceptible motion or
rotation by the finger or hand. As stated earlier, maintain the proper bow
hold which means a grip so loose that the bow may nearly fall to the floor.
(In fact, if you haven’t actually dropped your bow a few times in the
beginning, you have yet to find that sweet spot. After all, it’s difficult
finding this threshold without crossing over it, which in turn means
experiencing the bow actually falling out of your hand.)
The rationale for applying this extra bit of pressure at the tip on an
up-bow: due to the heavier gauge of the lower strings, more work is required
to move each to a state of vibration. By work, this is the term from
physics: work equals force times distance. With less distance available to
vibrate the string for the same note, more force is required.
By contrast, at the frog, there is naturally more weight on the bow due to
gravity’s effect on the right hand.
Therefore, slightly more pressure is required for the tip.
The key word in all this is slight. Any increase in pressure is very
subtle, very little increase compared to remainder of the bow stroke.
Exercise – one-octave scales in First Position:
- As before, find Left Hand finger placement and then check-in on
- Wrist position
- Arm angle
- Then forget about all that, and focus on Right Hand with proper
- Name each note before playing
- Say it out loud initially to develop that feedback loop
- Ideally, read these notes from sheet music as well
- Use Musescore to create your own, if necessary
- After a few practice sessions, use sheet music without finger
- As an intermediate stage, keep only fingering guides for
distinguishing between Finger 2 and 3 (applies more to next exercise)
- Play each of A, D, G, C Major one-octave scales slowly and deliberately
- Begin with Left Hand fingers in playing position but first bow the open string
- Then add Finger 1
- Then add Fingers 2 or 3, applying sharps as appropriate for each scale
- Then add Finger 4
- Then move to the next higher string and continue with the same sequence
- With the obvious exception of A string
- On the A string, after playing the 4th note, continue to Fourth Position
- Beware that while checking Left Hand finger positioning, wrist angle,
etc. that the body’s tendency is to lean right, so make corrections before
moving focus to Right Hand for bowing
- Be aware of any unnecessary tension in the body, and release it
- e.g., eliminate any tension in foot, toes, etc.
- sheet music
Exercise – two-octave scale in G Major:
- Instructions and guidance from previous exercise applies
(Scales in First Position)
- G Major scale in First Position:
- Begins on G String
- Ends in Fourth Position on G
- All F notes are played as F#, as indicated by the music notation where
the sharp symbol (#) appears on the F line
- C Major scale in First Position ends on A String on C (Finger 2)
- Be sure to read each note from sheet music and name it before playing,
- See instructions for one-octave scales in First Position
- sheet music
Arpeggios in one octave
An arpeggio is playing a scale but with only the first, third, fifth and
For purposes of an exercise at this stage, play the one-octave version.
Exercise – Arpeggio in one octave:
- Start in First Position
- When deriving notes of a Major scale:
- Use the pattern: Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half note steps
(n.b., whole versus half steps may also be called tones and
- Step within: A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A
- Confirm by the scale sequence beginning and ending with the same note
letter, albeit one octave further away
- Arpeggio in C Major scale:
- Remember that the C Major scale uses only Natural notes– no sharps or flats
- Start on C string with an open note
- Move to G string
- Arpeggio in G Major scale, which uses F#:
- G Major: G A B C D E F# G
- Start on G string with an open note
- Move to D string
- Arpeggio in D Major scale, which uses F# and C#:
- D Major: D E F# G A B C# D
- Start on D string with an open note
- Move to A string
- Arpeggio in A Major scale, which uses C#, F# and G#
- A Major: A B C# D E F# G# A
- Start on A string with an open note
- Move to 4th Position on the A string
- sheet music
This was the last lesson that the instructor would mention notes to play by
Other aspects of the lesson focused upon traction of the bow specifically to
an up-bow versus down-bow.
Essentially, consider that due to rosin on bow hairs, bow hair “grabs” the
string from one side or the other. For an up-bow, the bow hair pushes the
string. For a down-bow, the bow hair pulls the string. The practical
implications of this are imperceptible when performed by an experienced
cello player, but the student would need to exaggerate the effect in the
Playing a real song!
Moving beyond scales and arpeggios, the sixth lesson with a private
instructor involved sightreading (for some loose definition of
It sounds more challenging than actually was because of his graceful style
of teaching, being so accommodating and having utmost patience for a
student’s learning curve.
He mentioned the title, knowing that I would probably not associate
correctly. He played the first few bars which he knew by heart. “Ah, yes,
that one!” He presented its sheet music. We discussed aspects of the
particular notes used and their arrangement. Finally, he prompted me to
name and then play each note of the first line. (Needless to say, the pace
at which my notes were actually played had little resemblance to the
familiar tune, but we each have to start somewhere!)
My first instructor selected this from sheet music published by the Royal
Conservatory of Music in Canada: Cello Preparatory Level Repertoire, 2013
Ode To Joy
is the first song in the booklet and instantly familiar to most when hearing
it even if not recalling it by that name.
There are sixteen bars (measures) with all notes played in First Position,
making for an ideal first piece.
Continue with previous guidance when learning your first piece:
- Read the note
- Name the note
- Play the note
Of course, each item is loaded with a multitude of sub-steps.
Reading each note first requires understanding time and key signatures.
Applying the key of D Major involves transposing each F note to be played as
F#. (C# was unused within the sixteen measures presented.)
Naming each note means speaking its name out loud. Its first notes are:
F# F# G A.
Prior to actually playing each note, check-in with yourself to ensure proper
posture. Release any tension.
When playing the note– then and only then– look at any Finger number
information as an aid. Just don’t let it become a crutch!
And so on.
Since familiar tunes might annoy others nearby while you learning it,
consider using a practice mute.
Other collections of études commonly cited, in alphabetical order by
- First Position Etudes for Strings by Samuel Applebaum
- The Art of Cello Playing by Louis Potter, Jr.
- 170 Foundation Studies for Violoncello by Alwin Schroeder
Some challenges were observed while practicing this week’s lesson.
- Relying too much on Fingering in sheet music:
- While no Fingering numbers appear on the RCM sheet music, part of the
assignment was to pencil these on the paper
- After a few practice sessions with Fingering notation, it was prudent
creating clean sheet music without any Finger numbers
- Patterns to playing wrong notes were fascinating:
- In a progression going lower or higher while reading from sheet music
without numbering, I would occasionally go in the wrong direction:
higher or lower, respectively
- Each mistake observed during practice was immediately corrected
- When catching such a mistake, be sure to go back a bar or two and play
it again properly
- But play it properly at least one more time than with the mistake
- This “cancels-out” the mistake and you have practiced the correct
version more than having “practiced” the mistake
- Maybe play it one more time correctly just for good measure
- Mental fatigue would hit after playing all the way through a few times
- This was remedied by taking a break for tea
- After returning 20-30 minutes later, playing through seemed easier
- Finished with (proper) bowing open strings
- …because so much emphasis was on everything else for the song
- Also did a few rounds of Half & Quarter Bowing exercises
from three weeks ago
- Posture was better than previous couple of weeks
- With aid of a mirror (rather than video camera), it has been easier to
correct the inadvertent leaning
Remember to take breaks!
The number of things that your mind is juggling right now is an achievement
in itself, so account for physiological effects of learning. For instance,
your body temperature may rise while practicing. Alternatively, it might
lower if holding too much tension!
Seventh week with an instructor:
- Play familiar items by continuing in same bowing direction for pairs of
- e.g., scales in one and two octaves
- Introduced slurred notes:
- Continue bowing uninterrupted when playing two or more adjacent notes
- On sheet music, this appears as a slight curved thin line “connecting”
the notes involved
Adjustments and refinements:
- Corrections for Left Hand finger angles and elbow position/orientation
- Advice from many instructors and performers: beware of Left Hand fingering
oppressing Right Hand bowing
- Place the Left Hand and fingers into position, but then forget about
- Then, focus entirely on Right Hand bowing
- When finishing each practice, end with bowing open strings since so much
focus and concentration would have been on Fingering
The second piece of sheet music was Au clair GE la lune (not to be
confused with Debussy’s Clair Ce Lune).
Grasping this piece as music rather than a collection of notes was
elusive. The accompanying CD contains tracks with the accompanying piano
and with just the piano.
However, getting a better sense of the proper notes for cello still eluded
me. This was largely due to my own squeaky and strained notes while reading
and playing. A huge help came from transcribing those sixteen measures into
Musescore and having its software synth perform
the notes as a cello solo.
It was crude but effective– poor sound quality due to my cheap computer gear.
(Because that is a copyrighted arrangement, my version of it has been omitted.)
When doing this for yourself, be sure to properly apply all of the tempo,
dynamics and other marks in your version of the score. It should appear on
screen exactly as it does in the book. The Musescore software synth
adjusts its intonation accordingly.
F Major Scale & Finger Extensions
Eighth week with an instructor:
- Play the F Major scale which includes B-flat
- Start with F on C string
- B-flat on the A String is a half step (semitone) above the familiar First Position
used thus far
- Fingering notation on sheet music is
x implies “extension”
- Notes along the A string:
- Play B-flat using Finger 1 Extended Position (
1x) from First Position
- Play C natural using Finger 2 in its usual position for First Position
- Then slide Left Hand such that Finger 1 lands where Finger 3 would
ordinarily be for First Position
- Now your hand is in Third Position
- Play D natural using Finger 1 in Third Position
- Play E natural using Finger 3 in Third Position
- Play F natural using Finger 4 in Third Position
- Return by going in reverse, as usual when playing scales
We also discussed how humbling the learning curve can be.
This session marked my second full month with a proper instructor– as
opposed to time just getting acquainted with the instrument, reading a
self-guided instructional book and following along with videos from an
While practicing and playing before the instructor, I experienced cognitive
stalling– for lack of a more accurate term. It’s like the difference
between stammering versus stuttering. This form of mental stammering while
playing manifested as a momentary lapse of being able to read and/or process
a particular note on the sheet music, even though the piece is virtually
memorized at this point.
Be okay with that.
Children stammer when learning to speak, and learning a new musical
instrument has many parallels with learning to speak a new language. A
first bowed string instrument, then, is not unlike learning your first
Slurred Notes With A Slide
Again, a set of slurred notes are those where the Left Hand fingering
changes while the Right Hand bowing continues uninterrupted. On sheet
music, the notation for this is a curved line just above or below the
sequence of notes being joined.
Lesson 9 with an instructor introduced no new material, but he directed a
new combination of existing techniques: two octave scales with slurs for
every pair of notes. Optionally, try for triplets too.
Apply this to each of the C Major, G Major and F Major scales that start in
First Position. Remember that G Major ends in Fourth Position, and F Major
includes a Finger 1 stretch (noted on sheet music as
1x) and ends in Third
When reversing G Major and F Major scales, the slide along the A string
from E back to D also involves landing on a different finger. This may feel
a little mind-bending at first, but that’s the delicious bit of this
particular learning curve!
Most importantly, have fun!
On that note, we discussed thoughts on practice versus performance.
(When practicing, it’s valuable to be self-critical for purposes of
correcting mistakes. Then, practice the correction twice. Once is for
countering the mistake. The second is for having practiced the correct
version more than having practiced the mistake.)
He suggested that when practicing, focus upon one thing each time:
fingering, bowing, intonation, timing, rhythm, keeping the bow in its
intended lane, etc. Use a mirror or video camera when appropriate, etc.
Beyond that mode, it’s important to also practice a few rounds of
playing through the entire piece without being self-critical:
Play the piece for the sheer enjoyment of performing it.
I would add:
Play through for the enjoyment of performing it at least as many times as
having played while critiquing, so then you are practiced in performance
while enjoying your own performance!
Second Lessons: self-guided after interruption
Due to extenuating circumstances, cello practice can be interrupted for
This section pertains to returning to daily practice.
In my case, there was a six week hiatus.
Cognitive Scientists found that we lose fluency after only four weeks. For
those of us still learning, we should simply accept that this decay is much
faster for us.
Therefore, it’s imperative to begin again.
Understand this as an opportunity to strengthen those neural pathways where
the foundation has already been laid.
- Start with daily Physical Therapy (physio) exercises at least a week
before trying new instruments to rent or buy
- Practice bow hold with a pencil or similarly shaped object
- Perform limited bow exercises with a straight-edge, ruler, stick, etc.
- Be mindful of weight, balance, etc. may be different
- Build dexterity via “spock hand” exercises
- Refresh your memory of fingering as if you had an invisible cello
The goal isn’t to land where you left as quickly as possible but instead to
build upon the foundation and muscle-memory that has already been
- Allow a week or two of bowing open strings for Right Arm moving smoothly
- In my case, fatigue sets in much more quickly than at height of prior
- For instance, instead of practicing three or four sets of scales, maybe
that part of practice becomes one or two scales instead
- Give your full concentration to correct bowing technique
- After a few days or couple of weeks, only then begin Left Hand fingering
- Begin fingering with basic scales in the same sequence as having learned
- Revisit sequence of lessons, and perform each with consideration as if
never having seen that material before:
- e.g., Read the note, say the note, place Left Hand fingers into
position, then forget about that hand and focus entirely on Right Hand
for proper bowing technique
- Applies same as when beginning and includes things that you might “know
by heart” or from rote memorization such as scales
- Even if your prior daily practice was 45 minutes, begin with only five
minutes each day for the first week, and slowly increase when your body is
- Let fatigue be your guide for when to stop
(rather than pushing through it at this stage, because that could lead
to frustration which would be counterproductive)
- e.g., Maybe you can play the same page of music for two iterations
instead of the three or five as before
Moving through material from early lessons went steadily and quickly.
There was a new quality previously not present, almost as if the break in
continuity became a net benefit!
Other factors crept into awareness such as arm fatigue hitting much sooner
than before, so cadence or duration of earlier practice sessions remained out
of reach for several weeks.
After the unintended break from practice, it became much easier watching
the bow’s tip while playing than before.
Previously, attempts at watching the tip was distraction enough that it
became difficult keeping the bow in its lane.
Now, watching the tip became one of my primary method for tracking
consistency of bowing.
Center of gaze remains where the bow makes contact with the string.
Crucially, however, softening the gaze accommodates increased attention to
peripheral vision for observing tip of the bow and bow hold of the Right
(This is observing the bow’s tip from playing position, as I have yet to
re-acquire a mirror or tripod suitable for practice.)
If you haven’t started playing music as phrases while reading sheet music,
it’s definitely time to begin.
Experiment with different posture, endpin length, hand frame, Left Arm
angle, Right Arm bowing motion, etc. What was appropriate as a beginner may
have room for improvement. Go back and re-watch videos of more experienced
players, and compare and contrast their techniques with your own.
All of this leads to constructing questions in your mind, which in turn
propels the student to find the right instructor.
The instructor that was right when beginning might not be best for
continuing, and that’s fine. A student driver isn’t likely to remain with
the same teacher to become qualified for racing, either.
Second Year: Second Instructor
A new instructor was required due to relocating and having a strong
preference for in-person 1:1 sessions.
This instructor was found by contacting faculty and staff at nearby colleges
and universities. Inquiries were made with local music stores and luthiers.
My second instructor is a graduate student in Music Performance recommended
by her professor who is a notable cellist and author of Cello Secrets book
and numerous articles in Strings magazine.
Having someone enrolled or recently graduated with a Music Performance
degree seems ideal at this stage of my learning path. She is closer to
having originally learned herself, compared to someone who has been
performing in a major metropolitan symphony for decades.
She also had a variety of classmates, each facing their own learning curves.
By comparing notes or sharing stories with them, she accumulated a
repertoire of how different people learn.
For instance, she recommended a change in posture and endpin length based
upon others of comparable height. (Whereas my previous instructor performs
on a 7/8 cello, so these factors were less of an issue for him.)
Most importantly, she’s an excellent instructor and performs beautifully.
It was clear to see her enjoyment while performing with a fellow student
just before graduating.
After nine months to one year of regular practice is generally time to
upgrade from a rental to owning a cello.
In more practical terms, it’s time when playing scales such as F Major and G
Minor Melodic accurately without tape on fingerboard.
For me, tape was re-introduced for learning new music and also because the
new cello had such rich tones that it was a worthwhile crutch while becoming
accustomed to it.
The approach to “cello tasting” could be a book onto itself, but make an
appointment to try several cellos within your target price range. Travel to
another city if necessary to gain experience of numerous cellos. Avoid
purchasing without this hands-on session.
Upon the recommendation of the new instructor, these were the new books:
The Royal Conservatory of Music series seems roughly equivalent to the
Suzuki Method in terms of how they selected each piece to emphasize a
particular aspect or technique. (Continuing with that series will be an
When an instructor cites a particular book, be sure to get that specific
edition and from the stated publisher. Because some sheet music is in the
Public Domain, not all imprints are created equal. At minimum, font weight
and other typographical differences are common distinctions across editions
and between publishers.
Having played everything within the Royal Conservatory of Music
Preparatory Level several times through, it was time to push forward.
Playing the final piece (Mozart) from that book at our first in-person
session together, that became our initial benchmark. There was much room for
improvement, of course, but we were not focusing on perfecting any of those
performances at this time.
Points to address, as recommended by my second instructor:
- Right Hand thumb releasing and eliminating tension
- Try tapping thumb three times before playing
- This tapping is a conscious reminder to relax
- Right Hand finger and hand motion for eight and sixteenth notes
- Think Right Arm weight
- Rather than “pressure” because that implies tension which would be incorrect
- In most pieces of sheet music, begin at the balance point of the bow
- This is best when using a balanced bow– rather than weighted or
partially weighted tip commonly included within a rental kit
- Left Hand thumb frame resembles holding a glass of water with only fingertips
- Thumb is without pressure
- Tap thumb twice on neck of fingerboard in between each note as reminder
to release pressure and relax
- It’s time to use a metronome– no more deferrals
- When using a metronome:
- Change subdivision from quarter notes (♩) to eighth notes (🎜)
- This emphasizes the and in timing, as in 1-and, 2-and, 3-and, 4
- Articulated notes:
- Those with a dot above; e.g., quarter note with dot above
- The note is emphasized
- End the note such that bowing stops with bow remaining on the string
which in turn halts vibration of that string
- Playing in Fourth Position
- Naming notes in Fourth Position
- Observing fact about name of Fourth Position being 4 whole notes
from open string
First lesson with second instructor:
- Extend endpin almost to its maximum for someone of height 6'1" (185cm)
- A more reclining cello gives a bigger sound
- Consider using a bent endpin, as popularized by Rostropovich
- With down-bow on A string, motion of Right Arm:
- Begin by moving whole arm, yet shoulder remains relaxed and simply swivels
- Stop at mid-bow and change articulation of the arm
- From mid-bow to tip, extend only from forearm
- Think of motion similar to tossing a Frisbee/discus
- For up-bow, reverse that motion
- With down-bow on D string, motion of Right Arm:
- Similar to A string
- Think of motion of pressing an object away with edge of your hand
- Be mindful of Left Hand “frame”
- The shape of the hand is called the frame
- Make use of “blocking” when playing notes across adjacent strings in
- Blocking is when non-playing fingers remain in same position since
playing the previous string
- Add blocking notation to sheet music while learning, represented by a
horizontal bar spanning a sequence of notes on adjacent strings
- Keep lower-numbered fingers on the string when playing a higher-numbered
- e.g., Finger 1 should be on the sting while playing Finger 2
- My tendency was to roll the wrist too much, lifting non-playing fingers
off the string
- Keep non-playing fingers hovering above their playing positions
- The goal is to minimize overall finger motion, which also makes it
easier for each finger to find its next target
- My tendency was to curl fingers out of harm’s way, exacerbating future
motion and decreasing accuracy
- Experiment with different Left Hand fingering positions
- This came after struggling with conventional finger motion
(e.g., from a flat hand, curl your fingers towards palm)
- Back to a hand position resembling an extension but without Finger 1
- But I now have various hand positions available
- For acquiring tactile experience with time signatures such as 6/8:
- Play each note as an eighth note
- Disregard slurs and bowing direction for this exercise
- We also discussed dancing to the music, which some music schools
require but wasn’t within her prior schooling
(possibly mentioned in Alban Gerhardt’s videos?)
- Tension in one hand subconsciously translates to tension in the other
Subsequent lessons in months 3-5:
- For example, this is changing from First Position to Second, Third or
Fourth Position for this stage (future stages for higher than Fourth
involve Thumb Positions not yet introduced)
- Be aware of which position contains the next note, and land Finger 1
for that position before playing the note; i.e., Fingers 2, 3 or 4
- Before each shift visualize, hum or sing the sequence of notes such as
using solfége (i.e., Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si)
- Performing shifts will benefit from understanding intervals such as
when shifting on the A String while playing First Position C (Finger 2)
and then shifting to Third Position with D (Finger 1) which involves a
whole step or interval of a
Second (i.e., 2nd– not unit of time)
- Upon shifting during practice, always check your note against open strings;
even though the color of notes will differ, train your ear without
relying upon a tuner or app
- Visualize the target position when shifting:
- Focus on the number of whole- or half-steps (tones or semitones)
required to reach the destination
- Imagine hearing the note before playing it
- Consider ear training for Relative Pitch
- Scales and Arpeggios:
- While practicing scales, a two octave C Major for beginning students
starts with Open C and progresses through First Position reaching C on A
String and then returns to the origin
- Perform in reverse:
- If commonly playing scales low to high notes and back again, start at
the highest note and work backwards occasionally;
e.g., Start with C on A String, continue through First Position, ending
on Open C
- Same for practicing Arpeggios
- This may also be applied to particular measures or phrases in sheet
music as part of mastering challenging movements
- Try similar reversals with other techniques while practicing such as
Shifts, rhythmic bowing, etc.
Final in-person lesson:
- Lead with accurate placement of Thumb behind neck of Fingerboard while Shifting
- Place all fingering into their respective positions before playing first
note after the Shift
- Remember to visualize the target position when shifting:
- Concentrate on how many whole- and half-steps (tones or semitones) are
required to reach the destination
- Think it and feel it and hear it before playing that note
- Continue learning new Scales and Arpeggios in one and two octaves
- Left Hand exercises for hand frame:
- This improves dexterity by bringing awareness to proper hand frame while
playing lower strings in lowest positions: First through Fourth Positions
- Maintain curve to palm of hand
- Maintain proper (nearly straight) alignment of wrist to hand
- Maintain relaxed shoulder and upper arm
- Gently lift and return Fingers 1 and 3 in unison
- Gently lift and return Fingers 2 and 4 in unison
- Avoid any straightening of Fingers 3 or 4 while lifting other fingers
- Maybe it’s time for that Bent Endpin:
- As a taller person (6’1”, 185cm) the orientation with a Bent Endpin
would ease shifts and playing in First through Fourth Positions
- Tape has been off the Fingerboard this time for several months
- Keep practicing to increase comfort and familiarity while working with metronome
Progressing Towards Long-Term Goals
Eliminate Fingerboard Markings
For the goal of eliminating fingerboard markings such as tape, cultivate
habits of doing without looking in other aspects of life. For instance,
try typing on a computer keyboard without looking– bonus points for using a
keyboard devoid of all letters, numbers and symbols. Tie shoelaces or
ribbons without looking. Etc.
You can always put the tape back on, but keep trying to play without!
To help you get there musically, train your ear and recollection of
relative pitch, described in the next subsection.
Having relative pitch is the ability that when hearing a reference tone
such as Concert Pitch A (440Hz), you can quickly identify the next pitch
Relative pitch also means being able to “visualize” (or mentally map)
precisely how to play a particular tone (pitch and color), such as B♭ on G
(This differs from absolute pitch or “perfect pitch”, which is instant
identification of a pitch without reliance on any reference.)
Learning relative pitch requires listening, not playing– at least
Playing becomes an important part of it eventually but doesn’t require
When performing Shifts such as from First Position to Third, use relative
pitch for landing your next playing fingers on the correct locations. Do
this by visualizing a mental projection or use of muscle-memory that maps
where specific notes exist along the Fingerboard.
Since shifting starts from a reference tone of the note just played, you’re
halfway there in terms of relative pitch. The other half is this projection
of however many whole- and half-steps (tones and semitones) away for the
next note based upon this technique.
For absolute beginners, this is a stretch goal. However, it’s worthwhile
knowing upcoming destinations such as this for when approaching intermediate
level as a cello player.
This requires knowing far more than just First Position fingering with
consistent bowing, yet you can begin in parallel while also learning First
Position fingering and consistent bowing technique.
Begin by recording yourself naming a particular note and then playing it.
For those of us still within the “beginner” category, using a digital tuner
to find each note before recording it benefits the overall purpose of this
Do that for each note within your repertoire.
If you’re only playing in First Position, do just those notes. Once you
begin Shifts, record First Position through whichever position to which
you’re shifting, such as Second, Third or Fourth.
It’s beneficial that these recordings be consistent and done within a single
session, so always re-record notes from previous sets especially if those
were done weeks or months earlier. It also gives good comparison and
contrast as you progress.
Perfect Pitch vs Relative Pitch: Which Is More
As beginners, there isn’t much to log of our practice. As we progress
towards intermediate level, however, keeping a practice journal becomes
Long before one year of learning cello, daily practice no longer
accommodates practicing everything we’ve learned. Then, alternating days or
weeks no longer fits everything that should be practiced. It becomes too
easy to forget one bit or another.
As noted in First Lessons: Self-Guided above,
the importance of using a metronome was known but often
Write things down so that you can forget. This frees your mind for
important things like all the aspects that we need to track to get accurate
fingering and accurate bowing, let alone playing Arpeggios involving Shifts
Ironically, just by writing something down we’re more likely to remember
it– and with greater accuracy.
Keep a practice journal for tracking what’s being studied, how you’re
learning it, when you’ve practiced it and for how long in that session:
Here’s an example of a log entry for one particular day:
- Open Bowing: 5 minutes
- Focus on smooth changes
- as prep for continuous drone across up-bow & down-bow
- Scales: 5 minutes
- G Minor Melodic, B♭ Minor
- Arpeggios: 5 minutes
- C Major, F Major– playing highest to lowest
- Technique: 10 minutes
- Rhythmic bowing (change directions on 1-4, 1-2, 3-4, 1-4)
- Essential Elements, Finger Patterns E through C, #178-182
- Songs: 10 minutes
- “Minuet Number 1” by Bach
Also, log when a particular technique or song was last played, but keep this
list separate. A short list eases identifying techniques and pieces that
would otherwise become neglected over time. Consider writing dates in
pencil (yes, paper & pencil in 2022), and just noting which month is
probably sufficient for beginning and intermediate students.
For instance, G Minor Melodic scale was this month, but D Major scale hasn’t
been played since two months ago and rhythmic bowing (e.g., 1-4, 1-2, 3-4,
1-4) not since four months ago. That becomes useful when planning what to
Various sections within Brian Hodge’s
Over 100 Performance Strategies for the Advanced Cellist book
address how to structure your practice.
Music Lesson - How and What To Practice On Your
Instrument gives a solid
overview of many of the same points.
Even though he sits in front of a piano during that video and his main
instruments are guitar and bass, his advice applies to probably any
instrument or voice training.
A big part of the learning process is discovery which only comes through
learning, practice, patience and perseverance. These are best when found
That said, the summary of lessons learned follows.
This section will continue to expand and be refined.
- The important thing is to actually begin
- You can begin without a cello or bow and maintain minimal practice without
- A good instructor gives actionable advice and feedback that conveys
meaningful information for your level
- Good instruction starts from your current status and nudges you to keep
- That instruction might be a book or might be one-to-one sessions with an
- Self-learning can be prone to ensnaring ourselves down the wrong
rabbit-holes (local minima) or climbing the wrong hills (local maxima);
whereas, a good instructor steers us around those effortlessly
- That is to say, all of it is important to learn, but guidance on proper
sequence and relative significance for our stage makes for more efficient
- Find qualified instructors through local music shops, local orchestras and
local chapters of teacher certification organizations– even if you’re not
pursuing that particular style or genre– as a place to start
- Always begin practice with physical warm-ups and stretches without cello
or bow so that you may prevent injury and enjoy playing for all your years
- Always let your cello warm-up by beginning with gently bowing open strings
for a few minutes
Start on D string
- The easiest string to play is D string:
- This is due to “process of elimination”
- The A string requires the farthest reach
- The C string being the heaviest (more mass, more work) requires the most
effort to get vibrating
- G is similar enough to C
- D wins here
- When bowing any particular string in its lane “half way between bridge
and fingerboard,” you should be able to see two strings away where that
other string meets the bridge, as one way to confirm bowing at the correct
angle and correct distance between bridge and fingerboard
- If concerned about disturbing family or neighbors, consider a quality
practice mute; e.g., from WMutes
- A quality student cello verging on intermediate plus a quality practice
mute might be more satisfying than going with an alternative where tonal
quality or tactile feedback might suffer
- An acoustic cello plus “expensive” mute might be more affordable in the end
- Then if you really want an electric, select one for how it may benefit your
performance (rather than for its side-effect of being “silent” without an
- An interruption to regular practice– intended or not– becomes disruptive
after only a couple weeks, and cognitive science indicates that we lose
fluency in as little as four weeks
- Calluses take a few weeks to develop yet disappear within a week or two of
- Those calluses facilitate using only weight of the left arm for playing a
- Without calluses, the tendency is to grip the fingerboard too tightly
- Symptoms of too tight of a grip include muscle fatigue or tingling
- If you experience either of those: stop, rest and begin again later with
conscious release of tension
- Maintaining the quality of calluses is crucial to playing well, so skipping
an occasional day or two may be beneficial
- Aim for being relaxed– release all tension
- Any tension due to performance anxiety should be channeled to your
body’s core muscles which then facilitates proper posture
- Arm weight alone should provide entirety of “pressure” on strings
- This applies to Right Arm when bowing
- This applies to Right hand when holding the bow
- This applies to Left Hand for finger when “pressing” down on strings
- This applies to shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, etc.
- The only pressure or tension should be in the core of your body– your
torso– for posture and expressive motion
- While playing a note with Left Hand finger positions:
- Consider a very subtle rolling action–
rotation in wrist along axis of forearm
- Rotate towards Finger 4 (pinky / little finger) when playing that finger
- Rotate towards Finger 1 (pointer / index finger) when playing that finger
- Other hand positions and orientations will be used for extensions, etc.
- While bowing, Right Hand index finger alternates between pronation and
- When bowing, the arm “opens” (extends) as bow hair on the string
approaches the tip
- Consider a imperceptibly subtle rolling action of the Right Hand
index finger as pressure transfers from weight of the arm through that
finger, through the bow’s baguette (stick) to the tip
- This weight transference provides consistent pressure on the string
everywhere along the bow hair
- Avoid cellos made from laminated wood, which may be confirmed by examining
edges along the f-holes
- However, crafty makers use hardwood only for the top
- Use a tuning fork to check differences in resonance against top, back
- If it seems too good to be true (very low cost), it probably contains
- Simple ways of identifying student cellos from intermediate or higher
include whether there is actual inlaid purfling or merely drawn lines
- When selecting a cello, consider that you’re building a relationship with
the shop and its staff; therefore, an apparent financial bargain over the
internet might be counter-productive to your growth as a cellist
- “Never trust a cello without a wolf tone.” –luthiers everywhere
- One major difference between the student range of bows versus
intermediate, advanced or higher– other than materials used in
construction– is weight at tip of the bow
- As you advance, keep trying more advanced cellos and bows occasionally as
one measure of your progression
- Apply rosin lightly, as too much leads to more particles landing on the
cello body and accumulates over time:
- Apply a little extra rosin near tip and frog
- Near tip and frog, use quick short back & forth motion
- The tip and frog need a little extra to better accommodate bow changing
direction and its corresponding “grabbing” action with increased
- Then apply to full length of bow hairs using long smooth consistent back
& forth motion
- With each stroke when applying rosin, adjust orientation of the rosin
brick for consistent wear– avoid cutting a groove into the brick
Forwards And Backwards
- For Scales and Arpeggios, also practice forwards and backwards,
which means sometimes starting with the highest note
- For mastering a particularly challenging piece of music,
practice the notes of those specific measures in reverse
Care & Feeding
- A cello has better chances of staying in tune when played and stored
within Relative Humidity of 40%-50% and ideally at 45%
- In the high desert of Idaho, I use a humidifier at or below 42%
- Avoid playing or storing a cello or bow:
- in direct sunlight
- within proximity of a heating or cooling outlet/vent
- Store your cello in its case when not being played
- If your cello must be laid down, rest it on its side with bridge facing
- When cello rests on it side, bow may rest on top side and should stay in
place if leather bit near the frog touches cello body
- However, oils from skin and rosin from bow hairs may transfer onto the
- Be sure to gently wipe that area of cello body after playing
- Bow should be stored with nut completely loose and in a case or hanging
- Keep rosin– including its dust– off the cello’s varnish, because over
time the resin within the rosin can melt and harm the varnish, which
becomes very costly to repair
- Always wipe rosin from strings after each practice and performance
- For occasional deeper cleaning of strings, use extremely small amounts of
distilled water (de-ionized H₂O), isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol,
surgical spirit) while guaranteeing absolutely none touches any varnish of
the cello body, else strip or damage the varnish
- Some luthiers apparently use only a rectified spirit or denatured
alcohol such as “Everclear”
- Some luthiers offer string cleaning products
- For gut strings, please do further research!
- Wash hands before handling cello or bow– reducing accumulation of natural oils
produced by the skin, let alone any products/lotions that some people
might apply themselves
- Excessive or unwanted overtones could be caused by any one of several factors:
- Perhaps calluses on fingertips are insufficient
- Try carefully cleaning the strings as noted above
- Maybe replace strings
- As last option, this might indicate that the sound post has slipped
and requires a professional luthier to adjust properly
- Students may benefit from a first pass of: see the note, say the note,
position Left Hand fingering for the note, position Right Hand for bowing,
and finally play the note
- Difficulty with sightreading sheet music might be due to poor lighting,
poor positioning of the sheet music or poorer vision than otherwise
impacting daily life
- e.g., try inexpensive non-prescription reading glasses from a drug
store, pharmacy, apothecary, etc.
Everything with a beginning has an end
- Always wipe rosin from cello strings
- Always loosen tension of bow hair
- Always return a cello to its case after practice or performance
- Cellos that you see hanging in a shop are almost certainly in a
temperature and humidity controlled environment
- Use of a cello stand (e.g., Hercules) is less about storage than for
convenience and safekeeping during practice or performance
- Always end with physical activity similar to warm-up
Everything that follows should be considered appendix material.
An incomplete set but sufficient for a beginner:
The tenor clef indicates five notes higher than the clé de fa (F clef or
commonly known as bass clef):
- Open A string is the middle line
- Open D string is the bottom line
- G string takes the place of C string from clé de fa (bass clef)
- C string lives two ledger lines below the staff
It’s easy for new musicians to mistake the Tenor Clef with the Alto Clef
because these are similar in appearance. The difference is that their
locations on the staff differs by one line, and the Alto Clef is more
commonly used by a Viola.
Advanced sheet music may use the Tenor Clef and Treble Clef for a cello
playing in Thumb Positions (higher than Fourth Position).
Rosin, Bow Hairs & Strings
Always wipe rosin from strings after each practice and performance. High
humidity will cause accumulated rosin to harden on the cello body, requiring
professional cleaning to remove it without damaging the varnish or wood.
Therefore, it’s easier and cheaper to gently wipe away any rosin after each
practice and performance– using a light touch with soft flannel or
For occasional deeper cleaning of strings (e.g., monthly), use extremely
small amounts of distilled water (de-ionized H₂O), denatured alcohol, 99%
isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol, surgical spirit) while guaranteeing
absolutely none touches any varnish of the cello body.
If any touches the varnish of the cello, this may strip or damage the
When using a cleaning solution, apply it to a cloth and wipe each string
while keeping it from penetrating into the core of the string. This is
because modern strings (since late Twentieth Century) contain a lubricant
such as rosin between the inner core and the outer winding. Cleaning
solutions that reach it will deteriorate this material, causing more harm
After cleaning a string, apply a bit of rosin from open bowing with all bow
hairs on the string for full range from bridge to fingerboard. This may
sound like a riff from
2Cellos covering Thunderstruck.
Then, if bowing produces false overtones or otherwise lackluster acoustic
qualities, it might be time to replace some or all strings. Keep reading.
(However, excessive overtones could indicate that
the sound post needs adjustment.)
Common criteria by which many cellists decide to replace strings:
- More than 100 hours of practice, counting duration of strings vibrating
- Tendency to press harder on bow or fingering to produce a more
- Hearing false overtones, impure fifths or a “twang” to the sound quality
- As if your technique devolved like before having had callouses develop
If interested in maintaining the same brand of strings as currently on your
String Identification Chart
from Lashof Violins.
For perspective into cost versus tonal attribute, see interactive
Cello String Chart
from SHAR Music.
Possibly the lowest prices for strings and
combined sets from
String Emporium in Arizona via their
(Disclosure: ordered a lightweight cello case there.)
- Before you begin, prepare a safe position and orientation for the cello
- This is perhaps the only exception to never having a cello laying flat
on its back, but use a padded surface or in its protective case
- Refrain from holding the cello by its ebony finger board, as such stress
and strain may weaken the glue affixing it to the neck
(that is, avoid doing what can be observed in some videos on
- Replace one string at a time
- “Play it in” (don’t say “break it in”)
- Some luthiers recommend playing it in totaling several hours of
practice before continuing to next string
- Strings will stretch as you play, especially when new (or replaced with
old strings, such as when you don’t like that new brand you just tried)
- Many cellists start with the C string, which is heaviest and therefore strongest
- This is because string tension is structural for a cello, and without
that tension, the sound post can slip
- Without sufficient string tension, the bridge will certainly move to an
incorrect position or orientation
- With the old string removed and before touching the new string, apply
graphite to the bridge and nut in each notch where the string will
- Graphite is a commonly used, readily available lubricant
- This will keep the bridge from moving when tuning the string
- Graphite may be found in most pencils, colloquially called pencil “lead”
- Pencil hardness HB or #2 is the most common and easily rendered from the
- Graphite powder may be purchased at a hardware store but challenging to
apply with precision that a sharpened pencil offers
- Only a trace amount (minimal application) of graphite is necessary
- If you would notice that the graphite had been applied after the string
has been installed, that would be too much
- Release the fine-tuner for this string
- For the conventional screw-thread fine-tuners, rotate counterclockwise
- Avoid releasing too far, because that may become a source of rattling or
buzzing when particular notes are played
- Insert the string into the peg using the same string hole that the
previous string used
- Unless the cello is brand new, there should be subtle wear patterns
indicating which hole
- Only a minimal amount of the string’s end should protrude through other
side of the peg
- Extending too far may scratch the varnish or wood of the pegbox
- Rotate the peg such that the string feeds onto the peg on top
- That is, as the string crosses the nut to the peg, the angle should be
- Strings A and D will be on your right side when facing the bridge, and
those pegs turn clockwise
- Strings C and G will be on your left side, and turn in the opposite
- When initially rotating the peg, be certain to wind the string such that
it crosses itself over the hole
- This provides resistance for keeping the string in place while further
winding the string onto the peg
- When rotating the peg with one hand, the other hand holds any slack in
- Keep the string taught enough to stay on the bridge
- Keep the string loose enough to not release from the peg while winding
- Before tightening the string completely, ensure no strings touch any
others in the pegbox
- Strings touching one another in the pegbox may impact sound quality
- While tightening the string completely, apply resistance to the bridge
with opposite hand
- This keeps the bridge from accidental movement
- This also prevents the bridge from tilting
- Before finishing, stretch the string slightly
- Give the string a small tug
When to apply more rosin to bow:
- Look at bow hairs from a perspective that would contact the strings
- Anywhere that the bow hairs appear to shine, more rosin should be applied
- Professional cello players likely apply rosin before or after each
practice or performance
- Students practicing lessons for 30-60 minutes daily might get by with
applying rosin once per week (or occasionally twice in a week)
When to apply more rosin to strings:
- First and foremost, only apply rosin to strings from your bow
- Never use the rosin cake directly on strings!
- When transferring rosin from bow to string, align bow hairs completely
flat to strings, and apply pressure on bow (which also increases volume)
- When it sounds like a few measures from Heavy Metal or Industrial Music,
- When your bow– with a proper (loose) bow hold– tends to slide along the
string towards the bridge unintentionally, the strings probably need a bit
There are several approaches to cleaning bow hair.
Gently brushing and then combing bow hair may be sufficient to remove excess
rosin, so try that first.
For deeper cleaning, simply use distilled water (de-ionized H₂O) or
isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol, surgical spirit) while the bow remains
fully assembled. This should be safe for fiberglass, carbon-fiber and
cheaper wooden bows like “brazilwood” because the varnish is different than
that of a cello body. For proper Pernambuco wood bows, confirm with your
Possibly the most thorough cleaning can be done using acetone (often sold in
North America as a type of fingernail polish remover). Acetone completely
dissolves the tree resin present in rosin without harming bow hairs.
Only do this in a well-ventilated area.
Be prepared to work somewhat quickly when handling acetone, because it’s
chemically volatile– meaning that a small puddle will evaporate within
- Unwind the nut from the frog-end of the bow to release the frog from the
- Use a shallow bowl containing a quarter cup (less than 100ml) of acetone
- Bathe bow hairs in the bowl
- Stop about two inches (5cm) from tip or frog
- Wicking-action of bow hairs will draw the acetone close enough to the
ends for cleaning to occur
- Dispose of contents from the bowl
- Refill bowl with same amount, and repeat potentially multiple times
- Partial drying of bow hair should be done using a disposable soft toilet
paper (or something less textured than paper towel, more absorbent than
- Start holding the tip of bow pointing up, so hairs extend from the tip
similarly to when playing– to avoid accidentally pulling hairs out of
the tip (as this isn’t replacing bow hair)
- Gently slide towel down the length of bow hair
- Gently press moisture from bow hair
- Avoid excessive force, as remaining acetone will evaporate within a few
minutes at room temperature (72℉ or 22℃)
- Further drying may be done by waving or wiggling bow hair in the air,
but be careful to avoid any spray to eyes, cello, etc.
- After several minutes to ensure evaporation, reassemble bow and replace
- When applying rosin to newly cleaned bow hair, more rosin than usual will
Avoid touching bow hair with fingers, as oil from skin may impede rosin from
sticking to that area.
Replacing Bow Hair
Go to a competent luthier.
Alternatively, for those unafraid to try it yourselves:
- Consider geared turning pegs with rotation ratio of about 4:1
One downside of geared pegs is that when one breaks, maintenance is
required: removal and replacement. By contrast, if a wooden peg slips just
before a performance due to humidity change or other circumstance, as a last
resort you can always use rosin in lieu of peg compound. (Just be sure to
properly clean everything afterwards.)
Also at the time of writing, there is no equivalent of “posture pegs” that
are also geared pegs.
Tuning By Ear for Equal Temperament
Instead of using an app or mechanical tuner, train your ear from comparing
with a sample, such as an A note from another instrument or tuning fork.
With one string in tune, the other strings may be tuned from it.
Tuning via Harmonics
You can tune a cello using harmonics, but understand that word to have
very specific meaning.
For most musicians playing cello, harmonics may occur anywhere along any of
the strings by lightly touching a string while it is vibrating.
Harmonics occur when
lightly touching a vibrating string at one of its nodes –using
terminology from physics.
The harmonic at 1/3 length of the string should be the the same note as ½
the length of the lower string, which is also a harmonic.
Base upon this principle, it’s possible to tune a cello for purposes
other than playing within a full orchestra.
If you tune your strings using harmonics alone, it will be tuned to
(no “beats”– as in
binaural beating) and then the D will be slightly flat, the G more flat,
and the C very flat compared to the Tempered Scale used by modern
For Equal temperament (from
vstrings), compare Bach’s 3rd Suite with
tuning using Perfect Fifths tuning (via harmonics), and C will sound very
Competent piano tuners actively listen for the beats of a Tempered Fifth:
only one or two beats per second, which is very difficult to hear on a
Cello’s complex tone.
Most cellists don’t play open A, D or G for any significant length of time,
so Perfect Fifths tuning isn’t noticeable. Then, they simply re-tune C
higher by a little to match the orchestra “by experience” as professionals do.
“I emphasize that the fifths must not be in any degree wide and only
slightly narrow. Do not tune using harmonics [alone]. It gives Pythagorean
Fifths [which leads to the Pythagorean Comma] which the string may in many
ways be false.”
“You usually see cellists using harmonics, but that’s to check that the
string hasn’t slipped.”
Baroque uses lots of open strings, so it’s best to tune to the
- Cello Coach app
- Includes exercises for confirming that you are playing in tune
- Korg TM-60 Tuner Metronome, USD $30 (2021 price)
This is tuning via harmony– not “harmonics” as an experienced cellist
would understand the concept:
- Start with a proper tone:
- e.g., “A” 440Hz tuning fork (A4 or MIDI note 67)
- The Cello’s A string is a Piano’s A3 or two ivory keys below Middle C
- The Cello’s A string is 220.00 Hz (MIDI note 57)
- After being struck, place base of vibrating tuning fork on cello bridge
and base of your ear to C peg while plucking or bowing each string
- With both notes playing, listen for smooth “ringing” without any
- Ringing occurs, for example, when playing A on G String such that
the A String vibrates sympathetically when that note on the G
string is correct
- However, entry level student grade cellos are unlikely to produce
audible ringing, which is partly why you want the best cello that
you can afford
- Cellos with thinner varnish and thinner top will ring and project
best but cost significantly more; e.g., 2021 USD $5k-10k range
- Tune each lower string initially by harmonics:
- However, beware that this will be Flat when compared to other
instruments within a modern orchestra
- Modern orchestras use Equal Temperament
- Without Equal Temperament yet tuning by harmonics alone yields
Pythagorean Tuning with caveats and limitations of the Pythagorean
- Finish tuning each string by accounting for beats or beating:
- These beats may be familiar from binaural beating, which provides a
way of experiencing the acoustic phenomena
- D string should have 1.5 beats per second (precisely 1.49830) compared
to A string
- G string also should have 1.5 beats per second but compared to its
immediate higher neighbor, D string
- C string should have 2/3 (0.6674) beats per second compared to its
immediate neighbor, G string
- When tuning this way, err higher than lower pitch:
- “Human hearing and perception finds it slightly more acceptable to be
off-key yet slightly higher in pitch than lower”
–paraphrased from an instructor with 40+ years performance experience
- [seeking a citation on this…]
- Soundbrenner offers a few varieties:
- Apps for mobile/tablet
which offer a visual metronome mode by muting sound from within the app
(rather than for the entire device)
- Wearable devices for vibrating/silent operation
- Tempo metronome app for iOS also comes highly recommended
When initially working with a metronome:
- Begin by using a metronome accompanying simple scales like C Major:
- Start when you no longer require sheet music for a particular scale
- Focus upon rhythm and timing– with consistency and coordination
- Note that these points may omit cello or bow
- For sheet music, work without a cello or bow, and just clap:
- Metronome apps may default to Quarter Notes (𝅘𝅥), so try also changing to
Eighth Notes (🎜)
- Clap the timing of each note to match that of the metronome
- It’s important to actually clap with both hands for the tactile experience
- Establishes muscle-memory of each arm working in unison
- If comfortable with pizzicato (plucking instead of bowing), try that
- Next, play only open strings equivalent of the sheet music with metronome
- Finally putting it all together, play all notes properly with metronome
- Break the sheet music down into chunks of 1-3 measures
- Spread practicing of each chunk over several days
- Then, that goal is to complete a single page of beginner sheet music by
end of 1-2 weeks
When initially working with a metronome, this introduces something new to
track in your mind. Synchronizing its beats while playing creates a dynamic
requiring different form of concentration. It might be mentally challenging
as well as exhausting for many practice sessions. As our comfort with this
tool increases, those issues fade. Give it time– time while actively
practicing with it.
Lessons – Beyond The Basics
For those relatively new to playing cello– such as with less than six
months of daily practice– overtones commonly are perceived as squeaks or
false notes. After several months of daily practice, those acoustic
anomalies become decipherable as you observe your own patterns of playing.
Reflecting upon each cause and effect, distinguishing a fundamental tone from
its accompanying overtones emerges from experience.
Overtones may be inadvertently caused from various sources:
- Incorrect finger position for inaccurate notes
- Most likely cause for those with less than six months of daily practice
- Bow traveling vertically along a string during a single note–
- A likely cause for those with less than six months of daily practice
not staying in its “lane”
- Insufficient pressure from Right Arm bowing–
arm weight not transferred progressively as bow moves from frog to tip
- Insufficient callouses on Left Hand fingertips
- Too much or not enough pressure on bow
- Strings may need proper cleaning– not just wiping
- Strings may be in need of replacing
- Sound post may need an adjustment
Callouses require balance. Too little leads to a student’s tendency to
squeeze the string to fingerboard with Left Hand. Too much can be
problematic for feeling each string under your fingertips.
Working certain materials such as castor oil (Palms Christi) on the
fingertips can remove callouses with very few applications.
While performing certain tasks, consider confining certain actions to just
the bow arm’s hand such as handling olive oil when cooking. When cleaning,
consider wearing gloves. Protect those precious cello callouses!
The sound post may move due to a variety of circumstances:
- A new cello played daily for several months may need its sound post
- Sound post may need to be shortened, lengthened and/or re-positioned
- This is similar to a car or bicycle receiving a special tune-up after so
- Any locale with relatively wide swings in humidity or temperature can lead
to sound post issues
- Seasonal changes and daily changes should be considered
- A hard-shell case is insufficient protection for the sound post from being
dislodged due to a bump
- Even the “floating” style pad systems have limits
- Using cases with wheels has been known to transfer vibrations that can upset
a sound post
Upgrading Your Rental
As referenced in Second Lessons: self-guided after interruption,
there may be a need or opportunity to change or upgrade your rented
In my case, change became necessary due to relocation across national
borders but also welcomed as an opportunity for upgrading because of
particularities of their rent-to-own policy. (e.g., six months is “same as
cash” for that specific cello; otherwise, half of rental payments apply
towards a different one.)
The first acoustic cello rented in Vancouver was non-laminated with inlaid
purfling yet still a student cello. It was from Gliga of Romania (“Carlton”
brand, retail CAD$3000 or approximately USD$2500 in 2021). The next one in
Boise was the final student model before intermediate range from Krutz (300
Series, retail USD$2800 also in 2021) but with painted simulated purfling.
After regaining proficiency, the Carlton may have been a grade above
that particular Krutz.
The first bow was an entry level fiberglass model, and the next rental was a
woven carbon-fiber with less of a weighted tip.
The Krutz 500 series cello (USD$4300) that the shop encouraged me to also
try was paired with bow she selected made from Pernambuco wood. It was a
great experience but just beyond my range at merely six months as a student
and the prior six weeks without access to practicing.
Practicing on instruments too far out of reach might become a source of
frustration which then becomes counterproductive. For instance, this
particular Pernambuco wood bow had almost no perceivable weight at the tip,
which requires more dexterity of the Right Hand index finger (Finger 1)
while bowing. At that time, I wasn’t quite there yet especially after a gap
in practice due to relocating.
In this case, however, it was a great benchmark and set new aspirations.
The cello actually purchased in month thirteen since beginning was from
another maker and approximately at or above the Krutz 700 series. While
that story is for another time, a fortunate series of events contributed to
the right cello coming to me. Its former owner had upgraded to a
professional model, and the cello now in my possession helped that person
Every cello has a story.
The process of trying a set of cellos curated by a quality violin shop or
music store is sometimes called “cello tasting.”
Interviews, Blogs, Podcasts, etc.
Play everything by heart
- Johannes Moser interviewing Alban Gerhardt
- JM: You premiere Brahams by memory… Does it come naturally to you?
… Do you have a strategy? How does it stick?
- AG: I’ve always played everything by heart.
When I grew up, it was normal to play everything by heart.
The rules from violin playing from 1905 or so: Good sound, good
intonation, blah, blah, and one of the ten rules was playing by heart.
It was as important as playing in tune.
[Special memorization technique available to his Patreon subscribers]
- AG quoting an earlier conversation about photographic memory:
… Photographic memory is cheating; it’s not playing by heart. You see
it there; you still have to flip the pages [in your mind]. …
That’s why in the English language, “To know something by heart” is
different than to just memorize. Knowing by heart is really knowing
inside-out, to penetrate the whole piece.
But you have to practice twice as much…
- Alban Gerhardt on Patreon
6 July 2020
Memorizing Technique Videoblog
- Paid subscription required
- I would ascribe Alban’s “Learn to play by heart” technique as “overcoming
the common tendency to ‘look but not see’” aptly applied to sheet music
- He advocates for ultimately teaching yourself to truly see the music
rather than mere notes on the page
- Filling-in details Alban omits of his methods, look to contemplative
meditation techniques such as those taught in Chris Humphrey’s classic
text, Concentration And Meditation
On thoroughly enjoying an otherwise high-stress performance
- Pablo Ferrández “TALKING CELLO” with Johannes
- PF’s Episode 5 with subtitles en Español
- At t=16m11s,
JM talks about his “mental coach” taking him through the day of his
performance with Berlin Philharmonic– via meditation, well in advance–
because “my heroes belong on that stage; I don’t belong there, but now I
have the engagement, so what do I do?”
- JM explains that meditation exercise at
- That story leads to JM explaining how it’s really about finding that one
point where it’s all worth it– getting beyond the stress of travel,
airport checkpoints, hotels, as well as anxiety of the performance.
It’s important from the beginning not to say, “You don’t have to be
nervous,” or “Try to overcome your nerves.”
No! Confront them!
Confront the devil. Confront the daemons that you have…
Learn to live with your nervousness…
People get nervous because of how they feel on stage…
Get used to the fact that you will feel that on stage!
And that’s okay…
Accept that as the rule [for you].
Successful performers, when asked before a big event, “Are you nervous?”,
will answer, “No,
The effects and symptoms of nervous stress from anxiety is physiologically
indistinguishable from that of excitement from anticipation. Therefore,
reframing that feeling
to “excitement” can have a dramatic benefit.
When practicing for such a performance, consider walking quickly up several
flights of stairs immediately before playing the piece.
The following subsections are a continual work-in-progress.
Easy strings sheet music for beginners– print free or download in PDF:
Sheet Music creating/editing/playback software:
- Musescore software
- for Linux, BSD, Mac, Windows, etc. with Android, iOS apps
- Accommodates beginners and professionals
- Free, open-source, Libre
- Great reputation; very mature software
via menu: Add -> Text -> Fingering
(may require starting with Experimental Mode enabled for v3.2)
- or you can map a keyboard shortcut for Fingering
- or pick from the Fingering palette, which first requires changing from
“Basic” to “Advanced” drop-down menu in lower-left corner of main app
window on the desktop version.
- Musescore sheet music
If the software synth version of other instruments is unsuitable for your
needs, search the Internet for “backing tracks” or “karaoke” keywords. A
well-respected brand in this field dates back to 1950, Music Minus One
based just outside of New York City.
Lessons With A Soloist
According to notes within Alban Gerhardt’s
patreon membership levels,
fees for lessons with a soloist generally range between EUR €200
and €400 per lesson
[which are greatly discounted for his Patreon subscribers, but expect that his
discount may be limited to 2020-2021].
- Johann Sebastian Bach:
- Each score has a unique number within the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV)
catalog, first published in 1950 and updated in 1990
- Much gratitude to his second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach, for providing
- Presumed to have written cello suites circa 1720’s
- Lots of legends, little facts about origins of the cello suites
- Legend: cellist Pablo Casals “discovered” Bach sheet music prints in a thrift store
in Barcelona at age thirteen
- Similar legends about Brandenberg concertos
- Most of these stories circulated heavily in 1930’s
which coincides with marketing of recordings (e.g., 78rpm format which
predated 33rpm LP vinyl records)
- The Well Tempered Clavier (BWV 846-893) influenced generations of composers
- One of Bach’s favorite students, Johann Christian Kittel
- Kittel’s favored student, Johann Friedrich Dotzauer (cellist, composer)
- Johann Peter Kellner, circa late 1720’s
- Publisher: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1826
- Dotzauer’s student, Karl Dreschler
- Dreschler’s student, Friedrich Wilhelm Grützmacher, was editor of the
copy found by Casals, which brought the Suites “into the 20th century”
with superfluous chords and notation “reminiscent of the silent movie era”
- Grützmacher arranged/re-arranged Boccherini’s Cello Concerto in B flat Major
- Became popular during Early Music revival in the 1960s
- Musical Heritage Society contracted Nikolaus Harnoncourt to record cello suites
which used the rearranged versions
- 1970’s returned to historical techniques with notable recordings by
Anner Bylsma and Sigiswald Kuijken
- Contemporary efforts at recording Bach’s complete catalog:
Netherlands Bach Society’s
All for Bach series and
Voices of Music
- Béla Bartók
- Joseph Haydn
- Fritz Kreisler
For context, Alban Gerhardt on Patreon
contemporary cello concertos;
e.g., his opinions on why only Dutilleux’s and Lutoslawski’s– and no other
concertos– made it into the standard repertoire.
- Philharmonia Orchestra (London, UK)
- Twelve Tones
- Experimental string instruments
- Great insights to the history of musical tuning
- From 4000 years ago in China through Babylonia, European Renaissance and
Twentieth Century’s use of 12 tone Equal Temperament to Glenn Branca’s
influence on Sonic Youth circa 1980
Professional Audio Recording for Cello
Considerations for aspiring students to eventually be recorded or be
- “Nothing records stringed instruments better than a ribbon mic,” as was
commonly used in early- to mid-Twentieth Century
- e.g., remastered versions
of Pablo Casals from late 1930’s has a contemporary dynamic range based
upon source materials from that era largely due to quality equipment of
the day, such as a ribbon microphone
- Frequency range accommodates wide reach: 20Hz to above 20kHz
- Progress isn’t always strictly forward, especially with technology
- For a live performance mic:
- Read reviews on Sweetwater Sound’s website, as that’s where professional
audio engineers go
- e.g., DPA 4099 CORE Instrument Microphone with Cello Mounting Clip
- Because the cello moves when played– and unlike a studio recording
environment where multiple takes are possible with varied mic setups– a
live performance has exactly one chance to get the mic setup right
Acoustic Treatment for Sound Dampening Practice Room
the physics of music
category on Mindful Cellist
- Cello Tone Analysis
- e.g., synth vs sampled cello waveform
- The effect of wood removal on bridge frequencies
- Finite element analysis methods applied to investigate 1 violin and
2 cello bridge designs
- From CAS 1990,
along with other papers published in
- Applicable to violincello,
The Physics of the Violin
- By Lothar Cremer, Translated by John S. Allen
- First published in German in 1981 with research from the prior twenty years
- MIT Press, 1984
- ISBN: 9780262527071
- reviews: goodreads,
- Best suited for physicists who seek mathematical proof of acoustic
properties and tactile feedback for aspects that beginning cellists
would already understand
- Seemingly practical theories about finger corrosion of strings affecting its
mass are outweighed by the practical tendency to replace strings before
- Regarding cello soloists performing on a riser or platform: Chapter 14
ends (starting end of p406) noting the value of such platforms might be
just tactile feedback to the performer, and if so, let that be reason
enough; whereas, a solid smooth surface behind an upright bass has
measurable benefits for its acoustic projection
- The Golden Proportions of Cremona (The vibrating string as the basic module)
article by André Theunis
- Describes how string length on a Strad mold matches length of
interior volume of the resonance chamber
- The upper bout, lower bout and C-bout widths are half its length,
inverse Phi and half that, respectively
- It would have been nice to get a physicist’s insight on this article,
which was my expectation for The Physics of the Violin book
- [TODO seeking deeper exploration on these topics]
Music theory rooted in 17th Century European tradition and thought such as
12-tone Equal Temperament:
Purchasing A Cello
Common Advice: rent vs buy
Advice consistent from many, many sources:
First, rent for several months before buying anything. Rent different
types to try before buying anything until you are certain of what to get.
See/hear an excerpt of
A Cello Tasting
where two similar models are played in sequence: one had just been made
and the other had been played heavily over the prior year and a half.
Essentially, there are many factors that go into selecting a cello to buy
that’s right for you.
Consider an upgrade for everything else before buying a cello:
- video camera for consciously and objectively observing yourself play
come in many different
- high quality practice mute; e.g., WMutes.com
- sturdy music stand for home (separate than travel types)
- cello stand
- proper chair/stool
- longer endpin, if taller
- hard case
- acoustic tiles in practice room
- teachers (a good instructor should be able to tell you when you’ve
- band mates (play with a variety of musicians)
Traditional Wooden Cellos
For finding a luthier, search for members of the various guilds and
graduates of specific schools:
Quality student models originating from China but set-up & finished in
Europe and/or USA:
- Their 300-series was my 2nd acoustic wooden cello rented
- At time of rental, moving up to their 500-series was an aspiration
but a little beyond my abilities
- Century Strings
- Maple Leaf Strings
- William Lewis & Son, which is owned by [Conn & Selmer]
Quality student models originating from Europe:
- North American subsidiaries of Gliga of Romania:
- Cellos from ViolinsLover.com, which is Gliga Violins USA
in Las Vegas, Nevada
- Cellos from ViolinsLover.ca, which is Gliga Violins Canada
in West Vancouver, British Columbia
- “European string cello handmade in our workshop in Romania”
- Their “Carlton” model was my first acoustic wooden cello rented
Pernambuco wood bows:
- Why this type of wood, caesalpinia echinata:
- At room temperature (22℃, 72℉) it offers the most stable transmission of
vibration than other woods– least dampening of vibration
- Of the 125 varieties of pernambuco subspecies, only 12 used for bow-making
- New wood needs to season for a minimum of 10-12 years before being made
into a bow
- Avoid bows that bend/skew to the left when either tightened or loosened
- See also:
Exploring Bow Sound
from Aitchison Mnatzaganian
- There is a prohibition on exporting raw Pernambuco wood out of Brazil:
- “IPCI and its members pledge to a
self-imposed moratorium on any new wood purchases until inventories of
pernambuco forests have been completed and conservation plans that will
enable the sustainable use of pernambuco by future generations have been
- However, Arcos Brasil exports finished bows
from Brazil, and they maintain their own
- Most other bow makers are well-stocked with raw materials for the time being
Arcos Brasil’s “silver” and “gold” level bows
are of great quality based on balancing price with performance, and these
were my personal selections upon acquiring an advanced cello.
Carbon Fiber Cellos
An excerpt as stated by Ricci Carbon
From the earliest construction of string instruments, far back in
antiquity, wood has been the dominating material used.
But if the old and innovative masters had available a material with
better qualities, they would have used it.
- Luis and Clark
- The original
- Invented by Luis Leguía
- Company based in Massachusetts
- Made in USA
- Company originally known for carbon bows, now also known for cellos
- Constructed like traditional wood cellos but with carbon fiber materials
- Company based in New York
- “bows made in our own North American facilities”, thus their instruments
probably are too
- Available in black carbon fiber or
premium option of airbrushed wood imitation finish
- Make in Germany
- Ricci Carbon Instruments
- Ebony wood or optional carbon fingerboard
- Optional “wooden optic”
- “manufactured manually by specialists in Austria and Germany (Bavaria)”
Carbon Fiber soundpost:
Things to consider:
From a review of Luis and Clark carbon fibre VIOLIN vs wood,
- For creating a balanced sound:
- Her local luthier changed the sound post
- and found a new location for it
- Going against all principles, if it had been a wooden instrument:
They positioned the new sound post directly under foot of the bridge
- “And suddenly, we got a balanced sound!”
- Nice voice that blends in with an orchestra
- However, might not be the best option for soloist
[opinion circa 2017; situation likely differs today]
- Other valuable information and considerations for those dealing with
severe climate and/or extreme temperature shifts such as traveling from
air conditioned space to scorching outside heat (Australia) to car with
A/C to outside again and into another air conditioned space
Looking to conventional use of carbon fiber in bicycles and aircraft, there
are nuances within these materials and applications currently untapped by
For instance, consider that a contemporary carbon bicycle is rigid where
you need it (around the bottom-bracket for stress of torque due to pedaling)
for control yet flexible where you want it (the seat stay where the seat
post connects) for comfort. These variants in quality exist despite being
on a single object of the same bicycle frame.
That in turn is due to tight tolerances and controls over all aspects of the
carbon fiber materials and manufacturing process. This includes changes in
weave of the actual carbon fibers for each target location, like a quality
fisherman’s sweater (pullover) with various intricate patterns.
One day musical instruments will attain this level of precision.
Until then, my preference remains with traditional tonewoods.
Checklist For Cello Inspection
- Bring tuning fork and tuner app!
- Bring magnifying lens
- Bring reading glasses
- Bring small flashlight or mobile phone with light
Questions For Seller
- How was the instrument stored?
- ideally in its case, on its side
- Has the instrument ever fallen?
- e.g., fallen on its bridge?
- What was the temperature & humidity range?
- 40%-50% humidity preferred
- Was the instrument ever stored or played in direct sunlight?
- okay for wooden if only temporary; less significant for Carbon Fiber
- Any occurrence or risk of mold, mildew, insects, worms, etc?
- not applicable for Carbon Fiber or other composite materials
- What kind of humidifier was used, if any?
- e.g., internal?–check for leak damage!
- What type of varnish?
- student-grade tends to use polyurethane
- advanced models should have spirit varnish
- No high-gloss finish
- No laminated wood: confirm via edges of f-holes
- Inlaid purfling
- Varnish should be in light layers
- Varnish should show some wood grain
- Varnish flame: contrasting light/dark of wood grain under varnish
- Real flame is iridescent: light areas become dark with change of
light/vantage point and vice versa
- Ebony fingerboard and pegs
- Ideal grain of ebony seems almost perfectly smooth
- Pegs turn and stay?
- Bridge without strings being too deep or too shallow
- Bridge feet fit without gaps
- Bridge’s flat side should face tailpiece at 90 degrees to cello top
- Fingerboard should be straight (i.e., not warped)
- Fingerboard scoop: depress string at nut and bridge to see this dip
- String to fingerboard on A should be 0.9mm
- String to fingerboard on C should be 1-1.4mm
- Neck back should be finished with oil, not colored varnish
- Peg ends shouldn’t extend or be recessed too far
- Endpin length sufficient for your height
- Endpin should be removable
- F-hole shape is in tact– not distorted by sound post
- Sound post well positioned: about 1” (2.5cm-3cm) from bridge
- Sound post without splinters or cracks
- Inspect for cracks, chips, etc.
- Discrepancies in finish or varnish where ribs meet the front or back
could indicate that the seam there has become unglued and may lead to an
open seam in future
- Tune by ear using a tuning fork, confirm with app
- Open strings
- Open strings with crossing
- Find the wolf:
- Slide on C from F to F# in first position
- Repeat with a wider range of notes
- Then try same note ranges on other strings
- “Never trust a cello that doesn’t have a wolf” –many luthiers
Document revision history:
- 2022-08-14 Notes from final in-person lesson with second instructor
- 2022-08-03 Added section: Progressing Towards Long-Term Goals
- 2022-07-19 Add links to MIDI and WAV files for Open Strings reference
- 2022-07-09 Add notes: shifts, ringing and metronome
- 2022-04-17 Add notes from lessons with second instructor
- 2022-03-27 Add: Breaking Through The Bootstrapping Paradox
- 2022-03-12 Add second instructor
- 2021-10-23 Revised various descriptions of books
- 2021-09-28 Add summary as bullet list
- 2021-09-25 Comprehensive edit; e.g., expand upon what makes a good instructor
- 2021-08-28 Revert to American English after returning from Vancouver
- 2021-06-06 Updated physics of cello material, harmonics, tuning
- 2021-06-02 Notes from Amit Peled’s instructional materials
- 2021-05-18 Ninth weekly lesson: practice enjoying your own performance!
- 2021-04-27 Sixth weekly lesson with instructor, first sightreading
- 2021-03-23 First 1:1 in-person instruction
- 2021-03-05 Started working through Vera Mattlin Jiji’s book
- 2021-02-19 rough draft based upon notes and browser history
- 2021-01-26 Rented a “Silent” cello for discovery and experimentation