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Bigger is not always better.

December 20, 2007 at 12:55 AM

One of the many wonderful things I am learning from the privilege of playing in a piano trio is that the often heard suggestion that the cello is an easier instrument (especially for adult beginners ) is not necessarily true. While it is certainly less stressful position wise, I think the left arm position is something that adults have to ease into rather carefully on violin, there are myriad other ways in which the cello is a real pain in the botty. Observing these has been very helpful in clarifying certain subtle points of difficulty on the violin. It is extremely useful to work out things while watching a cellist because the sheer size of the instrument gives the impression of violin problems looked at under a magnifying glass.
Our trio had been pottering around for a while until the last competition we entered when we required to submit a recording of the Beethoven Trio in C minor. The cellist in our group is a very talented semi professional but she has so much other work going just to stay alive she rarely has time to do much pure technical work. Fortunately most of the time her sheer imagination and quick talent gets her through. But after our first play through at the recording session I had to stop and say quite bluntly to her that her intonation in the accompanying figures both in the middle and at the end of the first movement simply was not good enough to make a recording that I would send anywhere. She’s quite comfortable with my general rudeness (probably because I’m not Japanese) so she was quite happy to work painfully slowly with the piano (much of the Beethoven is unison piano and cello- it’s a bugger) note by note. During this process I realized she had inadvertently learned and automated slightly incorrect intonation and it took a lot of intense work at this glacial pace to retune her ears to what the piano was doing. One of the things we all absorbed the hard way at this point was that piano trios must , come heaven or high-water, be in tune with the piano, no matter how out of tune it happens to be…. But I we also discovered a technical fault at the root of the problem which was that on the cello one stretches for a higher note on the same string and this was having the effect of pulling her first finger note up. From this practice she recognized suddenly that this had become a gremlin that had crept into her playing over recent years. Amazing lady that she is, we met two days later and she had resolved it.
But it reminded me that one of the worst intonation faults violinists are guilty of is thinking they are playing in tune but having a different pitch for the same note throughout a phrase. It is very often helpful for players to pick out repetitions of the same note (or at various octave levels) and make sure they are absolutely the same. This would avoid the horrible effect of a player shooting up fast arpeggios and the like using a different tonic or whatever in every new octave range. More consistent intonation on the first page of the Mendelssohn would be nice too.;)

From Albert Justice
Posted on December 20, 2007 at 1:26 AM
I have an adult friend who plays cello, and she indeed finds it a pain in the booty Buri...

The bowing can be incredible to learn, says she.

From Tara Shaw
Posted on December 20, 2007 at 2:48 AM
I played the cello once as an adult. It was enough to convince me that I'm much better of with violin. My hand simply isn't that big.

I love watching cellists play though. Simply amazing. Violin is hard enough, I can't believe anyone would think cello was "easier". Though it would be nice to get to sit down all the time. ;-)

From Mendy Smith
Posted on December 20, 2007 at 3:44 AM
I also play cello on the side. It does work out the fourth finger ALOT, and your bow arm gets tired. I found that bowing on the cello is much more demanding than on viola. Such a strange angle to bow at! However, vibrato is 1000% easier. Shifting is easier as well. Intonation is challenging with the finger spacing....
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on December 20, 2007 at 3:57 AM
I am frequently amazed by my colleagues power and use of fourth finger. But she routinely uses it as though she is not aware of the tonal advantages of using a third in expressive passages in higher positions. I often suggets she try this kind of violnistic (?) gfingering and she is usually surprise dby the difference,
From Mendy Smith
Posted on December 20, 2007 at 4:12 AM
Buri - sometimes it is just not practical to shift. However, playing cello a bit on the side HAS made me aware of how useful making these little shifts to use the 3rd finger rather than the 4th is as well :) Playing cello got me to using 2nd position much more often than I normally would.
From Ray Randall
Posted on December 20, 2007 at 6:38 PM
It's good that we can understand the problems our colleagues playing different instruments have that we do not and vice versa.
I used to know a professional tuba player with asthma.
From Bernadette Hawes
Posted on December 20, 2007 at 9:50 PM
I found it interesting last year learning to play a Dancla piece in the key of B flat. Stretching from the f on the e string to then play d on the a string took a while. It helped when the factory violin did, to my surprise, get broken in, and I could hear when I had reached the correct spot on the 'd' with (as I later learned were called) sympathetic vibrations. In the beginning, having been used to stretching from the f# I had to learn to make it a biiig stretch from f natural.

Same probs now with shifting around of course. And not getting back to the same place ....

Well something has to keep us occupied on this earth eh? :-)


From Stephen Brivati
Posted on December 20, 2007 at 10:30 PM
Bernadette. That@s interesting. Keep in mind that the hand stretches backwards, not forwards. So for the interval you describe if one place the d first and expans the base knuckles forthe backward reach obne can train the hand to be bogge rwithout stretching in a stressful way. Everytime you feel you need to stretch up to a note practice setting it up from top down first and then keeping that `feel` in the hand play as written.
We are only on earth to love people (and play the violin);)
From Bernadette Hawes
Posted on December 21, 2007 at 7:11 PM
Hi Buri,

" Keep in mind that the hand stretches backwards, not forwards"

This puzzled me somewhat - but I think I see what you mean. I'm not sure I see how to get there however. Play 'd' and then aim for f natural? Are you hinting at training the ear to hear the sounds, training the hand to stretch before trying them in reverse order? I actually had to play them b flat, f natural, d.

I'll have a go anyway. You always have a different take on things. That piece was for last summer's exam, but I still play it regularly so as not to forget it and it keeps on improving.

"We are only on earth to love people (and play the violin);)"
Agreed!!! Though I would also add love God as well. :)

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on December 22, 2007 at 12:25 AM
Bernadette, the stretch thing is that one places the hand in the most comfortable position for the fourth finger. The fingers then stretch back a litlte from the base joints. An extreme exam-ple is playign a tenth. If you palce the first finger and reach for the fourth that is hard. If you plac ethe fourth and reach backward sfor the firts that is easy because the hand is stretching in its natural direction. So when you pracitce your little pattern first of all rearrange the order of notes so that your fourth finger is confortable. Then reahc back for the lower notes. Pracitce that until you have the `feeling` that the hand is centered around the upper fingers but play it as written. There is a big difference. This approach is importnat even in practice where there is no apparent stretch such as thirds. Typically they are practiced with the hand anchore don the first finger but it is actually more useful to wexperiment with this feeling of reaching back before placing them in the regualr way.

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