Sunday, July 30, 2006

 

Bowing the Cello


I've struggled for months to understand the various bowings and musical notations. In large part, my difficulty is internal. I just didn't know enough about the cello (actually, the bow) to be able to comprehend the explanations so patiently given by my teacher, as well as the more complicated (and rather disjointed) explanations given by Lous Potter, Jr. in his book "The Art of Cello Playing".

I remember the shock of opening a college calculus textbook at the beginning of the school year and looking at one of the chapters near the middle. It was like a foriegn language I'd never seen before. Even though I could read and understand each of the words by themselves, their meaning - the combination of words - just didn't make any sense to me. I probably could have read those words over and over and over until I memorized them, and still I wouldn't have been able to understand the idea they were meant to convey. I just wasn't ready. I hadn't yet absorbed the basic concepts outlined in Chapters 1 - 14, which were necessary to understand the concepts in Chapter 15.

So it is with the cello. I've read the Potter descriptions many times, and I understand all the words, but until I've accumulated enough experience with the basics of the cello and specifically of bowing, there is no way I could understand what Potter was trying to say. Now, after 8 months (!) I am finally beginning to be able to make sense of it.

Of course there's no way to appreciate the finer points of moving the bow across the strings until I'm able to hold the bow properly, with the right amount of looseness and control in the forefinger and thumb, the right amount of relaxation in each of the other three fingers, the proper angle of the wrist, using the muscles in the forearm, properly using the elbow as a hinge, a relaxed shoulder and neck and back, the proper posture, etc., etc., etc. In many ways I haven't gotten most of these figured out yet, but I have progressed far enough to be able to begin to understand more of the terminology and detailed explanations of bowing techniques.

There's a tendency to assume that we learn things in a discrete sequential manner - step by step. First we master one step, then we move on to the next step, etc. That may be true for mathematics, but for the cello, at least, learning is more gradual and accumulative. By that I mean that there is a vast amount of "knowledge" or information that we work at grasping slowly over time. At any one moment, we may be working on dozens or hundreds of particular skills. We don't simply "master" one skill and then move on to the next. Instead with practice and patience, we slowly get better and better at these skills (or particular pieces), and at some point, we finally realize we have made a step-change, and (for a while) it feels as if we have finally "gotten" a particular piece. Then we realize how much further we still have to go with it...

Meanwhile, though we don't just stall out, we continue to move on and work on other skills. At any one point in time in the learning process, there will be some skills we've more or less mastered (never perfectly, though), some skills we've gotten pretty good at, some we are just beginning to show capabilities with, some that we are struggling to grasp, and some we can't believe we'll ever be able to do. We have to continue to work on all these levels, gradually moving into new skills as wefinally conquer the older challenges.

Sometimes, it helps to put aside a piece that seems insurmountable - for me it has been the Bach Minuet #2 in Suzuki 1. Even now, after working on it daily for more than four months, I am still struggling with that 9-note opening sequence. I've played it over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over. I've broken it down into pairs, triplets, quads, etc. I've played it pizzicato. I've played it s-l-o-w. Still, it just doesn't work right, yet. Of course, I am playing it better, but not yet good enough. I've decided to put it aside for a while... for a few weeks, at least.

At the same time, I am finding I'm learning the other Bach pieces (the two newest ones in Suzuki 2, the Minuet #1 and the Minuet #3) which both have second position shifts, and so far I haven't run into any stumbles like those infamous "9-notes". I'm really surprised how easily I've picked these two up, so far. Of course, the Minuet #3 is very familiar, and has always been a favorite; which may be helping.

The ringing tones in my second position intonations are starting to fall into place; this new training is also helping my intonations in first position. I've adjusted my practice schedule so I get to the second position exercises after about 45 minutes, so I'm fully warmed up but not yet tired. I'm really pleased with the quality of the ringing tone I'm getting for "E" on the a-string.


Bowing Definitions

These are taken from the Potter book, and are listed here primarily for documentation and future reference. A few comments are added, in italics.

A dot placed above (or below) a note means to play it short (staccato) and detached from the adjacent notes before and after.

And then there's this (added later), from "How to Read Music", by Len Vogler, page 81: "Staccatto: One of the most commonly used accent marks is the staccato. The staccato mark is a small dot above or below the note head; this indicates the note is to be played short and abrupt. Generally the staccato note is held for less than half of the note's value. It is easier to read [music, where] the notes are staccato than the sixteenth note - sixteenth rest - eighth rest combination."

A slur and dots above (or below) a group of notes means to play these in one bow direction, but detached from each other. See hook bowing and martele bowing.

A horizontal bar above (or below) a note means to broaden it or play it well-sustained. I think this is tenuto?

A dot and a horizontal bar above (or below) a note means "accented but sustained"; played with a marked pulse on each note. I'm still confused by this one, I need to better understand what is meant by a pulse.

De'tache' bowing... a series of detached notes played with separate individual bow strokes, but without the bow leaving the string. The bow is changed smoothly, without interruption, but the effect of each note played with a separate bow is quite different from the effect of groups of notes played in slurred bowings. The latter effect is associated more with legato, sustained playing. The detache' stroke can be played in various parts of the bow, with different lengths of bow stroke (depending upon the tempo, note values, or dynamic strength involved), and at many different bow speeds. It is most often executed in the upper part of the bow, or about at the middle, using a good forearm movement from the elbow. The wrist, however, must not be rigid or stiff, even though the basic motivation of the bow is from the forearm. The tone must be even, the bow moving back and forth straight and on a level plane (like a tabletop, not in an arc), without a change in pressure.

Staccato bowing... Related to the portato as well as the hook bowing... A succession of miniature martele' strokes on the string, played on one bow direction, either up (generally preferred) or down bow. As to impulse for the bowstroke, there are two approaches, largely depending upon the tempo... Unless the speed of the notes is quite fast, the impulse is a lateral movement of the wrist, aided by the fingers, particularly the first finger. The bow is firmly pressed into the string - by the first finger especially - and as the bow stroke is initiated, the pressure is suddenly released: "press-release, press-release" in rapid alternation to accomodate the note values and tempo. The second approach, with a very rapid tempo and/or very quick note values - which make the press-release method impossible. The impulse for each note comes from the forearm, by actually tightening the muscles and pushing (or pulling) the bow by a series of short, rapid, "nervous" jerks. I found early on that I could do this latter style without much difficulty, although sustaining it for very long is hard.

Hook (or link) bowing... A method of connecting tones in one bow direction, which, however, will sound detached, where the rhythm and articulation of the musical passage are better served than with separate bowstrokes. The bow is stopped between each note under the slur - indicated by dots over (or under) the notes. The amount of space and articulation is dictated by the style and tempo of the musical passage, as well as by the taste and discretion of the performer.

Portato (or loure') bowing... A series of two or more notes slurred in one bow direction, but with a slight spacing between each note. The effect is more a smooth "pulsing" of tones rather than a "staccato". The slight spacing of the notes is accomplished with the hand and wrist, the arm motion is "carrying through".

Martele' bowing... de'tache' bowing strokes (on the string) which are not connected, but which start and stop abruptly (each note individually articulated). There are varying degrees of articulation and spacing between the notes, and of dynamic strength applied - according to the tempo, the note values, and the spirit and style of the music. In general, the martele' bow stroke is associated with a marcato, energetic style of playing. In execution, do not relax the bow pressure (or intensity) between or during strokes. This ensures a clear, incisive tone beginning an even tone duration. The arm movement should be active and decisive. The bow pressure is not relaxed druing or between the strokes, there is a slight "shock-absorber" or "recovery" in the hand and fingers, cushioning the effect of the sudden stopping of the bow on the string. This helps prevent extraneous gritty sounds during the spaces between the notes. The bow intensity is maintained into the stick - by the first finger and thumb - between the strokes as well as during the strokes. In that way the bow and fingers are already prepared during the silent pause between strokes to produce an immediate, incisive tone beginning on the next stroke - with a good "bite" or "click".

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