Tuesday, March 30, 2010

 

Thumblessness


After several days of consciously NOT using my left thumb on the neck of my cello, a couple of interesting things have become apparent.

This began last Wednesday with my teacher having to remind me dozens of times during my lesson to let go of my thumb, don't push the strings down onto the keyboard, but let the weight of my arm pull my fingers into the strings [later I read a comment somewhere that my wrist should be just high enough above the plane of the fingerboard to allow my curved fingers to move freely on and off the strings].

Since this is a major issue that if not resolved could lead to permanent disabling problems, my teacher told me to just forget about making progress in my current lesson pieces for a while, and focus instead on relearning how to finger the notes. I could use my lesson pieces if I wanted for practicing the new fingering, but I should not worry about tempos, and I should just slow down if I hit any tough parts.

I started out the first day with scales, slowly. As long as I kept my attention on my thumb, it was OK, but as soon as my attention drifted to note quality, my thumb gradually "wandered" back to the neck. I fixed it and kept going, though. Then I moved onto my current etudes [slowly] and a few random pieces I've been studying lately. By the end of my third practice I was able to not have to concentrate so hard on things thumb.

Since then, it's become almost "normal" to not use my thumb! It didn't take nearly as long as I'd feared to get used to it. So now I only touch the back of the neck when I shift beyond third position, and then only lightly to properly "locate" the hand. That's not to say I haven't still found myself starting to grip again once in a while - these mostly happen when I try to master a passage way too fast and then stress about it.

Last night at orchestra, I was able to play our pieces thumbless...

What's really surprising to me is how much more accurate my extensions are. When I was thumb-locked, I would lock my thumb into place on the neck and try to roll the rest of my hand forward or backward to reach the extended note - seldom far enough. Now I still keep my hand in the appropriate place and I still extend for the note with the first (or fourth) finger, but I let my hand go with the extended finger enough to ensure the notes are accurate.

The same goes for shifts. Rather than barely releasing my thumb just enough to let it slide hard back and forth with each shift (which, of course, led to crappy shifts), I'm focusing more on where the fingers should be going and just going there. I still haven't played anything very fast, and I am slowing it down for the trouble spots, but my thumb isn't sore after practicing, so I must be doing something right.

The other thing that's different is how the notes "feel" as I play them, pulling down into the strings instead of pushing down onto them. They seem to sound rich and pure.

This is kind of exciting. I feel like I've learned a new skill.

Comments:
That is exciting, indeed. Go, you!

This is one thing I took away from my recent Emily lessons: Just Do The Thing. We can amaze ourselves with the speed of progress once we give up our need to focus on the piece and instead focus on The Thing.

If only I could remember that consistently!
 
Another advantage about thumblessness --- Go back to the Breval Sonata and try those trills with a relaxed, completely non-pressing thumb thumb; relaxed all the way down to the base (which extands almost down to the wrist). I'll bet you'll find trills easier.
 
Funny you should mention it, Terry - I actually picked up the Breval this weekend, but quickly realized I'll have to do a lot of refreshing before I can tackle those trills.
 
This is so very confusing. I keep reading things that say you should never play without the thumb, and now I read this and it appears there's no detriment to playing without.

I have to relearn my fingering. I started playing with my fingertips, but my instructor said that was wrong and insisted I play with fingerprints. Now I'm told that's wrong and I should be playing with fingertips. It would be so much easier if everybody would just make up their mind and stick with it.

Still, thank you for posting this. I think I will try to remember to try it and see if I am more relaxed and how my sound quality is.
 
Before the internet we had only on our teachers and lesson books to rely on for technical advice. With the internet we're seeing lots of conflicting advice about almost everything related to cello playing and technique. For example, my teacher advises using rosin sparingly, while David Finckle, in his "Cello Talks" promotes extensive rosin use...

The main reason I am having to learn to play 'thumbless' is because I acquired the damaging habit of gripping the neck with my thumb so tightly. My teacher had told me many times over the past several years to "relax my thumb", but until the recent advent of significant pains in my thumb I simply hadn't taken it that seriously. I probably wouldn't be having to learn this thumbless approach if I'd been able to just relax it more.

One thing I've noticed from watching various performing cellists, is that there is no standardized style or technique - that goes for posture, bow hold, fingering, vibrato, and so on. Each performer has developed his/her particular techniques after years and years of practice. But for us novices, we can't really know what works best for us individually, we just have to trust our teachers' recommendations.
 
Since there's already so much disagreement on the Internet, please indulge me while I add a little more. I find, when you look at the basics, there's actually a lot of agreement and similarity between cellists, considering there's so many thousands of cellists, separated by countries and traditions and "schools" of thought and musical styles. Somehow, you can sense right away from how one moves, when someone is at home behind a cello.
 
I should have been more specific. I was thinking mostly about postures when I wrote this last comment. Compare, for example the way Yo-Yo leans so far back in his chair and the way he holds the cello compared to someone like, say Armen Ksajakian, who seems to wrap his whole body around his cello. Or Alisa Weilerstein, who holds the cello more vertical, with the scroll high above and in front of her head. Some cellists use bent endpins, etc., etc.

You are absolutely right, Terry, that there are certain basic techniques that all cellists need to attain in order to make these oddly shaped wooden boxes sound any good at all. As we all struggle to advance from our initial clumsy scratchings (who doesn't remember their first sounds?) to master those basics, we each have to find our own path - what works best for us.

I recall a posting by one of us cellobloggers several years ago about how learning the cello was a process of two-steps forward, and one-step backward. As soon as you think you've learned a technique, you are then told it is all wrong and shown how to do it properly. But until you've first learned it the wrong way, you cannot possibly be ready to learn how to do it right.
 
that was me that posted about two steps forward, then one back. And I wholeheartedly agree with your next-to-last last sentence. This process has been a continual one of learning and revising and refining. I'm glad to hear that your left thumb pain is going away. I've been trying to get rid of right thumb pain. I ended up redoing my bow grip yet again, but this time it seems like I might have found a good bow hold that works for me without pain. It was really painful practicing through the months it took to fix, but the reward is a much better sound, better control, and a much happier thumb!
 
Hi Guanaco! I´m sure you´ll be very surprised when I tell you where I live.. I´m a 37 year old Venezuelan girl who finally, after many, many years, took the decision of learning how to play this magical instrument that caresses my soul every time I listen to it..I dream every day whith playing my cello. I allready have a teacher, and I´m looking forward to buying my own this month!! I found your bloggsite in the internet today, and it´s very inspiring. Thank you very, very much for those articles about adult beginners!! I promise I´ll keep in touch and inform you about my cello baby steps!!!
 
Oh, okay. Well I guess I'll leave in the thumb play. I don't have problems with my thumb. I have problems with my pinkie so I stopped pressing hard, but my instructor said I needed to press harder. I started pressing harder, and my pinkie started hurting again, so I stopped pressing harder. Not sure what to do other than not press too hard.

I only find myself gripping with my thumb when all of my other fingers are tense. It's like my entire hand tenses up and I have a really strong hold on the cello, and that's when I notice my thumb is holding on for dear life.
 
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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

 

Playing Thumbless


After yesterday's thumb problems, I skipped my weekly Cellocracy practice last night and didn't practice this morning before today's lesson.

We spent today's lesson focused on my left thumb. For the next two weeks I'm not supposed to use my thumb at all [except when needed to move my hand to certain positions - and then immediately let it go]. While my thumb is dangling free, I'm supposed to consciously wiggle it slightly while playing. I'm supposed to think of letting the weight of my hanging arm pull my intonating finger into the string; instead of pushing the finger down onto the string from above. I'm supposed to center the weight on the finger that's playing the note. Any other fingers [as appropriate] should only lightly rest on the string.

As it turns out, when I think about vibrating that note, I'm doing it right.

We played through a few new pieces she'd given me last time and then worked on the Vivaldi piece. I played everything slowly, and at all times, thumbless. My teacher had to remind me, frequently, to let go of the thumb. By the end of the lesson, though, it seemed to be working.

No thumb pain tonight!

Comments:
I shall be following your thumbless efforts with great interest. I tend to use my thumb to generate the force necessary for good intonation and as a result it is usually sore first thing in the morning. Each evening when I start practice I remind myself to not use my thumb but almost immediately I find myself squeezing with it again.

I'll have to try the conscious wiggling while playing to see how that works. I need to do something as unlearning bad habits takes far longer than learning good ones.
 
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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

 

OUCH!


A sudden sharp pain at the base of my thumb - in the fleshy part of the palm! This afternoon, as I was slathering it with Blue Emu I found a rigid muscle in that area that seemed to be the source of it all.

I've been dealing with a lot of generalized pain in this area over the past four months - it came on rather suddenly. I couldn't really pin it down - where, exactly it was hurting, but I'm pretty sure I know why. It seemed to come and go; some days it seemed to be a lot worse than others; some days it seemed to go away altogether.

I've been working at trying to reduce my thumb pressure against the fingerboard, and recently I'd begun to believe I'd made some progress.

Then last night at orchestra I felt a strong "twinge" for a moment; it didn't last nor did it return. However, this morning as I was playing a piece with a lot of first finger extensions, that twinge returned - but this time it was more like a jolt. I looked at my thumb's location on the back of the neck relative to the first finger and I realized I have been locking the thumb in one place on the neck while trying to extend only my forefinger backwards to the Eb. We had talked about this at several recent lessons and my teacher told me I had to let my thumb move freely when I play these extensions. Easy to say, harder to actually do, consistently.

I hate taking ibuprofin for things like this; it seems so ridiculous to ingest large quantities of something that affects the whole body just to deal with a small localized issue like this. It would be nice to be able to rub in a small amount of ibuprofin-laced cream directly on the source. Lacking anything like that I applied Blue Emu. So now, about an hour later, the cream seems to be warming things up and it feels OK... But I can't trifle with this, so I'll probably go ahead and start taking ibuprofin too.

Comments:
Oh no... we have ibuprofen gel here in the UK, but I know you can't get it in Canada. Not available in Alaska either I take it?
 
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Thursday, March 18, 2010

 

Measure by Measure


Z and I saw 'Alice in Wonderland' today. I liked it well enough, I guess... But it seemed incomplete somehow... I don't know.

I'm able to play through the first two pages of the Vivaldi Sonata in E minor more-or-less, but I still have a lot of work to do on quality and getting it up to speed. To that end, this week, I've devoted most of my practice times to working on just one phrase at a time. There are four of five such parts that really needed some work. For each section, I start playing it pizzicato, slowly, for a dozen times or so; then I increase the metronome a few notches and play it pizz another dozen times. Then a little faster, and so on. After getting up to my target speed I slow the metronome back down and do the whole process again, using the bow this time.

For the past several months I've been dealing with some pain in the base of my left thumb, without a doubt due to squeezing the fingerboard [I really wouldn't be surprised to find indentations in the wood at each position]. So, each day I start out practicing vowing to keep my thumb relaxed; I begin my scales consciously not squeezing, letting my thumb hang relatively free. After a while, I end up absorbed in one issue or another and soon forget my thumb, which means I start squeezing again. Nevertheless, it does seem to be getting a little better. I'm able to hold onto that relaxed thumb "thought" a little longer each day. For the first time in many months, my thumb doesn't hurt at all today - even after a full two-hour practice this morning.

Comments:
I, too, struggle to not use my thumb to generate pressure against the fingerboard. Every time I sit down to practice I remind myself to pull with my arm rather than squeeze with my thumb, and every time I forget after a few minutes and find myself squeezing again.

Most mornings I wake up with a mildly sore thumb (primarily in the middle knuckle). The pain goes away once I start moving my thumb but I am worried about developing tendonitis there.

Hopefully, like you, I can gradually increase my thumb-awareness and eliminate this habit.
 
One book I read said to not press hard against the cello with the thumb as if holding on for dear life. I laughed at that statement because it's exactly what I have a tendency to do myself. Nice to know a lot of people have that tendency.
 
I'm a real 'gripper' too. Such a hard habit to break! Really interferes with good vibrato also. It's been suggested to me to practice vibrato with the thumb off the fingerboard altogher until I can put it back on without it digging through to the strings!
 
It's been intersting reading through your journey with the Vivaldi too. I'm also in the process of learning this piece. Mastering some of those tricky shifts is a real challenge.
 
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Thursday, March 11, 2010

 

David Finckel's Cello Talks


Just in case anyone hasn't had the pleasure of viewing David Finckel's fascinating and entertaining "Cello Talks", here's the link: http://en.wordpress.com/tag/cello-talks/4/ .

Since April 2009 he has posted 73 brief (+/- 5 minute) videos.

Comments:
THANK YOU! I didn't know about this site and it's wonderful!
 
I have just started to play cello. It is such a radically different instrument than the instruments that I have played before (clarinet and piano). I like the Cello Talks. Thank you.
 
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Thursday, March 04, 2010

 

Signor Vivaldi di buon compleanno


alerted us today of the 332nd birthday of Antonio Vivaldi. I mention it here because I have been so immersed these past two months in his Sonata in E-minor. While I found the last piece by Tchaikovsky relatively easy to learn (the technical aspects, at least - the musicality still eludes me), the technicals of this Vivaldi sonata have been much more challenging. This week, though, I realized that it is finally coming together. I've been playing it slowly with the metronome, but a few days ago I decided to slow it all down just a little more; it all came together, and I played it through just fine. I'm visualizing the music better, somehow, and it seems to be helping.

My approach to this piece, as well as to two new etudes in the Percy Such book (one by Sebastien Lee, and the other by Felix Battanchon), has changed. I'm not sure exactly what I'm doing differently, but a lot has to do with a change of attitude. I guess I'm no longer in such a hurry to get through it, to produce a finished product. I'm happy to work for hours, if needed, on a single phrase or a line until it falls into place, and then move onto the next part. Also, I no longer feel the need to pressure myself to have something "perfected" for my lesson (that could explain the "success" of my last lesson).

I no longer feel as if I'm trying to measure how much further I have to go in my cello studies. I'm more comfortable with just knowing that I am moving in the right direction - and I am (mostly) doing the right things to get there. My growth will come from doing all that consistently and often.

Comments:
Hee Hee, one is NEVER finished with a piece :)
 
I think it's great that you don't wonder how much further you have to go in cello. I just started my cello studies 13 weeks ago. I'm going into week 14 next week and I'm more excited about cello than I was about learning violin. I do sometimes wonder how long it will take me to get to a point where I can look at a piece of music and not wonder how I'm meant to play it, but just know how it needs to be played. Most often though, I just love the moment of playing...even the beginning pieces, no matter how simple it may seem to the more advanced player.
 
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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

 

Hamster


[image removed]

Comments:
I like this little guy. He's watching me write this comment in the upper left of the screen. Oh wait! He got bored and hopped back on the wheel. He reminds me very much of Lucy, always up for some pellets. :)
 
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