As an active performer within the contemporary music world, I am often asked to lecture on string techniques – both to performers and composers. My own teachers were well aware that good playing technique is a fluid entity, which, whilst requiring firm roots, will develop abilities that cannot be envisaged in lesson number one, and may not have even been invented.
As performers become ever more highly skilled, so composers fulfil the performers with ever more demanding works which slip into the repertoire. Maybe there is a thirty year gap between a work being premiered and it turning up in a lesson as standard repertoire, but in recent years, the efforts of the music colleges and The Associated Board to promote living composers has shortened this timescale dramatically. In the 1960’s, Britten wrote Rostropovitch a cello suite that broke every rule in the book, and in the 1990’s it is regularly heard in the practice rooms. The ‘ground zero’ of cello technique is raised even higher.
Throughout the music world, performers are more highly skilled than ever before, and often work within vastly differing fields with great skill and respect. So, we may see a violinist performing Haydn on a classically set up gut-stringed instrument later appearing in an amplified concert of minimalist music. In both cases it is a musician playing a violin, but the similarities end there. Both styles require different dexterity and co-ordination.
Audiences attend a far wider range of musical events than ever before, and ‘real’ instruments appear in Pop, Rock, Jazz and Dance music with far more frequency. Therefore many performers have had to develop a set of skills with which to negotiate this ever-changing business.
I like to challenge students by asking them to imagine that they are at an event where the CD player has broken and they have to play something for people to dance to. This is often a really difficult thing to do, and yet ironically an 18th century player or composer would not have hesitated in improvising on the spot.
The great jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim once told me that the secret of great technique lies in knowing how to give a concert without an instrument at all. He likened the concept to the Zen method of learning to play the flute. The student masters a flute-shaped iron bar before proceeding to a real instrument. Thus the student is truly comfortable with the flute and has a real appreciation for the beauty of the real instrument.
And yet it is possible to study the cello without looking at the instrument objectively. Why is it shaped like that? What does the bow do? Why are the harmonics in those places? Why does it sound like a voice?
One can undergo a lifetime of instrumental tuition and yet experience no formal tuition concerning the physics of a string. How it vibrates, where the partials lie on the string and how herein lie the secrets of individual sounds and tone colours. With such knowledge it is possible to deconstruct one’s sound and rebalance certain overtones thus adjusting the instrument’s acoustics, timbre and projection of sound.
The research that Pythagorus pioneered in determining pitches, frequencies, the order of partials and the nodes formed along a vibrating string are at the very heart of being a string player. The mysterious sciences of ‘True’ intonation and temperament suddenly become clearer when one understands that many of the overtones present on a string are fundamentally (if you’ll pardon the pun) out of tune! I think it’s important to visualise what is actually happening to the string as the notes are sounded, as well as understanding how the bow grips and releases the string thousands of times every second.
This kind of knowledge is not peculiar to contemporary playing techniques; it’s just that within the contemporary field it is often necessary to build a sound from scratch. Being able to have a ‘blank canvas’ kind of sound as a palette upon which to mix contrasting colours and tonal schemes is essential when performing music which has little or no reference to Viennese, or Romantic music. Using every left and right hand technique as an additive colour, whether articulation, detailed tuning or indeed vibrato (surely one of the hardest of habits to unlearn!).
A string player in the contemporary field must now have an incredibly secure knowledge of harmonics. A composer will not expect to supply the finger patterns to create the desired pitch – that is now the player’s problem. To many undergraduate students it comes as a shock that all the attempts to pick out that hard to find harmonic amongst the rosin could be resolved down in first position. The harmonics are lying in perfect mirror symmetry up and down the string. I find that practising harmonics from the sixth position back to first position has saved me hours of difficult calculation in rehearsals.
Harmonics have a vast timbral range: at one end of the spectrum, razor sharp, at the other flutey, delicate and fluffy. Once a string is settled into its amplitudes and nodes, it can be very reluctant to release a harmonic. A true test of steady bowing is to play the first partial over an open string whilst removing the finger from the harmonic and playing the ghost note for as long as possible.
Such string properties have exciting consequences for complex techniques. If one trills a minor third with a flat bow, fairly near the bridge, it is possible to create a three-note chord on a single string. For example, by taking two notes on the A string such as D and F above middle C and applying this technique it is possible to float a descant top A harmonic above the trilled notes. This is an incredibly beautiful and ghostly effect, which works most clearly with a fast sotto voce bowstroke. If the minor third is moved in a block position, the upper harmonic moves in parallel. This produces a complex self-harmonising texture, whilst leaving three strings completely free. These could then be used to accompany the top line with drone notes or left handed pizzicato but maybe that’s best left to the composers to worry about.
A particularly beguiling effect is to vibrate natural harmonics. This is best achieved by placing the tip of the finger on the fingerboard between strings, and touching the side of the string being played. Vibrato can be applied quite strongly with this method, without any break in the clarity of the harmonic.
Once the ‘natural’ harmonics are clear, then the fun really starts with ‘fingered’ harmonics. If one stretches a fourth harmonic on a string (i.e. index finger on a stopped note, little finger stretched to the harmonic a fourth above), and then contracts the position slowly across a whole tone from the upper note downwards, a broken, root position major triad is sounded. If however, from the same position, the lower stopped note is moved in exactly the same manner in an upward direction (towards the harmonic finger) then the result is a broken, first inversion major triad.
Another way of creating a broad landscape of sound is to find places on the string where more than one harmonic can sound at the same time. These clusters of harmonics can be found on many places along the string. Start by looking between the second and third fingers whilst in first position. If nothing seems to be coming out, then glide the bow a little nearer to the bridge. On the C string this should create a very satisfying C Major multiphonic chord with an added seventh.
Col Legno technique is an under-explored area. Normally used in music as an indication to tap the wood of the bow against the string, its use was extended particularly by Berg into legato techniques. However, it is also possible to tap the string towards the end of the bow and play struck notes melodically. The closer one strikes to the bridge, the higher the resultant pitch. At first, the notes will appear to be random and uncontrollable, but with a bit of practice it is possible to play scales and arpeggios with these pitches. When this technique works well it is also possible to un-damp the left hand and accompany with occasional articulated bass notes.
The cello is also brilliant at synthesising other instruments and sounds. For example, try stopping notes with less pressure on the fingerboard and bouncing the bow backwards and forwards with a ricochet stroke over the end of the fingerboard. It’s the nearest thing you’ll get to the sound of panpipes. I’ll keep the helicopter trick for another time!
If cellists want to strengthen their hands, develop their co-ordination and learn a whole new swathe of skills from one book, then nothing can beat the Three Suites for Cello by Benjamin Britten – Faber Music conveniently publish all three in one volume. Not only are they good studies, they contain some of the greatest sounds ever written for the instrument. The cello imitates Latin Choral music, Organs, Sitars, Guitars, Timpani and a Russian Orthodox Mass. For good measure this is balanced with Russian nursery songs and some of the most inventive fugal writing you’ll ever find on a string instrument.
Within contemporary music there are many relatively new forms of notation. These include quarter-tone markings, aleatoric directions, highest and lowest note symbols, multiphonic notations and complex harmonic indications. This coupled with complex rhythm patterns and unusual metric indications can make contemporary scores appear deeply unfriendly.
Therefore an essential skill within the contemporary field is the ability to prepare a score fully before actually picking up the instrument. I remember when I was at the Royal Academy looking through scores that had been doctored by Sir Henry Wood. They were awash with coloured pencil indicating tempo changes, performance directions and beating patterns. It seemed a charming way to ruin a piece of printed music, a sort of artistic vandalism. But this was a man who championed a huge amount of new repertoire throughout his long career, often with little time to prepare a season of programmes. But of course, he was ahead of his time; colour is a very good memory aid.
Copying a part and then putting metric patterns in colour over complex rhythmic patterns can save hours of physical preparation. If a part has a performance direction marked in Italian it can be worth having a form of shading pattern or symbol as a memory trigger. Sul Ponticello is a heavily used indication in much of the music I work on, but rather than waste time reading it, interpreting it and then acting upon it, I shade the affected passage in light blue pencil. The marking is thus literally associated with colour/timbre and is clearly visable from earlier in the piece. This is a purely personal quirk, but I’m convinced it has enabled me to think more quickly and to leave the brain freer to act upon musical instincts rather than purely technical matters. I like using similar aides memoires for Pizzicato and Arco changeovers.
It is easy to draw parallels between cello timbres and the voice. People often notice that a cello in certain registers has a strong similarity to a tenor sound. The vocality of the instrument is not always a ‘sung’ quality. The instrument lends itself naturally to the intonation, inflections, articulations and rhythms of speech. This is at the heart of what makes the cello such a great narrative tool. To pursue this analogy, it is worth thinking about how our own language skills are learnt at the earliest stages. The ability to speak comes through play and experimentation with the feel of words, patterns and noises. From this we create our own vowels, consonants, vocabulary, accents, phrase shapes, sentences, speeches and sometimes, bad habits. The end result is always totally unique and recognisable as an individual voice. Imagine developing ones own musical voice through a similar method.
I believe that ten minutes of improvisation within a practice schedule eventually generates a sound of one’s own, as well as a deep-rooted technical ability. It is also a way of hearing oneself without being in the process of interpreting the work of another. Being able to think melodically with total spontaneity is something we naturally acquire as children and often lose soon afterwards. This has parallels with what Picasso once wrote; ‘As a child I could draw like Leonardo, as an adult I want to paint as a child’. This was an artist who balanced extreme technical prowess with a universally understandable graphic language.
Imagine being a painter and always replicating the colour schemes of the masters. As with the history of art, when a new colour is created through technological advancement, it can be subtly added into the arsenal of beautiful shades and tints. To use one’s own unique palette of musical colours is ultimately the most satisfying way of being a musician.
Of course several hundred years ago, composers such as Biber were writing pieces that required instruments not only to be tuned unusually, but also to be set up entirely differently. A violinist may have had to play works that needed two E strings fitted on the same instrument. This would seem radical by today’s standards but we’re getting there!