The Novice Sound

When we start learning a stringed instrument, I think we all focus on the left hand, playing in tune.   Learning a stringed instrument is hard stuff and I think at this stage we can only focus on one thing at a time.  Vibrato, dynamics, accents…Just way too much to process at the early stages of learning the cello.  After a year of lessons, I still have a hard time seeing the dynamics markings on music because I am so focused on the notes lol.

The bow creates the sound so I think all of us novices need to focus on right hand to develop the sound and tone.  Even after we improve from our very first beginner sounds, In my mind there are two things we need to work on the improve our “novice” sound.

Cutting off Notes

I remember late Fall 2017, my cello teacher said that I am “cutting off notes”.  For example, If I’m playing a half note, I would play a 3/8 note and rest for 1/8 of a note.  I didn’t do this intentionally, I was so focused on playing the next note, that I would stop my bow to prepare to play the next note.   This led to a choppy, disconnected sound.

Crescendo and Decrescendo note.

I think one of the traits of “novice” sound is that each note starts quietly, crescendos (maintains sound if note is long) and decrescendos to quiet to the end of the note.  I think this is related to “Cutting off notes” but I think this is more associated with the supple, relaxed right hand.  Watch the master of the relaxed right hand Steven Isserlis:

His right hand, basically pivots on the bow with every bow change!

As novices, when we change bow direction, the bow has to accelerate and decelerate causing  a crescendo and decrescendo at every bow change.  I think the loose wrist / pivoting  mitigates this because when we change bow direction:

  • The arm will change direction but the loose wrist will allow bow to continue in the same direction.
  • This allows our arm time to accelerate in the new direction while the bow is still playing the note in the other direction (for a split second).
  • When the bow does change direction, the arm has accelerated to bowing speed and the deceleration (decrescendo) of the previous note and the acceleration (crescendo of the new note) is minimized

How am I working on improving the Novice Sound. 

This is a work in progress and will always be a work in progress.  I am just sharing with you on what I am working on and is starting to work for me.  It’s probably best to work with a teacher or maybe a more experienced cello player.

To keep myself from cutting off notes, I really focus on not changing bows until the last possible moment.  Basically, change bow at the next beat (or half beat, quarter beat, you know what I mean).

To minimize the crescendo and decrescendo of each note, I’ve been working on my how I hold my bow.

  • To me the bow hold should be about pressing the bow onto string instead of holding the bow.  This shift in approach has me focusing more on using my fingers to press the bow against the strings instead of using thumb pressure to hold the bow.   I think we’ve all experience thumb soreness and this goes far to reducing thumb soreness.
  • The second part is that I’ve been holding the bow with three fingers – thumb, index and middle fingers.  This allows my fingers / wrist to pivot more easily around the bow.  I think this also gives me finer control over the bow, because it really allows me to lean in on the bow when I need to.

Please let me know what you think in comments.


6 thoughts on “The Novice Sound

  1. Not so sure about your idea of pressing the bow onto the string with your fingers. The pressure I believe comes from the natural weight of our right arm not pressing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Vet interesting. I have gotten to the point where I have enough confidence to be able to find my notes with my left hand to be able to focus on my bow. I am re learning my bow stroke because I developed a few bad habits and things are sounding better. I still am embarrassed of the the lack of quality I produce but just hope that time, proper practice and patience will fix all that

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The journey of Learning the Cello, Frustrating and wonderful…Definitely more wonderful than Frustrating :-). Keep it up!


  3. It’s really interesting Mike. I am also guilty of “crescendoing” too much as I change bow direction or string. It’s something that’s cropped up quite a lot in my lessons recently. I think that being aware of this is the first step in overcoming this issue. I don’t know about you but had not my teacher pointed precisely at the problem, I would not have been aware there was anything wrong as I’m already focusing on so many other things. Once you become aware of the problem, you can start working on it, isolating elements, exploring, listening and feeling. Yes it’s wonderfully frustrating!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Learning the cello is so complex. But the reward of when it comes together, even for a brief time, is just wonderful!


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