Hi, 6th position!


The last few weeks we’ve been doing nothing new in terms of pieces so that I’ve had the chance to undo some bad bowing habits. Which has meant I’ve been spending most of my practice time bowing open strings. A lot. I’ve hardly worked on pieces at all it seems — especially with my cello’s issues she’s had this week (visiting the luthier 3 times in one week must be some sort of world record, right?) I was expecting her to be unhappy with my progress this week since I’ve been upset by it, but she always surprises me. When she asked what I worked on most, I told her I worked on the wonderful bowing technique she’d shown me the week before and what I wanted to do musically with the Couperin gavotte and also playing around trying to figure out just how many different kinds of staccato bows I can play so they were all in my arsenal for the piece. It felt like not much from my perspective, but she was happy with what I’d been doing with the piece and thought I was doing a great job with the bowing. We worked on the gavotte some more with a focus on me learning how to get her to follow my changes in mood/feeling of the song while playing. How to lead her musically so to speak. It was harder than I expected — previously she’d been sort of helping me along with that so that if I did something other than what I intended she would move it along to where I’d actually meant it to be. Now, if I screw something up (ie. play a happy energetic staccato instead of spooky haunting staccato, she’ll move in the direction I played, not the direction I should have been playing.) Really confusing to think about all this while still trying to make sure we’re playing in tune with each other, etc. Lots of wrong notes, but the feeling of the song was better.

Then, she decided it was time to move on to the next piece. Well, the one after that. The next one is boring and ten times easier. Not sure why it was stuck in there, so she always skips it. This new lesson is all about 6th position. How the heck did I end up getting to sixth position already? We played B-flat major (two octave) for the introduction to the position and then she told me the new piece by Haydn she wasn’t going to go over with me at all this week. I get to figure it out all on my own. So, that should be fun. We’ll see how it goes!

18 responses »

  1. I really need to spend some time doing open bow exercises for a while. It’s a great meditation exercise and if you have enough control you can start to play around with the different overtones coming out of your cello–something like Tuvan or Mongolian throat singers.

  2. What do you mean by playing around with different overtones…? That sounds fun (I think, though I don’t really know but I’m always up for a challenge.) The only thing I can do is roll the bow around between my fingers and thumb while continuously bowing. A few times I’ve been able to get it going so smoothly and so fast that it sounds more vibrato-y than my real vibrato. Then I usually drop the bow. But it’s a cool exercise (though usually not so pretty sounding) to make sure I’m relaxed. Doesn’t sound nearly as nifty as playing around with overtones though!

  3. Basically all sounds, with the exception of sine waves, will will be composed of various overtones that make the sound distinctively that sound. Why it’s taken so long for folks to create a good string synth is just because the overtones made by stringed instruments are so incredibly complex.

    The overtone series is basically all the partials above the fundamental note–in other words all the faintly heard notes above the note you are actually playing on the cello (keep in mind that playing one string will cause the other strings to resonate as well, so their overtones come into the mix). Depending on how your bowing–the pressure, speed, weight–any one of those can affect which overtones get emphasized more than others.

    It’s basically the same principle in throat singing–depending on how you constrict your throat and manipulate the shape of your oral cavity, you can create melodies over the fundamental tone through the overtones.

    Unfortunately, cellos are nearly as versatile as the human voice, but you should be able to hear and emphasize, say, the 3rd/4th/5th partials above an open string. Let’s say it’s the G string–the 3rd partial would be an octave and a fifth above (the D that would sound at the 4th finger on the A string), the 4th partial would be a fourth above that (the G in fourth position 4th finger), and then the third above that (the B above harmonic A).

    Obviously, ideal conditions for hearing and being able to manipulate the sounds is a resonant room and not so dry climate. Amplification helps too, but you can also just listen real closely, or stick the C peg in your ear, and hear how the overtones can be manipulated–don’t listen to the fundamental tone–listen to everything above that and see how your bow can affect the sounds.

    • Totally can’t hear it at all. No idea what I’m listening for, but if I try to ignore the fundamental note, all I hear is that horrible scratching sound (my luthier calls it a burble, which is close also, although neither of them really describe it.) Also, I’m not in an ideal room for it either. It’s dry and this room is not resonant at all. I have another room I could try tomorrow, though.

  4. The scratchiness could be a problem. I sometimes can only hear the friction of bow hair as it rubs the string, overpowering the overtones.

    But it’s also something that may take you some time to “get into”–think of it as a deep listening meditation exercise–rather than focusing on the breath or a visual image, you’re focusing on one continuous sound–try the G string first too.

    You’ll find that the times you have the most control over the overtones, that usually means your bow is nearly perfectly straight on the strings and your right had is perfectly relaxed and your movements are in that “Flow” state I mentioned to you.

  5. I can achieve what you’re talking about physically but I still have no idea what the heck I’m supposed to be listening for. I can tell you that when I bow that way it’s a bigger, ringier, more beautiful sound (v. bowing tensely and slowly with lots of pressure which sounds dead, lifeless, dull, and boring) but that’s about it.

    And yes, I tried the G string. I think I need to do this exercise in a different room — I have one room with almost no furniture and wood floors that resonates quite nicely.

    It’s not that I don’t hear changes when I change my bowing, but I feel like I lack the vocabulary to describe what I’m hearing so it’s hard to even communicate to myself, let alone some else, what I’m hearing differently with changing what I do with the bow. And it’s even more difficult to understand what you’re saying because I have no idea what you mean by what you say. I’m sure if we were in the same room and you did different things and gave words to them I’d totally get it, but as it is I’m stuck using adjectives that don’t really get close to what I hear.

    I seem to have a problem relating words to the sounds. My teacher wanted me to come up with emotions or words to describe what I was doing with each phrase in one of the pieces I’m working on, which I failed at miserably. But I could show her the feeling by just playing it. I just have trouble ascribing words to sounds.

  6. Have you ever heard overtone singing? Take a listen to this clip of Chirgilchin (I got to hear them live a couple years ago–amazing!):

    He’s singing one tone–the fundamental–and all the whistling tones above it are the overtones that he is manipulating with the shape of his mouth.

    Same principle–it will be the high pitched tones you hear that are the overtones. We’ll never have as much control over the overtones as the human voice for the really fast stuff, nor will it ever be as loud, but it is possible to bring out the higher pitched notes (like the whistling tones of the singer) by the usage of the bow in a very controlled way.

    Well, I mean as far as I know there are no cellists really trying to do much with this, so for all I know there might be some amazing “overtone playing” cellist out there.

  7. Okay, tried to listen but can’t turn the volume up right now since people are asleep. I’ll listen tomorrow, but from listening for just a second I’m not sure how it relates to cello — I haven’t heard anything like that come out of anyone’s cello. Still not sure. Perhaps after some sleep it will make more sense.

  8. How it relates is that you can create those melodies (or simpler ones) on the cello by simply playing and sustaining one note (as the vocalist is doing while singing one fundamental pitch)!

    Like I said, I don’t think anyone’s really doing it on cello. Any folks who might be inclined often go a ton of electronics to experiment with. rather than go through the laborious process of learning a new skill.

  9. @Jon-

    If you’re still reading this thread, I finally discovered what the hell you were talking about. I was working on bowing open C and then suddenly it was like WHOAAA OVERTONES! I could hardly hear he fundamental pitch and was having all sorts of fun changing those overtones. It was just about the coolest thing ever. 😀 Can’t seem to do it on the other strings yet, but the C string sounds awesome! Off to go do some more open C bowing!

    • See, we use some bowing techniques (like flautando and sul ponticello) that can also alter overtones to get a certain kind of quality sound–but there’s no comprehensive technique or theory for describing all the different ways of emphasizing different overtones.

      The lower strings are a bit easier to manipulate–if only because of the slower string vibrations of those–but I’m sure you’ll get there at the other strings too!

      Glad you’re having fun–and you know, Eric Edberg needs to get some of the credit because had I not spent a couple years doing so many open bow exercises I would never have “discovered” how much those overtones could be manipulated! 😀

      • After a while of open string bowing I decided to work on my Haydn piece and was able to work with the overtones on all the notes, which surprised the crap out of me up on G4. Interestingly, I don’t think I could have done this without bonking my bridge out of place and readjusting it myself. I did something that may sound kinda odd, but when I put the bridge back, I had to squeeze the feet together with a decent amount of tension still on the strings to get the gap under one corner to go away. Then suddenly it was land-o-overtones which weren’t so there before. Wouldn’t have known what they were if you hadn’t told me about them, so thanks! 😀 At first it was sort of like “whoa what’s that?!?” but then I remembered about overtones. I was surprised at how easy it was to manipulate them. Not surprised that it required being relaxed to the point of *almost* dropping the bow. At one point I got the fundamental pitch so quiet I could hardly hear it but had two separate overtones that I was able to separate out and make them so loud my ears started throbbing in pain. Took a while because first I had to figure out how to keep the overtones going while playing the fundamental pitch pp then separate out two individual overtones and make them louder individually.

        You mentioned about not having a comprehensive theory for how to manipulate overtones but I feel like at least in person I could explain to someone with a relaxed bow hand how to produce certain results assuming they knew what they were listening for. Most of it had to do with certain modifications to how I change between up and down bows although what I did goes against what I’ve been taught is correct. I found that most of what I was doing was not killing what is already happening with the cello. From there it’s an easy step to tweak what I’m doing to change which overtone is most audible. The how isn’t easily put into words but I could certainly show it. It’s interesting because most of what I was doing was non-doing, kinda like with vibrato but even more so. The only real reason for not having crazy overtones is if I’m actively stopping them which is what I’d been doing before though I didn’t know it. They naturally want to build on each other and I only stopped that process when my ears started throbbing in pain. Then I set the cello down and walked across the room and it was STILL going strong for several more seconds. I never heard anything like it in my life.

  10. Pingback: An embarrassing cello incident plus something really cool. « The Adult Beginner

  11. That’s the trick with bridges–those things transfer the vibration of the strings to the cello itself–basically the wood body of the cello is the resonator. Basically an old school amplifier that magnifies the sound of the strings–so with a bridge that is in full contact with the cello, you have maximum possible amplification.

    And since each cello is different–even though the bodies are roughly similar–every cello has its own distinct range of overtones, so while there may be some general principles for altering how to get certain overtones emphasized, there will be some things that your cello will be able to do easier than say my cello or Yo-Yo Ma’s cello.

    What I meant by not having a comprehensive theory is more the idea that teachers will talk about getting different “colors” or “timbres” out of you instrument, but don’t necessarily have a systematic way to describe how to get the full range of colors from the instruments.

    That was one of the reasons Pierre Schaeffer and Musique concrète evolved–to create a comprehensive theory of tone color in music. But it was always a school much more interested in using non-instrumental colors (i.e. electronics).

    Yeah, when the bridge is perfectly set up, our instruments can ring for-freaking-ever! And beautiful sounds can be so easy to get out of them. I remember what it felt like to play Yo-Yo Ma’s Montagnana–it was literally like a “hot knife through butter” to get a gorgeous tone out of it!

    Get the right combination of great design, great wood, and great set-up (bridge and strings)–that’s how the master luthiers really show their skills!

    • I wasn’t being very clear last night — typing things out on my iPod is so slow I tend to end up writing out ever third thought or so. I meat that it seems like it would be easy to come up with a comprehensive theory, or at least a useful system that gets students exploring. I think the biggest problem is that most students don’t have good enough cellos (ie. not set up well enough.) My bridge was making full contact with the cello before I bumped it (really, I checked the corners of the feet several times, but I think when I put it back I got it to make contact in a very different way. Perhaps something about having extra tension on it due to the feet being squeezed together. I’m not sure. Right, back to what I was saying before, I’ve noticed that my teacher can’t talk about these things, or even about flautando and sul ponticello because nothing makes a bit of difference on these POS student cellos that are made of crap materials and are improperly set up and maintained. I swear with enough time spent working at it I could find a comprehensive theory that at least by video I could explain to someone who already had good bowing technique.

      I still keep thinking about set-up. After each time coming back from the luthier, it sounded better, but something that I did was slightly different and it has made such a ridiculous difference. It was like the cello was out of control and couldn’t stop vibrating. I mean, I could stop the vibrations on the string and would still keep going for another second or so, which before would make the sound stop dead instantly. I had no idea that a cello could hurt my ears when sounding good.

  12. Ah I see–then maybe you happened to put it back a fraction of a millimeter in the a different spot which just happened to be the “magical” spot where it needed to be for “perfect connection”–!

    Musicians usually talk qualitatively about various techniques, and that’s what makes it difficult to relate for some people–since the words they’ll use are idiosyncratic and may have nothing to do with the experience of the student (at least until the student becomes “indoctrinated” with the idiosyncratic lingo).

    As I said, I don’t think I would have done that exploring on my own had my teacher not made me do the open bow exercises. I could have gone through cello life without ever having bothered to see how slight changes in the bow hand position, pressure, looseness could make such audible changes in the sound.

    And yes, I’ve heard the “so good and full it’s painful to the ears” sound as well–really amazing what can happen when the instrument opens up!

  13. Musicians usually talk qualitatively about various techniques, and that’s what makes it difficult to relate for some people–since the words they’ll use are idiosyncratic and may have nothing to do with the experience of the student (at least until the student becomes “indoctrinated” with the idiosyncratic lingo).


    • Some of it has to do with how married to the music Classical Musicians are as opposed to other art music genres which associate specific moods or emotions to different scales, melodic patterns or rhythms.

      For example, in Indian music, when you want to invoke a specific rasa you know the range of raga (“scales”) and tala (“rhythmic modes”) you need to evoke that–whereas in Western Classical music, you either have to guess according to what you know about the composer and the specific piece what mood or color needs to be invoked. And that guessing is often left to the idiosyncratic knowledge of the performer since Western Classical music has no system for even talking about those kinds of things that has to do with ‘extra-musical’ issues.

      The sheet music is a kind of straight-jacket and the complexity that occurs due to the nature of composing music in this way means less complexity on how to approach music in other ways such as through improvisation, theory of colors/tone quality, scale systems (only 12 notes per octave), and complex rhythmic modes (e.g. some Indian talas are in 17 beat patterns; some Ottoman Classical Music usuls, or modes, can be up to 100 beats long with not repetition within).

      What Western music has in harmonic complexity and extended technical issues do to a tradition of notated music it lacks in so many other areas. not that you’ll often hear Classically trained musicians talking about this lack of depth since obviously *sarcasm* Western Art Music is the highest form of music known to mankind!

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