In a previous post I discussed the bow, how it is in charge of our sound and why it’s just as important as our left hand. This post is about our tone, or the quality or characteristics of sound we produce on the cello. Focusing on the tone quality is a very important aspect of playing the cello because it is our musical voice. It is our means of expression. Often times, we get bogged down with the current piece but what students (and parents) need to realize is that a piece isn’t truly beautiful and ‘done’ until the tone is beautiful. And this comes from a lot of hard work on tone. Of course, first the notes, bowings, dynamics, etc., need to be in place but until the tone is also present, the piece isn’t complete.
We as cellists must understand clearly what goes into producing a good tone, what exactly a good tone is, and identify what is causing the unpleasant sound. Several factors go into producing a truly great tone:
Contact point. Also known as the good sounding spot. The bow must be in between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge. The bow also must be parallel to the bridge. When it’s is, it creates a letter ‘T’ with the string (‘T’ for TONE!). If it’s not straight, it makes the letter ‘X’. Not good!
Tricky part about this: the bow doesn’t look straight when the cellist looks down at it! When it is straight, the bow looks crooked from the player’s point of view. And the reverse is true – when it looks straight from the cellist’s perspective, it’s actually crooked. If you child doesn’t believe you that it’s crooked or creating an ‘X’ bow, use a mirror to show them that, no it’s in fact crooked. Either tucking in the arm or reaching out will straighten out an ‘X’ bow.
Contact point is important because it impacts the quality of sound. Too close to the fingerboard yields a fuzzy, unfocused, tone. It’s often pretty squeaky, too. Too close to the bridge results in a super scratchy, crunchy sound. However, the middle, well, fits just right – and we get a great, solid, deep tone.
Bow weight. I dislike the word ‘pressure’. I especially dislike using it when it comes to describing the bow. Using the word pressure often results in ‘pushing’ or ‘muscling’ your way to a good sound. This isn’t ideal because it creates a lot of tension in the body. So instead, I use the word ‘weight’. The bow is heavy, the arm is heavy, the shoulder girdle muscles are heavy – all of this weight contributes to the weight we pour into the string, much like pouring water into a glass. Later, finesse and dexterity with the bow hand help control the weight but at first, we use the natural heaviness of the arm to pull and draw sound out of the instrument. It isn’t easy but it’s a lot more comfortable on the body than pressuring sound out of the instrument. Don’t fight with your cello! Work with it!
Bow speed. This is relatively simple – how fast or slow is the bow moving. This has an impact on the sound. Too fast = shallow, fuzzy sound. Too slow = crunchy. More importantly, the speed of the bow has to be related to the amount of weight. Bow speed and weight go hand in hand.
Left hand. Many times, we assume a bad sound comes from the bow. Understandable – the bow produces the sound! However, sometimes the fault is with the left hand. The fingers must be firmly placed into the string and need to hold the string down all the way. If the fingers are too light or are not holding the string down enough, the sound will be squeaky, fuzzy or inconsistent.