how to play the Cello

See how to have fun playing the Cello

Hopefully, by this point, you’ve purchased a cello. The next thing should be to actually figure out how to play the cello! And luckily for you, this particular portion of our ‘Beginner’s Guide To Learning the Cello’ can help you get started.

How To Play The Cello

Sitting with the cello and the 6 point check!

Before you begin it is important to make sure you have the right size cello and that it is set up correctly. You can use the six-point check to ensure that the fit is right!

How to play the cello
  1. CHAIR – It is important to use a good chair. The chair should have a flat surface, support the pelvis, and the hips should be at the same level as, or even slightly higher, than the knees. 
  2. ANGLE – The angle of the cello is important too. When looking side on, there should be a 40-60º angle between the floor and the cello.
  3. PEG – Once the cello is set up at the right angle, it is then time to adjust the length of the endpin. This will affect how high up the body the cello will sit. The C string peg should be next to, or even touching the left ear. 
  4. CENTRE – The middle point at the top of the back of the cello, should be resting on the centre of the player’s chest.
  5. CORNER – The lower corner of the C bout should be touching the player’s left knee.
  6. FINGERS – Finally, the player should be able to comfortably spread the fingers of their left hand, so that the gap between each finger produces an interval of a semitone. (You can ask any professional musician to confirm this, if you are unsure about the interval).

The roles of the two hands

Now that you have your cello set up correctly, it is time to put bow to string! 

The left hand is responsible for pitch (how high or low a note is). It can also be responsible for rhythm and expression (such as vibrato and slides). 

Whilst the left hand is crucial to creating a pitch, you will not make much if any noise by simply tapping the strings with your left hand.

The right hand is responsible for sound production. The two main ways that this can be achieved is by plucking the strings (pizzicato or pizz. for short) with your fingers or by pulling the bow across the string (arco). It is also possible to control volume (dynamics), rhythm and expression (such as articulation and colour). 

It is therefore crucial to success to employ the correct technique in the right hand from the start. 

The bow

The main components of a bow are the stick and the hair. Whilst it is possible to tap the stick of the bow on the string (a technique called col legno), the main way to produce sound is by pulling the hair across the string (arco).

In order for the string to vibrate, the hair on the bow must be tightened. This can be done by using the screw at the end of the bow. It’s important not to overtighten the bow. The stick still needs to curve in the middle. If you put your finger in the centre of the bow, in the gap between the hair and the bow, there should not be any space on either side. 

How to play the cello

Bow hold

Whilst it would be easy just to grab the bow and begin pushing and pulling it across the string, this will not allow you to make the most beautiful sound or control the sound in the way that you want. 

As we all know, bad habits stick just as well as good habits so learning to hold the bow with the correct technique is one of the most important steps to get right from the very start.

An easy way to begin is to hold out your right arm and pretend that your hand is dead. It should be all floppy like a ragdoll. This is the starting point for holding a cello bow, and from here only requires a few alterations. 

There are a couple of key points on the bow – these two spots are where the thumb and little finger go. The corner of the thumb should rest on the corner of the frog, opposite the silver ferrule. The fingers should then drop over to the other side of the frog with the tip of the little finger touching the circle on the frog. 

Both the thumb and all of the fingers should remain relaxed and with a slight bend at the knuckles. If you experience pain in the hand, this is due to tension and over gripping. At this point, take your hand away from the bow, shake it out till it’s like a ragdoll again and then return to the bow. 

Unlike with a violin bow hold, the hand and wrist should join the bow at a right angle. The hand should be flat and not pronated one way or another. (A slight pronation can be added later on when developing smoothness of bow changes.) 

There are other methods to achieve the correct bow hold such as starting with the right hand facing up, but the most important thing to remember is to maintain a rounded, but relaxed shape. 

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Other important things to know about the bow

When bowing the cello, there are only two options – push and pull. Pushing the bow so that your hand moves across your body is called an up bow. Pulling the bow out from your body is called a down bow. A down bow is the heavier stroke as it begins at the heel of the bow, which is the heavier end. We normally use a down bow on the first beat of each bar. 

You should be bowing in the gap between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge. A good position to start in would be halfway between these two points. It is important to be bowing at a right angle to the string so that you can unlock the full resonance of the cello.

Whatever type of bow hair you use (horsehair or synthetic), you will need some rosin. Rosin can be found cheaply online with a simple search and is made from the sap of pine and conifer trees. When applied to the bow hair, it increases the hairs’ ability to grip the string – so it stops the bow sliding about all over the place!   We love D’Addario Kaplan rosin – it’s genuinely the best on the market, and is very reasonably priced.

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Over to the cello…

The cello itself has 4 strings, tuned in 5ths. From highest to lowest these are A, D, G and C. A good way to remember this is to use an acronym such as: All Dogs Go Crazy! When you first start playing it is a good idea to play some open strings and get used to the different angles of each one as they all feel very different. 

Introducing the left hand

The primary job of the left hand is to create different pitches, therefore understanding the placing of the left-hand fingers is the key to being able to play with greater accuracy.

When starting out, it is common practice, to begin with, one of the middle strings. Let’s take the D string. The first position begins with the first finger on the E, one tone above the open D, the second finger on F, third on F-sharp and fourth finger on G. This is called the first position.

To check that you are in the correct position, the notes D, E, F-sharp and D again, when played in that order, should make up the first line of the song “Frère Jacques”. Alternatively, you could try playing “Three Blind Mice” by playing them in descending order: F-sharp, E, D. 

This position is the same on all four strings. On the A string first position starts on B, A on the G string and D on the C string. It should then be simple to play a two-octave C major scale. 

From here it is then possible to start to play in different positions, including extensions and shifts. But the basic first position will allow you to play any piece in C major.

Expression

To add another layer to your music it is possible to add interest by varying the dynamics. A stronger dynamic can be created by employing more arm weight in the bowing arm. Try pretending that your arm has a bag of sugar hanging off it. 

In the same way, a  softer dynamic can be created by using less arm weight and imagining that a balloon is strapped to your arm. 

Another way to change the dynamic and also affect the colour or type of sound is by using a different contact point.

Imagine that the space between the fingerboard and bridge is divided into lanes like on a motorway. The lane closest to the fingerboard is the inside lane. Here you will be able to create a softer, more gentle sound. The lane closest to the bridge is the outside lane. Here you can really get the most amount of noise out of the cello –  but be careful, it may not always sound so pleasant!

Further development and the important of good beginnings

There are more things you can do to add that extra je ne sais quoi to your playing – like experimenting with articulation, speed of the bow, adding in vibrato and much more! This then becomes a really exciting point in your musical development and will allow you to access more challenging repertoire.  

But don’t try to run before you can walk! That is to say, it is important to master the basics first before trying anything more complicated. A strong start, grounded in good technique is the basis for a lifetime of successful cello playing – patience is key!  

How To Play the Cello - Summary

By now, you should be able to:

  • how to set up the Cello correctly
  • know about the bow 
  • know how to hold the bow 

Now it’s time to improve your technique...

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