Girish Mahajan (Editor)

Cello technique

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Cello technique

Playing the cello is done while seated with the instrument supported on the floor. The left hand fingertips stop the strings on the fingerboard determining the pitch of the fingered note. The right hand plucks or bows the strings to sound the notes.


Body position

The cello is played while seated. Its weight is supported mainly by its endpin or spike, which rests on the floor. The cello is steadied on the lower bout between the knees of the seated player, and on the upper bout against the upper chest. The neck of the cello is above the player's left shoulder, and the C-String tuning peg is just behind the left ear. The bow is drawn horizontally across the strings. In early times, female cellists sometimes played side-saddle, since it was considered improper for a lady to part her knees in public. A player's handedness does not alter the way the cello is held or used. In rare cases, a player has used a mirror-image posture—usually because of a physical disability of the arm or hand that makes the required technique impossible for that side of the body. In such a situation, the player must decide whether or not to reverse the set-up of the cello (the string positions, bass-bar, sound post, fingerboard shape, and bridge carving are all asymmetrical).

Left hand technique

The left hand fingertips stop the strings along their length, determining the pitch of each fingered note. Stopping the string closer to the bridge results in higher-pitched sound, because the vibrating string length has been shortened. In the neck positions (which use just less than half of the fingerboard, nearest the top of the instrument), the thumb rests on the back of the neck; in thumb position (a general name for notes on the remainder of the fingerboard) the thumb usually rests alongside the fingers on the string and the side of the thumb is used to play notes. The fingers are normally held curved with each knuckle bent, with the fingertips in contact with the string. If a finger is required on two (or more) strings at once to play perfect fifths (in double stops or chords) it is used flat. In slower, or more expressive playing, the contact point can move slightly away from the nail to the pad of the finger, allowing a fuller vibrato.


Vibrato is a small oscillation in the pitch of a note, usually considered expressive. It is not created by an upper arm motion; rather, it is more of forearm motion. The fixed point of contact of the fingertip on the string absorbs this motion by rocking back and forth, with the thumb typically aligned with the middle finger. This change in the attitude of the fingertip to the string varies the pitch. Since vibrato is usually considered a key expressive device, a well-developed vibrato technique is an essential element of a modern cellist's skill.


Harmonics played on the cello fall into two classes; natural and artificial.

  • Natural
  • Natural harmonics are produced by lightly touching (but not depressing) the string with the finger at certain places, and then bowing (or, rarely, plucking) the string. For example, the halfway point of the string will produce a harmonic that is one octave above the unfingered (open) string. Natural harmonics only produce notes that are part of the harmonic series on a particular string.

  • Artificial/Stopped
  • Artificial harmonics (also called false harmonics or stopped harmonics), in which the player depresses the string fully with one finger while touching the same string lightly with another finger, can produce any note above middle C. They usually appear with the touching note a perfect fourth above the stopped note, which produces a sound two octaves above the stopped note, although other intervals are available.


    Glissando (Italian for "sliding") is an effect played by sliding the finger up or down the fingerboard without releasing the string. This causes the pitch to rise and fall smoothly, without separate, discernible steps.

    Right hand technique

    In cello playing, the bow is much like the breath of a wind instrument player. Arguably, it is the major determinant in the expressiveness of the playing. The right hand holds the bow and controls the duration and character of the notes. The bow is drawn across the strings roughly halfway between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge, in a direction perpendicular to the strings. The bow is held with all five fingers of the right hand, the thumb opposite the fingers and closer to the cellist's body. The shape of the hand should resemble that of its relaxed state, with all fingers curved, including the thumb. The transmission of weight from the arm to the bow happens through the pronation (inward rotation) of the forearm, which pushes the index finger and to a lesser degree the middle finger onto the bow. The necessary counterforce is provided by the thumb. The other two fingers are used in various degrees to help maintain the angle of the bow to the string and are critical to controlling the bow when it is off the string. (See also spiccato).

    Flexibility of the wrist is necessary when changing the bow direction from up-bow to down-bow and vice versa. For very fast bow movements, the wrist is used to accomplish the horizontal movement of the bow. For longer strokes, the arm is used as well as the wrist.

    Tone production and volume of sound depend on a combination of several factors. The three most important ones are: bow speed, weight applied to the string, and point of contact of the bow hair with the string. The closer to the bridge the string is bowed, the more projecting and brighter the tone, with the extreme (sul ponticello) producing a metallic, shimmery sound. If bowing closer to the fingerboard (sul tasto), the sound produced will be softer, more mellow, and less defined.

    Double stops

    Double stops involve the playing of two notes at the same time. Two strings are fingered simultaneously, and the bow is drawn so as to sound them both at once. Triple and quadruple stops may also be played (in a "broken" fashion), but are difficult to sustain because of the change in slope of the bridge. To extend the technique in this area, Frances-Marie Uitti has invented a two-bow system: one bow plays above the strings and one below, allowing for sustained triple and quadruple stops. However, this technique is very rarely seen or used.


    In pizzicato playing, the string is plucked directly with the fingers or thumb. Pizzicato is often abbreviated as "Pizz.". Position of the hand is slightly over the finger board and away from the bridge. Usually this is done with the right hand, while the bow is held away from the strings by the rest of the hand or (for extended passages) set down. A single string can be played pizzicato, or double, triple, or quadruple stops can be played. Occasionally, a player must bow one string with the right hand and simultaneously pluck another with the left, or even possibly strum with both hands at the same time. This is marked by a "+" above the note. Strumming of chords is also possible, in guitar fashion.

    Col legno

    A player using the Col legno technique rubs the strings with the wood of the bow rather than the hair. There are two forms, col legno battuto and col legno tratto. Col legno battuto is performed as a percussive technique with no sustaining of the sound. The much less common alternative is col legno tratto, wherein the wood is drawn across the string as the hair is in a normal bow stroke.


    In spiccato playing, the strings are not "drawn" by the bow hair but struck by it, while still retaining some horizontal motion, to generate a more percussive, crisp sound. It may be performed by using the wrist to "dip" the bow into the strings. Spiccato is usually associated with lively playing. On a violin, spiccato bowing comes off the string, but on a cello, the wood of the bow may rise briskly up without the hair actually leaving the string. While playing spiccato, the bow is literally bouncing off the string. Cello players simply "dip" the bow into the string, and touch it very fast, and then lift the bow off the string.


    In staccato, the player moves the bow a small distance and stops it on the string, making a short sound, the rest of the written duration being taken up by silence. It is noted by writing a small dot above or below a note depending on its position on the staff.


    Legato is a technique where the notes are smoothly connected without accents or breaks. It is noted by a slur (curved line) above or below - depending on their position on the staff - the notes of the passage that is to be played legato.

    Sul ponticello and sul tasto

    Sul ponticello ("on the bridge") refers to bowing closer to the bridge, while sul tasto ("on the fingerboard") calls for bowing nearer the end of the fingerboard. (While reading music, "tasto" can also mean to play with the bow in normal position when having been playing "ponticello") Ponticello calls for more bow weight and slower bow speed, and produces a "harder" sound, with strong overtone content. Sul tasto, in extreme cases called "flautando," produces a more flute-like sound, with more emphasis on the fundamental frequency of the note, and softer overtones.

    Con sord. and senza sord.

    This refers to using a mute, or sordino, which is placed on the bridge to mellow or soften the tone, or to take it off.


    Cello technique Wikipedia

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