In many ways holding and playing the cello is just a “natural” addition to the body. The instrument rests nicely on our chest, we don’t need to twist and contort our arms like violinists, and if we employ weight, healthy balances and learn the ergonomically healthy use of the body we should have no pain or tension in playing. One of the only things that is not quite “natural” about playing the cello is our left-hand extensions. Stretching between the first and second fingers requires some specific training. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I used to walk around Freiburg as a student with a cork between my fingers to help train this stretch: […]
About Robert Jesselson
Robert Jesselson is a Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina, where he teaches cello and plays in the American Arts Trio and the Jesselson/Fugo Duo. In 2013 he was named as the Governor’s Professor of the Year by Governor Haley and the SC Commission on Higher Education.
Dr. Jesselson has performed in recital and with orchestras in Europe, Asia, South America, and the United States, and has participated in the Music Festivals at Nice (France), Granada (Spain), Santiago (Spain), Aspen (CO), Spoleto (SC), the Grand Tetons (WY), and the Festival Inverno (Brazil). His performance degrees are from the Staatliche Hochschule fuer Musik in Freiburg, West Germany, from the Eastman School of Music, where he studied with Paul Katz, and the DMA from Rutgers where he studied with cellist Bernard Greenhouse. He has been principal cello of the South Carolina Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Orquesta-Sinfonica de Las Palmas, Spain. In 1983 Dr. Jesselson was in China for a six-month residency, one of the first Western cellists to visit that country. During that time he performed as soloist, gave master classes, and taught at several conservatories (including Beijing, Shanghai, and Canton). In December, 2001 he led a delegation of string players and teachers to Cuba to begin professional contact with Cuban musicians. He has also taught at Sookmyung University in Korea, Sun Yat Sen University in Taiwan, University of Auckland in New Zealand, at the Royal College of Music in London and recently in St. Lucia in the Caribbean. His recent CD of new music for cello and piano is called “Carolina Cellobration” and is available on CD Baby and Cellos2Go.
Dr. Jesselson was the national President of ASTA, the American String Teachers Association, from 2000-2002. During his tenure as president he initiated the National Studio Teachers Forums (2000 and 2002), started the National String Project Consortium (with sites now at 44 universities and grants of $3.1 million), and began the planning for the first stand-alone ASTA national convention in 2003. He was the founding Executive Director of the National String Project Consortium, and is currently on the NSPC Board.
Dr. Jesselson is former conductor of the USC University Orchestra and the Columbia Youth Orchestra, and he was the cello teacher at the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts for 17 years. For 15 years he was the director of the USC String Project, building the program into one of the largest and most prominent string education programs in the country. His pioneering work on this program was recognized in an article in the New York Times in December, 2003. ASTA awarded him the “Marvin Rabin Community Service” Award in 2009 for his work with the NSPC and teacher training. He is the recipient of the 2015 USC Trustees Professorship and the 2010 Mungo Distinguished Professor of the Year, the highest teaching awards given by USC. He has also been awarded the 2002 Cantey Award for Outstanding Faculty, the 1992 Verner Award, the 1989 S.C. Arts Commission Artist Fellowship, the 1995 Mungo Teaching Award, and the first SC ASTA Studio Teacher Award in 2005. Next summer Dr. Jesselson will be teaching cello at the Green Mountain Music Festival in Vermont and at the Cellospeak Festival. He plays a 1716 Jacques Boquay cello.
100 Cello Warm-Ups and Exercises Blog 15: Cello Geography Part 1: Neck Positions — by Robert Jesselson
Learning to play a string instrument means having to figure out where the left hand goes on the fingerboard in order to play the notes. Since we don’t have a GPS system for the cello, most people initially learn where the notes are by knowing the positions. The positions are like the latitude and longitude of the cello, and knowing them can help organize the grid of the fingerboard. Unfortunately many students learn just First and Fourth positions, because then they can play almost all the notes in the lower part of the cello. However, that limits the myriad choices of fingerings that can produce different shifts, slides, string crossings, etc. It reduces the creative possibilities, and it can make it almost impossible to play difficult passages that require the intermediate [...]
100 Cello Warm-Ups and Exercises Blog 14: Isometrics, Strength and Articulation Exercises — by Robert Jesselson
In today’s blog I will discuss two related left-hand issues: finger strength and articulation, and offer some isometric exercises to strengthen the fingers. Finger Strength So, actual muscle strength is probably less important in cello playing than flexibility, release of tension, and gentle power. In Western culture one of the symbols of strength is a powerful tree, such as an oak tree or a chestnut tree. For example, in Longfellow’s poem The Village Blacksmith: “Under a spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands; The smith, a mighty man is he, with large and sinewy hands. And the muscles of his brawny arm…” However in some Asian countries strength is symbolized by a willow tree, which flows with the wind. In a storm, it is more likely for the powerful oak tree to fall than [...]
We all know how important relaxation is in playing the cello – if the muscles are tight our body and brain do not work efficiently and effectively. If we are tense we can’t shift properly, we are more prone to silly mistakes in a performance, and if our breathing is shallow then not enough oxygen gets to the brain. We need to figure out how to release tension and relax as we play. As Janos Starker said, his entire life was a search for more and better ways to relax. Playing the cello is difficult enough as it is, so whatever we can do to relax will help us perform better and be able to play longer in our lives. I tell my students that I hope that they will [...]
Coordination Exercises In Part 1 of this blog on “Flexibility and Coordination” I discussed the flexibility of the fingers and wrist, and gave some left hand warm-ups such as finger-pushups and some bow arm exercises such as the “box” exercise. Today we will discuss some warm-ups that are useful to improve coordination. […]
Today’s blog will deal with the twin issues of flexibility and coordination, which are closely related for string players. Flexibility is the range of motion of your joints and the ability to move freely. Flexibility can be improved by stretching, which we discussed in an earlier blog. Coordination refers to the relationship between different parts of the body during movement. […]
As I mentioned in Part One of this blog on “Mentalization and Mimes”, I have found that in learning or relearning a physical task it is often very helpful to do it away from the cello. There are several ways that we can retrain our bodies, including through visualization, biofeedback, using a “phantom cello”, and with mimes. I discussed the benefits of visualization, or what I call Mentalization. Here is a practical example of how to do this: […]
Although I am in China this week and next, I would like to share these two blogs on mental practice – it’s “mind over matter”. Playing the cello is very much a physical activity. Our ability to play is in many ways governed by how we hold the instrument and the bow. As soon as we take the cello out of the case and sit down our body automatically does what it is used to doing – […]
Part Two of Open String Warm-Ups will continue with exercises for sautille, bow changes, string crossings, dynamics, etc. Bouncy Bow Exercise: This exercise is a great way to work on sautille, building it up from spiccato to the fast, uncontrolled sautille stroke. […]
On most days I like to warm up with open strings. I love the sound of the open strings, and the feeling of the natural vibrations against my chest. I like to listen to the fundamental pitch, and then try to hear some of the overtones that make the tone color – a pure sound which connects me back to the earliest sounds of music, the aural “ur-sound” of the first stringed instrument played by a human being. […]
In Part 1 of this blog on finding balances, we discussed the large body balances which are useful in playing the cello. As Elizabeth Morrow wrote in a 2007 article in the American String Teacher journal: “Balance is a necessary component to arriving at maximum energy efficiency with minimal effort, a sensation we interpret as relaxation”. Next, we will explore some of the balances involved in using the bow. I prefer to use the term “bow balance” rather than “bow hold” or “bow grip”, because “holding”or “gripping” implies using muscles. Just as we prefer to use the term “arm weight” rather than “pressure” in describing the way to produce sound, the words we use influence the way we think about what we are doing. In our “bow balance”, the thumb [...]
"It's All About Balance" If you can walk or run then you know something about balance, and you do it every day without thinking about it. We figure out how to balance when we are small children, and then we go through life taking it for granted… …until something goes wrong. Then our body has to re-learn how to balance. Recently I broke my ankle, and when it had healed well enough the doctor had me stand on one foot, trying to find my balance—first with my eyes open and then closed. It was harder than you would think. He said that I had to retrain my proprioception, the awareness of the position and orientation of my body involving balance. This sensory feedback system also helps us understand [...]
Stretches – Part Two In Stretches – Part One last week, I discussed some large body warm-ups and stretches. Here are some more warm-up exercises specifically for the wrist and fingers. First, here is the international greeting for Cellists: Hello Cello! […]
I think that most people understand the importance of stretching before (and after) playing an instrument. I like to say that we are athletes: we are “small muscle” athletes involving the fingers, wrists, and arms. But actually playing the cello really involves the entire body. Whether it is a matter of producing sound from the lower back, or being physically expressive with our movements, we need to make sure that we are using our bodies in the best possible ways. Just as with any athletic use of the body, we need to make sure that our muscles are warmed up well before we start playing – and that we “cool-down” afterwards. Warming-up helps by increasing blood flow and oxygen to the muscles, reducing the possibility of soft-tissue injury, and [...]
What is the very first thing that you do before you actually start playing the cello on any given day? Do you have certain habits or “ceremonies” when you take the cello out of its case – do you dust it off, or look for cracks, or check the bridge? Do you always take the bow out of the case first by habit, or do you remove the cello first? Do you do any stretching to warm up your body? Then when you actually start playing, do you plunge into the piece you are working on, or do you first do some scales and arpeggios? Or perhaps do you have some little exercises to help you warm up, focus and get started? Maybe you haven’t consciously thought about what you [...]