100 Cello Warm-Ups and Exercises Blog 14: Isometrics, Strength and Articulation Exercises — by Robert Jesselson

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 the flexible willow tree.


Some people think that they are double jointed and use that as an excuse for not having round fingers. In my experience over the last 45 years of teaching, there are very few people who are actually double jointed. In most cases the tiny muscles of the fingers have just not been sufficiently strengthened to prevent the fingers from collapsing. However this can be addressed very easily through isometric exercises.



Casals was known for using a “percussive” left hand, which helps to insure that every note speaks, and that every note is articulated clearly and cleanly. Ivan Galamian discusses this issue in his book Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching:

“In instrumental music, the relationship of the percussive elements to those of the purely singing sound is analogous to that of the consonants and vowels in speech and song…The consonants (the percussive or accentuated elements) provide the articulation which can be produced by either the left or right hand…With the left hand, the consonant can be produced by energetic and fast dropping of the fingers for ascending passages. The counter-part, in descending passages, is a sidewise lifting of the fingers that produces almost a slight pizzicato effect”. (Galamian p. 10)

It is better to think in terms of finger weight (or arm weight), rather than finger “pressure.” Pressure implies muscles and tension—much like a “pressure cooker.” Weight implies relaxation and gravity.

It is really important to relax the finger once it hits the string, and not to give in to the temptation to squeeze the string down. When I first started to teach I had a very talented 12-year old girl, who played about as fast as anybody could possibly play. I couldn’t understand how she could play so fast. But then I realized that she never pushed the string down at all—in fact she played completely on the side of the string. She didn’t have a big sound at all, and what she had to figure out was how to play “forte” in her right hand but continue to play “piano with her left hand.

There are essentially four kinds of finger weights for playing: “Setting Strength”–when you articulate and the finger first comes down onto the string there is a moderate amount of weight, as a result of the speed of the finger coming down on the string.

  • “Setting Strength” – when you articulate and the finger first comes down onto the string there is a moderate amount of weight, as a result of the speed of the finger coming down on the string.
  • “Playing Strength” – after the initial attack, the finger releases, and there is the least amount of weight necessary; the finger should feel spongy and relaxed after the initial articulation
  • “Travelling Strength” – the finger barely touching the string, used for shifting, glissandos, slides, “preparation and release”
  • “Pizzicato Strength” – when playing pizzicato one needs the most amount of finger weight in order for the vibrations not to stop when you release the finger.

Here are several warm-up exercises for articulation. I think it is really helpful to practice these on the arm as well as on the cello, as we discussed in the Blog #9 on miming. For all of these exercises it is important to keep in mind the principles mentioned above.

Independence of Fingers


Double Stop Exercises


Aldulescu Exercise

Here is a great series of exercises for finger articulation by Radu Aldulescu. The notated example is with the fingers 1,2,3,4. Below that is a chart with all the combinations of the fingers : aldulescu

Here are a few examples, including a double-stop version of the exercise, holding one finger on another string.

All these exercises are good preparation for trill exercises. According to Galamian:

“The principle that fingers should not be lifted high and should not strike hard is particularly true in its application to trills… Over-development of strength in the fingers is especially detrimental in executing the trill.” (Galamian, p. 30)

Cossman Exercises

The Cossman Exercises are classics for working on articulation, clarity and intonation. Most people know the first Cossman exercise. Here are also some variations on that exercise, and also the second Cossman articulation exercise:


Cossman 1:


Cossman 2:


The Cossman exercises test our strength, relaxation, and endurance; if we have difficulty getting through these exercises on all the strings and then back up we need to examine whether we are pressing/squeezing with the fingers. For endurance it is best to add a few measures each day—always being mindful that there should be no pain in playing. We also articulate with the bow—by “kissing” the hairs with the stick, much as we did in the “Getting Into the String” Exercise (see blog on Open Strings).  

About the Author:

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.

Robert Jesselson website: http://in.music.sc.edu/fs/jesselson/index.html
Articles by Jesselson: http://in.music.sc.edu/fs/jesselson/articles.html