The Joy of Feuillard - A Sequential Approach to Teaching Bow Technique (Part 4 - Preliminaries: The Second Lesson)

The Joy of Feuillard – A Sequential Approach to Teaching Bow Technique (Part 4 – Preliminaries: The Second Lesson)

Part 4 –  Preliminaries: The Second Lesson

Part 3  presented preliminary concepts which are necessary before starting the bowing exercises in Feuillard. These include the “core” sound, the “block of sound”,  playing with a “straight” bow, and a basic kinesthetic  understanding of how the bow arm works (the correct movement of the upper and lower arm, and the elbow). These are all issues which should be addressed in the very first lesson with a new student. I spend a lot of time working with the bow arm first, because if a student can’t get a good sound with the bow it won’t matter how beautifully the left hand works. Basic sound production comes before addressing the myriad number of left hand issues involved in playing the cello (intonation, vibrato, shifting, articulation, coordination, double stops, etc.).

Although we are focusing on the bow in this series of Blogs, that first lesson would also include some basic information about the left hand, including the shape of the fingers on the fingerboard,  knowledge of how the position numbering system works, and how to check first position (first finger  with the string above creating a perfect 4th, and the fourth finger with the string below creating an octave). I also explain the initial scale system that we will use – two octave scales (Feuillard #10) and two octave arpeggios (Feuillard #11). I have specific pedagogical goals with these left-hand issues in the first lesson, but that is outside the scope of this Blog. Perhaps when I am done with this series I will continue with another series of blogs on the left hand…

So, continuing with the preliminary information that should be presented in the first two lessons, we will explore the Three Principles of Tone Production, the placement and function of the fingers on the bow, and the “all important” concept of contrary or “Left/Right” Motion.

In Caroline’s second lesson I presented the Three Principles of Tone Production, which are:

  1. Contact Point – where the bow is placed on the string
  2. Weight – meaning how much arm weight we use on the bow
  3. Speed of Bow – how fast we move the bow

These Three Principles are the most important elements for producing sound and for changing the color and volume of the sound. Learning to control these Three Principles is one of the most basic tasks for a string player – and yet it is among the most important parts of the journey of artistic discovery for seasoned professionals as well. As cellists we are continually searching for new colors in our playing and for better control of the bow. And the search never ends…

In Caroline’s third lesson we reviewed the Three Principles that I presented in the second lesson, and then discussed some of the “rules” which can help in sorting out how the three Principles interact:

Three Principles of Tone Production:


The cellist must internalize these basic “rules” – we don’t exactly have to memorize them, but we do need to absorb them so that we can produce the sound we want and respond quickly if the sound that comes out is not what we want. Some of these important rules are:

The lower the string, the more weight we need to use.

The closer to the bridge, the more weight we need to use.

The lower the string, the slower the bow speed we need to use.

The faster the bow speed, the higher the contact point we need to use.

The higher the string, the lower the contact point we need to use.

The higher up you play on a string, the lower the contact point we need to use.

Most young cellists are not aware of the difference between passive arm weight and applying  pressure on the bow.  So I usually have to help them become sensitized to the feeling that the weight of the arm is enough to create a big sound. They must recognize that pressing the bow onto the string will be counter-productive.  A few exercises can help them become aware of the importance of arm weight.

Arm Weight:

I usually address the actual bow “hold” only after the student has started working with all these other elements.  I find that it is better for the student to absorb these preliminary concepts and recognize the immediate change in their sound and ease of playing. I find that it is psychologically helpful in gaining the confidence of new students when they find that their work is paying off right away. Making changes in their bow hold often produces less of an immediate impact, and sometimes is more difficult to change. So I prefer to delay that until the second lesson.

I don’t like to use the terms “bow hold” or “bow grip”,  because “holding” the bow implies using muscles. I prefer to say  “bow balance” – but I often end up saying “bow hold” anyway since I haven’t come up with a good, practical alternative term to use…

I divide the information about the bow hold into two parts: the “Placement of the Fingers on the Bow” and the “Function of the Fingers on the Bow”. I have found that even very advanced players are often not aware of the various “personalities” that the different fingers have on the bow. By focusing on the  individual properties or “functions” of the different fingers we have specific mechanisms to change our sound, articulation, stokes, etc.

In the third lesson with Caroline I asked her to review the information about finger Placement and Function that I had told her in the previous lesson:

Finger Placement and Function: 

So the Placement of the Fingers on the bow:

1st finger – on the grip

2nd finger – on the metal tab, with the pad of the finger slightly below the ferrule

3rd finger – on or near the eyelet, depending on the size of the hand

4th finger – the pad of the finger goes on the junction of the two woods (ebony and pernambuco)

Thumb – on the junction of the two woods opposite the 2nd finger, on a slight diagonal to the stick

And the Function of the Fingers on the bow:

1st finger – transfers the weight of the arm into the bow

2nd finger – serves as an anchor to keep the hand in place on the bow

3rd finger – helps determine the spacing of the fingers (we want approximately even spacing of the fingers. Being aware of the space between the 2nd and 3rd fingers helps determine the spacing of the other fingers; the 3rd finger is also responsible for the rotation of the bow that results in more or less hair on the string; it is also the “centering” finger, which can help with relaxation. The third finger is the most “elusive” of all the fingers, but having a good appreciation of its function helps to create a more sophisticated use of the bow.

4th finger – balance finger (very important for string crossings and off-the-string strokes). I often put the little finger on the top of the stick to help feel this balance function. We’ll discuss this further in another Blog.

Thumb – counter-balance to the other fingers; the “boss” or  “guide” finger.

It is very important to make the student aware of thumb issues right from the beginning. The thumbs should be round and flexible. The thumb on the bow is one of the major contributors to excess tension if not set up and addressed  properly.  I have found that when I work with college students whose thumbs are incorrectly bent in, even if they play quite well it is very difficult for them to change this bad habit. And if they don’t change it they are very limited with what they can do in playing fast strokes, or playing accurately.  If not corrected, the thumb can be a major underlying cause of tendonitis.


Next the student needs to explore how the little finger balances the bow and controls many of the movements of the bow:

Exercise for Little Finger:

Paul Katz tells a wonderful little story that conveys a lot of information about the fingers on the bow:

Paul Katz Story:

Now we are ready for one of the most important concepts for producing a good sound and making it easier to play with less physical effort: Left/Right motion (or “contrary” motion).  I usually introduce this in the very first lesson, and then expand on it in subsequent lessons. I find that when a student begins to understand the concept of balance their playing improves significantly.

Left/Right Motion:

There are so many issues to address with a new student. So the teacher must pick and choose the most important ones to present first. For me, the fundamental bow issues that we have discussed so far are paramount. We can then build on this technical foundation as we move through the Feuillard bow exercises. It only takes one or two lessons to present all of these concepts. But, needless to say, for most students the basic issues will not have been completely solved in the first two lessons, and I will frequently return back to the basic issues of bow angle, balance, arm weight, etc. as we work on the variations in  Feuillard No. 32.

In next week’s Blog we will start our work on the Feuillard Daily Exercises, with the theme of No. 32, and the first few variations.

*If you have questions or comments about The Joy of Feuillard, Dr. Robert Jesselson can be reached directly at rjesselson@mozart.sc.edu.


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