Joseph Mendoes - cello expert
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How to achieve the best tone on the cello.

Practical tips to achieve a great tone on the cello

Released on July 2, 2014

  
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Hello this is Joseph Mendoes with another video for VirtualSheetMusic.com. Today I'd like to talk about, well, in general, sound. But in particular how to create a really, really great cello tone. Now tone, or sound, or whatever you want to call it, is something I think that for the cellist, especially, is very important. Obviously, to be a great violinist, or a great violist, or a great bassist, or any other instrument, you need to have a great tone but really, cello, when people think about the cello, they think, "Oh, it's a beautiful instrument, it has beauty. There's so much beauty in the sound and richness." So if you're a cellist and you don't have this, I think you're making your life pretty difficult and I think the tone is something that needs to be worked on.

Now, there is a lot of things that go into a really, really good cello tone. But the first thing I'd actually like to start with is actually not the thing you think would be obvious that I would start with which is the right hand. I want to start with the left hand. Really to have a great sound, first thing is you have to make sure the string is getting all the way down. Now I talked about this in, I think, my bravado video and maybe in a different video as well. But, really, the string has to be all the way down and the best test for this is Pizzicato. If you pluck a note ... sorry not an open string, if you pluck a note with the finger down, even without a bravado, there'd be no bravado, you'd hear there's a nice ring. Now if that string isn't all the way down, you'd get a thud.

So this is something you have to be careful of because in a Pizzicato it's very obvious when this is happening. But when you're playing with the bow, it's a little bit different. For example, I'll first play a sound, I think is a pretty good sound, with the string all the way down. Now I'll play one without the string all the way down. So there I'm just kind of pushing the string to the side or just kind of nudging it down slightly. Now as you can hear, it's not necessarily a really, really bad sound but as soon as I get that string down all the way, well, I hope you can hear the difference. Suddenly not only does it get a little bit bigger but the sound gets richer. So that's something you want to be careful of. So I know when I'm practicing myself, sometimes I like to check this. I'll play a certain passage, just Pizzicato first and then I'll make sure that when I play it with a bow that I'm getting the same feeling in the left hand.

Now, of course, getting the string down, you want be doing this from above, you don't want to have any sort of pressure back here from the thumb. You just want a ... right on top of it and this thumb, you can see I'm kind of wiggling it up there and should be very, very free. Okay. So now with that out of the way we can talk about a little bit about the bow. Now the bow has, obviously, a lot of different things that we have to worry about such as even how we hold the bow and things like this. I won't get too much into bow hold. There's so many different competing ideas on this, I'll just kind of talk about what I think are some of the basics that need to be in a bow hold.

First of all, bow hold needs to be flexible, I know I covered all this in my bow video, but just go over quickly again here. The bow hold needs to be flexible in terms of your fingers and your wrists, things can't be locked up, this is really going to hinder your ability to make a very, very beautiful tone. You need to make sure that you're applying pressure in the right way, not from squeezing the bow but from changing the arc. So that as you approach, like for example if you're on the D string, as you approach the A string, or as you approach the tip, you get closer to the A string that way, and then you come back that way. So that you're always bowing on a little bit of the north. That will help your tone tremendously.

The other thing actually has to do with keeping the bow straight. Now, the bow does need to be straight, no doubt about it. And when I say straight, I, obviously, mean straight across the string. But there's a little bit of difference you can make here if you actually don't keep exactly a straight bow. If you keep a bow that is just a tiny, tiny bit crooked, angled in this direction, then that bow will kind of drift towards the bridge, and it will reach a spot where it will kind of have an equilibrium. Now this trick is very useful, for example, in the beginning of the Dvorak cello concerto, where you want a really, really big sound. You can hear that bow, you stay right close to the bridge, and get a lot of power that way, just by making that angle change. And then, really, you have effortless power. Now, you don't have to worry so much on the up bow because the up bow, you know, we tend to have plenty of power on the up bows, anyway. It's always on down bows that's the issue.

So in terms of your overall sound and tone, those two things, where I've talked about before, and with the changing of the ... you know, getting kind of higher as you get to the tip, and also making sure that you're doing a little bit of that angle change. Now you can do too much and you can slide right off the bridge like that. So you don't want to do too much, you want to do just enough so that that bow starts to kind of drift a little bit towards the bridge. You don't want to do anymore than what you need. Now the next thing with the tone has to do with, I think, the bravado actually. Definitely the right hand I think is the most important thing with what we've talked about with the left hand in terms of getting that string all the way. But the bravado is something that needs some attention, too.

The bravado should be I think for a very, very good basic tone, the bravado on a cello should be relatively wide. Now, this is a question of taste as far as I'm concerned. I take my ideas on bravado really from opera singers and when you hear a great opera singer in a really big hall, what they're able to do, especially when they're singing really, really loud, is they make that bravado really, really, really wide. So that the sound kind of goes like this down the hall. It's not really particularly narrow and focused like that, but it's really, really, really wide. So that's what we want when we have ... and then we're going for a really, really nice tone. For example, like in the second movement Brahms' second symphony, the big cello moment there.

There, if we play that with a bravado that's too narrow and too fast, then it really changes the tone completely. It makes the sound almost pinched instead of really nice and big, a sound that's really just kind of doing this, instead of doing that. So that's something I think we should think about in terms of tone as well. Now, tone is a very, very particular thing and I know some of you may not like some of my ideas, but really when you think about, at least what I consider to be the really great cellist, the one thing that they all have in common is that distinctive sound. Now, I say distinctive but there's commonality between them as well. For example, Feuermann had that very ,very focused sound but also his bravado could be very limpid. The great cellist, Emmanuel Feuermann.

Rostropovich's sound was enormous and, at times, it could be even almost kind of raw and untamed, and the bravado was so wide that, really, he could just fill a concert hall just like an opera singer could. And then there was, of course, the great American cellist Leonard Rose, the teacher of Yo-Yo Ma and of Lynn Harrell, who had, really, a golden sound and there was always so much beauty, but also a lot of size in the sound. And there's a ton of other cellists I can think of, too, that all have this kind of common quality. What makes them distinctive is, of course, how they use these different techniques.

But, really, what I want you to do is, is I want you to think seriously, very seriously, about your sound, how you create sound. We all focus on very important matters like intonation and the correct bow hold and the correct posture and all these things. But I think we could all focus a lot more on just the sheer quality of our sound. And is it a sound that is something that would be appealing and interesting for someone else to really listen to? Is it an attractive sound? This, I think, is what the cellist, especially amongst all the instruments, needs to be thinking about very seriously and very deeply.

I hope you leave your comments down below, I hope that we have a really fun conversation about this. I'd also love to hear if there is a particular cellist that you think of, either who's alive now or somebody from the past. And if there is somebody I've never heard of, please tell me, I'd love to know who they are and listen to their sounds. I really find it interesting to study a wide variety of different sounds from all sorts of different cellists. And also to figure out what they all have in common. So anyway, thank you. I hope you enjoyed this video and again please leave your comments down below. Once again, this has been Joseph Mendoes for VIrtualSheetMusic.com.
 
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Comments/Questions/Requests:

Lotte Brinckmeyer * VSM MEMBER * on July 6, 2014 @8:14 am PST
Hello Joseph. I enjoy your videos very much.
This one, " the best tone", has the full written text. I appreciate this, because otherwise I miss something of your speech. Is it possible to text the previous videos?Thank you.
reply
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator, on July 7, 2014 @9:28 am PST
Thank you Lotte for your comment. I am glad to know you like the fact we have added video transcriptions to our latest videos, and we'll surely work to add the same to previously published videos. Thank you again for your interest.
Cassie * VSM MEMBER * on July 2, 2014 @1:33 pm PST
Oops! I forgot to add that my favourite living cellist is Misha Maisky for his elegant expressiveness, and Paul Tortelier for his spirited playing, and deceased ones, Jacqueline du Pre and Pablo Casals, probably for the same reasons.
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Joseph - host, on July 4, 2014 @5:14 pm PST
You have great taste! Although of the four that you mentioned, Tortelier holds a special place in my heart. His recording of the Don Quixote by Strauss with Kempe and the Staatskapelle Dresden is unreal. I am always left in tears by his characterization of the Don, and especially his poignant death. Happy listening!
Joseph
Cassie * VSM MEMBER * on July 2, 2014 @1:24 pm PST
Hi Joseph,
Another very insightful and helpful cello video. Every time I hear my teacher play, i wish I could copy her sound and make it my own, so you've given me some more food for thought. Thank you!
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Joseph - host, on July 4, 2014 @5:14 pm PST
Hi Cassie,
I think it is great that you love your teacher's sound and that you try to copy it. The great artists of the past have always learned by copying others that came before them. What we must try to discover is what all of the masters have in common, and make those things our fundamentals. Then we can sound like whoever we want, or sound like none of them!
Joseph
Linda * VSM MEMBER * on July 2, 2014 @7:34 am PST
Thank you Joseph. I am now playing viola, having played Violin most of my life. But I have always loved the richness of the Cello. Excellent video.
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Joseph - host, on July 4, 2014 @5:16 pm PST
Hello Linda,

It is too bad that more wasn't written for the viola. I am a big Primrose fan, and I think he was one of the greatest string players of the 20th century.
Glad you liked the video,

Joseph
Andrea Dudas * VSM MEMBER * on July 2, 2014 @6:44 am PST
Thank you so much for these informative videos. I thoroughly enjoy getting these pointers since I do not take lessons. I will be putting these latest tips on producing good tone to use, next time I practice. Your playing and your tone is beautiful and a great inspiration to me. It's wonderful to have a real cellist speak to me about practical tips and advice for playing. It beats reading from a flat, dull practice book. Thank you so much, and please keep the videos coming. I am about to watch your video on shifting hand positions. I've always had difficulty with this. Thanks again
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Joseph - host, on July 4, 2014 @5:19 pm PST
Dear Andrea,

I am glad you are enjoying the videos! If there is ever anything you need clarified don't hesitate to ask!

Joseph
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