Joseph Mendoes - cello expert

The Arm-Weight Concept

How to avoid being misled by this basic concept.

In this video, Prof. Mendoes talks about the Arm-Weight concept often found in cello literature and teaching.

Released on August 5, 2015

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hello, this is Joseph Mendoes with another video for Today I'd like to talk about a topic that is kind of contentious, actually. Because I know it's a very, very popular idea out there, but it's an idea that I have a lot of issues with. I only recently noticed how much this idea has entered not only into the way most people, most cellists, think about cello technique, but also the way other musicians think about cello technique.

I noticed this when I was watching recently, the fabulous documentary that the BBC did about the Russian cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich. I don't know if any of you have seen this documentary, but it's an hour and a half long. Wonderful movie with Rostropovich's family members, and friends, and colleagues, and students of his reminiscing about his life and all sorts of different footage.

Well, anyway, the reason why I mentioned this is because there's a little section of this documentary when the famous conductor, Seiji Ozawa, starts talking about how Rostropovich created his sound. And, first of all, I thought, "Well, this is a little strange. We have a conductor telling us how Rostropovich made his sound." And he started to say, "Well, you know, he was the one that used the weight of his arms the most, in order to produce a sound."

Now, this concept of arm weight is very interesting to me because I'm not really sure that it's what's actually happening when we create a sound. It may be something that was created at some point to describe a way to get power in an effortless way, but really, it has nothing to do with actually what we're doing when we're actually getting power on the cello. And it's kind of easy to illustrate, but first of all, to wrap up what I was saying there. It was amazing to me to hear that in that documentary, to hear Seiji Ozawa, the famous, long time conductor of the Boston Symphony, start talking about this idea of arm weight because, I guess, it's that common of an idea now that pretty much everyone talks about it.

Now, the idea is, of course, is that when you're bowing, in order to get the really big full sound, in the Dvorak Concerto, one that really projects that you can't press into the string, obviously, that you have to relax the weight of your arm to allow all the weight of the whole arm to go into the string like that. Now, let's take just a real good look at this, to see if this is really what's going on because I'm pretty sure it's not.

If we just imagine, for example, the idea of arm weight being somehow transferred into the string in order to get power, then what we first have to think of is we have to think, "Okay, well that weight itself, the weight of the arm then is something that has to be kind of dead, right, in order to be transferred into something." It can't be live. You see, if I put my arm just right above the string, then the weight of my arm is completely alive. I'm using it. There's no way it can be transferred.

So then as soon as I touch the string, then I somehow have to start to transfer that weight into the string. Now, if I want to transfer all of it in the string, then I have to completely have the whole system go dead. Maybe not from the back, maybe I exaggerated a little bit, but just from the shoulder like that. Now as you can see, this collapsed the whole bow, and then as soon as I start to draw a bow, everything just falls off to the side like that.

So, to me, there has to be something else going on for this idea to work. Another way to illustrate this is we'll have the cello act as a table here. But if you were to imagine the concept of arm weight, the concept of arm weight would be something like, okay taking the bow and hooking a weight or something onto the end of that bow and having that weight here, somehow transfer power into something over here. Well, see, it can't happen because as soon as I put weight here, this starts to happen, unless there's some type of counterbalance over here. You see what I'm saying?

And so when you're bowing on the string, there's no counterbalance on the other side of the bow. There's only a little tiny, tiny bit. I mean, we're talking about maybe, I don't know, 30, 40 grams or something of weight that's over here, that's balancing out the bow and we started at the frog. So that can't be happening. We can't have this kind of counterweight. See, if I had a counterweight, if I put my other hand over here, then I could demonstrate that.

I could make both my arms go dead and create a sound that way, but we can't do that, obviously, because we have to be able to use our hand up here. And we can't just hook the counterweight on the edge of the bow here. I may be using the wrong term, counterweight, there. But, anyway, you understand what I'm saying. So it just simply doesn't work like that. The way actually, we get power is through torque, is through this motion, this way. It's not through any sort of arm weight or anything like that. It's actually just through simply turning this way. That's all it is. So our bow hold, then, has to be able to go with that turning.

So for example, if we hold the bow like this, you know, I don't think any cello teacher would let you hold the bow like this. You can't really turn, see, you can't turn the arm. My bow hold is stopping me from turning the arm. I have to, at least, be here and then be able to turn that way, in order to get any sort of power into the stick. Now, when you watch Rostropovich play, he does this very, very, very well. And he holds the bow a lot deeper than me, but you'll notice that index finger of his is actually turned way, way, way over. He's getting a ton of power that way. And you notice the whole system works that way. He's never going like this, trying to transfer any sort of arm weight into that stick. He's here.

Now, to talk a minute about why the arm weight thing is such a popular idea, is that I think people started to talk about arm weight because they wanted to figure out a way to communicate to a student, who is really, really tight, that they can't produce any sort of power on the cello by being really tight. And I would completely agree with that idea, but I think that this search for less, and less, and less tension in playing can actually produce some strange results.

See, I think what we need is we need to be able to use our muscles and our bodies in a way to produce power that is efficient and actually does what the string needs in order to actually have it sound powerful, you see? So, of course, the string needs certain stimulus in order for it to sound powerful, and we need to figure out how to use our bodies in order to produce that in such a way that doesn't injure ourselves.

So ideas of arm weight, I think, they might be useful to some, and I'm sure they have been useful to some. But ultimately, I don't think it's the best way to explain actually how to produce power. Power is not only a combination of being able to produce torque and this turning feeling, this way, which actually needs to increase as we approach the tip in order to get that power. But it also has a lot to do with where we put the bow on the string and what everything is feeling like.

Do we feel like we're really pulling our sound? That, I think, is a more important idea. There, again, this feeling of pulling yourself back and forth and having the fingers feel passive that way. I think that's far more important than any ideas about arm weight. Now, I know maybe this video will be unpopular to some of you, because I know that there are many, many even of my colleagues who definitely use the arm weight idea and they use it, and it is effective to a certain degree. However, as I said, I don't think that it's ultimately the best way to describe exactly what's going on when power is being created.

Just one more little side point to this. If we think about cellists that used to play without an end pin. For example, David Popper didn't play without an end pin, and all the reports are is that his sound was quite large in the hall. How in the world, if you're holding the cello with your legs because they held between the legs with no end pin, how in the world then are you going to be holding the cello like this and use that kind of arm weight?

So you're going to have to immediately start thinking about where you're putting the bow, how to create torque, and all the things that I've already talked about. And that's, I think, another reason why this arm weight concept didn't really start to get really popular until about the last 30 or 40 years, or so.

So anyway, I hope there's lots of comments and lots of questions with this because I know this is kind of a heated topic, and I've been avoiding it. But I hope I see a bunch of comments. If you're watching this on YouTube, please go to and leave your comments there. I'll be happy to answer as many of them as I possibly can. And, once again, this has been Joseph Mendoes for
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User Comments and Questions

Comments, Questions, Requests:

Dwight on July 24, 2017 @11:40 am PST
The premise that arm-weight is "dead weight" is the problem. You CAN transfer living, poised, moving arm weight to torque the bow. This discussion amongst musicians will not go anywhere except in a "he says, she says" cul-de-sac like direction until a biomechanist gets involved. Can we musicians all agree that our ability to play an instrument beautifully doesn't give us the skill set to describe physics accurately? Let's get some humility and not presume to have THE answer.
Joseph - host, on July 24, 2017 @6:38 pm PST
Hello Dwight,

Thanks for your comment. I couldn't agree more, I also think dead weight is the problem, and that is how it is most often taught. As far as your explanation of living, moving arm weight, I still think the same problem applies, that when we turn or hand in such a way that so that we apply torque into the string via the bow, we are not using weight, we are simply activating the appropriate muscles in order to perform a fairly simple turning motion of the arm. It is funny you mention biomechanics, my primary mentor studied biomechanics as part of his doctorate. He published several papers on the subject in various scientific journals, including one on muscle activation patterns that cellists use when performing trills. It was a fascinating paper! It is also from him that I learned much of what I teach in regards to the bow. He actually taught me to learn how to suspend my arm weight, which helped me to gain a lot of control over my bow. He is a great teacher, his name is Dr. Richard Naill , feel free to look him up, his LinkedIn page is quite impressive!

I would agree that our ability to play an instrument beautifully does not give us the skill set to describe what we are doing accurately. That is why we must continue to push ahead and further our understanding of the body, the mind, and basic physics. If my understanding is incomplete, then I must continue to learn more. If all musicians did that, then maybe one day we will have THE answer!

Dwight on July 24, 2017 @8:04 pm PST
Thanks for the info, Joe! In my book you're one of THE BEST!!
Heather on April 18, 2017 @4:44 pm PST
Thank you for this! I've had a lot of tension in my right arm and when my teacher told me "just drop your arm" I was flabbergasted. I couldn't figure out how to make it work. Well I was wondering about the shoulder. My teacher always told me that the right shoulder shouldn't move much, and stay low. But I've been struggling with getting the torque with that mindset. How much should the right shoulder move? Is it even possible to keep it neutral?
Joseph - host, on April 19, 2017 @10:34 am PST
Hi Heather,
I think we should not restrict the motion of any joint in the bow arm. This thinking is how Casals revolutionized cello playing, it is amazing to me that there are still people fighting this basic concept! Your shoulder should move in a passive way, with the active feeling being in the bow hand. Don't worry too much if your shoulder looks too high or too low when you are playing, just worry if it is not moving!

Nicola on December 2, 2016 @12:21 am PST
Enjoyed your video very much BUT I don't really agree. I am a fan of the arm weight concept, but it is an idea and not completely a physical reality. The idea of allowing the weight of the arm to sink into the string through the bow does not really make any literal sense. But if we imagine it, it works!
Sincerai on October 13, 2015 @8:16 pm PST
Sooooo glad you didn't avoid it !!
Concentrating on this pure weight idea is in itself very restrictive and I'm sure now that this idea of yours allows much more freedom !!!
terryjg on August 26, 2015 @2:45 pm PST
I'm not seeing the amount of comments that I expected, and I think you expected, but of course you are spot on. Once we accept that it, we can begin awareness of unnecessary tensions and how we can release the sound, rather than weigh down the sound. I guess I have no questions other than why so many writers on cello technique (Selma Gokcen a notable exception) go on about weight, which is, well, literally, a drag.
Joseph - host, on August 28, 2015 @10:22 pm PST
Thanks for the comment!

It really is as simple as figuring out how to best get the string to vibrate. So many string players (even big names) choke the sound of their instruments. When I listen to recordings of artists like Oscar Shumsky, for example, I hear a beautiful, unforced, natural sound. When I listen to the vast majority of competition winners today, what I hear is very accurate, but not particularly beautiful playing. It makes me sometimes think that the transition from gut to synthetic/metal strings may have something to do with it, as it is very difficult to get a big sound on a gut string by forcing. On the newer strings you don't pay as much of a price for forcing.

kelpuutettu on August 15, 2015 @4:49 pm PST
Thanks for this video! I noticed the same thing myself when I switched teachers some time ago. My old teacher under whom I studied 10 years always talked about this "arm weight" and I did my best. My playing was very stiff at the time. Now that I have a new teacher (who is a great cellist and a good teacher) I was finally informed about the "twist" which creates the preassure. Now I feel like I finally have a much clearer picture of the whole prosess and I can start to learn to use the bow well. Still stiffness and tension is my problem, but atlest I know how to get better.

I can agree on everything (!) that you said on this video. I belive you really hit the nail in the head on this one! Thanks!
Joseph - host, on August 18, 2015 @12:53 pm PST
Thank you for watching, I am glad it was helpful!

For your stiffness I suggest you work on achieving the proper ratio between strength and flexibility in your bow hold and in your left hand. For your bow hold, try focusing on making your bow changes as smooth as possible. This will force you to use more finger motion in your bow change, which will reduce your stiffness. In your left hand, try playing a scale with out your thumb touching the back of the neck of the cello and use vibrato. I have found this also relieves quite a bit of stiffness. Please let me know if this does or doesn't help, I have more suggestions!

kelpuutettu on September 17, 2015 @12:20 am PST
Well accually my theacher made me do just those things! For example play a scale and mefore every down bow make an adjustmen on the right hand (for i had lost some flexibility during summer), and stuff like that. Helps a lot and fast!
psoucy * VSM MEMBER * on August 5, 2015 @3:47 pm PST
Always I pleasure to watch your videos, particularly when they cover less discussed topics such as that.

While the bowing technique on a double bass (using a french bow) is not identical, they still need to apply a lot of pressure to vibrate those big strings, but it seems to me that the upright position makes it impossible to transfer a lot of arm weight, so it has to be something else. We can try that on the cello by bowing upright with the arm entirely straight towards the floor: I don't feel the way I apply pressure by pronating my wrist and index finger is very different from my normal sat position, with a bowing movement a bit similar to the forearm motion with the elbow used as the pivot, when you play fast passages using the upper half of the bow and the elbow raised up. When using this forearm motion on the cello, it does not feel like much arm weight is applied.

That said, I'm not an expert at all on the cello, I'm just trying to observe what really happens when other players are bowing.
Joseph - host, on August 13, 2015 @12:28 pm PST
Thank you for your reply!

You make a very good point. Have you heard of the Bassist Bozo Paradzik? Look him up on YouTube. He has an enormous sound, and he plays standing up, thus making application of arm weight (as it is popularly understood) completely impossible. I really think this concept needs to be revised!

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