Joseph Mendoes - cello expert

Cello Tips for Beginners

Learn the basics of cello, useful for beginners and teachers.

In this video, Prof. Mendoes explains the very basics of the cello, such as how to take the cello out of its case, how to sit down, how to hold the bow, and so on... very useful video for both beginners and cello teachers!

Released on February 4, 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 a video for Today I'd like to talk about a couple of tips for beginners, actually. This is tips for teachers to teach a young child how to play the cello. That first lesson can be kind of a scary thing. I know we all have our little tricks and things to help the student to make some good sounds on the first day, but this is also directed towards the amateur musician -- the adult amateur -- who wants to take up the cello. Maybe he plays piano already or maybe he plays nothing, who knows. He really wants to develop his abilities on the cello and start to explore that instrument. So these are just a couple of tips for really anybody of any age. They work just as well for just about anybody.

The first one has to do with really making sure that the student is very, very familiar with the basics actually, the extreme basics. I mean like actually getting the cello out of the case and how to do all of that properly. That's something that occasionally gets overlooked. I know occasionally I overlook it with the first lesson of a student. I'm so excited to get them to make great sounds on that first day that I completely forget about the more difficult aspect of actually-- that daunting aspect actually, of getting the instrument out of the case. It's very kind of a scary thing. Especially since most beginners are starting with a soft case. So what I usually recommend, especially if they're tiny, is that they just get the case-- they put the case and the cello and everything on the ground and just try to get everything out of it that way instead of... If they're older I recommend that they stand up, actually and get the cello out of the case. It's a little bit easier there. Or of course to have a parent help them. That's one of those things I try to remember, actually.

Now as far as-- There's three tips I'll be giving you. That's really the first one, is to really go over those things because the... Sometimes when a student is at home during the week, they have problems with those kinds of basic things or they forget to tighten the bow or they don't know how long the end-pin is supposed to be. There's all those kinds of things that can happen. So to go over those kinds of things right from the very beginning and to stress them really helps to relieve that tension of, "What do I do with this thing that's sitting in a case? What exactly am I supposed to do with it?" Now once we have it out of the case and we've taught them how to sit, which I think I just covered in the posture video. You can go back and look at that one. Once we get that far, I think it's important then to really familiarize yourself with the strings. So what I like to do is I like to play a little game with my students and it's just kind of a little memory game. I'll put my bow off to the side, here. We don't use the bow quite yet. I try to get them to memorize where the strings are and their names.

So we have the C-string of course, the lowest one. The G-string, the D-string, and the A-string. So I give them all sorts of patterns. The first way I give it to them is I give them a pattern using just the letter names. So I'll say, "C-C-G-A." They'll have to go something like that. It helps them to memorize that way and then also I do a different way, I actually play a pattern and sometimes if the student has already studied piano or a different instrument or something I'll give them something like a little bit more of a tricky rhythm like I'll put in some little eighth notes or things like that. Something like... Something like that. They really seem to enjoy that right from the very beginning. Whether it's adult amateurs or whether it's a four, five-year old who's picking up the instrument for the first time.

After that, actually before we even work on anything with the left hand, then I have them actually pick up the bow. Now I don't remember going over this in the bow fundamentals, I know I think I've done a couple of videos on the bow. I can't remember what I've done actually. Not without going back and looking at all of it. Actually I have them start with holding the bow here at the balance point. I find the balance point for them and I have them hang the bow just between their thumb and their middle finger just like that. Then we just kind of lay the other fingers on the stick, usually I want the pinky to be up there like that. I think that's kind of a helpful place for us to start. Where it goes from there, who knows. But I think that's a good place for it to start.

Then we make some circles. Interestingly enough I don't think I've ever had a student, I don't mean to sound like I'm boasting here... But I don't think I've ever had a student not make a beautiful sound with one of these circles right from the very beginning. They usually... I have them start on the D-string and then they play a circle like that. In fact sometimes I have them go all the way past the hair so we hear a little bit of the actual wood hitting the string. That's not really bad for the bow so you don't have to worry. Just a little bit like that and then making these big circles. I don't know if you can see that on the video there. They usually make that beautiful ringing sound. Then of course they want to try it on all of the strings so I let them do that. We stay at this bow, actually for a certain amount of time.

Then really the third tip is starting to talk about the left hand. Now as far as beginners go this really is the issue of tape. Whether to tape up here. It's not really controversial, for some people it is. I generally try to avoid the use of tape, actually, but it really depends on the student. Some students really do need the tape. It'll be obvious to you.

In fact after the first day, this particular student is going to need that visual aid to start off with. But really even those students need that visual aid, they can't hear... For example they play a D like this and then they really can't find the E. They have no idea where that next note is supposed to... What that next note is supposed to sound like. Like they haven't ever played piano or maybe they're very, very young or in some cases that's where I'll use a piece of tape. Usually I'll just use maybe two pieces of tape at most. One for the first finger, one for the fourth finger. I know some people use three or even four and then they add all sorts of things. I think that this actually can be a problem. Now it is a little bit more difficult to begin this way even for a really, really good very, very talented beginner. It is a little bit more difficult, but the benefits that I've seen from it over the long term are that... I mean for example -- again it seems like I'm boasting here -- but it's not unusual for me with a beginner to even in the first month for them to be able to play through a very simple piece using the left hand fairly well in tune, just after a month. I find that this method of not using the tape, while those first couple of lessons can be pretty rough, the student starts to get the sound of it in their ears better and that's really what we want to build.

We want to build a knowledge of what the finger in the right spot sounds like. That's really the most important thing. Not what it looks like. Of course if they're constantly looking like this it really pulls their body completely out of position. They can't have their elbow in the right place, the bow angle usually goes really wacky, and there's all sorts of things that happen like that. So that's why I would experiment first without tape with pretty much every beginner to really see if it's something that they're able to do. Because if they are, and I've found that not a strong majority but at least a healthy majority of 65% or so have good enough ears from the very beginning to be able to distinguish enough where they need to put that first finger and then they're able to find the other notes from that. This really builds that hearing from the very beginning which I think is really critical. If you rely too much on the eyes, I think it's a big problem.

So anyway I hope you enjoyed this video and there will be many more coming. I look forward to doing these videos for many months to come and you'll be hearing a lot more from me definitely on a wider variety of topics. Again please, if there's anything that you want me to do a video on just go ahead and submit that in the comments section below the video on the website and I'll also say that if you're watching this on YouTube make sure you visit the VSM, the website. That's where I'll be able to see your comments. I don't have time to go around checking all the YouTube comments and also I don't know how to reply to those. So the comments I can reply to are on the website. So you can register there, log in, and also view all of the comments that everyone else has written. I usually try to write as extensive of a reply as time allows so that usually is a way for me to flesh out what I said in the video.

So once again, this is Joesph Mendoes for, and thank you for watching this video.
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User Comments and Questions

Comments, Questions, Requests:

Jenna Miller on October 31, 2017 @10:21 am PST
Thanks so much for your videos! I have found them very helpful.
I am just learning to play the cello and have run into a problem. When I press down on the strings to play different notes, I get a scratchy sound. The higher note I try to play, the scratchier the sound is. When I bow an open string however, it sounds fine. I have searched online and have tried different things such as adjusting my speed, angle, pressure, how much rosin is on the bow, and how firmly I hold down the string but nothing seems to help. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks
Jason Hoffman on November 17, 2015 @12:23 pm PST
Thanks for your videos - they are the most informative that I've found so far in the vast wasteland of YouTube and I plan to rely on them extensively as I learn.
Hopefully you can answer a beginner question I have. I had intended to add cello to the list of instruments I manhandle when I turned thirty but thirty came and went. Then forty whizzed past with no cello because I couldn't justify $1200 for an instrument that, at best, I'll ever only be mediocre upon. However I recently saw someone playing an electric cello and found that versions are available for $300. As a long time instrumentalist I know all the reasons why one should have a quality instrument, even to start, but pragmatically I just can't justify it.
So my question is that these electric cellos come in all kinds of funky shapes, from almost straight planks to ones that have a kind of S shape and others with wedges that stick out. When playing the cello does one need, for want of a better word, shoulders where the top of the cello would be, either for resting the hands on or for visually having a reference? How about the lower curve of the cello? I'm guessing without something to brace against the knees that the instrument would tend to rotate and make playing more difficult.
If it helps to see them, the brand name is Cecilio and are often found on eBay.
Joseph - host, on November 19, 2015 @9:30 am PST
Hi Jason, thank you for your nice compliment!

I took a look at the Cecilio website. I honestly do not have much experience with this brand, especially their electric offerings, but it seems to me that the best ones are the celli with as close to a full body as possible. If it is your intention to upgrade to a wood instrument at some point in the future, having an instrument that closely approximates a wood cello in shape would be the most helpful. However the most important thing is the set-up of the instrument. When you receive the instrument, make sure to take it to a local luthier to have it set up properly, especially paying attention to the string height. If the strings are too high, the cello will not be much fun to play!

Ettore on July 14, 2015 @9:48 am PST
Hello! Your videos are great. I'm a violin player and I'm 23 yo. I was thinking of picking up the cello but because I can't afford a teacher I'd like to learn on my own so there are two questions for you:
1. Does playing the violin help to learn cello?
2. Like in violins, since I'm a full grown adult, a 4/4 cello is my size right?
Joseph - host, on July 14, 2015 @10:00 pm PST
Hello Ettore,

In some ways playing the violin will help you to play the cello, in other ways it will not. In regards to the fundamentals, they remain the same for both instruments, but the application is rather different. For example, a common problem with the left hand that people who are switching from violin to cello experience is that the hand tends to slope towards the scroll. A little bit of this is not too bad, but too much and your ability to effectively use your fourth finger is diminished. As far as the bow goes, all you need to do is to get used to a slower bow speed to get a good sound, but the mechanics are basically the same.

Hope this helps!

Ivo Kai on April 30, 2015 @4:33 pm PST
Hi Joseph! First off, thanks for your videos! They're really helping me.
I'm a beginner, have a week studying. I did some basic training holding the bow, the posture, open strings, switching them at random to get the position of the bow on each of them, and even started studying the first position and the basic Major scales from C, G and D.

But I have some difficulty holding the bow, even following your guideline on the How to Hold Bow vídeo, there's still some tension, specially on the thumb. Is this something that my hand will endure over time, or should it have disappeared by now?

One other thing, I notice that when playing open strings, everything is ok, I can play them fairly good and fast without touching other strings. But when playing placing some fingers, still on the first position, like on the D string specially, I have problems also touching the A and G strings. Sometimes this happens on the G string as well. My question is, If this is a matter of practice, or is my bridge not really well crafted, or maybe my bow technique still needs to improve. But I want to point that for the G and D strings, If I eventually need to use some notes on the 4th position, I can see that the string comes down beneath the other strings, making it Impossible to use the bow without first touching the other strings, specially on the upper part, close to the fingerboard, so the lower my fingers on the left hand are, more close to the bridge I need to play in order to be able to hit only the desire string.
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