Joseph Mendoes - cello expert

Cello Bow Fundamentals

How to approach the study of the bow on the cello

In this video, Joseph gives you a step-by-step approach for mastering the bow technique on the cello by starting from its basic concepts.

Released on March 5, 2014

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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 and welcome to another video for I am Joseph Mendoes, I am the cello expert here at, and wanted to thank you again for joining me for another video. I hope all of you enjoyed my last video on the Bach suites. That was a lotta fun for me to put together and I hope you also find this next one enjoyable, it's on a couple of different topics, mainly in regards to the bow. I think you'll find, for me at least in the future, that the bow is something I feel that gets a little bit neglected, I think, sometimes, especially in early teaching when you first start as a beginner and also throughout your development. Much focus is put onto the left hand for a variety of really good reasons, but primarily because this is where, you know, we get the value of pitch, pitch being a very important musical value. However, I think there are other musical values that are just as important as pitch that get neglected.

So we're gonna start with bow placement and the effect that bow placement can have on the sound, and also the other demands that picking a certain spot on the string place on what you're able to do with the bow and with the sound. So most of us are familiar with the fact that if we play a little bit closer to the bridge, we get a much kind of thicker, penetrating kind of sound. It's not necessarily always louder but certainly it has more presence. So if I put the bow just right there, you can see that the sound is very thick and penetrating. Now you'll also see that because I'm so close to the bridge, I can't move the bow too fast. If I try to move the bow too fast, I get a interesting sound, to say the least. That kind of sound if I move the bow too fast. Maybe some of you in your practicing have heard this sound and wondered where this is coming from. Well, it's just a mismatch between your bow's speed and where you've actually place the bow.

Now if we place the bow of course closer to the fingerboard and we draw the bow, you see how much faster I now have to draw the bow, and we get a much different sound. We get a much lighter sound. And this can be useful to achieve certain dynamics, pianos and pianissimos. I caution you however to not really go past too much higher than the edge of the fingerboard here. The reason being, when you actually...well, when you play in a practice room, doesn't make that much of a difference. Under your ear, certainly, you can hear the sound. But when you put yourself in a much larger place, in a concert hall for example, or even in a small...relatively small recital hall, maybe you're playing in a recital for your teacher or you're playing in a very large living room for some friends or something like that, your sound needs to have a little bit more presence. So generally speaking, that means that we wanna play only really from the fingerboard down, just in that area, never really floating above there, unless there's some very specific musical effect that we're going for, but this is a very rare situation.

So, let's talk about one more thing. When we're playing closer to the bridge, generally we feel more resistance. Now this is something that I've experienced with some of my younger students, that this resistance at first feels a little bit unpleasant and is actually hard to control. So we avoid then playing closer to the bridge. And what I mean by resistance is this feeling of pulling the sound. It's that you really wanna feel that you're actively pulling and drawing out the sound no matter what part of the string you're playing on. Now you're gonna feel far less resistance holding the bow or putting the bow here. You're still gonna feel that resistance and you still want to, but when you put the bow here, you're gonna feel a lot more resistance. And feeling this resistance and responding to it is part of the ways that we're able to not only tell where we're at without even really almost hearing it, you know, we can just feel the amount of resistance that we're feeling. But it's's one of the ways that we can actively control our sound, is to really feel it in the fingers as we play and to feel that resistance. And we feel that both on up-bows and on down-bows.

The next thing has to do with... Okay, so let's say that you've mastered this idea of where to put the bow in different circumstances. Now, okay, you're in the middle of a bow and you wanna change it. For example, I start a bow closer to the fingerboard and I wanna move it towards the bridge, how do we do that? Well, there's some problems here because if I just kind of move it, you can hear that kind of unpleasant tone quality, where it's kind of sounding forced a little bit. I don't know if it's the microphone in the camera's picking that up or not, but I can tell you from here, there's something weird in the sound when you do that. And it's because it's very difficult, as you change, to kind of match up the appropriate bow speed to every single spot that you're hitting. This is why actually control of angle, of the bow angle, is the best way to move the bow around.

Now, if you're on a down-bow, and we'll just talk about down-bows for right now, it's the opposite case for the up-bows. But in general, if you do the down-bow right, the up-bow is gonna happen in the right way too. Up-bows are generally more of a completion of whatever you happen to do on the down-bow. But I'll talk more about that later. If I want to move the bow towards the bridge, all I'm gonna do on a down-bow is angle the bow a little bit this way. Now you see I'm exaggerating this a little bit, it's not gonna be quite that much when you actually see me do it. So you see how I can get the bow to move down and it doesn't really disturb the sound. Vice versa, if I start closer to the bridge and I wanna move the bow towards the fingerboard, all I have to do is really change that angle and move the angle this way, you see? More this way, I'll exaggerate it so you can see. So that way is gonna cause the bow to travel.

Now, maybe some of you have experienced this traveling bow before and you didn't really want it to happen. For example, you wanted to make a really, really nice sustained sound, like for example in the second theme of the "Kol Nidrei" by Max Bruch, one of my favorite pieces, requires that we're able to really control where the bow is at. And you can see, my bow is staying pretty well focused in the right spot there, and that's all because I'm controlling that angle. I'm controlling the bow angle and making sure that the bow doesn't drift. If I let the bow drift, then it really changes the sound quite a bit. You see, the sound kind of disappears a little bit and I get this kind of fluffy sound. So I have to really control with the angle, and really, also that kind of resistance that we talked about before. That's how I can control where the bow is and that's how I'm able actually to sustain and do all those sorts of things.

So learning this bow mobility and being able to control it will actually help you not only to move the bow wherever you want in the middle of the sound or in the middle of the bow, but it will also teach you how to really sustain, how to really make sure that the bow is able to stay in the same spot. It will help both of those things, so I really recommend that you spend some time working on this. And there's a variety of ways and a lotta different pieces where you can work on this. I know maybe some of you have studied the Handel, the chorus from "Judas Maccabeus". I teach that to some youngsters and that's a good kinda simple piece to work on this, to work on making sure the bow is staying exactly in the right spot.

So the last thing I'd like to talk about is the issue of what happens when we change strings. Because when we change strings, this feeling of angle changes quite a bit, and this is where things, I think, get a little bit complicated. For example, when I'm on the D string, it's pretty easy for me to figure out what straight is, I can just kinda look in a mirror and look straight ahead of me and figure out, "Okay, well that's pretty straight." I can also kind of place the bow over the bridge and kinda say, "Okay, well that's pretty straight." And then I can say to myself, "Well, if I use that same angle on all the other strings, then should be fine, right?" And I do that and I say, "Okay, well now I'm on the C string. Uh-oh, now I have a problem," right? I have to change the angle for each string. And I have to make sure that I know what straight feels like on every single string when I play, because this is gonna affect your sound tremendously for a variety of reasons, but for the principle reason being what I talked about before with bow mobility, is that for example, if I'm playing on the D string and the bow is staying in the same place because I'm really controlling the angle very well and then I take that same angle and I play on the C string, you see it starts to slide up. So I have to change the angle quite a bit to make sure that the sound really stays...or the bow stays really on the sounding point that I want it to stay. And on the G string, I have to monitor this.

So one of the best ways to really learn this is to get yourself either in front of a mirror or to videotape yourself and to really see what kind of angles you're using and how much your bow is sliding around as you go on the different strings. This is not an issue I talked about in the Bach suite video, the video before this one, but this is another kind of large issue involved with the...with playing Bach, is because of the amount of string crossings we're dealing with, we also have to monitor this angle. Now, that's kind of the, I guess, the bad news because it means that there's a little bit of work ahead of you. But the good news is is that once you really get the hang of this, you start to really hear the difference. And when you're hearing the difference when you're playing, you know, and really controlling the bow angle well on each string, it's really easy to kind of duplicate this. It doesn't become something that you have to do any sort of daily practice on. That's the good news, is that once you kind of get over understanding this idea, it's really not something you have to work on incessantly every single day to make sure that it's correct, that, you know, measuring your bow angle, making sure, "Okay, is it right today? Is it right today?" There's a certain feel and a certain sound that when you get those two things to go together, you've got the right feel here and then you've got the right sound, they happen almost automatically.

Anyway, I hope this video was helpful today, I know it covered quite a bit of different topics. And I look forward to hearing your comments, and please leave any comments or suggestions for future videos down below there, and I'll be happy to answer any questions you have, and respond to any comments you have. And I'm looking forward to hearing from you. Thank you so much.
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User Comments and Questions

Comments, Questions, Requests:

Raramuri676 * VSM MEMBER * on November 7, 2018 @9:23 am PST
Very helpful video. Thanks for doing these. While watching your video I realized why I have been getting that unpleasant sound that you mention. I have been letting my bow drift toward the bridge especially while playing the A and D strings. I will be sure to be more aware of that.
Noelle Goslee Smith on October 17, 2018 @7:25 pm PST
Your videos are all quite helpful and informative--one question I have is how to achieve color in bowing. Positions, different strings, contact point with string, etc., I know have to do with it, but I'm never sure I have accomplished anything, so your help is appreciated!
Tim on September 28, 2017 @11:15 am PST
I'm relatively new to yor video "lessons". You may get this frequently but the lessons are very rich with practical ways to enhance your cello technique. My question is this. You talked about not being able to bow on a straight line on the four strings and showed you had to really adjust the angle on the C and A strings. Would the angle be relatively the same on the G and D strings?
Joseph - host, on October 1, 2017 @6:26 pm PST
Hi Tim,

Thanks for the compliment! I am glad you enjoy the videos!

Yes they would be similar, more so than between the A and the C, but there is still a slight difference. You could probably get away with not changing the angle much when crossing between the G and D strings. Maybe for some players this difference is not worth the effort, but for an obsessive like me any difference is worth it!

Robert W. Francis * VSM MEMBER * on August 29, 2017 @11:24 am PST
Very enjoyable, instructive, and clear for a 72 year old retired engineer who just started lessons on the cello 2-years ago with no prior musical instruction. Thank you.
Ro on December 5, 2014 @8:36 am PST
Hello Joseph,
How can I play with two strings. Because it is very difficult, can you explain how to do it with the bow?

greatings from Holland. Ro
Joseph - host, on December 15, 2014 @12:08 am PST
I assume you mean playing two strings at once with the bow? I agree, it is difficult to do it well! The margin for error is very slim, because if you lean on one string more than another you can disengage one of the strings, resulting in a stoppage of sound. Try playing the highest string, and then slowly make the bow touch the next string down, so that you are playing both of them. As soon as you hear two strings ringing, keep the bow on that same plane, and you should be fine!

Ro on December 4, 2014 @12:12 pm PST
Thank you for this lesson, and to explain the bow.
I like your lesson.
Matt on September 22, 2014 @2:45 am PST
Hello Joseph, I am a professional violinist and violist and music educator who also plays a little cello and bass (cello rocks). I've been trolling youtube in search of the most pedagogically sound videos to offer students of mine in order to more effectively automate and reinforce learning in the rehearsal/class setting. I'm interested in a number of videos you have made, but I would like to see one short two minute video addressing one particular issue with which I see many many students having problems: stopping the string without pressing the thumb. According to the ONLY ONE other cellist I seem to be able to find on YouTube whose videos are helpful, the string is pressed, to use the words of your other video, "fully down," not by counter pressure from the thumb or any kind of squeezing in the hand, but rather by letting the weight of the left hand sink down and back towards the body so that the weight comes into the fingerboard through the fingers, thereby stopping the strings while leaving the thumb completely free, and the other fingers also free to rotate forward and back as the rest of the arm pivots around their contact points. Does this sound about right to you? If so, and if you have the time, do a brief video that explains these mechanics as well as the distinct difference between them and the pressing-up/counterpressure-via-the-thumb method that seems to be common in many of the students I observe. Thanks!
Joseph - host, on September 24, 2014 @8:03 am PST
Hello Matt,I will do a video on this, there are a few exercises that can help to eliminate the problem of the thumb, but how quickly the problem goes away depends on how the student practices. It can be difficult to be mindful of this not only while practicing, but also in orchestra rehearsals and any other situation that the student is playing in. The way you described it is fine, I would use different language (I find the concept of "weight" to be inaccurate in describing the actual feeling.) The key is to feel balanced on each finger. I will do a video on this soon!Joseph
Moriole on August 6, 2014 @9:08 pm PST
Hi, Thank you for this video. It is enlighten me. I'm practicing about < 1 year but I'm kind of having problem with my bow practice: bow hold and bow pressure in different part of the bow. I really hope to see the topic with bold hold and idea on how to practice with different bow pressure in different part of the bow some day!
Have a good day
Anna M on March 12, 2014 @10:50 pm PST
I knew that shifting between sounding points was a good thing to practice but I didn't know how to do it smoothly. Thank you for explaining the correct motion so clearly. Is it beneficial to play with the bow significantly over the finger board in very quiet orchestral music?
Randy Smith * VSM MEMBER * on March 9, 2014 @3:51 pm PST
Thanks so much for your help. I think I have rosin evenly applied the whole length of the bow, and the problem of "slipping" seems to happen at various places on the bow, so I'm wondering if I am just not applying proper pressure to the string at those times. BTW, I also am very much looking forward to your next lesson(s) on vibrato.
Joseph Mendoes - host, on March 10, 2014 @9:56 pm PST
Hello Randy,
I think I might have a solution for you. First, draw a down bow on the D string and when you get to the tip try to "pluck" the string with the end of the bow. There should be a spot on the end of your bow where the hair ends and the wood begins, and the wood should stick out a little. It is that part that I want you to "pluck" the string with at the end of your bow. Do this several times, and you should notice that in order to do this well you need to play on an arc, with the bow starting at the frog closer to the G string and ending at the tip closer to the A string. Playing on an arc instead of a straight line will allow you to increase you leverage as you play a down bow and maintain the proper pressure on the bow for a good sound. The next video will be on vibrato, but maybe at the end of it I can add a demonstration of this exercise so that it is clear!

Let me know how it goes!

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