Joseph Mendoes - cello expert

How to Control Your Bow

Learn simple techniques to improve your bow control on the cello

In this video, Prof. Mendoes tackles "bow control" and gives you some tips to improve your bow technique a great deal.

Released on July 6, 2016

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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 everyone. This is Joseph Mendoes with another video for So I know I've done probably way too many videos about the bow but here goes another one and well the reason why I do so many videos about the bow is that I feel like that the bow is something in string playing not just in cello playing but in string playing. It is...well to give it a kind of a hierarchy I think it's problematic but I would say that I think it's the one thing that is the most misunderstood. It's not that the bow is neglected in teaching. There's many, many fine teachers who spend a lot of time on the bow and an appropriate amount of time on the bow. But I do feel like that it is at least not totally understood. How the bow...first of all how the bow is supposed to be held which is something right, that I dealt with in the previous video. Really what the point of...not the point but the means of sound production really is you know what needs to be happening to the string in order for a sound to actually happen.

But something I haven't spent a lot of time on is how to increase the variety in your tone. A lot has been said about making sure that you can play with a big sound that projects. That's something that goes across all levels of string playing. That's what everyone wants. Everyone wants a big sound, right? That's going to be heard in the last seat of the concert hall. And of course this is necessary but to me that's a gross over simplification of really what a sound needs to be. To say simply, that one needs to have a big sound caused to your mind kind of a picture of a very monochromatic sound. Which is unfortunately a sound that you sometimes hear even from big name artists where there's not a lot of color of a variety or even dynamic nuance in what they're doing.

So the trick is to learn how to make sounds that project more the idea that you're trying to convey. For example, something I tell my students a lot when they're interpreting is to make sure that you always project your piano and project your pianissimo. And what that means, this doesn't mean to play it really any louder than you were doing. It's actually to kind of project in the way that an actor would project. You want to project the feeling that's trying to be communicated through this dynamic. You want to try to project the essence of what is musically going on so that the person sitting in the very back of the hall can really understand the meaning of the score and the meaning of what you're trying to do just as well as somebody in the front.

Now, let's talk about that actually. How to create this kind of really wonderful pianissimo. Well a lot of it has to do with the bow, and understanding just some basic mechanics. So first of all the very common idea right? Is that when you play close to the bridge. Excuse me if my cello is a little out of tune. It's very hot today so actually give me one second. Get things in tune here. Okay, so to create this pianissimo for example, what you want to try to do is you want to try to just use the normal laws that we all know, right? Closer to the bridge and a slower bow usually means a kind of a more focused, intense sometimes a brighter sound and then a little bit further away from the bridge, but a faster bow means a more kind of covered velvety sound, right?

But between these two you can actually do a wide range of dynamics. For example, it's quite possible to play very close to the bridge and play a true pianissimo. Now a cellist that was very good...many cellists that are good at...being very good at this but Rostropovich comes to mind. Somebody who could create this kind of pianissimo that was almost kind of on a knife edge. Where you can have this very slow bow and create this very, very soft sound that has a lot of chord. Now of course you can also make this soft sound that has more of that covered velvety...this one is a little harder to do, it requires a little bit more of control. But each one has a kind of a different character and you have to decide what's appropriate.

Now you saw the differences that I was making there, was that really on the first one it was more kind of controlled pianissimo. I was much closer to the bridge and on the second one I was much further away from the bridge. So a lot of this then has to do with obviously being in very good command of where you want to put your bow. And many people think that this is something that for a lot of players is kind of instinctive. And yes it is that way but we all learn at some stage that if you put the bow in a different place on a string and vary your speed and do all this things, you're going to get different sounds.

So all you really have to do is just start experimenting and start really thinking more about this bow placement issue in order to get sounds that you like and sounds that you feel are appropriate to what you're doing musically. Now, there's another aspect to this too, that I've talked about in other videos. To control this kind of pianissimo, you need to be playing on a curve, and you've heard me say this. I don't remember in what video but one of them. Where this curve that I talk about quite a bit. Where you want to always have this kind of gentle raising of the bow as you approach the tip. Maybe you can't see that on the video but I ended it on that very soft sound. I ended much closer to the A string.

Now, this is absolutely necessary to controlling the dynamic. The reason for this is that really to control the dynamic you need to be able to sustain. Most people think of sustaining as sustaining a loud sound but also you have to be able to sustain soft sounds as well. And so the sound can't dissipate at all and the way you manage that is through this gentle curve motion. I'm exaggerating a little bit obviously but that's how we accomplish that. Now another way to think of this curve and to kind of get this into your technique is to do this little exercise. And what you do is, you divide the bow up into...and I know I've done this kind of thing before but this is a little bit different. You divide the bow up into four, six or eight parts.

I guess we'll do...maybe we'll do six, okay? So you're just going to play, just on an open D and you're going to play that first sixth of the bow. So you want to imagine that the halfway point is obviously right at halfway point. Maybe that's not exactly halfway and then from there you have two segments. So this is your first segment, that's your second segment and that's your third segment and then you get to the middle. Then you have another segment, another segment and then the final segment and you get to the end of that should...unless my math is wrong it should be six sections, okay? So the first section you're just going to go to that first section which should be a very, very fact I think I went too far, about there. And then you're going to take your left hand, hold on to the bow, keep it right on the same spot and then re-place your hand as if now that's your new frog. That's now where the frog is, okay?

You're going to do another short little bow and then you're going to place your hand in the new spot there, okay? Now what you should be feeling is each time you start this bow, you're starting it from a very good feeling and most of us feel pretty confident about playing at the frog and playing with a nice sound there, okay? So then this next frog which should be close to halfway, which it looks like we are, and then we just keep going like this. Until well, maybe I divided it wrong there. Sorry about that. Anyway you get the idea. The idea is to have the feeling of being at the frog throughout the entire long stroke so that you always feel like you have that level of control no matter where you are in the stroke. If you can do that then that means that if you want to play a really nice healthy forte, you can really easily sustain that.

Or if you want to play a very well controlled pianissimo kind of sound at any spot on the string you can do that. Now of course creating these dynamics, like I said in the beginning, it's not only with the bow, you can vary your vibrato speed and there are some other things but primarily it has to do with first choosing where you're going to put that bow. Really I encourage all of you to focus really hard on that in your practice. To always be aware of where are your bow is at. That...where your bow is at is giving your hand a lot of tactile sensations. For example, when you're playing closer to the bridge, you're going to feel less resistance. When you're playing...sorry, when you're playing away from the bridge, you're going to feel less resistance and when you play close to the bridge, you're going to feel a lot of resistance, right?

And that ability to manipulate that feeling of resistance, is critical in learning how to control your sound, right? We don't want to be always reacting to a sound, you know. Always just reacting and hearing, that's not what I wanted. What we want, is we want to be able to think of the sound and then automatically have the appropriate feeling in the right hand for how we want to create that sound. So that ideally we can just wake up in the morning and sit down and have that sound because we have memorized in essence what the sound actually feels like. So again, I heartily recommend that all of you experiment greatly with putting your bow in different spots on the string and hearing what kind of different sounds you can get if you control the sound really well, and then also do that exercise. Any exercise that I've given. I think I remember giving the bow pluck one like that in the previous video.

Just practicing this kind of gentle lift, doing it kind of literally like that. These bow distribution exercises that I've given in the past where you try to maintain the same articulation throughout the bow. All these things will help for you to get a feeling in your bow that you have total mastery that you can do really anything you want at any part of the bow. You can sustain, you can play really gorgeous pianissimos, you can play very full fortes and fortissimos. You can do all of these things.

So I know that video was a little bit rambly but I think it hopefully will help and I look forward to hearing your comments. Please leave them on the website. Don't leave them on YouTube. I cannot and I will not and I refuse to reply to them. So I will do my best to reply to the ones on the website. Once again, this has been Joseph Mendoes for
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User Comments and Questions

Comments, Questions, Requests:

Allesandra on August 11, 2017 @5:35 pm PST
I have a real problem with sustaining towards the upper half of the bow and will give these this exercise some practice . I do all kinds of weird things as soon as I move towards the centre of the bow , adjusting this and that so hopefully the ' curve' will help Smiley Face) thank you .
Briana * VSM MEMBER * on July 8, 2016 @5:46 am PST
Tell us how you REALLY feel about comments on YouTube.Winky Face Thank you so much for another very helpful video. I look forward to seeing them and always learn so much.
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