Joseph Mendoes - cello expert

How to Play Harmonics on the Cello

How to approach harmonics on the cello

In this video, Prof. Mendoes gives you useful tips to approach harmonics on the cello.

Released on September 7, 2016

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Video Transcription

Hello everyone, this is Joseph Mendoes with another video for So today, I'm gonna talk about something that I can't believe I have not talked about yet. It's something that's pretty basic and that actually my wife suggested that I do a video on. So here it goes. It's on harmonics, how harmonics work, how best to play them, the different, various kinds of harmonics that we have on the cello.

So first of all, just to explain, for those of you who don't know or aren't familiar yet with what harmonics are, harmonics are the resulting sound of dividing the string into various parts and just touching the string, just barely touching the string. And it operates on mathematical principles that were first discovered by the great Greek mathematician and philosopher, Pythagoras, actually. So if you look at the string and if you see from here to here, this is the stopped portion of the string. By stopped, I mean this is the vibrating portion, okay? So if you take this vibrating portion and you divide it in half, okay, so this just a regular A, and then you divide it in half and you touch, you get one octave higher. Now, if you take this spot and that spot again and you divide it in half, you get another octave higher if you just touch it. If you take this spot and divide it one more time in half, you get another octave, right?

Now, the funny thing is is as you divide these octaves, the sound of them get flatter and flatter. So it actually makes it a little bit difficult to play these harmonics and tunes, especially the higher ones. But basically, the ones that can be relied upon are always the first division and then the second division. Now, there is another way to divide these. There is a way to divide the string in thirds, okay? So every third point on the string, on the stop length, has a harmonic on it, except some of those harmonics are the same, again, because you're dividing the string in the same way.

So this would be, from here to here, this would be one third of the length. And what we get is actually an octave and a fifth above of what the open string is. Now, the same spot that corresponds to that is there. You see how those are the same notes that happens to be an E, right?

Okay, now, we can further divide that. This gets a little tricky, because they don't end up sounding as good. But if we further divide this one, where is it? No. There it is. They get tricky to play. Now, they're tricky to play because the distance that you're allowed to play the harmonic in terms of the spot that you're allowed to touch is very, very narrow.

You'll notice for the first harmonic that I play, I can actually kind of move the finger around, and I still get the same harmonic. The quality of the harmonic changes, but I still get the same harmonic. However, if I try to do it with this harmonic, you start to hear that there is a little bit of pitch difference. And it starts to slip in and out. Whereas, this one, there is a lot of leeway. And as you go up, same thing. If we find that other corresponding harmonic here, as soon as we start to move it around, we get into problems with actually getting the harmonic, the sound.

Now, I know some of you have problems in your pieces with harmonics. And I have some students who have trouble with this the first time they play them. In fact, this harmonic here is one that shows up in a very a popular piece. Most students, when they play it, it ends up sounding like this, kind of like a squeak or some kind of weird sound or something. And it's because most of you, when you're playing harmonics, are pressing on a string. The harmonic gets much better and much, much more clear if you do two things, first thing being making sure that you're not pressing the string down at all. In fact, the lighter you touch a harmonic, the more clearly it will sound.

And the other thing is just playing close to the bridge. You can actually play almost ponticello, which means almost on the bridge. Like if I were to play a regular note in that same spot, I get that kind shrill sound. But if I play a harmonic in that same spot and I have my finger on the right spot, then it actually intensifies and clarifies the harmonic. So if you play harmonics too close to the fingerboard, you hear they get a little bit squeaky. But as soon as I get it closer to the bridge, it gets much, much, much clearer.

Now, there is a whole nother set of harmonics. Those are just the natural ones. And you can hear all the natural ones if you just kind of run your finger up and down the string. You can hear all those kinds of harmonics. Now, there is other harmonics. There is what are called artificial harmonics. Now, the way we create an artificial harmonic is we stop the string at some artificial point, by artificial, meaning not one of the points that it's naturally stopped at, right here.

So in order to do these, you need to use your thumb. So there is a very advanced technique, and there is two basic types. There is a touch five and a touch four. Now, what does that mean? If you put your thumb down and then you touch your fourth above that, you notice? You get an octave higher from where the thumb is down. If you touch five, you get a fifth higher. Do you see that? So those are the two basic ones that we use. And we can use that to move around and play scales and to have all sorts of nice sort of flutey effects.

And there is even one really cool effect, and we will end the video with this, that happens in a really nifty piece by George Crumb, called Vox Balaenae , and it's Voice of the Whale is what it's called. And it's for cello, flute, and piano, I think one of the first pieces that my wife and I ever performed together. And there is a really, really nice section in that where seagulls are imitated. And I'll try to duplicate that for you right now. You can hear the sea gulls. If I do on a different string, it sounds like a lower voice to seagull. So it's a really nice effect. And there is all sorts of fun things you can do with harmonics.

And another piece actually to check out with really, really cool use of harmonics is Capriccio by Lukas Foss, which I don't think is actually on the website, because it's, well, its published by another publisher. But you have YouTube. There is YouTube clips of the piece that really used the harmonics in a really creative, really, really neat way. It's by the American composer Lukas Foss called Capriccio.

So anyway, I think that's all I had to say about harmonics. If any of you have any questions, please leave them in the comments below, not on YouTube, but on the website. I've had some comments saying that I don't like YouTube. No, I have nothing against YouTube. I love YouTube. I use it quite a bit myself. But I literally cannot answer those comments. So your comments will be unanswered, guaranteed, if you leave them on YouTube. I can only have access and answer the comments on the website, which means you, of course, need to log in and leave your comment and do all that stuff. So once again, this has been Joseph Mendoes for
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User Comments and Questions

Comments, Questions, Requests:

Thomas on March 10, 2018 @8:32 am PST
Thank you very much! It's a very instructive video and transcription.
Kind regards
Patricia Fisher * VSM MEMBER * on September 14, 2016 @10:01 pm PST
After demonstrating appx. the way you do on the video, I tell my students about the special effect an entire orchestra's string section gives doing a harmonic glissando when the Firebird enters in Stravinsky's ballet of the same name. It lasts but a few seconds but it's just perfect to depict the shimmering wings of the Firebird.
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