Joseph Mendoes - cello expert

How to Play The Swan by Saint-Saens

Learn how to master one of the most popular pieces for cello.

In this video, Prof. Mendoes talks about the well-known piece by Saint-Saens, "The Swan", and how to approach it. I am sure you'll find this video simply remarkable.

Released on November 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 everyone, this is Joseph Mendoes with another video for It's been so much fun to do all these videos, and I look forward to doing each one. I thought maybe this video I would spend some time on talking about the Swan by Camille Saint-Saens, I know it's a favorite piece of mine. I know it's a favorite piece of a lot of cellists, but it's also a pretty scary piece.

I'll be the first one to admit that when i have to perform this piece, definitely I up my practice time, and I put myself into training for something like this, because there's a lot of treacherous things, a lot of shifts, a lot of bow changes, a lot of string crossings. They really need to be executed fairly flawlessly to really bring the piece off, and this requires a lot of practice, and a lot of careful practice in terms of how you're really listening to yourself if you're really covering all the fundamentals because The Swan really what it's about. Well, it's about a Swan obviously, but in terms of the technique of the Swan it's really about these fundamentals as is everything else. This piece exposes those fundamentals as plainly as the day.

Let's start off with just the very beginning of it. There's this fairly simple sounding phrase [music]. Now there's a lot to do there. First of all, we have to make sure the vibrato is matching on each finger [music]. So you want to make sure that we have a nice open wide vibrato on our fourth finger [music], as well as on our third finger, and on our first finger. Now, on this downward move what can happen very often is [music], the elbow can get stuck if you keep your elbow at the same level that you had it for this G.

If you keep that same elbow back here [music], you can kind of hear the vibrato gets a little narrow. You have to make sure that you move the whole arm back [music], as you saw I did, up and back so that the vibrato can stay open [music]. Then you have a little flick upwards there to get to that fourth finger, and that fourth finger has to immediately release [music].

Now, as I talked about my vibrato video, the thumb has to be very free, of course, to do all this very well. But we want to make sure that the next [music] second finger is the same amount of width and of control of the vibrato. If we have, for example, some notes going dead on us or some notes not vibrating as well, the fourth finger for a lot of people are a little bit tough [music]. Then, you see we have a massive color change [music], so that's why we need to have the same vibrato on every finger [music], which is something i talked about in that vibrato video, and I think I gave you some exercises about how to do that.

On top of that, we have a couple of string crossings. They're manageable here, so we won't talk about those quite yet. But also the bow changes are critical. My vision of this swan is, first of all, the Swan is a very graceful animal, especially when it's on water. You see nothing moving underneath the water. Of course, its little feet are paddling along, but it looks like that it's just floating.

It's almost the kind of a heavenly sight of nature, and I also imagine a lake where there'e a little bit of wind maybe, so that the lake has that kind of shimmering quality to it. The sun is hitting it at the right angle, and there's that kind of mice shimmer. I think of that shimmer as the vibrato in this. I think of the smoothness of the bow as the smoothness of the swan as it moves across the lake. So both of those things have to be in really perfect harmony with one another to really get this vision of this beautiful swan.

So anyway the [music], when you get to here [music], this is where the string crossing is really important. Now, some of you may not go to an open A. I go to an open A. I'm not too scared of doing that kind of thing, but whenever you go to the A string, whenever you transition over because you have to at some point, you have to be careful of this color change between the D string [music] which is usually which is usually a more covered sound, and then the A string [music] which is a more bright sound.

What I do is I try to focus the D string sound, so that the D string gets a little bit more of an A string color, and then I soften the A string sound so that the A string gets more of a D string color. So really the one I do more of is the second one, to make sure that the A string doesn't sound too bright when I go to it. So you can listen for that here when I play it [music], So you probably heard when I went to that A. I backed off considerably, maybe I over did it a little bit there, but you get the idea. If you don't do that [music], you notice how much the A sticks out, We lose that, you know, suddenly the swan has a little bit of a bump in the lake there, which is not entirely appropriate.

Going from there [music], sorry, a little bit better [music], Now this shift as I talked about it in the shifting video, you have to make sure that you're leaning in the direction of the shift you're going into, and that your elbow here is high enough [music] to get to that D [music]. When you land on the B, make sure you go to a position [music] where you can vibrate with a really nice sound [music]. So it's just as open as the other notes.

And then we have the same phrase again, and then [music], sorry, it's not the same phrase again [music]. It goes to this A strap which is very shocking. So we want to make sure that we highlight that a little bit, maybe a little change of color [ music]. Here, same thing when we go to the A string, we want to make sure that we don't push too hard on that A string, make sure you back away a little bit [music]. It's the same idea with the shift here [music], make sure you're totally released on to that, onto the second finger while you're vibrating [music], so that all you have to just open up into that D [music].

What I hear very often this next section is a big downward slide. This again is like the swan hits a little bit of a wave, and it's got to stay just floating almost on that. It's got to be totally even [music]. A little slide is okay [music], but too much [music], and it gets a little grotesque. So we have to make sure it's the right amount of slide [music]. Now, here maybe a different color since it's a C natural. It has a kind of a sadness to it, this harmony almost [music]. So a little more covered sound [music], a more intimate sound. Now here you can bring it back up [music].

And then here I like to do something special on that C sharp. I find that C sharp to be very surprising [music], maybe a slightly different color, and hesitate before it can get a little more expressive effect [music]. Here take your time [music]. And here again take your time [music], and hold this note until it goes silent, until there's nothing. And that's the swan passing off into the distance like that.

I know I started off talking about fundamentals, and I started talking about musical stuff, but anyway I love this piece. Really, the fundamentals that are present in this piece, it makes it so worth working on, and actually you can spend a lifetime on this piece. This is one of those things when you're never really done studying it. Now, something I didn't talk about yet was the bow changes. I know I mentioned it, but I didn't really talk about it. Those have to be absolutely immaculate as well.

I talked about that, I think, in one of my bow videos. I think I've actually so far in all the videos, I've touched on all these fundamentals. The Swan is just really a great way to bring all those fundamentals together, and to work on them in a very specific setting, with a very strong musical concept behind it.

I hope you enjoyed this video, and I know it was a little all over the place, but please, leave your comments down below. If you have specific questions about The Swan like "What do I do in this major?" "What do I do between these too notes?" I'll be happy to answer any questions you have like that. I hope this gave you a nice, general overview of what to expect with this piece. Once again, this has been Joe Mendoes for Also I must mention you can find this piece on the website I believe, so download it, and play it, learn it, and enjoy it. I'll see you next time.
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User Comments and Questions

Comments, Questions, Requests:

Cliff Hintson on April 26, 2018 @11:45 am PST
Hi, I enjoyed your lesson! Can you explain the shift to first finger G on the sixth note of the song? Why not stay in third position and play second finger G followed by a shift to first finger A?
Joseph - host, on May 29, 2018 @11:30 am PST
Hi Cliff,

It is a good question! I always finger fifths across strings this way. Using the same finger while going to an adjacent string can cause a little bump in the phrase, so by changing positions I avoid that. It is easier for me to play it smoother.

Nestor Sarantes on December 6, 2017 @3:29 pm PST
Hey. thanks for the video, very useful. Could you please recommend me a logical en progressive order to study the Bach suite no 2?...I mean, which dances do you consider to be studied first? Thanks
David Teague * VSM MEMBER * on June 5, 2017 @10:49 am PST
I"m a bassist who tunes C1G1D2A2, The techniques are very close to that of the cellist. (See anything played by Joel Quarrington.) This is an invaluable video for piece that appears innocuous, but is surprisingly difficult. I look forward to finding your other videos, both technique and musicianship. Thanks.
Micah Tröstle on September 23, 2015 @10:00 pm PST
Hey can you post the sheet music in bass cleff
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on September 24, 2015 @8:20 am PST
Hi Micah and thank you for your posting. Yes, we have just updated our edition to include 2 optional cello parts: one in bass clef, and a second one always in bass clef but one octave lower (easier for beginners):

Please, let me know if you have any further questions. Enjoy the Great Swan!
Amy Collins on September 2, 2015 @7:02 pm PST
Thank you so much for this video. I played The Swan for a music contest in high school. Practiced dilligently, but frustrated with shifting from one note to another, if not long bowing, phrasing, consistent vibrato, and playing in thumb position. I really didn't think I was ready to perform at this level, but my private teacher was--and she pushed me to the limit. I ended with a II rating at contest which was disappointing. Now I can play The Swan a lot better than I did in high school, because I'm a more mature or advanced player. Thank you again!
Joseph - host, on September 3, 2015 @10:56 am PST
Thank you for your comment Amy!

I honestly think this piece is far more difficult than it seems! I think if you play it too early you will not be able to bring all of the subtle beauty to it that you can when you are older. I am glad you enjoyed the video!

Kathryn Arriola * VSM MEMBER * on January 15, 2015 @2:08 pm PST
Wow, this video made me want to pull it off of my shelf and learn it all over again! Thank you for your fabulous lessons!
David Teague * VSM MEMBER * on June 5, 2017 @10:52 am PST
YES! it really does make me want to learn it really well this time.
michael rusli * VSM MEMBER * on November 5, 2014 @6:25 pm PST
Great lesson. I will send this to my entire symphony cello section.
Abraham Naim * VSM MEMBER * on November 5, 2014 @1:42 pm PST
Can you do a video on the shostakovitch cello concerto no 1. I really enjoyed your performance of it on j concert artists and would really help me in learning the piece.
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