Old World or New, Sacred or Profane

Monday, August 27, 2007

Low Bowing Shoulder

On the esteemed Cellomania blog, PFS wrote “The more relaxed the shoulder, the better the tone. Maybe Terry could explain the physics behind that.” This was in a discussion that touched on keeping a lowered shoulder. Umm, thank for the vote of confidence, PFS (I think).

I can’t exactly explain it in such a rigorous and exacting manner that it would be published in a scientific journal, but I think I can explain it well enough that it makes intuitive sense. But keep in mind, two years ago I didn’t understand it. This was something that had to be demonstrated to me, physically, for me to get, mentally.

If I rest my hand on my trusty ol’ computer keyboard and raise my shoulder, what happens? I put a more downward pressure on the keyboard. Straight down. To a neophyte cellist, this seems like a good way to add a little so-called “weight” to a cello string, too. It’s so instinctual we tend to do it automatically, without even knowing it.

One of several problems with that instinct is that the string is not horizontal, but rather at a 45 degree angle or so. The force coming from a raised shoulder is straight down, rather than into the string. That straight down force doesn’t help the rosined hair help move the string sideways very well, and not only that, the straight down force interferes with the string’s sideway motion when the string slips from the rosin hair, giving us crunchy distortion.

If instead, we pull towards ourselves, something like what we would do rowing a boat, the force is more into the string, rather than down onto the string. We get freer sideways string motion. Not only that, but we can pull on that “oar” without stiffening our shoulder, arms, and wrist, allowing fluidity in strokes, bow changes, and string crossings.

So for me now, raising the shoulder when bowing a cello makes about as much sense as raising a shoulder when pulling on a boat oar. I'll bet not many people have a problem with a stiffened, tense shoulders when rowing a boat, even though they're putting a lot of force into it. Why? 'Cause they're too busy rowing! But then, what'ch y'all think?


Guanaco said...

Indeed, lifting my right shoulder seems almost instinctive. I had not considered that this results in sliding the bow sideways (parallel) along the strings - which counters the actions we really want - across the strings (perpendicular) and downwards against the face of the cello.

Now, the hard part is to continuously pay attention to my shoulder/arm action without letting it distract me from the thousand other things that I have to control without thinking about.

Seylan said...


I totally agree that you should try to avoid involving your shoulder in bowing. It'll interfere with the quality of the sound and, more importantly, set you up for future pain!

Of course keeping the shoulder out of it is easier said than done and I think almost all cellists, at whatever stage, have a bit of a problem with this, even if they don't realise it.

It's hard to put these things in writing but here are some of the ways I try to explain it to my students:

- To create a good, even tone you shouldn't think of pressure but of weight. Your arm is actually very heavy - use that weight to your advantage. In theory it should take more effort to play quietly than loudly as you have to lift the bow off the string to get rid of some of the weight.

- Try thinking of the bow leading and your arm following. This is better demonstrated in person (with somebody else doing the bowing action so you can just follow the bow).

- As you're practicing bowing do a check every few seconds- is my shoulder relaxed? am I tensing my elbow, my wrist? What am I doing with my neck? Is there tension coming from there? etc. You can eventually find a 'zone' - you're relaxed and the sound seems to produce itself.

If you have the chance to play with other cellists a fun thing to try is playing back to back (I got this idea from a wonderful lady - Viven Mackie - a cellist and Alexander Technique teacher and former student of Pablo Casals). You need to find two stools or benches of the same height or a low table. The two players should ideally be of similar height. Playing like this will make you aware of how much you and your buddy move your shoulders or backs as you play. (It's also, by the way, a great way to play if it's a bit chilly :-) and a great way of playing duets - rather than watch the other player you can feel what they are doing or are about to do -I've done it succesfully with my harp playing duo partner)

So... don't wory about not being able to apply everything at once. It's better to practice bowing separately, on open strings or simple passages or something you're working on. Gradually, and without you really realising it, it will become normal for you to play like this and you'll probably only revert to old bad habits when you're particularly nervous or stressed.

All the best and good luck!

cellodonna said...

My teacher used to constantly press down on my right shoulder reminding me to keep it down and relaxed. I guess I've gotten better at it, because he hasn't done it lately. What helped me a lot was his suggestion to bow from the elbow, using the lower arm (not the upper arm) for the motion, straightening the arm on the down bow and then bending the elbow and bringing the wrist up into a "begging dog" position on the up bows.

Owldaughter said...

I wonder if so many people end up unconsciously raising the right shoulder because the string is at that 45 degree angle -- if we pull in, the shoulder rises automatically as the string forces the arm unit up. This would be more likely to happen if we're doing the common no-no of lifting the bow at the same time, of course.

Thank you so much for comparing the motion to rowing a boat: it's a perfect image for me. (Although my problem is the opposite: my left shoulder tends to drop lower than my right!)

CelloGirl said...

The ubiquitous shoulder conversation.! This is a problem with me...but I've added it to the many things I check when I play so it has gotten significantly better. The last time my teacher talked about my shoulder and relaxation..the advice was ..."imagine yourself with a glass of wine sitting out on the back porch on a quiet night". I should compile all the advice he has given me to try to get me to relax this shoulder. It would fill a book :) I'll have to add the rowing boat analogy as well.

Emily said...

you're so good.

I also find that thinking about the thumbnail being parallel to the floor is important. It, in turn facilitates the rotation onto the index finger which in turn allows the dead, actual weight (as opposed to tension and pressure) of the arm to flow, almost like a liquid, from the shoulder, down the arm, onto that finger, which controls the amount of tone we get.

Ha! As if a paragraph, book, or lifetime could encapsulate the devilishly wonderful and troublesome bow!