Technique: How to vary and enhance your cello pizzicato

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Soloist and chamber musician Christoph Richter talks about good pizz technique with particular attention to the range of sound demanded by Debussy's Cello Sonata. From The Strad's November 2015 issue

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For cellists this is an important topic: often we have to play a pizzicato line, but we rarely talk about how we do it. I’m often frustrated when I see a cellist in a quartet rest their thumb on the fingerboard and pluck perpendicular to the string using the index finger, because the sound is so dry. I first realised the importance when watching the Hungarian violinist Sándor Végh: he always said to his violin students, ‘that movement is for scratching behind your ear, not for pizzicato!’ And he was right.

If you use your whole arm and hold the bow as I demonstrate below, pizzicato suddenly becomes much easier and you can produce a rounder sound. Obviously, the whole arm can’t move as quickly as one finger, so we reduce the movement for faster pizzicato.

Exercises

Figure 1a shows a good arco hold; figure 1b shows a good pizzicato hold. Practise moving between the two, to help you balance your bow when shifting from pizzicato to arco and back. For single-note pizzicato, use the middle finger: this gives the roundest sound. I use the thumb and index finger to support it, so that I can produce more of a ‘boom’ than a ‘ping’ (figure 2).

When playing four-note chords, use your ring, middle and index fingers and thumb. Here the little finger holds the bow, which lies across the hand (figure 3). _ e ring and little fingers share a tendon, so this may require work: for some, it’s di_ cult to bend the little finger by itself. Practise moving between figures 1a and 3.

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