A good strong sound comes from a flexible bow hold and relaxed bowing arm, says the former Juilliard School professor


The way we use the bow defines us as musicians. Point of contact, resistance and speed of bow all guide our vibrato and therefore our sense of musical expression and artistry. Master cellists around the world have very different bow arms, bow holds and bow strokes, all of which affect phrasing and articulation. While the left hand is pretty clear – you either hit the note or you don’t – the bow is a much larger, unending question.

I see a lot of bows just swinging back and forth, but when the bow speed is all the same, so is the music making. Bach provides a perfect example of this. We have lots of notes and the left hand is constantly flying around. It is how we articulate with the bow that makes the difference in clarity and style. I learnt this from Casals: his use of the bow was so precise and economical, and he had the most amazing spring and resilience in his left hand. He didn’t play with many full bows – he could move his bow very fast and with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and he had the ability to effect quick articulation. When you see him in films playing Bach, the bow strokes are wonderfully clear and concentrated.

The cello has a magnificent natural resonance and ringing overtones, especially on certain notes, such as the G on the D string or the D on the A string. If my body is free, open and balanced, this natural ring can help to guide the bow. To find the relationship between the hand and the bow I begin by holding the bow vertically (with the tip above the frog), feeling how lightly and easily it balances in the hand with no sense of falling. I move my arm around and feel the connection. My hands and fingers are completely supple, especially at the base joints, and they cling to the frog like suckers. This is a very strong but flexible connection; the bow can’t be pulled away.

Next, I apply the bow to the cello, letting the string hold it up. The bow is balanced on the string and in my hand – I am not gripping it. I play a D on the A string until I find the natural resonance. If you hold the bow at the balance point of the stick you will get the clearest, most resonant sound. Then move your hand on to the frog and continue to produce the same ringing sound. Once you have found the natural resonance of the D, you can find it on notes without overtones.

Drawing the bow, I pull the string sideways as if it is a rubber band. I am not using arm muscle or clenching. Everything works in proportion: my fingers hold the bow, but the action is transmitted all the way from my back. My joints and shoulders are free and nothing is locked. The strong motivating force comes into the forearm and the heel of the hand, and the springs in my hand allow suction at the frog. I don’t use pressure or force the string – I coax the instrument.

I try to feel tall and open in the chest, and not to roll my shoulders forward – this releases tension. I love Margaret Rowell’s analogy of bird wings opening for flight. We think that hugging the cello, curling into it, is more secure, because we are closer to the instrument, but this is actually constricting. Without the cello I would never sit hunched over like that. I try to have the courage to sit away from the instrument, especially during a shift. As I play I am constantly adjusting. Twisting the spine or having shoulders at different angles or heights creates tension: again, this is not how you would sit in a chair without the instrument.

It makes a fantastic difference in the sound if the energy comes all the way from the back. The shoulder blades turn in and out as I play. It is important to find your shoulder blades and become aware of them. Squeeze them together and pull them back to find their movement in connection with the arms. One can play using only arm muscle and shoulders and get a good sound, but tap into the back and the sound is much deeper, fuller and more resonant. The cello will tell you when your body moves correctly: you can hear the difference when everything is working well and there are no undue tensions. During public performances you may feel tight. It is especially important under these conditions to learn how to tap into this physical power and sense of release.

Using the bow arm is like when a singer breathes. It is as if with the up-bow I take a breath and on the down-bow I exhale and release the tension. As I arrive at the bow’s balance point on an up-bow there is a lot of weight at the frog. To avoid this, cellists often hold tension in the upper arm, which can be released by dropping the elbow. However, ultimately this causes extra motion that is not necessary. The movement should be as economical as possible. Learn to subtly release the upper arm so that there is no break in the stroke.

Movement is the solution to tightness. Put the cello down and roll your shoulders. Feel energy coming through the arms in a natural way. (The word natural is deceptive because what we are in the habit of doing can seem natural and yet we can get into bad habits that are not natural in an elemental way.) Watch that the shoulders and neck don’t hold tension. If you have been tight for a long time you may not even realise you are tense. If I play with tension I can still get a pretty good sound, but when I release the tension the sound opens and blossoms.

This article was first published in The Strad's June 2005 issue.