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
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.
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.
We can play around with the balance and strength of each finger to bring out different voices in a chord. The exercise below shows the opening cello line from Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata second movement.
- Firstly, bring out the E natural and lower G in the first chord, and the upper C and A flat in the second, using the ring and index fingers.
- Now invert the emphasis, using your middle finger and thumb. It’s hard, but it’s good exercise!
- Practise bringing out each note individually, and then making all four equal.
In Debussy’s Cello Sonata, the instructions are incredibly well thought out: there are staccato dots, tenuto lines and slurs within just the first line of the second movement (example 1). We have to think about every marking: how do you play the first note with a staccato dot? If you are going to stop the string, how? What does it mean to slur two pizzicato notes? And why is there a tenuto line under the C at the end of bar 2, when it is tied to the quaver (e) that follows it?
Some people stop the string using the right hand, but I prefer to do it using the left, by releasing the finger from the fingerboard while still touching the string. Try doing this for each of the staccato quavers in the Debussy; then let the E flat tenuto note ring.
Debussy wants us to play one note with the right hand and a glissando with the left. Use a larger pizzicato movement and pluck with your middle finger to produce a resonant sound.
Lean a bit more on the beginning of the note. This is easier if you use the whole arm for the pizzicato, without connecting your hand to the fingerboard. In general, a short sound comes from the left hand; a longer sound comes from the right.
Example 2 shows a pizzicato section from the Debussy Cello Sonata finale that requires good balance between the left and right hands. Again, the markings are precise, and Debussy expected us to follow them exactly: he was one of the first composers to complain that instrumentalists never did what composers wanted, which is why he wrote instructions on almost every note.
Note which chords are spread and which are blocked. For the spread chords, use a larger arm movement and pluck with the thumb. For the blocked chords, pluck three strings at once using your thumb and your index and middle fingers.
At the key change, Debussy writes staccato dots under two-note slurs, with an additional slur across the whole bar. At first I didn’t know what to do, and I thought, ‘How can I possibly follow all these instructions?’ If we play the staccato by stopping the note using the left hand, we lose the slur. To make sure all the notes keep resonating across the bar, I keep all four fingers of the left hand down on the right notes; this time I do the dots using a quick, guitar-like pizzicato movement with my right hand (see video).
There is some important accompanying pizzicato in the second cello part of Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, beginning in bar 81. Often cellists do not think carefully enough about their role here and how they are going to fulfil it. To begin with, we accompany the violin melody and the notes can be long.
Use the middle finger and keep the hand free from the fingerboard, so that the pizzicato rings. From bar 100 (example 3), we become part of a rhythm section with the first cello and second violin, while the viola and first violin play the melody. Now we can stop the sound with the left hand, to make our playing sound more rhythmic and less melodic.
Britten loved pizzicato, as can be seen in the second movement of his Cello Sonata and the Serenata of his First Cello Suite. These are some of the best pieces available for pizzicato practice.
Example 4 shows a section from the Cello Suite. Practise bringing out different voices using both hands. The fingerings and symbols written above the stave are for the left hand; those written underneath are for the right.
IN YOUR PRACTICE
Learning an instrument is a mental, physical and emotional process. Remember that it takes time. Practise different areas of pizzicato separately. For example, focus on bringing out different voices of a chord for 20 minutes – no more, or you will get tense, and this is something we have to be careful to avoid.
If you really want to listen and concentrate, 10 minutes could be enough. The point is that you will repeat it day after day and develop that way. It’s never a good idea to practise something intensively for one day and then to forget about it for a few days before trying again. Listen carefully, concentrate hard and ask yourself a lot of questions. Our ears are our best teachers.
NOTES FOR TEACHERS
With my students, I focus on different technical problems outside the repertoire they are studying. For example, I might focus on slow, fast and double-stop scales, and pizzicato can be included within this.
The Hungarian composer György Kurtág once said that he’d seen a small child reacting to notes on the piano, after playing a long note, a short one, a few together, and so on. He thought it was an amazing way for a child to explore not only the instrument but also music, because it could teach you to understand different sounds. It is the same with pizzicato. Experimentation is key.
There are no study books for pizzicato, but there is a video online (see belo, from 4:19) of Sándor Végh and Alberto Lysy playing the Bartók Violin Duos. It’s very interesting to watch Végh’s different ways of playing pizzicato. It is wonderful how he uses a slow arm movement that makes the sound go on forever. I have learnt a lot from his playing over the years.
INTERVIEW BY PAULINE HARDING