Masterclass: A lesson in performing short pieces by Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt


The cellist gives advice on how to present Fauré’s Élégie, Elgar’s Salut d’amour, and Saint-Saëns’s ‘The Swan’ with colour, contrast and expression

Playing short pieces is a completely different art from playing sonatas or concertos. In a short piece, you have to tell a story and develop a character within just a few minutes. My teacher Aldo Parisot used to compare this to painting in watercolour: with acrylic or oil, you can correct your mistakes, but with watercolour you have only one chance to find the correct mixture of colour, water and brush speed. It is the same on the cello: you need to know how fast to vibrate, what speed of bow to use, and where to bow on the string, to create each colour, emotion and character.

To be able to do this spontaneously on stage takes preparation, so practise how to create different emotions on your instrument for 15–30 minutes a day, as part of your warm-up. To begin, find techniques that help you to evoke simple emotions such as ‘happy’ and ‘sad’, then divide those up into desire, love, hope, excitement, hopelessness, depression, pain and so on. The flexibility and life in your sound come from the bow, so practise without vibrato to begin with, to find a free, resonant sound at different speeds and contact points, then add vibrato to enhance each effect. In general, a faster vibrato and bow speed, towards the fingerboard, will give an airier, more intimate sound; a slower vibrato and bow speed, closer to the bridge, will be warmer and richer. For body and depth, sink the bow into the string, and move closer to the bridge for brightness. Experiment with vibrato amplitude, to change from warm and relaxed to emotionally intense. Find out how to create every colour and emotion that you want to portray, and how to move quickly between them…

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