The British cellist chooses her warm-up keys carefully before tackling the trickiest passages of Dvořák’s Concerto – leaving the best bits till last


Cellist Hannah Roberts

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This article was published in The Strad September 2016 issue

Before I start my practice session - to remind myself of how the cello sound is made and the incredible range of timbres and articulation the instrument can create – I think of what my teacher William Pleeth said: if the right arm is the lungs, then the left hand is the lips, teeth and tongue.

To warm up, I start by practising a few scales at different speeds and with different bow textures, then move on to arpeggios. I’ve tried not to become addicted to a routine of scale patterns because it’s not always possible to get through them all. Right now I’m working on the Dvořák Cello Concerto. Projection is always a challenge in this piece, so on this occasion I choose open-sounding keys like C, G and D major for the scales and arpeggios, with a view to using a similar sound later on, in the B minor (and related keys) of the piece.

There’s a notoriously tricky passage in the coda of the first movement of the concerto where Dvořák asks for triplet semiquavers (𝅘𝅥𝅯) in the lower line in tandem with octaves above. While I’m at my most alert, I start my session with an intensive burst on this. I start under tempo and without the triplets, gradually introducing them and using a dotted rhythm to aid left-hand articulation – making sure I’m dropping weight into the fingerboard percussively and with real strength.

Next, I move on to something with a very different texture: the melodious second subject. There’s a tradition of playing it very slowly, but in fact it is marked only slightly slower than the opening. It can also be tempting to play the dynamics instinctively so I try to follow the hairpins very carefully. This is a beautifully crafted passage that can easily be misinterpreted, so I like to refresh my understanding of Dvořák’s markings here.

After this, I tackle the opening, where it can be a challenge to find the optimal balance between the quasi improvisando and risoluto markings. Dvořák is asking for some improvised feeling but with dance-like rhythms that are strong, not wayward. To help with right-hand articulation I start by playing a scale using the rhythm and bowing pattern of the beginning. With the following five chords, I work hard to ensure that they flow through the phrase but also have clarity and impact. I also aim to vary a little the thread through each one, which is a challenge for the bow.

The Adagio ma non troppo second movement presents further bowing challenges. It’s crucial here to find a speed for the bow that allows you to show direction in longer note values without compromising the evenness of your sound. As well as exploring different bow speeds and sounding points, I experiment with the dynamics – there are some striking changes from forte to piano within just two beats.

Next, I practise another potentially scary moment: the high-up sequence of fast alternating notes in the third movement. This is fun to listen to but always a challenge for the performer. I play them in different rhythms, starting under tempo then gradually increasing the speed, always listening very carefully to intonation. And I concentrate on getting the right balance in the bow for the second beat of each bar.

I have to resist the temptation of practising just my favourite parts, so usually I save some of these for when I’ve finished the hard work! Happily, on this occasion one of these is also a place that needs a lot of attention. When the main theme from the finale returns in the major key just before the coda, the mood is triumphant but there’s a lot of shifting up into thumb position. I practise this slowly and with very broad, resonant bowing to suit its heroic character. The semiquaver passages here could be felt in four, but that doesn’t really fit the arpeggio pattern, so I put an accent on the second semiquaver in order to feel the up-beat as well as the down-beat – all important in terms of coordination.

When I’m teaching, I notice that many students spend much more time thinking about what they’re doing to the instrument than listening to the sound that’s coming back. I find that having a ‘conversation’ with my instrument – varying things like sounding points, bow speeds and even the position of my body – is the best way to make my practice flexible but effective.

This article was published in The Strad September 2016 issue

Read Hannah’s Masterclass on the first movement of Dvořák Cello Concerto in the December 2023 issue here

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