The British artist tells Laurinel Owen why he plays with a long endpin and its effect on technique and sound production
There is one aspect of technique, perhaps the most basic, that I feel justifies greater attention and that is the position of the cello. There have always been countless tiny variations in the way that players hold the instrument and the bow. Physiques differ, instrument size and shape are not all the same, and even chair height and structure vary. We all know that for a teacher to insist rigidly on his or her own way of sitting or holding the cello is usually pointless, because everyone’s needs are inevitably slightly different. Here are a few thoughts and conclusions – what I would call ‘long distance cello playing made easier’.
I use a much longer endpin than usual and have developed my own way of sitting, with the cello slightly more elevated owing to the longer spike. The effect is very similar to the Tortelier endpin but the cello does not have to be kept as level – with the bent pin, the centre of gravity of the instrument is always pivoting the instrument to the same central position. Anyone who has tried the bent-style spike will know what I mean: when you attempt to hold the cello at an angle it tends to swing back to the flat position, actually working against you. I want the cello to be mobile – like the table of a violin – and to be able to tilt the instrument whether I am playing on the A or C string, to maximize the comfort and weight of my bow arm. Additionally, my dry-cleaning bills have been reduced since I am no longer playing into my leg or knee!
I started experimenting with the length of the spike after my studies, because I needed to find a way to be secure on the stage. I didn’t want the pin to wobble, click, squeak or slip. None of my teachers spoke about physiological things, so I had to discover answers for myself. My early lessons, until I was 19 or 20, were in Rome with Amedeo Baldovino. He had very short legs and held the cello in a rather vertical position. With him I spent weeks learning how to play with a straight bow. Then I went to Piatigorsky, who played the cello in a traditional way with a short pin, even though he was a giant. He got me to move freely by slightly rotating the instrument to my advantage.
I would certainly recommend trying different lengths and positions of the spike, but make sure that you don’t feel pushed back by the cello. It is important to maintain an upright slightly forward-leaning posture. I don’t sit or lean back in the chair – if anything, I lean forward. Ideally one should be able to embrace the cello with both arms.
I prefer not to sit on the edge of the chair. This is contrary to what we are all taught, but I feel freer in my upper torso helping me breathe and relax. It is essential to have a good flat chair, possibly one with a low straight back, as this reduces the possibility of backache. I like to sit with as much of my upper thighs supported by the seat of the chair as possible and my weight distributed evenly between both feet, allowing my back to be relaxed without slouching. I want to feel as comfortable as I would be if I were reading a book in an alert position.
When I take the cello, the lower bouts are slightly in front of my knees. The cello leans predominantly on my left knee but there is no question of gripping it with my legs. My right arm then falls in a natural, relaxed way, with the bow easily arriving at the strongest point of contact, close to the bridge. The combination of this comfortable and relaxed bow position utilising all the natural arm weight, and the position of the bow closer to the bridge produces a much freer and more powerful sound than when using a shorter pin and a more vertical cello.
There are also clear advantages for the left hand as you find that the higher positions are ‘nearer’ because of the elevated body of the cello. The tendency to crouch over the cello, especially in higher left-hand positions, is also dramatically minimised with the longer pin. I find that the positions above harmonic A are much easier to reach – they are no longer down by your feet – which is a big help for players with short arms.
Of course, first position is slightly further back, but if you find it is too far back then the pin is too long. First position should feel like lifting a glass to your mouth: there should be no strain of putting first position behind your ear. My shoulder is never displaced. The only time it moves backwards is when I vibrate on first-finger B flat in half position, as this is freer if you angle the elbow backwards.
I have compared my playing position with the orthodox position on many occasions, with colleagues and students, always with the same results. I was recently delighted to read in The Art of Playing the Cello by Maurice Gendron, a cellist I deeply admire, that he arrived at the same conclusions as I have. Perhaps, as he points out, it is because the f-holes are directed more towards the ceiling, which acts as an acoustical aid. But, whatever the reason, I am sure you will find that a larger and freer tone can be produced with minimum effort.
Buy Maurice Gendron’s book The Art of Playing the Cello at The Strad Library.