Starting to play in positions on the cello can be daunting!
However, after you have played in first position for awhile, the other notes on the cello are begging to be learned! So many great cello repertoire pieces use positions and learning shifting can help you reach more notes, make playing across strings easier, and even avoid open strings if you want to.
1. Learn Cello Fourth Position
This method was written for adult learners and includes pictures and diagrams that help explain where fourth position is. Exercises and short pieces on each page work together to teach a skill. This book is available as a PDF ebook on www.learnstrings.com and as a print book on www.amazon.com.
Are your shifting books too hard?
These books have very easy studies that can make shifting an easier, more gradual process. Each study focuses on a single shift and the exercises progress slowly to allow you to get comfortable with shifting.
3. Free Preparatory Exercises for Pattern Shifting and Serial Shifting for the Cello
Half and Whole Steps
4. Study the Position Exercise Books
Preparing for Saint-Saens
The Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor is a work for cello and orchestra (or piano), written at an advanced level. Studying this Concerto often takes a year or more; it's a major work!
While there are no clearly marked or numbered movements, the Concerto does have three fairly distinct sections that might correlate with our idea of typical concerto movements.
Some techniques used in the first two movements are octave shifts, fast shifting (sometimes called "runs") into the high positions, double stop fifths and sixths, spiccato, and thumb position.
Free Saint-Saens Preparatory Exercises
These free preparatory exercises can help you get ready to start studying the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto. They work on some of the basic techniques needed to play the first few pages of the Concerto: bowing, octave shifts, chromatic scales, and more.
Books to study in preparation
The Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto is much easier to learn if you have acquired a solid grasp intermediate and advanced cello technique. You should be able to read bass, tenor, and treble clef and play in thumb position. You should have learned three-octave scales and it would be helpful if you have also studied octave shifts, double stop sixths, and double stop octaves.
Like these exercises? Now, you can learn the rest of the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto using a Study Book!
We are very excited to present this new release:
The Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 Study Book for Cello, Volume One!
This past year Theresa Villani, a wonderful cellist and cello teacher, wrote and asked if I had any exercises for bowing on open strings for one of her students. I had a few pages of an incomplete book, which I was happy to share. She wrote right back and said "Please make a book out of these!" (Incidentally, that's how a lot of books get started; share your ideas on this page.)
Over the next few months, in between writing The Romberg Sonata in C Major Study Book and The Saint-Saens Concerto No. 1 Study Book for Cello, I got to work on the open string book.
After I had written about half of the book, I sat down play through it, rather reluctantly. It seemed almost a waste of time to sit and play through so many pages of just plain open strings.
But then I made some discoveries and found myself really excited about open strings!
1. Playing open strings really well is hard! They look easy (at least at the beginning of the book) but this is deceptive. Because the sound is so exposed, I found myself getting super picky with the sound I was producing. This in turn led me to work on fluidity in bow changes, relaxed wrist and fingers, and getting the string vibrating with the least possible motion from my hand.
2. Playing open string bow studies is a great way to isolate the bow, especially when you are struggling with note-reading. I have a student who started lessons a few months ago and was unable to adapt to note-reading. We started playing Open-String Bow Workouts and just a month later, he was reading all of his music much more easily.
3. Playing open string bow studies can help cellists at every level. I've used this book with a student who had just started playing a few months earlier and also with some of my intermediate and very advanced students. It helped them all, in different ways.
The beginning students used the book to discover what the bow can do. The intermediate students used it to listen more and improve their tone. And the advanced students played the slow exercises very slow and the fast exercises very fast to expand the range of their bow technique.
4. Playing so many open string studies gave me an incredibly smooth bow motion! I mean, wow. I was surprised and rather rueful; it was humbling to realize how much my bow can still use work.
To celebrate the release of the new book of Open String Bow Workouts, we are offering the above mini set of (all-new) cello open string studies for free!
When you play these, focus on correct form and how you're holding the bow. Keep the bow arm shoulder, wrist, and fingers as loose and relaxed as possible. The thumb should be gently balanced on the bow; never squeezing.
Listen for the smoothest, most even sound during each note and keep the bow moving at the same speed while you change bows so there is no variation in sound.
Strong, curved left-hand fingers are essential for good cello technique and for developing a beautiful tone.
By curving your fingers and playing on the very tips of the fingers, you can stop the string completely, which in turn allows the string to vibrate fully when you play it.
Some of the cello exercises in Finger Exercises for the Cello, Book One were written specifically to help cellists develop well-curved fingers through double stops.
Exercise No. 14 is the first study in the book that works on developing curved fingers. Here's an excerpt:
Although my cello students have almost universally decried these studies as "evil", the Finger Exercises have done SO much to help them play clearly and in tune!
Here is an excerpt from Exercise No. 20:
I have also found that some students benefit from preparatory studies that allow them to focus on the fingers with easier notes.
Check out these free preparatory finger exercises that help you curve your fingers, stop the string completely, and get ready to play the essential cello double stop studies in Finger Exercises for the Cello, Book One.
I fell in love with the Romberg Cello Sonatas when I started using them regularly as teaching pieces. It took me awhile to fully the understand the breadth of cello technique that Romberg teaches in his Sonatas but when I did, I was entranced.
From shifting and positions to rhythm patterns and bowing challenges, the Sonatas gave my students a music experience that prepared them for much of what is to come in cello study.
Students would finish studying a Romberg Sonata and be playing at an entire level or two above their original level when they started the Sonata. They would be much more competent than when they had started, easily playing exercises, etudes, and pieces that would have given them pause before Romberg.
Other teaching pieces didn't give cellists that same skills that Romberg's Sonatas did. As I saw the effect that playing Romberg's music had on my students, I came to deeply respect this music that so wonderfully transformed my students.
Two of Romberg's Sonatas became my favorites: the Sonata in E Minor and the Sonata in C Major. I use the Sonata in E minor as the first Sonata after a student has started shifting and has learned fourth position (plus a little second and third positions). I might use one or two other pieces after that, depending on the student, and then we are ready to start the Sonata in C Major.
Over the past 20+ years, I've taught a lot of Romberg to students. It's gotten to the point where I can predict mistakes before they make them. It was getting boring hearing the same mistakes over and over. I really wanted to expand the influence of Romberg on my students and teach all of the skills that he required in his Sonatas.
So I wrote The Romberg Sonata in C Major Study Book for Cello and now, teaching that Sonata is much more exciting! Where I used to sit and drone corrections over and over, I can now have my students play the exercises and improve in front of me. We can spend the lessons working on phrasing and expression instead of rhythm, shifting, and bowing.
I love hearing them play the Sonata excerpts after they've played the exercises. Where students used to stop or struggle, my exercise-powered students sail through. They play confidently and they enjoy the music they're making instead of wallowing in frustration.
Here are some pages of free cello exercises; Preparatory Studies that have a few bits of technique that you will use in the Romberg Sonata in C Major:
And when you've tried those studies, move on to the much more comprehensive Romberg Study Book available in print here and as a download here.
Why play an entire book devoted to a Romberg Sonata? Because teaching students to be both solid and creative musicians is fun! Because playing well brings joy. And because mastering this wonderful Sonata might be the most satisfying thing you've done all year!
So, Devil's Dream has some tricky string crossings! Both the bow and the fingers have to change strings with efficient, agile movements in order to play this piece at a fast "fiddle" tempo.
Here's the version of Devil's Dream that we'll work on:
Here's a Warm-Up Exercise for String Crossings:
Focusing on just the bow can help you identify underlying string crossing issues. Here are the open strings that your bow is playing under the actual fiddle tune:
Now, one of the main difficulties with this piece is crossing strings with the left hand. Here is an exercise to work on crossing strings with the fingers:
And another exercise for the left hand:
And finally, three exercises for speed. Start slow and when you've learned them, play them as fast as possible. Keep your bow smooth and close to the strings. "Bar" your first finger across the strings in measures 3&4 and 11&12 to help make your motions as efficient as possible.
Happy cello fiddling!
When a teacher mentioned that her student wasn't allowed to play O Come Little Children because of religious reasons and asked about an alternative piece, I wrote this piece as an option that still teaches many of the same techniques: string crossing, slow and fast bows, etc.
O Come Little Children, in Suzuki Book One for Violin (or Viola, or Cello), is also a Christmas carol and some teachers may be looking for a substitute when students or parents request it. Or, Spring Melody (below) can be used as a supplemental piece in addition to O Come Little Children when students need more work on these skills. Beginning violin, viola and cello adult students can enjoy this free piece as well!
Spring Melody - Free Sheet Music for Violin
Spring Melody - Free Sheet Music for Viola
Spring Melody - Free Sheet Music for Cello
I love the fact that scales are such a great vehicle for learning different skills on the cello! Scales can and should be much more than just playing notes in order in a particular key in a particular set of places on the cello; they can also be used for learning rhythm and bowing skills.
Today in the blog, we're going to focus on using a simple C major scale to work on cello bowing. Now, the possibilities here are endless. I could start writing today and never ever reach the end of variations I could make with this scale. But there are other books to write and so I will stop at 15 pages for this little booklet. Of course, I'll probably come back every once in awhile with another blog post on scales; scale variations are a bit of a passion of mine!
Scales are helpful because they are so predictable. You know what's coming and the notes (at least in these scale pages) are fairly easy. But that doesn't mean you should turn off reading and play from memory just yet; I have some breaks in the pattern built into these scale pages to help keep your attention while you play.
Scale variations are a perfect way to multitask. Variations are a great way to train your left and right hands to be more coordinated and also a great way to make your practice even more efficient; you're working on multiple skills at once!
Feel free to make variations on the variations! Boredom lets you turn your brain off and can be the opening for building bad habits! Cello technique should never be taken for granted; every minute of your practice should be spent actively trying to improve. Varying the exercises can help you stay focused. I play different pages of scale exercises every day (that's one reason why I had to write so many books!) These variations can be played on any scale but they're simplest on a 2-octave scale that starts on an open string. Try them in G major if you're into shifting and up for a challenge.
Etudes bridge the gap between exercises and pieces.
Etudes can be more melodic than pure technical exercises and this helps you get closer to what you’d actually play in a piece.
Etudes can also be called "Studies" and they are important for helping you practice technical exercises in the context of something a little more like music. Some Etudes are even performed in concerts!
Today, let's focus on Etude No. 2 "Exercise on the Legato" from 40 Melodic and Progressive Etudes, Op. 31, by the cellist Sebastian Lee. Legato refers to notes that are smooth and connected. Lee helps teach legato by using slurs of eight notes at a time.
Etude No. 2: Exercise on the Legato
Here's a sneak peek of Lee's Etude No. 2, Op. 31. The exercises that follow will help you learn and master this etude. The entire etude is after the exercises (See Step Seven.)
Step One: Learn the Positions that Lee Uses
You can get to know the notes Lee used in this etude by playing the short exercises below. For more work, or to learn 2nd, 3rd, and 4th positions from the beginning, see the “Recommended Position Methods” below. Cello shifting isn't hard! It's just a matter of learning where to put your hand and remembering how to get there.
Step Two: Work on the shifts one at a time
By playing the shifts in a variety of ways, including changing slur patterns and rhythms, and using shorter sections of the measure, you can learn the shift more thoroughly.
Step Three: Work on the bowing
Cello shifting is only part of learning this etude. Next, start to work on the slurs by playing Measures 1-16 with only 4 notes to a bow. Then, use staccato (stopping the bow sharply on the string for each note) to help you divide the bow up into 8 even sections. This helps you fit all 8 notes in a bow that Lee has you learning. Staccato is a great way to learn to play long slurs.
Step Four: More Shifting Practice
These shifts have you going back and forth from fourth position to harmonic A on the A string. While this is awkward, make sure you use 3rd finger, as it is generally agreed that this is the easiest finger to use when going back and forth from harmonic A. Watch out for the rhythm in the last measure of each exercise below; make sure you play the quarter note so that it is twice as long as the eighth notes!
Step Five: The Challenging Part!
These exercises help you learn the most complicated part of the etude. Start in fourth position on the D string, play the easy pattern (1414), and then practice shifting back and forth one half step before continuing with the pattern in each new position.
In measures 25-32, Lee has you start in fourth position, play a pattern across strings, move back one half step, and play a similar pattern. You can shift back or extend back for the half-step changes, however it might help to extend first so you can learn how far back to move (it's harder to go too far if your hand is stretching!).
The cello exercise below still simplifies Lee's etude but helps you get closer to what he wrote. By the end of practicing the "Putting it Back Together" exercise below, you should be ready to tackle measures 25-32 in the Lee Etude.
Step Six: Final Shifts and String Crossing Practice
These exercises help you work on the cello positions and string crossing patterns at the end of the etude. Using open strings to learn string crossing can take away the distraction of the left hand and let you focus on balancing your bow across the strings. Feel for a relaxed right hand and arm as you cross strings and work toward getting the smoothest sound possible when you play.
Step Seven: Play the entire etude.
As you play, focus on shifting correctly, playing even notes inside each slur, and keeping your bow hand relaxed for the smoothest sound possible.
Tip: If you still find yourself running out of bow, try moving the bow on the string down toward the bridge, about 1/2-1 inch. The string has more tension closer to the bridge and your bow will naturally go a little slower as it plays closer to the bridge.
Step Eight: Take the technique you've learned and use it to help you play pieces and repertoire!
Exercises and etudes can help you master the entire cello. I love how efficient exercises and etudes are; they have a huge impact on the rest of my practice. If you have any questions, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have fun playing!
Cassia Harvey can't ever find or play enough exercises. She searches for rare and out-of-print studies and etudes in her free time. If you know of any, please let her know. Seriously; it's an obsession.