The violoncello, or in other words, little violone (or simply "cello" as we most commonly know it), is a bowed, stringed instrument and member of the violin family, along with the violin itself, the viola and the double bass, to name but a few.
The cello is remarkable in the way it is tuned an octave lower than the viola, meaning that it has a distinctive sound and stands strong among a variety of other instruments in an orchestra, ensemble or as part of chamber music. Don't be fooled, though, while it isn't a violin or a guitar, it can also be played as a solo instrument in its own right, creating wonderful melodies alone or to support vocals.
Once again, the cello has strong links to the classical genre of music, particularly Western classical music. When played in an orchestra, it plays the role of bass, usually one-quarter of the string quartet. Some concertos are even written with the cello in mind, to display its distinctive sound for all to hear - centre stage and the star of the show!
Animato explains that:
"The cello has four strings tuned in perfect fifth intervals: the A-string (the highest sounding), D-string, G-string, and C-string (the lowest sounding). The A-string is tuned to the pitch A3 (just below middle C), the D-string a fifth lower at D3, the G-string a fifth below that at G2, and the C-string tuned to C2 (two octaves lower than middle C). The strings are one octave lower than the viola, and one octave plus one fifth lower than the violin."
How To Hold The Cello
Since the cello is a much larger piece of musical equipment than the violin, and therefore far heavier because the weight of this extra wood it is constructed with, most players choose to sit down when playing it to save their arms muscles from too intense a workout.
Some will sit on the edge of their seat with their left foot slightly forward, with the body of the instrument resting on their chest, and positioned between their knees. Others will find other positions which they find more comfortable, it all depends on your frame, size and preference and all of these factors can also affect your style and the playing sound.
The most important thing, as you can imagine, is to steady the cello, so as not to lose grip of it and hear it thundering down onto the floor - I'm not sure if the percussion players would be too pleased with your instrument adding thumping sounds where they shouldn't be!
Some of the best and most experienced players say you should grip it, gently, with your knees and have the neck and scroll positioned to the left of your head, almost locking it into position and enabling you to reach the strings without readjusting your stance.
Cellists often use endpin rests to prevent their endpin from sliding, too, so don't worry if you're struggling to find a comfortable and practical playing position! You can purchase one of these from most music shops.
How To Play The Cello
Not wanting to sound controversial, as many musicians will, of course, have their own methods and preferences, but there is one traditional way to play the cello, which is the following.
- Tune your cello (the first basic and very necessary step) with your chosen tuner. This can be a manual method or by using an electric tuner. Bow each string one at a time, and by applying the same pressure, to check that they sound as they should.
- Play a few open strings, starting with C and ending with A. They will be 'open' because you won't be pressing down using your left fingers. Now that you have checked your strings, you're ready to grab your bow!
- To make a stroke, tighten the hair of the bow first. This must be done each time you play your cello because the strings would have been loosened when not playing to prevent any damage. You can tighten it again by doing the reverse of the loosening process, so turning the screw end clockwise until it is about an index finger's length from the wood of the bow. Do not tighten the hair too much or it will break. The bow should be slightly bent inwards.
- Hold the bow at the 'frog' end with your right hand, with your fingers in a rounded shape. You should hold this between your thumb and using your first three fingers, whilst the hair is facing downwards.
- Now, your bow is ready to make contact with the strings. Place the bow on a string (any string will do) halfway between the end of the fingerboard and the cello's bridge. Gently press the bow hair down and apply some pressure to the string.
- Move the bow in a back and forth motion on the string to play, keeping the bow parallel to the bridge. As you draw the bow in and out, you'll notice that your elbow is up if doing so correctly. Try not to hug your arm against your body and instead keep your movements open and unrestricted.
- The length of time you spend moving over each string and applying pressure to it will be determined by the notes you are playing, which will usually be on a sheet of paper or book in front of you, unless you are doing your own thing and having a little improvised solo session!
- You should, ideally, remain in the same position for the duration of your piece, without needing to readjust. This is why getting to grips with holding the cello and getting your position right is so important to practice.
Where Might You Have Heard The Cello?
If you were to ask anyone about the best cello pieces known to man, who would you ask? Who can we trust to pick out the most notable cello players across the world and the famous music that they have created? Classic FM of course!
Boasting themself as the broadcaster playing the greatest music in the world...
"Classical music is at the heart of everything [they] do at Classic FM [they] believe classical music can and should be a part of everyone's lives - regardless of age, which is why the station starts young, with music education in schools an important part of its work.Classic FM makes classical music a relevant part of the modern lifestyle. To achieve this, the station plays familiar music alongside less-known pieces, all chosen to uplift, soothe and stir the emotions."
And kudos to the experts there, here are a few of the pieces they deem to be the best cello-pieces ever written:
- Bach - Cello Suite No. 1
- Beethoven - Cello Sonata No. 3
- Brahms - Cello Sonata No. 1
- Britten - Suite for Cello No. 1
- Bruch - Kol Nidrei
- Dvorák - Cello Concerto in B minor
- Elgar - Cello Concerto in E minor
- Haydn - Cello Concerto No. 1
- Kodály - Sonata for Solo Cello
- Shostakovich - Cello Concerto No. 2
Have you heard any of these? Or perhaps you've really brushed up on your cello knowledge and you know all of them and have your own to add to this top 10? Either way, one of the best tips for budding cellists is to actually listen to the instrument being played so that you can hear the length of the amazing things it can do, its range and what it can evoke.
And what better way than by listening to the greats!?
Furthermore, since the cello has been played for centuries over, there's bound to be wide speculation over 'who played it best?'. What do you think? (Without saying "Me!"... but if you did, we love the confidence!)
According to Classic FM, there are sixteen cellists who deserve a mention for their legendary cello playing, and here are those topping their list:
- Luigi Boccherini
- Adrien-François Servais
- Pablo Casals
- Pierre Fournier
- Natalia Gutman
- Steven Isserlis
- Julian Lloyd Webber
- Yo-Yo Ma
- Mischa Maisky
- David Popper
- Jacqueline du Pré
- Mstislav Rostropovich
- Heinrich Schiff
- János Starker
- Paul Tortelier
- Alisa Weilerstein
Now let's end this piece with a little challenge for those beginners among you. It can feel like a huge leap when you transition from just playing notes to actually playing full-length extracts of music. So...
Try playing the Star Wars theme with your cello!
Ready. Set. Go!