How to Support Your Cello Correctly
I specifically chose the word “supporting” rather than “holding” in the title of this article, and you may be wondering why. The simple reason is that holding things often implies grasping or clutching, neither of which promote pain-free, balanced technique. Most people playing the cello for the first few times notice an overwhelming urge to steady the instrument by squeezing their knees against it and using one or both of their hands to steady it. By creating an accurate mental image and understanding of how to interact with your cello from the earliest possible stage, you have a much better chance of laying a solid foundation for great cello technique.
Assuming you have already explored your ideal seat and posture as well as finding your balance, you’re ready to bring your cello into the mix. Your first task is to pull out and fasten the spike, and you’ll want to know precisely how long it ought to be. Perhaps frustratingly, It depends on a number factors. It’s not only your height that will influence the length of your spike; it’s the length of your legs, your torso, your arms and your seat. Add to that the inexact science of personal preference, which will take a while to discover. As a rough guide: when you are sitting with your cello, the C tuning peg (the lower right-hand peg) should be level with or just behind your left ear. If you feel as if the cello is pushing you backwards and it seems to hobble around just above your knees rather than rest between them, the spike is too long. Conversely if the angle of the instrument is too vertical, the spike is too short. You will find yourself experimenting with different lengths for a while in the early stages. When you have found a length that works for you, use a permanent marker to make a small mark on the spike. This will avoid wasting time lengthening and shortening it before you can settle into your practice sessions.
As I have already pointed out, your cello should rest against you, supported by your posture as opposed to gripped and held in place. By placing your feet roughly in line with your hips and turning your toes out, you will find that your knees can fall further apart without creating any tension in your thighs. This also creates more surface area for the lower half of the cello to rest against and ensures that the instrument won’t move about as soon as any weight is applied to it from the bow or left hand. It helps to think of creating a nest with your legs for the cello to lie in – well supported but not squeezed or gripped. The left hand side of the cello should be slightly higher so that the A string is turned inwards towards the bow or plucking hand. The lower ends of the C-bouts (the c-shaped curves forming the cello’s narrow “waist”) should be just above or at the top of your knees. Placing your left foot slightly in front of your left foot will help to achieve the subtle angle necessary for comfortable bow technique. The upper end of the cello body should rest very lightly against your sternum; the bulk of the instrument’s weight being supported by your knees. An excellent and very simple way to test whether your cello’s weight is correctly distributed is to lean slightly backwards away from the instrument. If it follows you and stays against your chest, you haven’t quite created that nest it needs between your knees. If the cello stays where it is and feels secure, you’ve got it! Now check the mobility in your hips: you should be able to turn your upper body around by a few degrees to either side from the hips. Make sure you’re not just twisting your shoulders and upper back – it needs to be your entire torso.
To help you make your cello part of your body space as you sit with it as opposed to an external and rather awkward object, put both arms around it and give it a hug – even if it makes you feel a little silly. You need to bond with the instrument physically, mentally and emotionally. The latter two happen with time and practice, but won’t happen without the former.
A note for parents buying or renting fractional sized cellos for their kids: please don't make the mistake of getting an instrument that you think your child will grow into. Starting out with a cello that is too big causes a great deal of difficulty on an instrument that is already far from easy to get to grips with. The player will not be able to steady the instrument and will have no choice but to use the left hand as a means of holding it in place. A great deal of tension will build up in the bow arm as the cello is likely to move every time the bow is applied to it. All of these issues are extremely difficult and frustrating for a beginner to have to deal with, and they create negative habits that can be very difficult to get rid of later on. If you're not sure whether the instrument you're looking at is the right size, your best option is to ask your child's teacher to come along to the shop. If you haven't found a teacher yet, put the instrument on hold until you have. Most teachers are more than happy to offer advice and assistance in finding a suitable instrument, and many prefer to be involved in this process rather than to be confronted with a student whose instrument is the wrong size!
© Deryn Cullen/ D C Cello Studio