Nan Kemberling is a cellist, cello teacher, and coach in Atlanta, GA. She is available for performances, private lessons and masterclasses, and clinics on performance anxiety and ergonomic cello technique. She lives and breathes cello everyday, and she want to share thoughts about it with you.
We've all been there, squeaking and cursing away as we try to figure out harmonics- what they are, where they are, and how to keep from going insane as we practice them.
I feel your pain! This topic is still a bit mysterious, even to the most seasoned professional. We might know, theoretically, where all the different pitches are found, but executing harmonics can be tricky. And it doesn't help that the notation and nomenclature surrounding harmonics is not standardized!
I made the video below to help answer a few most common questions about harmonics.
How To Play Harmonics On Cello - YouTube
This video is by no means comprehensive! If I included all the information on this topic, I feel like the video would be longer than The Lord of the Rings Trilogy!
Which Notes Where?
Wondering which notes are generally available on each string? Here's that rough guide from the video that you can refer to (see figure at left).
And where can you find those notes?
Touch at half of string, pitch = an octave (this is the most popular "half-string" harmonic!)
Touch at 3rd of the string, pitch = an octave and a 5th
Touch at the 4th of the string, pitch = 2 octaves
Touch at 5th of the string, pitch = 2 octave and a major 3rd
Loads of Nodes
If you still have unanswered questions, here are a few websites on harmonics I really like:
PRACTICAL BASICS: https://www.vsl.co.at/en/Cello/Notation/ Go down two-thirds of the page to the heading Notation for Fingerings (left hand); diamond harmonics are referred to as "fingering notation" and the non-diamonds are "sound notation."
PHYSICS LESSON: https://physics.info/waves-standing/ If you want to know more about what nodes are and why they are found on fractions of the string, this article is helpful--and even goes more in depth than what we need to play the cello.
HARMONICS FROM A COMPOSER'S POINT OF VIEW: http://www.timusic.net/debreved/harmonics/ This blog post is so interesting since it approaches the topic from an arranger/composer perspective, and we can get a glimpse into the world of the people who write these crazy notes for us to play...
Test your harmonic knowledge with these passages:
Are these natural or artificial (false) harmonics?
Is the note indicated by the red arrow a natural or artificial (false) harmonic?
Or take a look at this piece using natural harmonics from CelloExpressions.com (bottom notes indicate rhythm and string, middle notes show where to place your finger, and the top notes indicate the sounding pitch):
Clear as a Bell
...or do harmonics still seem fuzzy to you?
Leave your question in the comments section below and I will do my best to help.
I recently received an email that I wanted to share with you, since there are many cellists out there who have pain and tension in the bow thumb (I myself struggled with it for almost a decade).
Sometimes these issues can be sorted out with a change in technique, but sometimes they hang on no matter what changes we make.
I am one of your followers and enjoy reading your cello tips and stories.
I am an adult cello student of 5 years in the Cincinnati area and have been taking private lessons all along. I am playing in Suzuki book 4 and other pieces on a similar level.
Recently I have been having difficulty with a trigger thumb in my right hand and I suspect it is due to tension in my bow hand. The problem first started in September and I had a cortisone injection which cleared up the issue until late November, when it resurfaced.
I took a month break over the holidays with very little physical playing but some mental playing and air bowing. I was hoping the rest from playing would help but it didn't.
I would welcome any suggestions you could recommend.
Thank you, Teresa
There's nothing more heartbreaking to me than a cellist who can't play without pain! I hope Teresa gets the mystery solved soon. Though no one in my studio has a right trigger thumb, I do have students with arthritis, bone spurs, and various right arm problems that can be exacerbated by thumb tension--and I am hoping the exercise outlined in the following video can help keep tension at bay, no matter what the ailment!
Bow Thumb Hurting? Give It A Break! - YouTube
As I mentioned in the video, squeezing the bow between the fingers and thumb can cause problems. If you suspect the way you are holding the bow is hurting you, check out my other blog post on keeping thumb tension at bay HERE.
Sudden Floppy String Syndrome has hit several members of my studio. They have come in with cellos that have completely de-tuned themselves in the case, on the stand, and sometimes right before their eyes. Many times the strings are so loose that they are hanging off the cello! Pleas for help via text, huge chunks of lesson time devoted to tuning, frustration about not having been able to practice, and even feelings of guilt--all of these are signs that the season of SFSS is upon us, and cellists everywhere are suffering.
You may be thinking: What causes it and what can we do to prevent it from happening to us?
I will answer these questions below and provide instructions for making a little gadget that can help end the threat of SFSS forever!
But first, a quick story.
Moisture, Gone With The Wind Wood cells
I was just about to pack up after a rehearsal at my house one winter evening, when someone opened the door. A sharp wind blew in--right at me--and my cello made a loud pop, like someone had hit it with a drumstick. That one wind gust had dried out the front of my cello so drastically that the wood pulled apart and created a crack--instantly!
Luckily I was able to get it fixed, but ever since that night I have been haunted by the knowledge of the power of dry air.
When wood dries out, water evaporates from the cells of the wood and they shrink. This is normal. In fact, the seams of your cello (where the pieces are glued together) are meant to come apart fairly easily in order to prevent cracks in the wood pieces themselves. Usually the contracting of the wood will happen so gradually that the weak seam will come apart to accommodate the warping--and the wood itself will stay in tact. (I guess this is why they don't use Gorilla Glue on cellos seams, huh?)
Your cello will most likely lose moisture from time to time, no matter how hard you try. But what we need to prevent is the drastic and sudden loss of moisture. That's the real crack-maker...
...and the cause of SFSS!
To explain, let's apply the wood-drying scenario to your pegs:
The pegs are made of ebony, which is a type of wood. When this wood dries out, the pegs become skinnier. The cells of the wood of the peg box will shrink too. So the peg hole gets bigger, the peg gets smaller, and the whole system loses the friction that it needs to stick in place and hold the string in tune. So it comes loose and the string unravels. Sometimes all the way. And sometimes all of the strings at once!
When my students have experienced this, the sound post has managed to stay in place most of the time (thank goodness, since I can't fix that in a lesson!), so it's just a matter of tuning the cello back up with the pegs.
But how can we prevent this from happening?
The answer is simple: HUMIDIFIERS!
There are lots of different humidifiers for your cello. Just do a quick Google search for CELLO HUMIDIFIER and you'll see what I'm talking about! Amazon even has a whole page devoted to them.
I won't go into all the pros and cons-- especially since I think you can make one yourself that will be even better--but I will tell you that Stephanie Voss at Voss Violins no longer recommends Dampits since they can damage the wood when used improperly (which happens a lot).
DIY Humidifiers Mimi with her homemade humidifier
One cold day last winter, one of my students--we'll call her Mimi (since that's her name!)--came in to her lesson with a homemade humidifier for her cello.
That really got me thinking about DIY humidifiers.
I remember my first encounter with with a homemade humidifier was years ago. My teacher cut two short sections from an ice cube tray, nestled little, damp, ice-cube-sized sponge pieces in the ice cube depressions, and placed the whole unit in each c-bout while her cello rested in its case. She didn't move the case while these were in it, since the trays and sponges would rattle around loose in the case.
A humidifier I made
That had gotten me thinking about how to make my own humidifier, one that could stay in the case when you moved it.
I decided to try my hand at it, and this first version was fun to make. I drilled holes in bar-soap travel cases, filled them with cut-to-size sponges, and secured them with rubber bands.
I gave a few of them away to students and eventually ended up buying a manufactured humidifier for my case. But I can honestly say, I think the DIY versions are just as good!
Mimi's humidifier is simple and elegant--even easier to make than Martha's ice cube trays or my soap box. (After all, not everyone gets as excited about power tools as I do.) So I want to share with you how to go about creating your own humidifier with stuff you probably have at home.
Make Your Own in 6 Easy Steps
When it's winter, you should check the sponge everyday and re-wet when it feels dry.
Update: Mimi strikes again!
Mimi came to her lesson just last week with a peculiar bag hanging from a peg.
It was another humidifier!
This time, it's a version that can be nearer to the pegs (even better to prevent SFSS!) and is even easier to make.
Just stuff a few damp paper towels into a fruit bag and hang it from a peg.
This is perfect humidifier for those of you who prefer your cello to live outside the case when you aren't playing it.
Thanks, Mimi, for these great ideas!
Blue Sky, Gonna Cry On the way to a gig, noticing danger
In Atlanta, the air is pretty humid most of the time. But when winter approaches, you can get some very dry days. A beautiful clear blue sky is the perfect indication of dry air in the atmosphere, so it has a deeper meaning for cellists like us. When I notice there isn't a cloud in the sky, my thoughts instantly go to my cello. Did I wet the humidifier recently?
Even if the sky isn't so blue, the heat in your house can dry out your cello too. Besides making or buying a humidifier, you should keep your cello in the case (unless you need it to stay on a stand to promote practicing) and keep it away from any doors, windows, or air registers in your house.
Let me know if you have experienced SFSS and what you have to done to prevent it in the comments below. I would love to hear from you!
Just like a painter using the three primary colors to conjure any hue desired, we cellists can use three bowing variables in different amounts to create a rainbow of tone colors.
Three Primary Colors of Tone
Here's a video explaining what I mean:
How To Create Different Tone Colors On The Cello - YouTube
How Do You Feel Today? Actual copy of Martha's poster!
My teacher used to have a poster on her wall, the How-Do-You-Feel-Today poster, that she would point out to us when she felt we needed some inspiration for the sentiment in a piece we were playing.
“What mood are you going for here?” she would ask.
We would need at least one idea for each phrase—maybe more—and we would then have to decide how we would alter our placement, weight, and speed to create these different impressions.
I thought it was such fun to work out a way to convince the audience of the story as was telling without saying a word!
I tended to get a little crazy with the whole color situation!
You can use this same technique in your own cello life!
Feel free to print and keep this poster (below) near your practice area to refer to when deciding on a mood. Or simply think of an adjective to describe the emotion in one section of the piece you are working on.
Then experiment with changing the different variables of placement, weight, and speed until you find something that seems to you to express that adjective most effectively!
You are an Artist!
This technique unearths a whole new layer of cello fun that facilitates the ultimate expression in music.