Archive for the ‘Ask David and Wu Han’ Category

So many have written with great questions prompted by the Cello Talks that it’s time for me to respond again. I hope my suggestions are helpful, and thanks to everyone for all the support and encouragement you’ve given me.

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We received this very detailed letter from a cellist in Rome that poses questions interesting for cellists, so I’ve decided to answer them here the best I can.

Marco: I wanted to thank you so much for posting the videos on your website, I found them extremely useful and, most important, synthetic but very clear, please continue! The other reason I’m writing you this email is that I would like to ask you some questions.

The first is about rosin: I’m not very happy with the ones I can get from my local dealer so I got curious when you said that your rosin is custom made mixing cello and bass rosin: If you make it can I please ask you the recipe or if someone does it for you is it possible to have the address in order to try it? If it’s not a secret, of course.

David: As of now, it is a secret recipe that only my friend who makes it knows. I’m just guessing about the bass rosin aspect because it feels a bit like when I’ve tried bass rosin, but of course much better. It gives me the same extreme grabbing power without the bow literally getting stuck mid-note, which can happen (be careful!). I will do my best to try to persuade my friend to offer his rosin commercially so that many cellists can enjoy the same advantage I have. I’m playing in Rome on November 21, and if you come to the concert and bring your bow, I invite you to take a good scraping off my rosin backstage to see how you like it.

Marco: About your bows: you talked about modern bows, can I ask you which bow maker do you trust and for you which is your ideal weight?

David: I’m not so aware of or concerned with bow weight, but here’s all I know about it: If a bow is heavy, it will make a bigger sound more easily but be more difficult to handle. If it’s too light, you have to apply a lot of pressure to get into the string and close to the bridge, and that can cramp the hand and lead to bad habits. I need a bow to be stiff enough that I can put a lot of pressure on it and the wood does not touch the string, and it should feel good in the hand – not too heavy or clumsy, but light and facile, like a fencing sword. The bow should produce good, clean articulation and bounce well, and draw an even sound all the way to the tip without having to press too hard.

My bow is made by Bernard Walke of Ottawa, Canada, and he’s made many great cello bows. There are a lot of very productive bow makers now in the Seattle area, among them Ole Kanestrom, whose bows are very distinguished.

Marco: Scrub pad: is it made of metal or natural fibres?

David: Metal. I use it every day, many times, and so far I have seen no wear on the string from the scrubbing.

Marco: About bow change at the frog: I was taught the first way you showed in the video no. 10 about holding the bow in a sort of French (?) school as I was told, but I tried your way and found it very comfortable especially when playing from mf to ff while the other way (French one?) when playing p or pp. Can you please talk about this matter one day in your videos?

David: I guess I’m not much of a pedagogue, because I don’t really know what the French school is! I can tell you one piece of information that I’ve kept with me my whole cello-playing career, and it came from Rostropovich. When he was asked how to hold the bow, he always said it didn’t make any difference: the only thing that matters is what the bow itself actually does – does it move evenly, straight, at the right speed, in a straight line, etc. But that was just like him – he rarely imparted to me any specific technical information like bowings and fingerings. He only articulated, very clearly, the end goals and made me figure out how to get there on my own.

Marco: Spirocore A and D strings: my grandfather used to play with a complete set of chromesthal spirocore strings (no wolframs on the bottom) and I still can remember the great sound he had. So I also started to play with these strings but when I got to conservatory I was forced to use Jargar as top strings. Now I tried the Spirocore A and D but they sound terrible! They are quite nasal and they require a total different way of drawing the bow in order to play them compared to solid steel strings as Jargar, Larsen, Pirastro and it’s easy to “squeeze” them if I press too hard midway between the end of fingerboard and the bridge but if I play close to the bridge, about 3,5 cms or less when going in the upper positions, they sound great. So is it the same for you? Do they require some days to play better? Did you have to make some adjustments in your cello set up in order to play them?

David: I have found that the Spirocore A does two things for me: one, it sounds great in the hall, bright and clear, and cuts through the piano, orchestra or chamber ensemble in the solos; two, because they are thinner (I believe) I seem to be able to get vibrato to sound with less hand motion, especially in softer dynamics. Remember that brightness, or high overtones, sound the most right under your ear, that they dissipate over distance, and that these same overtones help a sound to project. As for the D string, I have always found (on my cellos and most everyone else’s) that I need as bright a string as possible to make a smooth tonal transition from the G to the A string. Notes on the D string are often part of a melody that includes the A string (Arpeggione Sonata opening) and the color change should not be disturbingly abrupt, in my opinion. Jargar A is for me the best of the darker, richer strings, but the others like Larsen or Pirastro I find just too stiff and hard to play.

I agree with you that one has to play the Spirocore differently, however, if you cannot apply enough pressure on them at the mid point between bridge and fingerboard, it’s possible that your sound post is not tight enough or fitting correctly. Try an adjustment with the Spirocores on before you reject them.

And good luck with all of these suggestions! I hope they are helpful.

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Our son is a very serious and gifted cellist who will have to make the choice of conservatory in the next year. What schools and teachers do you think are the best, and how should he prepare for the auditions?

John B.

Dear John,

Your question is, of course, one that comes up all the time and confronts every aspiring young professional musician. If there were simple answers, it would not be such a complex challenge.

In our opinion, there is not one school or teacher that will satisfy all of anyone’s needs in music education. Music is a process of life-long learning that begins from even before a young person learns an instrument, and continues during their years after they have finished playing professionally. Musical and instrumental knowledge will be absorbed from many different sources. So the first advice we can give is to not put all the eggs in one conservatory basket.

That the school and teacher you choose for your son are at high levels is vital. But there are many questions to ask:

  1. Is your son highly motivated?
  2. Is he naturally competitive and aware of the world around him?
  3. Does your son have any specific challenges technically or musically?
  4. Are his love of music and determination to be a musician unquestionable?
  5. Is he well rounded, interested in many things?
    Does he have musical friends with whom he wants to continue relationships?
  6. Is your family connected in any way to the world of music?
  7. Are professional musicians already aware of your son’s gifts?
  8. Does your son have any musical role models from whom he’d like to learn?

Answering these questions on your own will lead you to the following possible conclusions:

  1. (Motivated?). If he is highly motivated he will practice and work hard on his own and does not need regular lessons. He could see someone every few weeks and do just fine. If he needs motivation, better look for a situation where the teacher is really in residence and can keep a regular schedule.
  2. (Competitive?) If your son is not the competitive type, better not to put him in a highly-pressured, competitive school, but rather look for a place where students learn at their own pace. If he is naturally competitive, make sure that where he goes does not over-emphasize the importance of beating out the next guy, but rather is focused on developing the whole musician in a natural way.
  3. (Challenges?) Lack of a specific component of musicianship can be a real hindrance as one enters professional life. If your son needs to develop anything in particular – stronger technique, deeper musicality, better stage presence, tougher nerves – then look for someone most qualified to develop those qualities.
  4. (Love of music?) It’s difficult, some say impossible, to recommend pursuing a career in music to anyone who does not love it so much that they can’t imagine doing anything else. On the other hand, plenty of deserving young musicians have still not experienced that pivotal moment – it can happen in a concert, a lesson, or even at home listening to a recording – that changes their lives and commits them to music forever. So if your son is in search of that moment, we can only recommend putting him in an environment filled with inspiration: a mesmerizing, passionate teacher, and great music and great playing all around him.
  5. (Well-rounded?). Professional musicians these days are better off, and enjoy life more, if they have received a comprehensive liberal arts education. So if your son is already a reader, speaks some other languages, is interested in history and the visual arts, etc., then he will take care of himself. If not, it might be good to look for a double-degree program or a conservatory that has partnership possibility with a university (like Julliard and Columbia).
  6. (Musical friends?) If your son already has good friends who are inspiring for him, perhaps send him off to a school with them. If not, look for a school with the most high-quality students for him to bond with and learn from. He will learn as much from them as from anyone else.
  7. (Connections?) If you have connections to the music world, use them. Have your son play for the best cellists and other musicians he can find. Hear their recommendations for schools and teachers. If you don’t have those connections, make them somehow, and encourage your son to do it on his own. It’s always flattering, no matter how many concerts you have to play, to have a young, eager musician come up and ask to play for you. It may be impossible for many to squeeze in hearing your son, but they will at least remember him as someone serious with the courage to ask for the best.
  8. (Role models?) This answer ties into the previous one. Your son should try to learn from the greatest musicians in the world, whether he does so in person or through the magic of recorded sound and video. He should never hesitate to ask to play for people and get their advice. If he has some cellist whom he admires above all others, then he should do everything within his power to study with that person.

We hope these suggestions are helpful, and we look forward to hearing your son play someday. We wish him the very best of luck to him with his music.


David and Wu Han

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