Musical Misnomers: Playing with Gravity

Ethan Fallis – Cello instructor at The Lesson Studio


Sometimes the names of every day things in our lives don’t make sense. For
example, pencil lead isn’t really lead at all. It is graphite, which was originally believed to
be lead ore. Similarly, an English Horn is neither English, nor a horn. These are what
you called misnomers or “an incorrect or unsuitable name or term for a person or thing.”

The Bow “Hold”:
After teaching for many years, I have evolved the ways I introduce the bow hold.
If we take a step back and look at a cello player, what do you notice about the bow and
bow “hold”?
Here is another question: If you were to place a fork on top of a table, would you need
to hold on to the fork to keep it from falling off of the table? Absolutely not. The table
does all the work for you.
This idea can and should be applied to the bow and the strings. The bow will stay on the
string without your help. As the cello player, you simply guide the bow. A bow hold is a
light grip that doesn’t have any squeezing tension in the thumb, fingers, hand, or wrist.
The thumb must be curved and the fingers must drape or hang over the stick to create
this light feeling. To test your bow hold at home, and to find if you have a relaxed and
tension free hand, follow these steps:
1. Be sure to have great cello posture sitting on your sit bones, with flat feet, and a
centered spine.
2. Pick-up the bow and place the bow on the D string at the balance point like you are
about to play (the spot about 5-8 inches beyond the frog).
3. Without moving the bow, find your bent thumb and hanging fingers.
4. Now, while letting the bow sit on the string, slowly release all tension from your hand,
fingers, palm, arm, and shoulders.
By now, you should feel like you will almost drop your bow. Ideally, the bow hand should
merely keep the bow from sliding down the strings as you play. A teacher of mine once
said, “ If you don’t drop your bow while playing at least twice a day, your bow hold is not
relaxed enough.”
Getting the best sound: Gravity is your friend.
Cello players have a distinct advantage when playing our instrument. We have a
great sense of foundation and posture because of the nature of how we sit and play.
With this comes another misnomer. I have studied with many teachers and played in
many orchestras where a common term is used to get more sound from your
instrument. This term is, “bow pressure.”
Pressure, implies an act of tension in a specific direction. When speaking of the
bow and cello, pressure would suggest pushing down on the hand and bow to produce
and increase a bigger sound.

Through many lesson experiences both as a student and the teacher, I have
replaced the word pressure with weight. Take a look at this second cello player’s bow
arm. What do you notice?
This player’s bow arm has a great bow hold and a very relaxed arm. If a student
wants to pull the best and biggest sound from their cello, he must let gravity pull his
relaxed arm into the string. Think about some of these things: how big and thick are
each of the cello strings? How much energy do you need to pull sound from any string?
How heavy is your arm? How much weight is actually needed from the arm to get sound
from the string?
It takes very little weight vibrate the string, and with increased weight comes
more sound. A cello player only needs to allow gravity to pull their arm into the string to
attain the best possible sound. To find the best arm for gravity to be a friend, follow
these steps:
1. Be sure to have great cello posture sitting on your sit bones, with flat feet, and a
centered spine.
2. Take your bow and place it at the Frog as if you were to draw a down bow.
3. Now, with your excellent bow hold, relax your shoulders and drop your elbow below
your wrist.
4. Your entire arm should feel relaxed and all of the weight from your arm flowing to your
fingers and further into the frog.
5. Be sure to have a small tilt of the stick towards the fingerboard before you draw the
6. As you draw a down bow, focus on keeping your weight into the string with a relaxed
arm and flexible fingers.
7. As you reach the tip of the bow, notice the where the weight moves in your hand.
As you draw the down bow, the weight of your arm in your fingers should move
from the back of your hand (ring finger and pinky finger), to the front of the hand (thumb
and index finger). If you do not feel this transfer of weight, gravity is not being used to its
full potential.
Be Friends with Gravity:
To sum it up, cello playing is a relaxed endeavor and gravity lets us play the
instrument with very little effort. The combination of bow “hold” and “gravity lead arm
weight” not only allows us to pull the best sound from our instrument but also play for
much longer periods of time. As you continue your adventure as a musician, consider
forming a relationship with gravity.


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One Response to “Musical Misnomers: Playing with Gravity”

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