Right hand comfort for cellists
Choice of Bow. The most important factor in achieving right hand comfort is using the best possible bow. Of course, choosing a bow is a very personal and sensitive process in which a match needs to be found between the player, the instrument and the bow. However, it’s advisable to use a bow which produces sound very efficiently, engaging immediately with the string and producing generous volumes of sound in return for the effort put in by the player, as well as performing off the string strokes willingly. These qualities are central to the performance of the best bows in existence.
The weight and balance of the bow are also crucial to the comfort of your right hand. A heavy bow can be very powerful in romantic legato passages, producing sounds of searing intensity; however, these benefits must be weighed against the extra work required from the player when changing bow direction, using off the string bow strokes and lifting a heavy bow from the strings.
The balance of a bow is most apparent at the very moment you lift it from the string. Two bows of the same weight may feel different in balance, depending on the distribution of that weight along the stick: a bow weighted more towards the tip will feel heavier than one which is weighted more towards the handle. The issue of balance is very sensitive for many players and it’s worth bearing in mind that re-hairing and re-lapping can change the balance and weight of a bow.
Bow re-hairs. The amount of hair on a bow can easily change its weight by 1 gram, but the overall length of the hair will change the balance and feel of the bow much more dramatically. A re-hair which is made too long – or has stretched in use – will make a bow feel heavier at the tip and also less strong. The material used for the bow lapping also affects weight and balance. Lighter lappings made from silk, tinsel or leather can be 3 or 4 grammes lighter than a lapping of silver wire. A light lapping reduces the overall weight of a bow and shifts the balance towards the head, while a heavy lapping adds to the overall weight of the bow and shifts the balance towards the handle. Since recent tastes in bow weight have favoured heavier bows, many old cello bows have been fitted with heavy silver lappings which were never envisaged by the original bow maker. Bow grips used by some players to increase the comfort of the handle also add weight; sometimes lead weights are hidden in the head mortice of a bow to make a bow heavier at the tip.
Bow Grip. In a normal bow hold, the corner of the player’s thumb sits in the space between the frog and the leather thumb grip, touching the leather, bow stick and frog. Ideally, the frog should be a comfortable shape where the thumb touches it but unfortunately this is one of the places where bow makers occasionally put beauty before function. For this we must blame Francois Xavier Tourte, the creator of the modern bow, who left his frogs particularly sharp next to the thumb grip. If your bow is not a priceless antique and the frog is uncomfortably sharp, it is quite reasonable for you to ask a craftsman to modify the shape of the frog to a more comfortable shape where the thumb touches it.
If an old bow is uncomfortable at the frog due to excessive wear, new wood can be grafted in by a bow maker. And if your bow is made by a famous French bow maker, the frog is in mint condition and is excruciatingly uncomfortable, you may want to have a comfortable new frog made for everyday use and put the original in a very safe place because it is worth more than the family silver! The leather thumb grip is a little easier than the frog to adjust for comfort: it can be made thicker or thinner, harder or softer depending on the taste of the player. Most cellists find it more comfortable if there is only a short length of stick between the frog and the thumb grip and this also helps to avoid wear to the stick. To achieve this, it is important to ask for a short re-hair, so that the hair can only just be loosened when the re-hair is new, as the hair on cello bows is played at tensions which always cause it to stretch with time.
As well as making the frog and thumb grip comfortable and correctly positioned, many players like to have extra cushioning for their thumb. Several non-bulky options exist, including rubber thimbles, baby bottle teats, small leather sleeves or a leather flap secured beneath the thumb grip. For a bulkier solution, a length of rubber, latex or silicone tube can be worked onto the bow stick and stretched over the nose of the frog.
Cello set up. There are several aspects of cello set up which can make bowing easier. The first is rather fundamental and relates to the neck and fingerboard of the cello. The cello neck can be set with the fingerboard exactly level with the front or tilted up at the A string and down at the C string (or vice versa). If the fingerboard is tilted up at the A string and down at the C, the advantage is that the right arm does not have to be raised so high to bow the A string. This configuration also creates more space between the A string and the C bout of the cello and between the A and the D strings, giving the player more freedom of movement. Although the fingerboard is never intentionally tilted down at the A string, the fingerboard can warp over time and misalignments can also lower the A string, placing extra demands on the right arm.
Strings and sound post. Lastly, there are two aspects of cello adjustment which have a major impact on the way a cello is bowed. It is possible to select strings which are quick to speak and do not require heavy bow pressure, although it is of course necessary to find a solution which achieves your tonal objectives as well as ease of playing. Also, adjusting the sound post to induce resistance into the set up also has a significant bearing on how easy or difficult the cello is to play.
© Robin Aitchison and Sarah Mnatzaganian 2008