The School of Velocity

I have a couple of advanced cello students (high-school age) whom I’d like to prepare for symphony work. They can already play 95% of what a classical composer calls for — but then there’s that other five percent. In a typical cello part, you get a lot of whole-notes, a lot of easy quarter-notes, and then the composer throws you a terrifying run in 16th-notes. And of course the conductor is going to take the piece at a hair-raising tempo. No mercy.

I haven’t yet found any exercise books that could help students prepare for these passages. (And the Internet Cello Society forum, where I’ve posted questions in the past, appears to be dead.)

Yes, there are books of etudes with two-page etudes marked allegro that are entirely in 16th-notes. Tricky ones, too. But I’m not quite merciless enough to ask a student to master an entire two-page etude and play it flawlessly at a breakneck tempo. Anyway, that’s not how orchestral cello parts work. Typically, your terrifying run is going to be from two to six measures long, and then you can go back to breezing through the quarter-notes. Also, composers of etudes are fond of tossing finger-twisters at players, which is fine, but most composers of symphonic music don’t toss in finger-twisters merely for the sake of challenging the players. They’re more likely to ask you to run up and down a scale pattern in the key of A-flat. Or D-flat. Or F-sharp.

For those of you who aren’t cellists, perhaps I should explain that in the key of A-flat, you can’t use the open A and D strings. In the key of F-sharp, you can’t use any open strings at all. The cellist’s hand spans only three scale notes, and the strings are tuned a fifth apart. As a result, any scale that doesn’t use open strings forces you to shift up or down the fingerboard to a new hand position after three notes.

If the tricky passage is, let’s say, four measures of 16th-notes, that’s 64 notes. Divide by 3 and you’ll find that you’ll need to do as many as 20 rapid and precise shifts, often while crossing from one string to another, at odd rhythmic spots, and usually to or from notes like D-flat and A-sharp that your intermediate method book studiously avoided. Even fairly advanced method books don’t typically use double-sharps or double-flats — but composers don’t hesitate to do so.

So yeah, here’s another cello method book I ought to write.

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