I think that most people understand the importance of stretching before (and after) playing an instrument. I like to say that we are athletes: we are “small muscle” athletes involving the fingers, wrists, and arms. But actually playing the cello really involves the entire body. Whether it is a matter of producing sound from the lower back, or being physically expressive with our movements, we need to make sure that we are using our bodies in the best possible ways. Just as with any athletic use of the body, we need to make sure that our muscles are warmed up well before we start playing – and that we “cool-down” afterwards. Warming-up helps by increasing blood flow and oxygen to the muscles, reducing the possibility of soft-tissue injury, and [...]
About Robert Jesselson
Robert Jesselson is a Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina, where he teaches cello and plays in the American Arts Trio and the Jesselson/Fugo Duo. In 2013 he was named as the Governor’s Professor of the Year by Governor Haley and the SC Commission on Higher Education.
Dr. Jesselson has performed in recital and with orchestras in Europe, Asia, South America, and the United States, and has participated in the Music Festivals at Nice (France), Granada (Spain), Santiago (Spain), Aspen (CO), Spoleto (SC), the Grand Tetons (WY), and the Festival Inverno (Brazil). His performance degrees are from the Staatliche Hochschule fuer Musik in Freiburg, West Germany, from the Eastman School of Music, where he studied with Paul Katz, and the DMA from Rutgers where he studied with cellist Bernard Greenhouse. He has been principal cello of the South Carolina Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Orquesta-Sinfonica de Las Palmas, Spain. In 1983 Dr. Jesselson was in China for a six-month residency, one of the first Western cellists to visit that country. During that time he performed as soloist, gave master classes, and taught at several conservatories (including Beijing, Shanghai, and Canton). In December, 2001 he led a delegation of string players and teachers to Cuba to begin professional contact with Cuban musicians. He has also taught at Sookmyung University in Korea, Sun Yat Sen University in Taiwan, University of Auckland in New Zealand, at the Royal College of Music in London and recently in St. Lucia in the Caribbean. His recent CD of new music for cello and piano is called “Carolina Cellobration” and is available on CD Baby and Cellos2Go.
Dr. Jesselson was the national President of ASTA, the American String Teachers Association, from 2000-2002. During his tenure as president he initiated the National Studio Teachers Forums (2000 and 2002), started the National String Project Consortium (with sites now at 44 universities and grants of $3.1 million), and began the planning for the first stand-alone ASTA national convention in 2003. He was the founding Executive Director of the National String Project Consortium, and is currently on the NSPC Board.
Dr. Jesselson is former conductor of the USC University Orchestra and the Columbia Youth Orchestra, and he was the cello teacher at the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts for 17 years. For 15 years he was the director of the USC String Project, building the program into one of the largest and most prominent string education programs in the country. His pioneering work on this program was recognized in an article in the New York Times in December, 2003. ASTA awarded him the “Marvin Rabin Community Service” Award in 2009 for his work with the NSPC and teacher training. He is the recipient of the 2015 USC Trustees Professorship and the 2010 Mungo Distinguished Professor of the Year, the highest teaching awards given by USC. He has also been awarded the 2002 Cantey Award for Outstanding Faculty, the 1992 Verner Award, the 1989 S.C. Arts Commission Artist Fellowship, the 1995 Mungo Teaching Award, and the first SC ASTA Studio Teacher Award in 2005. Next summer Dr. Jesselson will be teaching cello at the Green Mountain Music Festival in Vermont and at the Cellospeak Festival. He plays a 1716 Jacques Boquay cello.
This year my cello is celebrating its 300th birthday. Made in 1716 by Jacques Boquay, I call her Ima, as in “I’m a Cello” because whenever I fly with her I book the ticket as Ima Cello. That way I collect the frequent flyer miles and get a free meal! When I was younger it was a lot easier to travel with a cello—in fact when I lived in Germany, I used to fly with Swiss Air and they usually just let me take Ima on the plane without paying for a seat. Later I bought a big Kolstein travel case—it is huge and bulky, but it has an inflatable “balloon” that surrounds the cello inside the case and is made out of Kevlar so you can shoot a gun at it and it won’t pierce the [...]
Today’s Blog is devoted to some thumb position exercises by Diran Alexanian that my teacher in Freiburg, Spanish cellist Marcal Cervera, gave to me in 1972. These exercises are not in included in Alexanian’s seminal book on cello technique, Traite Theorique et Pratique du Violoncelle (Theoretical and practical treatise of the violoncello).Alexanian’s book includes several pages of other thumb position exercises (pages 125 ff.) which are well worth practicing, but I believe that these 13 exercises have never actually been published. I do not know how Cervera got these exercises, but I copied them from his notebook, and studied them with him. I find them to be very useful. Alexanian was born in Armenia in 1881. He became Casals’ assistant at the École Normale de Musique in Paris. His treatise [...]
100 Cello Warm-ups and Exercises Blog 19: Cello Geography -Part 5: Thumb Position and the Upper Registers – by Robert Jesselson
Blogs #15 and #16 discussed the geography of the lower regions of the cello. In sorting out the “latitude” and “longitude” in this part of the instrument the main organizing principle is the knowledge and use of positions. We identify the positions by the location of the first finger on the string up through Seventh position, with “normal” and “extended” variants throughout. When the first finger is playing the A in seventh position on the A string the thumb is still behind the neck – so this is still considered neck position. Seventh position is a significant place on the cello, because it divides the string into two equal parts, and as a result we find the A harmonic there as well. After seventh position, the thumb is used [...]
When students come to study cello with me in college they often arrive with problems in their fundamental technique which must be addressed: issues with collapsing fingers, bow angle, underlying tension, weak sound, etc. Most of these basic problems can be dealt with fairly quickly once the student becomes aware of the issues and knows how to fix them. However the bad habits that seem to be the most intractable are problems regarding the curvature of the thumb. In pedagogy classes and in talking with teachers I always emphasize that young cellists should be taught to train their thumbs correctly in order to help avoid excess tension and to allow maximum flexibility. Teachers need to be vigilant about this in the early stages of a cellist’s development in order to [...]
I feel like I have known Bernard Greenhouse for all of my life. Growing up in New York in the 1950's and 1960's, I heard him perform countless times with the Beaux Arts Trio and the Bach Aria Group. I can remember his warm sound and elegant appearance from my earliest days. It is probably because of hearing Mr. Greenhouse that I even wanted to play the cello. Then in 1971, when I was studying in Freiburg, Germany I got the first chance to actually meet him in person. It was backstage after an awe-inspiring performance of the Beethoven Triple by the Beaux Arts Trio. I told him that I hoped to have the opportunity to study with him someday—and he generously responded by giving me his personal telephone number and address, saying to contact him when I was ready. [...]
This blog will be the last one of the year – but we look forward to starting up again in 2016. In the first two blogs on Cello Geography we discussed the basic neck positions, and extensions. Next I would like to focus on a tool that I feel is helpful for sorting out one of the most important fingering principles on the cello: the “Mary” System. […]
In many ways holding and playing the cello is just a “natural” addition to the body. The instrument rests nicely on our chest, we don’t need to twist and contort our arms like violinists, and if we employ weight, healthy balances and learn the ergonomically healthy use of the body we should have no pain or tension in playing. One of the only things that is not quite “natural” about playing the cello is our left-hand extensions. Stretching between the first and second fingers requires some specific training. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I used to walk around Freiburg as a student with a cork between my fingers to help train this stretch: […]
Learning to play a string instrument means having to figure out where the left hand goes on the fingerboard in order to play the notes. Since we don’t have a GPS system for the cello, most people initially learn where the notes are by knowing the positions. The positions are like the latitude and longitude of the cello, and knowing them can help organize the grid of the fingerboard. Unfortunately many students learn just First and Fourth positions, because then they can play almost all the notes in the lower part of the cello. However, that limits the myriad choices of fingerings that can produce different shifts, slides, string crossings, etc. It reduces the creative possibilities, and it can make it almost impossible to play difficult passages that require the intermediate [...]
100 Cello Warm-Ups and Exercises Blog 14: Isometrics, Strength and Articulation Exercises — by Robert Jesselson
In today’s blog I will discuss two related left-hand issues: finger strength and articulation, and offer some isometric exercises to strengthen the fingers. Finger Strength So, actual muscle strength is probably less important in cello playing than flexibility, release of tension, and gentle power. In Western culture one of the symbols of strength is a powerful tree, such as an oak tree or a chestnut tree. For example, in Longfellow’s poem The Village Blacksmith: “Under a spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands; The smith, a mighty man is he, with large and sinewy hands. And the muscles of his brawny arm…” However in some Asian countries strength is symbolized by a willow tree, which flows with the wind. In a storm, it is more likely for the powerful oak tree to fall than [...]