The Holy Sextet (Part 2) — by Brant Taylor

The Holy Sextet (Part 2) — by Brant Taylor

Part 1 began an exploration of three bow variables that—in addition to the three well-known concepts of weight, speed, and contact point—make up a sextet of basics that should be known and practiced to maximize your control over the string with the bow.  We discussed the first and most important, bow angle, in Part 1. The remaining two variables may seem relatively minor, but they are by no means unimportant. If practicing means attempting to find solutions to the challenges of successful instrumental control, you should attempt to understand every potential reason for success or failure with the bow.

FLATNESS OF HAIR, or how much of the hair makes contact with the string.

Many cellists hold the bow with the stick tilted up (toward the fingerboard) to some degree. This means that the stick does not track directly over the hair, and also that you are often using only part of the hair on the bow to play.  Sure, this technique may be deliberate sometimes—for example, when you want to play very softly or achieve a particular flautando color—but I’ve noticed that using the full hair from frog to tip in cello playing is the exception. Should this be the case? I’ve been lucky to sit a few feet away from Pinchas Zukerman as he’s played violin and viola concerti through my years with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I’ve long admired his sound, and have noticed that he uses flat hair all the time.

Some players might point out that even with the stick tilted up, the hair is full anyway because the heavy weight of the arm flattens it out. This may be true at the frog, but it is almost never true at the tip, resulting in bow strokes where the hair use is inconsistent: flat at the frog moving to some fraction of the hair approaching the tip. Can this be good for consistency of tone throughout the length of the bow? Playing with flatter hair increases your control of the string, especially at the beginnings of notes and especially on the thicker lower strings. Practice starting notes at the tip on the C string in both loud and soft dynamics. Try it with flat hair and then with the bow tilted away from flat hair. The difference is often striking.

TENSION OF HAIR, or how tight the bow is when you play.

Do you aim to tighten the bow the same amount whenever you play? Do you achieve that? Even small variations in hair tension can have an effect on how the bow performs and feels on the string. Keep checking the tension throughout a practice session, rehearsal, and even a performance to make sure it is what you want. And further, explore the idea that the same tension may not be ideal for everything you play. Each bow and every bow arm is different, so you must answer for yourself whether the Shostakovich Concerto and a Bach Gamba Sonata call for the same bow tension. In strokes like spiccato, the behavior of the bow can be dramatically different depending on how tight the hair (and, therefore, the stick) is. My own experience has often led me to loosen my bow a fraction for many slow movements and other music where legato is desired and I want to feel an especially “buttery” contact with the string. In any case, experimenting with this relatively minor variable can only lead us to a more informed place and greater consistency of execution of the many bow skills you aim to master.

About the Author:

Brant Taylor

Born in New York, Brant Taylor began cello studies at the age of 8.  His varied career includes solo appearances and collaborations with leading chamber musicians throughout North America, Europe, and Asia, as well as orchestral, pedagogical, and popular music activities.  After one year as a member of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Taylor was appointed to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra by Daniel Barenboim in 1998.  In Chicago, Mr. Taylor’s recital appearances include the Dame Myra Hess Concerts, First Monday Concerts, Rush Hour Concerts at St. James Cathedral, the Ravinia Festival’s Rising Stars recital series, and regular live radio broadcasts from the studios of WFMT.  He has appeared regularly with the Chicago Chamber Musicians and on the contemporary chamber music series MusicNow.

Mr. Taylor made his solo debut with the San Antonio Symphony at the age of 14 after winning a concerto competition, and has since been soloist with numerous orchestras, performing the works of Dvorak, Haydn, Elgar, Shostakovich, Lalo, Boccherini, Saint-Saens, and Brahms, among others.

From 1992-97, Mr. Taylor was cellist of the award-winning Everest Quartet, prizewinners at the Banff International String Quartet Competition and the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition.  The Quartet performed and taught extensively in North America and the Caribbean, and gave the world premiere performance of a work by Israeli-American composer Paul Schoenfield.

In 1997, Mr. Taylor was a member of the New World Symphony.  He has returned to appear as soloist with that orchestra under the batons of Michael Tilson-Thomas and Nicholas McGegan, as well as to teach and participate in audition training seminars.

In 2002, Mr. Taylor began a seven-year association with the band Pink Martini.  With this eclectic ensemble, he has appeared on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien”, “The Late Show with David Letterman”, at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and in venues ranging from nightclubs to concert halls across North America. He can be heard on Pink Martini’s 2006 release, “Hey Eugene.”

Mr. Taylor is a frequent performer and teacher at music festivals, including the Festival der Zukunft in Ernen, Switzerland, the Portland Chamber Music Festival, the Shanghai International Music Festival, the Aspen Music Festival, the Mimir Chamber Music Festival, the Mammoth Lakes Chamber Music Festival, Music Festival Santo Domingo, Michigan’s Village Bach Festival, and Music at Gretna in Pennsylvania, where he has made repeated appearances as a concerto soloist. Mr. Taylor has also served as Principal Cello of the Arizona Musicfest Orchestra since 2006.

Active as a teacher of both cello and chamber music, Mr. Taylor serves on the faculty of the DePaul University School of Music.  He has also been a faculty member at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts and Northwestern University’s National High School Music Institute, and has led classes on pedagogy and orchestral repertoire at the University of Michigan.  Mr. Taylor holds a Bachelor of Music degree and a Performer’s Certificate from the Eastman School of Music, where he won the school’s Concerto Competition and performed as soloist with the Eastman Philharmonia. His Master of Music degree is from Indiana University.  Mr. Taylor’s primary teachers have been Janos Starker and Paul Katz.