Dotzauer Day 5: On Practising in a Small Camper Van, and On Playing Different Cellos

31-3-2018 Grendon, Northamptonshire


Today’s challenge consists chiefly of trying to play a cello in a small VW camper van, perched sideways on the back seat with the music stand jammed up against the back of the front passenger seat, with not quite enough space to use full bows in either direction. The seat is low, so I have shortened the spike, but it’s not really as simple as that, because although this makes the cello shorter, it shifts where the bulk of the cello is in relation to the body. In this case, playing with a spike of about six inches means that the wide lower bouts are somewhere in the middle of my calves, instead of at between-the-knees height. I hasten to add that the vehicle is not moving while I am practising. It is planted in the middle of a muddy field, with the rain coming down steadily, to the delight of the geese and seagulls in the neighbouring field. My family are sitting patiently in the front of the van, staring out at the rain, and playing what seems to be a hilarious game of ‘I Spy’.

Just about enough space…


We are here in a campsite in Northamptonshire, the sole van in this mud patch, a short but mucky walk to the toilets with the missing seats and the overflowing bins. There’s a flood warning out for this area, and by the time I have used the toilets and taken in the general level of hygiene in the toilet block, and the muddiness and water in the field, I decide that we will stay here plugged in to the electricity long enough to power up my phone, and use the campsite WiFi to locate a hotel with vacancies, and meanwhile, I will practise.


Even without the full length of the bow available, I have room enough to experiment with the difficulty of matching the sound of the stopped string, with all fingers down, with the open string, when playing scale-like passages upwards. This is the same passage as I practised yesterday, but perhaps due to the environment, the problems seem greater. As I mentioned in Day 2, some adjustment needs to be made because of the possibility of making a scratchy noise on the open string, if you play with the same weight and force as you have for the previous, stopped note.


The passage modulates to G major. Yesterday I spent considerable time exploring the gap between the third and fourth fingers, when playing F-sharp to G on the D string. Today, I find the extension reaching the F sharp on the C string a greater problem. This is not helped by the fact that I am playing a different cello, ‘Old Scratchy’ as I call it, instead of my good, smaller cello, ‘The Bennet’.


Why is it called ‘Old Scratchy’?

I don’t find the intonation itself to be such a big issue when moving between cellos, as this is fairly straightforward; there is a simple algorithm, and once the fingers have played one interval correctly, the brain should understand the ratios of the spaces between the notes, except perhaps in the neck positions. This is because very often the hand has learned the neck position notes in relation to the upper bout of the cello, and where it needs to lift in order to clear it. Variations in neck lengths mean that this relationship can be slightly different on every cello.


What can be more of a problem are the string crossings, because the strings can be differently spaced. It affects not only the bowing, but also any strumming or plucking. This is an issue for me because The Bennet is exceptionally narrow, and the finger board is very narrow. It also affects the correct placing of the left-hand fingers on the string, and makes it very difficult not to touch the neighbouring string with the sides of my fingers. This is less of a problem on this cello. It is true however that, the cello being bigger, the reach of the intervals is bigger, especially in the neck positions and in the extensions: it is really quite a stretch for my small hands. A further idiosyncrasy of this cello is the fact that the strings are very high above the fingerboard. It takes more strength to press the string down, and thumb position is positively painful.


The reach of the hand was a serious issue on the cello that I owned before The Bennet. I played that cello for some 30 years, and struggled to play in first position accurately, let alone in extensions. In some cases, in the neck position, I had to throw the hand slightly, in places where I should have been able to stretch. There was, inevitably, a problem with accuracy, and a corresponding loss of confidence. Furthermore, I experienced pain in my left forearm and sometimes cramping of the hand. There is an issue here of ‘sizism’, if not in fact, sexism. A ‘full-size’ cello is, in fact, the perfect size for an averagely sized man or a slightly taller than average woman, or one with long arms and fingers. There is no need to expect that every adult will fit a full-size cello, but this is the assumption, in fact sometimes teenagers of average size are moved up to these instruments before they are really ready to even sit quite comfortably with the instrument. There is no need to move up as soon as one possibly can. The same applies to children moving through the various sizes of any string instrument as they grow. If a violinist the size of Maxim Vengerov can play a full-size violin, a size most people move to when they are about twelve, without feeling it is too small for him, why should a student be moved up the minute they can possibly fit the next size up, or heaven forbid, before they can? There are implications for stress and strain, intonation and confidence; parents and teachers, please ….


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