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Cellist Jonathan Koh on Improving Your Cello Technique

"What cello scales, exercises and etude books do you recommend for a rock-solid left and right hand?" We threw the question to cello pedagogue Jonathan Koh for his tips and recommendations.

Developing a strong technical foundation on the cello is important for every cellist, as these skills allow greater finesse on playing the instrument and understanding the music. There are many technique books and methods passed down through the generations, so how do you find what materials to further enhance your playing technique. VC reader Patricia wanted to know what some exercises and etude books that can guide towards developing a rock-solid left and right hand.

Do you have any methods or exercises to recommend that have been effective to improve your string technique? Please let us know in the comments below. We're all keen to learn more from you.



Cellist Jonathan Koh on Developing a Rock-Solid Left and Right Hand Technique

Hi Patricia,

It is imperative for cellists to develop a solid technical foundation that equips them to perform and connect with the audience. I always stress to my students that a true cellist cannot have just one rock solid hand. Rather, both the left and right hands are needed to communicate through the instrument to serve our musical purpose.

There are countless technique books and study materials out in print that are effective and helpful to build this solid technical foundation, but I always find my students circling back to the Ivan Galamian Scale System, the Feuillard Exercises, and the Popper Etudes.

The Galamian Scale System is instrumental for all of my students because it helps them master the fingerboard - low to high positions - while improving on intonation, rhythm, shifting, right/left hand coordination, bow management, and varying speeds. The Galamian scales and arpeggios allow students to tackle all fingerboard positions in a more manageable way. In terms of the right hand, I ask the students to watch for the angle of the bow, bow speeds, contact points, and bow changes to make a good sound.

The Feuillard ‘Daily Exercises’ and ‘Method for Young Cellists’ are two books that my younger students use because it has an array of exercises with a systematic yet basic approach. The exercises are short and to the point, which helps the students focus on one specific finger or rhythmic pattern at a time. For instance, the studies in the ‘Method for Young Cellists’ book are divided into two short sections - exercise and short piece. The technique studied in the exercise section (ex: legato bow) is directly applied to the short piece section (ex: melodic and lyrical). To ensure good practice habits and instill critical thinking, I also ask my students to further think about how the technique is used by relating it to similar material in current and past repertoire.

The Popper Etudes are excellent for my more advanced students because they require a certain level of technical mastery and musicality. Each etude is written to overcome specific challenges, such as playing in high positions or playing at a fast tempo. The Popper Etudes also invite students to make music more appealing by thinking about phrasing, harmonic structure, and character. The Popper Etudes are especially resourceful because they not only emphasize the importance of practicing all types of techniques, such as octaves, double-stops, and bow articulation, but also combine several techniques into one study. Popper Etude No. 1, for instance, involves many string crossings and shifts, but also requires students to articulate with both hands, coordinate the two hands, and understand the different left hand shapes.

I believe that no matter which materials we study and practice, we must constantly be aware of what we are listening to and what we are trying to accomplish in our daily practice by discovering the technical purpose of each study.

In a concerto, we may examine the structure of the piece or look into what the composer's intentions were when writing the piece whereas in a technical study, we may examine in detail the timing and preparation of shifts, plan for which part of the bow arm to use, or even look for patterns in fingerings and bowings. It is also important to note that mastering these right and left hand techniques should be done in an efficient manner, both mentally and physically, before applying these skills to any repertoire.



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A student of Hans Jorgen Jensen at the Northwestern University, cellist Jonathan Koh currently serves on faculty at the University of California at Berkeley, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Pre-College and the Meadowmount School of Music. 


The Ivan Galamian Scale System for Violoncello |BOOK|

Ivan Galamian

Edited & Arranged by Hans Jørgen Jansen

G. Schirmer Edition

Daily Exercises for Violoncello |BOOK|

Louis R. Feuillard

Published Date: December 1, 1984

Schott Edition

The Young Cellist's Method |BOOK|

Louis R. Feuillard

Published Date: January 10, 1929


15 Easy Etudes & 10 Grand Etudes Op. 76 For Cello |BOOK|

David Popper

Barenreiter Verlag Edition


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