Faculty of Performance, Visual Arts and Communications

School of Music


Cello: Bowing - George Kennaway

1. The function of the wrist

Perceptions of the function of the wrist, and its relationship to the right arm, in cello bowing altered in the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is possible to obtain a very short bow movement just with the wrist, using the limited amount of available lateral movement, and this forms a part of some later nineteenth-century approaches to bow technique. However, virtually all cello methods of any substance describe how, in the course of a down-bow, the wrist will begin raised (pronated) and gradually sink so that when playing at the tip of the bow it is much lower (supinated). Many eighteenth-century tutors, and some early nineteenth-century ones (even those for advanced students), such as Corrette, Crome, Tillière, Lepin, Azaïs, or Bréval, largely ignore the movement of the wrist, and others, like Schetky, give it only cursory attention:

The arm from the Shoulder to the Elbow should move as little as possible, the wrist should act freely and be rather supple.[J. G. C. SchetkyPractical and Progressive Lessons for the Violoncello [London: R. Brichall, 1813)]

This may indicate that they thought it too obvious to mention, or that they expected a teacher to deal with this in the lesson, or that it was simply not important. John Gunn was one of the first to stress the role of the wrist in string crossing. He claims that a sufficiently high arm on the A string gives more power, and

[...] it will prevent any unnecessary motion of the arm in passing from a lower string to an upper one, or the contrary, which can be sufficiently accomplished by a small turn of the wrist alone [...] [John GunnThe Theory and Practice of Fingering the Violoncello (London: the Author, 1st edn., [1789], p. 63]

His second edition goes into more practical detail (as it does on several other topics). Keeping the arm still, he asks the pupil to move the wrist both horizontally and vertically to show how much can be done without the arm:

This serves to move the bow in either direction; and the movement of the arm […] to extend it to the necessary length. [Gunn, Theory and Practice (London: the Author [c.1793]), p. 38] 

This flexibility means that:

... the least elevation possible of the wrist will raise the bow from any string to the next higher string, and an equally small depression will, of course, bring it down to a lower string; consequently, no elevation or depression of the arm can even [sic] be necessary to bow alternately on two contiguous strings. [Ibid.]

This basic point – that string crossing should use as little arm movement as possible, using the flexibility of the wrist – is made throughout the pedagogical literature of the cello in varying degrees of detail. However, Raoul describes the relationship between the fore-arm and wrist as a subtle balancing of functions:

The bow must be held firmly; but without stiffness; the wrist free; that is its action; it is from its suppleness that the bow derives all its advantages. The fore-arm leads the wrist: but it must only guide it and follow it in all its movements. ['L’archet doit être tenu avec fermeté; mais sans raideur; le poignet libre: c’est de son action; c’est de sa souplesse que l’archet tire tous ses avantages. l’Avant-bras conduit le poignet: mais il ne doit que le conduire et le suivre dans tous ses mouvemens’. J. M. Raoul, Méthode de Violoncelle (Paris: Pleyel, [c. 1797]), p. 5]

Bowing is a less important topic in Duport’s Essai, but he does note that ‘The wrist plays a great part in the bowing’ and that in string crossing ‘the arm has hardly anything to do.’ (<span style="Times New Roman" ;"="">Jean Louis Duport, Essai dir le doigté (Paris: Imbault, [1806]), p. 159-60). Translation from trilingual edition trans. August Lindner, Anleitung zum Fingersatz auf dem Violoncell und zur Bogenführung (Offenbach: Jean André, [1864]), p. 140). He also describes the wrist as acting as a hinge (charnière) when changing bow:

...the wrist must obey, as [if] it were the hinge of a machine...[Duport, Essai, p. 159. This point will recur in the discussion of Davidoff’s ‘hand-bowing’ below.]

Bréval himself does not deal with the wrist at all, but Peile adds the topic in his translation:

It is also to be observ’d that on crossing from one string to another, the least depression of the Arm must take place, which may all be effected by the wrist[;] at all times the motion of the Bow must proceed from the first joint of the Arm and Wrist.[J. B. Bréval, trans. J. Peile, Bréval’s New Instructions for the Violoncello (London: C. Wheatstone & Co., [1810]), p. 6.]

In his own tutor Peile just tells the pupil to ‘let the motion proceed from the wrist as well as the arm.’ (John Peile, A New and Complete Tutor for the Violoncello (London: Goulding, D’Almaine, Potter and Co. [1819?]), p. 16). Dotzauer stresses that the wrist ‘must move with the greatest lightness [...] transitions from one string to another are only made by the wrist.’ ( ‘...qui doit se mouvoir avec la plus grand légèreté. L’archet conserve sa place dans la main et les transitions, d’une corde à l’autre ne s’operent que par le poignet.’ J. J. F. Dotzauer, Méthode de Violoncelle. Violonzell-Schule (Mainz: B. Schott fils, [1825]), p. 7-8). Crouch and Eley make very similar points, with the latter emphasising the wrist’s role in producing good tone by avoiding a stiff arm ( Frederick Crouch, A Compleat Treatise on the Violoncello (London: Chappell & Co., [1826]),p. 8; C. F. Eley, Improved Method for the Violoncello (London: Clementi & Co., [1827?]), p. 2).

Romberg insists several times upon the flexibility of the wrist:

[...] a flexible wrist is indispensable to a fine execution, and who ever does not acquire this suppleness at first, will not attain it afterwards without infinite labour and pains. [Bernhard Romberg, trans. anon., Complete Theoretical and Practical School for the Violoncello (London: T. Boosey & Co., [1840]), p. 8. This comment is retained in Edward Howell’s abridgement of Romberg (Edward Howell’s First Book for the Violoncello adapted from Romberg’s School (London: Boosey & Co., [1879]). Arthur Broadley ruefully observed that he himself had suffered from a faulty wrist and ‘had this knowledge [been] imparted to me a couple of years earlier [...] much unlearning and relearning at more than double the expense would have been saved.’ Arthur Broadley, Chats to Cello Students (London: ‘The Strad’ Office, E. Donajowski and D. R. Duncan, 1899), p. 11.]
The chief object of this study is to exercise the wrist in drawing both the up and down-bows. All these exercises must be practised with the wrist only, and without moving the arm in the slightest degree from its natural position.[op. cit., p. 14]
The shifting of the bow from one string to the other must be done by means of the wrist only.[op. cit., p. 16]
[In arpeggio bowing] everything must be managed with the wrist. [op. cit., p. 61]

At about the same time, Kummer suggests a way of practising similar to Gunn’s:

String crossing (string change) must always be the focus of the cellist’s greatest attention, since all changes of the bow should be conducted only by means of the wrist, without moving the upper arm. To achieve this skill the student should diligently undertake the following exercises while limiting in their execution a concomitant movement of the right upper arm by leaning it on a table or cupboard. [‘Der Saitenübergang (Saitenwechsel) muß dem Violoncellisten stets gegenstand der höchtens Aufmerksamkeit sein, da alle Wendungen des Bogens nur vermittelst des Handgelenks, ohne den Oberarm zu bewegen, ausgeführt werden sollen. Um diese Fertigkeit zu erlangen, nehme der Schüler die nächstfolgenden Beispiele mit allem Fleiß vor und verhindere bei deren Studium eine Mitbewegung des rechten Oberarmes dadurch, daß er ihn an einen tisch oder Schrank lehnt.’ F. A. Kummer, rev. Hugo Becker, Violoncelloschule op. 60 (Leipzig: C. F. Peters, 1909), p. 21.]

Lindley, however, is more relaxed:

[...] the other fingers must assist in governing the Bow without impeding the freedom of the wrist. [Robert Lindley, Handbook for the Violoncello (London: Musical Bouquet Office, [1851-55]), p. 5.]
The bow must be drawn across the strings almost at right angles with them, subject merely to the natural play of the wrist. The motion of the bow should proceed from the wrist and elbow exclusively. It needs not that the upper joint of the arm should be absolutely rigid, but it should only move in subservience to the lower joint, without becoming a positive agent...[op. cit., p. 11. By the ‘upper joint’ Lindley means the shoulder; his ‘lower joint’ is the elbow.] 

Lindley’s ‘natural play of the wrist’ is a more modest requirement than Romberg’s more exaggerated supination.

  The flexibility of the wrist continues to be described in very similar terms. Examples virtually identical to those already given can be found in, pedagogical works by Grützmacher, de Swert, Becker, and Whitehouse. Specific exercises for the right wrist are numerous, with examples by Kummer, Lee (his études op. 31 no. 32  and op. 32 no 36 are marked respectively  ‘pour l’articulation du poignet droit’, and ‘pour donner l’elasticité au poignet’), Werner, Popper, Brückner, Welleke, and Fuchs. The last two even specifiy a range of possible heights for the wrist (Oskar Brückner, Scale & Chord Studies for the Violoncello Op. 40 (London: Augener, [1895]); Friedrich Grützmacher, ed. Willem Welleke, Daily Exercises op. 67 (New York: G. Schirmer, 1909); Carl Fuchs, Violoncello-Schule Violoncello-Method 3 vols. (Mainz: B. Schott’s Söhne, 1909), vol.1, p. 18). There are also many earlier studies which are clearly, though not explicitly, aimed at developing the flexibility of the wrist in string-crossing, by Duport, Dotzauer, Merk, Franchomme, Grützmacher, and others.  

2. Later attitudes to the wrist

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a subtle revision of the earlier consensus begins to emerge. Laurent Junod (1878) sees string crossing as beginning with the arm, not the wrist:

The pupil should draw the bow very slowly from one end to the other on each note. The right arm must be well opened without any movement from the shoulder. The pupil should accustom himself not to raise his fingers unnecessarily high, especially in passing from one string to another. In order to change the string he should stop the bow for a moment at each extremity, but without raising it until the movements of the arm and wrist are well regulated. [L. Junod, trans. F. Clayton, New and Concise Method for the Violoncello op. 20 (London: J. R. Lafleur & Son, 1878), p. 6. Emphasis added.]

Carl Schroeder is less emphatic than his predecessors on the degree of flexibility required of the wrist:

[...] the wrist, while passing to the higher string, makes a slight inclination inwards, and in passing to the lower string, a slight inclination outwards. [Carl Schroeder, Catechism of Cello Playing (London: Augener, 1893), p. 32.]

On the other hand, Welleke still focuses on the shape of the hand, and by implication, wrist, when he says of scales using all four strings that

[t]he wrist-movement […] is like that for the arpeggio (gradually raising then lowering), but pausing on each separate string. The hand is constantly bent downward [meaning that the wrist is raised] till the C-string is quitted, to enable it to rise three times up to the A-string; correspondingly, in passing back from the A-string, it is constantly bent upward [meaning that the wrist is lowered] […] [Grützmacher, ed. Welleke, Daily Exercises, p. 9.]

Van der Straeten gives similar advice, saying that the wrist ‘must be constantly and gradually altering its relative position to the forearm’, and describing how it is lowered during a down-bow ( Edmund. van der Straeten, Technics of Violoncello-Playing (London: ‘The STrad’ Office, 1898), pp. 30-31). But unlike Welleke he also asks for a ‘firm wrist’ combined with a turn of the forearm for a bigger sound, and in general he minimises the overall movement of the wrist . 

[...] it must be remembered that the wrist must never sink below the level with the forearm; nor should the movements of the wrist be sudden or self-intentional. Their only purpose is to allow the bow to travel in the right direction and to the proper distance; and in order to fulfil their purpose they must follow those primary motions, being just sufficient to allow their proper executions, which will be impeded by excess. [op. cit., p. 36]

His advice differs significantly from earlier practice. Both Romberg and Kummer unambiguously show in illustrations that the wrist should be lower than the forearm when playing at the tip of the bow. The change in attitude became widespread. Emil Krall goes into great detail on the anatomical construction of the arm, drawing, like Becker and Fuchs, on Friedrich Steinhausen’s influential essay,  Die Physiologie der Bogenführung auf den Streich-instrumenten (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1903). He very strikingly reverses the conventional wisdom. For Krall, the arm is the most free, and the hand the least free, part of the linkage from shoulder to hand. He stresses the ‘swing of the whole arm as a unity’ and even says that the upper arm should lead the bow-stroke (Emil Krall, The Art of Tone-Production on the Violoncello (London: ‘The Strad’ Office, 1913), p. 18. All emphases as original). In the course of an entire chapter on the wrist, he makes his perspective clear:

The wrist is only a subordinate joint in that system of levers: the arm. It belongs to that part of the arm which is relatively passive. Its function is to mediate between the movements of the arm and those of the bow. If kept in a natural supple condition, it smoothes and polishes awkward and unpractised arm-movements and assists in perfecting them. [...] There is a great difference between a mediating wrist and an active wrist; the first does what the whole mechanism (arm) desires it to do, the latter imposes upon the arm a tyrannical conception of limited, pettish movements. An over-active wrist completely spoils the production of a large and sonorous tone; it is mainly responsible for absence of tone-power. As already indicated: any bowing executed exclusively by the wrist will always bear the stamp of artificiality – of restriction; it is neither significant nor convincing, because it is detached from all other functions of the arm. On the other hand, if a player exhibits perfect ease and freedom in what he believes to be a wrist-technique, then he believes what he sees, but is ignorant of what actually happens! [...] the [wrist] is always supported and accompanied by the swing of the arm, and it is due to this and not to the wrist that he is able to execute the technique with ease and grace. [op. cit., p. 22]

This explanation, depending as it does on distinctions between the ‘mediating’ and ‘active’ wrist, and between the player’s own perception and what actually happens, finally resolves the paradox implicit in Raoul’s formulation quoted earlier. Alexanian continues in this direction ( Diran Alexanian, trans. Frederick Fairbanks, Traité théorique et pratique du violoncelle (Paris: Mathot, 1922), pp. 36ff). In slower exercises he keeps the curve of the wrist more or less constant, and in rapid string crossing he concentrates not on the wrist, but the arm, saying that ‘these movements of the hand should be as little pronounced as possible.’ (Op. cit., p. 74). Even in passages of détaché string crossing in semiquavers he seems not to use the wrist to any marked degree (op. cit., p. 81). This was singled out for notice by the Musical Times:

In a down-bow, contrary to current practice, [Alexanian says] the whole of the arm should always be at work. [‘M.-D. C’, Musical Times, 1st May 1923, p. 325.]

This suggests that, in England at least, some cellists were still playing in the older manner in the years after World War I, with less engagement of the upper arm. Alexanian’s codification of cello technique was strongly influenced by the practices of Casals, one of whose technical traits was to play with a higher wrist even when at the tip of the bow, with a correspondingly higher elbow, but to move the wrist in general less. This was one of several aspects of Casals’s playing which surprised David Popper when he attended a recital by Casals in Budapest in 1912 (which included three of Popper’s own pieces). Popper’s pupil Stephen De’ak was present:

During the concert I watched Popper’s reaction. His serious appraisal of the performance showed in the expression of his face, and he applauded after each number. But a slight puzzlement veiled the otherwise interested countenance. The striking differences between the prevailing bowing with loose wrist and straight thumb, and Casals’ bowing, seemed most obvious when he played at the upper part of the bow without lowering his wrist, and compensated by the gradual pronation and elevation of his arm. But the upper arm position was radically altered when the bow was applied on the ‘C’ string. It was drawn in close to the body, with the wrist fairly straight. [Steven De’ak, David Popper (New York: Paganiniana Publications, 1980),p. 240.]

While Casals was not alone in this use of the wrist, it seems likely that he was more extreme than most other cellists of the period. Indeed, he claimed many years later that his coupling of a higher wrist with a higher elbow ‘caused a furore among traditionalists’ (J. M. Corredor, trans. André Mangeot, Conversations with Casals (London: Hutchinson, 1956), p. 25).

This general change of emphasis with regard to the role of the wrist provides a context for discussion of the only other innovative approach in this field, that of Karl Davidoff and his pupil Carl Fuchs. 

3. The ‘Davidoff hinge’ and ‘hand-bowing’

Carl Davidoff appears to look more at the function of the whole arm than many of his predecessors:

Herein rests the greatest difficulty in the use of the bow, because with this combined movement of the upper and lower arm, wrist-movement is mainly necessary [ ‘Darin besteht die größte Schwierigkeit bei der Bogenführung, weil hierzu kombinierte Bewegungen von Ober- und Unterarm, hauptsächlich aber Handgelenk-Bewegungen notwendig sind.’ Karl Yu. Davidoff, Violoncello-Schule (Leipzig: C. F. Peters, [1888]), p. 2.]

However, he makes it clear that string-crossing is still almost entirely executed by the wrist:

Crossing with the bow from one string to another occurs, as explained earlier, through a small turn of the hand: the movement to the right brings the bow from a higher to a lower string; in the other direction a turn to the left serves to cross from a lower to a higher string. The transition between the strings is relatively so small, that with a certain pressure of the bow only a small turn suffices, in order to take the bow from one string to another. This very important fact for the experienced player presents so much difficulty to the beginner that he does not have control of the bow, and from this easily arises the risk of unnecessarily touching the lower string. [‘Der Übergang mit dem Bogen von einer Saite zur anderen geschieht, wie früher erwähnt, durch kleine Drehungen der Hand: die Bewegung nach rechts bringt den Bogen von einer höheren zur tieferen saite; um gekehrt dient eine Drehung nach links zum Übergang von einer tieferen zur höheren Saite. Die Entfernung zwischen den Saiten sind verhältnismäßig so gering, daß bei einem gewissen Druck des Bogens nur eine kleine Drehung genügt, um den Bogen von einer Saite zur anderen zu bringen. Diese für den geübten Spieler sehr wichtige tatsache bietet dem Anfänger so manche Schwierigkeit, da er den Bogen nicht in der Gewalt hat und daher leicht in Gefahr kommt, die Nebensaiten unnötigerweise zu berühren.’ Ibid., p. 10.]

<p style="of the wrist in order to change to a neighbouring string, not, for example, the slight stretching of the fingers followed by a simple lifting of the wrist/forearm described by earlier cellists. This changes the angle between string and bow from the conventional 90 degrees. Davidoff’s pupil Carl Fuchs goes further: 

When passing from a lower to a higher string near the nut, the point of the bow is turned inwards by revolving the wrist slightly to the left [...]. In passing from a higher to a lower string the process is reversed. During these movements the wrist should remain raised. [Carl Fuchs, Violoncello-Schule Violoncello-Method 3 vols. (Mainz: B. Schott’s Söhne, 1909), vol.1, p 7.]
In the usual down-bow [...] the wrist gradually sinks as the point of the bow is reached, but if the down-bow precedes the change to a higher string, the wrist [...] must not sink so that when the point of the bow is reached, a sudden drop of the wrist and raising of the hand will bring the bow onto the higher string without any movement of the arm.[Ibid., p. 8.]

Davidoff uses the wrist in order to change to a neighbouring string, not, for example, the slight stretching of the fingers followed by a simple lifting of the wrist/forearm described by earlier cellists. This changes the angle between string and bow from the conventional 90 degrees. His pupil Carl Fuchs goes further: 

When passing from a lower to a higher string near the nut, the point of the bow is turned inwards by revolving the wrist slightly to the left [...]. In passing from a higher to a lower string the process is reversed. During these movements the wrist should remain raised. [Carl Fuchs, Violoncello-Schule Violoncello-Method 3 vols. (Mainz: B. Schott’s Söhne, 1909), vol.1, p 7.]
In the usual down-bow [...] the wrist gradually sinks as the point of the bow is reached, but if the down-bow precedes the change to a higher string, the wrist [...] must not sink so that when the point of the bow is reached, a sudden drop of the wrist and raising of the hand will bring the bow onto the higher string without any movement of the arm.[Ibid., p. 8.]

Davidoff’s “Bow-turning” (or “Swinging”). In order to avoid roughness in passing from one string to another when playing slurred notes, Davidoff recommended raising the point of the bow slightly in the down bow and lowering it in the up bow, so that the angle (90 degs.) formed by the strings and bow is increased or decreased by 10-20 deg. respectively. By this means the bow touches the next string at a point slightly further from the bridge, where a softer tone can be produced than near the bridge. [Ibid., vol. 2 p.55.]

Fuchs gives examples (figure 1) from a Dotzauer study and Tchaikovsky’s first string quartet op. 11, with instructions for the change in bow angle (ibid., vol. 2, p. 55).

Figure 1: Carl Fuchs, Violoncelloschule, music examples for Davidoff’s ‘Bow-turning’

He also gives a photograph to illustrate the changed angle of the bow, which appears much greater than his verbal description alone suggests (ibid., vol. 2, p. v.). 

Davidoff’s ‘bow-turning’, and the ‘Davidoff hinge’, utilise the more or less vertical movement of the hand about the wrist. However, ‘hand-bowing’, a term apparently unique to Fuchs, uses the more limited sideways rotation of the hand, with little active involvement of the wrist. Both techniques are integral to Fuch’s explanation of bowing technique.

Imagine that the hand is a pendulum to the end of which the bow is pivoted. The wrist itself is the point from which the pendulum is suspended, the hand forming the pendulum. [...] strictly speaking this bowing is produced by the rotation of the forearm about its longitudinal axis. In spite of the fact that the wrist takes very little part in this bowing it is often but wrongly called ‘Wrist-bowing’. [Ibid., vol. 1, p. 17. Fuchs gives a very similar explanation in his Violoncello-Werke (Mainz: B. Schott’s Sohne, 1911), p. 2, where he adds that ‘hand-bowing in cello-playing is often misnamed wrist-bowing, a name quite justified in violin-playing, where the difference in the position of the hand necessitates a different sort of movement.’]

He gives some simple exercises in ‘hand-bowing’ with the wrist at three different heights – high, ‘half-raised’ and low (figure 2). These show that this bowing technique is used at the heel or in the middle of the bow, but not at the tip because the wrist is lowered and cannot therefore suspend the hand. Note that he gives bar 36 of the cello part of Beethoven’s ninth symphony as an example of ‘hand-bowing’ in the middle of the bow, with the wrist half-raised. This means that Fuchs played these repeated sextuplets with the bow on the string, and not with a lifted stroke of any kind. Fuchs’s illustrations show his mid-bow ‘hand-bowing’ exercise holding the bow by thumb and index finger alone, with the wrist height he recommends. Using his exercises and photographs, it is possible to reconstruct with reasonable accuracy the type of sound which Fuchs probably expected from his Hallé Orchestra cello section in the opening bars of the ‘Choral’ symphony – not particularly clear, and not, perhaps, absolutely pp either.

Figure 2: Fuchs, Violoncelloschule, ‘hand-bowing’ exercises with different wrist heights (Ibid., vol. 1 p. 18.)

This survey of differing approaches to the physical basics of cello bowing shows that in some cases a reasonable approximation of the sound produced by 19th-century cellists is possible. In particular, the earlier emphasis on the use of the wrist rather than the arm shows that notwithstanding reviews that praised a cellist's large tone, this was almost certainly a much less highly project sound than is normal today.