Currently showing posts tagged: cello

Rethinking traditional scale practice on the cello

By , December 20, 2014 2:28 am

(Please note that while this post was written with the cello in mind, several of the principles apply to other instruments too.)

I’ve previously blogged about how back in 2011, I decided to get serious about trying to become a jazz cellist. Since then I’ve had some really interesting and fulfilling musical experiences, but it’s also been a struggle in some areas. I studied and performed classical (in the western sense) cello for many years, but the demands of jazz are so different to most things I worked on during my classical training that I’ve had to fundamentally rethink many aspects of the way I practise.

Scales are one good example of this. I was taught to practise B♭ major something like the following:

standard classical cellistic approach to practising a B♭ major scale

The first interesting thing to note about this is that it omits almost the entire bottom octave of the instrument! There’s really no good reason for this; the bottom octave deserves attention just like the rest of the instrument. It’s only taught this way because the tradition has become incredibly “tonic-biased”, with no awareness of the different modes which even beginner jazz students get taught about.

So one of the first adjustments I made (and I probably stole this idea from one of my mentors, the great jazz violinist Christian Howes, who calls it “extended range”) was to always start from the lowest note of the scale reachable on the instrument:

starting B♭ major on C

Similarly, if the top tonic is not near the top of the range you want to practise in, just keep going until you hit a note high enough to make you think “OK, I don’t need to practise any higher than this!” Whether or not that note happens to be the tonic of the scale should be irrelevant; the most important thing is that you are practising the full range of the instrument which you need to use when performing.

Turning it all upside-down

Another bias which exists in the western classical tradition for dubious reasons is that everything is bottom-heavy: almost all exercises start at the bottom, go up to the top, and come back down again. This inevitably results in the bottom end being practised more than the top, which is particularly bad because the top end is way harder to play well. So let’s swap it all around!

starting B♭ major at the top

(By the way, along similar lines I recommend this great blog post on back-to-front learning by Anton Schwarz.)

Developing new “real world” fingering systems

The next odd thing to note about the classical tradition is that scales are almost always played using a single fingering, and that fingering is typically tonic-biased in another way: the tonic notes are very commonly played using first finger. Perhaps the classical pedagogy evolved this way simply because a single fingering system for each scale was perceived as easier to teach and also for students to memorise. But this approach is hopelessly inconsistent with the real world. If you don’t believe me, take a look at every fragment of a B♭ major scale present in the solo part of Boccherini’s cello concerto in B♭ major, and count for how many of those fragments it would make sense to use the fingering system shown above. If we don’t use those fingering systems when playing actual music, why spend so much time practising them?

So it seems clear to me that practising multiple fingering systems is beneficial for technical reasons, and in the case of jazz for musical reasons too: the improvisatory nature of which means that unless you rely very heavily on licks, you rarely know far in advance what notes you want to play, let alone what fingerings to use. So for any given tonality and position on the instrument, you should practise as many fingering positions as possible, so that when you are in the moment of improvising a solo, whichever hand position you’re in, as many notes are physically accessible from there because you’ve already covered those transitions in practice.

A system for practising all fingerings

But where do we draw the line? After all there are an enormous number of different possible fingerings for a 3-octave scale, and there’s just not enough time in the day to practise even a fraction of them. Or is there?

Violin fingerings

On the violin, this is a bit simpler to understand because pretty much any scale can be played in any hand position without shifting (at least, until you hit the top or bottom notes in that position). So on violin, you can simply practise any scale in any position, and carve up your available practice time accordingly: for example on Monday you could focus on 1st position, on Tuesday 2nd position, and so on.

Cello fingerings

On cello, it’s not possible to play any diatonic scale without a considerable amount of shifting of the hand position, so the problem of how to methodically practise all possible fingerings is far less obvious.

I think the answer lies in considering how to group notes into hand positions. It’s clear from the above examples that typically the hand position shifts every three notes, i.e. the majority of notes in scales on the cello are grouped in threes: 1-2-4 or 1-3-4 in the lower octaves, and 1-2-3 when playing higher up the string. Most exceptions to this are when the open strings are played (but they could be considered as “outside” the groupings anyway), and in the higher octaves of most cello scales, where 2-note groupings are common (e.g. the 1-2 1-2 1-2-3 type of fingering system is very commonly taught in the classical tradition for the top octave of a 3-octave scale).

My opinion is that practising 2-note groupings is really not that useful (at least to me as a jazz cellist), because

  1. the shift distance is smaller so the shift is easier,
  2. 2-note groupings require 50% more frequent shifts when compared to 3-note groupings, which is a big hindrance when attempting to play at speed,
  3. every 2-note finger grouping is already covered by a 3-note grouping, and
  4. I’ve already logged years of classical practice covering 2-note groupings anyway!

So I decided to practise all my scales in only 3-note groupings:

using 3 note finger groupings

Notice here that I’ve also stopped using the open strings (except for the bottom C, since there’s no other way to play it). I made this decision for three reasons. Firstly, in jazz it’s important to be able to transpose to another key at any moment, so I don’t want to become too reliant on scale fingerings which use open strings, since they only work in one key.

Secondly, it makes it very easy to extend this system so that it covers every possible fingering of the scale using 3-note groupings! This is possible simply by shifting the starting hand position by a single note:

starting with the hand position offset

and then shifting it once more:

starting with the hand position offset twice

String variations

Thirdly, it allows freedom to introduce variations on which string is used for a particular group. For example bars 5 and 6 of the above example could be played like this:

string variations

I don’t use a strict system to ensure I always cover all possible string variations; instead I like to improvise the choice of string on the spur of the moment, since this matches more closely what can happen when improvising on stage.

Connecting the dots

Of course this system of 3-note groupings with 3 different starting positions for every scale triples the amount of scales to practise! However since I would normally practise each scale more than once anyway, I aim to seamlessly join up the different offsets in order to cover all combinations without requiring significantly more practice time:

connecting different hand position offsets

and so on. Actually the hand position “offset” can be changed at any point in the scale, and this is also something I like to improvise on.

Changing the tonality

So far the examples have all used a major scale. The classical tradition also covers harmonic minor and melodic minor (which is different ascending to descending). In the jazz world (especially for more modern jazz), the ascending form of the melodic minor is particularly important, so I practise that in both directions:

melodic minor practice

Jazz also uses the harmonic major scale and many other scales, so I mix some of these into my practice, although I find it easier to spend a few weeks/months focusing on one particular scale rather than attempt to cover all scales in every practice routine, which just seems too ambitious. Incidentally, back in 2013 I built the “Scale Matcher”, a web application to show which scales can be used for improvisation in any given chordal context.

Changing the key

Fortunately not all music in the world is written purely in B♭. Unfortunately this means we have to practise other keys too! I try to change key seamlessly without stopping, because this is one of the most fundamental requirements in jazz for improvising over a series of chord changes. Again I like to avoid any tonic bias by changing key on other degrees of the scale. For example, after completing one cycle of all 3 hand positions in B♭ minor, I could shift tonality up a semitone to B minor, changing near the top of the instrument:

seamlessly changing the key at the top

or on the lowest note of the instrument:

seamlessly changing the key at the bottom

or even somewhere in the middle:

seamlessly changing the key in the middle

This is a fun workout for the brain as well as the fingers!

Hand position “windows”

Above I’ve suggested a system for dealing with the cello’s limitation of not being able to play a continuous scale in any key without shifting the hand, which ensures that every possible fingering of a given scale can be methodically covered during practice.

However there’s a completely opposite approach, which is to embrace this limitation and simply fix your hand in a single position and only play the notes of the scale which you can reach from that position, dropping the others! This is particularly useful when improvising at speed, since it drastically reduces the amount of shifting required. I learnt this idea from three of my all-time cello heroes (Erik Friedlander, Mike Block, and Rushad Eggleston), and then extended it to apply to every scale I work on:

position windows in B♭ minor

I’ve found that improvising within a given “window” can result in some interesting melodic shapes.

Patterns / shapes

Rather than simply ascending or descending, there are an infinite number of patterns to choose from for varying the shapes generated by traversing the scale. Here are a few simple examples:

position patterns in B♭ minor

(The last two were shamelessly stolen from Christian Howes.)

Rhythm / metronome usage

So far I haven’t said anything about rhythm or use of the metronome (which in my opinion is an essential part of scale practice). In fact this topic is so huge I’ll leave it for another blog post at another time! But of course there are an infinite number of ways to vary rhythm, and the western tradition tends not to examine these in much detail. One thing I enjoy doing is freely improvising the rhythm when playing scales, even if everything else (notes, fingerings etc.) is fixed.


How to articulate with the bow is another huge topic, but this post is already way too long!


It’s clear that there are zillions of ways to vary scale practice and keep it interesting whilst challenging yourself in new ways. Perhaps the most important thing for any diligent musician is to constantly invent their own new practice systems, rather than just copying someone else’s verbatim.

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! This is pretty dry reading, but I hope you found it useful or at least interesting. If you have any feedback of any sort, I’d love to hear it, so please leave a comment!

P.S. For the curious geeks, this blog post was created from a single text file with the combination of some incredible free software: the GNU Emacs editor, GNU Lilypond music typesetter, Org mode, org2blog, and the Org-babel-lilypond backend to Babel.


London Tango Orchestra featured in BBC Persia documentary

By , February 28, 2013 10:06 pm

These days I have the regular pleasure of playing in the London Tango Orchestra with some wonderful musicians. A while back we did some filming for a BBC Persia documentary, and we recently received copies of the videos, which came out pretty well! Take a look …

This next one is the gorgeous Piazzolla tune Milonga del Angel. Unfortunately the video and audio don’t match for the first half, but it gets back in sync at 3’35″:

and finally …


cello lessons from a dead genius

By , January 28, 2013 8:05 pm

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time …

In the summer of 2011, I quit my job to resume full-time music studies. During the summer semester at the Berkeley Jazzschool in California, I started learning John Coltrane’s solo on the title track of his famous album Blue Train. It was really tough going, but addictive – I was getting my arse handed to me on a plate on a daily basis by a dead person, but I felt like I was way off the well-trodden path and that was really satisfying!

After 3 months studying in various places in the USA, I got back home and resumed work on this transcription in earnest. It became part of my daily routine, and I craved the day that I could play the whole thing note perfect at the same speed as the original. There were so many notes to fit in that I had to come up with totally new ways to use my left thumb, on which the normal cellist’s callus grew to epic proportions. Trane became the best cello teacher I never had. Unfortunately, just around the time I was getting close to being able to nail it, real life intervened, and I had to refocus on earning money. Inspired by Benoît Sauvé’s incredible rendition of the same solo on recorder (recorder?! what a mofo – check out his other videos), I did a couple of very rough recordings with my compact camera for posterity, and moved on.

Sometime later, I discovered a John McLaughlin video on YouTube (sadly no longer available) which had an awesome animated transcription at the bottom – a really cool glimpse inside the craft of a master musician. Then it occurred to me that I could do the same kind of thing with my video, and publish it in case there are any other jazz cellists out there who would be interested in it. I put a lot of effort into notating and fingering it, so it seemed a waste to just let it rot and never see the light of day. After all, I already had the source files and a video, so it was just a simple matter of combining the two, right? How hard could it be?

Very very hard, it turns out. I had to write two new pieces of software, completely overhaul a third, and fix some obscure bugs hidden deep inside a fourth. But I didn’t discover that until I’d reached the point of no return …

I’ll probably blog more at some point about the software engineering hoops I had to jump through in order to make this all work. Email me if you’re interested.

In the mean time, hope you enjoy the video! (You can also view it on YouTube.)


Rediscovering music

By , August 12, 2011 5:18 am

I’m sitting on a plane from LA to Chicago. This is my fifth flight in the last two months, having already been to New York, Ohio, Florida, and California, and it’s probably about time I explain what the hell I’m doing, as I have friends and family who have seen various confusing status updates I’ve posted on Facebook and Twitter whom I owe the full story.

Just over two years ago, I blogged about taking a leap of faith and turning down two great jobs because they didn’t involve doing something I was truly passionate about. It was a gamble, but even after two months I could tell it was going to pay off. Sure enough, two years later, I found myself with a wealth of new experience and knowledge which I’d had a ton of fun acquiring, plus a healthy boost to my CV and set of friends and connections within the industry.

Then the stars aligned again, and I found myself with another life-changing dilemma: take an even more awesome job than the one I was in, or quit IT altogether and face an indefinite period of zero income. Pretty obvious what to do, right? I quit.

If that sounds crazy, it’s because it probably was – definitely another leap into the unknown. But I’ll try to explain my decision. Continue reading 'Rediscovering music'»


Flying with a (carbon fibre) cello

By , August 1, 2011 10:17 pm

When flying, most cellists are faced with either buying an extra ticket or getting a flight case, paying oversized baggage fees, and praying. Experiences vary widely and are in places well documented and full of useful advice, e.g.

My situation is different because I have a Luis and Clark carbon fiber cello which is incredibly robust and generally does not even go out of tune when checked in as normal baggage and placed in the hold of the aircraft in a normal hard case. My case is a Bam Hightech measuring 54.5 × 21 × 13.75″.  It seems virtually all airlines policies regarding oversized baggage operate in “linear” or total dimensions, which generally means by summing up the 3 separate dimensions together (although in some cases the wording is so confused, even that’s not clear).  This means my case has a linear dimension of 89.25″ which unfortunately is outside the 62″ standard limit, and even just outside Delta’s second tier limit of 80″.  Having said that, so far I have always managed to get it treated as normal sized baggage just by behaving exactly as if it was a normal suitcase, or even need be simply by confidently pointing out that the height is 54.5″ which is under 62″. In my experience, most staff at the check-in gate are not familiar with the exact terms in their airline’s policies, so having the right attitude (confidently knowledgeable and up-front but non-confrontational) can go a long way.

I’ve done some research on the policies of some popular airlines and referenced the relevant extracts below, with one section per airline. The quotes I’ve taken are focused mainly on national flights within the USA, because despite being from the UK, I’m currently flying around the USA a lot. However the policies for international flights seem similar, although sometimes with higher fees.
Continue reading 'Flying with a (carbon fibre) cello'»


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