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High Notes on Cello

Benjamin Whitcomb | August 2018

    As enjoyable as it is to play the cello in its typical register, it is even more fun to be able to play in the high registers as well. There are numerous pieces in the cello repertoire – including many masterpieces – that range well into the treble clef, and the sooner you become comfortable with this area on the instrument, the less afraid you will be of these works. In addition, the cello is capable of a truly beautiful and distinctive sound in the upper registers—much like that of a male soprano.

How High is High?
    I can think of quite a number of pieces that ask us to play an octave or more above the treble clef, such as the following passage from Saint-Saëns’s second cello concerto:

    However, in my experience, if you can get comfortable with this register

    you will be in excellent shape for most cello works that venture into the higher registers. Attaining comfort and fluency in this area of the cello is easier than one would think.

Locate the Higher Harmonics
    Harmonics are found fairly frequently in the cello literature, and they can be useful pedagogically as well. Natural harmonics (as opposed to artificial harmonics, which is a separate and more advanced topic) are produced by very lightly touching the string with one finger of the left hand. For best results, the bow should be placed a bit closer to the bridge and should move fairly quickly.
    Think about the ease with which most cellists can find the “halfway harmonics” shown below:

    Note that Roman numerals are used to designate the various strings (i.e., I = A, II = D, etc).

    Now, think about how useful these landmarks are in finding several higher pitches. The example below shows how you could use the halfway harmonic on the A string to find the notes from Bb4 through D5. By placing the finger in parentheses on the halfway harmonic, each of the various pitches above can easily be located by dropping the listed finger. Note that L = low, H = high, and T = thumb.

    It is possible to find several additional such landmarks on the cello with similar ease. Shown below are the high harmonics produced by dividing the A string into equal thirds, fourths, or fifths. (Note that these numbers below represent fractions of the string length, and not the musical intervals.) 

    Then you could use those landmarks to find all of the other pitches in that region that are not harmonics. For example:

    Finding these pitches from the nearest harmonic takes time and practice, but the first order of business is to be able to find all these new harmonics with certainty and consistency. To improve this skill, alternate between the following exercises.
    Find each harmonic in turn, and repeatedly drop on it. Gradually vary the starting location of your left hand from on the knee, to the side of the cello, to the shoulder.

    Practice shifting from other pitches to the target harmonic. Use other harmonics as your starting point before shifting to and from stopped pitches.

Master Four Common Tetrachords
    Much of the music we perform is at least partially comprised of diatonic tetrachords (groups of four notes). To perform fluently in high registers, students should be able to understand and create these shapes quickly and accurately at will. There are four patterns that we encounter most frequently: Major, Minor, Phrygian, and Lydian. Have students find each of these shapes in turn by carefully tuning these pitches on their instruments.  The Minor and Lydian shapes tend to be the easiest to start with.

    When students have a given shape accurately tuned, have them take the hand away from the cello and study how it looks. After this, students should shake out the hand and then quickly replicate the shape. Cellists should practice creating these shapes when away from the cello as well; they can easily be made on a desk or the knee.
    Returning to the cello, students can practice drumming their fingers (slowly at first, then ever faster) within each particular shape, as in the following example, which shows the Phrygian tetrachord):

    These shapes can be tuned finely by playing double stops on adjacent strings, as in the example below, which uses the Major tetrachord:

    Another good exercise, and the next step in tetrachord mastery, is to add two tetrachords together to get a complete scale. Below are the notes of the A major scale, but beginning and ending on different scale degrees, which in turn requires the use of different tetrachords.

3) Play by Ear, Then Sightread
    A great way to achieve fluency in a new register is to practice playing there by ear. This is a valuable skill because it requires that students be able to imagine the next pitch and know where to find it.
    Start by playing familiar folk songs, including nursery rhymes, holiday tunes, and patriotic songs. Although students should begin in positions that feel well grounded, such as when the thumb resides on a harmonic, they should not neglect more difficult keys. For example, here is how Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star would look in A and Bb:

    Students should also practice making up melodies, even if they do not think of themselves as improvisers or composers. What is important is moving between notes.
    Give students beginning violin, oboe, or flute music to sightread. Make sure students start slowly. The best pieces will leave the thumb stationary (such as on harmonic E5). At the top of the next column is an example from Telemann’s Flute Fantasia in D Minor:

    As students start to build confidence  in high registers, have them test themselves from time to time by going back and forth between higher and lower registers. For example, at the bottom of the page is an excerpt from the second movement of Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C Major, shown first at pitch and then transposed down an octave. By playing such passages down an octave, students can check that they are holding themselves to the same standards in both registers. 

Final Thoughts
    Be sure students do not neglect the bow. It is easy for the left hand to become an attention hog in the upper registers, but real success will only come when the bow is controlled, too. It should move closer to the bridge, the only place in which it is possible to get a good tone when playing this high. Many cellists have to work hard to learn how to consistently draw a beautiful and even bow in what feels like the ponticello area. 
    Enjoy the worlds of new repertoire that are now within your students’ grasp.