Cello: Basic Posture - George Kennaway
NB A more detailed account of this topic is given in George Kennaway, Playing the Cello 1780-1930 (Ashgate, 2014)
Throughout the nineteenth century, and in some respects into the twentieth, cellists sat in fundamentally the same way, with the left foot slightly forward of the right, the back edge of the cello against the left calf, and the front edge against the right. This simple formula, with a few variations, additions and shifts of emphasis, occurs in virtually every cello tutor. Before the later nineteenth century there are very few references to a tail-pin in the pedagogical literature. Corrette found it unattractive and even 'contraire aux passages difficiles' [Michel Corrette, Méthode théorique et pratique (Paris: Castagnery, 1741), p. 7], and Robert Crome thought it useful for beginners [Robert Crome, Compleat Tutor for the Violoncello (London: C. & S. Thompson [1765?], p. 1].
Some tutors rely on an illustration to convey correct posture, rather than words. Breval's (figure 1) has some curious features: the player’s heels are off the ground, he leans to his left, and his
left calf is against the lower ribs of the cello rather than the back edge.
This posture would quickly create physical tension and affect tone quality. The
illustration also shows the feet turned out (as does Romberg’s drawing, below),
visibly contradicting the Paris Conservatoire cello method which expressly forbids this.
Figure 1: Bréval, Méthode, posture illustration [J. B. Bréval, trans. J. Peile, Bréval’s New Instructions for the Violoncello (London: C. Wheatstone & Co., ), p. 6. ].
Peile’s 1810 translation of Bréval is more detailed:
The learner being seated as forward as convenient on a Chair or Stool rather low, is to extend his legs with the feet turned outwards, and receive the Instrument between so that the upper edge of the Violoncello may press against the Calf of the right leg, and the opposite lower edge against the Calf of the left leg together with the lower part of the left thigh, this position inclining the fingerboard inwards which must always be observed.[Ibid].
John Gunn (c.1793) and Bernhard Romberg (1840) also recommend a low stool. In the first really detailed explanation of cello posture in any language, John Gunn explains it at exhaustive length.
The mode of holding the instrument is far from being indifferent, and we see several ways adopted, which are exceptionable, from the obstructions they oppose to good tone and a facility of expression. The position which in these respects possesses the greatest advantages, is the following. The player sitting as forward as he can on a chair or stool, rather low, is to extend his left leg nearly as far as he can, so as not to rest solely on the heel, but with the foot flat on the ground; this is done in order to depress the left knee, which would otherwise oppose the proper action of the bow. The right knee must be extended a little outwards, so as exactly to receive the Violoncello between both legs, the toes of the right foot being turned quite outwards, so that the Calf of that leg which will be perpendicular to the ground, may be pressed against the upper rim or edge of the instrument, while the opposite lower edge is pressed against the lower part of the left thigh a very little above the knee, the upper rim will thus project beyond the knee, and the bridge will be on a line with the right knee, as it necessary the bow should pass on the fourth string in the direction of the bow, [...] about three inches above the bridge: for it the instrument be held lower, the bow must be drawn on that string in the direction of the dotted line d…b. The finger board should incline to the body and towards the left shoulder[...][John Gunn, The Theory and Practice of Fingering the Violoncello (London: the Author, 2nd edn. [c.1793]), p. 5-6. This passage does not appear in the first edition of c.1787.]
Duport is more concise:
The hold of the cello between the legs varies a lot, according to people’s different habits and sizes. One can very well play holding the instrument a little higher or lower. This is the manner most used, which must be the best. One must first sit towards the front of the chair, bringing the left foot well forward, and the right closer: then place the instrument between the legs, so that the lower left hand corner bout is by the left knee joint, and the weight of the instrument is borne by the left calf: and above the left foot. If the knee is opposite this bout, it will prevent the bow passing easily, when one wishes to use the A string. The right leg is placed against the curve below the instrument, to hold it securely.[‘La tenue du violoncelle entre les jambes varie beaucoup, suivant les habitudes et la différente taille des personnes. On peut très-bien jouer en tenant son Instrument, un peu plus haut ou un peu plus bas. Voiçi la manière la plus usitée et qui doit être la meilleure. Il faut premièrement s’asseoir sur le devant de sa chaise, porter ensuite le pied gauche loin de soi en avant, et rapprocher le droit: alors placer l’Instrument entre les jambes, de façon que le coin de l’échancrure inférieure d’en bas a gauche, se trouve dans la jointure du genou gauche, afin que le poids de l’Instrument, soit porté sur le mollet de la jambe gauches: et le pied gauche en dehors. Si le genou se trouvoit au contraire dans cette échancrure, il empecheroit l’archet de passer aisément, lorsqu’on voudoit se servir de la Chanterelle ou première Corde. La jambe droite se pose contre l’éclisse d’en bas de l’Instrument, pour le maintenir en sûreté.’ Jean Louis Duport, Essai sur le doigté du violoncelle (Paris: Imbault, ), p 5.]
emphasises the readjustment of posture according the string in use:
The Instrument must be under the control of the right leg, so that it may be made to slant one way or the other, as the first and second, or third and fourth strings may be most required. [Robert Lindley, Hand-book for the Violoncello (London: Musical Bouquet Office, [1851-1855]), p. 5.]
Romberg places his feet
differently from the conventional posture (figure 2):
The heels may be six inches apart, and one foot not more advanced than the other. [Bernhard Romberg, trans. anon., A Complete Theoretical and Practical School for the Violoncello (London: T. Boosey & Co., ), p. 7. Orig., Violoncellschule (Berlin: Trautwein, ), p. 6. Illustration, ibid., unpaginated, p. 6 verso.]
Figure 2: Romberg, Violoncellschule, posture illustration
Only Georg Kastner was to agree with Romberg that the feet must be ‘sur une même ligne’ [on the same line] [Georges Kastner, Méthode Élémentaire pour le Violoncelle (Paris: E. Froupenas & Cie., 1835), p. 2]. Romberg’s right leg does not just press against the front edge of the cello, but almost envelopes it. In this illustration Romberg is leaning slightly to his left, but his shoulders appear to be more or less level. The net effect is to distribute the weight of the cello more symmetrically than Duport, Bideau or Lindley suggest.
The question as to
whether the calves held the cello by the ribs, or by the edges, is important.
Gripping the ribs dampens the resonance of the instrument, but it is an easy habit to fall into, one which some simpler cello methods inadvertently encouraged:
The Learner should be seated forward in a chair or stool and the Violoncello held between the two calves of the legs and inclined to the right in order to have a better command of the first String – the Thumb is then to be placed without pressure on the back of the neck of the Violoncello … [John Peile, A New and Complete Tutor for the Violoncello (London: Goulding, D’Almaine, Potter and Co. [1819?]), p. 11].
Kummer was among the
first to acknowledge this problem in print:
The Violoncello should be held between the legs, so that the lower part of the front edge of the Instrument comes exactly on the right calf, and the back edge exactly on the left calf of the player. But it must be especially remembered that the sides of the edges be not too much covered by the calf of the leg; as thus the vibration of the Instrument will be impeded. [F. A. Kummer, trans. anon., Violoncello School, op. 60 (London: Ewer and Co. ), p. 4. Orig, Violoncelloschule op.60 (Leipzig: Peters, 1839)].
Concern for tone quality, rather than the comfort of the player, was to lead eventually to the general use of a tail-pin, but it is clear that, throughout at least the first half of the nineteenth century, if used at all, it was rare. Adrien-François Servais (1807-1866) appears to be the first cellist to have used it regularly (figure 3). Although it seems he taught all his students to play in this way, it would be at least another half-century before it became virtually universal.
Figure 3 : Photograph of Servais c. 1862 (Photograph, Zuidwestbrabants Museum, Belgium).
Even in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, several cello tutors do not mention a tail-pin at all. Junod’s 1878 method simply gives the standard warning about holding it 'so as not to check the vibration of the sound’ [Laurent Junod, trans. F. Clayton, New and Concise Method for the Violoncello (London: Lafleur, 1878), p. 3]. The same is true of Edward Howells’s much-simplified version of Romberg’s tutor (Edward Howell, Edward Howell’s First Book for the Violoncello adapted from Romberg’s School (London: Boosey & Co., ), p. 1). August Schultz’s cello method (c. 1882) has a very clear illustration of the instrument with no mention of a tail-pin, and he also stresses the importance of not dampening the vibration (‘Die Waden dürfen dabei niemals die Flächen der Zargen ganz deden, um nicht die Vibration der Töne zu hemmen.’ August Schulz, Elementar-Violoncelloschule (Hanover: Louis Oertel, ), p. 5). Olive Vaslin makes a similar point:
The pressure necessary to retain the instrument can be exerted without an audible alteration of the vibration, for the simple reason that in this posture the legs only reach the parts [of the cello] already essential to the solidity of the framework. [‘La pression nécessaire au maintien de l’instrument peut s’opérer sans alteration sensible des vibrations, par la raison toute simple que dans cette attitude les jambes n’atteignent que des parties déjà maintenues par la charpente indispensable à la solidité.’ Olive Vaslin, L’art du violoncelle (Paris: Richault, 1884), pp. 2-3].
Neither Gaetano Braga’s 1873 revision of Dotzauer’s method (Gaetano Braga,Metodo per Violoncello di J. J. F. Dotzauer, Milan: Regio Stabilimento Ricordi, 1873) nor Piatti’s 1877 revision of Kummer’s cello method (F. A. Kummer, rev. A Piatti. Violoncello School for Preliminary Instruction, Leipzig: Friedrich Hofmeister, 1877, unpaginated plate) discuss or illustrate the tail-pin. Even as late as 1902, Hans Dressel, a pupil of Grützmacher and Ernest de Munck, also described the cellist’s posture without any reference to a tail-pin [Hans Dressel, Moderne Violoncell Schule Modern Violoncello School, 2 vols. (Leipzig, London, Paris and Vienna: Bosworth & Co. 1902), vol. 1 p. 2].
Even when the tail-pin began to be recommended by Jules de Swert (1882) and Henri Rabaud (1878) it was still in the context of the more traditional posture. Henri Rabaud (1878) told the student to
master the ‘classical’ posture before using a tailpin [Henri Rabaud, Methode Complète de Violoncelle (Paris: Alphonse Leduc, , p. 1].
De Swert recommended a tail-pin for better tone quality as well as a more convenient posture:
... by this system, not only is the position of the body freer, but also the tone is favourably influenced by the instrument resting on this stem instead of being held by the pressure of the legs, the latter plan necessarily interfering with the development of the tone. [Jules de Swert, The Violoncello (London and New York: Novello, Ewer and Co. ), p. 4].
De Swert mentions both metal and wooden tailpins, and although metal replaced wood, Max Merseburger suggested that wood was an option as late as 1920.
The spike, whose use has now become general, which has made the holding of the cello easier, will, if made of wood, be about 15 mm thick […] [‘Der Stachel, dessen Verwendung jetzt allgemein geworden ist, da er die Haltung des Cellos sehr erleichtert, soll, wenn aus Holz bestehend, etwa 15 mm durchmesser haben'. M. Vadding and Max Merseburger, Das Violoncello und seine Literatur (Leipzig: Carl Merseburger, 1920), p. 30.).
De Swert’s accompanying illustration shows that
the near-vertical cello and the placing of the feet are still virtually as they
would have beeen without a tail-pin. His near-vertical upper right arm, dropped
left elbow and pronated right wrist, would be familiar to a cellist from the
beginning of the nineteenth century as well. However, this illustration is as
misleading as Bréval’s, with a rather glum cellist leaning perceptibly to his
right, away from the instrument, which would be difficult to sustain for any
length of time (figure 4) (De Swert, The Violoncello, p. 4).
4 Swert, posture illustration.
Even in 1909, Otto
Langey describes posture in terms familiar from a century earlier, and simply
adds the tail-pin:
The performer should sit well forward on his seat, with the left foot in advance of the right, the feet turned outwards. The instrument should be placed between the legs with the lower edge of the back on the calf of the left leg and the edge of the belly on the calf of the right leg. […] The instrument must rest entirely in this position without the assistance of the left hand, and high enough, so as to prevent the bow touching the knees. An End-pin should be used for this purpose. [Otto Langey, Practical Tutor for the Violoncello. New Edition, Revised & Enlarged (London: Hawkes & Son, 1909), p. 7]
The upright posture is
also described by Carl Davidoff:
The player sits forward on the seat, grasps the cello with the left hand on the neck, and secures it with the spike, so that it stands perpendicular to the feet… [‘Der Spieler setzt sich vorn auf den Stuhl, faßt das Violoncell mit der linken Hand am Halse und fixiert es mit dem Stachel, sodaß es vertikal den Füßen steht...’ Carl Davidoff, Violoncell-Schule (Leipzig: C. F. Peters, , p. 2].
Josef Werner (1883)
gives the standard advice about the length of the tail-pin relative to the
player, but still implies that it is optional:
When using a peg at the bottom of the instrument, it is necessary to have it so long, that the lowest screw [the C string peg] reaches the left ear at about two or three inches distance, so as not to run the risk of knocking the left knee with the bow in striking the A string. [Josef Werner, trans. anon., Praktische Violoncell-Schule, op. 12 (Köln: P. J. Tonger, ), p. 3].
Edmund van der Straeten
(1898) recommends the tail-pin more firmly:
The use of the peg is now generally adopted, and offers the double advantage of steadying the instrument and strengthening its tone by an additional amount of resonance, resulting from the communication established by it between the body of the violoncello and the floor. If the peg be of steel, as is now generally the case, it will prove even a stronger medium than a peg made of wood… [Playing without a tail-pin] which is still practised in isolated cases, has the disadvantage of giving the instrument a rather upright position, rendering it somewhat stiff, and necessitating the covering, by the legs, of a greater part of the ribs, which prevents the free emission of sound. [Edmund van der Straeten, History of the Violoncello, the Viol da Gamba, Their Precursors and Collateral Instruments (London: William Reeves, 1898), pp. 17-18].
Note that van der Straeten (figure 5) is shown with his feet opposite each other, like Romberg.
5: Van der Straeten, Technics,
posture illustration [Ibid., p. 30]. The drawing is copied from a photograph of van der Straeten.
Other sources confirm
that the tail-pin was in widespread, but not necessarily universal, use around the end of
the nineteenth century. The revised versions of Romberg’s and Kummer’s cello
methods, by Jules de Swert (1888) and Hugo Becker (1909) respectively, add
clearly defined editorial comment to bring them up to date. This contrasts with the approach taken by August Lindner in his trilingual edition of Duport’s Essai - Lindner claims to retain elements which are no longer current, leaving it to the teacher to explain them, but also makes several silent alterations (Duport, J. L., trans. A. Lindner, Anleitung zum Fingersatz auf dem Violoncell und zur Bogenführung [...], Offenbach: Jean André, , p.1). De Swert comments on Romberg’s description
of posture without a tail-pin:
This stance has almost completely disappeared. The majority of modern cello virtuosi use a spike 7-8 inches long attached below the instrument. The earlier stance is in my opinion uncomfortable and ungraceful; besides it is clear to all, that through the pressure of the leg and the contact with the clothing that the tone must suffer considerably. [‘Diese Haltung ist fast ganz abgekommen. Die Mehrzahl der modernen Violoncello-Virtuosen gebrauchen einen Stachel van 7-8 Zoll lang der unten im Instrument eingeschraubt wird. Die fruehere Haltung ist meiner Ansicht nach unbequem und ungrazlös; ausserdem wird es jedem klar sein, dass durch das Druecken der Beine und den Contact des Beinkleider der Ton bedeutend leiden muss.’ Bernhard Romberg, ed. and rev. Jules de Swert and Heinrich Grünfeld, Violoncelloschule (Berlin: E. Bote & G. Bock ), p. 4.]
Similarly, Becker adds
to Kummer’s description of posture:
In more recent times a spike is generally used. This innovation brings many advantages: greater stability and better resonance of the instrument, by being less tiring to the player. [‘In neuerer Zeit bedient man sich allgemein des Stachels (Stütze). Diese Neuerung brachte manche Vorteile: großerer Stabilität und bessere Resonanz des Instrumentes, bei geringerer Ermüdung des spielers.’ F. A. Kummer, rev. Hugo Becker, Violoncelloschule op. 60 (Leipzig: C. F. Peters, 1909), p. viii.]
Carl Schroeder describes the older posture as out of date and the newer one as better for posture and tone:
The holding is by this means rendered more free and comfortable, and the free emission of the tone is no longer hindered by the pressure of the legs against the sides. [Carl Schroeder, Catechism, pp. 19-20].
Nonetheless, the illustration shows a disposition of the feet and an adjustment of the height of the right leg which would have been easily recognised by any of his predecessors (figure 6 - ibid.)
Figure 6: Schroeder, Catechism,
Although the generally recommended
length of tail-pin appears to have been 7-8 inches (both in words and
illustrations), a longer one is shown in Thomas Eakins’s 1896 portrait
of the cellist Rudolph Hennig (1845-1904), although this may be a matter of
remaining in proportion with the length of the player’s leg (Thomas Eakins, The Cello Player (1896), formerly Joseph E. Temple Fund, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; sold privately 2007, current whereabouts unknown, but widely available online). An American composite cello method from 1895 shows a diagram of the instrument
including a tail-pin without any comment (Carl Weber (ed.), The Premier Method for Violoncello from the works of […] Dotzauer, Bach, Laurent, Romberg […] and others, Philadelphia, PA: J. W Pepper, 1895, p. 7). The 1910 revised edition of Piatti’s cello method by Piatti’s pupil William
Whitehouse gives both stances:
...without the peg (Piatti’s method), and with the peg, the latter being that generally adopted at the present time.[Alfredo Piatti, rev. W. E. Whitehouse and R. V. Tabb, Violoncello Method, 3 vols. (London: Augener, 1910), vol. 1, p. [ii].]
Whitehouse’s posture is essentially the same with or without the tail-pin, rather like
Langey’s quoted above. Even in 1919 this approach was still recommended by
It is probably only in comparatively recent times that ladies have taken up the cello, and the fact that few, if any, ‘cellos were fitted with the sliding peg by which the ‘cello could be held up, proves that it was considered only possible for a man to play it. Therefore, the best way to find the correct position in which to hold the instrument is to revert to the old method and hold the ’cello by the knees and calves, when the correct adjustment is assured, then we can use the peg, which to my mind, is certainly easier and more comfortable. [Alfred H. Earnshaw, The Elements of ’Cello Technique (London: Joseph Williams Limited, 1919), p. 1.]
Earnshaw’s photograph shows clearly that his posture is ‘the old method’, with the instrument turned so that the front right edge of the cello rests against the player’s right leg. (Ibid., p. 3.).
But the tail-pin was
sometimes thought to bring problems of its own. The Yorkshireman Arthur
Broadley thought it actually encouraged self-indulgent playing:
Piatti, who does not use a ‘cello peg, holds his instrument in a correct manner, not shuffling about or varying his position. Now if the reader ever has a chance of hearing Van Biene, let him observe the manner in which that artist holds his cello. We have here the two extremes; as Piatti is of the strictly correct order, Van Biene is of the exaggerated artistic order, all the time he is playing constantly striking some fresh attitude. If Van Biene had again to take to concert work, I have no doubt that he would calm down a little in this respect…his exaggerated style while being every effective on the stage, would not be tolerated on the concert platform. [Arthur Broadley, Chats to Cello Students (London: ‘The Strad’ Office, E. Donajowski and D. R. Duncan, 1899), p. 7. Auguste van Biene was probably the most widely heard cellist in Britain at the turn of the century, performing as a cellist in the play written for him, The Broken Melody, which received nearly six thousand performances in the period 1892-1913 in Britain and abroad. See my ‘The Phenomenon of the Cellist Auguste van Biene: from the Charing Cross Road to Brighton via Broadway’, in M. Hewitt and R. Cowgill (eds.), Victorian Soundscapes, Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies 9 (Leeds: LCVS and LUCEM, 2007), pp. 67-82.]
In spite of his
reservations, Broadley's own illustration (figure 6) shows him using a tail-pin (Ibid., p. 8; Broadley uses a similar photographic illustration in his Adjusting and Repairing Violins, Cellos, &c., London: L. Upcott Gill, 1908).
Figure 6: Broadley, Chats, posture illustration
A little later, Hugo Becker sounded another warning note:
Unfortunately, simultaneously with the use of the spike a negligent, unattractive posture has crept in, which is detrimental to the handling of the instrument. ['Leider schlich sich aber mit dem Gebrauch des Stachels gleichzeitig eine nächlässige, unschöne Haltung ein, die nachteilig auf die Behandlung des Intruments einwirt.’ Kummer ed. Becker, Violoncellschule,ibid.]
Carl Fuchs was criticised for showing posture illustrations
that had omitted the tail-pin in the
first edition of his cello method, but he defended himself in the 1907 second
Fault has been found with pictures 3 & 4, because the player uses no end-pin. Although it is not advisable to allow beginners to play without a spike, I think it very useful to practise without. The body must then of necessity be kept still, and anyone who has fallen into the habit of holding the legs in an ugly position, can remedy this evil by practising without a tail-pin. Often too a player not accustomed to playing without a spike might be debarred from playing altogether by finding only a ’cello without an end-pin or with too short a one. [Carl Fuchs, Violoncello-Schule Violoncello Method vol. 1 (London: Schott & Co. Ltd., 2/1907) unpaginated preface.]
The majority of cellists at the professional end of the spectrum appear not have used a tail-pin until around the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and the older posture persisted in practice and as a corrective model for several decades after this time.