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Cello Double Stops

Thanks for watching our video on double stops! Double stops can be thought of as chords on the cello, although usually with fewer notes than chords on piano or guitar.

The ‘stop’ part of the name comes from the imagery that when you play a note your finger stops in that location for a moment. When you stop two of your fingers (two notes) that’s a double stop.

If you played three strings at once that would be a triple stop.

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Usually in ensemble repertoire, double stops aren’t used much. Typically in an orchestra, two or more notes on the page would be divided up between the players of the section, for clarity and balance.

In chamber (small group) or solo repertoire, however, double stop use will range from a few here and there, to full passages of continuous double stop scales.

Since cello already poses such a challenge of tone and intonation, and double stops do literally double that challenge, it is typically considered a more virtuosic technique.

Double stops come in a lot of different flavors. The most common intervals (note spacing) are thirds, sixths, and octaves; though seconds, fifths, sevenths, and even ninths or tenths in the right circumstances are used too.

Octaves are probably seen as the most notorious double stop, because if you are out of tune a little bit, it will be the most obvious since both notes are the same pitch.

The two fingerings used are either 1 and 4 or thumb and 3.

As you change notes, you not only have to be in tune with yourself and to the music, but the distance between your hands changes every single note, so you are never in one position long enough to relax; you are constantly shifting.

Thirds and sixths scales pose a challenge over fifths or octaves in that the exact interval will change every or every other note.

This is because the first third of a major scale is a major third, but if you go up to the next double stop, you will be playing a minor third, if using the diatonic notes of the major scale.

Practicing these intervals as scales will increase your harmonic awareness in each key, and force you to pay attention to intonation in a more “vertical” way, instead of the “horizontal” intonation of a melody.

Sometimes, though you will still finger the notes as though you are playing straight double stops, the bowing pattern will vary. This could be in the case of either repeated notes, slurs, or broken bowing patterns between two notes.

This type of pattern is especially common in runs and scalar patterns that are far more common to experience. Sometimes it takes the form of a rocket, or switching between different notes but the same consistent open string.

None of these techniques are specific to one genre, but found from Bach to bluegrass.

One exercise that’s useful in building strength and stamina (besides normal scale practice) is to hold down a fifth by barring your first finger across two strings, and evenly oscillating with another finger.

Eventually do all the finger combinations, both 2 and 3 and 3 and 4, and also with fingering happening on the lower string as well as the higher string, and on every string in several positions.

Starting by using a steady long bow, but then also trying some different bowings will help with your strength to execute musically later.

Double stops, like all techniques, are best practiced in isolation first, during scale practice.

As you build up stamina and familiarity, finding exercise pieces, or etudes (French for “study”) that use the technique you have been practicing are a bridge between scales and repertoire.

It’s important to remember that the cello is not a keyed instrument; you can’t just press a button and play. Every time you play a note you have to be conscientious and really hear what you’re intending. In time you will be playing amazingly.

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