Why Every Cellist Should Study Popper Cello Etudes

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If you play the cello and you want to improve your technique, Popper is here to save you.

The High School of Cello Playing Op. 73 will become your cello bible and is used by all great cellists and teachers around the world. The go-to etudes will help you solve many types of technical difficulties.

Who is Popper?

David Popper (1843-1913) was a Czech Bohemian cellist and composer. He enjoyed a vast and successful career as a perform er throughout Europe, as well as a teacher at the Conservatory at Budapest. He was also known for his compositions for the cello. He composed 4 concertos, a Requiem for three cellos and orchestra, and other smaller pieces.

Popper was one of the last great cellists to play without the endpin, although a drawing of him playing in a string quartet suggests that later on, he adopted it. He composed the 40 Etudes during his time teaching at the conservatory, to help his students overcome technical difficulties.

It’s not commonly known that the composer of the famous Hungarian Rhapsody and cello professor at the storied Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest was actually Bohemian (Czech). David Popper was born in Prague to Jewish parents, his father a cantor at two large synagogues.

Popper’s musical talent was evident from early childhood, first at the piano and then on the violin, which he studied from age 6 to 12 (this was not so unusual; others who began on the violin included Piatti, Servais, Becker, Casals, and Carter Brey). But at his audition for the Prague Conservatory, Popper was accepted with the curious proviso that he immediately switch to cello, and thus entered the class of Julius Goltermann.

Goltermann (no relation, strangely, to the composer of the ubiquitous student concertos) was a pupil of F.A. Kummer. Kummer studied with J.J.F. Dotzauer, who studied with Bernhard Romberg (who played in a string quartet with Beethoven). This was the cello diet Popper grew up on, still in use today, centuries later, and to which he proudly added later.

It would be an understatement to say that Popper made rapid progress. When only 15, he sat in on short notice for his teacher as principal cellist at the Opera, playing William Tell. At the conclusion of the opening section of the overture with its prominent solo, the audience burst into spontaneous, sustained applause to such an extent that the performance had to be halted, and the conductor signaled for the young substitute to rise and take a bow.

(Even if this anecdote — from the biography by Stefan De’ak — is only half-true or greatly embellished, the mere fact that it concerns someone who’d only been studying the cello for three years illustrates Popper’s startling talent.) Popper became a working cellist at 18, beginning an astounding, all-embracing career — orchestra, chamber music, soloist, professor, and composer.

He became, at 25, the youngest-ever principal of the Vienna Imperial Opera and Philharmonic, often working with Wagner. As a chamber musician he appeared in recital with Clara Schumann, Brahms (giving the world premiere of the Trio Op. 101), and even Bartók. He also found time to play in two of Europe’s most prominent string quartets — the Hellmesberger Quartet and the Hubay-Popper Quartet (also called simply the “Budapest Quartet,” precursor to the world-famous 20 th -century group founded by Hubay’s students).

As a soloist, Popper started appearing with professional orchestras at 19, already performing his own compositions in addition to standard works. At the peak of his career, one critic wrote that “to describe his stupendous technique one would need to invent a new vocabulary of praise,” and George Bernard Shaw deemed him “the best player in the world, as far as we know.”

Teaching, of course, was a major focus as well. At the Liszt Academy, his students included Arnold Foldesy (later principal of the Berlin Philharmonic), Jeno Kerpely (for whom Kodály wrote his Solo Sonata), and Adolf Schiffer (who succeeded Popper on the faculty and later taught a young János Starker).

While doing all of this, Popper also produced a huge body of music for the instrument — 81 opus numbers (some including up to six separate pieces) as well as cadenzas for standard-repertoire concerti and many arrangements. His own four concerti are musically disappointing and rarely heard today, but his dozens of salon pieces in every style and character were embraced by cellists the world over as soon as they left his pen (Casals once boasted “I played almost everything Popper wrote!”).

Audience-pleasing and mandatory for anyone seeking to be considered a virtuoso, Popper’s output for the cello is analogous to Liszt’s for the piano (his wife, Sophie Menter, was one of Liszt’s most celebrated pupils). Popper’s works are also unique in that several have been transcribed for the violin — the reverse of the normal practice and a testament to their brilliance.

The Hohe Schule des Violoncellospiels, Op. 73 (in Germany, a “High School” is equivalent to the university level in the U.S.) came out in in four volumes between 1901 and 1905, each with ten etudes, a summation of his vast experience on the instrument in all its different roles. But Popper’s well was still not dry; a year later, he published ten more etudes (Op. 76), designated as “Preparatory Studies” for the Hohe Schule. A strange appellation, as the new etudes were more difficult than many in this set. Perhaps one day someone will produce a graded and unified collection of all 50.

The Hohe Schule “closed the canon” of etudes that are universal throughout the teaching profession today (together with those of Duport, Lee, Dotzauer, Piatti, Servais, Grützmacher, and Franchomme, all written long before). Still, it would not be accurate to say that the Hohe Schule represents a “pinnacle” of cello technique. The Grützmacher etudes (from almost a half-century earlier) are vastly more difficult, and the Caprices of Franchomme and Piatti explore bowing issues that Popper barely touches.

But the Hohe Schule’s unshakeable position as a central pillar of our instrument’s pedagogy is grounded in its utility, thoroughness, and practicality. Though a few of the etudes contain finger-twisters untethered to anything in the literature, most of the passage-work is related to real-life examples. In contrast to some of the others, Popper’s etudes are relatively short.

And his densely-chromatic language, heavily influenced by his close acquaintance with Wagner and Liszt, challenges the student to navigate remote keys and confusing thickets of accidentals in ways that none of his forbears do. Whoever masters all or most of this material will have a rock-solid foundation for pretty much anything in the standard literature, needing only some additional refinements as far as bow technique.

The new edition, currently in preparation, seeks to make the exploration a little less confusing, more orderly, and perhaps sometimes even enjoyable.

More About the Etudes

It’s not uncommon to find cellists who struggle with difficult passages in different pieces, and no matter how much the study that passage, they can’t seem to improve. This leads to frustration and can be harmful to the cellist.

Popper’s High School for the Cello is designed to solve technical problems through melodic and fun-to-play exercises.

To study Popper means that you will be able to master the fingerboard inside and out. The exercises are created to be able to come in and out of positions with ease and grace.

Many students dread, fear and avoid Popper. I completely understand they are difficult and challenging. Popper’s work is definitely not intended to be mastered during the first reading . You have to dig into it and create a study plan. In fact, once you start studying Popper you realize you have been studying wrong all this time.

The exercises are meant to work on your left hand as much as on your right. While the technical difficulties seem more with the left hand, the bowing on the right hand is just has hard.

According to professor Richard Slavich from the University of Denver Lamont School of Music, the exercises in order of difficulty are:

Relatively easy: 1, 3, 6, 11, 16, 19, 27, 36

Moderately demanding: 2, 5, 8, 10, 15, 17, 18, 21, 22, 23, 25, 26, 30, 31, 34, 35

Difficult: 4, 7, 9, 12, 14, 20, 24, 27, 28, 32, 37, 39, 40

Very Difficult:13, 29, 33, 38

According to Mihai Tetel, Associate Professor of Cello at the Hartt School of Music, these are the exercises to practice to prepare for the following repertoire:

If you’re curious about how these exercises sound, the cellist and composer Joshua Roman developed the Popper Project. He set up to record all 40 exercises no matter where he was and post them on YouTube. All he needed was his cello and his laptop! In his blog, he talks about the project and the process to record all 40 exercises.

The Popper High School of the Violoncello is without a doubt one of the best (if not the best) way to solidify your technique. Just remember to take them with ease and create a process and a plan around them. This will also help you develop a better practice routine!

Developing a better practice session is something that will help you improve and solidify your technique. working through difficulties is always the best way to get better at your instrument, so don’t hesitate to take on these challenging tasks and embrace Popper!

How to Choose the Right Instrument Size: a Guide for Beginner Cellists

This guide is intended to give you a rough idea of the size of instrument your or your child will require. Please note that this is a rough guide only.  It is important to remember that we always err on the side of caution when it comes to instrument sizing. Unlike clothes, you cannot ‘grow into’ an instrument. If the instrument is too large then you will find yourself in severe pain when practising or performing. This often leads to a decrease in practice (and interest), which inevitably leads to the player choosing to forgo learning an instrument.

Play pain-free and start with the right size violin, viola, cello or double bass from Simply for Strings. Measure in centimeters from the neck to the middle of the palm.

Directions for Measuring: With the player’s arm fully extended and parallel to the floor, measure in centimetres from the neck to the middle of the palm.

SIZE OF VIOLIN MEASUREMENT (CM) AVERAGE AGE OF CHILD
1/16 35 – 38 CM 3 – 4 YRS
1/10 39 – 42 CM 4 – 5 YRS
1/8 43 – 46 CM 5 – 6 YRS
¼ 47 – 51 CM 6 -7 YRS
½ 52 – 56 CM 7 – 8 YRS
¾ 57 – 60 CM 9 – 11 YRS
4/4 > 60 CM 11 – 13+ YRS

Directions for Measuring: With the player’s arm fully extended and parallel to the floor, measure in centimetres from the neck to the middle of the palm.

SIZE OF VIOLA MEASUREMENT (CM)
12″ 53 – 55 CM
13″ 55 – 59 CM
14″ 59 – 63 CM
15″ 63 – 65 CM
15″ ½ 65 – 67 CM
16″ >67 CM

Directions for Measuring: Sizing cellos is slightly more complicated than sizing violins and violas. The student should be seated at the edge of a chair such that the knees are bent at a ninety-degree angle (feet flat on the floor). The upper edge (back of cello near where the neck joins the body) of the instrument should rest in the centre of the chest (on the sternum) and the C peg should be slightly behind the left ear. The knees should lightly grip the lower bouts ensuring that the corners do not dig into the side of legs. (Corners should be slightly above the inside of the knees). The student should be able to reach both ends of the fingerboard with ease. The chart below shows approximate sizing by age.

Note: 7/8 size cellos are available as well. This can be a useful transitional size or a more comfortable option for those players who prefer a slightly smaller instrument.

SIZE OF CELLO AGE OF CHILD
1/10 4 – 5 YRS
1/8 5 – 6 YRS
¼ 6 – 8 YRS
½ 8 – 10 YRS
¾ 10 – 12 YRS
4/4 12 – 13+ YRS

Directions for Measuring: The 3/4 size double bass is the standard size for adults. 7/8 size basses and 4/4 sizes basses are made but they are less commonly used. As a rough guideline, when both the bass and the player are standing upright, the bridge should be approximately at the same height as the large knuckles of the student’s right hand. The most important issue is that the instrument is comfortable and that the student can reach the higher registers of the fingerboard without difficulty.

FAQ forWhy Every Cellist Should Study Popper

What is the “Popper Method of Violin Playing”?

The Popper Method is a teaching method for the violin, developed by Dorothy DeLay and based on the teachings of Carl Flesch. The Popper Method is a comprehensive system for learning how to play the violin. It includes exercises for all aspects of violin technique, from basic finger and bow control to advanced bowing techniques, fingering exercises, scales, arpeggios and more.

Popper’s teaching philosophy is that students should not be forced to learn anything they are not ready for. His methods are designed to allow students to progress at their own pace.

What is the main essence of the Popper method for cellists?

Popper’s method is a technique that is used to help with the left-hand technique of cellists. It is a way to improve the sound quality and intonation of the instrument.

Popper’s Method can be used with any type of cello, but it is most commonly used on larger instruments. The technique involves using the right hand to hold down one finger on a string while the left hand plucks another string close by on an adjacent string. This creates an alternating sound that provides more clarity in sound and better intonation in pitch.

What does Popper teach cellists?

Popper is a cellist and author. He has written many books about playing the cello. In his books, he teaches cellists how to play the instrument in an effective way. He also teaches people how to read music and to play by ear.

Popper’s books are very popular among cellists, especially those who have just started out with the instrument. His books have helped many people learn how to be better musicians and taught them what they need to know about reading music.

What is the best age cellists to start studying Popper?

The best age to start studying Popper is 8 years old. This is because a cellist needs to have a certain amount of dexterity and the fingers need to be able to move independently.

How can studying the Popper Method help a cellist?

The Popper Method is a way of practicing where you work on the most difficult parts of your repertoire first and then work your way back to the easier sections. This method will help a cellist because it helps them to improve their skills by working on the hardest parts first.

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