Owen Pallett on their first week with a Violoncello da Spalla
How to approach a new instrument when you settle on the highest level
Owen Pallett has just received his brand new Violoncello da Spalla, made by the US luthier Eric Aceto. Owen is known for his eclectic (and poetic) performances using loop pedals, and for sure as one to whom things come out easy. However, I believe talented people, as they settle themselves on higher standards, need tons of discipline and practice. Thanks to all this, they are often very acute in auditing themselves and in problem solving.
Very nicely Owen agreed on sharing with us his impressions and progresses during his first week with his Violoncello da Spalla.
But the first question is: why someone like you who does literally everything with a violin, should want a cello da spalla?
I have owned a viola for about a decade, but only started getting serious about advancing my technique on it since the lockdown. In doing so, I became more familiar with the Bach cello suites, and then Sergey Malov’s performance on the spalla of the 6th. I was fascinated with spalla. For my own solo performances, I have been using a five-string violin, but the idea of moving to a spalla was very appealing to me, as I typically rely upon pitch-shifting mechanisms to generate lower pitches.
I am interested in the creative potential of the instrument. It is thrilling to hear music like Arpeggione and Suite 6 performed with all the original registers in place, but I’m trying to look forward for new creative opportunity with the spalla— the creation of new work and new performance practice.
I spoke to a few luthiers of the instrument, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that Eric Aceto had received tutelage in this regard from Dmitry Badiarov, and was making spallas. I have wanted one of Eric’s instruments for years, having become aware of his pioneering work regarding amplification, and his five- and six-string instruments, from the late Oliver Schroer. I reached out to Eric, and he agreed to build one for me.
My intention is to use the instrument in studio to assist with my string arrangement work, as well as to play classical music for pleasure. I hope to use it in the live setting for my solo performances, but this will depend on the next few months of technical work.
Was it love at first sight, an impulsive purchase, or did you have doubts or fears?
In my experience, all big purchases made by musicians have some degree of impulsivity. Three-quarters of such purchases result in disappointment. I have bought expensive synthesizers that I for which I ended up having no facility, expensive guitars for which I realized there were significant shortcomings, and had to sell them (or return them) at a loss. This is part of the job.
The flip-side, of course, is that one-quarter of the impulsive purchases I make yield amazing rewards. My acoustic guitar, in particular, was an impulse purchase I made while dropping in on a shop in Santa Monica. I was not in the market for a new acoustic, but I tried it, fell in love with it, and bought it on the spot. It is the best guitar I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing or recording.
This spalla was, for me, a big financial investment. I had to solicit financial assistance from my brothers to be able to afford it. That said, I thought that even just having a cello I could use in studio would justify the purchase. So far, however, any doubts that I may have had about the viability of it as an instrument for solo performance have been greatly allayed. I am blown away by this instrument and am extremely excited to continue working with it. I believe that it will become the instrument I use for my solo concerts.
On the day that you got it, which were your first impressions? Could you play right from the first moment? Did you feel comfortable/uncomfortable, did you get pain or fatigue somewhere? Can you tell us your excitements and your frustrations if any?
Spalla luthiers wish to convince potential buyers that the transition to a spalla is easy. My experience so far has shown that it is a similar experience as the transition from violin to viola— it is not easy, but not extremely difficult either. I do find the spalla to be a much more unwieldy instrument than the viola… it feels like a tuba in comparison.
I do experience fatigue, and soreness, but not real pain. After three hours of daily practice, I go to bed feeling sore. My muscles are not strained, but they are developing. The spalla requires a lot more work than my body is used to. The first two nights, I was noticeably sore from practice!
The specific technical hurdles, so far, are as follows:
1. Finding the correct strap length and positioning of the instrument. Most spalla players I’ve watched online have different approaches. Kuijken has his spalla hanging around his neck rather than over the shoulder. Badiarov said in a video that one can “lift the spalla” and “lock it in”, but this has not worked for me, I do not wish to support the spalla’s weight with my left hand in any capacity. I myself have mounted the spalla in a similar fashion to Sergey Malov, but I believe I wear it even higher than he does.
2. Finding an established posture so that one can bow the strings with consistency. Even a slight adjustment to my posture will have my bow hitting adjacent strings when I do not want it to.
3. Finding a posture that does not create a scenario where the bow tip is colliding with my left shoulder (when bowing the C-string), or where the frog is colliding with my abdomen (when bowing the E-string). This is definitely something I’ve had to work on.
4. Learning to bow the E-string at an upward angle. I have no prior experiencing having to bow a string without gravity on my side. I am grappling with learning staccato and detaché strokes with gravity working against the bow.
5. Learning how to down-shift. With my violin and viola, I typically use a Kun rest, allowing me to grip the instrument securely with my neck and shoulder when I need to shift downwards. A violist acquaintance of mine, who gave me some pointers last year, suggested that I try playing my viola without a shoulder rest, and lift my shoulder for momentary extra support when I needed to shift downward. This method is similar to what I have to do with the spalla… I am learning to add extra pressure to the rib of the instrument with my chin at times when I shift downward, to allow for a moment of greater security. The experience is not unlike driving with a stick-shift, having to learn to tap the clutch when you shift gears.
A customer of mine found a solution using two shoulder rest to keep it more stable, and I think Malov uses one, on a diagonal from the C to the upper bout. I am not a fan of shoulder rests myslef, just passing the idea in case it may be useful. They say it helped a lot as with the instrument moving they couldn’t improve their technique.
Eric Aceto told me that this was no longer the case with Malov. It seems to me that a shoulder rest would work terrifically for me… I am finding that everything is very “close” to my body at present. Also, it might help for the resonance of the instrument. The two-rest solution that your customer has created seems very stable and appealing to me!
6. Gaining flexibility in my left-hand. My left hand lacks the flexibility at present to finger minor second chords on the spalla… I simply cannot reach them. I can play fingered unisons on the viola with zero strain, but a minor second on a spalla is beyond my reach. A fingered minor second is necessary, for example, in Bach’s 3rd cello prelude, for the bariolage section. I simply lack the ability to play that interval at present, and am working to gain the extra reach required to play it. The same goes for octaves on the spalla… I can reach them, but they feel enormous in comparison to the viola.
7. Choice of strings. Eric Aceto set my spalla up with Thomastik custom spalla strings. I love the upper three strings unreservedly, but am not 100% set on my G- and C-strings. I suspect that my G-string may be false. Although it sounds like this is the case, it would surprise me… I use Thomastik strings on my violin and viola and have never once purchased a false string from the manufacturer. My spalla G-string is, at present, rather dull and unresponsive. I intend to purchase a new custom G-string from Thomastik (in the event that my current one is false), as well as experimenting with other options for both the G- and C-strings from other cordiers.
Aside from this, I believe I have a long road ahead in getting to a point where I can play with the same comfort and facility as I do on the violin and viola. A piece as simple as Bach’s 1st cello prelude, for example, will require months of work on my end before I’d feel comfortable playing it for anyone… I simply do not have the agility or facility right now to convey the same sense of line and phrasing that I desire.
These are my concerns, but that said: I’ve been progressing in leaps and bounds for the past five days. Every day I’m improving immensely. I’m reminded of a joke that my violist friend made to me when I started focusing on the viola instead of the violin: “it takes months of work to master the viola, months and months and months of work!” Very funny! I think this joke could apply to the spalla as well.
The spalla seems to me to be like the offspring of a viola and a double bass, rather than being like a cello at all. The lows are rich and warm, but there is also lots of bow noise and rasp, like a double bass. It is a remarkable texture and one that I immediately adore.
How did you approach your practicing? Did you focus first on left hand or right hand/arm? What would you suggest to a newbie?
I typically practice for three hours a day in 30-45 minute intervals throughout the day. I spend this time playing scales and studies, and then barrelling through a Bach suite when I feel like it! I do not think I can seriously attempt any repertoire for some time, as I think sticking with scales and studies should be my primary focus for the next few weeks, at least.
Which were your main frustrations or challenges and how did you face them?
No real frustrations aside from the obstacles I previously mentioned. The strap length and posture is really the biggest concern. I want to ensure that I have these things set-in-stone so that my scales and studies are the most useful, rather than having to re-learn everything if there is a change.
Let’s talk a bit about repertoire: on what did you rely for your first week?
I am using the Yampolsky scale method, which is a cello method. It has been useful for me to learn cello fingerings on my scales, as they seem more appropriate than viola/violin fingerings. It has been very, very slow going… the scales do not take prisoners.
As for studies, I’ve been working with the easiest studies on my shelf: Mazas violin studies. I typically practice the study using the upper four strings on the spalla, then subsequently practice it on the lower four strings.
Aside from that, I have been sawing my way through the Bach cello suites in moments of manic hubris. I do not have the agility at present to pull off any of the Gigues or Courantes, nor do I have the bow control to pull off the slower movements like the Sarabandes. The Allemandes have been somewhat obtainable— the 1st, 3rd and 6th can be executed on the spalla fairly easily, if one already can play them on the viola.
I have one more question, I am curious: why did you find cello fingerings useful? Are you actually using cello fingerings even through studies and repertoire? Doesn’t this bring to more shifting, more uncertainty on intonation, and more brain work to learn such a different idea of fingering? could you explain me the advantages?
It feels natural. I am making adjustments to my fingerings on pieces I’ve learned on viola. Notes I would’ve previously played with my 3rd finger (especially on the C- and G-strings) I now play with my 4th finger. Reading from the fingerings in Yampolsky’s scale system is unlearning my violinistic fingerings and I’m learning cello fingerings instead. I am subsequently making adjustments in my fingering on pieces that I’ve learned on viola when I play them on spalla.
which bow are you using?
For now I am using a modern Carbow cello bow. Carbow is my bow-of-choice on my viola. I prefer wood bows to carbon-fibre bows, but considering I am often playing in outdoor environments (and sometimes in sweaty bars when things get very humid), I appreciate the stability of carbon-fibre bows. Carbow is my favourite in this regard.
I would think that a Baroque bow would be preferable on the spalla. I do not own one myself. My intention, actually, is to try an Arcus bow on my spalla. In the past, I found the lightness of Arcus bows to be sub-optimal for my violin and viola, as I appreciated more weight. With the spalla, however, considering that the pressure is being applied laterally, I think a lighter bow like the Arcus would be ideal. I intend to try one out this week.
So at the end of your first week: what is exciting, what is still a challenge… and what are your plans for your future with this instrument?
Right now, I am simply focusing on building technique with it. When learning the viola, I spent most of my early days focused on scales and studies before attempting any repertoire. I am doing the same with the spalla. I do not have any grand designs, I’m just taking each practice session as it comes!
Updates from our workshop
It seems it's one instrument... But it's two! Each of us is working at his own project, and while I felt like starting from the neck, Alessandro started from the ribs and is now planing the back.
Follow our progresses on Instagram @violoncellodaspalla
Featured video of the week
Enjoy this interesting reconstruction by François Fernandez of the famous BWV 1030 sonata by J. S. Bach.
Only the harpsichord part is left from a first version in G minor of what became the most famous FLUTE sonata. Although not the only possible melodic instrument, the Viola Pomposa comes among the first plausible candidates to join the harpsichord.