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I play the cello, and in my orchestra group, we are playing The Planets by Holst.

There is a passage with about 20 bars of 16th notes, at about quarter note = 120. They are played pizzicato on the open G string.

Each time I try, I'm not able to play them fast enough evenly. What techniques should I use to be able to play them that fast?

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There are multiple possible ways how this passage (Jupiter, bars 170-190 that would be, I presume) could be played. I'll discuss three of them:

Two-hands, single-finger, single-string

Here's a rendition of the passage where you can clearly see them alternating with both hands, each using just a single finger. So that would perhaps be the “correct answer”.

I actually find this really difficult coördination-wise, if actually thinking about plucking the strings. It does work really well though when I'm more thinking about merely tapping on a drum head, combined with only a slight twisting motion to pluck the string.
Well, I wouldn't have though of this myself. I would have tried other techniques (which, if nothing else, have the advantage of being applicable to something that's not merely open strings).

Single-hand, single-finger, single-string

The most sensible choice for this kind of stuff in general would IMO be to just lightly stroke back and forth over the string with a single finger. I find the thumb works best on cello (violinists use, I think, the middle finger – that's probably what the violists, who also play these sixteenths, would be most happy to do).
Again it helps if you don't even really think of plucking the strings – more act as if you were playing a light, slow arco tremolo, except you don't use the bow hairs but your finger.

This technique works quite well without putting the bow out of hand, you can just keep hold of it with the fingers while the thumb plays. Or, as I like to do for short-but-involved pizzicato stuff, rest the bow on my elbow. Actually I've never seen classical cellists do that – or, indeed, anybody but Nat Smith –

but it can really help a lot to keep the balance.

Single-hand, triple-finger, twin-strings

A really exotic alternative would be a multi-finger pattern over two strings, i.e. in this case between open G-string and fourth position on the C-string. It's possible to achieve an extremely fast pizz tremolo this way by using the following pattern:

  1. Thumb on C-string
  2. Index finger on G-string
  3. Index finger on C-string. This is not a separate movement: the finger comes from the G-string, drops right onto the C-string, which it then immediately plucks without further preparation. Bassists call this technique raking.
  4. Middle finger on the G-string.

That's really an usual approach though – you'll definitely want to lay down your bow for something like that. And it's really hard to get an even sound despite alternating between C and G string. I'm very sure Holst didn't intend the passage to be played like that – but it has the potential to yield by far a denser, louder sound then either of the other options.

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    The first video is blocked in the USA. I don't know if there's an alternative, but just so you know. – CAD97 Dec 12 '16 at 0:45
  • By "rest the bow on my elbow" do you mean the left elbow or the right? I'm having trouble picturing what you mean by that. – margalo Dec 12 '16 at 5:08
  • @margalo right elbow. (In my case actually left elbow, but only because I play inverted lefty.) It is indeed hard to picture, hence the second video I've posted. – leftaroundabout Dec 12 '16 at 11:13
  • It certainly comes down to personal ease of movement, so I'd suggest that each person try raking and ChrisLynch's suggestion of electric bass-style two fingers on one string. See which one is more comfortable and/or produces a more even output meter – Carl Witthoft Dec 12 '16 at 12:57
  • I used the single finger back and forth for this passage, and middle finger worked best. But you can't get a lot of volume that way. – MAA Nov 3 '17 at 14:57
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It should be possible - with a minor alteration to how the bow is held during pizz. - to pluck with alternating index and middle finger, like a bass guitarist or classical guitarist.

You may find it awkward to hold the bow between your two remaining fingers and palm, but with a little practice it should be possible! Alternatively, if there is a sufficient amount of rest before and after the pizz. passage (or if you and your desk partner can cover for each other), you can put your bow down somewhere.

Some people use alternating thumb and forefinger, so you may wish to try that too.

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