Whether you’re finding your way around first position or you’re venturing into the tenor and treble clef registers, an understanding of the note layout is essential. The more demanding your repertoire, the more you need a detailed internal ‘sat-nav’ to find your way effortlessly through challenging passages. The less you have to calculate your route map, the more you can focus on musical shaping, phasing and interpretation.
The map below is a visual aid to indicate the location and content of each position from first (including half) to seventh. You’ll notice that some positions go by 2 names (e.g. upper first/ lower second), and some of the notes on the fingerboard include enharmonic equivalents (different letter name for the same pitch). Positions are named according to the note names they accommodate. For example, the notes in upper first position on the A string are B#, C#, D and D# – predominantly the same letter names as those in first position, while lower second position – C, Db, D, Eb share the letter names of upper second position. As a rule, positions with the upper label tend to favour sharps, while those with the lower label favour flats.
Cello students who have studied the entire range of the cello will almost certainly have discovered a recurring pattern of similarity between certain positions one octave and string apart. Recognising this pattern can be very useful when it comes to getting secure in the higher positions, the fear of which often causes poor intonation and inferior tone production. The pairing I’ll be discussing in this and the following four posts is as follows:
1. First and fourth positions:
1.1 First position on the D string and fourth position on the A string
1.2 First position on the G string and fourth position on the D string
1.3 First position on the C string and fourth position on the G string
1.4 Half position on the D string and upper third/ lower fourth position on the A string
1.5 Half position on the G string and upper third/ lower fourth position on the D string
1.6 Half position on the G string and upper third/ lower fourth position on the D string
2. Second and fifth positions:
2.1 Second position on the D string and fifth position on the A string
2.2 Second position on the G string and fifth position on the D string
2.3 Second position on the C string and fifth position on the G string
3. Third and sixth positions:
3.1 Third position on the D string and sixth position on the A string
3.2 Third position on the G string and sixth position on the D string
3.3 Third position on the C string and sixth position on the G string
4. Fourth and seventh positions:
4.1 Fourth position on the D string and seventh position on the A string
4.2 Fourth position on the G string and seventh position on the D string
4.3 Fourth position on the C string and seventh position on the G string
The first pairing (first and fourth positions) shares identical fingering patterns since both are neck positions. The same applies to lower second and lower fifth positions. From extended fifth position onwards, the three finger system comes into use, so the notes of the paired positions remain the same but the fingering does not. The changes are as follows:
In the higher positions, the second finger plays notes that would be covered by the second and third fingers in the lower positions.
In the higher positions, the third finger plays notes that would be covered by the fourth finger in the lower positions.
This discrepancy applies to closed and stretch (or extended) positions.
The following four posts will show these pairings through simple exercises and melody lines.
The following worksheets are designed to help your younger beginners associate notes belonging to the key of C major on the stave with notes on the fingerboard in first position. They combine music theory (learning to write neatly and accurately on the stave) with basic cello theory (learning the notes and fingering of first position). Each document is arranged in the order of an ascending C Major scale (2 octaves) – one page per note. By mixing up the pages you can make the worksheet more challenging. Kept in their current order they will be much easier to do, but a good way to introduce the C major scale.
These worksheets are free to download and print out, but please observe the copyright: no selling, no incorporating into other works or documents. Feedback welcome – especially from those who try them out!
My regular readers may recall my previous post on warming up. Whether you’ve read it or not, I’ll not be repeating myself, except to remind you of the importance of warming up before you launch into your practice session. It makes no difference what level of playing you’ve achieved – warming up is about being kind to your body and ensuring healthy playing habits. The following exercises were devised for some of my students whose practising habits needed improvement. The students in question are at very different stages in their technical development, but the exercises have made a noticeable difference to all of them. For anyone who is either unconvinced of the importance of warming up, or uncertain of how to, these exercises are for you. What you will come to realise is that not only do they make a difference to the comfort and success of each practice session; they make a difference to your overall progress. No matter where you are in your technical and musical journey, you will always benefit from revisiting basic technical cornerstones: bow control, string crossing, left hand stability, and agility. If you’re new to doing more than a cursory scale or two to warm up, try these and keep a diary to monitor the difference they make. Not over a few days or a week, but over several months or a year.
At least two of the following warm-ups (one for left hand, one for bow) should be done at the start of every practice session. Rotate them to ensure that all are covered.
1. Open String Bowing
Set the metronome to 100. On each string play the following:
i. 4 bows with 8 ticks per bow
ii. 4 bows with 12 ticks per bow
iii. 4 bows with 9 ticks per bow
iv. 4 bows with 6 ticks per bow
Points to remember:
Bow hold: always check before you start. Relaxed, soft hand; no pressing with the thumb; use the WHOLE arm from shoulder blade to fingertip.
On the string: 90˚ angle between the string and the bow AT ALL TIMES; always halfway between the bridge and the fingerboard.
Don’t change the speed or weight while bowing – keep the sound as EVEN as possible.
Do you like the sound? If not, why not? Always aim to make the very best sound you can.
2. Left Hand Pizzicato
Set the metronome to 120. On each string, pluck with the left hand fingers one finger at a time, one metronome tick per pluck in the following orders:
i. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th
ii. 4th 3rd, 2nd, 1st
iii. 1st, 3rd, 2nd, 4th
iv. 4th, 2nd, 3rd, 1st
Points to remember:
Keep the left hand in exactly the same position you would if you were playing in first position – fingers curved and spaced away from each other; thumb RELAXED and only touching the neck.
Keep the thumb touching the neck when the finger pulls away from the string – the left hand must remain stable and in the same place throughout the exercise.
Keep the sound of each pizzicato even and clean; avoid bumping next-door strings.
Keep the tempo very stable. If 120 is too fast, try at a slower speed and gradually work your way up to 120.
3. String Crossing (separate bows)
Points to remember:
All points from “Open String Bowing”
Use the whole bow for minims.
Use half the bow for crotchets. Practise the crotchet exercise in the LOWE HALF of the bow and the UPPER HALF of the bow.
Use around a quarter of the bow for the quavers and play towards the MIDDLE of the bow.
Adjust the bow when crossing strings so that you always maintain a 90˚ angle.
Turn your whole upper body around from the hips to get to the A string. DON’T lift the right shoulder.
4. Finger Press-ups
i. Sit at a table or desk with a good cello posture
ii. Place your left hand flat on the table directly in front of you with your fingers a small distance apart from each other (just like they would be in first position on the cello), keeping your arm heavy and completely relaxed
iii. Very slowly begin curving your fingers so the fleshy tips are on the table
iv. Keeping your shoulder relaxed and down and your fingers curved with the tips on the table, slowly lift your hand and arm so that you can feel the weight of your arm being transferred into the fleshy tips of your first, second, third and fourth fingers. Your thumb should be relaxed and gently touching the table.
v. Transfer the weight of your arm from one finger to the next beginning with the first finger and finishing with the fourth finger.
vi. Relax and flatten the hand again
vii. Repeat the exercise several times; imagining the cello string being trapped underneath the fingers each time the arm is raised.
Points to remember:
Maintain a true cello posture throughout the exercise: sit tall, keep your head on top of your body, and keep shoulders completely relaxed.
Left hand fingers must remain curved and FIRM but NOT STIFF – imagine holding a raw egg in your hand.
Keep your feet flat on the floor underneath your knees. Do not pull your heels off the floor, or your feet underneath the chair.
5. String Crossing (with slurs)
Points to remember:
All points from “Open String Bowing” and “String Crossing (separate bows)”
Slurs must be LEGATO and CLEAN (i.e. very smooth string crossing with no scratches or “holes” in the sound)
6. Left Hand Agility
Points to remember:
Curved fingers falling down from the top knuckle
Thumb: relaxed, touching the neck, NO PRESSING
Straight line from hand to elbow – no bend in the wrist
Stable unmoving hand – only the fingers should move
Keep fingers OVER THE STRING at all times – no curling under the hand
Once you have thoroughly learnt the neck positions (from half position to fourth position), it’s time to break into the higher register of the cello. Beyond fourth position, we encounter a new fingering system to accommodate the diminishing physical space between the fingers and the changing angle of the left arm. Hence, positions five to seven are called the three finger positions. Mastering this portion of the fingerboard is an exciting time. The extended range unlocks the door to a vast amount of repertoire, much of which is not transcribed or arranged, but unaltered and intended for the cello. It also presents a steep learning curve. If you haven’t encountered it already, you’ll have to begin reading in the tenor clef. Although the difference between bass and tenor clef is easy to grasp, it can take time adjusting to the new layout and getting used to switching between clefs within one piece. And of course, there is a new and rather different fingering system to learn.
Let’s begin with a bit of revision in order to highlight the essential differences between the neck positions and the three finger positions. In the neck positions, we cover an interval of a minor or major third from the first to fourth fingers – a minor third in closed positions and a major third in stretch or extended positions. In closed positions we play semitones between adjacent fingers and whole tones between the first and third fingers or second and fourth fingers. In stretch positions we play semitones between the second and third or third and fourth fingers; whole tones between the first and second or second and fourth fingers; and an augmented second (equivalent in sound to a minor third) between the first and third fingers. This is shown in fig. 2 and 3 below:
When we consider the position of the left arm beyond fourth position, it is easy to understand why we stop using using the fourth finger. With the arm extended forward, even when the fingers remain at roughly a ninety degree angle to the strings, it is difficult to use the fourth finger without introducing a significant level of strain to the forearm. For this reason, and the fact that the intervals are physically closer together, we adopt the three finger system form fifth position onwards.
Now whole tones can be played between the first and second fingers or the second and third fingers, which maintains the maximum interval of a major third within one position. Just like first to fourth positions, each position from fifth to seventh has variants (upper and lower versions) and extensions.
The three images above show the three versions of upper fifth position on the A string. Fig. 4 shows the closed position with a semitone between the first and second fingers (F# – G); and a whole tone between the second and third fingers (G – A). Fig. 5 shows the alternate version of the closed position with a whole tone between the first and second fingers (F# – G#); and a semitone between the second and third fingers (G# – A). Fig 6 shows the extended position where there is a whole tone between the first and second fingers (F# – G#); and the second and third fingers (G# – A#).
Chromatic variations within the position must be addressed by moving one finger while keeping the rest of the position stationary. Take a look at the following sequence, which occurs within one position (upper fifth) in the range of a minor third:
The second finger is a semitone above the first finger in bars 1 and 2; and a whole tone above in bars 3 and 4. The first and third fingers remain in place so that the position itself remains stationary. The following exercise will help to develop stability in a stationary three finger position with chromatic variation, and should be repeated in all variants of fifth, sixth and seventh positions as you become familiar with them.
Typically, the first three finger position we encounter on the cello is upper fifth. The easiest way to find this position is to play the natural harmonic (an octave above the open string) with the third finger, then find the correct places for the second and first fingers. The following exercise will help you to find and settle into this part of the fingerboard.
The next step is to find upper fifth position from fourth position – an area of the fingerboard that you are familiar with and overlaps fifth position. These exercises will help you to become familiar with the shift from fourth to upper fifth position.
All of the above exercises should be practised on all four strings.