Introduction to the Three Finger Positions on the Cello

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.

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fig.1 Equivalent notes in bass clef and tenor clef

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:

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fig. 2 Closed Position

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fig. 3 Extended Position

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.

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fig. 4 Closed Fifth Position (a)

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fig. 5 Closed Fifth Position (b)

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fig. 6 Extended Fifth Position

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:

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fig. 7 Chromatic variation within one position

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.

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fig. 8 Position Stability Exercise

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.

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fig 9. Fifth Position Orientation (a)

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.

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fig. 10 Shifting from Fourth to Upper Fifth Position

All of the above exercises should be practised on all four strings.

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© D C Cello Studio 2012

Stretch Position on the Cello

The technique of stretching is one of the great challenges faced by progressing beginner cellists, and must be approached with care and precision. In spite of this it is often neglected or glossed over as a technique, and becomes a real sticking point in left hand technique. When stretch position is not properly studied or understood it causes intonation issues, tension in the left hand and forearm, and is always noticeable to the listener as a technical flaw.

To understand how the stretch works, let’s examine the familiar closed position. Your fingers are placed an equal distance apart and the interval between each is a semitone. The interval from first to fourth finger (on the same string) is therefore a minor third.

In the closed position we do not have access to the semitones between the open string and first finger; or the fourth finger and the next open string. We reach these by extending backwards or forwards. When in stretch position we also extend the interval between the first and fourth fingers to a major third without having to shift the entire hand forwards or backwards.

As shown in the image below, a backward stretch means that the first finger extends towards the topnut by a semitone while the second, third and fourth fingers remain in place. This means that there is a whole tone between the first and second fingers and semitones between second, third and fourth fingers.

In a forward stretch position, the only finger to remain in place from the original closed position is the first. The second finger extends forwards towards the bridge by a semitone, pushing the second third and fourth fingers forward by a semitone each.

So the only difference between the backward and forward stretch positions is the notes under the hand. The physical position for the fingers and hand is identical. A common mistake among cello students is to extend the fourth finger away from the third to achieve the forward stretch. This should be avoided at all costs – especially for those with smaller hands. The hand simply isn’t built to accommodate a whole tone stretch between the third and fourth fingers for any length of time, especially when playing across two strings or playing in keys that require frequent and prolonged stretches.

It takes time and regular practice to become comfortable with stretch position, but there are a few tips that will greatly facilitate the learning process:

  1. Allowing the first (and largest) knuckle of the index finger to collapse will facilitate the stretch between the first and second fingers.
  2. Allow the thumb to move slightly down the neck (in the opposite direction to the first finger) or let it leave the neck altogether.
  3. Avoid pressure from the thumb at all costs. Smaller hands may find it necessary to release the thumb from the neck altogether – if this facilitates the stretch better, always remember to bring the thumb back to the neck when returning to closed position. To maintain overall stability it is best to have the thumb making gentle contact with the neck at all times.
  4. Allow the elbow to move slightly down and forwards, and keep the shoulder completely relaxed and mobile.
  5. Remember that the stretch is always between the first and second fingers.
  6. Familiarise yourself with and ideally memorise the notes belonging to forward and backward stretches on each string
  7. It is best not to attempt stretching in other positions until you have mastered it in first.

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© D C Cello Studio 2012

Some Thoughts on Intonation

“Intonation is a question of conscience.” – Pablo Casals

So true on so many levels! A burning issue for all us bowed string players and the bane of many of our lives, intonation tends to remain a work in progress for many years. When examined up close this topic becomes less of a discussion and more of a doctoral thesis. And like so many aspects of cello technique, you’ll encounter significant differences of  opinion amongst players and teachers on how to tackle intonation problems.

I suppose this comes as no surprise – when I try to analyse precisely how I play in tune (I should point out that even after twenty-four years of playing this doesn’t always happen), I’m frankly stumped. There are obvious elements essential to good intonation such as accurate finger placement, an excellent grasp of the geography of your cello and well developed relative pitch (assuming you don’t have the rare gift of perfect pitch). But there is definitely more to it than that. Casals called it a question of conscience. Bunting suggests (quite refreshingly) that perfectionist attitudes to intonation annihilate freedom of movement in the fingers essential to so much more than just intonation. Both philosophies point to something other than a technical or mechanical  process. There is a strong  psychological aspect which I believe is all too often forgotten or discarded.

We all have specific feelings about intonation. For many of us those feelings may include fear, frustration and often denial – leading to a high tolerance for inaccurate tuning. Perhaps the ideal relationship with intonation is to view it as part of the artistic palette. Emphasising certain intervals (such as marginally sharper major thirds and sevenths in major keys, or flatter thirds in minor keys) can colour and define keys quite beautifully. To reach this ideal I believe one has to allow for a margin of error, which gradually diminishes as the physical memory becomes more accurate and the ear more exacting. This allowance should not be confused with the previously mentioned tolerance for poor intonation, which I have seen developed to an alarming degree in some cellists despite most of them having a “good ear”.  For a long time I was one of those intonation “deniers”, often thinking my performances had gone rather well only to listen back to those which had been recorded and cringe in horror at the glaring intonation errors.

Based on my own playing experience and that of my students, I believe there are three main negative emotions associated with poor intonation: fear, uncertainty and low self confidence. The first two are relatively easy to combat (although they take time to get rid of); the latter is trickier and varies a great deal from one individual to the next.

So, fear and uncertainty first! High register playing and large interval jumps are prime candidates for inspiring apprehension, which lead to physical tension, and we all know what impact that has on intonation. Take your pick of the major cello concertos for passages in the instrument’s upper range. How often do we hear (or give) performances of these works that are let down by those upper register passages when the sound is thin and some or all of the notes are off-pitch? Even after hours of repeating those passages ad nauseam in the practice room, they often let us down in performance. All too often the practice we do to eliminate the fear factor only perpetuates it. The root of the problem is not in the passage, but in the irrational fear of that portion of the fingerboard. So it stands to reason that getting familiar with that highest octave-and-a-half through slow, relaxed work on scales, arpeggios and studies is a much better use of our practice time than repeatedly trying to play a phrase or passage in an area of our instrument that frightens us because we don’t know it well enough. No matter how hard we try to make it sound beautiful, our attempts are undermined by inaccurate finger placement and incorrect bow placement. With enough repetition of the same high register passage, we might eventually become more familiar with that area of the cello. Equally we are in danger of constantly reinforcing incorrect finger placement and excess tension because our focus is more on trying to play the passage the way we think it should sound and not nearly enough on the mechanics behind the music.

There is certainly no shortage of technical material for the cello that covers the entire range of the instrument or concentrates on perfecting the upper register – Feuillard’s Daily Exercises for Cello, Yampolsky’s Violoncello Technique and the Galamian Scale System for Cello to name a few. Until we can comfortably play such technical material covering every inch of the fingerboard, it is unreasonable to expect ourselves to be able to play repertoire with these technical demands. However you choose to approach familiarising yourself with the full range of your cello, familiarise yourself you must and you really are better off using a method designed specifically for this purpose. When Elgar was composing his sublimely beautiful cello concerto I seriously doubt he ever stopped and thought: “Ah, this will do wonders for the bow technique!” He composed the work with those whose technique was already fit for purpose in mind. But I’m digressing somewhat. The point I’m trying to make is that through consistent, concentrated practising of scales and arpeggios of every shape and size we give ourselves a much better chance of making that magical and essential connection between internal pitch and physical memory – the marriage between the sensitive fingertips and attentive ears.

Low self confidence, as I’ve already pointed out, is a more elusive problem which can have its roots in such a vast range of places that it is not really possible to tackle with a single suggestion. I do believe however, that investing enough of one’s time in the aforementioned study of the fingerboard will at least serve to relieve some of the symptoms of the problem. I also know from my own experience and from watching my students develop, that intonation is often bad because we expect it to be. That expectation is built up over years: the majority of us start out with poor intonation, not because we can’t hear it but because we don’t know where or how to place out fingers. For some cellists the development of a dependable left hand technique happens in a nice upward trend and their fear of intonation disappears as their command of the instrument improves. But for many more – perhaps most – it is more of a jagged affair with frustrating flat lines and almost as many downward as upward spikes. Surely this trains us to feel negative about aspects of our playing and gives us reason to believe that we are more likely to be wrong than right in the placement of a finger or a shift to a new position.

Again, I refer you back to the good old-fashioned daily dose of scales and arpeggios. Add a metronome to that, and remember: it is impossible to practise too slowly whereas practising too fast is not only possible, it’s disastrous.

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© D C Cello Studio 2011