Detailed Diagrams for Extended Second Position

Backward Stretch

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Forward Stretch

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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

Bows for beginner cellists

The vast majority of cello beginners will buy an outfit (a cello, bow and case or bag). Bows that come with outfits vary in quality, but assuming you’ve bought something that isn’t of the bargain basement variety the bow will probably be reliable if not brilliant. If this is the case you won’t need to look for a bow for at least your first six months of lessons. Second-hand outfits don’t always come with a bow, or may come with something that is not worth trying to salvage. Bows that are badly treated simply don’t last well, especially when they are made of less durable and flexible wood.

If you need to purchase a bow, it is worth spending a little more on something that will last you beyond your first cello assuming it is a full size instrument and a fairly basic student model. The price of bows varies just as much as that of instruments. Professional bows by famous makers carry price tags into tens of thousands of pounds, but it goes without saying that these are not the variety you’ll be considering. £100 – £250 will buy you a well-made, reliable bow.

Within this price range, carbon fibre bows are worth considering. The first non-wood bows appeared on the market in the eighties in the form of fibreglass, epoxy composite and carbon fibre. They looked, sounded and felt inferior to wooden bows. It was not until around the mid-nineties that the technology behind carbon fibre bows improved enough for certain makers of these bows to start turning heads. Although there are still players and high-end retailers who dismiss carbon fibre bows out of hand, there is a growing consensus now that carbon fibre bows by reputable makers offer more for your money, particularly in the above-mentioned price range. Carbon fibre is also practically indestructible, warp resistant and as light and flexible as good quality pernambuco wood, which is now an endangered species.

If you’re brand new to playing, you won’t be in a position to assess bows yourself, and you should get your teacher to help you find something suitable. The following is a list of good quality bows ranging from £100 – £250.


Maker: Dorfler

Type: Brazilwood cello bow, round stick

Price: £100 – £110

Maker: Westbury

Type: Carbon fibre cello bow (black), round stick

Price: £115 – £125

Maker: Long-Gen Chen (award-winning maker)

Type: Carbon fibre cello bow, round stick

Price: £110 – £140

Maker: Concertante Plus

Type: Brazilwood bow, octagonal stick

Price: £130 – £145


Maker: Col Legno Standard

Type: Carbon fibre bow, round stick

Price: £130 – £160

 

 Maker: ‘Bravo’ by John Paul USA

Type: Carbon fibre cello bow, round stick

Price: £230 – £250

Maker: Orchestra

Type: Pernambuco octagonal or round stick, silver mounted

Price: £230 – £250

Whether you upgrade your bow or stick with what you have, it needs to be properly cared for, especially if it is wooden. These are the most important aspects of bow care which will prolong the life of your bow and prevent costly repairs or replacements.

  • Never over-tighten your bow. If the stick loses its camber (curve) and looks straight you will need to loosen the hairs so that there is still enough tension in the hair, but the stick retains its camber.
  • Always slacken your bow off when you have finished playing. Leaving the bow at playing tension will warp the stick (particularly wooden bows) and will reduce the elasticity of the hair (especially if it is natural horse hair, which all but the very cheapest bows have).
  • Never leave your bow lying around. If you’re taking a break from practising, rest it on the rib of your cello or hang it on your cello stand assuming it has a bow attachment. Never leave it lying on your chair or on the ground – it’s very easy to forget about and accidentally stand or sit on!
  • If you have a soft cello bag, always take your bow out first and pack it away last. Unpacking your cello while the bow is still in the bag puts the bow at risk of snapping. The same applies when putting the cello back in its bag if the bow is already in its pouch.
  • Never deliberately touch the bow hair. For many players it is inevitable that their fingers will touch the hair while playing. After a while the hair closest to the frog becomes slippery and discoloured, and doesn’t hold any rosin. This can’t be avoided, but touching the bow hair while unpacking or picking up the bow can and should. No matter how clean your hands are, there is oil on your skin that will create oily spots on the bow hair and literally causes holes in the sound as the bow is drawn across the string.
  • When you finish playing and slacken the bow off, tap the tip of the bow (VERY gently) against your hand over a bin to get rid of excess or caked rosin. This will prevent a build-up of dried rosin in the hair and on the stick.
  • You will notice that the hairs break occasionally – while you’re playing or when they get caught on something like your music stand. This is normal, and only cause for concern if the bow is losing a lot of hair on a regular basis, which can happen when the hair is of inferior quality and/ or has not been properly fitted. In this case, see below. If the odd hair snaps, always use a small pair of scissors to cut the hair off at the frog and tip. Never pull it out as this can also lead to excess bow hair loss.
  • Eventually your bow will need to be re-haired and cleaned. Both of these tasks are jobs for a professional luthier or bow maker. Your teacher will be able to direct you to a reputable person or business where this can be carried out.

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© D C Cello Studio 2011