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.
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.
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:
Allowing the first (and largest) knuckle of the index finger to collapse will facilitate the stretch between the first and second fingers.
Allow the thumb to move slightly down the neck (in the opposite direction to the first finger) or let it leave the neck altogether.
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.
Allow the elbow to move slightly down and forwards, and keep the shoulder completely relaxed and mobile.
Remember that the stretch is always between the first and second fingers.
Familiarise yourself with and ideally memorise the notes belonging to forward and backward stretches on each string
It is best not to attempt stretching in other positions until you have mastered it in first.