Simple Extensions in the Neck Region

On this page we will talk about the 1-2 tone stretch (and corresponding 1-3 minor third and 1-4 major third) in the Neck Region. There are of course other frequently used extensions in this fingerboard region. The 1-4 Perfect Fourth (Double-Extension) – which to the higher string gives the octave and to the lower string gives the scale tone – requires even more tension in the hand. The 3-4 Tone Extension in the neck region is also unavoidable at times. These more uncomfortable stretches are looked at individually on their own specific pages (click on highlighted links).

To avoid the chatter and get straight into the hands-on practice, the following links take us to a large amount of practice material dedicated exclusively to our Simple Extended Position in the Neck Region.

Simple Extensions in the Neck Region: Exercises       Simple Extensions in the Neck Region: Repertoire


In the higher regions we can often use the thumb to avoid extensions but in the Neck Region this possibility is greatly reduced because of the ergonomic difficulties of using the Thumb Position in this part of the fingerboard (see Thumb Position in the Neck Region). Therefore, the use of the 1-4 major third hand frame is not only uncomfortable (see Extensions and Hand Size) but also extremely frequent and often unavoidable. How wonderful it would be – in the lower positions at least – if we smaller cellists never had to play more than a semitone distance between each finger. Unfortunately this is not the case at all (until a 6-fingered cellist can be produced by genetic engineering). In the neck region, the 1-2 tone (and consequently the 1-3 minor third and 1-4 major third) are a constant and unavoidable part of our daily life.


Fortunately, extensions can sometimes be avoided, usually by doing more shifts (see Fingerings to Avoid Extensions). Below, we can see the same repertoire passage, but this time it is fingered to avoid the extensions.


Avoiding extensions is especially useful – and usually most easy – in slower, legato passages, where we really need a free loose vibrato (which is difficult when the hand is under tension). But in general the need for the extended position (major third hand  frame) is so frequent that it must be considered as an essential, basic and unavoidable element of Left Hand technique. Small-handed cellists especially, will need to dedicate a considerable amount of time and practice to stretch and strengthen their hand in order to be able to do these extensions comfortably.


In the Basic Extensions page we talked in detail about the two possible hand postures (“Violin” and “Doublebass”) for doing simple extensions (with one tone between first and second fingers). In the “violin” posture the first finger is strongly curled while the higher fingers are straighter (extending upwards). The “Doublebass” posture is quite the opposite: here it is the first finger which is straighter (extended backwards) while the higher fingers maintain their normal curvature.

In the Neck Region we need both postures. In the lower positions the fourth finger is too short to allow the “Violin” hand posture so we are obliged to use the “Bass” posture. In the higher neck positions the situation is however the exact opposite: here the “Bass” posture is ergonomically impossible so we are obliged to use the “Violin” posture. To illustrate this, try playing the following examples:

Somewhere along the ascending progression, the hand angle will need to change from “bass” to “violin” posture. And in the descending progression the change will be the opposite: back from “violin” to “bass” posture. In the ascending progression this postural change is made unavoidable because the side of the cello obstructs the forearm and hand from continuing their upwards trajectory in the “doublebass position”. This obstruction is most significant when we are playing on the higher strings because it is on those strings that our forearm and elbow are held the lowest. Because of that low elbow (which is necessary to enable us to play on the pads of our fingers), our arm hits the side of the cello as we go up the fingerboard (pitchwise) unless we either raise the elbow (very awkward for the playing fingers) or change the hand angle into the “violin position”. We can consider ourselves lucky that, just at that moment when the arm can go no further in the “bass position”, the distances between the fingers become small enough that we can, for the first time, reach the 1-4 major third with the hand in the “violin position”.

In the descending progression the change to “Bass” position is made obligatory by the fact that the fourth finger can no longer reach the major third interval from the first finger when the hand is in the “violin” position, especially when the fourth finger has to reach over to find that interval on a lower string.

Normally (depending on hand size, shape, and flexibility) this postural change will occur between the extended-up third position and the extended-back fifth position as shown in the following example.

This postural change associated with extended position can greatly complicate our Neck Region playing, destabilising the hand and creating considerable intonation insecurity. This is somewhat similair to the singers “break” – that delicate and dangerous area between registers across which they need to change the way they produce their voice. For larger and/or more flexible hands this problem is much reduced and may even be inexistent.

The “Violin” hand posture is helped by having the thumb deeply under the cello neck and consequently the elbow quite low. This is especially important on the A string. In contrast to this, the “Doublebass” hand posture is helped by having the elbow higher and the thumb less under the cello neck (even floating free sometimes, especially for small hands and especially on the A-string).


In our neck region extensions, the thumb normally accompanies the second third and fourth fingers, leaving the first finger to move back and forth, into and out of extended position independently from the thumb.

But occasionally (exceptionally) we might choose to do an extension upwards without moving the thumb up into its normal position accompanying the higher fingers. This situation normally occurs in passages in which there is only a brief incursion up  into the extended position for which we would normally be obliged to move the thumb rapidly upwards to accompany the higher finger(s) and then rapidly back down again into the non-extended position. By choosing to leave our thumb “behind” (with the first finger), we avoid the destabilising influence of the rapid thumb movement. In these cases we are effectively choosing to prefer the ergonomical discomfort of playing on the higher fingers with the thumb “out of position” (left behind) rather than the destabilising effect of the thumb displacement.

Sometimes we will choose to use this unusual posture in passages which could otherwise be played in permanently-extended position. Here, we prefer to play the passage basically unextended [but with brief unergonomic upwards extension(s) to the higher finger(s)], rather than maintaining the strained extended position during the entire passage:

The following links provide practice material for this type of “extension up, but with the thumb back”:

  Extension Up But Thumb Back: EXERCISES        Extension Up But Thumb Back: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS


For the small-handed cellist, the open string can be either a help or a nuisance in a passage with extensions, according to the nature of the passage.


If an open string comes between two notes that would normally require an extension then we can do a totally relaxed “Non-Whole-Hand-Shift” (in which the thumb does not move) instead of an extension, to get from one note to the other. This saves us from having to maintain the tense extended position the whole time. Try the following exercises in both ways: maintaining permanently the extended position, and alternatively shifting (but with a fixed thumb) between the first and higher fingers without extension. Which way is easier ? Which way is more relaxed ?


Sometimes, the need for an open string in a passage with extensions, can make the passage more difficult. Compare the two following doublestopped finger configurations:

The second example is suddenly much more difficult, because the need for the higher open string obliges the extended-back first finger on the lower string to play on its tip so as not to touch (interfere with) the higher open string. This radically changes our hand position in an unfavorable way, making this particular finger configuration (extended first finger on lower string with open string above) quite awkward for small hands. This complication occurs most severely with the extended first finger on the lower string. When any of the other fingers are on the lower string then they always have to play on their tips anyway (so as not to interfere with the higher string fingers) so the changev associated with the presence or not of the higher open string is much less than for the first finger.

The introduction of the higher open string does however cause a slight problem even for the other fingers on the lower string because it is significantly higher off the fingerboard than when it is being stopped. This difference becomes grater the higher up the fingerboard we go. This means that, with the use of the higher open string, the fingers on the lower string have to be even more on their tips than in a passage without that higher open string. This can be seen playing the following examples, with the 2nd, then 3rd, then 4th fingers on the lower string in extended position passages:


One particular three-string scenario, with an open string on top, the extended fourth finger on the lowest string, and the first finger on the middle string, combines all the factors designed to produce maximum ergonomic discomfort.

The extended fourth finger on a lower string with the first finger on a higher string is already uncomfortable and unergonomic. But when we add the higher open string above the first finger, we now need to keep that extended first finger on its tip and this is REALLY awkward. Here below are all the possible finger permutations that use this uncomfortable posture. In order to get our hand as comfortable as possible in this position we can invent an infinity of three-string exercises based on these chords. Some of them sound nice (and are therefore common) but others (the 4th and 6th) sound horribly dissonant:


For small-handed cellists, releasing the thumb from its contact with the cello neck is one very efficient way in which we can reduce tension in the hand while doing extensions. Usually, when we release the thumb from behind the neck there is always another finger playing and our left hand’s contact with the fingerboard is thus maintained via the fingers. However, in passages across the open string in extended position (most commonly in first position), just after we release the thumb (to facilitate the extension) – but before the extended finger goes down – we need to play the open string. Here then, while playing the open string, we can find ourselves suddenly with no contact at all between the left hand and the fingerboard. This combination of “no thumb contact” and “open string use” is a dangerous cocktail as, while it lasts, we have lost all our tactile positional references. It makes if very difficult to correctly place the finger that comes immediately after the open string.

So in this “easiest of positions” (first position) we can actually have some fairly major problems due to the frequent combination of thumb release with open string use. In fact, First Position could actually be called “Worst Position” (for extensions) because:

  • these situations occur most frequently in First Position because it is here that we use the most open strings
  • it is also here where the distances between the notes are the greatest (and thus our need for thumb release is also the greatest)
  • in these very typical first position note patterns (upwards scale 4-0-1b or downwards 1b-0-4) our fourth finger needs to be very much on its tip in order to not interfere with the higher open string. This posture places even more strain on the extended hand and makes the release of the thumb even more necessary.


One way we can avoid this loss of contact is by maintaining the contact of the higher finger on the lower string during our playing of the higher open string. This means that, in an ascending passage, we will leave the higher finger in contact with the string for the whole time that we are playing the open string (until we put down the extended first finger). In a descending passage we will place the higher finger gently on the lower string before we release the extended first finger. In other words, in both ascending and descending passages, the higher finger is maintaining contact with the lower string for the whole time that we are playing the higher open string.

Let’s illustrate this again using an example of a typical scalic passage, up and down across the open strings:



The above solution is is all very well in scalic passages that cross from one string to another in the same position. But can we release the thumb and somehow still maintain some form of left hand contact with the cello during the open string in passages in which the notes are all on the same string?

The answer is, for the above examples, …… NO! Here, the only way to maintain any left-hand contact with the cello during the open string is by keeping the thumb in contact with the back of the cello neck. This creates strain for the small hand, but the alternative is total intonation insecurity. When finding an extended position after an open string, we simply have to decide, according to the characteristics of the passage and of our hand, whether to choose tension and security (with thumb contact) or less tension and more security (no thumb contact)! For a page of excercises similar to the above examples, click on the following link:

Placing (Finding) Extended Positions After the Same Open String


Try the following note sequences:

Here, there is a way to release the thumb but still maintain hand contact with the cello during the open strings. This “trick” solution would be to not release the first finger entirely from the fingerboard but rather to rotate the finger like a lever in such a way that while the finger pad (tip) is lifted off the playing string (to allow the open string to sound), the part of the finger further back towards the knuckle maintains permanent contact with the left edge of the fingerboard. This little trick is valid for all of the four strings although it is a little more awkward on the A-string because we have so little room for the upper part of the finger to rest on. This artificially-created point of contact replaces the thumb contact under the fingerboard, substituting the thumb’s function there as both a positional reference and an anchor for hand stability. It thus avoids the hand floating, “lost in space”

The free-floating hand has great trouble measuring distances as well as simply staying in the same position. So when we need to move the extended hand around the lower fingerboard (shift) during the open string without the benefit of thumb contact, this first finger contact is doubly useful.

This technique is only useful for small-handed cellists, and only in the lower Neck Region positions in which the extension cannot be comfortably maintained without releasing the thumb contact under the fingerboard. This technique only works really for the first finger.


For more practice material for extended positions involving open strings see the following pages:

Extensions With Open Strings: Exercises       Extensions With Open Strings: Repertoire