FOR THE CURIOUS CELLIST

Thumbposition: How To Make It Feel Easy

For cellists, discovering and exploiting the enormous possibilities of thumbposition is like discovering oxygen tanks for mountaineers. While Everest can be climbed without oxygen tanks, it is (so they say) so much easier to do it with. But simply discovering the thumb is not enough. We need to master its use through diligent training and practice. On this page can be found some general ideas/material for getting comfortable in thumb position. The following link however will take us to very specific compilations of practice material, targeted for working in an isolated manner on each of the different specialised aspects of our thumbposition playing: Thumbposition Practice Material

LET’S START WITH OUR TUNING METHOD AND NATURAL HARMONICS UP HIGH

When we pick up our cello and just start “fooling around” (or warming up), we usually start off in the Neck Region – and we quite possibly stay there –  because that is where we feel most comfortable. Leaving the comfort zone is hard ….. but if we just follow our natural instincts towards ease and relaxation, our comfort zone will have trouble expanding. The very first thing we normally do when we pick up our instrument is tune it, so let’s start by changing the way we tune, to get ourselves already mentalised, from the very beginning, to using thumbposition and the Thumb Region.

tuning in thumb region

In fact natural harmonics are quite a nice way to get us comfortable in thumbposition because they don’t need to be stopped (and therefore encourage relaxation and ease in both hands) and they give us some very stable (and forgiving) reference points. So here then is some practice material which takes us up into and through thumbposition using the harmonic series:

Harmonic Series: Major Arpeggios: EXERCISES             Harmonic Series: Minor Arpeggios: EXERCISES

Harmonic Series: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

SPECIALISED PRACTICE MATERIAL: REPERTOIRE COMPILATIONS

In order to get really comfortable in thumbposition and with high playing in general, we will almost certainly need to work on specialised practice material that really keeps us up there for long periods. If we don’t make this special effort, we risk being traumatised (or at the very least, embarrassed) by what are often brief  incursions into hostile and unknown territory. To make matters worse, these “difficult, high passages” usually coincide with the musical and emotional culmination of the phrase (and even of the piece). It is as though the spotlight shines brightest on us just as we have to do our most challenging task. There is only one solution: we have to make these passages feel easy. Practicing each individual passage 1000 times might do the job, but it’s infinitely more healthy and efficient to practice a wider variety of material.

A lot of the best material for working on thumbposition is written by cellist-composers as they, more so than “pianist-composers”, were the most aware of what could – and couldn’t – be done in thumbposition on the cello. These cellist-composers used their own music as the ideal vehicle for showing off their virtuoso skills in the Higher Regions. Beethoven offered to write a cello concerto for Bernard Romberg, who however politely declined, saying “I prefer to play my own music”. This is why we have many Cello Concertos by Romberg, but none by Beethoven! Romberg was probably frightened by Beethoven’s often unidiomatic (not cellist-friendly) high writing. A cellist-composer would never write anything that they couldn’t play well.

The two cellist-composers who most stand out in their use of (and mastery of) thumbposition were Boccherini (1743-1805) and David Popper, born exactly 100 years later (1843 – 1913). Both have left us with a large amount of concentrated thumbposition and Thumb Region practice material to work intensively on our mastery of thumbposition. While Boccherini wrote Cello Concertos and Sonatas, Popper wrote Salon Pieces and Etudes (studies). In fact Poppers “High School of Cello Playing” Op 73 is almost the bible of many virtuoso cellists. Janos Starker was known to say to students “there is nothing wrong with your playing that the 40 Popper Etudes won’t cure”!

Unfortunately however, neither of these “thumb experts” were particularly outstanding composers so, in order to provide thumb practice material with more musical interest, here below are some compilations of thumbposition passages from the cello repertoire, in approximate order of both chronology and increasing complexity (these two go hand in hand). It is very revealing that the collection of thumbposition passages from any piece of music often coincides almost exactly with the compilation of the most “difficult” or problematical passages of that piece. It is as though, just by becoming an expert in thumbposition, we immediately become a virtuoso cellist !

These compilations are grouped by composer. There is nothing here by Bach or Vivaldi for the simple reason that they never wrote anything that was intended to be played in thumbposition. Thumbposition was only really “discovered” around the middle of the 18th century (Sonatas Op 1 by Lanzetti from 1736, and Sonatas Op 1 by Berteau from 1748), and quite possibly neither Vivaldi nor Bach had even seen cellists using the thumbposition (see History of Thumbposition). Consequently all of the “high” passages in their music, for which we nowadays use the thumb, were written either for five-string cellos or (uniquely in Bach‘s case) for the viola da gamba.

Lanzetti        Berteau         Danzi       Stamitz     Boccherini     Breval

Haydn       Mozart      Beethoven       Schubert

     Brahms        Dvorak          Franck          Lalo       Elgar

Saint-Saens      Schumann    Tchaikovsky

Shostakovitch     Prokofiev     Stravinsky

    Folk

The use of the thumb in these excerpts is often optional and there are usually many different fingering possibilities for any passage. Many passages are included in which the use of the thumb may be controversial. Don’t panic and don’t complain!!! If you disagree with the fingerings, get out the Tippex and change them. The sole objective of these compilations is to find “real” musical examples to use as practice material for the thumb and the high positions in general. Both the fingerings and the bowings are just suggestions. Even if we don’t know the correct tempo, it doesn’t matter – every speed brings its own benefits.

PEDAGOGICAL ORDER = CHRONOLOGICAL

It is very convenient to practice thumbposition material (repertoire at least) in chronological order, starting with the Baroque, then Classical, followed by Romantic and finishing with the 20th century. This is not because of the differences in the quantity of thumbposition playing in cello writing through the epochs but rather because of the type of thumbposition playing. This subject is explored more fully on its own dedicated page: Thumbposition: Pedagocical Order By Epoch.

OCTAVES

Practicing in octaves can also be very useful. No other material works the thumb so intensively, because when we play octaves the thumb is always stopping the string: it has no “rest time”. This is great for developing strength and a tough callous – so long as we don’t overdo it. Octaves are also very good for establishing a strong secure hand frame, normally between the thumb and third finger but also with the  thumb/second finger combination. Open this Octaves  link for a more in-depth discussion about this subject as well as for a lot of practice material (exercises, studies and repertoire compilations).

GETTING INTO AND OUT OF THUMBPOSITION

Octaves are, by definition, in thumbposition. We will however need also to work on the specifics of getting into and out of thumbposition. The following link will take us there: Shifting To and From Thumbposition. In the above compilations of thumbposition repertoire excerpts, both the shifting up into (and down out of) thumb position are included for each passage (when relevant). Of course we can practice these passages simply without including these notes, thus working simply on our “playing in thumbposition”. The following link (Thumbposition Practice Material) takes us to a page with loads of practice material specifically targeted to develop the many different specialised aspects of thumbposition technique, of which the first sections are however dedicated exclusively to playing in thumbposition, with the thumb permanently up on the fingerboard.

THE USE OF THE THUMB IN DIFFERENT MUSICAL GENRES

In general, Concertos and Virtuoso Concert Pieces spend more time in the high positions than do Sonatas, Chamber Music and Orchestral Music (in that decreasing order). Even though most of us will never play a concerto with orchestra, and may never want to play a difficult virtuoso concert piece in public, the abundance of high material that they usually contain gives us the opportunity to get used to playing “up high” and is a good enough reason to learn and practice them. Studies and exercises are not  “musical genres” but rather are technical resources. Technical material dedicated exclusively to thumbposition is of course the most concentrated way to work on this aspect of our technique.