FOR CELLISTS: AMATEUR, ASPIRING ............... AND CURIOUS

Cello Size and Hand Size

The relation between cello size and hand size, flexibility and strength is one of the most important factors in left-hand cello technique. It is the combination of these four factors that will determine how much strain the hand is under during our extensions. For cellists of every level, loving the cello sound but having a small, weak, inflexible hand is a potential source of great frustration. It can be a little like loving a person who doesn’t really love you back!! But there is hope …… although we cannot change our hand size, we can improve its strength and flexibility. And we most certainly can change our cello size. We will look now at these different factors separately.

1: CELLO SIZE

Cello size is vitally important for small-handed cellists. The longer the string length (distance between the bridge and the top of the fingerboard), the greater the distance will be between the notes, and the more strain the hand will suffer in reaching for (and holding) the extensions. While we can improve the flexibility and strength of our hand through exercises and practice, we can’t change its size. We can however change the size of the cello.

In the viola department, the large range of different sizes available for different sized adult violists is considered absolutely normal. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for cellos. Once again, in spite of all the jokes, violists reveal their superior intelligence! There is however some variety in “adult” cello sizes and small-handed cellists will almost certainly find it much easier to play a cello with a relatively short string length. This normally means a cello with a shorter body length – a so-called “Ladies Cello” or 7/8th size. The extraordinary cellist Daniil Shafran (who did not have a particularly small hand) played for his entire adult life on a small 7/8 Amati cello. This magical combination of a large hand with a small cello greatly facilitated his instrumental virtuosity, allowing him to:

  • use fingerings (extensions, use of fourth finger and thumb) that no cellist with a “normal” hand-size/cello-size relationship could even imagine
  • have an absolutely beautiful sound and vibrato, greatly facilitated by a totally relaxed left hand

We can see this in videos of his playing, for example this one of Schubert’s “Ave Maria”.

However we need to be careful, as not all small-bodied cellos have a shorter string length (and not all full-size cellos have a full-size string length). A large cello may have a string length of 72 cm or more, whereas for a 7/8 cello this distance is often only 68 cm. Those 4 cm of difference, spread out over the whole fingerboard actually make an enormous difference for the comfort of the hand, especially when it comes to doing extensions. Playing on a cello with a shorter string length is the equivalent of suddenly having a larger hand. Even a small cellist might be able to achieve the same advantageous size relationship to their cello as Rostropovitch, simply by playing on a 3/4 size cello. Suddenly, most of the Left Hand strain is gone and the cello becomes actually quite easy to play !!

Curiously, both Leopold Mozart and Quantz, in their respective treatises on music written around the mid 1700’s, describe two different cello sizes: a smaller cello for solo playing and a larger one for orchestral playing. What a shame that this idea has since disappeared, and what a shame that the cello size that has fallen out of favour is the smaller one ! In the same way that a small car can be more powerful than a large one, smaller cellos do not necessarily sound weaker than their bigger brothers. It is interesting that Daniel Shafran, one of the greatest cello virtuosos of the 20th century, played all his life on a 7/8 Amati cello. Watching videos of him playing one can see how effortlessly he reaches for the left hand extensions. The relatively small size of his cello was undoubtedly a great help in his extraordinary ease of playing.

The cello is a difficult instrument to play well, largely because of certain design characteristics (faults?) related to its large size. A normal-sized cello for a normal-sized cellist is just too large to allow a fluid easy command of all the notes of a scale under the hand in one position. Normally, an instrument with this string length (approximately 68-70cm) would be tuned in fourths, to allow the playing of any scale fluidly across the strings without the need for large uncomfortable extensions. This tuning in fourths, apart from being used on double-basses and bass guitars, is used on guitars and viola da gambas, both of which normally have a shorter string length than the cello. At the time of the development of the cello however (see Cello History), the gamba tuning in fourths was rejected in favour of the violin/viola tuning in fifths. This has a great intellectual logic – now the three instruments are basically just different sized versions of each other – but has no ergonomic logic.

If the instrument was tuned in fourths (even in augmented fourths) then the need for extensions across the strings would diminish greatly, and the need for double-extensions across the strings (for smooth scales) would disappear completely. This would greatly facilitate melodic playing. It is not really surprising then that Schubert wrote an absolutely magical (and highly melodic) sonata for the Arpeggione, rather than writing one for the cello. The only disadvantages of the Arpeggione compared to the cello were its weak sound and its lack of expressive glissandi (because of the frets). These problems could be easily remedied nowadays. Perhaps a modern, electric, amplified, fretless Arpeggione (Yamaharpeggione?) will one day make a hugely successful comeback and relegate the cello to museum-piece status??!!

2: HAND SIZE

It is not surprising that many of the greatest cellists are also quite big: Rostropovitch, Piatagorsky, Tortelier, Truls Mork, Lyn Harrell – and even Jaqueline du Pre – all have (or had) an enormous advantage for cello playing due to their large hand-size. As Casals, Rose and many other short cellists illustrate however, it’s not so much body height – or finger length – that determines a hand’s suitability for the cello. Rather it is the width of the hand that is important – and not only for extensions. A wide hand with short (but ideally chunky) fingers has its centre of gravity closer to the fingertips and is thus often stronger and more stable than a long narrow hand. This gives comfort and ease, not just to extensions but also to vibrato and general left hand technique.

In women’s beauty contests, hips, waist and bust measurements used to be given. We could do the same for cellists, but in our case the vital measurements would be “hand width”, “finger diameter” and “hand volume”. And, unlike for the beauty contestants, for cellists, the bigger all these numbers are, the more advantageous for the cellist!

Leonard Rose recognised his luck in this department. In spite of being quite short (173 cm/5’8″) he considered himself “blessed” with “hands that lent themselves to the cello” and he wrote: “I have a tremendous lack of webbing in my hands. I am capable of doing many extensions on the instrument so that I can cover a vast area quite quickly”. This ability can be seen clearly in his fingering suggestions in the numerous editions with which he collaborated. The following excerpt from the third movement of Brahms Symphony Nº 1 is copied exactly from his edition of “Orchestral Excerpts” (International Music Company Volume 1). This passage is quite fast: approximately crotchet (quarter note) = 100.

roseBrahmsFirstSymphIII

Here we can see that Rose uses very comfortably the minor third extension back to the first finger from the second finger. There are actually a total of 14 of these “double extensions” in his fingering of this short passage, as well as 10 simple extensions. With this ability to stretch, his hand can just stay in “Fourth Position” throughout the passage. For a small handed cellist however, the systematic use of these types of fingerings may be dangerous both musically (risk of bad intonation) and physically (risk of hand strain injuries). Rose was a magnificent cellist and musician, but his fingerings are not appropriate for everybody (literally). For a small-handed cellist, it is probably safer to use fingerings with more shifting and less stretching, as in the following fingering suggestion for the same passage:

smallBrahmsFirstSymphIII

With this fingering, instead of the 14 double extensions and 10 simple extensions of Rose’s fingerings, we now have no double extensions and only 5 simple extensions. Instead of the stretching, we now have 12 small shifts, as compared to only 2 shifts in Rose’s example.

Casals, like Rose, was not bothered by extensions either. He even recommended just leaving  the hand in extended position as often as possible, even when not strictly necessary! This advice obviously worked well for him but, once again, is definitely not suitable for everybody and is inconceivable for a small-handed cellist.

HAND STRENGTH AND FLEXIBILITY: DOUBLY NECESSARY FOR SMALL HANDS

In the same way that practice is a “musicians curse” (absolutely unavoidable, permanently necessary and potentially unpleasant), extensions can be the “curse of the (small) cellists left hand”. But even a small, narrow hand can become flexible and strong enough to realize the common extensions without excessive strain, especially if it has been accustomed to them from a young age. Practicing a lot as a child is certainly even more necessary for small-handed cellists. Fortunately for “XS” sized cellists we have Sol Gabetta, Han Na Chang and many others whose extra strength and flexibility (and talent) make up for their smaller size, to show us that it is possible, even with a small hand, to do extensions with ease.

For those of us who are lucky enough to have a big, wide, strong, flexible hand which feels no strain from these common extensions: congratulations on your good fortune! …. you can probably skip this section. For those of us for whom it is too late to take this decision, we have to find ways to live with extensions, to make light of them, to reduce their negative impact and ………. to avoid them when possible (click on the links)!!

In an ideal world, children who have small hands and who will obviously never have a large wide hand, should probably be encouraged, for their own good, to play a different instrument (but not the viola). This will save them a lot of unnecessary suffering and extra work.