In the Intermediate Region we can usually avoid 1-3 perfect fourths by using the thumb. In the Thumb Region it is also the thumb/third finger combination that is is our effortless fingering of choice for perfect fourths and even the 1-3 perfect fourth is often not a particularly strained posture, especially up in the highest fingerboard regions. Therefore this page is dedicated to the very frequent (and very strained) 1-4 perfect fourth double-extension in the Neck Region.
Alicia De Larrocha was a tiny pianist, with correspondingly tiny hands. Her hands could barely reach an octave on the piano but, being very agile and very clever with her fingerings and choice of repertoire, she was – in spite of this “handsize handicap” – an absolutely magnificent pianist and musician. But she avoided playing Rachmaninoff or Brahms, because their music is so obviously written for large-handed pianists (as they themselves were). Can the same situation apply to cellists? Is it possible to play the cello well without being able to comfortably do the 1-4 perfect fourth double extension? (see Hand/Cello Size)
A cellist who can easily reach a 1-4 perfect fourth in the Neck Region, has a truly enormous advantage. The “double-extension” not only allows a cellist to play a “clean” (legato but without glissando) perfect fourth on one string, but also allows us to play legato scales across strings in any key, as well as to play octaves without the thumb. It really is an extraordinarily useful device ……… if we can do it without excessive hand-tension. Some cellists have such big or flexible hands that they can do this stretch without effort, not only comfortably playing octaves in the Neck Region without needing to use thumbposition but also comfortably playing minor thirds between the first and second fingers. Look at Leonard Rose’s fingering for the following excerpt from the third movement of Brahms Symphony Nº 1, copied exactly from his edition of “Orchestral Excerpts” (International Music Company Volume 1). This passage is quite fast: approximately crotchet (quarter note) = 100.
Brahms didn’t play the cello, but, as shown by his piano writing, his hands were enormous and much of his cello writing (Symphonies, F-major sonata and Double Concerto) seems intended for similarly large-handed (and strong-handed) cellists. The above passage, as well as the passage below from the cello’s opening solo of his Double Concerto are only some of many in his music in which being able to comfortably reach a perfect fourth (= octave across two strings) is phenomenally useful.
Cellists who have a nice big “Brahmsian” hand like Leonard Rose really are “the chosen ones”! Other cellists have trouble reaching even a major third – these are also the chosen ones: chosen to suffer! But fortunately, even XSS hands can be accustomed to surviving this stretch – thank you Han Na Chang, Sol Gabetta and other wonderful S-size cellists for showing that this is possible.
It is, in fact, very difficult to play the cello well without being able to do this stretch and it is very rare to see a fine cellist who doesn’t use this technique frequently. If we can’t do this stretch, then we have to be very quick at shifting, very good at finding alternative fingerings and/or a genius with the use of the thumb position in the neck region …….. and preferably all three at once (the cello equivalent of Alicia de Larrocha). Try the following examples taken from standard repertoire. We will look at the different fingering possibilities later:
In the Romantic repertoire we are perhaps more used to find large “Brahmsian” stretches, but, as in the above examples, the need for the double-extension happens frequently even in the Baroque repertoire. It is thought that Bach wrote his cello suites for a smaller instrument, one that was played with violin fingerings (see here). It is also thought that, in the time of Vivaldi (1678 – 1741) and Bach (1685 – 1750), smaller cellos were used for soloistic playing (see here). But nowadays we play all these pieces on standard-size (big) cellos so we have no choice but to manage as best we can with these large intervals.
Let’s look now in more detail at some examples of these different uses of the double extension:
1. SCALES ACROSS STRINGS WITHOUT OPEN STRINGS
A perfect fourth stretch between the first finger on the higher string and the fourth finger on the next lower string gives us an interval of one tone. Never was such a simple, small, fundamental interval so difficult as when it has to be fingered in this way !! Achieving a seamless legato in those slurred scales across strings in the Neck Position for which we are unable to use an open string can be quite problematic and is a frequent reason for the use of the double-extension. Try the following scale:
And here are some repertoire excerpts, all from Bach’s Fourth Cello Suite, illustrating the same problem:
There are very few instruments on which playing a simple scale can create such huge ergonomic problems. Singers have a “break” between their high and lower registers. Basically the cello – in keys in which we cannot use the open strings – has a “break” between each string! Eliminating this uncomfortable stretch (or shift) in scales across strings in “funny” keys (without open strings) is unfortunately impossible because of the cellos tuning in fifths (see below).
The need for the double-extension is however not the same for upwards scales as for downwards ones. In upwards scales, if, instead of stretching, we shift our hand backwards a tone to the higher note on the higher string, then our glissando will need to be totally camouflaged (inaudible) because an audible downwards glissando in an ascending scale, on either the higher or lower string, would be musically (melodically) unacceptable:
This inaudibility can only really be achieved by sleight of hand (by relaxing the bow’s speed and pressure), when the music is loud or when there there are other things happening musically to distract the listeners attention away from our simulated legato. The only way to make that upward scale (across strings and without open strings) 100% legato is to do the double-extension to the new string.
In downwards scales however we can (and often do) use a glissando shift up to the lower note (on the new string and new finger) as a way of avoiding the double-extension, because a glissando up to a note, even when that new note is lower than the preceding note, doesn’t disturb the melodic line too much and is usually quite acceptable. This is lucky because normally this one-tone-shift is more effortless than the hand contortion that the double-extension requires.
2. SHORT UPBEATS IN DOUBLE-EXTENSION
In the above examples we stretched in order to obtain a legato scale across two strings. Very often, after a short upbeat, we will stretch a rapid non-legato perfect fourth in non-scalic passages because it is a easier and more secure alternative to a fast shift. The advantage of the stretch is that we can prepare it earlier than we can prepare a shift. In fact, here the short note before the “leap interval” is played already in the double-extended position, as though it were just a stepping stone to the next, important, note. Let’s look now at some of these situations:
Sometimes we can even do this preparation of our “double-extension” before we start playing. The note indicated with an “X” is our starting positional reference even though our starting (first) note is a perfect fourth stretch away. So we are effectively starting in the correct position for the second note, because that is the important one, the one that needs the good sound that comes with vibrato, absolute comfort and security:
We can make a little exercise for this type of situation. Play it slowly and don’t hold the double extension for any longer than the absolute minimum necessary. As soon as we have played the fourth then we should relax the hand totally, only stretching out again for the next fourth during the rest:
When our perfect fourth (or octave) interval is repeated several times, of our three choices as to how to play it (stretch, shift or cross strings) the stretch option often becomes the most appropriate one to use. This is because playing across the strings tends to break up the line for melodic, vocal passages (it is no problem in harmonic accompaniments) while shifting back and forth is ugly and awkward.
HOW TO DO THE 1-4 DOUBLE EXTENSION
To make a double-extension in the lower positions most cellists are obliged to use the Doublebass Position (see Extensions), with the first finger straightened and pointing up to the nut of the fingerboard, the thumb totally released from its normal position under the cello neck and the wrist arched upwards.For the vey-small-handed cellist both the first and fourth fingers may be extended to their maximum, with no curvature in either finger. Large-handed cellists on the other hand (literally) can often do a double-extension in the “Violin” hand posture, with the first finger strongly curled, the fourth finger stretched straight out and the permanence of thumb contact under the cello neck.
HOW TO AVOID THE 1-4 DOUBLE EXTENSION
We have several ways to avoid the 1-4 double extension, most of which follow the same principles that we use also to avoid our simple (major third) extensions (see the page “Lighten the Load“):
Using the “Alicia de Larrocha” method of combining agility (doing quick shifts instead of stretches, often with a bow portato to hide the glissando) and intelligence (favouring alternative fingerings and even sometimes alternative repertoire), the tiny-handed cellist can play most octaves, 1-4 perfect fourths and 1-4 tones across strings, without having to do this big stretch. For example look at the following fingering for the Brahms Symphony example that we used at the top of the page. Be sure to shift the 1-4 perfect fourths and not stretch them!:
The above excerpt is quite arpeggiated and we absolutely need to cross the strings. In scalic passages by contrast we will often have the possibility to play them on the same string which we might prefer in order to avoid the discomfort of trying to play legato across the strings (with a big double extension in the middle of a slur). Even though this requires a lot more movement of the arm, this option may be preferable because those movements are not tense, unlike the double extension across the strings.
USING THE THUMB AS THE LOWER FINGER
Look at the following examples, in which the alternative fingering using the thumb avoids the need for the 1-4 double-extension (see also Thumbposition in the Neck Region):
Beethoven was one of the worst offenders in terms of writing uncellistic “keyboard” basslines for the cello which require double-extensions. While octave oscillations on the piano involve no difficulty whatsoever, for the small-handed cellist these can present serious fingering problems. Often our best alternative is to use our thumb.
Smaller-hand cellists may find it easier to become “Neck Region thumb-virtuosos” rather than try and stretch their hand beyond its natural limits. But placing the thumb for a brief moment on the fingerboard in the Neck Region (and then removing it) requires a radical change of hand posture and for this reason, we will find many passages for which the use of the thumbposition is unfortunately of no practical help. Certainly, for many large handed cellists the use of the thumb may often be more destabilising for the left hand than simply reaching out to make the double extension between the first and fourth fingers.
CELLO TUNING: FOURTHS OR FIFTHS??
Guitars, lutes, gambas, double basses and bass guitars are, unlike the violin and viola, tuned principally in fourths. This difference in tuning compensates for their longer string length and thus allows smooth scale playing in every key, without the need for mega-extensions at each string change. This tuning also permits much more freedom in choosing fingerings. According to the cellos size (string-length), it probably should have been tuned in fourths. But for some reason, the cello copied violin and viola tuning, even though the physical distances between the notes (fingers) could easily justify tuning in fourths.
It might seem mad to propose a five-string cello tuned in fourths …. but it would certainly be easier to play. Schubert recognised the enormous possibilities of this proposal, writing his divine Arpeggione Sonata for an instrument with this tuning while he never wrote any solo music for the cello. Imagine the gain in comfort and fluidity for our left hand, because that tuning in fourths suddenly eliminates all need for double extensions in normal scale playing. Instantly, the cello would become much easier to play, suitable even for jazz and improvisation, as it is this need for the double extension (or a shift) in scales across strings that so severely limits our “flow” and our improvisational possibilities. Not being able to just flow easily across the strings in every key (with the exception of in the tenor range thumb positions), we need to plan carefully our fingerings in advance. Tuned in fourths, playing the cello would be almost as fluid as playing the saxophone.
The tuning in fifths originally limited very much the cello to being confined to the role of a “bass-line” instrument rather than a melody instrument. That was however only until the discovery of the higher registers (Intermediate and Thumb Region) in which the thumb can be comfortably used as the ergonomic bridge necessary to be able to play scales smoothly across the strings in any key, without the need for constant shifting or XXL stretches. In “strange” keys, this means that the cello is actually easier to play in the higher regions, where the use of the thumb places all of the notes of every scale under our fingers, without the need for this ugly, unergonomic double-extension.
This discussion could have taken place (and probably did) several hundred years ago. It is definitely a little late for it now that our repertoire is so well established, but it is nevertheless an interesting question to wonder about …..