In the same way that we try to make our practice (another unavoidable “curse”) as interesting and enjoyable as possible, there are many ways by which we can lighten the load of our uncomfortable (and unavoidable) extensions:
- maintain them for as little time as possible
- avoid them: by shifting more rather extending, and by using thumbposition
- practice them regularly
- play on a smaller cello
- release the thumb
We will now look at each of these in more detail.
1: MAINTAIN EXTENSIONS FOR AS LITTLE TIME AS POSSIBLE
Even in passages that seem to be entirely and unavoidably in extended position, we have several ways by which we can reduce the amount of time that we are actually playing in the extended position
1A: LAST-MINUTE OUTREACH
Rather than maintaining the hand in extended position, we can often make the extension “at the last minute” – reaching out for the extended notes only when we need them, and then immediately relaxing back into non-extended position. Sometimes we have plenty of time to reach out for our extension (Dvorak example) but at others we have very little time and will refinger the passage so that we only are in extended position when it is absolutely necessary (Telemann and Sibelius examples). In this “refingered” option we will need to use our hand’s speed and agility to make up for its lack of size and reach.
While the large-handed cellist might simply prefer to stay in extended position throughout, the small-handed cellist might always favour the “last-minute option” or might alternatively decide on a mix of both according to the speed of the passage. In the following example we will have to decide which is “better”: staying permanently in extended position (lower fingering option), or doing a somewhat more complicated refingering involving both closed and extended positions and requiring lightning-fast extensions but only when strictly necessary (upper fingering option). This choice might change in the last few bars, in which the frequency of the extensions is doubled making it perhaps more simple to just stay in the extended position rather than maniacally opening and closing the hand.
1B: ROCK OR ROLL?
When a middle finger comes between the first and top fingers, we can “roll” the hand between these two extremities (with the middle finger as the central axis) rather than maintaining a tense, rigid (rock-like) immobile extension. This is especially useful in fast passages and is equally useful in all the fingerboard regions:
2: AVOID THEM BY SHIFTING MORE AND BY USING THUMBPOSITION
In concert repertoire we can often reduce the number of extensions through the use of Fingerings to Avoid Extensions. One way to do this is to shift more:
Sometimes, without modifying the fingering at all, we can do a semitone shift (indicated by the red rectangles) instead of reaching out for the extension. This is especially useful in slower, legato, lyrical music because it allows us to do two very beautifully expressive things. The use of a shift allows us connect the interval with a glissando, while the compactness of the non-extended hand allows us to maintain a constant vibrato.
This idea can also be valid in faster paasages. In the following example, as with the above examples, our fingering doesn’t indicate that we are doing anything different to the traditional extensions:
Sometimes doing a semitone shift instead of an extension does require a change of fingering. These cases are looked at in “Fingering to Avoid Extensions“. On that page we also look at the use of thumbposition to avoid extensions. The thumb/second finger major third is normally a much less strained position than the same interval fingered betwen the first and top fingers and this is true in every fingerboard region. And of course the thumb/top finger perfect fourth is a much less strained way of doing the double-extension (see Double-extensions).
3: PRACTICE THEM REGULARLY
We will never be able to avoid extensions entirely. There are so many passages that cannot be refingered, that if we don’t practice them diligently, the hand will lose the strength and flexibility that is so necessary to make them reasonably comfortable, and they will only become harder and harder.
For basic general extension exercises click here. For more specific exercises, studies and repertoire excerpts, click on the links at the bottom of the page that are associated with each of the different fingerboard regions.
4: PLAY ON A SMALLER CELLO
7/8 size cellos, also called “ladies cellos”, are a wonderful option for small-handed cellists because normally the string length is a few centimeters shorter than on a full size instrument (67cm as against 69cm). Those few centimeters make a huge difference to left hand comfort and ease, especially in extensions (see Hand/Cello Size). But we must be careful to measure the length of the stopped string (from the peg box to the bridge) because some 7/8 cellos actually have a full-size string length. In fact, the size of the cellos’ body is not the problem – only the string length affects our left hand comfort. Shortening the string length on an acoustic cello requires moving the bridge up and the nut (at the peg-box) down by equal distances so as not to displace “4th position” relative to the end of the neck. This can change the acoustic properties (sound) of the instrument. On electric cellos however, the string length can be altered with minimal acoustic effect (only the effect of lowering the string tension). By playing on a cello with a sufficiently shortened string length even the smallest hand can start to feel like Rostropovitch’s bear paw. The increase in comfort is extraordinary when the notes all lie under the fingers effortlessly!!!!
5: RELEASE THE THUMB
We have spoken about the “Tyranny of the Thumb” with respect to Shifting and Vibrato, where maintaining permanent thumb contact with the cello can cause rigidity and tension. The same phenomenon occurs also with extensions – and this in all the fingerboard regions. Excessive tension in the hand during an extension can often be reduced by releasing the thumb from its contact with the cello. Large handed cellists usually have less need for this, but for small-handed cellists thumb release in extensions may often be essential, especially when using “Double-Bass Position”.