What is this movement of “finger articulation” that we are talking about here? The concept of finger articulation doesn’t refer to the way in which we keep the string held down (see “pads or fingertips?” and “finger pressure“), but rather to the way in which we land (place) our fingers on the string. There are many different ways – especially concerning the speed and timing – of doing this finger placement. And we will also look at the question of “to articulate or not to articulate?” because sometimes we can choose to leave (or not) a finger “down” (on the string) while playing other fingers. In the following example we can choose to “keep the fourth finger down”, only articulating it twice in the whole passage, or we can articulate it separately each time we need it (8 times in the passage).
But first, let’s talk now about the timing of our finger articulations because the timing of the articulation very much determines the necessary articulation speed.
ARTICULATION TIMING: ON TIME OR ANTICIPATED?
The timing of our finger articulations is not always what we might automatically presume. Keyboard players simply articulate (press down) each new finger at the exact moment that they need the new note to sound but for string instruments the situation is quite different. In fact, surprisingly, the only times in which we absolutely must articulate the new finger exactly in time, is when we are playing a legato finger progression to a higher finger on the same string in the same position.
In the above examples we need to articulate the new fingers exactly “on time” – we cannot anticipate their placement – and therefore need to be very clear, precise, and fast with our finger articulations. When we talk about finger articulations, it is this type of pianistic movement to which we are referring. There are however very many circumstances in which we can anticipate the placement of a finger on the string and for which therefore we no longer need to do the articulation with a crisp, fast movement. Let’s look now at some of these situations:
1. ANTICIPATION FOR LOWER FINGERS
When the new note (finger) is a lower finger, it doesn’t need to be articulated as it is already on the string (while the higher finger is playing). The lower fingers are thus sounded by the release (“negative articulation”) of the higher finger rather than by their own active articulation. It is easier to take a finger off the string in rhythm than it is to place it on the string, which is why descending figures are easier for beginners than ascending figures.
2. ANTICIPATION FOR FINGERS ON A NEW STRING OR AFTER A SILENCE
When the new note is played on a different string (any finger), or if there is a silence between any two notes (fingers), we very often anticipate the finger articulation, placing the finger ahead of the bow and the rhythm. In the example below, the arrows refer to the moment (approximate) of the finger placement. This is actually easier to see when we play pizzicato, as pizzicato is less legato than bowed notes so we have more time between the notes to observe (and to do) our “anticipated finger articulations”.
The more separated the notes are, the easier it becomes to anticipate the placement of the fingers before their “correct” rhythmical moment (before we actually start to sound them with the bow or with a pizzicato pluck).
THE RELATIVE FREQUENCY OF ANTICIPATION COMPARED TO ARTICULATION
Anticipated finger placements are actually much more frequent than the energetic articulations. Look for example at the following excerpt in which the obligatory “on-time articulations” are shown within the rectangles.
Of the total of 70 stopped notes in this passage, only 14 (20%) actually require an “on-time” articulation. The other 56 notes (80%) can be placed anticipatedly. In the following example none of the notes would normally be articulated “on-time” – all would be anticipated.
Not all musical excerpts have the same articulation characteristics. Look at the following examples. The “piano articulations” (where the note is “hammered” at exactly the required moment) are once again shown by the red rectangles. The “anticipated” finger placements (no hammered articulation required) are shown by the green enclosures.
The upward scale requires a hammered articulation on every stopped finger – but the downward scale requires absolutely none, as all the finger placements can be done anticipatedly. In the downward scale we could articulate the fourth finger on the new string if we wanted, but this is usually not useful, for reasons that will be explained just below.
THE ADVANTAGES OF ANTICIPATION
When we can do our finger articulations anticipatedly then we no longer need to articulate them hard or fast. In fact an anticipated finger placement is basically the opposite of an “articulation”: articulating in advance not only allows us to place the fingers in a gentle manner, it actually requires us to use this gentle manner, as otherwise the articulation will sound (because of the percussive effect). See Left Hand Pizzicato.
Another advantage of anticipated placement is that we don’t need to coordinate this placement with anything – so long as we put the finger down before we need it, we can do it anytime we like. This is a beautiful, relaxed, easy feeling, and quite the opposite of the effort and difficulty involved in placing the new finger at its exact rhythmic moment and coordinating it simultaneously with a change of bow or change of string. (see Fast Playing and Anticipation Principle).
THE DISADVANTAGES OF ANTICIPATED FINGER ARTICULATION
We could also have named this section “the advantages of on-time articulation”.
As usual, there are two sides to each story. While anticipation is usually good for smoothness and fluidity, there are also situations in which using a crisp, on-time articulation, even though not technically absolutely necessary, can be very helpful.
Accents, sforzandos, and dramatic fortes can all benefit from the decisiveness of a simultaneous attack from both hands. Having the finger already waiting calmly in position before the bow placement, takes energy away from the musical (and theatrical) drama:
A crisp on-time articulation can help give us security in our finger placements. This can be especially useful in shifts. It is as though the act of hitting the finger on the destination note gives us extra confidence to pluck that high note accurately and decisively from outer space. This is the opposite of groping smoothly around as though we were lost in a dark room. Here we catch the note like a cat leaping for its prey: with a slow careful preparation then a sudden release of explosive energy. Some other useful analogies could be: swatting a fly, hammering a nail etc.
Sometimes, articulating the finger on the new string to exactly coincide with the bow’s string crossing can help us to coordinate and control a fast slurred note sequence. It is as though the benefits of anticipation were here outweighed by the advantage of doing everything decisively, rhythmically, and all at once:
But what if the notes were slightly changed and the finger was already prepared on the lower string ???? We certainly wouldn’t “rearticulate” it ….. (see discussion at the bottom of the page about “rearticulation choices”)
With a finger placed on the string, our left hand is not as relaxed as when it has no fingers placed. As a general rule we should use every possibility we can find to allow the hand to relax. Placing the fingers too early – especially if we also start pressing too early – causes tension. Tension means danger. We must not anticipate too early nor too decisively. The best anticipation is both as late as possible and as light as possible. Otherwise we might actually be better off by not anticipating our finger placement!
SHIFTING TO A HIGHER FINGER: FINGER DOWN EARLY, OR ARTICULATED EXACTLY ON TIME?
This is a very important – and conflictive – question! When we shift to a higher finger – either on the same string or onto a new string – we can choose when to articulate the new (higher) finger. Either we do it clearly and crisply in the exact moment that we want to hear the new note or, on the contrary, we place the new finger both imperceptibly and anticipatedly and thus slide into the new note on the new finger. This applies to both “assisted shifts” upwards (red circles) as well as to “scale/arpeggio-type” shifts downwards (green rectangles) as can be seen in the following example.
Sometimes our decision (choice) is based on technical reasons: with an anticipated finger articulation we can hear the shift glissando on the new finger. But at other times this is a stylistic choice, between a vocal style (legato, lyrical) or a pianistic one (clear, articulated, no glissando). In the above example, every placement of the fourth finger gives us an opportunity for choosing between these two alternatives. Being a smooth legato melody, with all the shifts under slurs, the optimum conditions are present for favouring a choice of smooth anticipated articulations in the shifts (although many cellists might play it with strong rapid articulations for clarity). But what about the following example?
Here, we are in a different musical world. Now, the shifts coincide not only with bow changes but also with the strong rhythmical accents. These are the optimum conditions for a strong rhythmic finger articulation to the higher finger in the shifts, rather than the smooth anticipated placement. While we don’t need to do this crisp articulation, doing it actually fits in with the accented, energetic musical character.
And in the following example, the exact same notes, with the exact same fingerings, will be played completely differently (from the point of view of the finger articulation) according to the desired bowing articulation: with every shift articulated in the first case, and every shift a smooth sliding glissando in the second case:
These are choices between complete opposites – night and day, black and white, (but definitely not between “good” and “evil”). It is either one or the other, with really no possibility of compromise (finding a mid-point). We could almost characterise these two options as representing two very different psychological prototypes: the “Puritan” way (highly articulated, with absolute clarity) and the “Sensuous” way (very smooth, with the notes merging into one another). We need to be able to do (and be?) both ……
But there is another factor that will also influence our choice in this question: whether or not we can hear our glissandi. When playing in large orchestras – or in any noisy situation in which we can’t clearly hear our glissando shifts – the articulated rhythmic placement of the new finger after a shift becomes an intonation life-saver. Lacking the audible glissandi feedback to tell us where we are (relative positional sense) we now depend on our absolute positional sense: our ability to find any note “out of the blue” (without any reference to the note which came before it). Absolute positional sense is helped very much by the vigorous, decisive articulation of the target finger in each new position. See Positional Sense.
Having looked at the subject of articulation timing, let’s look now at the other possible characteristics (variables) of finger articulations.
ARTICULATION SPEED AND ENERGY:
According to the musical situation, our appropriate left-hand articulation speed can vary between, at the one extreme, the almost imperceptible padding steps of a cat creeping stealthily towards its prey, and – at the other extreme – the rapid fire explosions of automatic gunfire, a pneumatic drill, a string of firecrackers exploding in a row etc. This is actually very similar to the different ways in which we make contact with our bow on the string (bow trajectory from the air): we can land it on the string very slowly, gently and imperceptibly or, at the other extreme, we can hit it hard and fast into the string to make a sfz. This is why the term “articulation” can be applied to both the left and right hands.
In slower, gentle, lyrical music not only do we not need hard, fast finger articulations, we in fact need to avoid them, as they can disturb the musical expression. Here we really do want to just be sliding (gliding, slithering) around as in the following example:
In faster music however, in order to help the notes “speak” clearly from their very beginning, it usually helps to use faster, clearer, crisper (more energetic) finger articulation than in slow lyrical playing. We can often hear very clearly this energetic articulation (hammering) in closely-miked recordings (in which the microphone was placed close to the cello) such as in this recording of Stephen Isserlis playing the Bach Suites (extracts). This is definitely not a catwalk.
Energetic articulation comes quite naturally in loud fast passages but we often have to remind ourselves to use it also in fast soft passages. Hitting the fingers hard on the fingerboard while we are playing very lightly with the bow feels quite unnatural. This really requires practice (see Fast Playing).
Articulating a new note requires more work (speed x pressure) than just maintaining any one note which is why our hand tires much faster when we are playing many notes than when we are just holding long notes. But the force and energy required to articulate the new notes is not only determined by musical factors. The more resistant the string is, the greater the energy required to stop a new finger. This means not only that the thicker lower strings need more articulation energy, but also that the higher the strings are from the fingerboard the harder they will be to articulate rapidly.
MULTI-STRING PASSAGES: ARTICULATE OR KEEP FINGER DOWN OR ….?
At the top of this page we looked the following example:
For the fourth finger here, not only can we choose between the two extremes of maximum hold-down (2 articulations) or minimum (8 articulations), there is also a midway choice whereby we release the 4th finger pressure totally when not playing on it, but at the same time we keep it in contact with the string. This has the twin advantages of allowing the hand to relax but also not losing the finger’s positional sense (as we would do if we were to lift the finger off the string each time).
“REVERSE” ARTICULATION = LEFT HAND PIZZICATO
When we play a lower finger after a higher finger, we don’t need to articulate the new finger as it is already in contact with the string. However we will often do a left-hand pizzicato (pluck of the string with the higher finger) in order to help the lower note sound cleanly from the very beginning. This pizzicato is basically a “reverse articulation”: instead of placing the lower finger energetically and fast on the string we remove the higher finger energetically and fast. This has almost the same effect as the “hammered” articulation. It is also very useful to help the open string sound cleanly and clearly right from the beginning.
Try any downward scale with and without these left hand pizzicato “reverse articulation” effects. In the following example the + sign indicates that the note is sounded by the vigorous removal of the higher finger from the string with an energetic plucking (LH pizz) movement. Try this first with only the left hand (no bow or right-hand pizzicato):
“Playing” (sounding) notes and passages without the right hand obliges us to use exclusively our two left hand articulation possibilities: both “reverse” (LH pizz) and “hammering”. This gives us an intense left-hand-articulation workout.
REARTICULATION CHOICES (FOR REPLAYING THE SAME FINGER).
Play the following passage:
Here, as occurs very often in passages across different strings, we need to choose what to do with a finger before we replay it. We can choose between the two opposite extremes of:
- keeping it pressed down
- releasing it entirely (lifting it off the string and then rearticulating it when we need it)
Or we can make a compromise between these two opposites by releasing the finger pressure while keeping however the “released” finger still in contact with the string.
The following example is identical to the one shown above, but this time all the notes for which we have these different articulation possibilities are shown inside the rectangles.
It is an interesting experiment to play this passage three times, with the notes in red played each time in only one of the three different ways:
- no rearticulation (permanently stopped)
- rearticulated completely
- compromise (rearticulated but with permanent string contact)
Of course our choices will be very much influenced by the speed of the passage. The less time we have between our reutilisations of the same finger, the more difficult (and impractical) it will be to release the finger pressure and rearticulate the finger:
But the amount of time we have is not just a direct function of the speed of the passage. Even in a very fast passage, if the time between the original finger placement and its rearticulation is sufficient, we can still release it entirely while it is not in use: