As a general rule, we cellists – unlike violinists and ballet dancers – need to stop the strings more with the pads of the fingers rather than the fingertips. The softness and size of the finger pad (in contrast to the fingertip) is ideal for making a warm, juicy, rounded sound and a luscious vibrato. Unless we have very big, wide, chunky, “sausage” fingers, the surface area in contact with the string when using the fingertips, is likely to be too small to make this same warm sound. This is especially true for the little finger, whose fingertip is the smallest of all the fingers. And it is especially true also for cellists with narrow (thin) fingers.
Lucky are those string players who have “spatula” type fingertips (with wide juicy pads). This helps enormously to make a good sound and a good vibrato. It would appear that this vaguely blurred, fuzzy limit to the pitch of the note, given by the soft edges and body of the finger pad, gives the vibrato (and even maybe the basic sound) a certain human quality that would be entirely lost if we were to stop the strings with a straight-edged hard object.
THE EFFECT OF ELBOW HEIGHT
The height at which we hold our left elbow while playing has a strong influence on the type of finger contact (tips or pads) that we have with the string. Keeping the elbow low facilitates playing with the pads as it places the fingers more horizontally, whereas raising the elbow higher has exactly the opposite effect. The need for the low elbow (as a means to get the fingers onto their pads) increases as we go from the lower to the higher strings because of the curve of the cello fingerboard. In order to get a warm, rounded sound on the “A”-string – the thinnest and most strident of all our strings – our need for the soft juicy fingerpads (rather than the harder fingertips) is at a maximum. Therefore it is on the “A”-string that our need for a low elbow is the greatest.
For playing in extended position, the low elbow not only allows us to play on the pads, but also helps the fingers to open out (extend) because it allows the wrist to flex (the back side of the wrist joint raises up somewhat, making an angle of more than 180º). A high elbow, on the other hand, causes the wrist joint to collapse (the back of the wrist joint now makes an angle of less than 180º), which converts our hand posture into more of a “claw“. This “claw” hand-posture has the doubly negative effect of both placing the fingers more on their tips, and hindering their ability to extend away from each other. Therefore, our absolutely greatest need for a low elbow occurs when we are playing in extended position on the “A”-string.
WHEN MIGHT WE WANT TO PLAY ON THE TIPS??
Of course, for fast articulated passages this warm and rounded sound becomes less important. In these types of passages we need clarity above all and can use a more drum-like articulation, for which the fingertips – harder and less mushy than the pads – may be more suitable.
Another situation in which we need to play on our fingertips is when we are also sounding the string above that which our Left Hand is playing on. In other words, when we are playing double stops, or broken double stops or simply doing a string crossing to a higher string with either an open string or a lower finger on the higher string. In these situations, unless we play on our fingertips, the fingers playing on the lower string will touch and thus disturb the sounding of the higher string. This is most pronounced when the higher string is an open string, because the open string is significantly higher off the fingerboard than the stopped string, thus is more easily disturbed by the fingers stopping the lower string.
If the crossings are slurred it becomes even easier to hear if the higher open string is being disturbed by the lower-string fingers or if it is on the contrary ringing freely and constantly throughout the passage as we want it to do.
If we can get that open string ringing uninterruptedly, without its vibration being interfered with by the fingers on the lower string, then these passages sound really magnificent. In fact, this is certainly how they are meant to sound.
NEITHER TIPS NOR PADS
In some situations – normally where we don’t need vibrato or an especially good sound – we can stop the strings in some very unorthodox ways. For example, the use of the first finger in thumb position in the neck region, where the the string is stopped from the side rather than above, and the finger is in a completely curled position. The discomfort – and frequency – of this posture is is one of the reasons why we don’t use thumb position in the neck region much!