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

Intermediate Region

Between the “Neck Region” (the low regions) and “Thumb Region” (the high regions) there is a frontier zone, a strange no-mans-land, that we could call the “Intermediate Region”. On the A-string, this region extends approximately, from first finger on E (Mi) up to first finger on A (La), perhaps even a little higher. On the other strings, it concerns exactly the same equivalent positions.

The upper limit of the Intermediate Region is, by definition, the position in which we can no longer play without bringing our thumb up onto the fingerboard. This upper limit will be variable for different cellists and for different cellos, because it will vary according to the size and flexibility of the cellist’s hand, as well as with the size of the cello we are playing. The lowest position of the Intermediate Region is the highest position of the Neck Region. In other words, our “Fourth” Neck Position is simultaneously the upper end of the Neck Region and the lower end (start) of the Intermediate Region.

In this “Intermediate Region”, suddenly and uniquely, the hand and fingers move up and down the fingerboard independently from the thumb (which is usually blocked in the corner of the cello neck in what is traditionally called “4th position”). In fact it is this characteristic hand posture that defines the Intermediate Region.

When we reach the Intermediate Region, we have left our familiar, comfortable Earth (the Neck Region), and are now on a strange and bizarre planet. Suddenly, our hand posture, shifting movements, and positional sense are quite different to in the neck region. Apart from the blocking of the thumb, one of the most important differences is that the fourth finger becomes more and more uncomfortable to use as we go gradually higher in this region (it is simply too short). Thus, we now have only three available fingers and must therefore use, for the first time, the 2-3 tone extension. Particularly in the lower Intermediate Region, this extension usually feels very strained and unnatural, especially for small hands, which is why we might want to continue using the 4th finger not only in the 2nd intermediate position, but also in the 3rd and even higher at times (see below and “Use of 4th Finger in Int. Region“)

For all these reasons, we can feel uncomfortable, insecure and unsure of where we are in this region. In fact, this region corresponds very well to the singer’s “break”: that difficult transitional register between their low and high registers that is often a problem to pass through and to sing in.

THE VARIOUS POSSIBLE POSITIONS OF THE THUMB IN THE INTERMEDIATE REGION

Most of the difficulties of this region on the cello are due to the thumb being “stuck” (blocked) in the crook of the cello neck. Violinists and violists face exactly the same situation when they go into the higher positions. Fortunately however, we cellists (and bassists) have two other possibilities with regards to the thumb that violinists and violists don’t have. Unlike them, we are not obliged to keep the thumb blocked in the crook (corner) of the neck, and can also choose either to put the thumb up on the fingerboard, using it like a finger  (“thumb position”), or to simply release it from its position behind the cello-neck and let it “float” in the air. What we actually do with the thumb in this region usually depends on the context: where we are going, where we are coming from, and at what speed.

Keeping the thumb in the neck-corner gives us a very strong, secure positional sense (we know where our fingers are relative to the fixed reference of the thumb) and great postural stability. However, this can be at the price of increased hand tension, especially as we go higher where the fingers are at a greater distance (stretch) from the thumb, and especially for small-handed cellists. As always, we must do a permanent balancing act between the contrasting (opposing) needs for freedom, on the one hand, and security (attachment) on the other. We must weigh up the relative need for each in any particular passage and organise our thumb choreography accordingly.

Let’s look in more detail now at the different possible situations for the thumb in the intermediate region:

1. FREE-FLOATING THUMB: In slower passages, we have less need for the positional reference information and postural stability that the thumb provides and thus are more likely to give priority to absolute comfort, releasing the thumb from all contact with the neck or fingerboard, just letting it float to remove tension from the hand. This idea is equally valid in all three fingerboard regions – neck, intermediate and thumb.

2. THUMB UP ON FINGERBOARD: The thumb can be used quite comfortably as an “extra finger” in the intermediate region. It is often more comfortable and practical to bring it up onto the fingerboard and use it like an additional finger, than to be shifting around trying to play all the notes with only 3 fingers.

But even when we don’t actually need it as a “playing” finger, it can be helpful to bring it up onto the fingerboard, mainly because it holds the strings down and makes our finger articulations easier, especially when crossing to a different string:

There is often great advantage to be had by bringing the thumb up on top of the fingerboard in the Intermediate Region in passages where we are moving from the Neck Region up into the Thumb Region, especially at high-speed. In this way we avoid the awkward Intermediate Position hand postures completely by going directly from Neck Position to Thumb Position. Likewise for the reverse direction: coming down from the higher regions we may prefer just to keep the thumb on top of the fingerboard and stay in Thumb Position until we finally get down into the Neck Position region:

3. THUMB IN CROOK: If we are just making a brief excursion up into the Int. Region and then going immediately back down again, putting the thumb up on the fingerboard will probably just be an unwarranted disturbance.

4. THUMB ON EDGE OF CELLO RIB: When we leave the thumb in the crook of the cello-neck, the hand can be under considerable tension in the intermediate region, especially in the higher intermediate positions where the fingers are at a greater distance (stretch) from the thumb. Not only is the hand strained and tense, but its posture also becomes increasingly unnatural as we move higher up the fingerboard, because the thumbs’ fixed position, far behind the rest of the hand, ultimately makes the hand lean more and more backwards. These two problems are especially significant for smaller hands. To reduce this tension, and allow the hand posture to be more natural, we can place the thumb on the edge of the cello rib, where the side (rib) meets the belly (top-plate). This could be considered a compromise, a “half-way-point” between the free-floating thumb and the thumb stuck in the crook of the neck.

This placement of the thumb gives security and stability without excessive tension. The further the thumb is away from the cello neck, the less tense the hand becomes and the easier it becomes for a small hand to reach the 1-3 major third extension, as the hand can stay more square with respect to the fingerboard. This thumb placement also favours the use of the 4th finger in the lower intermediate positions. It can however create considerable insecurity in shifting to the Intermediate region, as the momentary loss of contact between the thumb and the cello (as the thumb finds its new position) is surprisingly destabilising for our positional control. Where possible therefore, it can help to do this thumb movement just before, or just after, the shift. I must confess that I am the only cellist I know who  frequentlyuses this position of the thumb, which most probably means that this is not very good advice !! It is quite possible that this position of the thumb is most useful for cellists with small and inflexible hands.

HAND ORIENTATION (ANGLE) IN THE INTERMEDIATE REGION

As in the Neck Region, we have two basic alternatives with regard to our hand posture in the Intermediate Region:

    • “violin” posture: with the hand and wrist turned (sloping) backwards, the fingers pointing very much towards the bridge, and the first finger strongly curled.
  • “double-bass” posture: with the hand more flat (in the same plane as the fingerboard), the fingers more square to the fingerboard, and the first finger more straight.

Compared to the Neck Region, the Intermediate Region hand posture will tend naturally much more to the “violin” posture than to the “double-bass” posture because of the effect of having the thumb “behind” the hand, which naturally and inevitably turns the hand into this “violinist” position.The “violin” posture is favoured by the following circumstances:

  • playing high in the Int Region
  • keeping the thumb back in the crook of the cello neck
  • having a small hand and/or a short thumb

The “double-bass” posture is favoured by the opposite circumstances:

  • playing low in the Int Region
  • bringing the thumb up to the cello rib or simply releasing it
  • having a large hand and/or a long thumb

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THE USE OF THE INTERMEDIATE REGION IN DIFFERENT MUSICAL EPOCHS

In the Pre-Baroque and Early-Baroque periods, the upper limit of the cello’s range was usually only the “A”, one octave above the open “A”string. What’s more, it would appear (from the type of writing we normally find), that this note was usually played as a harmonic. In other words, the Intermediate Region (with Intermediate Region hand posture and fingerings) was thus not really used at all in this period and the cellists left hand stayed in the Neck Region posture constantly, including its occasional excursions up to the mid-string harmonic. We can see this limited “Baroque range” in the Sonatas of Vivaldi, the first five Bach Solo Suites, the Sonatas of Marcello, Geminiani, Galliard, de Fesch etc.

Curiously, the violin at this period was also usually limited to this same physical range, with its highest note also being normally the E, one octave above the open “E” string. In fact this limited range continued for the violin throughout the Classical period (until when? Beet sonatas, Moz concertos?).

Towards the end of the Baroque period however, cello writing started to extend its range up into the Intermediate Region, taking the cellist’s left hand now up to “C” (or C#) on the A string, which is the highest possible position which can be used without having to obligatorily bring the thumb up onto the fingerboard. Bach (1685-1750) takes us up to this position only once, in the Prelude of the Sixth Suite. Likewise in the Partitas and Sonatas for Solo Violin he takes the violinists left hand up to the equivalent height only three times and each time very briefly (once each in the Chaconne, and in the Fugue and 4th movement of the C major Sonata).

However other composers – most notably the cellist composers of the Late-Baroque and Early-Classical periods – take us up into the Intermediate Region both earlier and much more frequently than Bach and most of his contemporaries. They were anticipating one of the principal characteristics of the evolution of cello writing through the ages: its gradual emancipation from the bass register and harmonic accompaniments towards a more melodic, lyrical and soloistic role. From the 1690’s, Scarlatti in Italy was already dividing the bass line (basso continuo) into 2 separate staves, with the additional stave being for the cello, whose new voice was simultaneously becoming more active and rising into a higher (tenor) register voice than that of the bass part.

As mentioned in the Left Hand Regions home page, a typical phenomenon of music of the Classical Period is that, after long periods confined to the Neck Region, composers often take us up to the Intermediate Region for brief climactic incursions, as the culmination of a phrase or of a movement as in the following examples.

int region classic incursions

It’s such a shame to mess up our big moment. To really feel secure and at home in this region requires specialised practice because, just as with the Thumb Region, in most standard repertoire we just don’t spend enough time in this region to really get comfortable here. Therefore we need to work on our Intermediate Region in an isolated, concentrated way, in the same way as we also need to work on our Thumb Region.

EXTENSIONS IN THE INTERMEDIATE REGION

In the Intermediate Region, the 1-2 tone extension  is not usually a problem for even the smallest hand. Not only is the distance of this extension smaller up here than in the Neck Region but also our sloping hand angle (posture) in the Int Region actually favours this 1-2 extension. However, for smaller hands, the 2-3 tones and 1-3 major thirds, especially in the lower Intermediate Region, may never feel comfortable. These extensions can often be avoided by using alternative fingerings. These alternative fingerings are like double bass fingerings and will usually involve either:

Click on the highlighted links for repertoire examples and specific exercises for these fingerings.

THE USE OF THE FOURTH FINGER IN THE INTERMEDIATE REGION

It is curious how traditional cello fingering makes such a sudden radical frontier break across a tiny semitone distance on the fingerboard at the start of the Intermediate Region. From the systematic use of the fourth finger for the top note of the first intermediate position (F, F#, G, G# on the A-string) we proceed to the systematic and exclusive use of only the third finger (and the consequent total elimination of the fourth finger) for the top note of the position only one semitone higher (F#, G, G#, A). This “break” is a cellistic equivalent of the “Iron Curtain” of the former Eastern Europe, separating two vastly different and mutually impenetrable worlds: on the one side “you can”, and on the other “you can’t”, and there is no transition zone between the two! The Iron Curtain collapsed as it was a ridiculous, artificial, unsustainable frontier. Do the ergonomics of the left hand in this fingerboard area really justify a similar radical break in our fingering systems or is this frontier also artificial and unnecessary?

We have a special page dedicated to this question and to the use of the Fourth Finger in the Intermediate Region in general. Click on the link to explore this subject further.

SPECIFIC BASIC PRACTICE MATERIAL FOR THE INTERMEDIATE REGION

Here are some purely mechanical exercises for getting really comfortable in this region. They are definitely not “music”. This is the equivalent of a swimmer swimming laps. To swim really well, it is not enough to “know” how to swim: a swimmer has to put in hours and hours of physical, muscular, repetitive mechanical “practice”. Swimmers can switch their brains onto “standby mode” while doing laps. We cellists can switch off our emotions entirely in these exercises, but not our brains, as we need to control (check) our intonation and to know, at all times, what notes we are playing. It is this knowledge, this awareness, that reinforces our interiorised map of the fingerboard.

These exercises are good for warming up. They are progressive, gradually adding extensions.

Intermediate Region Basic Positional Exercises: Fast and Fluid

Intermediate Region Basic Positional Exercises: In Double Stops

Only when we are comfortable playing in the Intermediate Region can we hope to be able to shift accurately and comfortably to and within this fingerboard area. Click on the following link for practice material for working on Shifting To and Within the Intermediate Region.