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

Neck Region

The “Neck Region” is the entire fingerboard area up to (and including) what we would traditionally call the “Fourth Position” (E, F, F#, G on the A string). Above this “fourth” position we enter the Intermediate Region in which the hand and fingers, unlike in the Neck Region, now move around independently from the thumb, because the thumb, from the fourth position upwards, is blocked in the crook of the neck).

In the Neck Region, we use specific hand postures and fingering systems that characterise and differentiate this region from the higher fingerboard regions (see below). The best description I have heard of a cellists left hand posture in this region of the fingerboard is to compare it with that of a monkey swinging from a branch (thank you, Irene Sharp).

This is a very natural and comfortable posture. In fact it is the most natural hand posture that we ever use on the cello. And the availability of the open strings make life SO much easier for our left hand in the Neck Region. It is for these reasons that almost all cello beginners start exclusively in this region, and only slowly work their way up into the Intermediate and Thumb regions. In fact the evolution of cello repertoire has followed the same progression as the beginner cellist. With some notable exceptions (Boccherini and Haydn), the rise of the cello repertoire up the fingerboard into the Intermediate and Thumb Regions has been quite progressive over the centuries.

Even though most “easy” music stays in the Neck Region, this doesn’t mean that all music in the Neck Region is easy. The first 5 Bach Suites, 6 Vivaldi Sonatas, and most orchestral and chamber repertoire up until the romantic period, limit the cello’s range to the Neck Region (with occasional use of the mid-string harmonic). But nobody can say that this is all therefore “easy” music even though their composers may have thought that by staying in this “safe” region, everything they wrote would be easily playable. Extensions, fifths and strange key signatures (in which we can no longer use open strings) along with other technical difficulties can still make life very difficult in this “easy” fingerboard region. The greatest problem of the Neck Region is that it is here, in the lower positions, that the distances between the semitones are the greatest, and thus it is this region that the “normal” extensions are the largest.

In fact, first position extended backwards is actually the “worst”, most uncomfortable position on the cello, certainly for a cellist with a small hand. Not only is it the largest extension on the fingerboard but also, the proximity of the rigid end-of-the fingerboard (the nut) means that the string under the already-strained extended back first finger is also at its most inflexible. This makes it hard to stop (push down). For the comfort (and safety) of our extended first finger, we need to make sure that the string is as low as possible to the fingerboard where it passes over the nut into the cello scroll (if it buzzes then it is too low).

As we go from the lower strings to the higher strings, the extended position becomes more uncomfortable because of the design of our hand (the thumb is too short). Thus, for cellists with a small hand, playing a simple passage in first position extended backwards on the A string can actually be more uncomfortable than a virtuoso passage high in the Thumb Region.

Things get much worse however in the “flat keys”, where we first lose the use of the open “A” string and then the open “D” string. The supposed “naturality” and “comfort” of the Neck Region rapidly transforms itself into absolute discomfort. We not only have to do the biggest and nastiest major third extension, but now we also have to stretch or jump (or a combination of the two resembling a magic trick) a “double extension” (perfect fourth) across strings in order to play a simple scale. Suddenly that legato scale, the most fundamental building block of music that sounds so easy, becomes a task of great difficulty, requiring almost sleight of hand. This is a shame because, unfortunately, Eb major and C minor are very common keys. Bach’s Fourth Suite in Eb (Mi bemol) is a good example of this. If only he had written it in D major: it would sound “the same” but be infinitely easier to play well. We can be thankful to Bach for the scordatura (A string tuned down to G) that he recommends for the Fifth Suite (also with three flats) as it makes life so much easier to be able to use that open string. Perhaps he (or a cellist friend) came to the scordatura idea for the Fifth Suite because the Fourth Suite was sounding so bad?

What a shame the cello is not like a harp, for which the tuning of the instrument can be changed according to the key of the music, in order to always be able to use the open strings!

Let’s look now at some specificities of playing in the Neck Region:

1: THUMB FUNCTION IN THE NECK REGION

Because the thumb doesn’t actually “play” any notes when it is tucked away behind the cello neck, and because it is not only inaudible but also basically invisible there, it is very easy for us to just take its supporting role for granted and ignore what it might actually be doing. This is an easy trap to fall into but it can be a big mistake which can have very serious consequences. To illustrate this we will use a metaphor from the world of car mechanics: ignoring the thumb’s function behind the cello neck is comparable perhaps to ignoring the cooling system for a car engine. If we don’t check that our car has sufficient coolant liquid then we run the risk that the whole motor will overheat and ultimately seize up. At the cello, if we don’t check periodically that the thumb is relaxed, and that it is not squeezing against the cello neck, then we run the risk of our left-hand seizing up completely or momentarily.

The problem is that in the Neck Region we have two ways of applying left-hand finger pressure to the strings (in order to stop the notes):

  • with arm weight
  • with the pincer grip (between thumb and the fingers).

When the thumb is under the cello neck it is “in opposition to” (opposite to) the fingers, which is the perfect position in which to apply (use) a pincer grip. The ability to use the pincer grip is something that differentiates the primates from “lesser” species of animals, this grip allowing for the sophisticated manipulation of objects (tools) by the highly-evolved primate hand and brain. Unfortunately however, this “sophisticated” grip (in an evolutionary sense) is positively counterproductive for cello playing, for which the technique we want to use in order to apply finger pressure to the strings has much more in common with a monkey swinging from a branch than with that same monkey manipulating a tool. So, in other words, while the temptation to press with the thumb in opposition to the fingers is very natural and very strong, it is also very dangerous.

It would be great to have a high-tech pressure sensor along the back of the cello neck, which could measure and record at all times how much pressure was being applied by the thumb on it. It would be so interesting to see just how much thumb pressure behind the cello neck the finest cellists use when they are playing their different passages/notes …….

HOW TO ELIMINATE THUMB PRESSURE BEHIND CELLO NECK

When we release all our fingers from the fingerboard (to play an open string for example) then we absolutely need our thumb’s contact behind the neck as a spatial sensor and positional reference (see Positional Sense). But when we have any other finger in contact with the fingerboard then that finger occupies this function and we can now relax, and even release, the thumb’s contact with the back of the cello’s neck. The total release of the thumb’s contact with the back of the cello neck is easiest to do in exercises in which we don’t have any shifts and in which we always have at least one finger down. In fact probably the best material for practicing playing without any thumb/cello neck contact are the Cossmann Doubletrill Exercises and their preparations.

One of the main things that differentiates Neck Region fingerings from the Intermediate and Thumb Regions is our use of the fourth finger. The “square” hand posture that we can use in the Neck Region allows us to comfortably use the fourth finger in this region, unlike in the higher regions. However the  fourth finger is considerably weaker and less athletic than the other fingers. For this reason we also have a special page dedicated to it (click on the highlighted link).

2: A DIFFERENT METHOD FOR NAMING (NUMBERING) THE FINGERBOARD POSITIONS?

Traditionally the left-hand positions up the fingerboard in the neck region are numbered as “Half”, “First”, “Second”, “Third” and “Fourth” according to the note on which the first finger finds itself, as shown in the following examples:

position-names

In this system, it doesn’t matter if the first finger note is natural, flattened (b) or sharpened (#): the position number stays the same.

all-third-posn

For this reason, although these position numbers have a certain musical (harmonic) logic, they are too vague and undefined to help us to know exactly where our hand is. While this system of nomenclature might make sense in very simple, diatonic music (the positions correspond to notes in the scale), it doesn’t make much sense “technically”, especially when we are playing music that is modulating wildly or rapidly, or that is not tonal.

A better system of position names (numbers) would be chromatic, as shown in the following example:

new-pos-names

The extended positions (1X234 major third range) present more complications for their naming because an extended position can be either “extended up” or “extended back”. Sometimes it is quite clear whether we are extending upwards or backwards, but in other cases this will depend on our hand size, relative finger lengths and where exactly the thumb is lying under the fingerboard:

extn-pos-names-doubts

This subject will be dealt with in the “Extensions in the Neck Region” page.

3: BASIC NECK REGION EXERCISES

Here are some basic exercises for the Neck Positions, with and without extensions. These exercises can be directly printed from the screen. They are dry and mechanical, so we can switch off our emotions. But we do however need to switch on our brains, as it is important to know at all times which notes we are playing. That way we are both building and reinforcing our mental map of the fingerboard. In some of these exercises, once we understand the simple repetitive patterns, we no longer need to read the music, so we can close our eyes and concentrate on the physical sensations and on knowing where we are (the note names). It can be useful to check the intonation now and again with the neighbouring open strings.

Getting comfortable and familiar with the fingerboard regions is best started without the added strain of extensions so the first exercises all use only “closed” position (with a semitone between each finger). Even for the experienced cellist, until our hand is warmed up we should probably start with those exercises that don’t use extensions.To firmly establish the relative finger spacings, our first exercises will not involve shifting but will be either in one position or will move “snakewise” through the positions.

There are two fundamental exercise types for our left hand, in any fingerboard region. Each develops a different type of muscle use, both of which are however absolutely necessary.

  • fast, light, flowing, single notes (not doublestops)
  • double-stopped exercises (usually slower)

1: DOUBLESTOPPED EXERCISES

We will start with the doublestopped exercises because these are extraordinarily efficient for building strength in both the hand and the fingers, and for establishing the positions of the fingers relative to one another (intonation). These skills (of strength and correct finger spacing), combined with the complex finger coordination skills required when we are playing on two strings simultaneously, constitute the foundation of our left hand technique at the cello. We will use these same type of exercises in all the three fingerboard regions. For a more detailed discussion about why doublestops are so useful for our fundamental left hand technique, look at the “Doublestops” page.

Some of these exercises are like nasty medicine: unpleasant and only to be used for medicinal purposes, but very potent (and therefore to be taken only in small doses). It is probably a good idea therefore to start gently and work up towards the more strenuous exercises. The easiest exercises with which to start are those that use the open strings as well as stopped notes. Whenever we use an open string as part of our doublestop, our hand has an invaluable opportunity for relaxation.

We must always be extra-careful not to press the thumb against the cello neck when playing these doublestopped exercises. Playing on two strings at the same time requires considerably more hand pressure than playing on only one string. The temptation to use our grip (thumb-fingers claw) to provide this additional pressure is very strong, but we must instead just use our arm weight. Probably the best way to ensure that we don’t clamp with our thumb is simply to keep the thumb totally removed from its contact with the cello during the entirety of these exercises.

The first two double-stop exercises are particularly hand-friendly: even though they are in permanent double-stops, the frequent use of the open strings allows the hand to relax. Here we are only working with the first finger/fourth finger hand frame.

Most Basic Neck Region Positional Exercise in Slow Doublestops: 1-4 Frame With Open Strings: NO EXTENSION

Most Basic Neck Region Positional Exercise in Slow Doublestops: 1-4 Frame With Open Strings: WITH EXTENSIONS

Basic Doublestopped Finger Exercises in One Position (No Shifts)

Basic Doublestopped Positional Exercises: Moving Chromatically Through All Positions By Snaking (Extn/Nonextn)

Basic Doublestopped Positional Exercises: Moving Tonally Through All Positions By Stepwise Shifting

2: FAST, FLOWING, SINGLE-NOTE EXERCISES (no shifting)

Fast Fluidity Exercises in Neck Region: WITH EXTENSIONS BUT WITH NO FOURTH FINGER

Fast Fluidity Exercises in Neck Region: WITH EXTENSIONS: ALL FINGERS