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

Fourth Finger Use in Thumb Position

Because of its relative shortness, the fourth finger is not really optimal for use in the Thumb Position. This means that, when our thumb is up on the fingerboard we will normally only use the little finger when absolutely necessary, as an “emergency” extra finger to get us out of a (very) tricky fingering situation. Just like for the thumb, the fourth finger is not ideally suited to doing vibrato in the thumb position, so most cellists tend to avoid it for long expressive notes. But in spite of its ergonomic handicap, our little pinkie can (if we train it a little) actually become quite useful – sometimes even a real lifesaver – in Thumb Position.

The fourth finger is especially useful on the higher string of any pair that we might be playing on. Because of its shortness, when we use it on the lower string its placement there automatically turns the hand square to the fingerboard, which can make life difficult for any fingers that we may want to be using on the higher string. We may need to remove the first finger from the string in order to be able to play with the fourth finger as in the following sequences:

Daniel Shafran was an expert in using the fourth finger in the higher fingerboard regions. His playing – as can be seen in multiple YouTube videos – shows us the almost unimaginable expressive and technical possibilities of the fourth finger, in both the Intermediate Region and in Thumb Position.

Whereas nowadays most cellists tend not to use their little finger much (if at all) in the higher fingerboard regions, for the cellist-composers who “discovered” Thumb Position in the mid 1700’s (see History of Thumb Position), the fourth finger was just another finger, used equally as much as the others, up high as well as down low. We can make this statement convincingly thanks mainly to the compositions of Berteau and Cupis, the “fathers” of the French cello-playing school. They were obviously eager to share their new discovery and thus gave clear instructions (fingerings) in their published compositions as to when and where the thumb and fourth finger should be used.

There are several main uses for the fourth finger in the Thumb Position:

1: FIFTHS

To play “squeezed” fifths, where the lower note of the fifth is played with the third finger and the higher note with the fourth finger, squeezed in alongside the third. This is actually surprisingly ergonomic (and therefore easy) as the little finger is so much shorter and thinner than the third finger that it can fit quite comfortably beside it.

2: CHROMATICS AND CLOSED POSITION

To allow us to play chromatic passages in a way that avoids both small uncomfortable, destabilising shifts as well as frequent alterations of the second finger between 2b and 2# (or, for the third finger, between 3 and 3#). While the use of the thumb position allows us to play the cello like a violin (with four notes of the scale lying under each hand position), the use of the fourth finger in thumb position allows us to play the cello like a piano (with five notes in the hand range). This can be very useful at times:

3: EXTENSION UP

4: TO AVOID 2-3 TONE IN LOWER FINGERBOARD REGIONS

The 2-3 tone interval (stretch) can be an unnecessary strain, especially in the neck region:

More practice material for working on the use of fourth finger in Thumb Position can be found in the following links:

Fourth Finger In Thumb Position: Exercises

Fourth Finger In Thumb Position: Repertoire Excerpts