The thumb, just like the other fingers of the left hand, doesn’t only need to move up and down the strings “vertically” (shifting) but also often has to be moved “horizontally” across the strings (see Left-hand String Crossings). This is because, unlike the guitar capo, most peoples’ thumb can effectively only stop two strings at a time. The thumb’s most common horizontal position in Thumb Position is that in which it is simultaneously stopping the two top strings. However there are many situations in which we will – either by choice or by obligation – use other horizontal positionings, for example:
- any passage involving three (or four) strings in which the thumb is actually required to play notes on the G and/or C strings will need the thumb to be placed on the lower strings
- at other times we may want (or need) to play with the thumb stopping only the A string
- sometimes, even though we are playing in “thumb position”, we may want to release the thumb completely
We will look below in detail at these different situations of the thumb’s horizontal placement and choreography. By understanding these concepts and and working on these skills we can help to make some awkward passages a lot easier.
THUMB ON THE LOWER STRINGS
Why is it that the thumb’s most common position is on the top strings? There are two main reasons for this:
- the cello’s sound in the higher fingerboard regions of the lower strings is usually much worse (less resonant, more strangled) than when playing the same notes with an alternative fingering in the lower regions of the higher strings
- the ergonomy of using the thumb (and of thumb position in general) becomes progressively worse as me move towards the lower strings
For these reasons, most cellists will prefer the athleticism of running up and down the higher strings rather than the ergonomic and acoustic complications just playing a passage in one thumb position across three or four strings: example Strauss
Whereas our use of the higher positions on the lower strings is usually a fingering choice, our use of the higher positions on the A-string is an obligation because no lower-position fingering alternatives (on a higher string) exist. Because of all these reasons, our most common thumb position use is for “high playing” (i.e. on the top strings). But often, by choice or by obligation, we will use our thumb on the lower two strings, so let’s look now in more detail at the different problems and characteristics of these situations.
ERGONOMIC DIFFICULTY OF THUMB USE ON THE LOWER STRINGS
As a basic principle, the more lower-strings the thumb is touching, the more the hand is obliged to turn “backwards” on the higher strings, making the tips of the fingers point more towards the bridge and thus placing them more diagonally to the strings and fingerboard. This is not a comfortable playing position, especially for the first finger. When we have the thumb on the G and D strings, it thus becomes more difficult to play with the (other) fingers – especially the first finger – on the A string. And with the thumb on the C and G-strings this ergonomic problem gets worse and it becomes more or less impossible to use the fingers on the A-string. This ergonomic difficulty is why we only ever place the thumb on the lower strings when it is absolutely required, to stop (play) actual notes on the lower two strings. This
In contrast to the problematic, unergonomic situation of playing on the higher strings while the thumb is on the lower ones is the opposite scenario: playing in Thumb Position on the lower strings while the thumb is resting on the higher strings is not at all a problem.
It is for this reason also that, as a general rule, after using the thumb on the G or C-strings we will leave it there only for the minimum necessary playing time, bringing it back as soon as possible to its comfortable “home” on the top two strings. We will do this even though we might not actually need it to play (stop) any notes on the higher strings, and even though we may have used it just before (and/or need it just after) on the lower strings. The following example illustrates this. Here, even though we only need one finger on the A-string (the third) we still might decide that we prefer to “jump” the thumb backwards and forwards between the two top strings and the two middle strings each time to avoid discomfort.
Apart from special “strangled” sound effects (eg. Shostakovitch Sonata Movt III), our use of the Thumb Region on the two lower strings is almost exclusively as a means to facilitate our arrival at (or departure from) the higher A string registers. While the use of the thumb on the lower two strings is often optional (some cellists prefer to shift up and down the higher strings rather than making use of the high positions on the lower strings), at other times – such as in the above Schumann example – this avoidance of the thumb on the lower two strings is either not possible or is too complex to be worth it.
Here the thumb has to be moved across – and sometimes even several times – during the passage. Quite often this “horizontal thumb shuffle” can be quite complicated
ADVANTAGES OF A “SQUARE” HAND POSTURE: THUMB ONLY ON THE “A” STRING
Saying the same thing but in other words, the less strings we have the thumb on, the more the fingers can be square to the fingerboard (like our hand posture in the Neck Position) which makes just about everything easier for them. Cellists with long thumbs have a great advantage in this sense as their left hand is able to stay more square to the fingerboard in thumb position, which considerably reduces the tension in the hand (the first finger need not curl up so much, it is easier to extend up to the higher fingers etc). To achieve this same effect, cellists with short thumbs may thus find it especially useful, where possible, to play with the thumb only on the higher string – or even floating completely free (see discussion below). The added comfort and relaxation that this gives us is especially noticeable in fast passages, but also in lyrical passages requiring simultaneously extensions and a warm free vibrato. Try the following passages with the thumb firstly on both A and D strings, and then on the A string alone.
When playing a passage across three strings we may even decide to alternate directly between the “thumb on D and G strings” and the “thumb only on A string” positions, missing out as it were the “thumb on A and D strings” step.
THUMB FLOATING FREELY
Having the thumb only on the A string is already useful, but releasing the thumb entirely (when it is not needed to stop a note) frees the fingers up even more. Imagine if in the Neck and Intermediate Regions we always had to keep our first finger down ?? Try it …. This creates unnecessary and harmful tension. If we watch videos of Yo Yo Ma, Stephen Isserlis and other fine cellists, we will see that they often release the thumb in the higher regions, letting it float in the air until it is actually needed to stop a note. This increased comfort not only allows a bigger, freer, more relaxed vibrato for lyrical passages, but also helps in faster passages, especially for small hands.
This is particularly noticeable in fast upward scales on one string (especially on the A string). This is because the first finger is, especially for small hands, often uncomfortable and strained if held down while the third finger or extended 2nd finger (one tone from the first) are stopping the string. Shifting quickly and comfortably up to the first finger after a higher finger is so much more difficult if the first finger is under strain before the shift. Removing the thumb removes part of this strain , thus facilitating the comfort and security of the shift, as in the following examples: