Fifths (across strings) are often a significant source of problems for cellists.
On the violin and viola, one fingertip can cover (stop) two strings at the same time and thus fifths across two strings can be played very easily. On the cello however, the fingertips are too small to stop two strings at the same time. This means that in order to stop two strings at the same time with the same finger we need to change our finger-and-hand posture, flattening the finger completely and pressing the entire last phalanx horizontally across the two strings. For all of the fingers apart from the thumb, this position is only really practical in the Neck Region of the fingerboard.
To complicate matters, fifths on the cello are often surprisingly unparallel. Science would suppose that, if the strings are tuned accurately, then the parallel fifths should be exactly at the same distance for each string from the “nut” at the top of the fingerboard (the scroll end). Surprisingly this is not so. The hand has to twist and turn in order to find the correct angle for the finger that is stopping a fifth in order for the fifth to sound in tune. What’s more, this angle changes between the different string pairs, and not just by small differences. Whereas for fifths across the A and D strings the “in-tune-fifth-angle” tends to be with the fingertip pointing towards the scroll, on the D and G strings this correct angle seems to be be pointing in the opposite direction. And on the G and C strings it would appear again to require the same angle as for the top two strings.
The finger angle necessary to play an in-tune fifth across the two top strings and across the two bottom strings could be justified by the difference in “hardness” between the parts of the finger (or thumb) that are stopping the two strings. That part of the finger that is stopping the higher string finger is usually much softer and less resistant than the end of the finger which is stopping the lower string. This means that the higher string is often not sufficiently firmly stopped to sound “true” and may tend to sound flat. This can explain those fifths for which the finger needs to point “backwards” (towards the scroll). But what about fifths across the D and G strings, for which the hand needs to point the other way?
There must be a good explanation for this, but I haven’t yet heard it. This is so bizarre that it resembles the bending of space, time and gravity that Einstein discovered. Perhaps he could have explained the reasons for these “crooked fifths”, I certainly can’t!
In Thumbposition, the angle of the thumb required for an in-tune fifth across the A and D strings poses serious problems for our hand’s ergonomy. If the tip of the thumb could be pointing the other way (towards the bridge instead of towards the scroll) then this would constitute a help for our hand. With the thumb pointing towards the scroll however, the fingers (especially the lower ones and especially on the higher string) are obliged to curl up into an even more uncomfortable posture, which supposes a great hindrance to all aspects of our left hand technique. With the great majority of our thumbposition playing ocurring on our top two strings, this “unergonomic” fifth angle across those two strings seems like a very unfortunate act of destiny/nature/physics.
If our fifth is not actually a doublestop then we can of course sometimes eliminate all these difficulties by shifting the interval on the same string or, in the higher regions, by stretching it (especially from/to the thumb.
In this article however we will be looking specifically and uniquely at the techniques of playing fifths “across the strings”. Let’s look now at the five (I promise this is a pure coincidence) different ways in which we can choreograph fifths across the strings in such a way as to make them both musically satisfying and technically easy.
1. JUMPING THE SAME FINGER FROM ONE STRING TO THE NEXT
This is the most simple, easy, straight-forward technique for doing fifths. But we can’t do double stopped fifths like this, nor can we make a slurred legato fifth like this, and, in faster music, even when the fifth is not slurred or doublestopped we sometimes don’t have enough time to comfortably rearticulate the finger and jump it to the other string. Therefore, in those three circumstances (in which the jump is impossible or inappropriate), we will need to use other, more sophisticated techniques to achieve our fifths. These four alternative techniques are:
2. PLACING (STOPPING) ONE FINGER ON BOTH STRINGS AT THE SAME TIME: THE “CAPO” FIFTH
Unlike violinists, we cellists can’t stop two strings simultaneously with one fingertip. In order to stop two strings at the same time with the same finger we need to change our finger-and-hand posture, flattening the finger completely and pressing the entire last phalanx (the entire finger pad), rigid and straightened out like a bar (or like a piece of wood), across both strings, like a guitar “capo”. This is why we will call this technique the “capo” fifth. Apart from being necessary for double stopped and slurred fifths, the “capo” fifth is also useful for fast playing even when the two notes of the fifth are not slurred or doublestopped because it allows us to play the two notes of the fifth successively without any new left hand movement (finger articulation). This of course requires advance preparation: when we place the finger, we will need to place it on both strings at once, as though we were playing a doublestop, even though we are only playing a single note. It may not be a double stop for the bow but it certainly is for the left hand. The bracket symbol seen in the examples below is the sign that we can use to remind ourselves that we must place the finger on the two strings simultaneously, and keep it on the two strings for as long as the bracket is maintained.
This preparation is especially necessary – and especially difficult (unnatural) – when the first note of the fifth is the higher note, as in the above examples. If the first note of the fifth is the lower note, even if we forget to place the finger across both strings we may still be able to just squash the finger flat on the higher string in time for the higher note. But this possibility does not exist when we are starting from the top note of the fifth. If we forget our need for the capo fifth on that higher note and start it with our normal finger posture then there is no escape: the only way now to stop the lower note of the fifth is to lift off the finger and rearticulate it.
Here below are a series of repertoire excerpts requiring capo fifths that start always on the higher note of the fifth:
1st Finger Capo Fifths (From Above) 2nd Finger Capo Fifths (From Above)
3rd Finger Capo Fifths (From Above) 4th Finger Capo Fifths (From Above)
“Capo” fifths are perfectly suited to being played by the thumb (see below), but when we need to play them with the other fingers we will notice considerable differences in the ease (or difficulty) with which each different finger is able to stop two strings at the same time. The first finger is, after the thumb, by far the most suitable finger for playing capo fifths which is fortunate because a large part of the fifths we will need to play actually fall on the first finger:
Sometimes it is not absolutely clear whether it would be better to jump the finger across the strings or use the capo technique, as in the following example:
While the “capo one-finger fifth technique” is very useful and is used frequently, it does however have certain problems:
- NEED FOR GREAT FINGER PRESSURE.
To be able to stop two strings at once with the same finger requires lots of hand pressure, especially on the higher string of the two because that higher string is being stopped with the soft, mushy part of the finger (near the joint). Because of this, cellists with big strong hands and fingers find it easier to do these “capo fifths” than cellists with small, fine hands. How often do we see a cellists with gigantic bearpaws trying to show a matchstick-fingered cellist how to play a fifth on the fourth finger. This is like trying to show a small person how to do a slam-dunk in basketball: it just isn’t practical, and no amount of “technique” or practice will ever make it any easier (see Hand Size). The first (index) finger is usually the strongest finger, so even the very smallest hand can probably do a good fifth in the lower positions with this finger across two strings (just like for the guitar). But the further away we go from the index finger, the weaker the fingers become. Fifths on the fourth finger can become quite difficult – especially in double stops or singing legato passages.
- NEED FOR AN ABNORMAL FINGER ANGLE
This increasing difficulty of playing fifths as we go from the first finger towards the fourth finger is not only because of the diminishing strength of the individual fingers, but also because of their decreasing perpendicularity to the fingerboard. The higher fingers are not just less strong, they are also less perpendicular (square) to the fingerboard which is a shame because in order to play a fifth in tune our “capo” finger needs to be at a right angle to the strings. These higher fingers, rather than being “square” to the fingerboard are increasingly angled “backwards”, with the fingertips pointing more towards the bridge.
We mentioned above how the softness of that part of the finger that is in contact with the higher string of the fifth requires extra pressure in order to effectively stop the string. Because of this softness, the effective finger pressure applied onto the higher string is often less than the finger pressure on the lower string. This means that the top note of the fifth often will sound a bit flat even when the stopping finger is at a “perfect” right angle to the string. And this means …….. that we often will need to angle the hand and finger not just at a perfect 90º to the string but past perpendicular – in the anti natural direction in which the fingertips are pointing more towards the cello scroll.
- DIFFICULTY OF THE CAPO FIFTH IN INTERMEDIATE AND THUMB POSITIONS
The difficulty of getting the fingers perpendicular to the fingerboard and at the same time applying sufficient finger pressure is what makes this “capo” technique suddenly increasingly difficult (if not impossible) as we go up above the Neck Region into the higher (Intermediate and Thumb) fingerboard regions. Strong fingered cellists can overcome this problem thanks to their strength and may play the following passage from the Saint Saens concerto using “capo” (one-finger) fifths, but cellists with smaller hands may find alternative fingerings easier (see the same example refingered further down).
In Thumb Position in any fingerboard region, fifths are extremely awkward on any finger other than the thumb, but even when we are not in Thumb Position, the need to flatten the finger and to press it much harder than normal (all to play the fifth cleanly) in any fingerboard region requires an abnormal hand posture. Getting into (and out of) this abnormal posture rapidly can sometimes be complicated, as shown in the following examples in which we need to quickly change hand-posture before and/or after the fifth:
2.1. PLACING THE FINGER INITIALLY ONLY ON THE LOWER STRING THEN STOPPING THE HIGHER STRING ALSO
2.2. PLACING THE FINGER INITIALLY ON BOTH STRINGS THEN REMOVING IT ONLY FROM THE TOP STRING WHILE STILL KEEPING IT ON THE LOWER STRING
2.3. PLACING THE FINGER INITIALLY ON BOTH STRINGS THEN SLIDING IT ACROSS TO ONLY THE TOP STRING IN ORDER TO FREE UP THE LOWER STRING
Because of these complications and difficulties with the capo fifth we will often (especially if we have a small hand) need to use increasingly sophisticated and complex techniques such as:
3. PLAYING FIFTHS ON THE THUMB
The thumb is the the ideal finger for doing “capo” fifths for two reasons.
- its natural angle is at 90º to the strings, and
- the part of it that stops the strings is of equal “hardness” for both strings (assuming of course that we have a good callous).
The thumb is especially useful for playing fifths in the higher regions (Intermediate and Thumb Positions) as it is in these higher regions that it is both very difficult to do the capo with the fingers, and very easy to use the thumb in general. But the thumb is quite often useful also for fifths in the Neck Region, especially in pianistic-style accompaniment passages that don’t need a lot of vibrato. This type of writing is very common in compositions of the Classical Period, but even in the Romantic Period it is also widely used in accompaniment figures. Very often it is the presence of fifths in a passage that will be the principal factor in our decision to use the Thumb Position in the Neck Region:
Note that if we don’t have a good callous on the side of the thumb, then the top note of the fifth (the higher string) will require greater thumb pressure in order to be stopped cleanly and thus not sound flat (below pitch). This adds unnecessary tension, effort and difficulty to our playing. To avoid that, we will need to keep a good callous by using the thumb regularly.
4. SHIFTING TO A NEW FINGER ON THE NEW STRING (FINGER SUBSTITUTION)
This is a finger substitution to the adjacent string. Here the whole hand and arm actually actually changes position by a semitone, tone or minor third and the “old” finger is released during the shift to the new string.
5. HAND WARP (CONTORTION) WITH FINGER SQUEEZE ACROSS STRINGS
Here, we twist the left hand, turning it so the fingertips are now pointing towards the bridge (see photo). This allows us to play fifths with two different adjacent fingers. It also allows us to do a real vibrato on the fifth, which is especially important in slow double stops and chords. Because of the form (anatomy) of the hand and arm this twisted posture is only practical when we place the higher finger on the higher string and the lower finger on the lower string (and not vice versa). The “squeeze fifth” is actually a “Contraction” to the neighbouring string”. Sometimes this contraction is followed immediately by the relaxation of the hand into the new position (one semitone away from the old position). At other times the “old” finger is maintained stopped and the hand remains in the same “position” (there is no shift).
The smaller the hand and fingers, the more we will tend to use this technique. This is not only because it requires less brute force but also because small fingers actually fit “across” the fingerboard whereas big wide “sausage” fingers don’t. Therefore, cellists with small fingers may find it easier to use the “2-finger-squeeze” for fifths in which cellists with large fingers may be quite happy to use just the one finger, squashed flat across the two strings.
In some passages in double stops however, even the biggest, strongest hands are no solution and this “contortion” is really the only solution (see the following examples taken from the cello repertoire).
If we take these same passages and transpose them up into the Intermediate or Thumb Regions, we can see that we can use exactly the same “squeezed fifth” technique in the higher regions of the fingerboard.
Once we get above the neck region, because of the hand angle, it becomes increasingly difficult to use the flattened finger position but increasingly easy to use the “two-finger-squeeze” position (and, of course, the thumb). This is why the “squeeze-fifths fingering” used in the following thumb position example from the Saint Saens Concerto would probably be substituted for the “capo-fifths fingering” if it was transposed down into the Neck Region:
In some passages several of the different “fifths techniques” will be used consecutively according to the musical and technical constraints. In the original Saint Saens example we are using both “thumb-stopped-fifths” and “finger-squeezed-fifths”. Here below is an exercise for squeeze-fifths in Thumb Position. Click here for a compilation of thumb position repertoire excerpts in which we use this same “squeeze-fifth” technique.