The First Finger

The first (index) finger is very appropriately named. It is the cellist’s strongest and most important finger. It is our hand’s home base, foundation, pillar of strength and captain of the finger team. Of all the fingers, it is the one that we use the most, and is the finger with the strongest positional sense. Even when we are not actually stopping the string with it, it is the finger that spends the most time in contact with the strings because the only time we need to actively and deliberately remove it is when we are stopping the string with the thumb (or playing on the open-string). It is our most frequent finger of choice for intermediate notes, both in shifting and in finding new hand positions “out of the blue” (finger placements without glissando).

The strength of the first finger is vital for almost every aspect of our left-hand technique, but most especially for two specific areas: extensions and shifting. It is the first finger that supports the strain of the vast majority of the extensions that our left hand does, and it is the favoured finger for shifting on, especially in upwards shifts because of its extreme stability in that direction (see Fingering). Practice material in which we always shift on the first finger is excellent for building its strength. Continue transposing the following exercise upwards through the different fingerboard regions and play it on the different strings:


The first finger in the Neck and Intermediate fingerboard regions is the hand’s powerhouse, foundation and pillar of strength. But when we place the thumb up on the fingerboard (Thumbposition) that same first finger suddenly loses most of its superior qualities, becoming weak and insecure. This is because it is just too close to the thumb for optimum stability/ergonomy. The problem is especially pronounced on the A-string because the obligatory hand position – especially for cellists with a short thumb – means that the first finger doesn’t have room to have its nice ergonomic curve and must play often with the last finger joint blocked in a rigid, straight line. Strong climactic notes played on the first finger in Thumbposition on the A-string can be quite unsatisfying because of this unergonomic finger posture:

And big shifts up to supposedly powerful notes on the first finger can be dangerously unstable.

Usually it is this first-finger weakness and instability that causes the main problems with upward scales on the same string in Thumbposition:

For all these reasons we need to work especially on our first finger strength in Thumbposition. The Cossmann Doubletrill exercises, together with the shifting exercises given below, are very good for this. Apart from this “hard physical work”, some other easier solutions (using our intelligence) are also available. Placing the thumb only on the A-string can help facilitate the comfort of the first finger, thus minimising this problem somewhat. Removing the thumb entirely from the fingerboard (allowing it to “float”) does even more to help.

Here are some intensive “workout” exercises for building first-finger strength using shifts on the first finger in all the fingerboard regions:

First Finger Shifts Thirds: No Extns     First Finger Shifts Fourths: No Extn     First Finger Shifts Fourths: Always Extnd

And here are some more exercises, this time based on shifts to the first finger (from other fingers):

Major Third Arpeggio Shifts Second-First Fingers: No Extensions

Minor Third Arpeggio Shifts Second-First Fingers: Always Extended