In a “normal” shift, the hand and arm move together as a unit. But we can also do shifts (usually of quite small distances) in which one part of the hand doesn’t move at all. The part of the hand that stays “fixed” serves as an “anchor”, giving our hand both physical stability and a stable positional reference. This anchor can be either the thumb, or alternatively a finger. We will look now at these two categories separately:
NON-WHOLE-HAND SHIFTS WITH THUMB ANCHOR
Because of the great flexibility of the thumb’s position in relation to the fingers, it is most frequently the thumb that occupies this function of “anchor”, as in the following examples:
All of these note sequences are much easier if played with the thumb “still”. In other words, while the fingers and the rest of the hand move up and down, the thumb remains fixed in one place. Here , the thumb is acting as an “anchor”. This anchor gives our hand both mechanical stability and positional security (intonation) which is especially useful when the hand is leaping around like a hyperactive flea overdosed on energy drinks. These types of shift can be called Non-Whole-Hand (NWH) shifts. The frequency with which we use these NWH shifts varies enormously according to the fingerboard region.
NWH SHIFTS WITH THUMB ANCHOR IN THE INTERMEDIATE REGION
In the Intermediate Region, all of our shifts are obligatorily NWH shifts because our thumb is blocked at the top of the cello neck (this is, in fact, the defining characteristic of this fingerboard region).
NWH SHIFTS WITH THUMB ANCHOR IN THUMB POSITION
In Thumb Position, and especially in the Thumb Region (the fingerboard zone above the Intermediate Region), we use these types of movement frequently, because it is so easy to open and close the space between the thumb and the other fingers of the left hand.
Sometimes, instead of the thumb being “fixed” and the fingers shifting up and down, we use the reverse situation (in which it is the thumb that moves freely while the fingers stay “fixed in the same place”.
NWH SHIFTS WITH THUMB ANCHOR IN THE NECK REGION
In the Neck Region this technique is used quite rarely, almost exclusively for small intervals, and in faster passages. This is because in the Neck Region, our hand posture is such that for anything other than the smallest intervals and the briefest of durations, the displacement of the fingers away from their optimal position over the thumb creates such discomfort and instability that vibrato becomes absolutely impossible, and intonation becomes seriously unstable (unlike in the Intermediate and Thumb Regions). Although we might use this technique relatively rarely in the Neck Region, it is nevertheless a very useful addition to our fingering toolbox, getting us out of some tricky fingering situations with a minimum of brain-and-hand strain.
The easiest situations in which we might want to use this technique occur in passages where we can do our NWH shift during the open string. This reduces our hand strain considerably because it means we can shift rather than maintain the hand in a permanently extended position.
At other times, even without the benefit of the open string, the use of NWH shifts can still give the most practical and most ergonomic fingering choices. To reduce hand-strain during these passages, small-handed cellists may prefer in fact to release the thumb, something that we can’t do in those passages with open strings.
NON-WHOLE-HAND SHIFTS WITH FINGER ANCHOR
“Snake-crawl” movements use the fingers as the anchor from which we extend or contract to our new position. Because our fingers cannot be separated very much from each other in the normal fingerboard regions, our snake-crawls to a new position only allow us to move relatively small distances at a time – usually only tones or semitones. Click on the highlighted link for an extensive discussion about these types of movements.
In Thumb Position we can move the thumb around quite freely backwards and forwards (towards and away from) from the fixed finger(s). This movement can be used as part of a snake-crawl, or just as a fingering trick to get more notes under the hand without the need for any shifts.
For more material about NWH movements in each specific region see the following pages:
NWH Shifts in the Neck Region Shifting in the Intermediate Region NWH Shifts in Thumb Position