WHAT ARE “LEFT HAND STRING CROSSINGS”
While the word “shifting” describes the vertical displacement of the left hand up and down the fingerboard, the term “left hand string crossing” refers to the horizontal displacement of the fingers across the fingerboard, between the different strings. We discuss the left hand’s “vertical” positional sense (“how far up the string am I?”) on the highlighted page as well as in the shifting department. On this “Left-hand String-crossings”page however we will discuss the hand’s “horizontal” positional sense (“how far across the fingerboard am I?”, or in other words, “which string am I on?”).
STRING CROSSING PROBLEMS: LEFT HAND OR RIGHT HAND?
When we think about (and work on) our technique of “String Crossings” we are almost always concerned uniquely with our right hand (i.e. our skill at Bow Level Control). It is however also interesting and useful to work on our left hand’s horizontal positional sense as this factor (skill) is usually just taken for granted, and is often overlooked as a source of problems in complex multi-string passages.
In some problematic multi-string passages – series of broken chords with many open strings for example – the string crossing difficulties may be almost exclusively bowing problems. In other passages – series of broken chords with few open strings but many changes of the fingers between different strings for example – the left hand component of the string crossing difficulties may however be considerable. And in other passages (the majority) our string crossing difficulties may be a mixture of complications for both hands (and for the coordination of the two hands).
Fortunately it is not difficult to separate these two elements of string crossing (right and left hands) in any particular problematic passage. To isolate the bowing aspect we simply remove the left hand completely and play the passage on open strings, whereas to isolate and work exclusively on the Left Hand problems involved in a string crossing passages we can simply play the passage pizzicato (which may involve chordal strumming rather than rapid individual plucking) or, in the case of a passage involving only two strings, we can practice the passage as double stops (keeping the bow always on both strings at the same time).
WHY THIS ASPECT OF TECHNIQUE IS NOT USUALLY WORKED ON SPECIFICALLY
Every string player practices specific material to develop their right hand’s control of bow level (string crossings), and we also spend an enormous amount of practice time developing our left hand’s “vertical positional sense” (shifting). So why then do we usually just take the left hand’s “horizontal” positional sense (across the strings) for granted, spending very little time working on this aspect of our technique ?
Shifting movements cover a wide range (distance). The maximum range (distance) from the lowest positions to the highest covers about 60cm (corresponding to a musical range of approximately 3 octaves), although most of our playing occurs in the first (approximately) 55 cm, corresponding to 2.5 octaves. This musical range of 2.5 octaves is composed of 30 semitones (12 + 12 + 6), which means that, within that useful fingerboard distance of 55cm, we need to be able to locate 30 different points. If the cello was like a piano (with the notes located an equal physical distance from each other in every octave), then this would imply one “note” every 18mm (550mm divided by 30). Unfortunately the semitones are not equidistant from each other but rather get closer together as we go higher up the string. To make matters more complicated, there are very few visual or tactile indicators to help us distinguish these points (notes) from each other: we basically only have our ears and our kinesthetic sense to know when we are in the right place. All this means that these 30 notes are not easy to find. This is why we need to practice our vertical positional sense (shifting skills) so much.
Some of these same problems occur, but to a much lesser degree with our Right Hand String Crossings (bow level control). Here, as with shifting, we only have our ears to tell us which string we are playing on but, fortunately, there are only four separate points to locate (one for each string) within the maximum range of distance between top and bottom string. And, to make it even easier, these 4 points have a considerable margin of error compared to the almost zero tolerance permissible for our left hand’s vertical positional sense (shifting/intonation). This is why we usually practice “shifting” much more than we work on our “string crossing technique”. Curiously, the distance range that the right hand and bow cover between the highest and lowest strings (the arc of 40-50cm that is described by both the tip of the bow while playing at the frog or by the wrist when playing at the frog) is quite similar to the fingerboard shifting distance range covered in “normal” playing by the left hand.
Left hand string crossings are quite a different story to both these other elements of positional sense. Left hand string crossing movements cover a maximum range of only about 5cm (between the lowest and highest strings). Within this distance there are only four different points (strings) that we need to locate , and to make matters easier, these points are clearly differentiated from each other both visually and for our sense of touch.
So, this is why, in the hierarchy of technical difficulty, shifting is far above bow level control, and left hand string crossings is right down the bottom, almost taken for granted most of the time. Thanks simply to our many hours of playing and to the fact that we usually only play one note (and thus one finger) at a time, our fingers normally, “know where to go” in order to find the new string. But there are in fact many specific situations – most notably involving chords, double stops and/or fast playing with rapid leaps across the strings – which benefit considerably from giving some attention to this aspect of left hand technique:
VERTICAL OR HORIZONTAL : HARMONY OR MELODY
Keyboard players and guitarists are used to playing several notes at the same time. They thus learn, almost automatically, to think, play and memorise music both harmonically (vertically) and melodically (horizontally. We string players, on the other hand, are principally horizontal, melodic thinkers because we normally only play one note at a time. Because of this, we can be quite weak at both thinking harmonically (memorizing chords, double stops and large intervals) and playing harmonically (placing several fingers simultaneously on different strings).
Playing vertical, “harmonic” music, with lots of chords, double stops and leaps (between bass harmony notes and tenor melody notes or simply melodic leaps ) is a good way not just to develop our harmonic thinking but also to develop our Left Hand String Crossing ability. In fact, this article has considerable overlap with the article on Doublestops, and can in fact be considered as the first stage in working up to double-stops and chords.
Vertical, harmonic writing is however not only manifested by the use of actual chords and double stops (in which the bow is playing on two strings at the same time) but also in the use of “broken” chords and double stops. Here, the bow plays only one note at a time, but the intervals are chordal (arpeggiated) rather than purely melodic. We can play these arpeggio intervals across the strings or shifting on the same string, but the closest fingering of an arpeggio interval (especially a larger one) is usually just across on the neighbouring string (changing strings is like taking a short cut to a distant note). When we play these arpeggio intervals across the strings – especially if the music is fast – the left hand is often obliged to play as though it were playing actual double-stops.
Think about the beginning of the Preludes of Bach’s First and Fourth Solo Suites. In spite of the fact that there is not even one chord played as such, this is very harmonic, vertical writing.
This music is made up of broken chords and broken double-stops, which are in fact much more frequent than the “real” ones. Although no chord or double-stop is played with the bow in these examples, the left hand is required to either operate on two strings at once (Prelude Suite I) or to leap around between the different strings like a jumping bean (Prelude Suite IV). This requires almost as much Left Hand Horizontal String Crossing skill as playing “real” chords and double-stops. We say “almost as difficult” because when the chord is broken (for the bow) it does also usually give the left hand a little bit more time than when all the notes have to sound simultaneously.
This is not always the case with broken stops however. Sometimes – especially in faster passages – even when the chords are sounded (played) “broken” by the right hand, the left hand will play them as if they were real, simultaneous chords, with the fingers all going down on the different strings at the same time:
The music of Bach – especially the Solo Cello Suites and the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (transcribed for cello) – is full of this “harmonic” writing, using “broken” chords and “broken” double stops but also many “real” (simultaneous) double stops and chords. Thus, as well as being beautiful music, it is also excellent study material for the Left Hand String Crossing skills needed to play, understand and memorise “vertical, harmonic” music. Some of the best exercises for developing this skill can be found in Christopher Bunting’s “Essay on the Craft of Cello Playing” in which a whole chapter is dedicated to this subject. The Piatti Studies and Duport Study Nº XXX are also very useful in developing this skill as they use large amounts of double stops and chords.
Playing and practicing broken chords and double-stops is a good preliminary step in developing our sense of Left Hand String Crossing (geography and technique), the culmination of which is the ability to be able to place (and then operate) different fingers simultaneously on different strings. This culmination is reached in pizzicato chords. Here we not only have to place several Left Hand fingers on several strings at the same time but also need to simultaneously do the same with the Right Hand fingers (unless we are doing a guitar-type “strum”). This is perhaps the greatest test for our sense of Horizontal Positional Sense for both hands.
ANTICIPATION OF LEFT HAND STRING CROSSINGS
Anticipation is one of the most important and useful concepts in Left Hand String Crossings.
In double stops we need to maintain the fingers simultaneously on the different strings. But this doesn’t always mean that we have to place them all on the strings at exactly the same time. It is often easier to place the fingers one at a time (if we have time to do this preparation of course).
In broken chords and broken double stops we have even more possibilities to decide on the timing of the finger placement both in relation to the other fingers and to the bow. We can choose to place the fingers either simultaneously or consecutively (successively), and we can choose to place them either simultaneously with the bow or before the bow starts to play the new note (finger). Placing the finger before we actually need it is a very useful skill and is also a very good example of the general usefulness of the Anticipation Principle.
In a string crossing, having the new finger already prepared on the new string eliminates the need for exact coordination between the hands at the moment of the bow crossing. This allows us to dedicate our entire attention to the bow at this delicate moment. Now we only need to coordinate two elements (bow crossing with the rhythm) instead of having to coordinate three things (bow-crossing, left hand articulation and rhythm). This left hand anticipation not only helps to make legato string crossings smooth but also gives us more control in delicate bow landings from the air.
This not only makes slower crossings smoother and “easier” but also, when it becomes automated, makes fast passages much easier.
ANTICIPATION BEFORE SHIFT TO NEW STRING
Another use for anticipated Left-Hand-String Crossing is to prepare for a shift to a new string. If we place the new finger down on the new string before we do the shift, then that is one less thing to do during the shift, which makes the shift easier. This can be especially useful in fast passages:
DIFFICULT FINGER COMBINATIONS: HIGHER FINGER ON LOWER STRING WITH LOWER FINGER ON HIGHER STRING
Using a higher finger on a lower string while simultaneously using lower fingers on the higher strings tends to require that the hand and arm align themselves in what we have called the “Double-Bass Hand Posture” (in contrast to the “Violin Hand Posture). Compare the relative comfort of the following two hand postures:
Because the fourth finger is so much shorter than the other fingers it requires the greatest repositioning of the hand and arm in order to place it on the lower strings. Therefore the most awkward finger grouping for the Neck Region is the 3-4 combination (3rd finger on the top string and the 4th on the lower string). For the Thumb Position, the most awkward combination is the equivalent position: with the third finger on the lower string and 2# on the higher. And if we need the extended back first finger the discomfort is even worse. Often we will avoid these types of fingerings:
The following Double-Stopped Trill Exercises are absolutely horrible to play – difficult, uncomfortable, often very dissonant – but they are very good for working on this type of problem.
LH STRING CROSSING STUDY MATERIAL:
Basically any sequence of chords and/or doublestops is good material for working on this department of left-hand technique. These progressions can be played with any variety of bowings and rhythms and as either pure or broken (arpeggiated chords or broken doublestops) . Below are some links to this type of material using 2, 3, and 4 strings.
1: ACROSS TWO ADJACENT STRINGS
Double-Stopped Trill excercises are extraordinarily good at training our fingers to be independant from each other in every sense.
PIATTI CAPRICE Nº 1 Op 25 (an extended study in doublestops).
2: ON THREE ADJACENT STRINGS
3: ACROSS FOUR ADJACENT STRINGS