The Contact Principle

The contact principle

We depend almost entirely on the physical points of contact of our hands with the instrument to give us the spatial references from which we orient and calculate our subsequent movements (see Positional Sense). It is only when we touch the instrument, then hear the sound it makes, that we get the definitive feedback that tells us where our hands are. When our hands lose contact with the instrument, for whatever reason, we lose both our aural and physical positional feedback. This means that the moment of “finding the instrument again” can be somewhat “dangerous” – the cellistic equivalent of an aircraft landing. Our need for contact is especially great when we are not actually sounding any notes, because when we can’t “hear where we are” this physical feedback is all we have to orient ourselves. In other words, in moments of silence, the physical contact feedback makes up for the absence of aural feedback. With no aural feedback, and no tactile contact feedback, we can be really “lost in space”.

Apart from its utility as a source of spatial feedback, we also use our points of contact with the instrument like boat moorings or anchor points: they give us physical stability. This applies not only to the contact of the hands with the cello, but also to the contacts of our legs and sternum with it. These contacts of the legs and sternum with the instrument, rather than having a spatial feedback function, serve uniquely to maintain the cellos positional stability (see below).

The positional sense of each hand is completely independent from that of the other hand: the right hand’s contact with the instrument will never help us to know where the left hand is, while the left hand’s contact will not help our right hand’s spatial sense.

Let’s now look at the significance of “contact” (or the lack of it) for each hand on the cello.


We have two main potential points of contact between the left hand and the cello: the fingers on the fingerboard, and the thumb under (behind) the cello neck. The contact of the thumb behind the cello neck is of exceptional value in terms of both the positional information and physical stability that it gives us. When the thumb is placed on top of the fingerboard however (thumbposition) both of these roles are much diminished and in this posuition it can be considered as the equivalent of a finger in terms of usefulness as a point of contact.

We can usefully talk about “double”, “single” and “zero” contact, according to how many points of contact we have between our left hand and the cello at any given moment. “Double-contact” is the optimal situation for both positional sense and physical stability, singlecontact is considerably more insecure and unstable, and zerocontact is like driving a vehicule with your hands off the steering wheel. Let’s explore these concepts further now.

“Double-contact” occurs when, as its name suggests, we have two points of simultaneous contact between the lefthand and the cello. These two points of contact are normally provided by the thumb (one point of contact) and the playing finger (the other), but not always. There are in fact several different ways in which we normally (and unconsciously) achieve doublecontact:

  • the most common form of doublecontact is that which ocurrs when we have simultaneously both the thumb contact behind the neck, and contact from a finger (or fingers) on top of the fingerboard. This is our standard hand position in the Neck and Intermediate fingerboard regions. In these fingerboard regions it is the positional feedback that we receive from these two simultaneous contact points between the left hand and the cello that enables us to safely and securely find any note (finger) without the benefit of an audible glissando (see Positional Sense).
  • in doublestops we automatically have doublecontact due to the contact of the two fingers on the neighbouring strings
  • when stopping any higher finger we often maintain a light contact with one or more of the lower fingers. This includes our almost-permanent maintaining of the thumb contact with the string in thumbposition

“Double-contact” is the optimal situation for both positional sense and physical stability, but it is not always necessary. Once we have a finger down (stopped), our positional security and physical stability is usually sufficiently assured that we can often release the thumb from its contact under (behind) the celloneck in order to have greater flexibility for vibrato and extensions. Certainly, for doublestops, the fact that we have two fingers stopped (and therefore doublecontact) means that we have little need for the thumb contact behind the cello neck (which makes for a possibly excessive “triple-contact”) and can normally release it to significant advantage.

“Single contact” occurs when we lose – either by choice or by obligation – one of these two points of contact. With single contact, our positional sense is often somewhat weakened. Apart from those moments when we might choose to release the thumb contact from under the neck (see above), these moments of obligatory single-contact occur principally in two situations:

  • when finding a note after the same open string (or harmonic)
  • when playing on the thumb in thumbposition with no other fingers stopping the strings

Let’s look at these two situations now in more detail:


In thumbposition, we lose the contact of the thumb behind the cello neck. One consequence of this is that in thumbposition our positional sense is much weaker than in the Neck and Intermediate regions, because when the thumb is on top of the fingerboard, it gives us much less positional information compared to when it is under the neck.


In thumbposition we lose the contact of the thumb under the celloneck. When playing an open string, the opposite situation occurs: now we maintain our thumb’s contact under the celloneck but we lose our contact between the left hand fingers and the cello, because the fingers have to release the string in order to allow the openstring to vibrate (unless we keep contact between the fingers and another string). This means that our only point of left-and contact with the cello during the open string is provided by the thumb behind the celloneck. Our positional sense is seriously weakened once again with only this single-contact.

single contact open str schumann

Sometimes we can use a silent finger on a neighbouring string to give us the extra security and stability of the “double-contact”. In the following example, the long notes are not played with the bow: they are simply silently stopped with the lefthand

contact silent double

The instability caused by having only singlecontact during the open string is one of the main reasons why trilling on the open string is usually not very successful. If we use the “zero” position, with the first finger on the nut of the fingerboard, suddently the fact of having doublecontact makes our trill on the openstring almost as easy and natural as a trill on the first finger in first position:

trill on open str basic


This loss of one of our two contact points, for either of the above two reasons, weakens our positional sense in both situations, but much worse is when we lose both contact points.Now we are in big trouble …..

posn sense zero contact Bach

Without any physical contact points between the left hand and the fingerboard/cello neck, it is as though our hand was suddenly blinded. Now it is literally lost in space …….. until we reestablish contact. This is why, after a silence in which our left arm has been at rest, we normally place the finger and check its pitch (using a light Left-Hand Pizzicato) before playing it. This subject is treated in more detail in the Positional Sense page. Finding notes “out of the blue” – with absolutely no time for any anticipatory finger or thumb contact – is one of the hardest things that we can possibly have to do with our left hand on the cello. In the following examples the only way to maintain any left-hand contact with the cello during the open string is by keeping the thumb in contact with the back of the cello neck, even though we might prefer to have the thumb released to facilitate the extensions. Maintaining thumb contact creates strain for the small hand, but the alternative is total intonation insecurity.

same string WH


In the same way that tightrope-walkers need to maintain as much as possible the contact of their feet with the tightrope, we cellists, for safe, comfortable, secure shifting and positional sense on the cello, need to maintain as much as possible our finger-contact with the string. When that is not possible then we need to maintain the contact of the thumb behind the neck as our next-best substitute. When neither of these are possible then we can fall back on several bizarre, “deviant” points of contact that we contrive in order to not be “lost in space”. So, apart from the “standard” contact points mentioned above, there are some other strange ones that we might want to make use of occasionally:


In Thumb Position in general we suffer a lack of spatial references because our only left-hand contact points with the cello are on top of the fingerboard. In the Neck and Intermediate Regions by contrast we have an additional contact point of the thumb under the cello neck which sends us lots of spatial information. High in the Thumb Region we can however give ourselves a second point of contact with the instrument by allowing our forearm to touch the side of the cello. If we are shifting up and down the fingerboard quickly then this technique is not very useful, but in slower passages – and for locating high notes in silence –  it can give us both stability and helpful additional spatial feedback. This is especially useful as an anchor reference (stabiliser) when we need – for whatever reason  – to release our thumb contact from the fingerboard. In the following example the thumb needs to be released so that the natural harmonic can sound.

thumb off arm on

In the following examples we need to release the thumb so that the higher open string can sound:

thumb off but arm on Piatti


The Intermediate Region is a complex and unique fingerboard zone because of the fact that the thumb is blocked at the top of the cello neck and cannot move with the rest of the hand like it does in the other fingerboard regions. Allowing the palm of the hand to touch (rest on) the edge of the cello body when playing in the Intermediate Region can have the same double-utility as we obtained by letting the arm touch the cello in the high thumb region: it gives us both additional stability and positional feedback. We can use this point of contact to allow us to release the thumb, or we can use it simply as an addition to the thumb. A similar technique (trick) can be used also in the highest Neck Region positions, where we can allow the hand to touch (rest on) the cello’s rib in order to be able to release the thumb during an open string (to facilitate the extended position).

bizarre contact rib high neck



In the Neck Region we need our alternative contact points for those situations when we must release the thumb contact under the cello neck. During extensions in the lower neck region, small-handed cellists may want (or need) to remove the thumb from its contact under the cello neck, in order to reach the extension with a minimum of strain. But if we have an open string in the middle of an extended passage then suddenly we will find our left hand floating freely: lost in space with zero points of contact with the cello. This is a dangerous situation, but can be avoided if we can somehow keep some part of our hand in contact with the cello during the open string. This contact point can be provided by a finger or by other parts of the hand/arm. There are several alternative possiblities which might allow the tiny-handed cellist to release the thumb during the open-string to facilitate the extended position without losing all positional references. Let’s look at some different examples of these situations:


bizarre contact extn 1

Here, there is a way to release the thumb but still maintain hand contact with the cello during the open string. This “trick” solution is to not release the first finger entirely from the fingerboard during the open string but rather to keep some part of it, further back towards the hand (away from the fingertip), in contact with the fingerboard. This becomes progressively more difficult as we move to the higher strings. In the case of the C and G strings this technique is quite simple and natural: we just allow the base of the first finger to keep contact with (touch, rest on) the higher strings. In the case of the D string we will need to rotate the finger like a lever in such a way that while the finger pad (tip) is lifted off the “D” string during the open string, the part of the finger just behind the fingertip maintains permanent contact with the A string. In the case of the same passage played on the “A” string (final line of the above example) we have no higher string to keep touching, so the first finger just has to lift its tip off the “A” string but maintain contact with the edge of the fingerboard.

This technique only works really for the first finger. Try these other finger patterns on all strings to see how to perhaps find an alternative contact point to the thumb:

bizarre other fingers not 1


In scales in extended position that use the open string, we can avoid this loss of contact during the open string by maintaining the contact of the higher finger on the lower string during our playing of the higher open string. This means that, in an ascending passage, we will leave the higher finger in contact with the string for the whole time that we are playing the open string (until we put down the extended first finger). In a descending passage we will place the higher finger gently on the lower string before we release the extended first finger. In other words, in both ascending and descending passages, the higher finger is maintaining contact with the lower string for the whole time that we are playing the higher open string.

avoiding loss of contact all fingers

Let’s illustrate this again using an example of a typical scalic passage, up and down across the open strings:4to1xviaopen





The right-hand has two totally different types of action, according to whether it is using the bow or playing pizzicato. So we need to look at the concept of “contact” in these two techniques separately


When playing “arco”, the contact of our right hand with the cello is exclusively via the bow. In other words, when using the bow, our right hand never actually touches the instrument directly. The bow is like our antenna, sending us feedback which tells us where it is. Because there are only four strings, knowing where we are is a much simpler task for the right hand than for the left hand (which has a hugely greater number of positional alternatives – not just the four strings but also all the different pitches on each string). This means that loss of contact of the bow with the cello is not “a danger” to our positional sense in the same way that it is for the left hand. Even so, after a silence in which the bow has been at rest or in the air, we will almost always place it gently on the string before starting to play, in order to give ourselves that brief moment of spatial feedback that allows us to correct its position and prepare the dosification of pressure and speed that we will be using when we start to play.


Pizzicato poses some interesting questions and problems concerning this idea of “contact”. For isolated pizzicato notes, or in slower pizzicato passages, it is our preparatory contact of the plucking finger with the string that gives us our positional security. In other words, if we have time to touch the string with our plucking finger before we pluck it, then this contact is perfectly sufficient to give us positional security. However, in circumstances in which we don’t have time to make this preparatory contact (this occurs in faster pizzicato passages) then it becomes very helpful (for our positional security) to maintain the right thumb in permanent contact with the right edge of the fingerboard. This gives us simultaneously a fixed spatial reference as well as a stable point of anchor.

We never needed this extra point of contact when playing with the bow, so why is it that we need it in pizzicato? In other words, why is our right-hand positional sense weaker in pizzicato than when we are using the bow? Perhaps because we spend so much less time playing “pizzicato” than we do playing “arco”? Or perhaps also because the bow, being so long, gives us lots more positional feedback than just the right hand alone.


Apart from these “standard” contact points mentioned above, there are some other strange ones that we might want to make use of occasionally:


Having the thumb glued to the edge of the fingerboard in faster pizzicato passages reduces our left-hand’s range of movement considerably. We could choose instead to have the right forearm touching the edge of the cello’s belly to provide this same necessary function of positional sense and stability, which allows our right hand and wrist a greater range of movement. See “Faster Pizzicato Passages”