The Cellist’s Left Hand

A musician is an athlete of the small muscles

This is especially true for our left-hand.

Dancer, gymnast, sprinter, marathon runner, weightlifter, high-diver: the cellist’s left-hand is an olympic athlete, not only participating in all events but also changing events at a moment’s notice. When we add to these athletic requirements, the necessary skills of singer, poet, Shaolin warrior, yogi, contortionist, magician and circus performer, then we can start to appreciate the complexity of what our left-hand needs to be able to do.


The two hands are in many ways like yin and yang ….  male and female …… particles and waves ……  analysis and intuition …….. science and art: opposites that need and complement each other, working and combining together in every conceivable way to bring about miracles. Each note of the lefthand is a discrete entity, easily separated and distinguished from the other notes around it, sounded by the placing of one finger. In this sense, the left-hand is like a numerical computer, a keyboard, a scientist, a mathematician. In contrast to this is the righthand/arm, which works more like a holistic artist, a dancer, sculptor or painter, thinking more in dynamic waves and operating normally with larger continuous and connected gestures rather than with separate discrete particles.

At first glance, this different functioning of the two hands seems to reflect perfectly the differences between the two sides of the brain because, according to brain science, the left side of the brain is the mathematical, logical, scientific side and the right side is the emotive, creative, artistic side. But brain science also says that the left brain controls the right side of the body, and the right brain controls the left side, so what seemed like a beautiful correlation is now turned on its head! Maybe this is why good string-playing is not an easy task!

It is very easy for the male brain to become overly focused on the left-hand, to the detriment of all the things that come primarily from the right hand (such as sound quality, colours, dynamics, musicality etc.) We can see the same tendency in pianists: there are those (usually men) who can play thousands of notes but will play all of them with little sensitivity, and then there are those pianists (often women) who play much fewer notes but whose every note is a jewel of expressivity and sensitivity.

One of the reasons we might tend to focus our attention so much on the left-hand is that it is so much easier to see and hear what is going on with that hand than with the right-hand. Each note from the left-hand is a clear objective that we can work on, whereas with the right-hand the information flow – both visual and auditory – is more continuous and much more complex to observe, with fewer discrete moments on which to focus our attention. Is it any wonder that the more mathematical, left-hand-oriented string players tend to be quite good at Stravinsyesque spiccato, because in spiccato, finally, the right-hand is also working with discrete entities!

Together, the right and left hands form a strange dancing couple composed of two totally independent, but completely coordinated, artists. They are engaged in a permanent “pas de deux” on four different stages (the four strings), during which, in spite of their extreme intimacy and permanent telepathy, they are never allowed to actually touch each other!


While the coordination of the movements of our left and right hands/arms is one of the greatest and most constant challenges of string playing, there are many benefits to be had – as a practice technique – from making a total separation of the work of each hand. To isolate the lefthand we will put the bow down and sound the notes only with lefthand (and perhaps the occasional righthand) pizzicatos (whacks and plucks). This allows us to concentrate exclusively on that hand, which is a luxury so rare in normal music-making that we can only really create these conditions artificially in our practice room.

Pianists use this practice technique often, but string players use it rarely. This is perfectly understandable, for at least two major reasons:

  • unlike for pianists, when string players play with only one hand there is absolutely no music happening and absolutely no musical satisfaction. Ravel wrote a Piano Concerto for only one hand, but such an idea for a string player is obviously impossible (but would make a good comedy sketch)!
  • unlike for pianists, playing a string instrument with only one hand requires reconfiguring the music. When playing with the lefthand alone, we will need to consider which notes will sound naturally with a lefthand pizzicato, which ones we will want to hear with a righthand pizzicato, and which will remain silent.

Certainly, “playing” a piece of music using only the lefthand is musically (emotionally) barren, but to compensate for this, it is however very rich in intellectual/technical stimulation. This practice technique also gives our nervous system a rest from the constant emoting that tends to happen automatically as soon as we put the bow on the strings !

Separating The Hands

We can even practice the Left-Hand without a cello. One very busy cellist kept a cut-down fingerboard in the car with her for use in traffic jams. In fact, we can even practice the left hand without a fingerboard, but that is another subject (see Mental Practice).


Another very useful practice technique for the left hand is to transpose any passage (that doesn’t use open strings or harmonics) into neighbouring keys

Transposition As A Practice Technique


Click on the links below to explore the different areas of left-hand technique:

  1. Chromatics   
  2.   Contractions And Snakings
  3.   Double Stops/Chords
  4.   Extensions  
  5.    Fifths  
  6.   Fingerboard Regions
  7.    Fingering 
  8.    Finger Spacings
  9.    Finger-String Contact
  10.    First Finger
  11.    Fourth Finger
  12.   Hand Size
  13.     Harmonics
  14.     Left Hand Pizzicato
  15.     Left-Hand String Crossings
  16.   Left-Hand Warmup
  17.     Positional Sense  
  18.      Shifting 
  19.      Thumbposition 
  20.      Trills
  21.     Vibrato