This is a sub-page of the Extensions article.
The relation between our cello’s size and our hand’s size, flexibility, and strength is one of the most determining factors in the ease (or not) of our left-hand cello technique. It is the combination of these four factors that will determine how much strain the hand is under, especially during our extensions. For cellists of every level, loving the cello sound but having a small, weak, inflexible hand is a potential source of great frustration and even injury. It can be a little like loving a person who doesn’t really love you back!! But there is hope …… although we cannot change our hand size, we can improve its strength and flexibility. And we can most certainly change our cello size. We will look now at these different factors separately.
1: CELLO SIZE
Cello size is vitally important for small-handed cellists, but only (or mainly) with regard to the string length. The longer the string length (distance between the bridge and the top of the fingerboard), the greater the distance will be between the notes, and the more strain the hand will suffer in reaching for (and holding) the extensions. While we can improve the flexibility and strength of our hand through exercises and practice, we can’t change its size. We can however change the size of the cello.
In the viola department, the large range of different sizes available for different sized adult violists is considered absolutely normal. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for cellos. Once again, in spite of all the jokes, violists reveal their superior intelligence! There is however some variation in “adult” cello sizes, and small-handed cellists will almost certainly find it much easier to play on a cello with a relatively short string length. This normally means a cello with a shorter body length – a so-called “Ladies Cello” or 7/8th size. Daniil Shafran, one of the greatest cello virtuosos of the 20th century (who did not have a particularly small hand) played for his entire adult life on a small 7/8 Amati cello. Watching videos of him playing (for example this one of Schubert’s “Ave Maria”) one can see how effortless the left-hand extensions are for him. The relatively small size of his cello was undoubtedly a great help in his extraordinary ease of playing, the magical combination of a large hand with a small cello allowing him to:
- use fingerings (extensions, use of fourth finger and thumb) that no cellist with a “normal” hand-size/cello-size relationship could even imagine
- have an absolutely beautiful sound and vibrato, greatly facilitated by a totally relaxed left hand
We do however need to be careful, as not all small-bodied cellos have a shorter string length (and not all full-size cellos have a full-size string length). Normally, a large cello can have a string length of 72 cm or more, whereas for a 7/8 cello this distance is often only 68 cm. Those 4 cm of difference, spread out over the whole fingerboard actually make an enormous difference for the comfort of the hand, especially when it comes to doing extensions. Playing on a cello with a shorter string length is the equivalent of suddenly having a larger hand. Even a small cellist might be able to achieve the same advantageous size relationship to their cello as Rostropovitch, simply by playing on a 3/4 size cello. Suddenly, most of the left-hand strain is gone and the cello becomes actually quite easy to play !!
Curiously, both Leopold Mozart and Quantz, in their respective treatises on music written around the mid-1700s, describe two different cello sizes: a smaller cello for solo playing and a larger one for orchestral playing. What a shame that this idea has since disappeared, and what a shame that the cello size that has fallen out of favour is the smaller one ! In the same way that a small car can be more powerful than a large one, smaller cellos do not necessarily sound weaker than their bigger brothers, and the smaller version, just like for skis and surfboards, is almost always more zippy, responsive and manoeuvrable.
The cello is a difficult instrument to play well, largely because of certain design characteristics (faults?) related to its long string-length. A normal-sized cello for a normal-sized cellist has a string-length that is just too large to allow a fluid easy command of all the notes of a scale under the hand in one position. Normally, an instrument with this string length (approximately 68-70cm) would be tuned in fourths, to allow the playing of any scale fluidly across the strings without the need for large uncomfortable extensions. This tuning in fourths, apart from being used on double-basses and bass guitars, is used also on guitars and viola da gambas, both of which normally have a shorter string length than the cello. At the time of the development of the cello however, (see Cello History), the gamba tuning in fourths was rejected in favour of the violin/viola tuning in fifths. This has a great intellectual logic – now the three instruments are basically just different sized versions of each other – but has no ergonomic logic at all.
If the cello was tuned in fourths (even in augmented fourths) then the need for extensions across the strings would diminish greatly, and the need for double-extensions across the strings (for smooth scales) would disappear completely. This would greatly facilitate melodic playing. It is not really surprising then that Schubert wrote an absolutely magical (and highly melodic) sonata for the Arpeggione, rather than writing one for the cello. The only disadvantages of the Arpeggione compared to the cello were its weak sound and its lack of expressive glissandi (because of the frets). These problems could be easily remedied nowadays. Perhaps a modern, electric, amplified, fretless Arpeggione (Yamaharpeggione?) will one day make a hugely successful comeback and relegate the cello to museum-piece status??!!
It would be nice if we could shorten the string length on a large (or normal-size) cello simply by moving the bridge up a few cm, but this manipulation can not only change the acoustic properties of the instrument (giving it normally a worse sound and response) but also has the unavoidable effect of moving the finger/note positions. If we move the bridge 2cm towards the fingerboard then our mid-string harmonic (one octave above the open string) is moved 1cm towards the top of the fingerboard (the nut). This displacement of the note positions is mainly a problem in the Neck Region because now, in “fourth position”, the position of our thumb (in the curve of the neck) under the fingers may no longer correspond to its position under the fingers in the other neck positions. Unfortunately, it is the thumb/fingers positional relationship in fourth position that determines this same thumb/finger relationship in all the neck positions, so if we modify it in the fourth position we will need to modify it all over the neck region. We may be able to get used to this, but then we will have great difficulty playing on other cellos.
A way to shorten the string length without moving the note positions would be to move the top of the fingerboard (the nut) down towards the bridge by the same distance that we bring the bridge up towards the fingerboard. The potential negative effects on the cello’s sound and response however remain – unless you have an electric cello!
2: HAND SIZE
It is not surprising that many of the greatest cellists are/were quite big: Rostropovitch, Piatagorsky, Tortelier, Truls Mork, Lyn Harrell – and even Jaqueline du Pre – all have (or had) an enormous advantage for cello playing due to their large hand-size. As Casals, Rose and many other short cellists illustrate however, it’s not so much body height – or finger length – that determines a hand’s suitability for the cello. Rather it is the width of the hand that is important – and not only for extensions. A wide hand with short (but ideally chunky) fingers has its centre of gravity closer to the fingertips and is thus often stronger and more stable than a long narrow hand. This gives comfort and ease, not just to extensions but also to vibrato and general left-hand technique.
In women’s beauty contests, hips, waist and bust measurements used to be given. We could do the same for cellists, but in our case, the vital measurements would be “hand width”, “finger diameter” and “hand volume”. And, unlike for the beauty contestants, for cellists, the bigger all these numbers are, the more advantageous for the cellist!
Leonard Rose recognised his luck in this department. In spite of being quite short (173 cm/5’8″) he considered himself “blessed” with “hands that lent themselves to the cello” and he wrote: “I have a tremendous lack of webbing in my hands. I am capable of doing many extensions on the instrument so that I can cover a vast area quite quickly”. This ability can be seen clearly in his fingering suggestions in the numerous editions on which he collaborated. The following excerpt from the third movement of Brahms Symphony Nº 1 is copied exactly from his edition of “Orchestral Excerpts” (International Music Company Volume 1). This passage is quite fast: approximately crotchet (quarter note) = 100.
Here we can see that Rose uses very comfortably the minor third extension back to the first finger from the second finger. There are actually a total of 14 of these “double extensions” in his fingering of this short passage, as well as 10 simple extensions. With this ability to stretch, his hand can just stay in “Fourth Position” throughout the passage. For a small-handed cellist however, the systematic use of these types of fingerings may be dangerous both musically (risk of bad intonation) and physically (risk of hand strain injuries). Rose was a magnificent cellist and musician, but his fingerings are not appropriate for everybody (literally). For a small-handed cellist, it is probably safer to use fingerings with more shifting and less stretching, as in the following fingering suggestion for the same passage:
With this fingering, instead of the 14 double extensions and 10 simple extensions of Rose’s fingerings, we now have no double extensions and only 5 simple extensions. Instead of the stretching, we now have 12 small shifts, as compared to only 2 shifts in Rose’s example.
Casals, like Rose, was not bothered by extensions either. He even recommended just leaving the hand in extended position as often as possible, even when not strictly necessary! This advice obviously worked well for him but, once again, is definitely not suitable for everybody and is inconceivable for a small-handed cellist.
HAND STRENGTH AND FLEXIBILITY: DOUBLY NECESSARY FOR SMALL HANDS
In the same way that practice is a “musicians curse” (absolutely unavoidable, permanently necessary and potentially unpleasant), extensions can be the “curse of the (small) cellist’s left hand”. But even a small, narrow hand can become flexible and strong enough to realize the common extensions without excessive strain, especially if it has been accustomed to them from a young age. Marc Coppey the fine french cellist is, unlike many of the cellistic elite, not enormous. When asked if he would mind letting me trace the outline of his hand onto a piece of paper (for comparison with the hands of many other cellists), he responded “which hand ?” explaining that his left hand is much bigger than his right one. In the discussion that followed Marc assured me that from about the age of 10 he was practising the cello a lot, and he believes that it was probably this intensive practice during those years of rapid physical growth that led his left hand to grow exceptionally, as a way of adapting itself quite naturally to the demands of the cello. A comparison of Marc’s two hands shows an astounding almost 1 cm of extra length in the first three fingers of the left hand in relation to those of the right hand, and a good 5mm of extra length in the little finger.
So, practising a lot as a child is certainly even more necessary for small-handed cellists, which is a great shame for those (small) children who would prefer to be outside playing other more sociable games rather than locked into a practice “cell” in solitary confinement with only their cello for company! Fortunately for “XS” sized cellists, we have Sol Gabetta, Han Na Chang and many others (including Marc Coppey) whose extra strength and flexibility (and talent) make up for their smaller size, to show us that it is possible, even with a small hand, to do extensions with ease.
For those of us who are lucky enough to have a big, wide, strong, flexible hand that feels no strain from these common extensions: congratulations on your good fortune! …. you can probably skip this section. For those of us for whom it is too late to take this decision, we have to find ways to live with extensions, to make light of them, to reduce their negative impact and ………. to avoid them when possible (click on the links)!!
In an ideal world, children who have small hands and who will obviously never have a large wide hand, should probably be encouraged, for their own good, to play a different instrument (but not the viola). This will save them a lot of unnecessary suffering and extra work.