Music is an extremely powerful means of communication, but it acts at a distance. While we do hope to “touch” our listeners, “move” them, “grip” them, and “hold” their attention, we have to do all this indirectly, at a distance, via our instrument. “Touch” has been called “the mother of all the senses” and bowed string instruments are probably the most sensually tactile of all the musical instruments. Both hands have a very expressive tactile relationship with the instrument: the right hand indirectly via the bow, and the left hand through its direct physical contact between the fingertips and the strings. On this page we will look in more detail at this contact between the left-hand fingers and the cello’s strings and fingerboard.
There is a huge variety in the ways in which the left-hand fingers touch the cello strings. Not only do we pluck and hammer the strings in a rhythmic, articulate way but also – and here is the sensual aspect – we stroke and caress them during both our finger placements and our sliding shifts up and down them. All this hammering, plucking, stroking and sliding constitutes an enormous palette of different tactile effects, which translate into different musical colours and expressive devices. The incessant modulation between articulated hammering and smooth sliding finger contacts is perhaps comparable to the use of consonants and vowels in language.
We can look at several variables concerning our finger-string/fingerboard contact (click on the highlighted links to open the dedicated pages):
1: HOW (AND WHEN) WE BOTH BRING THE FINGERS TO THE STRING AND RELEASE THEM FROM THE STRING:
These questions are looked at in the following article: Finger Articulation
2: THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF FINGER/STRING CONTACT:
3: THE FRICTION FACTOR
Good playing requires enormous tactile sensitivity from both the left-hand and the bowhand. While the left-hand fingers do indeed spend a lot of their playing-time percussively articulating the strings they also spend a huge amount of time (all of our shifting time for example) sliding up and down the strings, for which the tactile sensation of the friction of our fingerpads against the strings and fingerboard is an absolutely vital control mechanism. Disturbances to the degree of friction between the fingers and the strings/fingerboard can cause us all sorts of problems: not just with our sliding position changes (glissandi), but also with our vibrato and our intonation (fine tuning).
Frictional disruptions can be caused by disturbances to any one of the three elements involved: the fingerboard, the strings, and/or the fingerpads.
3:1 FRICTION RESISTANCE OF THE FINGERBOARD AND STRINGS
Fingerboards need to be absolutely and uniformly smooth. If our fingerboard (and/or strings) are not uniformly resistant to the friction of the sliding fingers on the string, then we will have problems with our tactile control. But it is not enough that the friction factor is uniform all over the fingerboard, it also needs to be “just right”: not too slippery but not too resistant either. Imagine a fingerboard/strings covered with with oil, talc, or soap: this would be too slippery. In the opposite (frictional) direction, imagine playing on a rough fingerboard (or string) with a surface like coarse sandpaper: this would be be too resistant to the sliding movements of the fingers. The normal cause of excessive “drag” created by a fingerboard or string problem however is not due to poor workmanship but rather caused by accumulated sticky filth!
Over time, fingerboards (and strings) – like carpets, clothes and any exposed surfaces – tend to accumulate all the various dusts and dirt to which they are exposed. If we don’t clean both strings and fingerboard periodically with alcohol (on a make-up-removal cotton pad, a cloth, tissue etc), then we can find our finger contact with the cello seriously disturbed by this sticky mess. It is astounding the amount of black-brown goo that comes off after a few months – especially after hot weather and especially if we have played the cello with dirty hands. And it is equally astounding how much our left-hand finger contact is improved after this cleaning operation. We do however need to be careful not to get alcohol on any part of the cello’s body except the fingerboard: alcohol can damage the varnish unless removed immediately.
For a cello that spends its entire life in a case except for when being played, the main vector for this accumulation of stickiness is our fingers. So if we don’t want our fingerboard to become an archaeological record of our past activities then we might as well wash our hands after DIY activities, car repairs, finger snacks etc! Even with clean hands, the normal sweating and shedding of old skin cells is enough to cause a build-up of sticky detritus that will require periodic removal from the strings and fingerboard.
Certain types of strings (Jarga ?) have a rough winding on them which creates additional drag. Fortunately, because this sensation of frictional resistance is uniform all the way along the string, this is something that we can quickly get used to.
3:2 FRICTION RESISTANCE OF THE FINGERPADS
Sometimes it is the actual fingertips, rather than the fingerboard or the strings, that are responsible for disturbing variations in left-hand slipperiness. Playing the cello after a long bath or after washing dishes is an interesting tactile experience that we have all no doubt at some time experienced. The softness of the waterlogged skin suddenly makes our fingertips drag on the string so much that we can’t shift comfortably or accurately until the fingers have dried out again. Fortunately this drying process doesn’t usually take long. Warming-up the hand in hot water for anything more than a few minutes is only a good idea if we wear a waterproof glove to avoid this problem.