Stopping the string with a finger is not a binary question (yes-no, either-or, off-on etc). Finger pressure can – and should – be varied, according to both musical and technical factors. We will look principally at two questions relating to finger pressure:
- how much pressure should we use
- what type of pressure: the pinch (between thumb and finger) or the simple application of weight (downward pressure on the string with no “pinch” component)
Before looking at the amount of pressure, let’s look at the type of pressure as this is a more fundamental question.
1: HOW DO WE APPLY OUR FINGER PRESSURE TO THE STRING: PINCH …. PUSH ….. HANG??
This is a very interesting and important question. We will start by comparing the situation of the cello with that of the violin and viola because this comparison is very instructive. While many of the elements of string-playing technique are common to all the string instruments, here, by contrast, we have some very significant differences which are the result of the following two differences in the manner of holding (supporting) the instrument.
- violinists’ fingerboards are almost horizontal when they are playing whereas the cellists’ fingerboard is much more vertical
- the violin can be held (supported) only by two different elements: the violinist’s left hand and by their neck/collar-bone whereas the cello can be supported by four different elements: the spike, the sternum, the thighs and the left hand (see Seating Posture).
One of Newton’s Laws of Motion states that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction“. The combination of Newton’s Law with the characteristics of the way the violin is held means that violinists’ fingers (in contrast to cellists) cannot just “press” down on (or “hang from”) the fingerboard: the fingers absolutely need the “counterforce” of some part of their thumb (or of the curve between the thumb and first finger) to resist their pressure. Without this counterforce opposing the fingers, the only thing stopping their instrument from falling to the ground (as a result of the finger pressure) would be a vice-like squeeze between the neck and the collarbone.
We cellists don’t have this problem. Not only is our instrument supported on the spike (endpin) but also, the fact that the cello is played more vertically than the violin means that the pressure of our fingers on the fingerboard pushes our instrument towards our sternum (chest-bone to which the ribs are joined) rather than towards the ground. In other words, we can use our sternum as the opposite side of the pinch, the sternum thus providing the equal and opposite force which opposes that of the finger pressure on the fingerboard. This is very fortunate in the sense that it allows us to place the thumb on top of the fingerboard (thumbposition), something that violinists and violists could never do. In thumbposition, the thumb cannot act as the opposing side of the pincer to the fingers, and even in the Intermediate Region our thumb is no longer under the fingers, so in these regions we are used to playing without the use of the pincer effect.
When playing in the Neck Region however, we cellists have a choice that violinists and violists do not have: we can use the thumb-finger pincer (pinch) to apply our finger pressure, or we can use the sternum instead of the thumb to provide this resistance to the finger pressure, thus liberating the thumb from the need to squeeze against the cello neck in opposition to the fingers. Which one is better? Is one method always better than the other or does each have its moment of ideal suitability? What are the consequences of one technique compared to the other?
FEELING THE PINCH: THE PINCER EFFECT OF THE THUMB UNDER THE CELLO NECK: USEFUL OR NOT?
Let’s start with a few observations: when we play doublestopped passages, the use of thumb pressure on the cello neck is a creator of tension and a vibrato-inhibitor. If we try our Cossmann Doubletrill Exercises (and their preparatory exercises) we will see immediately just how much harder and tenser they become when we make use of the pincer effect with the thumb. This is very revealing because doublestops require double the hand-pressure as single notes – and capo fifths require even more – so we might think that we might want/need to make use of the thumb/finger pincer to help provide this strong hand-pressure. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: the pincer just creates muscular exhaustion and then cramps. Absolutely the same can be said for passages that use many broken doublestops. When we play the fast movements of the Bach Solo Suites for example (such as the Prelude to the Third Suite), pressure of the thumb behind the cello neck is absolutely counterproductive, causing our hand to become tense, and eventually seize up. Both doublestopped passages, and broken-doublestopped passages are much much easier when we force our thumb to release any contact at all with the underside of the cello neck.
So when – if ever – is our thumb contact under the fingers necessary or useful? Perhaps this thumb contact is mainly useful as a tactile positional sensor and as a hand-stabilizer rather than as an opposing force to our finger articulations? This is completely different to violin/viola technique. These are very important questions for our lefthand technique but for now, let’s go back to the other main question about finger pressure: “how much” pressure do we need.
2: HOW MUCH FINGER PRESSURE SHOULD WE USE?
It would be a great pedagogical aid to have a “tactile”, pressure-sensitive fingerboard that could give us a printout or digital display saying how much pressure we are applying on it at any one time. Without that objective data however we can only use our ears and our body-awareness to judge and measure how much pressure we are applying, and if this amount is too much or too little. To answer this question we can start by looking at the extremes: what happens when we press too hard, or too lightly?
PRESSING TOO LIGHTLY
In both loud and soft playing, if we press too lightly with the left hand, the sound becomes fuzzy and undefined, and the pitch of the note will tend to sound flat (even though the finger might be in the correct place). When playing loudly we will need to apply more pressure with the finger than when playing softly, in order to resist the greater amplitude of the string vibration. When we play “capo” fifths (stopping two strings with the same finger) we will often have this problem of insufficient finger pressure on the higher string of the pair. In fact, a good way to illustrate (audibly) the effect of insufficient finger pressure is to play capo fifths with the left hand while bowing only on the higher string. In order to make a good sound on the top note of the fifth, we will need to compensate for the softness of that part of the finger that is stopping the higher string by pressing a lot harder than normal.
Fortunately, the symptoms of a lack of finger pressure make themselves heard immediately, which is useful because it allows us to diagnose the problem and correct it, also immediately. This is a very similar situation to that which occurs with the bow: pressing too lightly (or too hard) can be immediately heard and corrected. Unfortunately, pressing too hard with the fingers is a different story.
PRESSING TOO HARD
Normally, as we play louder, we need to increase the finger pressure on the string in order to keep it well stopped. Pressing too hard with the left hand is however a dangerous problem, and it is a much more dangerous problem than pressing too lightly, not only because pressing too hard is much less easy to hear but also because its negative effects are considerably more serious and surreptitious (sneaky). Not only can we damage our hand and fingers but also the excessive tension will contaminate all other aspects of our playing and general posture. Excessive left-hand pressure is both a symptom and a cause of general body tension. But how do we know when we are pressing too hard? How much is too much?
CORRECT PRESSURE = MINIMUM PRESSURE
Finding and using the lower limit of necessary finger pressure can help our whole body to relax and improve all aspects of our playing. It is useful to experiment with this lower limit, to see just how little is too little, and to make sure that we are not pressing unnecessarily hard. Playing long glissandos up and down the strings is a good way to experiment with finger pressure as here we don’t need to articulate any new notes (which always requires more pressure). It is surprising how little finger pressure is necessary – sometimes (in pp playing) we don’t even need to have the string stopped all the way to the fingerboard!
We need to be aware also that, for longer notes, we can actually relax the finger pressure slightly after the beginning of the note, especially if the long notes are “piano”. Note beginnings are the most delicate, fragile moments, where insufficient finger pressure can cause the note to not speak cleanly. Once the string is in vibration, both the need for finger pressure and the consequences of insufficient pressure are somewhat reduced.
FINGER PRESSURE AND STRING CROSSINGS
As a general rule, we need to make the most of every possibility that we can find to relax while playing (see Relaxation Principle. It is a very good idea to relax the pressure of the fingers when they are not actually sounding and this principle is especially relevant in string crossing passages. Here, we need to avoid keeping the fingers pressing down firmly on several strings at the same time. If we press the fingers down only when we actually need them (when the bow comes back to their string), then we give them a chance to relax while the bow is playing on the other strings. Maintaining a permanent vice-like grip on the fingerboard is a sure recipe for left-hand cramps and ultimately, injury. This is best illustrated with an extreme example across four strings, in which we want to experience the feeling of the finger pressure “rolling” across the fingerboard slightly in advance of the bow:
At the bottom of this article is a more detailed discussion about finger pressure release in multi-string passages.
FINGER PRESSURE AND STRING HEIGHT:
If the cello strings are too high above the fingerboard, we are obliged to press harder. This is not just a problem of setup by the luthier. Humidity has the effect of raising the string height (changing the fingerboard angle in fact) whereas a dry atmosphere has the opposite effect. The change of seasons often involves large changes in humidity levels and, surprisingly, it is often in winter that the cello gets too dry, because of the constant indoor heating that dries out the air. Sometimes the changes are so gradual that we may not even realise why the left hand is becoming so difficult in summer, and why the strings are buzzing on the fingerboard in winter. In climates where this happens, it is useful to have two bridges: a lower one for summer and a higher one for winter.
ORCHESTRAL FINGER PRESSURE
One of the risks of Orchestral Playing is that it is very easy to get into the (bad) habit of pressing and articulating our fingers too hard without even realising that we are doing it. This is a natural reaction to the noise level, the rhythmic complications of playing with so many people, and the great number of notes to be played. A better reaction would probably be to do the exact opposite!
3: FINGER PRESSURE RELEASE (this discussion is repeated in the section on Finger Articulation)
As a general rule, in our pursuit of the Holy Grail of “Maximum Relaxation”, not only do we want to play with minimum finger pressure, but also we want to release that finger pressure as soon as our note has finished. Unfortunately, when we need to reuse a finger soon after playing it, we can be tempted to maintain unnecessarily its pressure on the fingerboard during the time when it is waiting to be reused.
This situation is especially frequent in multi-string passages because here we are operating the fingers on different strings at the same time. Play the following passage:
In these situations, we need to choose what to do with a finger before we replay it. We can choose between the two opposite extremes of:
- keeping it totally pressed down so that it is 100% ready for when we need it again
- releasing it entirely (lifting it off the string) and then rearticulating it when we need it again
Or we can make a compromise between these two opposites by releasing the finger pressure while keeping however the “released” finger still in contact with the string. The following example is identical to the one shown above, but this time all the notes for which we have these different articulation possibilities are shown inside the rectangles. All the other notes need to be obligatorily articulated (or are open strings):
It is an interesting experiment to play this passage three times, with the notes in the rectangles played each time in only one of the three different ways:
- no rearticulation (permanently stopped)
- rearticulated completely
- compromise (pressure released after playing but with permanent string contact)
Of course, our choices will be very much influenced by the speed of the passage. The less time we have between our reutilsations of the same finger, the more difficult (and impractical) it will be to release the finger pressure and rearticulate the finger:
But the amount of time we have is not just a direct function of the speed of the passage. Even in a very fast passage, if the time between the original finger placement and its rearticulation is sufficient, we can still release it entirely while it is not in use: