Ignoring for the moment the postural distortions of the extended positions, the cellist’s left hand can be considered to have three different basic configurations (postures) according to the part of the fingerboard in which we are playing. The differences between these three postures derive principally from the different ways in which the left thumb is used/positioned. Each of these three different postures corresponds to (and in fact defines) a different region on the fingerboard. In the same way that our backbone can be divided up into the Cervical, Thoracic and Lumbar regions, our fingerboard can also be divided up into three regions: the Neck, Intermediate and Thumb Regions. Unlike for our backbone however, on the cello fingerboard these three regions are overlapping (see below). In these three regions, the hand positions are quite different and need to be practised separately. Click on the highlighted links below for more discussion about (and practice material for) each separate region.
1. NECK REGION
In the lower positions, up to what is traditionally called “fourth position” (with the first finger on E on the A string), the thumb is usually placed behind (under) the cello neck and moves up and down the fingerboard with the whole hand as a unit. We will call this region, the Neck Region.
2. INTERMEDIATE REGION
We all know about “Neck Position” and “Thumb Position”, but between the two is a strange no-mans-land where we often get lost. As we continue up the fingerboard from “fourth position”, the left thumb can no longer travel with the hand as a unit because it is blocked at the (curved) “corner” where the cello neck meets the cello body. In this region (from the “fourth position” upwards), the hand and fingers now move up and down the fingerboard independently from the thumb. Because of this peculiar (“strange”) use of the thumb, this region can feel like the equivalent of the “break” register for a singer’s voice: a difficult transitional register between the thumb region and the neck region. This bizarre region extends approximately from the first finger on E [MI] up to the first finger on A [LA] on the A string (depending on the size and flexibility of the cellist’s hand). We will call this region the Intermediate Region.
3. THUMB REGION
To be able to continue up the fingerboard even further, we must at some point free the thumb from its position behind the cello neck. The exact point at which we will need to do this varies according to the size of the cellist and the cello but is usually somewhere around first finger on Bb (for the A-string). From this point on upwards, the thumb has only two choices: it can either float along (in the air) behind the other fingers or can be used to stop the strings. Once again, as in the Neck Region, the hand (fingers and thumb) can now travel together as a unit. This is the Thumb Region. In the Thumb Region, we must bring the thumb up, as there is nowhere else for it to go. When we do this, we call it “Thumbposition“. But, as we all know, we also very often use “Thumbposition” in the Neck and Intermediate regions of the fingerboard as well, not only in the Thumb Region. It can be useful sometimes to consider that there are three different zones for Thumbposition: High (obligatory), Intermediate (optional) and Neck (only for special occasions).
In the same way that our vertebrae can be numbered C1, C2, C3, C4 etc (C = cervical), then T1, T2, T3, T4 etc (T = thoracic), then L1, L2, L3 (L = lumbar) etc we can number our fingerboard positions N1, N2, N3 etc then I1, I2, I3 etc then T1, T2, T3 etc (N = neck region, I = intermediate region and T = thumb region). On this website we will normally use this chromatic (rather than tonal) position-numbering system. For more details about this, click on the links for each different fingerboard region.
THUMB-CELLO CONTACT: A FAUSTIAN DILEMMA
These three regions are defined and differentiated principally by the different ways in which we use the thumb in each region. Because of this, when we remove the thumb from its contact with the cello neck or fingerboard (let it “float”), we actually “blur the boundaries” between these three regions, making the hand posture transitions between them much smoother. This “thumb-removal” makes it much easier to change between regions fluidly and quickly. But the price of this freedom can be quite high: by removing the thumb’s contact with the cello fingerboard we lose one of our essential tactile positional references as well as a mechanical hand-stabiliser. This is why we can use the concept of the “Faustian dilemma” to describe this difficult choice between freedom (thumb release) or stability and security (thumb contact).
We could even perhaps invent the cellistic concept of “the tyranny of the thumb” in the sense that permanent thumb-cello contact can limit our freedom of movement, not just for vibrato and extensions, but also in our shifting up and down the fingerboard. Perhaps we could consider permanent thumb-cello contact as being like the training wheels on a bicycle: a very useful safety feature that can however ultimately limit our freedom of movement?
GETTING COMFORTABLE IN EACH REGION
We can compare playing the cello with swimming. Playing in the three fingerboard regions is like a swimmer doing three different swimming strokes. Neck Position, the most natural, would correspond to freestyle (crawl), breaststroke ….. or maybe even dog-paddle. Playing in the Intermediate Region is more unnatural, corresponding perhaps to backstroke, while playing in Thumbposition is the most unnatural, corresponding perhaps to the “butterfly” swimming stroke. In the same way that swimmers learn and perfect their different strokes independently, we cellists also need to work on the different fingerboard regions independently, even though when we are playing music we – unlike swimmers – are constantly and rapidly switching (changing) between the three regions.
GETTING COMFORTABLE IN EACH POSITION
We need to be absolutely comfortable in any one position before being able to comfortably shift into or out of it. There are two fundamental exercise types for achieving this intellectual and muscular comfort:
- fast, light, flowing, rapid articulation finger exercises in one position
- slower double-stopped finger exercises in one position
Both types are highly repetitive and both keep shifting to a minimum, moving through the positions by semitone shifts or crawls and staying a reasonable amount of time in each position before moving on. Each develops different types of skills and both types are useful. These exercises are presented separately for each fingerboard region but are essentially very similar. Quite often they are like nasty medicine: unpleasant, only to be used for medicinal purposes, but very potent (and therefore to be taken only in small doses). These are like the tough, dry, training drills of an athlete: they have little to do with creativity but everything to do with efficient muscular preparation. Getting comfortable and familiar with the fingerboard regions and positions is best started without the added strain of extensions.
RELATIVE IMPORTANCE (DOMINANCE) OF THE DIFFERENT REGIONS IN DIFFERENT REPERTOIRE
It is interesting to look at just how much time we spend in the different fingerboard regions in different repertoire. This is similar to the statistical calculation of “possession time” in team sports. If one team is really dominant, they will have “possession” (the ball) for much more time than the losing team. These statistics are shown in detail on the following page: Time Spent in the Different Fingerboard Regions in the Standard Cello Repertoire.
One basic conclusion that is revealed by this analysis of standard repertoire for cellists, is that the Neck Region is not only very often dominant, but also by a huge margin. This is especially so in chamber and orchestral music. By contrast, in solo concertos and “virtuoso showpieces” – especially when composed by (or for) cello virtuosos – the higher positions are used much more often. The use of the higher regions is also often related to the period in which the music was written: the more recent the music, the more it uses the higher fingerboard regions. Let’s look now at these points in more detail.
FINGERBOARD REGIONS AND HISTORICAL PERIODS
Invented towards the end of the 17th century, the cello started off as a bass instrument. Of all the music Bach wrote for cello, only once – in the Prelude of the Sixth Solo Suite – does he take the cello up out of the Neck Region and even then it is only up to a “C” on the “A-string”. Of course in his music for Viola da Gamba he regularly goes higher, but that is because the Gamba has a higher string. Vivaldi, in approximately the same epoch as Bach, regularly used the higher registers in some of his cello concertos (never in his Cello Sonatas) but it would seem that these concertos were – like Bach’s Sixth Suite – written to be played on a 5-string cello. In fact, Vivaldi’s “high register” cello concertos use exactly the same register as Bach’s Sixth Suite and, when played on a 5-string cello, never get up into the true “Thumb Region” (where thumbposition becomes obligatory). This reinforces the theory that thumbposition was only just being discovered towards the end of both Vivaldi and Bach’s lifetimes (see History of Thumbposition). With this discovery, followed by improvements in the instrument, bow, strings, and playing technique, the frequency of use of the higher regions (and their upward range) has, as a general rule, increased over time.
In music of the Classical Period, a common phenomenon is that the cello will spend almost all its time in the Neck Region – often playing the bass line and harmonic accompaniments – and then, suddenly, will change register, leaping up into the higher (Intermediate and Thumb) regions for a singing, tenor solo melody. This is often a very abrupt change, not only of role (from accompanist to protagonist) but also of technical demands. It’s as though we are going on a gentle Sunday walk when suddenly (and briefly) that gentle path becomes a dangerous and difficult mountain climb.
Beethoven was a master at these sudden role changes. The following excerpt, from his early Piano Quartet, is only one of many examples from his chamber music repertoire of this type of writing (also see Septet, Variations etc for Cello and Piano etc). For 23 minutes of this work (which lasts 24 minutes), the cello is discretely purring along in the background as a traditional bass instrument, using only the Neck Region and mostly doubling the piano. Then suddenly, for one intense minute, this cameo starring role arrives, in which not only are we playing the tune, but also we are using the more soloistic higher register (Intermediate Region). Nothing in the music that comes previously prepares us for this sudden change.
However, this generalisation – that “the older the music is, the more it stays in the lower registers (Neck Region)” – is not always true. There are many exceptions. Let’s look now at some of these exceptions:
1. MUSIC WRITTEN FOR VIOLA DA GAMBA, 5-STRING CELLO OR ARPEGGIONE
The first music published for the cello appeared in the second half of the 17th century and the first “Cello Method” (by Michel Corrette) around 1740. During this time, and before (Renaissance music), much of the music that we might play nowadays on the cello, was still written for instruments of the Viola da Gamba family, of which even the bass version has a higher range than the cello (the standard frets go up at least to a C). The smaller tenor and treble Gambas go even higher, so we can find Renaissance music for Gamba that uses very high registers (see Ortiz: Ricercares).
The most well-known example of this difference in range between gamba and cello is shown to us by the Bach Gamba Sonatas. If we play them on the cello, we are obliged to use the Intermediate Region (with and without Thumb Position) whereas in the first five Bach Solo Cello Suites we never need to go above the Neck Region.
Obviously, music written for a five string cello will require the use of the high registers if we play it on a cello with only 4 strings. In the Baroque and Classical periods, five string cellos were much more common than nowadays. Some of Lanzetti’s Sonatas were probably intended to be played on a five string cello (but even so, still require the use of the thumb) and probably all of Vivaldi’s “high” cello concertos also. But the most well-known case of this in Baroque music is the Bach’s Sixth Cello Suite. If played as intended, on a five string cello (or transposed down a fifth on a normal cello), this suite is not “high” at all. With the exception of one brief passage in the Prelude (that goes up to the top of the Intermediate Region but still doesn’t require the use of the thumb), this Suite, like all the others, never leaves the Neck Region.
Advancing on to the Classical Period now, Schubert never took the cello above the Intermediate Region. Even his Arpeggione Sonata, if played as intended on a five string instrument, only very rarely (and briefly) goes up into the Thumb Region. Some people claim – with very good reasons – that Haydn’s D Major Concerto was also written for a five string cello. Certainly playing it on one would bring it back to a level of difficulty comparable with his C major concerto and other music of the period. Playing it on a four string cello puts into a “freak” or “virtuoso showpiece” category that has more similarities with Paganini’s music for violin than with any other music ever composed by Haydn.
See also the page “Transcribing Gamba, Arpeggione and 5-String Cello Music“.
2. CELLO VIRTUOSOS WHO COMPOSED FOR THEIR INSTRUMENT
Composers were (and are) limited by the technical abilities of the musicians who played their music. The fact that Bach never used the higher registers on the cello probably shows that no cellist in his court was familiar or comfortable with these higher registers. This doesn’t mean however that all other Baroque composers had the same limitations. The Cello Sonatas by Salvatore Lanzetti, published in 1750, use the higher registers and require the thumb frequently, because Lanzetti was both a cello virtuoso and composer.
The same principle applies to composers of the Classical Period. Boccherini was born 13 years before Mozart but whereas Boccherini (composer + virtuoso cellist) specialised in writing in the highest register of the cello, Mozart never dared to send his cellists up there. We can suppose that this, as in the case of Bach, was because none of his cellists were comfortable or secure in the higher regions.
3. TYPE OF REPERTOIRE: CONCERTOS AND VIRTUOSO SHOWPIECES
In symphonic and chamber music repertoire of all epochs, there is – and always has been – less reason to take the cello up high, as there are all those other instruments on the same stage for which the higher registers are their natural registers. Why make a tuba play like a trumpet when you have trumpeters sitting right there in the neighbouring chairs? For concertos and virtuoso showpieces however, it is spectacular and dramatic to take the solo instrument to its limits of technical and expressive possibilities. This is why it is in these types of pieces – no matter from which historical period – that we find the greatest use of the higher registers.
The consequence of this predominance of the Neck Region is that, if we only play standard classical repertoire – and especially if this repertoire is chamber and/or orchestral music – we don’t normally spend enough time in the Intermediate and Thumb regions to really get comfortable up there. Practicing in the Neck Positions will do very little to improve your playing in the Intermediate and Thumbpositions, in the same way that swimming freestyle (crawl) will not help a swimmer’s backstroke or butterfly strokes to improve significantly.
To achieve the goal of comfort and security in the higher regions, we need to work on those regions in an isolated, focused and intense way with other material (studies, exercises, concertos, virtuoso pieces – and violin music) rather than the standard chamber-music and orchestral repertoire. Study material and more detailed discussion for these higher regions can be found on the Intermediate Region and Thumbposition pages.