It is curious how traditional cello fingering makes such a sudden radical frontier break across a tiny semitone distance on the fingerboard at the start of the Intermediate Region. From the systematic use of the fourth finger for the top note of the first intermediate position (F, F#, G, G# on the A-string) we proceed to the systematic and exclusive use of only the third finger (and the consequent total elimination of the fourth finger) for the top note of the position only one semitone higher (F#, G, G#, A). This “break” is a cellistic equivalent of the “Iron Curtain” of the former Eastern Europe, separating two vastly different and mutually impenetrable worlds: on the one side “you can”, and on the other “you can’t”, and there is no transition zone between the two!
Do the ergonomics of the left hand in this fingerboard area really justify such a sudden transformation in fingering?
As mentioned in the Intermediate Region page, the use of the fourth finger does become rapidly uncomfortable for most cellists as soon as we enter the Intermediate Region. This is because, with the thumb blocked in the crook of the cello neck, the hand angle to the cello neck becomes more oblique (sloping backwards). This pulls the fourth finger away from the fingerboard, with the consequence that the fourth finger is now usually just too short to comfortably reach, stop and vibrate on the string. The higher we go up into the Intermediate Region, the more pronounced this phenomenon becomes, but even in the first (lowest) intermediate position (F, F#, G, Ab on the “A” string) the fourth finger is already somewhat less comfortable than it was only one semitone lower on the “G”. This is why, for a long, expressive G# (on the “A” string), C# (on the “D” string), F# (on the “G” string) etc. we will often prefer to use the third finger (or any other) rather than the fourth finger.
In this “first intermediate position”, to avoid the fourth finger, we may therefore prefer to use the 1X23 “intermediate region fingering” rather than the 1(2)34 “neck region fingering”. However when we have the semitone between the lowest two notes and a tone between the highest notes (in other words when we must choose between 12X3 and 12 4), the situation reverses. Especially for cellists with a small hand, it may often be less strain to use the perfectly relaxed 2-4 tone (close position) rather than the strained 2-3 tone (extended position). In other words, using the fourth finger can be a very practical way to avoid the uncomfortable 2-3 tone extensions in the Intermediate region.
This idea is not only applicable to the first (lowest) intermediate position. In the “second intermediate position” (corresponding to F#- A on the A-string), and sometimes even higher, there are many situations in which we can still make good use of the fourth finger in to avoid the uncomfortable 2-3 tone extension. This occurs most notably (but not exclusively) in faster passages in which we don’t actually need to do vibrato on the note.
Sometimes even we might prefer the 1-4 major third to the 1-3 traditional fingering. As with the above examples this will happen mainly in faster passages where we don’t need to vibrate on the top note. There are innumerable examples in the repertoire where trills, mordents and turns and suddenly become much easier when we use the 2-4 tone (or the 1-4 major third) rather than the 2-3 tone or the 1-3 major third.
Apart from this use of the fourth finger to avoid 2-3 tone and 1-3 major third extensions, there are several other reasons why we might want to use the fourth finger in the Intermediate Region:
- in chromatic passages to avoid small shifts or to avoid having to use the thumb (exmpl)
- when the hand makes a brief incursion from the Neck Region into the lower Intermediate Region. In these situations it is often convenient to stay in the “Neck Region” hand posture (in which the hand position is more or less square to the fingerboard) thus avoiding changes of hand posture between the two regions that are often destabilising, especially at high speed. All of the above examples illustrate this phenomenon as well as the 2-3 extension avoidance
- on the half-string harmonic
In order to be able to use the fourth finger most comfortably, it helps if we turn our hand more square to the neck (just like it usually is in the Neck Region. Aligning the hand square to the neck in the Intermediate Region may be made considerably easier if we release our thumb (especially if it is a short one) from its position behind the crook of the neck. In this case the thumb can either float freely or, for more stability, be placed on the cello shoulder (rib).
With practice – and with the support of the third finger – we can even get used to doing vibrato on the fourth finger, which allows us to use it on longer, more expressive notes.
Our hand shape will have a major influence on how practical it might be to use the fourth finger in the lower intermediate region. Some people have hands that are very “artistic”, in the sense that they are “pointy” with quite large differences between the lengths of the outer fingers compared to the middle fingers. Other people might have more “agricultural” (or “boxer”) hands that are more square, with less difference in lengths between the fingers. Those “agricultural” hands are much more suitable for using the fourth finger in the lower intermediate positions than are the “artistic” hands. People with very short fourth fingers may find its use more of a nuisance than a help. I apologise to them for the frequent use of these fingerings in the Repertoire Library (Edited Versions) – you’ll need to get out the “Twink” and paint out all the “4’s” or just use the “Clean (unedited) Versions”
For more practice material for working on our fourth finger use in the Intermediate Region (repertoire excerpts and exercises) click on the following link: