Cello First Position (Traditionally “Half Position”)
What is traditionally called “Half Position” really should be called “First Position” because it is in fact exactly that. There is no possible lower position, unless we consider “Zero Position” in which the first finger is placed on the nut at the start of the fingerboard, above all to make trills on the open string easier (see Trills and Position Numbering). The traditional name “First Position” is not in fact derived from its geographical description but is rather from its place in the pedagogical curriculum. It is called First Position mainly because when we start to learn the cello this is almost always the position that we first learn with our left hand. If we were to use a more mathematical chromatic numbering system for the positions, then what is traditionally known as “Half Position” would now become “First Position” and what is traditionally known as “First Position” would now be “Second Position” etc. This is a lot like the transition from imperial to metric (decimal) measurement systems and it is this chromatic position-numbering system that is used on the cellofun.eu website. So from now on in this article, every mention of “first position” refers to the traditional “half position”.
“Half Position” is/was a very strange name, and we do tend to treat this position as though it was a bit of a strange place, usually spending as little time as possible in it. We often just don’t feel comfortable down there. We are so close to “home” (Second Position) yet it feels so different. Both the fingering (reading) of the notes and playing them in tune can be problematic, so we prefer just to get back up into Second Position at every opportunity.
To avoid this position we often prefer to play in the second position (traditionally called “first position”) with a lot of backward extensions. This is a shame because nowhere on the fingerboard are the note distances greater between each finger/semitone and added to this strain is the fact that the “nut” (ridge) at the end of the fingerboard is very close, meaning that we need to apply a greater force to the string to stop it against the fingerboard in this position. All of this extra effort is doubly difficult and strenuous when we are in the extended hand position.
It is as though First Position was a dangerous no-mans-land, the dark underbelly of our sparklingly clean home base Second Position. This is a shame because by using and staying in First Position we can avoid certain difficulties, most notably the prolonged use of the extended-back Second Position. This is of course mainly useful for cellists with XXS hands. In certain passages where the large-handed cellist will just stay in the extended-back Second Position, the small-handed cellist may prefer to do frequent small shifts between the First and Second Positions to avoid the extensions.
By using the First Position instead of the extended-back Second Position, we can avoid four extensions (red circles) but, to compensate for this (nothing comes for free) we will need to do three semitone shifts between the two positions instead (red rectangles). Here we are using our hand’s agility to compensate for its lack of size (see Hand Size And Extensions).
First Position is a little like thumbposition in the sense that we just have to use it more often in order for our hand and brain to get fully comfortable there. Click on the following links for material to work specifically on playing in (and going into) the Half Position:
First Position (Half Position): REPERTOIRE EXAMPLES
First Position (Half Position): EXERCISES
First Position (Half Position): STUDIES
Duport’s study Nº 19 is designed especially for this and never moves out of first position. Here it is: