Thumbposition is unique to the cello and double-bass (and keyboard instruments!). It is not used on the guitar, viola, or violin, which is ironic because it is the use of the thumb that allows us to play the cello “like a violin” (see below). For many cellists, thumbposition is – or was – something quite difficult. Placing the thumb up on top of the fingerboard and using it like a finger, changes our left-hand position radically. While it opens up new possibilities and has enormous utility, it also has its own set of specific associated technical problems that need to be overcome. Using thumbposition is in many ways like speaking a foreign language. It requires a lot of dedicated work before we can become fluent and really comfortable in it, but when we do, then a whole new world opens up to us.
It may seem strange to see “Thumbposition” written as one word. This is to distinguish it from the concept of “thumb position” which refers literally to the thumb’s position relative to the fingerboard in any of the three fingerboard regions.
To skip the following technical discussion and go straight to the physical work, the following link opens a compilation of practice material including exercises, studies and repertoire excerpts.
“THUMBPOSITION” AND “THUMB REGION”: TWO DIFFERENT CONCEPTS
We use “neck position” hand postures in the “Neck Region“, and “intermediate position” hand postures in the “Intermediate Region“. The “thumbposition” hand posture however can be used in all the fingerboard regions.
The real, obligatory “Thumb Region” is “up high”, starting approximately from 1st finger on B (Si) on the A string (and its equivalent on the other strings). From here upwards, we are so high up the fingerboard that the thumb can no longer reach under (behind) the cello neck and must be brought up above the fingerboard. We can however choose to bring the thumb up on the fingerboard earlier, in the Intermediate and Neck Regions also, not because we have to, but rather because we want to, in order to make use of it as an extra finger. Sometimes it can be useful to differentiate between these three different regions of thumb position (Neck, Intermediate, and High).
Using the thumb as an “extra finger” in the Intermediate Region is often very practical, useful and comfortable: just when we lose the use of the fourth finger (it’s too short for the angled-back hand in Intermediate Position) we gain the use of the thumb. Truly a lucky coincidence of anatomy and instrumental design!
However, as we move our hand back on the fingerboard into the Neck Region, the increasing distances between the notes cause thumbposition to become increasingly strained for the fingers and hand. This is why our most frequent use of “thumbposition” occurs in the Intermediate and Higher regions. Most of the following discussion, therefore, concerns the use of the thumbposition in these “higher” regions, with however a section dedicated entirely to the use of thumbposition in the Neck Region.
Thumbposition is such an enormous subject that we will divide the discussion about it into various sub-categories:
Problems Of Thumbposition:
…. uncomfortable hand postures ….. lost in space …… sound (bowing problems) ….. high string tension ….. thumb vibrato …. fear of high regions …..
Advantages Of Thumbposition:
…… decreasing distances between notes up high ……. thumb strength for holding down strings and fifths …… all notes of scale under hand …. ease of key transposition ….. strong visual positional reference …. ease of extensions of thumb from other fingers
How To Make Thumbposition Feel Easy:
…. general practice material, ideas, and repertoire compilations
Fingerings In The High Registers:
….. across the strings in one position or up and down one string?
The Use Of Thumbposition In Different Epochs: History Of Thumbposition:
…. Baroque and Pre-Baroque …. Classical …. Romantic …. Modern
Time Spent In The Different Fingerboard Regions:
… what proportion of our playing time do we spend in the Thumb Region and in Thumbposition (all regions) in different pieces of standard cello repertoire?
Whereas Pablo Casals didn’t use his thumb any more than really necessary, Daniil Shafran was a “thumb expert”, using his thumb just like another finger: with equal dexterity and expressiveness (sound quality, vibrato etc) all over the fingerboard, in a way that is possible only for someone who practised for many hours every day, over an entire lifetime. The callous necessary to be able to use the thumb well on the cello is the visible proof that thumbs were not originally intended for this – but watching a good cellist is the proof that a thumb can do it!