Extensions in Cello Thumb Position

When we place the thumb ON the fingerboard, we gain an extra “new  finger”. But this new finger is not just an ordinary finger. The thumb, unlike the “ordinary” fingers, has an enormous (and effortless) range of movement in relation to the rest of the left hand. When we start to exploit this mobility of the thumb – its freedom to move around independently from the other fingers (and vice versa) – then literally a whole new world of fingering possibilities suddenly opens up.

Therefore, thanks to the freedom of the thumb, in any one “thumbposition”, we have a much greater pitch range, and many more possible finger (interval) configurations, than we have ever had in any one of the Neck or Intermediate Positions. In fact, because of this thumb freedom, the whole concept of “positions” becomes quite blurred in the thumbpositions. Just look at all the notes that lie under the hand in this single thumbposition (with the thumb always in the same place).

excs from thumb 1 up better

………. and in the above exercise we haven’t even used the fourth finger, nor any of the other common larger extensions between fingers (1-3 major third, 2-3 minor third etc) ………. and if our starting position was higher we could reach an even greater range of notes.

We will call these movements (up and down the fingerboard within any one thumb position) “Non-Whole-Hand” movements because here – by definition – part of the hand (the thumb in the above example) always remains a fixed, still, unmovable reference point. These movements will be dealt with in the section Non-Whole-Hand Movements in Thumbposition.

On this present page, however, we will be looking individually at each of the different extended hand configurations that have, thanks to this finger-thumb mobility, suddenly become possible in thumbposition. It is important to get comfortable in each of these hand positions before we actually start moving around within and between them. This is why this “Extended Positions In Thumbposition” page is almost a prerequisite to the “Non-Whole-Hand Movements in Thumbposition” page.

In working on “Extensions in Thumbposition” we need to distinguish between those extensions that are actually exTENSIONs (requiring physical effort), and those that involve only slight physical strain (but do require getting used to). Most often it is the finger-finger extensions that create tension, while the finger-thumb extensions are often relatively effortless (depending of course on how far we want to stretch).

Of course, it is the absolute physical distance between any two notes (rather than the musical interval) that determines how large an extension is. For example, the same physical distance between the fingers that gives us a wholetone interval in the lower Neck Region of the A string gives us a perfect fourth interval one octave higher up the fingerboard. And that same distance, at the top of the fingerboard, gives us a musical interval of one octave!  This is shown by the examples below, in which the physical distances between the pairs of notes (distances A, B and C) are all equal. Measure them and you will see!

distancesAnd of course, it is the cellist’s hand and finger size that ultimately determines if an extension is a strain or not. Extensions are simply much less of a problem for large-handed cellists, in every fingerboard region.

Before we look at the different possible hand configurations involving extensions to and from the thumb, we will look at the extensions between the fingers.


Whereas in the Neck Region, the 1-2 tone can be a problem (because of the large distances involved), in the thumb position, even though the 1-2 semitone is more comfortable, the 1-2 tone does not usually require any special contortions of the hand so we can barely consider it as an extension, and certainly not as a problematic extension. Larger 1-2 extensions are looked at in the following practice material:

1-2 Minor Thirds (and larger intervals): REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS


The 2-3 tone, on the other hand, even though it is part of our daily bread in thumbposition, can be a source of discomfort and difficulty in spite of the fact that it is so common. It is considerably easier to stretch a tone between the first and second fingers than between the second and third fingers. This means that fast, snappy 2-3 articulations can be a source of problems. Just try comparing a 1-2 tone trill with a 2-3 tone trill ……..

Problematic Passages With 2-3 Wholetones: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

2-3Minor Thirds (and larger intervals): REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS


The major third is a very common interval and this uncomfortable extension is a very frequent source of discomfort (and therefore also of bad sound and bad intonation) in thumb position. This extension is especially uncomfortable when the thumb has to be squeezed in one semitone behind the first finger. This especially contorted hand posture is looked at in more detail below. Sometimes, we can eliminate or at least reduce the discomfort of this awkward posture by refingering the interval – with the thumb on the lower note (instead of the first finger), by playing the interval across two strings, or by keeping the thumb further behind the first finger.

Even without the added discomfort of the thumb being squeezed in one semitone behind the first finger, this interval may still be sufficiently uncomfortable that we might prefer to use the thumb + 2nd finger fingering, especially to facilitate vibrato:

In the highest fingerboard regions, the 1-3 major third is not a difficult stretch, but as we descend into the lower registers the gradually increasing distances increase the hand strain. The point at which the 1-2-3 major-third hand posture becomes impractical depends on our hand size and on the type of passage. We can transpose the following passage up and down the fingerboard to find at which point it starts to become easy (as we go higher) or impossible (as we go lower).

The effect of the thumb’s placement on the fingerboard is to turn the hand (and fingers) at an angle to the neck. This angle makes doing extensions between the first and third fingers much more difficult than if the hand was more square (perpendicular) to the fingerboard. The shorter our thumb is (in relation to our fingers), the more it will pull the hand into this awkward angle and, consequently, the more this extension will feel strained. This phenomenon can be easily demonstrated by observing the increasingly beneficial effect on the amount of hand strain in the 1-3 major third extension of the following thumb movements:

  1. partially releasing the thumb by placing it uniquely on the A string
  2. releasing the thumb entirely from the fingerboard (letting it float)


Having the thumb at only a semitone distance from the first finger in a 1-3 major third extension creates a very strained, awkward, unusual posture for the first finger in which the finger may need to stop the string from the side rather than from above, using horizontal pressure on the string rather than the normal vertical pressure, and with a completely “curled” finger shape.


The need for this abnormal posture is especially pronounced on the “A” string and is aggravated in situations where we need to play the extended third finger on the lower string (and the first finger on the higher string), both of which situations can be seen in the penultimate bar of “Turkey In The Straw”. In phrases in which we don’t need to actually play any notes with the thumb, we have no need to maintain the thumb in this cramped position one semitone behind the first finger and can reduce the strain on the first finger by keeping the thumb at a distance of at least a tone from the first finger.

auld lang synebigger87

Where this is not possible we can often refinger the passage in various ways




Unfortunately, however, these tactics to avoid the extension or reduce its strain are sometimes not possible, for musical or technical reasons, and we have no option but to use the horizontal crush stop technique with the first finger ………. or, rewrite the passage !

As we go from the higher fingerboard regions into the Neck Region, the distances between the notes become gradually greater. In the lower positions the need for the “first finger horizontal crush” can occur even with 1-3 minor third distances – especially, once again, when the third finger needs to play on the lower string:


For more material for practicing the 1-3 extensions (and their related problems) in thumbposition, click on the following links:

Firstfinger/Thirdfinger Major Third in Thumbposition: EXERCISES

Firstfinger/Thirdfinger Major Third In Thumb Position: STUDY

Firstfinger/Thirdfinger Major Third With Thumb/Firstfinger Tone: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

Firstfinger/Thirdfinger Major Third With Thumb/Firstfinger Semitone: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

First Finger Horizontal Crush Stop: EXERCISES

First Finger Horizontal Crush Stop: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS