Because of its relative shortness, the fourth finger is not really optimal for use in thumbposition on the cello. This means that, when our thumb is up on the fingerboard, we will normally only use the little finger when absolutely necessary, as an “emergency” extra finger to get us out of a (very) tricky fingering situation. Just like for the thumb, the fourth finger is not ideally suited to doing vibrato in the thumb position, so most cellists tend to avoid it for long expressive notes. But in spite of its ergonomic handicap, our little pinkie can actually (if we train it a little) become quite useful – sometimes even a real lifesaver – in thumbposition.
The fourth finger is especially useful on the higher string of any pair that we might be playing on. Because of its shortness, when we use it on the lower string its placement there automatically turns the hand square to the fingerboard which can make life difficult for any fingers that we may want to be using on the higher string. We may need to remove the first finger from the string in order to be able to play with the fourth finger even when it is being used on the same string as in the following sequences:
Daniel Shafran was an expert in using the fourth finger in the higher fingerboard regions. His playing – as can be seen in multiple YouTube videos – shows us the almost unimaginable expressive and technical possibilities of the fourth finger, in both the Intermediate Region and in thumbposition.
Whereas nowadays most cellists tend not to use their little finger much (if at all) in the higher fingerboard regions, for the cellist-composers who “discovered” thumbposition in the mid-1700s (see History of Thumbposition), the fourth finger was just another finger, used equally as much as the others, up high as well as down low. We can make this statement convincingly thanks mainly to the compositions of Berteau and Cupis, the “fathers” of the French cello-playing school. They were obviously eager to share their new discovery and thus gave clear instructions (fingerings) in their published compositions as to when and where the thumb and fourth finger should be used.
There are several main uses for the fourth finger in the Thumb Position:
1: SQUEEZED FIFTHS
In thumbposition, just like in the neck and intermediate region positions, we can play fifths with a “squeezed” fingering, in which the lower note of the fifth is played with the third finger and the higher note with the fourth finger, squeezed in alongside the third. This is actually surprisingly ergonomic (and therefore easy) in thumbposition as the little finger is so much shorter and thinner than the third finger that it can fit quite comfortably beside it.
2: CHROMATICS AND CLOSED POSITION
To allow us to play chromatic passages in a way that avoids both small uncomfortable, destabilising shifts as well as frequent alterations of the second finger between 2b and 2# (or, for the third finger, between 3 and 3#). While the use of the thumbposition allows us to play the cello like a violin (with four notes of the scale lying under each hand position), the use of the fourth finger in thumbposition allows us to play the cello like a piano (with five notes in the hand range). This can be very useful at times:
For chromatic scales on one string with quadruplet groupings, the use of the fourth finger enables us to use a simple repeating pattern fingering which makes the reading (and playing) much simpler: now all the shifts coincide with the beats. We will almost certainly want to release our thumb entirely from the fingerboard in order to facilitate the ergonomy of the fourth finger use:
3: EXTENSION UP TO FOURTH FINGER TO AVOID STRING CROSSING
4: TO AVOID 2-3 WHOLETONES IN LOWER FINGERBOARD REGIONS
The 2-3 wholetone interval (stretch) can be an unnecessary strain in thumbposition, especially in the neck region:
More practice material for working on the use of the fourth finger in thumbposition, in all the fingerboard regions, can be found via the following links:
Fourth Finger In Thumbposition: EXERCISES