Non-Whole-Hand Movements in Thumbposition

The anatomical ability of the hand to effortlessly extend and contract the space between thumb and fingers means that when we put the thumb up on the fingerboard, a whole new world of fingering possibilities opens up to us that is only available in thumbposition. The thumb can move down away from (and up towards) the “fixed” fingers and likewise, the fingers can move up away from (and down towards) the “fixed” thumb. We will call these movements Non-Whole-Hand movements (abbreviated as “NWH movts”) because while one part of the hand always remains still (as if it were a”fixed anchor”) the other part of the hand moves freely. These movements can be either articulated extensions (away from the anchor), articulated contractions (back towards the anchor), or sliding shifts in either direction. The “anchor” is most commonly the thumb:

But sometimes it is the thumb that moves freely backwards and forwards from the fingers:

And occasionally it might be just one finger that serves as the fixed anchor while the other fingers and the thumb move around freely:

As seen in the above examples, NWH movements are often used in thumbposition to avoid shifts: why shift up and down when we can easily just extend and contract the hand? But this fingering technique (NWH movements) is also often useful as an aid to shifting in thumbposition because that part of the hand that remains still (“fixed”) provides us with a stable positional reference that we would lose if we were to shift with the whole hand-arm unit. When our hand is being tossed around in stormy seas, it can often help to have a stable anchor, a home base that doesn’t move:

This secure positional reference can be especially useful when we are unable (or don’t want) to use audible glissandi to hear our shifts:

But this little trick can also be very useful in passages where the aural difficulty of imagining the shift intervals might cause our left hand to get lost if we didn’t have the reference of the physical anchor on the fingerboard:

Having a fixed stable anchor gives us positional security but it has a serious potential risk associated with it: it can also create rigidity, tension and stiffness. Positional security in the thumbposition is a very highly valued commodity but as with many other situations on the cello (and in life), we need to weigh up the relative advantages and disadvantages of each option in this “freedom/danger versus security/rigidity” equation. For example, in the following two examples taken from the first movement of Haydn’s D major concerto, we can choose between the two alternatives of:

The smaller the shift distance is, the easier it is to keep our thumb still without causing increased hand tension. Above a certain distance, however, the increase in hand tension that is caused by keeping the thumb still will cancel out the advantages that we obtain by keeping it as a stable, unmoving positional reference (anchor). How great this maximum useful distance is will depend on our hand size, strength and flexibility. We can try the following experiment, using gradually increasing distances, to discover how big is too big for our hand?

The higher up the fingerboard we go, the greater the possibilities become for using non-whole-hand movements because the physical distances between the notes grow smaller. For example, the maximum physical distance that we are able to stretch between the thumb and the third finger may only correspond to a musical interval of a fifth in the low Intermediate Region, but that same physical distance corresponds to a much larger musical interval in the higher Thumb Region, as in this excerpt from the first movement of Schumann’s Cello Concerto.


Up high, we can try some very crazy fingerings that exploit the fact that the distances between the notes are now stretchable. Try this one, for example:

As we go down, the distances between the notes become greater and the possibilities for NWH fingerings gradually reduce as is illustrated in the following example. Here, in each bar, the thumb is immobile/fixed and we repeat the same fingering pattern, one scalic step lower each time. As the hand gradually descends, the distances become larger until it eventually becomes impossible to keep the thumb immobile. Be aware that this exercise starts one octave above the notated pitches (hence the 8ve sign):

The fact that NWH movements can help us to stay on the same string means that these fingerings are often more useful in slurred, legato, lyrical passages than in articulated or spiccato playing. The interruption to a melodic line that is caused by a string crossing is much more noticeable in legato than in articulate/spiccato passages:

We can divide thumbposition NWH passages into three main categories according to which part of the hand provides the fixed reference (anchor): either it is the thumb, or the fingers, or a combination (usually an alternation) of the two.


Here, the fingers move up away from (and down towards) the “fixed” thumb. The thumb is the fixed point of reference, the anchor, which stays firmly in place while the fingers stretch and shift within their range of movement above the thumb. The fingers can move to their new position by sliding (glissando) or articulating:

These “thumb fixed/fingers free” displacements are by far the most frequently used NWH thumb position movements. In fact, they are so common that we can, for practice purposes, divide these movements up into different types.

Both types of movements are essentially extensions and contractions, away from and towards the thumb, with the difference between them being that, for the first type, string contact during the NWH movement is maintained only by the thumb, whereas in the second type the fingers also maintain contact with the string.

The sliding movements can also be separated into same finger shifts, assisted shifts and scale/arpeggio type shifts. The second of the above examples shows some scale/arpeggio type shifts. Here below we show some examples of the same finger and assisted shifts, always with a fixed immovable thumb.

Here below is a compilation of practice material (exercises, studies and repertoire excerpts) designed to work on the skill of moving the fingers independently from the thumb. In these exercises the thumb stays “fixed” in the same position while the fingers are moved around freely to the limit of their possibilities.

 Fixed Thumb/Mobile Fingers: Part 1A: Sliding Samefinger Shifts On One String: EXERCISES

Fixed Thumb/Mobile Fingers: Part 1B: Sliding Samefinger Shifts With Thumb Drone On Lower String: EXERCISES

Fixed Thumb/Mobile Fingers: Part 1C: Sliding Samefinger Shifts With Thumb Drone On Higher String: EXERCISES

 Fixed Thumb/Mobile Fingers: Part 1D: Assisted Shifts: EXERCISES

Fixed Thumb/Mobile Fingers: Part 2: Sliding Scale/Arpeggio-type Shifts: EXERCISES

Fixed Thumb/Mobile Fingers: Part 3: Articulated Finger Placements (from the air): EXERCISES

 Fixed Thumb/Mobile Fingers: Part 4: Mixed Doublestops: EXERCISES

Fixed Thumb/Mobile Fingers: Part 5: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS


Here, it is the thumb that moves down away from (and up towards) the “fixed” fingers. The stable hand position is maintained in this case by keeping a finger (or fingers) fixed in place. This type of NWH is less commonly used than the “Fixed Thumb” type but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t an important part of our technical toolbox. The examples below, of simple scales across the strings in which the thumb must move a semitone between the two strings, illustrate one of its most common uses:

The above examples can be considered “standard” fingerings because here, we have basically no choice and are more or less obliged to move the thumb in this way (independently from the rest of the hand). At other times we might deliberately choose to use these types of fingerings in “non-standard” (bizarre) ways to get us out of some tricky fingering situations, most notably in order to avoid awkward 1/3 extensions, especially to the lower string:


In small shifts to (or on) a doublestop, it can make the intonation more secure if the thumb moves on its own, away or towards a fixed finger, rather than shifting on both strings at the same time:

Here below is a compilation of practice material (exercises, studies and repertoire excerpts) designed to work on the skill of moving the thumb independently from the fingers. In these exercises, it is the fingers that stay “fixed” in the same position, while the thumb is moved around freely to the limit of its possibilities.

Fixed Fingers/Mobile Thumb: EXERCISES

Fixed Fingers/Mobile Thumb: STUDIES

Fixed Fingers/Mobile Thumb: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS


Sometimes we need to do shifts in which the handframe span (distance between thumb and higher finger) in the starting position is different to that of the arrival (destination) position. Rather than changing the handframe interval during the shift, it will normally be better (safer, easier) to prepare the new handframe size before the shift, by moving the thumb silently to its new position. In the example below, after silently moving the thumb back a semitone (to F#) we will then do a wholehand semitone shift down. Because of our thumbs’ preparatory movement (before the shift), our hand will be in the perfect position (frame) for both the F natural on the thumb and the B on the third finger:


Snake-crawls” combine the NWH movements of extension and contraction in an alternating sequence. This alternation of extensions and contractions allows us to move around on the fingerboard using snake-like movements instead of shifts. Our snake-crawls are however superior to those of a real snake in the sense that, whereas snakes don’t crawl backwards, our crawls are equally useful for going forwards (up the fingerboard) as backwards (down). In either direction, a snake-crawl can start with either an extension or a contraction. The enormous ease of extending and contracting the fingers towards and away from the thumb has two very significant consequences for the use of snake-crawling in thumbposition:

In snake-crawl passages we are never without a stable reference point. This reference point is however changing constantly, alternating normally between the thumb and the fingers as in the following example:

In the above example, all of our crawling movements involved a change of one position (semitone or tone). In thumbposition we can however also do “turbocrawls” in which the contraction or extension (or both) are greater than one position as in the first of the following examples. Unfortunately, a great big crawl (of a minor or major third distance) can destabilize the hand in faster passages so we might prefer to break up that large snakeleap into two smaller crawls (an extension followed by a contraction) as in the alternative fingering of the following example:

The following links open up practice material for working on our “snaking” skills in thumbposition in all the fingerboard regions. Because the fingering possibilities with snakes are so enormous in Thumbposition, this material is also correspondingly enormous: the “Exercises” occupy six densely notated pages …..

Snakes Involving the Thumb: EXERCISES

Snakes Involving the Thumb: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS


When we are not using thumbposition, our very limited range of extension between the fingers obliges us normally to shift to our new distant notes whereas in thumbposition (especially up high) we may be able to reach out to them from (or to) the thumb. This means that very often in thumbposition we will have a choice as to whether to:

In the above example we do the position changes by “snaking” but we might equally well want to do the position changes by “normal” (Whole-Hand) shifts as shown in the following example of the identical passage.

While the fingering doesn’t change between the two options, our manner of finding the second finger (new position) is completely different. With the snaking method we stretch up to the second finger (x2) and only when that movement is completed do we then bring the thumb back up towards the hand. This involves two separate movements, whereas with the whole-hand shifting method we shift up to the second finger in one unified whole-hand movement, using the thumb as an intermediate note, as shown by the “X” notehead.

Here are two more repertoire examples in which the position changes could be achieved in either of these two ways. Either we extend down to the thumb each time and then snake the rest of the hand down, or we shift down to it with the whole hand in one movement:

Extending down to the thumb (rather than shifting) gives us the enormous advantage of being able to find our new position before we actually need it. In the above examples, we can stretch back our thumb during the preceding notes, which converts what could have been a very fast position change into an effortless and calmly-prepared extension. Unfortunately, we cannot do this when we are going upwards because we can’t place the higher finger on the string anticipatedly (it would sound!).


Because of the great ease with which we can open up our fingers away from the thumb, we can sometimes use this crawling technique as a magical way to avoid large leaps up one string. For a passage that involves a large difficult or rapid interval, instead of playing it all on one string, we can sometimes finger it in such a way that we simply stretch up (at a well-chosen moment) from the thumb to a note on the lower string which becomes our “stepping stone” to take us effortlessly to the high position on the higher string that we subsequently (ultimately) need.


Most often the rest of the hand will move up after the extension into a normal (unextended) position but at other times, however, we might go straight from one extension to another, without playing any note in the “contracted” (or relaxed) position. We could call these fingerings “turbo crawls”. Musical examples will illustrate this better than any verbal explanations:


This technique is especially useful in orchestral music because in orchestras, unlike in the solo and chamber repertoire, there are so many other people playing at the same time that we often cannot hear our shifts (glissandi) well enough to be really sure about when we have arrived at our destination note. And whenever we can’t hear our shifts, the margin of error can suddenly become unacceptably high (in other words we can be miles away from the right note at the end of the shift). The orchestral music of Richard Strauss, with its combination of loud volume with fast virtuoso passages flying up into the stratosphere, gives innumerable examples in which this type of fingering can be a real lifesaver. Here are some more examples, all taken from his tone poem “Ein Heldenleben”


Of course, this technique requires a little bit more “maths”, a little more brainwork, than just trying to play it all on one string. Using a stretch up to the lower string to get “into position”, converts what was an intellectually simple (but physically difficult) leap, into a slightly more complex mathematical equation that is however considerably easier from a physical point of view.

The first excerpt from the above examples illustrates the simplest first step of the crawling process. There, an extension is followed by the simple relaxation of the hand into its new resting posture in the new position. The second and third examples in the above line illustrate “turbo crawls” in which the initial extension, rather than being followed by a contraction is followed by another extension.

Here is some practice material for our mixed Non-Whole-Hand movements (assorted contractions, extensions and snakes):

Mixed Non-Whole-Hand Movements: STUDIES

Grutzmacher Study: Playing Version        Grutzmacher Study: Analytical Score

Stransky Study Op 39 Nº 1: Playing Version      Stransky Study Op 39 Nº 1: Analytical Score

  Stransky Study Op 39 Nº 2: Playing Version       Stransky Study Op 39 Nº 2: Analytical Score

     Stransky Study Op 39 Nº 3: Playing Version       Stransky Study Op 39 Nº 3: Analytical Score


Mixed Non-Whole-Hand Movements: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS


Squeezed fifths in thumbposition can be used in one fixed position but can also be used to change position (via Snaking), which is why our compilation is placed in this section:

Squeezed Fifths in Thumbposition: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS