FOR THE CURIOUS CELLIST

Shifting Into (and Out Of) Thumb Position: Practice Material

Here is a large variety of practice material (exercises and drills, but also repertoire excerpts) for perfecting the skills required for comfortable shifting up into (and down out of) Thumb Position. We will separate this material into two sections:

  • shifts to (and from) the thumb
  • shifts to any other finger (not the thumb)

These skills can be practiced using easier “single-note” (non doublestopped) exercises, exercises making some use of doublestops for intonation checking, and finally (and most usefully), with the somewhat more difficult “entirely double-stopped” exercises. Because shifts to and from the thumb tend to be a weak point in our technique, we will start with those.

SHIFTING UP TO (AND DOWN FROM) THE THUMB FROM/TO THE NECK AND INTERMEDIATE REGIONS

These are some of the most difficult shifts as they require four different components. Here below are the four different movements necessary for an upwards shift to the thumb, the order of which can sometimes change:

  • the release of the thumb from its contact behind the cello neck
  • the placement the thumb on top of the fingerboard
  • the hand/arm displacement required for the shift
  • the change of the stopping finger from the pre-shift playing finger to the thumb

When shifting down from the thumb, the corresponding movements will be reversed, giving us the following order:

  • the hand/arm displacement required for the shift
  • the change of the stopping finger from the the thumb to the new finger
  • the removal of the thumb from the top of the fingerboard
  • the placement of the thumb behind the cello neck

In spite of their difficulty, shifts up to the thumb, just like shifts on the thumb (for example in octaves and thirds), can be a real lifesaver as the following examples show:

shift to thumb schu haydn

At first glance, we might think that shifting up to the thumb, although occasionally very useful, is a rarely-used fingering, and that perhaps it might be one of the last skills we would need to learn. But this is in fact not true. The following two “easy” forms of the shift up to the thumb are used very frequently, and can be considered not only as “light” versions of shifting up to the thumb but also as very useful preliminary skills with which we can gradually build up this skill.

1: THE SHIFT UP TO THE MID-STRING HARMONIC

This is an extremely common fingering, in which the thumb on the harmonic is used as a “stepping-stone” to get between the Neck and Thumb regions:

haydn D

These shifts are easier than “normal” shifts to the thumb because of the fact that harmonics have a wide margin of positional error (tolerance): they will always sound in tune even if the thumb’s position is not perfectly on the desired note. In fact, Wolfgand Böttcher maintains that these so-called “shifts” to the thumb on the mid-string harmonic are not actually “shifts”, but are rather rapid “placements” (see Shift or Placement?). In other words, he maintains that we don’t actually slide up the string on the thumb in these shifts (as we do in any other normal shift), but rather make a quick jump (leap) in the air. The truth of this idea is confirmed by the fact that we don’t use the same fingerings in other keys in which we can’t use the harmonic as the thumb’s destination. In the following examples we can see that if the Haydn D major Concerto is transposed just one semitone up or down, we would be very unlikely to use that same fingering (with the “shift” up to the thumb), because now we can no longer use the harmonic as our “safe” landing point:

haydn Db and Eb

2: THE SILENT SHIFT UP TO THE THUMB AS AN INTERMEDIATE NOTE

In these very commonly used shifts to the thumb, we don’t actually sound (play) the thumb’s note with the bow but rather simply use it as an “Intermediate Note” that we will pluck discreetly with another left hand finger in order to check our hand’s position (intonation) before placing and playing the “real” destination finger. They are also relatively easy because the fact that we have time to pluck (and therefore also correct) the note means – almost by definition – that the shift also has plenty of time.

thumb as int pluck Tchaik

PRACTICE MATERIAL FOR SHIFTS UP INTO (AND DOWN OUT OF) THUMB POSITION INVOLVING THE THUMB

Here, in approximate order of technical difficulty, are some compilations of practice material to develop the highly sophisticated (and extremely useful) skill of shifting up onto the thumb. We will use the above two “light” versions of shifting to the thumb as our introductory/preparatory stages to the “real stuff”. This “real stuff” is where we slide up to a note on the thumb that is both stopped (unlike the harmonic) and bowed (unlike for the silent intermediate note).

Shifting Up To Thumb As a Silent (Plucked) Intermediate Note: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

Shifting Up To Thumb On Mid-String Harmonic: EXCERCISES

Shifting Up To Thumb On Mid-String Harmonic: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

Stepwise Shifts Up To (and Down From) the Thumb: Single-Notes (Not Doublestopped): EXERCISES

Stepwise Shifts Up To (and Down From) the Thumb: Doublestopped: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

 Arpeggio Shifts Up To (and Down From) the Thumb: Single-Notes (Not Doublestopped): ALL EXERCISES

Arpeggio Shifts Up To (and Down From) the Thumb: Doublestopped: ALL EXERCISES

Shifting Up To Thumb as a “Real Note”: Repertoire Excerpts

From some of the above exercises we can make extended drills by moving them through all the keys, raising them a semitone higher on each repetition, and then coming back downwards, also moving a semitone each time. This procedure is shown in the following examples.

Doublestopped Arpeggio Shifts Up To (and Down From) the Thumb: HAND MOVES A THIRD: DETAILED EXAMPLE

Doublestopped Arpeggio Shifts Up To (and Down From) the Thumb: HAND MOVES A FIFTH: DETAILED EXAMPLE

SHIFTS UP TO (AND DOWN FROM) OTHER FINGERS (NOT THE THUMB) IN THUMB POSITION

While these shifts do require the placing of the thumb up on the fingerboard, this thumb placement is made easier by the fact that we are not actually shifting to the thumb but rather are shifting to another finger, from which we can then find the thumb. This makes these shifts “easier” than shifts in which the thumb is directly our target finger (note).

Arpeggio Shifts: Single Notes (No Doublestops): Fourth Finger/First Finger Thirds

Arpeggio Shifts: Some Doublestops: Fourth Finger/First Finger Thirds