The thumb, just like the other fingers of the left hand, doesn’t only need to move up and down the strings “vertically” (shifting) but also often has to be moved “horizontally” across the strings (see Left-Hand String Crossings). This is because, unlike the guitar capo, most peoples’ thumbs can effectively only stop two strings at a time. The thumb’s most common horizontal position in thumbposition is that in which it is simultaneously stopping the two top strings. There are, however, many situations in which we will – either by choice or by obligation – use other horizontal positionings, for example:
- any passage in which the thumb is actually required to play notes on the G and/or C strings will need the thumb to be placed on the lower strings (either on the D/G string pair or on the G/C string pair)
- at other times we may want (or need) to play with the thumb stopping only the A string
- sometimes, even though we are playing in “thumbposition”, we may want to release the thumb completely
We will look below in detail at these different situations of the thumb’s horizontal placement and choreography. Understanding these concepts and working on these skills can help to make some awkward passages much easier.
THUMB ON THE LOWER STRINGS
There are two main reasons why the thumb’s most common position is on the top strings:
- when playing in the lower fingerboard regions, the length of the vibrating string is longer than when we play the same note in the higher fingerboard region of a lower string. The stronger and more numerous overtones produced by the longer string make the sound richer, more resonant and more “open”. This is why the cello’s sound in the higher fingerboard regions of the lower strings is usually less resonant (more strangled) than when playing the same notes with an alternative fingering in the lower regions of the higher strings.
- the ergonomy of using the thumb (and of thumb position in general) becomes progressively worse as we move towards the lower strings
For these reasons, most cellists will prefer the athleticism of running up and down the higher strings rather than the ergonomic and acoustic complications of playing the same passage in one (high) thumb position across three or four strings (requiring the use of the thumbposition on the lower strings and the horizontal movement of the thumb across the strings):
Whereas our use of the higher positions (and thumbposition) on the lower strings is usually a fingering choice, our use of the higher positions on the A-string is an obligation because no lower-position fingering alternatives (on a higher string) exist. Because of all these reasons, our most common use of thumbposition is for “high playing”, with the thumb on the top strings. Often however, by choice or by obligation, we will use our thumb on the lower strings also, so let’s look now in more detail at the different problems and characteristics of these situations.
ERGONOMIC DIFFICULTY OF THUMB USE ON THE LOWER STRINGS
As a basic principle, the more lower-strings the thumb is touching, the more the hand is obliged to turn “backwards” on the higher strings, making the tips of the fingers point more towards the bridge and thus placing them more diagonally to the strings and fingerboard. This is not a comfortable playing position, especially for the first finger. When we have the thumb on the G and D strings, it thus becomes more difficult to play with the (other) fingers – especially the first finger – on the A string. And with the thumb on the C and G strings, this ergonomic problem gets worse and it becomes more or less impossible to use the fingers on the A-string. This ergonomic difficulty is why we only ever place the thumb on the lower strings when it is absolutely required to stop (play) actual notes on the lower two strings.
It is for this reason also that, as a general rule, after using the thumb on the G or C-strings we will leave it there only for the minimum necessary playing time, bringing it back as soon as possible to its comfortable “home” on the top two strings. We will do this even though we might not actually need it to play (stop) any notes on the higher strings, and even though we may have used it just before (and/or need it just after) on the lower strings. The following example illustrates this. Here, even though we only need one finger on the A-string (the third) we still might decide that we prefer to “jump” the thumb backwards and forwards between the two top strings and the two middle strings each time to avoid discomfort.
Apart from special “strangled” sound effects (eg. Shostakovitch Sonata Movt III), our use of the Thumb Region on the two lower strings is almost exclusively as a means to facilitate our arrival at (or departure from) the higher A string registers. While the use of the thumb on the lower two strings is often optional (some cellists prefer to shift up and down the higher strings rather than making use of the high positions on the lower strings), at other times – such as in the above Schumann example – this avoidance of the thumb on the lower two strings is either not possible or is too complex to be worth it.
Here, the thumb must be moved across – and sometimes even several times – during the passage. Quite often this “horizontal thumb shuffle” can be quite complicated.
In contrast to the problematic, unergonomic situation of playing on the higher strings while the thumb is on the lower ones, is the opposite scenario. Playing in thumbposition on the lower strings while the thumb is resting on the higher strings is not at all a problem, but this is only possible when we don’t need the thumb to actually play (stop) any notes in the passage on the lower strings.
THUMB ONLY ON THE “A” STRING: ADVANTAGES OF A “SQUARE” HAND POSTURE
As a general rule, the further over to our left the thumb is (in other words, the fewer strings we have the thumb over), the more our fingers can be square to the fingerboard (just like our hand posture in the Neck Position) which makes just about everything easier for them. Cellists with long thumbs have a great advantage in this sense as their left hand is able to stay more square to the fingerboard in thumbposition, which considerably reduces the tension in the hand (the first finger need not curl up so much, it is easier to extend up to the higher fingers etc). To achieve this same effect, cellists with short thumbs may thus find it especially useful, wherever possible, to play with the thumb only on the higher string – or even floating completely free (see discussion below). The added comfort and relaxation that this gives us is especially noticeable in fast passages, but also in lyrical passages requiring simultaneously extensions and a warm free vibrato. Try the following passages with the thumb firstly on both A and D strings, and then on the A string alone.
THUMB FLOATING FREELY
Having the thumb only on the A string is already useful, but releasing the thumb entirely (when it is not needed to stop a note) frees the fingers up even more. Imagine if in the Neck and Intermediate Regions we always had to keep our first finger down ?? Try it and we can see how this creates unnecessary and harmful tension. If we watch videos of Yo Yo Ma, Stephen Isserlis and other fine cellists, we will see that they often release the thumb in the higher regions, letting it float in the air until it is actually needed to stop a note. This increased comfort not only allows a bigger, freer, more relaxed vibrato for lyrical passages but also helps in faster passages, especially for small hands.
This is particularly noticeable in fast upward scales on one string (especially on the A string). This is because the first finger is, especially for small hands, often uncomfortable and strained if held down while the third finger or extended 2nd finger (one tone from the first) are stopping the string. Shifting quickly and comfortably up to the first finger after a higher finger is so much more difficult if the first finger is under strain before the shift. Removing the thumb removes part of this strain, thus facilitating the comfort and security of the shift. We can try all the above examples that we played with the thumb only on the A-string but now with the thumb completely free once we have finished using it.
NOTATION OF THUMB’S HORIZONTAL POSITION
The “x” notehead is a symbol frequently used in the cellofun sheet music publications (exercises as well as repertoire) and indicates always a finger placement that is not played by the bow and which is therefore inaudible. It can usefully be used to indicate on which strings the thumb is on at any one time, for example:
THUMB STOPPING THREE STRINGS ?
For a small-handed cellist certainly, this is only ever an option in exceptional circumstances:
- in faster passages not requiring any vibrato on the top-string notes
- when the thumb is on a harmonic
Try the following two versions in order to see which is the most comfortable. In the first version, the thumb is immobile but in the second version, the thumb jumps horizontally from the D/G string pair to the A/D string and then back again.
Here below is another example for which we can also play the thumb harmonic on the top string without removing the thumb’s contact with the D and G strings: