Thumbposition: Pedagogical Order by Epoch

Is there a useful pedagogical “order” in which to practice our repertoire thumbposition material?? YES ! It is very convenient to practice thumbposition material (repertoire at least) in chronological order: starting with the Baroque, then Classical, followed by Romantic and finishing with the 20th century.

This is because it is not only the quantity of thumbposition playing which differentiates cello writing through the epochs but also the type of thumbposition playing. A characteristic of much Romantic music is its tendency to soar up and down the fingerboard, seldom staying long in the same position. This is the perfect musical representation of the Romantic Spirit with its extreme (and rapidly changing) emotional highs and lows, and its constant searching, yearning, striving and struggling.


This is definitely not the easiest way to get to know the higher register. Learning the higher registers through Romantic music could be compared to trying to learn to swim in heavy surf. In this analogy, the large waves are the equivalent of the heaving intense emotions, the complex harmonic language, and the large, prominently audible and seriously destabilising shifts that are such a frequent component of music of the Romantic period. In fact, Romantic music can be considered as the ideal repertoire for developing our skill at shifting expressively into and out of the higher register (see below), rather than for establishing the basis of a solid comfortable technique up there. In Romantic music it is the shifts – the soaring, we could say – that carries the main expressive musical message, rather than the fact of playing up high. Here are some more examples of this soaring and leaping:


In marked contrast to this is the music of the Baroque and Classical Periods, in which it is often the simple effect of being in the high register that gives the music a new intensity. Pre-Romantic music tends to go into (and out of) the high registers very discreetly, often gradually and sometimes even silently, usually giving us plenty of time to find our new position before having to start playing. And then the music often stays up there for extended periods of time, if not in the very same position then moving around with small discreet stepwise shifts.


If Romantic music is not ideal for acquiring the skills we need for playing in the higher registers, then Post-Romantic music is even worse. As we advance out of the Romantic period into the 20th century, the stuff that is demanded of our thumbposition just gets crazier and crazier. This is absolutely the last stage in our pedagogical order (ladder):


Becoming comfortable in any one thumbposition (without shifts), and then being able to comfortably shift around in thumbposition with small movements, are essential preliminary steps to being able to shift comfortably into (and out of) thumbposition. This is one of the reasons why the early classical cellist/composers (including Boccherini) and then “Classical Period” repertoire thumbposition passages are especially suited for working on our thumbposition before we advance on to the Romantic repertoire. Another reason why this “early” music is so suitable for our initial thumbposition training is that the harmonic and emotional languages are simple, which allows us to calmly and tranquilly acquire and establish a solid foundation of physical comfort in thumbposition before we get into the stormy seas of Romantic and 20th Century music.

See also: Fingerings In The High Registers: Across The Strings In One Position Or Shifting Up And Down One String?