Fifths (across strings) are often a significant source of problems for cellists. On the violin and viola, one fingertip can cover (stop) two strings at the same time and thus fifths across two strings can be played very easily. On the cello however, the fingertips are too small to stop two strings at the same time. This means that in order to stop two strings at the same time with the same finger we need to change our finger-and-hand posture, flattening the finger completely and pressing the entire last phalanx horizontally across the two strings. Small-handed cellists will probably find that, for all of the fingers apart from the thumb, this position is only really practical in the Neck Region of the fingerboard.
Fifths are one of the most basic building blocks of harmony and, as such, are a fundamental component of many chords. This is why it is in our chordal playing that we will probably face the greatest concentration of fifths:
Even if, as is often the case, our lefthand chords and double-stops are “broken” by the righthand, the lefthand will often need to stop the two strings of the fifth at the same time in exactly the same way as if they were sustained doublestops.
When we study harmony we quickly learn of the dangers of “parallel fifths”. On the cello however, unlike for harmony, we would greatly benefit if the fifths were a bit more parallel because they are in fact usually surprisingly unparallel. Science would suppose that, if the strings are tuned accurately, then each note of a double-stopped fifth should be exactly at the same distance from the “nut” (at the scroll-end [top] of the fingerboard). Surprisingly this is not so. The hand has to twist and turn in order to find the correct angle for the finger that is stopping a fifth in order for that fifth to sound in tune. What’s more, this angle changes according to which pair of strings we are using, and not just by small amounts. Whereas for fifths across the A and D strings the “in-tune-fifth-angle” tends to be with the fingertip pointing towards the scroll, on the D and G strings the correct angle seems to be pointing in the opposite direction. And on the G and C strings it would appear again to require the same angle as for the top two strings.
The finger angle necessary to play an in-tune fifth across the two top strings and across the two bottom strings could be justified by the difference in “hardness” between the parts of the finger (or thumb) that are stopping the two strings. That part of the finger that is stopping the higher string finger is usually much softer and less resistant than the end of the finger which is stopping the lower string. This means that the higher string is often not sufficiently firmly stopped to sound “true” and may tend to sound flat. While this might explain those fifths for which the finger needs to point “backwards” (towards the scroll), what about fifths across the D and G strings, for which the hand needs to point the other way?
There must be a good explanation for this, but I haven’t yet heard it. Does this phenomenon only happen on fifths or are all the notes/intervals across each pair of strings equally affected? This phenomenon is so bizarre that it resembles the bending of space, time, and gravity that Einstein discovered. Perhaps he could have explained the reasons for these “crooked fifths”, I certainly can’t!
A radical (and untried) possible solution would be for the bridge to have a little “ledge” (protrusion) just at the place where the A-string passes over it. This ledge would have the effect of shortening the A-string’s length relative to that of the D-string, meaning that every note would now need to be stopped a tiny bit further towards the nut of the fingerboard, effectively making the fifths across these two strings perfectly parallel. This would have specially advantageous consequences in thumbposition, where the un-parallel fifth across the top two strings causes us some severe ergonomic problems.
ERGONOMIC PROBLEMS IN THUMBPOSITION CAUSED BY UNPARALLEL FIFTHS
In Thumbposition, the angle of the thumb required for an in-tune fifth across the A and D strings poses serious problems for our hand’s ergonomy. If the tip of the thumb could be pointing the other way (towards the bridge instead of towards the scroll) then this would constitute a great help for our hand. With the thumb pointing towards the scroll however, the fingers (especially the lower ones and especially on the higher string) are obliged to curl up into an even more uncomfortable posture, which supposes a great hindrance to all aspects of our left-hand technique. With the great majority of our thumbposition playing occurring on our top two strings, this “unergonomic” fifth angle across those two strings seems like a very unfortunate act of destiny/nature/physics.
ON ONE STRING OR ACROSS TWO STRINGS?
If our fifth is not actually a doublestop then we can of course sometimes eliminate all these difficulties by shifting the interval on the same string or, in the higher regions, by stretching it (especially from/to the thumb.
In this article however, we will be looking specifically and uniquely at the techniques of playing fifths “across the strings”. Let’s look now at the five (I promise this is a pure coincidence) different ways in which we can choreograph fifths across the strings in such a way as to make them both musically satisfying and technically easy.
FIVE TECHNIQUES FOR PLAYING FIFTHS ACROSS THE STRINGS
1. JUMPING THE SAME FINGER FROM ONE STRING TO THE NEXT
This is the most simple, easy, straightforward technique for doing fifths. But we can’t do double-stopped fifths like this, nor can we make a slurred legato fifth like this, and, in faster music, even when the fifth is not slurred or double-stopped we sometimes don’t have enough time to comfortably rearticulate the finger and jump it to the other string. Therefore, in those three circumstances (in which the jump is impossible or inappropriate), we will need to use other, more sophisticated techniques to achieve our fifths. These four alternative techniques are:
2. PLACING (STOPPING) ONE FINGER ON BOTH STRINGS AT THE SAME TIME: THE “CAPO” FIFTH
Unlike violinists, we cellists can’t stop two strings simultaneously with one fingertip. In order to stop two strings at the same time with the same finger, we need to change our finger-and-hand posture, flattening the finger completely and pressing the entire last phalanx (the entire finger pad), rigid and straightened out like a bar (or like a piece of wood), across both strings, like a guitar “capo”. This is why we will call this technique the “capo” fifth.
JUMP OR CAPO?
Sometimes it is not absolutely clear whether it would be better to jump the finger across the strings or use the capo technique, as in the following example:
The “capo fifth” is a huge topic and therefore has its own dedicated page: Capo Fifths
Because of the complications and difficulties of the capo fifth, we will often (especially if we have a small hand) need (or choose) to use some of the other more sophisticated and complex techniques for playing our fifths, such as:
3. PLAYING FIFTHS ON THE THUMB
The thumb is the ideal finger for doing “capo” fifths for two reasons.
- its natural angle is at 90º to the strings, and
- the part of it that stops the strings is of equal “hardness” for both strings (assuming of course that we have a good callous).
The thumb is especially useful for playing fifths in the higher regions (Intermediate and Thumb Positions) as it is in these higher regions that it is both very difficult to do the capo with the fingers, and very easy to use the thumb in general. But the thumb is quite often useful also for fifths in the Neck Region, especially in pianistic-style accompaniment passages that don’t need a lot of vibrato. This type of writing is very common in compositions of the Classical Period, but even in the Romantic Period it is also widely used in accompaniment figures. Very often it is the presence of fifths in a passage that will be the principal factor in our decision to use the Thumb Position in the Neck Region:
Note that if we don’t have a good callous on the side of the thumb, then the top note of the fifth (the higher string) will require greater thumb pressure in order to be stopped cleanly and thus not sound flat (below pitch). This adds unnecessary tension, effort and difficulty to our playing. To avoid that, we will need to keep a good callous by using the thumb regularly.
4. SHIFTING TO A NEW FINGER ON THE NEW STRING (FINGER SUBSTITUTION)
This is a finger substitution to the adjacent string. Here the whole hand (and arm) actually changes position by a semitone, tone or minor third and the “old” finger is released during the shift to the new string.
5. HAND WARP (CONTORTION) WITH FINGER SQUEEZE ACROSS STRINGS
In “squeezed” fifths we twist the left hand, turning it so the fingertips are now pointing towards the bridge (see photo). This allows us to play fifths with two different adjacent fingers. It also allows us to do a real vibrato on the fifth, which is especially important in slow double stops and chords. Because of the form (anatomy) of the hand and arm, this twisted posture is only practical when we place the higher finger on the higher string and the lower finger on the lower string (and not vice versa). This is made easier for us on the top (A/D) and bottom (G/C) pairs of strings because on those strings, the unparallel nature of the fifths makes our “squeeze” easier ( smaller). For fifths across the D and G strings however, the squeeze size needs to be a little bigger (more contorted) in order to compensate for the unfavourable angle of the unparallel fifth.
The “squeeze fifth” is a contortion to a neighbouring string. Sometimes this contortion is followed immediately by the relaxation of the hand into the new position (one semitone away from the old position), giving us a one-semitone snakecrawl shift (see “Contractions“).
At other times the “old” finger is maintained stopped during the entire duration of the fifth and the hand returns to (stays in) that same original “position” after the squeezed fifth (in other words, there is no shift).
The smaller the hand and fingers, the more we will tend to use this technique. This is not only because the “squeeze” fifth requires less brute force from the hand than the “capo” but also because small fingers actually fit “across” the fingerboard whereas big wide “sausage” fingers don’t. Therefore, cellists with small fingers may find it easier to use the “two-finger-squeeze” for fifths in which cellists with large fingers may be quite happy to use just the one finger, squashed flat across the two strings.
In some passages in double-stops however, even the biggest, strongest hands are no solution and this “contortion” is really the only solution (see the following examples taken from the cello repertoire).
If we take these same passages and transpose them up into the Intermediate or Thumb Regions, we can see that we can use exactly the same “squeezed fifth” technique in the higher regions of the fingerboard.
Here below is a little exercise for squeeze-fifths in thumbposition. Click here for a compilation of thumbposition repertoire excerpts in which we use this same “squeeze-fifth” technique.
Once we get above the neck region, because of the hand angle, it becomes increasingly difficult to use the flattened finger position but increasingly easy to use the “two-finger-squeeze” position (and, of course, capo on the thumb). This is why the “squeeze-fifths fingering” used in the following thumbposition example from the Saint Saens Concerto would probably be substituted for the “capo-fifths fingering” if it was transposed down into the Neck Region:
The following example is not, strictly speaking, a fifth because there is an open string in the middle, but it is shown here as a rare curiosity because the hand actually twists in the opposite direction:
Here are some links to more practice material specialised in “squeezed fifths” in all the fingerboard regions:
MIXED-UP CHOREOGRAPHY FIFTHS
In most musical passages, different “fifths techniques” will be used consecutively according to the specific musical and technical constraints. In the original Saint Saens extract, for example, we are using both “thumb-stopped-fifths” and “finger-squeezed-fifths”.