FOR THE CURIOUS CELLIST

Capo Fifths

This is a sub-page of the article dedicated to Fifths.

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. The following finger configurations with capo fifths on each finger can be transposed around the Neck Region.

all fingers capo chords basic

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:

jump or capo

CAPO FIFTHS FINGER PREFERENCE

“Capo” fifths are perfectly suited to being played by the thumb (see the page dedicated to fifths), but when we need to play them with the other fingers we will notice considerable differences in the ease (or difficulty) with which each different finger is able to stop two strings at the same time. The first finger is, after the thumb, by far the most suitable finger for playing capo fifths which is fortunate because a large part of the fifths we will need to play actually fall on the first finger:

capo on 1 Bach Elgar

After the first finger, the other fingers become progressively weaker and less suited to playing capo fifths, with the little finger being the least suited.

BROKEN CAPO-FIFTHS AND THEIR NEED FOR PREPARATION

Apart from being necessary for doublestopped and slurred fifths, the “capo” fifth is also useful for fast playing even when the two notes of the fifth are not slurred or doublestopped. This is because the capo fifth allows us to play the two notes of the fifth successively without any new left-hand movement (finger articulation). This of course requires advance preparation: when we place the finger, we will need to place it on both strings at once, as though we were playing a doublestop, even though we are only playing a single note. It may not be a doublestop for the bow but it certainly is for the left hand. The bracket symbol seen in the examples below is the sign that we can use to remind ourselves that we must place the finger on the two strings simultaneously, and keep it on the two strings for as long as the bracket is maintained.

capo pure vivaldi

FROM ABOVE OR FROM BELOW: THE PREPARATION DIFFERENCE

This preparation is especially necessary – and especially difficult (unnatural) – when the first note of the fifth is the higher note, as in the above example. If the first note of the fifth is the lower note, even if we forget to place the finger across both strings we may still be able to just squash the finger flat on the higher string in time for the higher note. But this possibility does not exist when we are starting from the top note of the fifth. If we forget our need for the capo fifth on that higher note and start it with our normal finger posture then there is no escape: the only way now to stop the lower note of the fifth is to lift off the finger and rearticulate it. We can see this difference clearly in the excerpt below: the green rectangles indicate capo fifths that are stopped from below, while the red rectangles indicate those that are stopped from above.

1st finger capo fifths both directions Bach PIII PAINT

Sometimes our capo fifth is not needed to actually play the interval of a fifth but rather to prepare the same finger on the neighbouring string for a shift up or down to another position with the same finger but on that new string. The following repertoire excerpts show some situations in which we do this with the first finger and shift always to the lower string:

1st finger capo broken fifths from above for shift

But we can do this “capo-fifth-for-a-shift” on any of our fingers, and it can be for a shift to either the higher or lower string.

mixed fingers capo with shifts

In the above examples, we can see clearly how the capo preparation is so much more unnatural when starting from the higher string (as compared to when starting from the lower string). In order to work on this particular skill, choose from the practice material offered below, those pages of broken capo fifths that start always “from above” (in other words, that start on the higher note of the fifth).

OTHER PROBLEMS OF CAPO FIFTHS

While the “capo one-finger fifth technique” is very useful and is used frequently, it does however have certain other problems in addition to the need for finger preparation:

    • ¬†NEED FOR GREAT FINGER PRESSURE.

To be able to stop two strings at once with the same finger requires lots of hand pressure, especially on the higher string of the two because that higher string is being stopped with the soft, mushy part of the finger (near the joint). Because of this, cellists with big strong hands and fingers find it easier to do these “capo fifths” than cellists with small, fine hands. How often do we see a cellist with a gigantic bearpaw trying to show a matchstick-fingered cellist how to play a fifth on the fourth finger. This is like trying to show a small person how to do a slam-dunk in basketball: it just isn’t practical, and no amount of “technique” or practice will ever make it any easier (see Hand Size). The first (index) finger is usually the strongest finger, so even the very smallest hand can probably do a good capo fifth in the lower positions with this finger across two strings (just like for the guitar). But the further away we go from the index finger, the weaker the fingers become. Fifths on the fourth finger can become quite difficult – especially in double stops or singing legato passages.

Because of the softness of the part of the finger that is stopping the higher note of a capo fifth, the finger pressure can easily be not enough to make it sound properly. This lack of finger pressure on the higher note of a capo fifth manifests (shows itself) principally in two ways:

  • its pitch is too low (flat) even though the finger’s position on the fingerboard might be correct, and
  • its sound is ugly and unfocused.

For these reasons, if we continue playing with the same finger on the higher string after the capo fifth, we normally bring the finger over as soon as we can after the fifth, to allow us to once again be able to stop the string with the optimal part of the fingerpad. In other words, the “capo” finger posture is maintained for the absolute minimum time necessary for playing the fifth, and not a millisecond longer.

Because of the extreme finger pressure required to stop the two strings at the same time, we might want to give extra strength to the capo finger (especially when it is one of the higher fingers) by placing its lower neighbour either directly on top of the playing finger, or at least squeezed up tight against it.

    • NEED FOR AN ABNORMAL FINGER ANGLE

This increasing difficulty of playing fifths as we go from the first finger towards the fourth finger is not only because of the diminishing strength of the individual fingers, but also because of their decreasing perpendicularity to the fingerboard. The higher fingers are not just less strong, they are also less perpendicular (square) to the fingerboard which is a shame because in order to play a fifth in tune our “capo” finger needs to be at a right angle to the strings. These higher fingers, rather than being “square”¬† to the fingerboard are increasingly angled “backwards”, with the fingertips pointing more towards the bridge.

We mentioned above how the softness of that part of the finger that is in contact with the higher string of the fifth requires extra pressure in order to effectively stop the string. Because of this softness, the effective finger pressure applied onto the higher string is often less than the finger pressure on the lower string. This means that the top note of the fifth often will sound a bit flat even when the stopping finger is at a “perfect” right angle to the string.¬† And this means …….. that we often will need to angle the hand and finger not just at a perfect 90¬ļ to the string but past perpendicular – in the anti-natural direction in which the fingertips are pointing more towards the cello scroll.

    • DIFFICULTY OF THE CAPO FIFTH IN INTERMEDIATE AND THUMB POSITIONS

Small-handed cellists (who don’t have rubber finger joints) will probably find that the capo fifth, on any finger other than the thumb, is not very practical above the Neck Region. The extreme finger pressure and the twisted hand angle that are both required to make the fifth sound in tune, are just too unergonomic (uncomfortable, awkward). Normally, for playing fifths above the neck region, we will prefer to use our other “fifths techniques”. How would you finger the fifths in the following passage from the first movement of Saint Saens’ Concerto?

saint saens int reg exmple new

We have several possible choices of fingering:

saint saens int diff fingerings

For strong fingered cellists, the discomfort of capo fifths above the Neck Region can be overcome thanks to their finger strength and size. They will probably play the above passage as well as the following passage (also from the Saint Saens concerto first movement) using “capo” (one-finger) fifths, but cellists with smaller hands may find alternative fingerings easier (see the same example refingered on the Fifths page)).

fifths capo saintsaens

    • CAPO FIFTHS WITH A LOWER FINGER (OR OPEN STRING) ON THE NEIGHBOURING HIGHER STRING

The posture and pressure required to hold down a capo fifth is such that our capo finger can very easily obstruct the vibration of the neighbouring higher string. Great finger flexibility is required in order to be able to hold down the capo fifth strongly on the lower strings without interfering with (obstructing) the higher string. Not every hand can do this. The problem gets worse as the capo finger goes up the hand from the first finger out to the pinky (little finger). While most of us will be OK with the capo on the first finger, very few hands will be able to successfully play the capo fifth on the fourth finger on the lower strings with a lower finger (or open string) on the next-higher string.

capo below open or lower finger above

The following link opens up a page of examples of all the different (non-dissonant) chords in which this situation is produced:

Capo On Lower String With Open String Or Lower Finger On Higher String: EXCS

Certainly, in the case of the chords with an open string just above a capo fifth, this is a frequent reason for using the warped/squeeze fifth fingering described lower down on this page.

    • CAPO FIFTHS WITH HALF-RELEASE

Sometimes we need to get into (or out of) this posture from some strange situations in which the same capo finger alternates between capo and non-capo all the while maintaining the constant finger pressure on at least one of the strings. The following examples show some of these situations:

1: Placing The Finger Initially Only On The Lower String Then Stopping The Higher String Also

half capo schumann donizetti sib

2: Placing The Finger Initially On Both Strings Then Removing It Only From The Top String While Still Keeping It On The Lower String

fifthscapodblethenrelease

3: Placing The Finger Initially On Both Strings Then Sliding It Across To Only The Top String In Order To Free Up The Lower String

moz quint

In all of the above examples, we need to release half of (one string) of the capo in order to allow another finger (or the open string) to sound, but all the while maintaining the finger stopped on the other string. Releasing and then restopping the higher string of the fifth (Donizetti and Sibelius examples) is much more natural than releasing and restopping the lower string (Mozart example). The links below take you to material in which we explore this problem in all its different permutations:

Capo Fifths With Half-Release: EXERCISES

Capo Fifths With Half-Release: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

PRACTICE MATERIAL FOR CAPO FIFTHS

Here are some links to “capo fifth” practice material. We will start with simple, double-stopped fifths before moving on to broken fifths. The broken fifths will be looked at firstly in one position, and then with shifts.

 Mixed Finger Doublestopped Capo Fifths:       EXERCISES       REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

Mixed Finger Broken Capo Fifths:      EXERCISES      REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

Mixed Finger Broken Capo Fifths: With Shifts:      EXERCISES  REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

And here are some links to even more specialised material for working on capo fifths on each of the individual fingers. Here we have separated the material according to whether the fifth is “from above” (more complicated) or “from below” (standard, easier). As usual, it is perhaps best to start with the easiest stuff first, so we will start with the first finger and work our way out to the pinky. This looks ridiculously detailed and perhaps it is, but capo fifths are so problematic that they are worth a little bit of investigation.

FIRST FINGER CAPO FIFTH PRACTICE MATERIAL

1st Finger Doublestopped Capo: No Shift: EXERCISES     REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

1st Finger Broken Capo: From Below: No Shift:  EXERCISES     REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

1st Finger Broken Capo: From Below: With Shift To Higher String:  EXERCISES     REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

1st Finger Broken Capo From Above: No Shift:    EXERCISES     REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

1st Finger Broken Capo From Above: With Shift To Lower String:  EXERCISES       REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

SECOND FINGER CAPO FIFTH PRACTICE MATERIAL

2nd Finger Doublestopped Capo: No Shift: EXERCISES    REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

2nd Finger Broken Capo: From Below: No Shift: EXERCISES      REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

2nd Finger Broken Capo: From Below: With Shift To Higher String: EXERCISES     REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

2nd Finger Broken Capo From Above: No Shift: EXERCISES     REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

2nd Finger Capo From Above With Shift To Lower String:  EXERCISES      REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

THIRD FINGER CAPO FIFTH PRACTICE MATERIAL

3rd Finger Doublestopped Capo: No Shift:  EXERCISES     REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

3rd Finger Broken Capo: From Below: No Shift:   EXERCISES      REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

3rd Finger Broken Capo: From Below: With Shift To Higher String:  EXERCISES     REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

3rd Finger Broken Capo From Above: No Shift:   EXERCISES      REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

3rd Finger Capo From Above With Shift To Lower String:   EXERCISES      REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

FOURTH FINGER CAPO FIFTH PRACTICE MATERIAL

4th Finger Doublestopped Capo: No Shift: EXERCISES     REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

4th Finger Broken Capo: From Below: No Shift: EXERCISE S   REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

4th Finger Broken Capo: From Below: With Shift To Higher String:    EXERCISES    REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

4th Finger Broken Capo From Above: No Shift:   EXERCISES      REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

4th Finger Fifths From Above With Shift To Lower String:    EXERCISES     REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS