FOR THE CURIOUS CELLIST

Fingering

Choosing fingerings, just like choosing bowings, is a very important part of both interpretation and technical mastery.

Just like for bowings, choosing fingerings is a four-dimensional juggling act, a complex chess game, in which we are constantly assessing and balancing the relative importance of many different expressive and technical criteria. A “bad” fingering can make a passage almost inevitably ugly, while a “good” fingering for that same passage can make that same music suddenly sound a whole lot better. In fact, a “bad” fingering can make a “good” cellist sound worse than a “bad” cellist playing a “good” fingering and knowing how to choose those “good” fingerings is one of the great differences between an experienced and an inexperienced cellist!

One of the most difficult aspects of choosing fingerings is that some fingerings will make a passage technically safe (easy) but musically ugly, while other fingerings will do the opposite (make it musically beautiful but technically dangerous). This choice between “beautiful but dangerous” and “easy but ugly” occurs most often when we need to decide whether to finger a passage across the strings (often easier, but not as beautiful) or on the same string (beautiful but more dangerous). This is why it is often not easy to say definitively whether any particular fingering is “good” or “bad”, and this is why we refer to fingering choices as a “juggling act”.

Let’s look now at some of the criteria for fingering choices. We can divide these criteria into two main categories (click on the links for more discussion and musical material):

1: EXPRESSIVE FINGERINGS

Here we look at fingerings that are chosen especially to make a passage more expressive through the use of:

….. vocal position changes (with glissando) ……  colour sensitivity (choice of string) ……. the most favourable fingers for our vibrato etc.

2: TECHNICAL FINGERINGS:

Here we will look at fingering chosen especially for:

 ……. intonation security  ……… hand and cello size …… ease of playing …….. finger fluency (especially in fast passages) …… ease for the brain  …… size and acoustics of performance venue etc.

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Normally, the slower and easier the music is, the more our fingering choices can be based on expressive choices. Essentially this means shifting more, for two main reasons:

  • in order to stay on the same string and thus maintain the lyrical vocal quality
  • in order to avoid extensions

As the music gets faster it usually becomes more technically difficult and less “expressive”. This means that it also becomes less and less important to stay on the same string or to avoid extensions. In faster music, our fingering choices will need to be based more on technical criteria, to ensure simply that we can actually play the passage correctly. A good technical fingering can make the difference between easy and impossible, while a good expressive fingering can make the difference between boredom and magic.

We mentioned before that it can be difficult to say whether a fingering is “good” or “bad” because this can depend very much on the characteristics and skill of the cellist who is playing the fingering. One of the most important characteristics that we cellists need to take into account when choosing fingerings is our hand size.

HAND SIZE AS A FACTOR IN CHOOSING FINGERINGS

Whereas our choice of bowings is largely determined by musical factors and shows a lot about our intelligence (both musical and general), our choice of fingerings is usually much more determined by our Hand Size. This is because, while we all play with bows of similar size and weight, hand sizes can be wildly different between one cellist and another. Therefore, an absurdly bad bowing is normally bad for anybody and everybody, whereas what would be an impossible fingering for a petite small-handed Japanese cellist might be a great fingering for a giant bear-handed Scandinavian. This is the main reason why there are such a large variety of fingerings out there. It is truly astonishing (as well as instructive and revealing) to see how different cellists will play exactly the same passage with quite different fingerings. In an orchestral cello section sometimes there are as many different fingerings for a passage as there are cellists in the group!

FINGERINGS IN CELLO EDITIONS

The significance of hand size is only one of the reasons why fingerings in music editions can be so dangerously unhelpful – especially for small-handed cellists. Even some of the best and most well-known editions of music have, with disturbing frequency, some extraordinarily “bad” fingerings printed into their cello parts. The older the edition the more likely we are to find this situation, but it happens also in some good modern editions. After having produced a rigorous, scholarly, musicologically impeccable edition, many music publishers then put their trust blindly in a well-known cellist, who proceeds to stamp his personal, idiosyncratic, eccentric mark all over their carefully authenticated edition. A good example of this is the first Henle Urtext edition of the Beethoven cello sonatas, with a lot of ridiculous and (sometimes) impossible fingerings by André Navarra, that even he himself did not use.

Leonard Rose was a wonderful cellist, musician, teacher and person……. and he edited a lot of cello music. He felt that he was blessed with hands that lent themselves to the cello and he wrote, “I have a tremendous lack of webbing in my hands. I am capable of doing many extensions on the instrument so that I can cover a vast area quite quickly”. The fingerings that he put into his editions are excellent for a large flexible hand like his, but are often eminently unsuitable for a smaller-handed cellist. Stutschewsky’s fingerings in many older German editions could be considered comical if they weren’t so tragic for those small-handed cellists who actually try to use them. A compilation of passages with awful, unhelpful printed fingerings could occupy many pages. Try the following examples to illustrate this phenomenon:

Cellists who trustingly follow the edited fingerings, believing that they are the helpful hints of an expert, will often find themselves severely misled. They may even never realise why it is that they are sounding so bad in spite of doing exactly as advised by the edition. Whiting-out (Tippex) the published fingerings is a laborious solution but has the advantage of leaving the score clean so we can then at least write and see our own fingerings. To avoid this necessity, all the sheet music downloadable from this website is available in both edited (with fingering and bowing suggestions) and “clean” (with no fingering or bowing suggestions) versions.

The fingerings suggested in the “edited” versions of music found on this website are always conceived for small-handed cellists. This is because large-handed cellists don’t really need fingering suggestions. Why bother to try and help a fish to swim? In order to avoid harmful excessive left-hand tension, a small hand needs a different fingering system, with more shifting and fewer extensions. As it has taken me (a very small-handed cellist) almost a lifetime of cello playing suffering to realise this, the fingering suggestions in the music published on this site are designed to save other small cellists that same suffering.

“STANDARD” FINGERINGS FOR SCALES:

Most cello methods, especially the older ones, teach “standard fingerings” for the different scales, and there is often only one fingering for each scale. These standard fingerings may be useful as gymnastic training and warm-up exercises, but are often however not the best fingerings in a musical situation. In “music”, unlike in standard scale exercises, scales rarely start and finish on the tonic, and the rhythmic variety of the scalic sequences is almost infinite. Each specific musical situation will have its own appropriate optimum fingering solutions which very often will not be those proposed by the “standard” fingerings. This situation applies much more to scales than to arpeggios. It would appear that the first teacher of the marvellous cellist Santiago Cañon gave him a personalized scale workbook in which even the C major scale came with a huge number of different fingerings, including many using the thumb in the lower regions. Santiago is deservedly famous, but his teacher should also be equally famous!

The need for many different scale fingerings can be most easily seen in chromatic scales, because these have such a huge variety of possible fingerings:

Holst planets chrom scale

CONCLUSION

Very often our playing will sound much better when we do neither the printed fingerings nor the rigid “standard fingerings”. Choosing our fingerings thoughtfully according to both the music’s peculiarities (especially the rhythmical factors), our hand size, and sometimes even according to the individual instrument’s response, is not only more creative but also will probably sound better. This is especially so for cellists with small hands.