FOR THE CURIOUS CELLIST

Expressive Fingerings

On this page we will look at how we can change the finger, position, or string (or all three), even when not technically necessary, in order to make an expressive effect. The use of expressive fingering devices is mainly useful in slower passages. In rapid, virtuosic passages our top priorities are normally clarity, accuracy and brilliance, rather than sensuous glissandi or expressive colour changes.

The principal expressive effects that we can achieve by fingerings are:

  •  connecting the notes with audible glissandi (shifts) to give a vocal style
  •  changing the sound colour by going to a different string

Let’s look at these effects one by one.

1: GLISSANDO

The cello’s fretless, keyless fingerboard has the disadvantage of converting our entire playing life into a struggle to find the notes and to play them in tune. But this smooth fingerboard has an enormous advantage that makes up for all of that intonation torture, and that advantage is called glissando. This is a beautiful, powerful, lyrical, expressive device that pianists cannot do at all, woodwind instruments cannot do much, singers do all the time, and that we string players can choose to do (or not to do) as much as we like – thanks to that smooth fingerboard. Hamlet’s question was a once-off “To Be or Not To Be”. Our question is a constantly recurring  “To Gliss or Not To Gliss”.

Singers are universally the most popular musicians. Some of that popularity comes from the eminently human sounds they make, some from the eminently human words they sing,  but a large part of their popularity comes from the way they connect their notes together: with that eminently human glissando. Listen carefully to any singer and you will hear just how much they connect their notes to each other with glissandi, and just how beautiful this sounds.

Copying singers, playing in a human, vocal style (in contrast to an instrumental style) requires making our playing sound as though we were playing on only one string and with one finger. We can do this sleight of hand even while using five different fingers and four different strings, by using astute fingerings that allow us to connect the expressive intervals by audible glissandi, independently of which strings, fingers, and positions we are actually using.

To use an audible glissando or not, is a musical choice, not a technical choice. It will require fingering specifically for the glissando – with an obligatory shift (with glissando) into the “new” note. Even if that next note lies under the hand – on the same string or on another – this doesn’t mean that we can’t use a glissando shift to go to it even though from a technical point of view the shift was unnecessary.

gliss deliberate shift

Sometimes we can even do a glissando to a different finger in the same hand position. This sounds like an expressive shift but in fact there has been no change of arm position (i.e. no shift). The effect has been achieved solely by contracting the fingers in order to create an artificially large distance over which we can slide into the new note:

expressivefingeringglissinhandposnoblivion

We can also do a glissando to the same note when we repeat it on the same string in order to either make its repetitions more interesting (see Ex. 1) or during a long held note to make an underlying harmony change more expressive (Ex. 2):

fingerings expressive gliss same note and string

LEGATO SHIFT ON ONE STRING, OR ACROSS TO THE NEIGHBOURING STRING IN THE SAME POSITION ?

If we slur any two notes in the same hand position on neighbouring strings, they can be perfectly connected, without any silence or interruption between them. We can even make them overlap each other by blurring the stringcrossings (maintaining for a short time a doublestop as we change the string). Theoretically, this might seem to be a perfect” legato” but it isn’t ! “Legato” in Italian means “connected” but this connection between any two notes does not only refer to the smooth uninterrupted continuation of the sound but also to the smooth uninterrupted connection between the pitches, which can only be achieved by fingering the interval on the same string and with a glissando shift. It is only when we have both continuity in the sound, and a smooth connection between the pitches (glissando), that we have the maximum degree of legato. Even with the softest, most inaudible glissando, our fingering of an interval with a shift on the same string will sound more “legato” than the smoothest stringcrossing, even if we put a nice doublestop in the middle of that stringcrossing for maximum connection.

legato across or updown

The four strings are like four different people, with four very different characters. We can disguise our changes of string to a great degree by using extra-smooth stringcrossings,  passing effortlessly from one string to its neighbour(s) like relay racers passing the baton between one runner and the next, but a true legato requires a glissando. Only when we use a glissando shift to our new string can we achieve the maximum degree of legato for that string change. In the section that follows we will look at some examples of this.

2: GOING TO A DIFFERENT STRING AS A DELIBERATE EXPRESSIVE DEVICE

Often we will use a change of string as an expressive device. Sometimes we do this simply for the change in the colour of the sound. At other times this change of string will favour (and often require) the use of a glissando to the new note thus making this fingering effect doubly expressive: it now combines a glissando with a colour change. The most common use of this deliberate expressive device involves an upwards shift onto the string just below the one we are playing on. This allows us to do a big, dramatic, juicy, expressive glissando on an interval that normally would not even require a shift. One of the most effective expressive fingerings of this type is when we actually shift to the same note, but on the next lower string. This requires a change of position (shift) of a fifth. This is a big shift and gives us the possibility of doing that big juicy glissando up into that “same” note. This can sound strange on paper but sounds brilliant in a musical context. This combination of glissando and colour change converts that “same” note into a very new one, even though its pitch hasn’t changed at all as in the following examples:

fingerings expresssive saint saens allegro appass

Doing the same but in the opposite direction (sliding back to the same note on the higher string) requires a downwards shift. Glissandi are generally more used in an upwards direction rather than downwards, and in fact, a downwards gliss to the same note on the higher string is one of the ugliest possible shifting effects and is normally to be avoided.

Shifting Upwards To Same Note On Lower String: EXERCISES

Shifting Upwards To Same Note On Lower String: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE BOW FOR EXPRESSIVE SHIFTING

Doing an expressive glissando is not only a left-hand phenomenon. An expressive glissando is by definition a “legato” effect. The word “legato” means “connected” in Italian and our left-hand glissando is the equivalent of a slur in the right hand. When our expressive shift occurs in a slur, this is ideal as both hands are playing completely legato. When however our expressive shift occurs on a bow change we need to be more aware of what is going on.

In order for the shift to sound legato, with an expressive audible glissando, we will need to do the shift on the “new” bow rather than the “old” bow. This may require changing the bow slightly early so as to have sufficient time for the expressive shift without delaying the start of the arrival note. For a more detailed discussion of this question, as well as repertoire examples, see section 4:2 “Shifting on a Bow Change” on the “Shifting” page.