There are very few human activities, apart from music-making, for which a perfectly functioning fourth finger is absolutely and totally necessary. But for cello playing it is not even sufficient that our little finger be simply “well-functioning”: we need it to be super-functioning, enhanced, turbo, bionic etc to make up for its innate lack of size (length and thickness), strength, athleticism and independence.
Even though our little finger is the weakest member of the left-hand finger team, it is nevertheless a vital member. It has to perform all the same functions as the other team members, but with much less innate attributes than the other fingers. This is why we need to dedicate a little time and energy to work specifically on our “pinkie” to help it overcome its innate deficiencies. Sometimes – often in fact – this little fellow is obliged to be the star of the show, even if he doesn’t really want to be:
When a finger does not stop (or articulate) a note with enough strength (finger pressure) then the pitch of that note will sound flat even though the finger may be in the correct position. What’s more, its sound will be ugly and distorted (unfocused). This situation tends to occur most often on notes that are played with (stopped by) our fourth finger because it is this finger that is our weakest finger. Here then are some ways to help our pinkie overcome its natural disadvantages, to become a featherweight world champion: fast, sure, courageous and strong.
THE GOOD NEIGHBOUR
Very often we will use our third finger to support the fourth. This means that instead of releasing it when the fourth finger is playing, we will keep it down on the string. For extra reinforcement we can bring the third finger closer to the fourth finger than its normal semitone distance, even actually touching the pinkie. In this way it acts like a splint to its disadvantaged neighbour. This is especially useful for stopping the thicker lower strings but also for our pinkie vibrato. Not only might we want to keep the third finger down while playing with the fourth, but we may also want to articulate the two fingers together, simultaneously, as a team, for extra power and stability. Try this in the following exercise which is played entirely on the G string and ff. We can do the same exercise on any of the strings:
STRENGTH AND INDEPENDENCE FOR PINKIES
Exercises in double-stops are excellent for the strength and independence of the fingers. The Cossmann Doublestopped Double Trill Exercises are ideal for working in one position (i.e. without shifts). These double-stops are not only like weightlifting exercises for the little finger but also help to reinforce the ability of the hand to stretch and maintain the 2-4 tone. This interval, for a small hand (especially in the lower Neck Region), requires a moderate effort (it is a mini-extension of the fourth finger) and can be a source of tension (and therefore bad sound and intonation).
SHIFTING ON THE PINKIE
We can invent our own shifting exercises. Here is one in sixths, with the higher notes always played by the fourth finger. We can do these in different keys, with different scales (major and the three minors) – modes even. Play these also with vibrato.
Another good exercise for shifting on the fourth finger uses diminished seventh arpeggios. We can do this on different pairs of strings, and can start a semitone and a tone higher also:
We could play the above shifting exercises without the double-stops, but having the second finger stopped on the lower string makes our pinkie work even harder because the 2-4 tone is a slight extension for a small hand. Shifting only on the fourth finger would make it too easy and is not as useful for building pinkie strength.
Shifting in double-stopped thirds also works the little finger a lot, but the added difficulties of the extended-back first finger in the minor-third double-stops greatly distract our concentration away from the little finger. Exercises in double-stopped thirds represent the ultimate level (test) of fourth-finger shifting.
Here are some exercises for shifting on the little finger:
To make up for its natural weakness, we will often want (need) to articulate the fourth finger very energetically in faster passages. This applies equally well to playing in one position (without shifts), assisted upwards shifts, and scale/arpeggio shifts downwards, all three of which appear in the following example:
In this example, every placement of the fourth finger except for the last (marked with a green circle) requires an energetic articulation of the fourth finger coinciding exactly with the beat (the last one can be anticipated). Here is a page of repertoire excerpts in which we will need fast and powerful pinkie articulation:
In slower, more lyrical passages we may, on the contrary, decide to always slide imperceptibly into the new notes without a clear articulation. The following passage, played at a “medium” speed takes us into the “grey area” in which we could decide either way for each placement of the fourth finger: articulated or smooth. No matter whether we articulate or slide, if we want to feel comfortable and expressive, our pinkie needs to be strong!
The finger articulations that require the greatest speed and strength are those that come after an open string (because the string height is higher than after another stopped finger). Likewise, the most demanding finger releases are those that come just before an open string (because we will need to release the finger fast and give a little lefthand pizzicato pluck in order to help the open string to sound cleanly). Here is are two excellent exercises to train the fourth finger in both of these skills:
THE ULTIMATE PINKIE CHALLENGE
The ultimate challenge for the pinkie is when we use it for both intensive shifting and hammered articulation in the same passage:
Here now are some “mixed pinkie exercises” in which the little finger is both articulated and shifted on:
FOURTH FINGER IN THE HIGHER FINGERBOARD REGIONS
The previous examples, exercises and discussion concentrated mainly on the Neck Region because this is where we use our fourth finger the most. However our pinkie can also be very useful in the higher regions (see Fourth Finger in the Intermediate Region and Fourth Finger in Thumb Position). Depending on its relative length, in order to facilitate comfortable use of the fourth finger above the Neck Region it may help to turn the hand more “square” to the fingerboard because this posture brings the finger closer to the strings. Daniil Shafran was a virtuoso of fourth finger-use in these regions as can be seen in this video.