FOR THE CURIOUS CELLIST

Left Hand Vertical Positional Sense I: KINESTHETIC

This article is part of a larger article dedicated to Left Hand Vertical Positional Sense in general.

The kinesthetic sense, also called proprioception, is our primary (most primitive or most sophisticated?) Positional Sense. It refers to our ability to know (sense) at all times where our hands (and body parts in general) are, even when we are not receiving any visual, aural or tactile sensory information from them. In other words, even when our hands are not touching anything and we can’t see them or hear what they are doing, we still know where they are. When we close our eyes and touch our nose with the tip of a finger we are using (and testing) this ability. This is “absolute” positional sense in its most pure form.

Now, instead of trying to touch our noses, let’s try and find different notes all over the fingerboard but in exactly the same way: with our eyes closed and with absolutely no contact at all between the left arm and the cello before placing the finger on the string. This is little like playing “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” at children’s birthday parties! Without any visual, tactile or aural feedback before placing the finger, we are dependent solely on our kinesthetic sense for our spatial orientation. This little game uses, tests (and trains) this sense.

Playing this game will probably show us that our kinesthetic sense alone doesn’t usually give us enough information to be able to find the notes securely or accurately, and therefore we can easily get quite “lost in space” when trying to find notes in this way. Usually the higher we go up the fingerboard, the greater our margin of error becomes. Positional sense (fingerboard navigation) doesn’t get any more difficult than this. The following passage from from the Prelude of Bach’s Sixth Cello Suite illustrates this.

bach 6 prel no thumb passage

In this example the thumb is not available in its vital positional role under the cello neck because we need it on the fingerboard. Therefore the left hand is “free-floating” during the open string. With no contact at all between left arm and cello during the open string we only have our kinesthetic positional sense to “know” where our hand is, and thus it’s hard to locate accurately the note just after the open string. We basically try and avoid this type of “purely kinesthetic note location” as much as possible, always finding an alternative way to maintain some point of left hand contact with the cello before trying to place a finger.

Most often, that vital point of contact will be provided by the finger that has played the previous note. However when the “previous note” is the (same) open string, we normally don’t have this possibility to use a finger as our positional reference. In this case it is – in the Neck and Intermediate Regions at least – the thumb contact behind the cello neck that provides us with our vital positional information (see Tactile Sense below). However when we need our thumb up on the fingerboard (in any fingerboard region) the thumb is, by definition, not available to serve this purpose. So it is placing our hand in Thumb Position from the air (after an open string as in the above example) that produces one of our most problematic position-finding situations.

Fortunately this type of problem occurs very rarely because placing the hand in thumb position after an open string is not at all common (we seldom use open strings in thumb position passages). The above example is one of the only passages that I can think of where we need to use this technique. In fact, the difficulty of this single passage provides us with very good reasons for assuming that:

  • in Bach’s cello music, the Thumb Position was not yet used (see History of Thumb Position)
  • the Sixth Suite was written for a considerably smaller instrument than the modern cello (see Bach Sixth Suite)

Nervousness, stress, tension, anxiety and lack of confidence in general play havoc with our kinesthetic awareness: we no longer know where our body parts are, we don’t judge distances well, and we consequently become uncoordinated, clumsy and accident-prone. Needless to say that it is very difficult to play well under these conditions. Mental calm is necessary to receive, process, store and retrieve this proprioceptive information (feedback). People with better kinesthetic awareness – greater spatial awareness of their bodies – won’t need to practice as much. Their bodies remember more precisely and faster, the “feelings” (positions) of the different notes. But this skill can be greatly developed through practice – and through deprivation of other senses. Blind pianists are the ultimate demonstration of the extraordinary level of positional accuracy possible with this sense.

Imagine we are trying to find our way around inside a very familiar house but in complete darkness and after receiving a local anesthetic in our extremities?  This is what it would be like to find our way around the fingerboard only with kinesthetic positional sense. To really know where we are, we need more sensory information. So let’s now give our kinesthetic powers a bit of help, by taking away the local anaesthetic and thus adding another means of knowing where we are: touch.