Left Hand Vertical Positional Sense II: TOUCH

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

Guitars have frets, keyboards have spaces between the keys, and wind instruments have holes, keys, or valves. And what does the cello have as clearly defined tactile reference points for the left hand’s navigation up and down the fingerboard? Virtually nothing! Our fingerboard is as smooth as a Japanese vase. However, under the fingerboard, we do have one clear tactile reference point. The corner (crook) of the cello neck serves not only as an obstacle, but also as a 100% reliable, immovable, tactile reference point for the thumb. With the thumb placed here, we know exactly where we are: in the traditionally-named “4th position” (but chromatically-named 7th position).

It is this stable position for the thumb that makes this position the safest, easiest position to find. It really is our “home base” on the cello fingerboard. We can place the thumb here with perfect ease and accuracy and then, using it as a reference, we can find our finger placements in this position so securely that we sometimes don’t even need to aurally “test” the notes before playing them. In fact, this position of the thumb also serves as our main positional reference from which we find all of the notes in the “Intermediate Region“.

Even when not at this unique, clearly-defined, tactile reference point, the thumb’s contact with the cello body has an absolutely essential function as a tactile positional sensor. To illustrate this, play the following excerpt in two ways: first “normally” (with permanent thumb contact between the thumb and the cello body-neck) and then secondly, with the thumb “free-floating” (with no contact to the cello).

Without the permanent thumb contact, not only do we have no mechanical stability but we also have much less sense of where we are on the fingerboard, both vertically (intonation) and horizontally (which string am I on ? – see Left Hand String Crossings). With a free-floating thumb (not touching the cello), our positional sense is totally deficient as we now have only our kinesthetic sense to rely on. As we saw above, this is rarely precise enough to be able to play in tune. In order to play this passage in tune we absolutely need the extra tactile information that is given to us by the thumb’s contact with the cello. The great additional difficulty caused by trying to find notes not only “from the air” but also without allowing the thumb to touch the cello shows clearly the vital importance of the thumb/cello-neck contact for our positional sense.

It is when we have to find a new note “from the air” (after the [same] open string or harmonic, or after a silence) as in the above Schumann excerpt, that we are most dependent on the thumb to tell us where we are. We can work on our absolute positional sense by improvising all over the Neck and Intermediate regions, following the same pattern as the above excerpt, using all fingers and all positions (regions) but always with the (same) open string sounding between each two notes as in the above example. For example we could invent an exercise using only the first finger/open string combination ……. 2nd finger/open string …. 3rd finger … 4th finger. When we do this we will see that before placing the playing finger we always place the thumb first of all, and only then, do we put the finger down. In other words, at any moment in which we are not actually stopping the string with a finger, it is the tactile sense of the thumb’s contact with the cello that gives us most of our positional information.

We mentioned previously that the lack of positional references for our left hand means that finding our way around the fingerboard can be compared to walking around blindfolded. This is a very useful analogy because the tactile function of the thumb for us cellists is in fact very much like that of a blind person’s stick! Both the blind person’s stick and the cellist’s thumb give us absolutely vital spatial information about where we are.

But this tactile information doesn’t always have to come from the thumb. What is absolutely vital for our positional sense is simply that there be a …. ANY …. point of tactile contact between the left hand and the cello. One single point of contact gives us suddenly a huge amount of additional sensory information about where our hand is, compared to the total absence of tactile information when our hand is free-floating. Once we have a finger placed and sounded, then that finger becomes our infallible positional reference point and the thumb’s role as positional sensor becomes irrelevant. This is why when we are playing notes with our fingers, we can release the thumb from its contact with the cello neck without suffering any lack of positional security.

This is why playing in

We mentioned earlier that “the more sensory spatial information we have, the easier it is to find the notes”. When we have our thumb behind the cello neck and simultaneously a finger touching a string, then we now have two points of contact of the left hand with the cello. This gives us at least double the spatial information, and our positional sense (security) is greatly enhanced. Compare the ease of finding the notes accurately in the following two examples. In the first example there is only one point of left hand contact with the cello (the thumb behind the neck) to give us our spatial information before we place the fingers. In in the second example however we maintain simultaneously two points of contact: the finger contact with the string as well as the thumb behind the cello neck. This makes the second example much easier to play in tune.

schumann folk V comparison

When we maintain contact between a finger and the string, it is as though, instead of being lost in space (kinesthetic sense only) or blind but with a stick (thumb contact behind the cello neck, no finger contact), now we are following a guideline (rail). Things are getting better and better !! But they can improve even more as we add some more sensory information from our eyes and ears. But before we do this, some final notes related to our tactile positional sense.

1.The use of our thumb (behind the cello neck) as the reference point from which we locate our fingers in the Neck Region has a very important consequence: in order to have positional and intonation security in this region, the position of the thumb relative to the fingers needs to be more or less the same in all the neck positions. This basic hand posture will have to be that of our hand in “4th position”, as here we have no choice as to where to place the thumb. In other words, for better or for worse, we will need to copy our “4th position” hand posture all over the neck region, and this posture is determined ultimately, exclusively and unavoidably, by the the thumb’s position in the crook of the neck. In this way, the location of the neck corner determines our thumb-fingers relation not only for “4th position” but in fact for the entire Neck Region. Even small variations in this location can make playing in tune on a different cello considerably more difficult.

2. The other corner of the cello-neck (at the scroll-end of the fingerboard) can also be used as a clear, fixed, tactile reference point. When unsure where our left-hand is in the lower neck region, we can quickly and silently run the hand back to this point to reorient ourselves. Once again, it is the contact of the thumb with the cello neck that gives us our vital sensory/positional information.

3. Going higher up the fingerboard we eventually have to put the thumb up on the fingerboard (see Thumb Region). In this position, for some strange reason, the thumb loses the special utility that it had as a tactile positional sensor behind the cello neck in the Neck and Intermediate regions. Up on the fingerboard it functions simply like a finger and is no longer our “blind person’s stick” behind the cello neck. Fortunately we seldom use open strings while playing up high (they are “out of range”) which means that we almost always have a stopped finger (or thumb) to serve as our tactile spatial reference point. But the fact that we don’t have the reinforced “double-positional sense” of both the thumb behind the neck and a stopped finger simultaneously, means that up high (in the Thumb Region) our tactile positional sense is somewhat weaker than in the Intermediate and Neck Regions. This means that, up high, we are more dependent on our Visual and Aural positional senses.

So ….. let’s add some more sensory information now by taking off our blindfold (or switching on the lights) and go to the page dedicated to our Visual Sense.