This article is part of a larger article dedicated to our Left Hand’s Vertical Positional Sense in general.
Before talking about the use of our eyes to help us know where our hand is on the cello fingerboard we can do some experiments to discover just how important our visual positional sense is in other more mundane activities in daily life. The best way to do this is simply to do these activities with our eyes closed. Doing things with our eyes closed, we suddenly become much more aware of all our other positional senses (kinesthetic, aural and tactile) and we also suddenly start to make more use of these other senses now that we are deprived of the help of our eyes.
Driving a car is something we cannot do with our eyes closed but it has many similarities with playing a string instrument in the sense that in both activities we need to keep our eyes on the road (music/conductor) and thus must be able to reach for and find the different controls (notes, hand positions) without using our eyes. Try it in a strange car (and on somebody else’s cello) to see how quickly we can adapt to the different positionings that we need for our hands. Let’s go a little deeper into this subject in relation specifically to cello playing now:
Unless we want to use coloured fret-lines or little round stickers to show us where the notes are, we have no clear visual reference points on the cello fingerboard. The use of stickers or lines is in fact not just a useful aid for beginners: even top cellists can make use sometimes of a temporary pencil line on the fingerboard to help find a difficult high note coming out of nowhere up in the stratosphere.
This lack of clear visual references on the fingerboard doesn’t mean however that we don’t use our eyes to help with our orientation around the fingerboard. Try playing – or even better, try just finding notes “out of the blue” (with no preliminary aural references) – with our eyes closed, or in a perfectly dark room. We rapidly discover just how useful our eyes are (or aren’t) in knowing where we are on the fingerboard. While our body (muscular memory) learns and remembers what each note “feels like”, our eyes learn what each note “looks like”. The positions of the arm, hand and fingers relative to the fingerboard as well as to other fixed visual reference points near the fingerboard (principally the top of the cello body) give our eyes plenty of visual information that our brain memorises. It is as though our brain had a photo of every note, in every position and on every string, stored on its hard disk. Many hours of good in-tune playing and practice gradually make these photos clearer. But when we stop playing and practicing then the photos become cloudy and fuzzy quite quickly.
In the same way that blind people develop their other senses very acutely, playing with our eyes closed forces us to use and improve our tactile, kinesthetic and aural positional senses. So does sight reading, because when we play music that we don’t know, we normally have no time (or attention) to spare for looking to see where our left hand is: all of our attention is directed towards reading the music, counting, listening to what’s going on around us etc. In orchestral playing, the situation is somewhat similar to sight reading: apart from listening hard to everything (which is usually a lot), we must keep our eyes glued simultaneously to both our music and the conductor, because we have a lot of notes to play and we probably don’t know them very well from memory. But because we can’t hear ourselves well, rather than being a learning experience that might improve our non-visual positional sense, orchestral playing is more like a simple test of our ability to play both “blind and deaf” !!
At the other extreme, when playing music that we know very well, we no longer need to count the rhythms, or stare at the sheet music and conductor. Now we can look at our hand and fingers as much as we want (need), to help know where our fingers are on the fingerboard before we actually start to sound the note. This is a luxury, but we need to be able to do the contrary (playing “blind”) also.
Our eyes become an especially useful component of our positional sense in the Intermediate and Thumb Regions. Why is this ? In the Neck Region not only can we not see the left hand very well (we basically have to turn our head), but also – fortunately – we don’t need to see it, as we have plenty of other positional references in this region. In the higher fingerboard regions however the situation is quite different and it becomes much easier to “get lost” (see Thumb Region), especially in large, non-glissando changes of position up into these regions. In thumbposition in the Intermediate and Thumb Regions, the thumb gives our eyes a much stronger sense of position than do the fingers. This is perhaps due to two factors:
- unlike the fingers, it is perfectly perpendicular to the strings
- it is closer to not just our eyes but also to the top of the cello body (which serves as a very strong visual reference point for our playing in the high regions).
This means that, for silently finding a new high position for any finger, we will often use the visual placement of the thumb as one of our main “position-location” devices, thus we will place the thumb before we actually place the finger that needs to play. The following repertoire examples from Scumann’s Cello Concerto demonstrate some large silent leaps up into the Thumb Region. The first line shows the passages as notated by the composer. In the second line, we can see the same passages, but now with the notation of the silent thumb placement (shown as a note with an “x” notehead), just before sounding the high (destination) note. This placement of the thumb is a vital aid in finding our destination hand position.
Sometimes it is enough just to place the thumb visually. With practice, we can normally feel quite secure about the accuracy of our visual placement of the thumb on the half-string octave, but it is even more secure, and certainly for other less common positions, to check this visual placement with a light left-hand pizzicato of the thumb’s position (by a higher finger). But here we need our hearing, so let’s now take out our earplugs and advance to the ultimate and most important of the string-player’s sensory mechanisms: the ears and our “aural positional sense“.