Assisted Shifts on the Cello

As explained on the “Shifting: Finger Coregraphy” page, an Assisted Shift is a position change in which the placement of the “new” destination finger actually reduces the shift distance. In other words, in an Assisted Shift, the distance that the hand must move is smaller (shorter) than the actual musical interval (this is why we call it “assisted”). This occurs when we shift either upwards to a higher finger, or downwards to a lower finger. In the following Assisted Shift examples, the hand always moves one tone but the musical intervals that are produced by the shift are respectively a minor third, a major third and a perfect fourth. The grace notes with the “X” notehead are silent and show the notes to which the first finger goes during the shift. We will call these silent notes “intermediate notes” (see below for more explanation):

And now for some musical examples:

The main question about how to do these assisted shifts is when should we place (put down) the new finger? We have several choices:

The first two types could be called “Expressive Assisted Shifts” while the last two could be called “Clean Assisted Shifts”. Let’s look in detail now at these different types of “Assisted Shifts”.


In expressive assisted shifts we slide into the target note on the new finger. This is the most beautiful, expressive way to do our Assisted Shifts because it allows us to use a perfectly smooth glissando, giving a legato, vocal quality to the shift. These types of shifts have been called sometimes “French shifts” because of their sensuous character. Doing our assisted shifts in this way basically converts them into Same-Finger Shifts on the “new” (target/destination) finger. In the example below, the shifts in the red rectangles are crying out for a smooth vocal glissando on the new finger. For the shifts in the green rectangles, even though we also shift on the new finger, the audible glissando situation is much less obvious because these shifts are on a bow change and to a new string. In these shifts, if we want an expressive glissando we will need to do the shift not only on the new bow but also we will need to start that new bowstroke a little before its “correct” metronomic moment (see Anticipation).

As mentioned above, we can choose when to put our new finger down, either:


Upward assisted shifts on a bowchange can be made hugely expressive – but in a very discreet way – if we shift on the old bow and on the new finger. This is a perfect technique for “Classical Period” music, for which the Romantic swooping glissando on the new bow is just too much.

This is such a beautiful and powerful expressive device that we may often want to use it even when a shift is not absolutely necessary, as in the second shift of the above example.


Note that all the above shifts involved an upwards glissando. Expressive upwards glissandi are normally both more natural and more frequent than downwards ones. But what about those expressive downwards glissandi? Here, the principle is exactly the same: for maximum vocal expressivity, we also will shift on the “new” finger. This is somewhat easier than in an upwards shift because here the lower finger doesn’t need to be “placed” as it is already touching the string. All we need to do is to remove the higher fingers during the shift, which is easier than placing them during the shift (which is what we need to do for the expressive upwards assisted shifts).


There is another little “trick” that we can do also to help give a perfectly smooth, relaxed vocal glissando in these shifts. By allowing the fingers to bunch together (relax) before the shift, we ensure that the hand is at its most relaxed, compact and stable. This helps not only our shifting but all aspects of our playing. When we do this “compacting” of the hand, the “new” finger – especially for small-handed cellists – may actually start the shift from a note that is closer to the old finger than would normally correspond to it. Once again this is best illustrated with an example, using the concept of the “Intermediate Note”, explained below and indicated in the following example each time as a grace note with an “x” notehead:

If we use this “trick” when changing from starting finger to destination finger during the shift, then this bunching up of the fingers facilitates the use of a rolling movement of the hand during the shift to take us from the starting finger to the destination finger, passing through (including) all the fingers in between.


Some assisted shifts want to have the target note articulated cleanly, and in these cases, our glissando, rather than being on the target-note finger, will be on the finger of the note that precedes the shift. In these shifts, rather than sliding into our target note, that target note is sounded cleanly, with an articulation. In the case of upwards shifts, once the lower finger has slid into its new position, we simply articulate the (higher) destination finger.

In the case of downwards shifts, for a really clean shift, rather than sliding in to the target note on the new finger, the target note is sounded by the removal of the higher finger. This is why we can call these shifts also “articulated shifts”. In both upwards and downwards shifts, the note that we shift to is like a “stepping stone”. We can call these “stepping stone” notes “intermediate notes”.

The intermediate note is the note that is sounded by the “old” finger in the “new” position (in other words, it is the destination note of the “old” finger that we have shifted on). We use an intermediate note in a shift in exactly the same way as we might use a “stepping stone” to cross a river: it gives us a vital point of orientation and stability during our crossing, allowing us to reach our final destination (placement of target finger) with maximum security. Once again we will indicate these intermediate notes in the shifts as a grace-notes with the “x” notehead. These concepts are much better illustrated with a few musical examples:

The use of the intermediate note converts our “assisted shifts” into “same-finger shifts” which are made (and measured) on the “old” finger. So in the above example, we will measure the shift in the first bar as a one tone shift upwards on the first finger rather than as a perfect fourth. The second bar shift is a one-tone shift downwards on the third finger. Bar three is a major third up on the first finger and bar four is the major third down on the third finger.

This type of shift is less romantic, less sensuous, less seductive than those shifts in which we slide into the new note on the new finger. Perhaps this is why the technique of the articulated shift has sometimes been called “the German shift” while the slide on the new finger is called “the French shift”. In the “German shift” the shift distance is measured mathematically on the old finger, like a computer, while in the “French shift” the distance is measured aurally, like a singer.


In the above example we have no doubt about which note to use as our intermediate note, but this is not always the case. Sometimes it is not immediately obvious which note will be our optimal intermediate note. It will depend partially on our hand size. Very often if we use the intermediate note that is the most logical note to hear in the shift (because it comes from the key in which we are playing) then it actually requires an extension for our hand to subsequently reach the target note. Those situations are indicated in the following example by the red enclosures.

This additional hand tension during the shift can – especially if we have a small hand – destabilise both our shift and our vibrato, leading to out-of-tune playing and an ugly sound. If this is the case then we may prefer to choose an intermediate note that is somewhat harder to hear but doesn’t require an extension. In other words, if an extension causes tension in the hand we may prefer to shift to a non-extended first finger intermediate note even though its pitch may sound outside the key in which we are playing.

Using non-extended intermediate notes from outside the tonality of the passage for these shifts might seem disturbing, atonal, dissonant etc but in fact they are not really heard at all. They are just the last note in the glissandi so are not in the least disruptive musically. The only problem with using intermediate notes that are not part of the key is that they are sometimes difficult to hear with our inner ear (see Ear Training).

In the following example, the two different possible intermediate notes are both easy to hear, with the only criteria of choice between them being the discomfort (or not) of the extension



For upwards shifts, the first finger is often our favoured Intermediate note (see here for why this is). Because of its exceptional advantages, we will often use it as our Intermediate note even in shifts where both our departure and target fingers are higher fingers and for which we might therefore think that the first finger would have no role to play in the shift.

Normally a Clean Assisted Shift is actually a composite of two elements: a Same-Finger Shift followed by the placement of the higher (target) finger. With this exceptional use of the first-finger as an unexpected intermediate note however, we are actually converting our Assisted Shift into a Scale/Arpeggio-Type Shift (followed by the identical placement of the target finger on arrival at the destination position).


Clean Assisted Shifts are usually favoured in the following situations:


There are many possible reasons for not wanting a glissando, especially in music of the Baroque and Classical eras, but also in Romantic music to avoid glissandi-overdose (in situations where we have just made a big sliding glissando).


In technically difficult (often fast) passages, the need for vocal expressivity comes second to the need for security, clarity and definition. The clear clean decisive percussive articulation of the new finger can help to give us secure orientation and distance measurement in fast and/or difficult passages, especially in the higher positions where our sense of fingerboard geography is weaker. In these types of  passages the expressive glissando is often not only unnecessary but also unwanted because it blurs our positional sense:


In situations in which we can’t hear ourselves very well, such as often occurs in orchestral playing, we may favour these “clean” shifts. This is because when we slide into a note with a glissando on the “new finger” (see above), our successful control of the shift depends very much on our aural control of the glissando into the new note (just like a singer). In absolute contrast to this, when we shift on the “old finger”, we do our measurement of the shift distance more mechanically than vocally, and also more silently. When we articulate clearly the target finger on the target note, we are using our “absolute positional sense” rather than the “relative positional sense” that our glissandi make use of. This is usually a more secure way of finding our way around the fingerboard in situations in which we can’t hear ourselves well. See the Positional Sense page.


We definitely favour these “clean” shifts for upwards assisted shifts as compared to the downwards ones. This is because of the following many advantages given to us by shifting on the lower finger rather than on the higher finger:

For all these reasons, in upwards assisted shifts, shifting on the lower finger and using it as a stepping stone is often easier and safer than sliding up on the higher finger, whereas in downwards shifts the situation is reversed. These advantages are especially useful for shifts up to the Intermediate and Thumb Regions of the fingerboard, which is why we sometimes use the lower-finger intermediate note even in Same Finger and Scale/Arpeggio type shifts (see Shift Types):


Our decision will usually be determined by the musical context. Is our shift highly expressive, voluptuous and vocal, or is it more gentle and discrete? The following example is quite a good one for grappling with this decision. Here we have several fingering choices: one vocal option (shifting on the new finger) or two discrete options (using an Intermediate note). Certainly, the discreet versions are the more secure ones.


How would we practice the shifts in the following passages? Even though they look like downwards assisted shifts, in fact, the positional sense of the bottom finger is so strong that no matter which finger is playing before the shift, we will play (and practice) them as simple same-finger shifts on that bottom finger:


In “expressive” assisted shifts we basically don’t use any intermediate note because we want the shift to sound perfectly smooth and continuous, but in order to make it clear in the notation that it is one of these expressive shifts that is required, we could use the x-notehead (intermediate note sign) on the new finger in the starting (pre-shift) position as in the following examples:

This is however not an ideal notation device as normally in an expressive assisted shift we will change to the new finger gradually and imperceptibly during the shift, which is rather hard to indicate with any form of notation.


The following example shows four different possibilities for our choice of Intermediate Notes in Assisted shifts. All of them convert our Assisted shifts into Same-Finger shifts:

We can use the following examples as a similar sort of “laboratory” to explore these different possibilities also in assisted shifts to a different string. In all the following examples, the “different” string to which we shift is always a neighbouring string but the same principles apply also in shifts to strings that are further away:

These exercises can be downloaded and printed from the following link:

Assisted Shifts Laboratory

The subject of shifting to a different string (for all finger choreographies) is discussed in detail on its own dedicated page:

Shifting To Another String


Our choice of the finger (old, new, or both) on which we will do any particular assisted shift will be determined by the interaction of several factors such as: the speed of the shift, the appropriateness or not of a glissando, whether or not the shift is legato, the size of our hand, our own personal musical taste etc. Based on these factors we will also decide whether or not we will use an intermediate note, and which note to use.


Assisted-Shifting On One String: All Regions: No Thumb: EXERCISES

Assisted-Shifting To A Different String: All Regions: No Thumb: EXERCISES

In many of the exercises, the notes have no stem, meaning no rhythm is specified. This is to encourage us to play around with the rhythms and bowings. For example:

Assisted-Shifting On One String: All Regions: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS

Assisted-Shifting To A Different String: All Regions: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS