Whole-Hand and Non-Whole-Hand Shifts

In a “normal” shift, the hand and arm move together as a unit. This is why we call them “Whole-Hand” shifts. But we can also do shifts in which one part of the hand doesn’t move at all. We will call these “Non-Whole-Hand” shifts. The part of the hand that stays “fixed” serves as an “anchor”, giving our hand both physical stability and a secure positional reference. This anchor can be either the thumb, or alternatively a finger. We will look now at these two categories separately, and at how they function in the different fingerboard regions:


Because of the great flexibility of the thumb’s position in relation to the fingers (especially in the Intermediate and Thumb fingerboard regions) it is most frequently the thumb that occupies this function of “anchor”, as in the following examples:

All of these note sequences are much easier if played with the thumb “still”. In other words, while the fingers and the rest of the hand move up and down, the thumb remains fixed in one place. Here, the thumb is acting as an “anchor”. This anchor gives our hand both mechanical stability and positional security (intonation) which is especially useful when the hand is leaping around like a hyperactive flea overdosed on energy drinks. These types of shift can be called Non-Whole-Hand (NWH) shifts.

Violinists can use these types of shifts/fingerings much more than cellists, because their instrument is so much smaller and also because their thumb’s function and placement are so different to ours. Itzakh Perlman likes to joke that he only really uses one position in the entire Neck Region of the violin !!

On the cello, the frequency with which we use these NWH shifts varies enormously according to the fingerboard region.


In the Intermediate Region (see below for a definition), all of our shifts are obligatorily NWH shifts because our thumb is blocked at the top of the cello neck (or on the edge of the cello’s body). This blocking of the thumb is, in fact, the defining characteristic of this fingerboard region.

At the bottom of the Intermediate Region page is a lot of material for working on our shifts within this fingerboard region.


In Thumbposition, and especially in the Thumb Region (the fingerboard zone above the Intermediate Region), we use these types of movement frequently, because it is so easy to open and close the space between the thumb and the other fingers of the left hand.

Sometimes, instead of the thumb being “fixed” and the fingers shifting up and down, we use the reverse situation (in which it is the thumb that moves freely while the fingers stay “fixed in the same place”.

You will find a large amount of material for working on this very important skill in the section dedicated to:

Non-Whole-Hand Movements in Thumbposition


In the Neck Region this technique is used quite rarely, almost exclusively for small intervals, and in faster passages. This is because in the Neck Region, our hand posture is such that for anything other than the smallest intervals and the briefest of durations, the displacement of the fingers away from their optimal position over the thumb creates such discomfort and instability that vibrato becomes absolutely impossible, and intonation becomes seriously unstable (unlike in the Intermediate and Thumb Regions). Although we might use this technique relatively rarely in the Neck Region, it is nevertheless a very useful addition to our fingering toolbox, getting us out of some tricky fingering situations with a minimum of brain-and-hand strain.

The easiest situations in which we might want to use this technique occur in passages where we can do our NWH shift during the open string. This reduces our hand strain considerably because it means we can shift rather than maintain the hand in a permanently extended position.

Neck Region: NWH Semitone Shifts During Open String: EXERCISES

At other times, even without the benefit of the open string, the use of NWH shifts can still give the most practical and most ergonomic fingering choices. To reduce hand-strain during these passages, small-handed cellists may prefer in fact to release the thumb, something that we can’t do in those passages with open strings.

Neck Region: NWH Semitone Shifts Without Open String: EXERCISES


“Snake-crawl” movements use the fingers as the anchor from which we extend or contract to our new position. Because our fingers cannot be separated very much from each other in the normal (lower) fingerboard regions, our snake-crawls to a new position only allow us to move relatively small distances at a time – usually only tones or semitones. Click on the following link for an extensive discussion about these types of movements.

Snake-crawl Movements

In Thumbposition we can move the thumb around quite freely backwards and forwards (towards and away from) from the fixed finger(s). This movement can be used as part of a snake-crawl, or just as a fingering trick to get more notes under the hand without the need for any shifts.

You will find a large amount of material for working on this very important skill in the section dedicated to:

Non-Whole-Hand Movements in Thumbposition