Shifting During an Open String


Very often we will use an open string to shift on (in other words, we will shift while we are playing an open string). This has the huge advantage of giving us extra time (the duration of the open string note) to get into the new position. But shifting on the open string also has some of its own unique difficulties, the most notable of which is the fact that we often can’t do an audible glissando.

We can usefully subdivide “shifts on an open string” into two very different sub-categories:

  • shifts on the same string as the open string
  • shifts on a different string to the open string

These two shift types are very different. When we shift on the same string as the sounded open string, we automatically lose our finger/string contact during the shift (because we need to release our fingers in order for the open string to be able to sound). When shifting during a different open string however, we can maintain our finger contact during the shift. Shifting without finger/string contact is considerably more difficult than shifting with this contact. Let’s look now at these two types of “shifts on the open string” in more detail:


The following examples are to be played on the D string. Any of the fingers can be used on either of the stopped notes. In the progression from Ex 1 to Ex 4, we have progressively less time to do our hand displacement to the  “C” (Do).

During the open string, we must obligatorily remove all fingers from the string in order for the open string to sound. Our left hand is at rest, but our right hand is still playing so, unlike in a “real” rest (in which we stop playing completely), no matter how long the open string lasts, it would be quite unusual for us to take our hand away from the fingerboard for a complete rest. Thus, while we lose our finger contact with the fingerboard during the open string, the contact of the thumb under the cello neck is normally maintained.

Because of this loss of finger contact, if we need to change position (shift) during the open string, we have no possibility of using a glissando (slide) unless we have another finger down on a different string (which is very unusual). We might think that the thumb maintains its contact behind the cello neck in order to help keep our bearings during the shift, but close observation reveals that it doesn’t. Therefore, hand displacements up and down the cello fingerboard done in this way (without the possibility of finger contact because of the open string), actually have a lot more in common with “Finding Notes From Midair” than with “Shifts“. But these findings of a new position after the same open string are actually more difficult than both of these other two ways of finding notes.  Let’s look now at why this is.

The effect of having to remove the playing finger from the string (in order to be able to play the open string) is similar, but not identical, to the effect of a rest. Even though the music continues, it is only our right hand that is working: our left hand is at rest. In theory, being able to rest the hand is a good thing, but not in these circumstances because, during this rest (while the open string is sounding), the loss of finger contact with the fingerboard means that the hand is not only free, it is lost in space!! Not completely lost (that happens when we release the thumb contact also) but partially lost because we now only have half of the normal left-hand contact with the cello (i.e thumb contact but no finger contact).

In a “real” musical rest (a silence), the hand can be lost (at rest) without causing any problems because we have time to place the new finger in its new position, and even quietly check its pitch (see Left Hand Pizzicato) before we start to sound it with the bow. But this possibility does not exist here because, while the open string is sounding, we can only wait, with the finger poised over its future position but with no possibility for checking either its intonation or its perfect horizontal positioning (see Left Hand String Crossings). Placing the finger after the open string we have no second chances: the moment of finger placement is the moment it will sound, and our only opportunity to correct its placement is immediately after we hear it.

Compare this situation with that of a normal shift. In a normal shift, our glissando (audible or not) allows us to both assure our finger is perfectly placed on the string, and to measure the distance it is travelling. When shifting during the same open string we can do neither of these. Decidedly, finding a new position after the same open string is one the most difficult type of “note finding” that we will ever have to do and for this reason is often a source of bad intonation. Only finding notes “out of the blue” in thumbposition is harder.

To summarise: shifts on the same open string are more difficult than other forms of shifting/note-finding because we are deprived of both the glissando and of the possibility of preparatory finger placement.

Here are some pages of practice material for working on this skill. This material works only in the Neck and Intermediate Regions because we almost never have to use this skill in thumbposition:

Shifting On The Same Open String: TONAL EXERCISES (mixed extd and non-extd)

Shifting in Extended Position On the Same Open String: EXERCISES IN NECK REGION


to diff str from open

By contrast, when we use an open string to shift on/to a different string (as in the above examples), then the shift becomes considerably easier because we can now maintain finger contact with the new string throughout the shift. This gives us three significant advantages:

  • doing a shift with finger/string contact – audible or not – gives us a much more precise control of intonation than when we are “landing from mid-air”. With finger contact during the shift, we can dosify the audibility of the glissando according to both musical taste and technical necessity. For difficult shifts in which musical taste doesn’t want an audible slide, we will reduce the audibility of our glissando so that it is really only audible to the player. Even if we decide to do a completely silent shift (inaudible glissando), we can still practice the shift with a helpful audible glissando and then, in performance, just imagine it.
  • the “horizontal” positioning of the finger pad on the string can be controlled and corrected constantly and instantly during the glissando.
  • we don’t need to coordinate the placement of the new finger with the rhythm or the bow. We can place the new finger at any time we like before the bow starts playing on the new string.

This technique can often be used to great advantage in our fingering of fast passages because it gives us more time to shift.

It is especially useful when our bow string crossing to get to and from the open string is in the advantageous direction as in the above examples. If we play each of the above three examples with a slur on the first two notes, the string crossings to and from the open string will be in the unfavourable direction and we may find now that the bowing complication associated with the quick crossing to and from the open string might override (cancel out) the left-hand advantage of having more time to shift.

Here is some practice material for working on this area of our technique:

Shifting On One String During A Neighbouring Open String: EXERCISES

Shifting During A Neighbouring Open String: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS