Extensions: Lighten the Load

In the same way that we try to make our practice (another unavoidable “curse”) as interesting and enjoyable as possible, there are many ways by which we can lighten the load of our uncomfortable (and unavoidable) extensions:

  • maintain them for as little time as possible
  • avoid them: by shifting more rather extending, and by using thumbposition
  • practice them regularly
  • play on a smaller cello
  • release the thumb

We will now look at each of these in more detail.


Even in passages that seem to be entirely and unavoidably in extended position, we have several ways by which we can reduce the amount of time that we are actually playing in the extended position


Rather than maintaining the hand in extended position, we can often make the extension “at the last minute” – reaching out for the extended notes only when we need them, and then immediately relaxing back into non-extended position. Sometimes we have plenty of time to reach out for our extension (Dvorak example) but at others we have very little time and will refinger the passage so that we only are in extended position when it is absolutely necessary (Telemann and Sibelius examples). In this “refingered” option we will need to use our hand’s speed and agility to make up for its lack of size and reach.


While the large-handed cellist might simply prefer to stay in extended position throughout, the small-handed cellist might always favour the “last-minute option” or might alternatively decide on a mix of both according to the speed of the passage. In the following example we will have to decide which is “better”: staying permanently in extended position (lower fingering option), or doing a somewhat more complicated refingering involving both closed and extended positions and requiring lightning-fast extensions but only when strictly necessary (upper fingering option). This choice might change in the last few bars, in which the frequency of the extensions is doubled making it perhaps more simple to just stay in the extended position rather than maniacally opening and closing the hand.


Often we can choose between doing our extension in the “violin” or “bass” hand posture. This choice of posture will determine which finger will be the extended, strained one, and which will be the more relaxed comfortable one. In the “bass” posture it is the first finger that is strained and extended, while the higher fingers are relaxed. In the “violin” posture it is the exact reverse: the first finger is comfortable while the top fingers are strained/extended. We can use this choice to make sure that it is the longest, most expressive notes that are the ones in the most relaxed, non-extended posture, and only the shorter, less important “passing notes” that suffer the extension. For example, in the excerpt shown here below it will suit the small-handed cellist to start each phrase in the” bass posture” so that we are able to vibrate beautifully the fourth finger on those longer, most expressive notes (in the green enclosures). The discomfort of the first finger will be less noticeable, less prejudicial to the phrase, because it is only used for the shorter, passing notes.

This is somewhat unnatural because it requires conscious overriding of the importance of our starting note. Rather than preparing (thinking about) the first note before we start playing we instead need to think ahead and prepare mainly the second note, because that is the important one. This is why we call this little trick “prepared outreach”. It is the exact opposite of the “last-minute outreach” that was our first technique to avoid maintaining extensions (see above).


When a middle finger comes between the first and top fingers, we can “roll” the hand between these two extremities (with the middle finger as the central axis) rather than maintaining a tense, rigid (rock-like) immobile extension. This is especially useful in fast passages and is equally useful in all the fingerboard regions:


We will have a brief summary below of these fingering “tricks” designed to avoid extensions, but the full discussion of these cases (as well as practice material) can be found on the dedicated page “Fingering to Avoid Extensions“.


In concert repertoire we can often reduce the number of extensions by changing the fingering in such a way that we shift more, rather than extend:

Here is another example:


Sometimes, without modifying the fingering at all, we can do a semitone shift (indicated in the below examples by the red rectangles) instead of reaching out for the extension. This allows us to do two very beautifully expressive things:

  • connect the interval with a glissando
  • maintain a constant vibrato thanks to the compactness of the non-extended hand

shift instead extn

Even though this idea is especially useful in slower, legato, lyrical music it can also be valid in faster passages. In the following example, as with the above examples, our written fingering (finger numbers) doesn’t indicate that we are doing anything different to the traditional extensions:


One of the main reasons why we might use thumbposition in the lower fingerboard regions is to avoid extensions. In every fingerboard region the thumb/second finger major third is normally a much less strained position than the same interval fingered between the first and top fingers.

Likewise the thumb/top finger perfect fourth is a much less strained way of fingering this interval than doing the double-extension.  The use of the thumb to avoid simple extensions is looked at in detail on the “Fingering to Avoid Extensions” page and on the “Thumbposition in the Neck Region” page can be found many examples of thumb use to avoid double-extensions.


We will never be able to avoid extensions entirely. There are so many passages that cannot be refingered, that if we don’t practice them diligently, the hand will lose the strength and flexibility that is so necessary to make them reasonably comfortable, and they will only become harder and harder.

For basic general extension exercises click here. For more specific exercises, studies and repertoire excerpts, click on the links at the bottom of the page that are associated with  each of the different fingerboard regions.


7/8 size cellos, also called “ladies cellos”, are a wonderful option for small-handed cellists because normally the string length is a few centimeters shorter than on a full size instrument (67cm as against 69cm). Those few centimeters make a huge difference to left hand comfort and ease, especially in extensions (see Hand/Cello Size). But we must be careful to measure the length of the stopped string (from the peg box to the bridge) because some 7/8 cellos actually have a full-size string length. In fact, the size of the cellos’ body is not the problem – only the string length affects our left hand comfort. Shortening the string length on an acoustic cello requires moving the bridge up and the nut (at the peg-box) down by equal distances so as not to displace “4th position” relative to the end of the neck. This can change the acoustic properties (sound) of the instrument. On electric cellos however, the string length can be altered with minimal acoustic effect (only the effect of lowering the string tension). By playing on a cello with a sufficiently shortened string length even the smallest hand can start to feel like Rostropovitch’s bear paw. The increase in comfort is extraordinary when the notes all lie under the fingers effortlessly!!!!


We have spoken about the “Tyranny of the Thumb” with respect to Shifting and Vibrato, where maintaining permanent thumb contact with the cello can cause rigidity and tension. The same phenomenon occurs also with extensions – and this in all the fingerboard regions. Excessive tension in the hand during an extension can often be reduced by releasing the thumb from its contact with the cello. Large handed cellists usually have less need for this, but for small-handed cellists thumb release in extensions may often be essential, especially when using “Double-Bass Position”.