Fifths (across strings) are often a significant source of problems for cellists. On the violin and viola, one fingertip can cover (stop) two strings at the same time and thus fifths across two strings can be played very easily. On the cello however, the fingertips are too small to stop two strings at the same time. This means that in order to stop two strings at the same time with the same finger we need to change our finger-and-hand posture, flattening the finger completely and pressing the entire last phalanx horizontally across the two strings. Small-handed cellists will probably find that, for all of the fingers apart from the thumb, this position is only really practical in the Neck Region of the fingerboard.
Fifths are one of the most basic building blocks of harmony and, as such, are a fundamental component of many chords. This is why it is in our chordal playing that we will probably face the greatest concentration of fifths:
Even if, as is often the case, our lefthand chords and double-stops are “broken” by the righthand, the lefthand will often need to stop the two strings of the fifth at the same time in exactly the same way as if they were sustained doublestops.
When we study harmony we quickly learn of the dangers of “parallel fifths”. On the cello however, unlike for harmony, we would greatly benefit if the fifths were a bit more parallel because they are in fact usually surprisingly unparallel. Science would suppose that, if the strings are tuned accurately, then each note of a double-stopped fifth should be exactly at the same distance from the “nut” (at the scroll-end [top] of the fingerboard). Surprisingly this is not so. The hand has to twist and turn in order to find the correct angle for the finger that is stopping a fifth in order for that fifth to sound in tune. What’s more, this angle changes according to which pair of strings we are using, and not just by small amounts. Whereas for fifths across the A and D strings the “in-tune-fifth-angle” tends to be with the fingertip pointing towards the scroll, on the D and G strings the correct angle seems to be pointing in the opposite direction. And on the G and C strings it would appear again to require the same angle as for the top two strings.
The finger angle necessary to play an in-tune fifth across the two top strings and across the two bottom strings could be justified by the difference in “hardness” between the parts of the finger (or thumb) that are stopping the two strings. That part of the finger that is stopping the higher string finger is usually much softer and less resistant than the end of the finger which is stopping the lower string. This means that the higher string is often not sufficiently firmly stopped to sound “true” and may tend to sound flat. While this might explain those fifths for which the finger needs to point “backwards” (towards the scroll), what about fifths across the D and G strings, for which the hand needs to point the other way?
There must be a good explanation for this, but I haven’t yet heard it. Does this phenomenon only happen on fifths or are all the notes/intervals across each pair of strings equally affected? This phenomenon is so bizarre that it resembles the bending of space, time, and gravity that Einstein discovered. Perhaps he could have explained the reasons for these “crooked fifths”, I certainly can’t!
A radical (and untried) possible solution would be for the bridge to have a little “ledge” (protrusion) just at the place where the A-string passes over it. This ledge would have the effect of shortening the A-string’s length relative to that of the D-string, meaning that every note would now need to be stopped a tiny bit further towards the nut of the fingerboard, effectively making the fifths across these two strings perfectly parallel. This would have specially advantageous consequences in thumbposition, where the un-parallel fifth across the top two strings causes us some severe ergonomic problems.
ERGONOMIC PROBLEMS IN THUMBPOSITION CAUSED BY UNPARALLEL FIFTHS
In Thumbposition, the angle of the thumb required for an in-tune fifth across the A and D strings poses serious problems for our hand’s ergonomy. If the tip of the thumb could be pointing the other way (towards the bridge instead of towards the scroll) then this would constitute a great help for our hand. With the thumb pointing towards the scroll however, the fingers (especially the lower ones and especially on the higher string) are obliged to curl up into an even more uncomfortable posture, which supposes a great hindrance to all aspects of our left-hand technique. With the great majority of our thumbposition playing occurring on our top two strings, this “unergonomic” fifth angle across those two strings seems like a very unfortunate act of destiny/nature/physics.
ON ONE STRING OR SQUEEZE ACROSS TWO STRINGS?
If our fifth is not actually a doublestop then we can of course sometimes eliminate all these difficulties by shifting the interval on the same string or, in the higher regions, by stretching it (especially from/to the thumb.
In this article however we will be looking specifically and uniquely at the techniques of playing fifths “across the strings”. Let’s look now at the five (I promise this is a pure coincidence) different ways in which we can choreograph fifths across the strings in such a way as to make them both musically satisfying and technically easy.
FIVE TECHNIQUES FOR PLAYING FIFTHS ACROSS THE STRINGS
1. JUMPING THE SAME FINGER FROM ONE STRING TO THE NEXT
This is the most simple, easy, straight-forward technique for doing fifths. But we can’t do double-stopped fifths like this, nor can we make a slurred legato fifth like this, and, in faster music, even when the fifth is not slurred or double-stopped we sometimes don’t have enough time to comfortably rearticulate the finger and jump it to the other string. Therefore, in those three circumstances (in which the jump is impossible or inappropriate), we will need to use other, more sophisticated techniques to achieve our fifths. These four alternative techniques are:
2. PLACING (STOPPING) ONE FINGER ON BOTH STRINGS AT THE SAME TIME: THE “CAPO” FIFTH
Unlike violinists, we cellists can’t stop two strings simultaneously with one fingertip. In order to stop two strings at the same time with the same finger we need to change our finger-and-hand posture, flattening the finger completely and pressing the entire last phalanx (the entire finger pad), rigid and straightened out like a bar (or like a piece of wood), across both strings, like a guitar “capo”. This is why we will call this technique the “capo” fifth.
JUMP OR CAPO?
Sometimes it is not absolutely clear whether it would be better to jump the finger across the strings or use the capo technique, as in the following example:
CAPO FIFTHS FINGER PREFERENCE
“Capo” fifths are perfectly suited to being played by the thumb (see below), but when we need to play them with the other fingers we will notice considerable differences in the ease (or difficulty) with which each different finger is able to stop two strings at the same time. The first finger is, after the thumb, by far the most suitable finger for playing capo fifths which is fortunate because a large part of the fifths we will need to play actually fall on the first finger:
After the first finger, the other fingers become progressively weaker and less suited to playing capo fifths, with the little finger being the least suited.
BROKEN CAPO-FIFTHS AND THEIR NEED FOR PREPARATION
Apart from being necessary for doublestopped and slurred fifths, the “capo” fifth is also useful for fast playing even when the two notes of the fifth are not slurred or doublestopped. This is because the capo fifth allows us to play the two notes of the fifth successively without any new left-hand movement (finger articulation). This of course requires advance preparation: when we place the finger, we will need to place it on both strings at once, as though we were playing a doublestop, even though we are only playing a single note. It may not be a doublestop for the bow but it certainly is for the left hand. The bracket symbol seen in the examples below is the sign that we can use to remind ourselves that we must place the finger on the two strings simultaneously, and keep it on the two strings for as long as the bracket is maintained.
FROM ABOVE OR FROM BELOW: THE PREPARATION DIFFERENCE
This preparation is especially necessary – and especially difficult (unnatural) – when the first note of the fifth is the higher note, as in the above example. If the first note of the fifth is the lower note, even if we forget to place the finger across both strings we may still be able to just squash the finger flat on the higher string in time for the higher note. But this possibility does not exist when we are starting from the top note of the fifth. If we forget our need for the capo fifth on that higher note and start it with our normal finger posture then there is no escape: the only way now to stop the lower note of the fifth is to lift off the finger and rearticulate it. We can see this difference clearly in the excerpt below: the green rectangles indicate capo fifths that are stopped from below, while the red rectangles indicate those that are stopped from above.
Sometimes our capo fifth is not needed to actually play the interval of a fifth but rather to prepare the same finger on the neighbouring string for a shift up or down to another position with the same finger but on that new string. The following repertoire excerpts show some situations in which we do this with the first finger and shift always to the lower string:
But we can do this “capo-fifth-for-a-shift” on any of our fingers, and it can be for a shift to either the higher or lower string.
In the above examples, we can see clearly how the capo preparation is so much more unnatural when starting from the higher string (as compared to when starting from the lower string). In order to work on this particular skill, choose from the practice material offered below, those pages of broken capo fifths that start always “from above” (in other words, that start on the higher note of the fifth).
OTHER PROBLEMS OF CAPO FIFTHS
While the “capo one-finger fifth technique” is very useful and is used frequently, it does however have certain other problems in addition to the need for finger preparation:
- NEED FOR GREAT FINGER PRESSURE.
To be able to stop two strings at once with the same finger requires lots of hand pressure, especially on the higher string of the two because that higher string is being stopped with the soft, mushy part of the finger (near the joint). Because of this, cellists with big strong hands and fingers find it easier to do these “capo fifths” than cellists with small, fine hands. How often do we see a cellist with a gigantic bearpaw trying to show a matchstick-fingered cellist how to play a fifth on the fourth finger. This is like trying to show a small person how to do a slam-dunk in basketball: it just isn’t practical, and no amount of “technique” or practice will ever make it any easier (see Hand Size). The first (index) finger is usually the strongest finger, so even the very smallest hand can probably do a good capo fifth in the lower positions with this finger across two strings (just like for the guitar). But the further away we go from the index finger, the weaker the fingers become. Fifths on the fourth finger can become quite difficult – especially in double stops or singing legato passages.
Because of the softness of the part of the finger that is stopping the higher note of a capo fifth, the finger pressure can easily be not enough to make it sound properly. This lack of finger pressure on the higher note of a capo fifth manifests (shows itself) principally in two ways:
- its pitch is too low (flat) even though the finger’s position on the fingerboard might be correct, and
- its sound is ugly and unfocused.
For these reasons, if we continue playing with the same finger on the higher string after the capo fifth, we normally bring the finger over as soon as we can after the fifth, to allow us to once again be able to stop the string with the optimal part of the fingerpad. In other words, the “capo” finger posture is maintained for the absolute minimum time necessary for playing the fifth, and not a millisecond longer.
Because of the extreme finger pressure required to stop the two strings at the same time, we might want to give extra strength to the capo finger (especially when it is one of the higher fingers) by placing its lower neighbour either directly on top of the playing finger, or at least squeezed up tight against it.
- NEED FOR AN ABNORMAL FINGER ANGLE
This increasing difficulty of playing fifths as we go from the first finger towards the fourth finger is not only because of the diminishing strength of the individual fingers, but also because of their decreasing perpendicularity to the fingerboard. The higher fingers are not just less strong, they are also less perpendicular (square) to the fingerboard which is a shame because in order to play a fifth in tune our “capo” finger needs to be at a right angle to the strings. These higher fingers, rather than being “square” to the fingerboard are increasingly angled “backwards”, with the fingertips pointing more towards the bridge.
We mentioned above how the softness of that part of the finger that is in contact with the higher string of the fifth requires extra pressure in order to effectively stop the string. Because of this softness, the effective finger pressure applied onto the higher string is often less than the finger pressure on the lower string. This means that the top note of the fifth often will sound a bit flat even when the stopping finger is at a “perfect” right angle to the string. And this means …….. that we often will need to angle the hand and finger not just at a perfect 90º to the string but past perpendicular – in the anti-natural direction in which the fingertips are pointing more towards the cello scroll.
- DIFFICULTY OF THE CAPO FIFTH IN INTERMEDIATE AND THUMB POSITIONS
Small-handed cellists (who don’t have rubber finger joints) will probably find that the capo fifth, on any finger other than the thumb, is not very practical above the Neck Region. The extreme finger pressure and the twisted hand angle that are both required to make the fifth sound in tune, are just too unergonomic (uncomfortable, awkward). Normally, for playing fifths above the neck region, we will prefer to use our other “fifths techniques”. How would you finger the fifths in the following passage from the first movement of Saint Saens’ Concerto?
We have several possible choices of fingering:
For strong fingered cellists, the discomfort of capo fifths above the Neck Region can be overcome thanks to their finger strength and size. They will probably play the above passage as well as the following passage (also from the Saint Saens concerto first movement) using “capo” (one-finger) fifths, but cellists with smaller hands may find alternative fingerings easier (see the same example refingered further down).
- CAPO FIFTHS WITH A LOWER FINGER (OR OPEN STRING) ON THE NEIGHBOURING HIGHER STRING
The posture and pressure required to hold down a capo fifth is such that our capo finger can very easily obstruct the vibration of the neighbouring higher string. Great finger flexibility is required in order to be able to hold down the capo fifth strongly on the lower strings without interfering with (obstructing) the higher string. Not every hand can do this. The problem gets worse as the capo finger goes up the hand from the first finger out to the pinky (little finger). While most of us will be OK with the capo on the first finger, very few hands will be able to successfully play the capo fifth on the fourth finger on the lower strings with a lower finger (or open string) on the next-higher string.
The following link opens up a page of examples of all the different (non-dissonant) chords in which this situation is produced:
Certainly, in the case of the chords with an open string just above a capo fifth, this is a frequent reason for using the warped/squeeze fifth fingering described lower down on this page.
- CAPO FIFTHS WITH HALF-RELEASE
Sometimes we need to get into (or out of) this posture from some strange situations in which the same capo finger alternates between capo and non-capo all the while maintaining the constant finger pressure on at least one of the strings. The following examples show some of these situations:
1: Placing The Finger Initially Only On The Lower String Then Stopping The Higher String Also
2: Placing The Finger Initially On Both Strings Then Removing It Only From The Top String While Still Keeping It On The Lower String
3: Placing The Finger Initially On Both Strings Then Sliding It Across To Only The Top String In Order To Free Up The Lower String
A tricky situation occurs when we have a capo fifth in which one of the notes changes to the open string while the other one is held, as can be seen in the Sibelius, Donizetti and Mozart excerpts just above. Here, we have to release half of (one string) of the capo in order to allow the open string to sound, but all the while maintaining the finger stopped on the other string. Releasing and then restopping the higher string of the fifth (Donizetti and Sibelius examples) is much more natural than releasing and restopping the lower string (Mozart example). The links below take you to material in which we explore this problem in all its different permutations:
Capo Fifths With Half-Release For Open String: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
PRACTICE MATERIAL FOR CAPO FIFTHS
Here are some links to “capo fifth” practice material. We will start with simple, double-stopped fifths before moving on to broken fifths. The broken fifths will be looked at firstly in one position, and then with shifts.
Mixed Finger Doublestopped Capo Fifths: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
Mixed Finger Broken Capo Fifths: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
Mixed Finger Broken Capo Fifths: With Shifts: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
And here are some links to even more specialised material for working on capo fifths on each of the individual fingers. Here we have separated the material according to whether the fifth is “from above” (more complicated) or “from below” (standard, easier). As usual, it is perhaps best to start with the easiest stuff first, so we will start with the first finger and work our way out to the pinky. This looks ridiculously detailed and perhaps it is, but capo fifths are so problematic that they are worth a little bit of investigation.
FIRST FINGER CAPO FIFTH PRACTICE MATERIAL
1st Finger Doublestopped Capo: No Shift: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
1st Finger Broken Capo: From Below: No Shift: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
1st Finger Broken Capo: From Below: With Shift To Higher String: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
1st Finger Broken Capo From Above: No Shift: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
1st Finger Broken Capo From Above: With Shift To Lower String: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
SECOND FINGER CAPO FIFTH PRACTICE MATERIAL
2nd Finger Doublestopped Capo: No Shift: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
2nd Finger Broken Capo: From Below: No Shift: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
2nd Finger Broken Capo: From Below: With Shift To Higher String: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
2nd Finger Broken Capo From Above: No Shift: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
2nd Finger Capo From Above With Shift To Lower String: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
THIRD FINGER CAPO FIFTH PRACTICE MATERIAL
3rd Finger Doublestopped Capo: No Shift: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
3rd Finger Broken Capo: From Below: No Shift: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
3rd Finger Broken Capo: From Below: With Shift To Higher String: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
3rd Finger Broken Capo From Above: No Shift: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
3rd Finger Capo From Above With Shift To Lower String: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
FOURTH FINGER CAPO FIFTH PRACTICE MATERIAL
4th Finger Doublestopped Capo: No Shift: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
4th Finger Broken Capo: From Below: No Shift: EXERCISE S REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
4th Finger Broken Capo: From Below: With Shift To Higher String: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
4th Finger Broken Capo From Above: No Shift: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
4th Finger Fifths From Above With Shift To Lower String: EXERCISES REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS
Because of the complications and difficulties with the capo fifth, we will often (especially if we have a small hand) need (or choose) to use some of the other more sophisticated and complex techniques for playing our fifths, such as:
3. PLAYING FIFTHS ON THE THUMB
The thumb is the ideal finger for doing “capo” fifths for two reasons.
- its natural angle is at 90º to the strings, and
- the part of it that stops the strings is of equal “hardness” for both strings (assuming of course that we have a good callous).
The thumb is especially useful for playing fifths in the higher regions (Intermediate and Thumb Positions) as it is in these higher regions that it is both very difficult to do the capo with the fingers, and very easy to use the thumb in general. But the thumb is quite often useful also for fifths in the Neck Region, especially in pianistic-style accompaniment passages that don’t need a lot of vibrato. This type of writing is very common in compositions of the Classical Period, but even in the Romantic Period it is also widely used in accompaniment figures. Very often it is the presence of fifths in a passage that will be the principal factor in our decision to use the Thumb Position in the Neck Region:
Note that if we don’t have a good callous on the side of the thumb, then the top note of the fifth (the higher string) will require greater thumb pressure in order to be stopped cleanly and thus not sound flat (below pitch). This adds unnecessary tension, effort and difficulty to our playing. To avoid that, we will need to keep a good callous by using the thumb regularly.
4. SHIFTING TO A NEW FINGER ON THE NEW STRING (FINGER SUBSTITUTION)
This is a finger substitution to the adjacent string. Here the whole hand (and arm) actually changes position by a semitone, tone or minor third and the “old” finger is released during the shift to the new string.
5. HAND WARP (CONTORTION) WITH FINGER SQUEEZE ACROSS STRINGS
In “squeezed” fifths we twist the left hand, turning it so the fingertips are now pointing towards the bridge (see photo). This allows us to play fifths with two different adjacent fingers. It also allows us to do a real vibrato on the fifth, which is especially important in slow double stops and chords. Because of the form (anatomy) of the hand and arm, this twisted posture is only practical when we place the higher finger on the higher string and the lower finger on the lower string (and not vice versa). This is made easier for us on the top (A/D) and bottom (G/C) pairs of strings because on those strings, the unparallel nature of the fifths makes our “squeeze” easier ( smaller). For fifths across the D and G strings however, the squeeze size needs to be a little bigger (more contorted) in order to compensate for the unfavourable angle of the unparallel fifth.
The “squeeze fifth” is a contortion to a neighbouring string. Sometimes this contortion is followed immediately by the relaxation of the hand into the new position (one semitone away from the old position), giving us a one-semitone snakecrawl shift (see “Contractions“).
At other times the “old” finger is maintained stopped during the entire duration of the fifth and the hand returns to (stays in) that same original “position” after the squeezed fifth (in other words, there is no shift).
The smaller the hand and fingers, the more we will tend to use this technique. This is not only because the “squeeze” fifth requires less brute force from the hand than the “capo” but also because small fingers actually fit “across” the fingerboard whereas big wide “sausage” fingers don’t. Therefore, cellists with small fingers may find it easier to use the “two-finger-squeeze” for fifths in which cellists with large fingers may be quite happy to use just the one finger, squashed flat across the two strings.
In some passages in double stops however, even the biggest, strongest hands are no solution and this “contortion” is really the only solution (see the following examples taken from the cello repertoire).
If we take these same passages and transpose them up into the Intermediate or Thumb Regions, we can see that we can use exactly the same “squeezed fifth” technique in the higher regions of the fingerboard.
Here below is a little exercise for squeeze-fifths in thumbposition. Click here for a compilation of thumbposition repertoire excerpts in which we use this same “squeeze-fifth” technique.
Once we get above the neck region, because of the hand angle, it becomes increasingly difficult to use the flattened finger position but increasingly easy to use the “two-finger-squeeze” position (and, of course, capo on the thumb). This is why the “squeeze-fifths fingering” used in the following thumbposition example from the Saint Saens Concerto would probably be substituted for the “capo-fifths fingering” if it was transposed down into the Neck Region:
Here are some links to more practice material specialised in “squeezed fifths” in all the fingerboard regions:
MIXED-UP CHOREOGRAPHY FIFTHS
In most musical passages, different “fifths techniques” will be used consecutively according to the specific musical and technical constraints. In the original Saint Saens extract, for example, we are using both “thumb-stopped-fifths” and “finger-squeezed-fifths”.