Shifting, Positions & Extensions
- When cello music is written in "1st position" or "4th position," this refers to where the hand is located when fingers are placed on the cello fingerboard.
- Shifting refers to the hand smoothly moving up or down the fingerboard in order to play notes with the hand in a different position on the fingerboard.
- The concept of positions and shifting is somewhat similar to an elevator traveling to different floors in a building. Most music for cello beginners is written with the hand in 1st position, with the hand remaining closest to the scroll of the cello. Using the elevator analogy, music for beginning cellists generally requires the hand to remain on the 1st floor in 1st position to finger most of the musical notes.
- In order to play certain notes without awkward fingering or to reach some of the higher notes used in intermediate and advanced cello music, it's necessary to move the hand up to a higher position on the fingerboard to play the notes. This requires the hand to shift to a higher hand position such as the 4th position. Using the elevator analogy again, it’s similar to the hand moving up in an elevator to the 4th floor.
- Although 1st position is the most commonly used position in beginning cello music, there are seven regular positions, plus the thumb position, and for very advanced cello music, 8th and higher positions (note: advanced cellists are usually less concerned with positions, and are more focused on selecting fingering that works well with particular passages of music). For ease of playing, many musicians slightly shift their hands between positions, and use these "half-positions" to finger music, thus the entire length of the fingerboard could be used to number incremental positions, and the actual number of possible positions becomes irrelevant. To view a chart of basic positions, visit our Cello Fingering Chart.
- Due to the length of the cello fingerboard, finger extensions are often used in cello music and are generally necessary when playing more than two consecutive whole tones in one position. What is often referred to as a "Backward Extension" requires the cellist to point their first finger back towards the top of the scroll in order to produce a whole tone interval between the first and 2nd fingers (e.g. moving the first finger back a half-step to produce Bb on the A string).
- "Forward Extensions" also produce a whole tone between notes such as between the first and second finger. In a forward extension using the second finger, the first finger remains in place (as in the note B on the A string), and the second finger stretches forward towards the bridge (the thumb, third and fourth finger should move forward towards the bridge along with the 2nd finger).
- The letter x is often used to indicate cello extensions. For example, an x placed before the fingering number indicates a backward extension: x1 means extend the 1st finger back to reach the note. An x placed after the fingering number indicates a forward extension: 4x means extend the 4th finger forward to play the note.
- The proper use of shifting and good fingering will help avoid the overuse of extensions which can produce tension and fatigue if used too much.
© Copyright RK Deverich. All rights reserved.
Beginning cellists are often confused about the various "positions" of the left hand. It CAN be confusing, especially when one expert says there are 32 positions, and another tells you that there are an infinite number of positions! What's a poor beginner to think? Here is a very simple explanation of four basic positions for the left hand. (You may like to print this page, and put it on your music stand, and play along as you read.)
First Position--After learning to play the open strings, without any left-hand at all, every cellist begins learning first position. As you can see in the illustration below, the first finger (index finger, the one you point with) of the left hand plays D, A, E or B, depending on which string is depressed.
Please notice that the fingering is 1,3,4 or 1,2,4, depending on whether the intervals of the scale are half-steps or whole steps. I marked a little "V" where you will have to stretch to play a whole step.
Second Position--Shift your left hand on the finger board a little bit toward the bridge, and you move from first position into second position. Here your first finger will play either an E, B, F or C as it depresses the strings.
Third Position--From second position, move your left hand a little bit more toward the bridge, and you will find yourself in third position. Your first finger depressing the strings, will play either an F, C, G or D.
Fourth Position--From third position, shift your left hand a bit more toward the bridge, and you will be in fourth position. Here your first finger will be depressing a G, D, A or E.
Complications!--All above is basically true, and a good place to start, but there are a few complications that must be kept in mind:
All scales are a mixture of half-step intervals, and whole-step intervals between notes. Take a look at a cello-fingered scale in the key of C:
Why is the fingering sometimes 0,1,3,4 and other times 0,1,2,4? Because there is a half-step in the C scale from E to F, and from B to C. Each finger of the cellist's left hand is naturally a half-step away from the finger next to it. So, 1,3 plays a whole step, and 1,2 plays a half-step.
When the perfomance of a scale requires a whole-step between the first and second fingers, then the cellist must stretch those fingers apart to a greater than normal interval. For example, look at this scale in F major:
From the B flat to the C (on the A string) is an interval of a whole-step. When playing in first position, the cellist must extend his first finger backward to flatten the B.
A similar extension takes place in the other direction in some scales, for example, E Major. Look at this illustration:
Here the cellist must stretch a whole step interval between his first and second finger, to reach from E to F sharp.
Now here is where the "infinite number of positions" comes into the picture. Suppose, instead of trying to stay in first position, and extending the first finger back to a B flat (see the F Major illustration above), the cellist simply shifts his entire hand backward, so his first finger falls naturally on the B flat, then just allows his other fingers to fall naturally on the string. Then the fingering would look like this:
One might say that wherever one places one's first finger, on any string, there is another "position." So you can readily see that many such "positions" are possible.
Conclusion: In order to avoid confusion, the beginning cellist should concentrate on the four basic positions, and learn to do extensions as called for by each key. The most useful and common are stretching the first finger back to flatten the D, A, E or B, depending on which string is in question. Or to stretch to an F sharp, C sharp, G sharp or D sharp with the fourth finger, as called for. The advanced cellist no longer thinks about positions, simply which finger placement lends itself best to technical accomplishment and artistic expression. Any note can be played by any finger, including the thumb, and the virtuoso just does whatever works best and sounds right from the infinite possibilities at his command.
If you are a beginner struggling to figure out fingerings for various positions on all cello strings, you may find help from Per Stromgren's Fingering Chart.
You will also enjoy reading the Cello Chat Archive thread about playing in positions.
In 4th position, the side of the left hand should be resting on the top upper bout of the cello. There are three variations of 4th position: normal, backward extended and forward extended.
Normal 4th Position:
When the hand is configured in normal position, each finger is placed a half-step interval away from the neighboring finger(s). Using the A string as an example, below are the notes played by each finger:
1st Finger > E
2nd Finger > F
3rd Finger > F# (or G♭)
4th Finger > G
Backward Extended 4th Position:
The first finger is extended backwards a half-step so that the interval between the 1st and 2nd finger becomes a whole step. The intervals between the 2nd/3rd and 3rd/4th fingers remains at a half-step. Using the D string as an example, below are the notes played by each finger:
1st Finger > G# (or A♭)
2nd Finger > A# (or B♭)
3rd Finger > B
4th Finger > C
Forward Extended 4th Position:
From normal 4th position, the second, third and fourth fingers are extended forward by a half-step while the first finger remains stationary. The interval between the 1st/2nd fingers becomes a whole step. The interval between the 2nd/3rd and 3rd/4th fingers remains at a half-step. Using the G string as an example, below are the notes played by each finger:
1st Finger > D
2nd Finger > E
3rd Finger > F
4th Finger > F# (or G♭)
You may also find the links below useful:
Half Position Cello Fingering Chart
1st Position Cello Fingering Chart
2nd Position Cello Fingering Chart
3rd Position Cello Fingering Chart
How To Pick The Right Size Cello
Posted in Cello
Tagged 4th position, cello fingering chart, extended position, finger configuration, hand placement, normal position
Once you have thoroughly learnt the neck positions (from half position to fourth position), its time to break into the higher register of the cello. Beyond fourth position, we encounter a new fingering system to accommodate the diminishing physical space between the fingers and the changing angle of the left arm. Hence, positions five to seven are called the three finger positions. Mastering this portion of the fingerboard is an exciting time. The extended range unlocks the door to a vast amount of repertoire, much of which is not transcribed or arranged, but unaltered and intended for the cello. It also presents a steep learning curve. If you havent encountered it already, youll have to begin reading in the tenor clef. Although the difference between bass and tenor clef is easy to grasp, it can take time adjusting to the new layout and getting used to switching between clefs within one piece. And of course, there is a new and rather different fingering system to learn.
Lets begin with a bit of revision in order to highlight the essential differences between the neck positions and the three finger positions. In the neck positions, we cover an interval of a minor or major third from the first to fourth fingers a minor third in closed positions and a major third in stretch or extended positions. In closed positions we play semitones between adjacent fingers and whole tones between the first and third fingers or second and fourth fingers. In stretch positions we play semitones between the second and third or third and fourth fingers; whole tones between the first and second or second and fourth fingers; and an augmented second (equivalent in sound to a minor third) between the first and third fingers. This is shown in fig. 2 and 3 below:
When we consider the position of the left arm beyond fourth position, it is easy to understand why we stop using using the fourth finger. With the arm extended forward, even when the fingers remain at roughly a ninety degree angle to the strings, it is difficult to use the fourth finger without introducing a significant level of strain to the forearm. For this reason, and the fact that the intervals are physically closer together, we adopt the three finger system form fifth position onwards.
Now whole tones can be played between the first and second fingers or the second and third fingers, which maintains the maximum interval of a major third within one position. Just like first to fourth positions, each position from fifth to seventh has variants (upper and lower versions) and extensions.
The three images above show the three versions of upper fifth position on the A string. Fig. 4 shows the closed position with a semitone between the first and second fingers (F# G); and a whole tone between the second and third fingers (G A). Fig. 5 shows the alternate version of the closed position with a whole tone between the first and second fingers (F# G#); and a semitone between the second and third fingers (G# A). Fig 6 shows the extended position where there is a whole tone between the first and second fingers (F# G#); and the second and third fingers (G# A#).
Chromatic variations within the position must be addressed by moving one finger while keeping the rest of the position stationary. Take a look at the following sequence, which occurs within one position (upper fifth) in the range of a minor third:
The second finger is a semitone above the first finger in bars 1 and 2; and a whole tone above in bars 3 and 4. The first and third fingers remain in place so that the position itself remains stationary. The following exercise will help to develop stability in a stationary three finger position with chromatic variation, and should be repeated in all variants of fifth, sixth and seventh positions as you become familiar with them.
Typically, the first three finger position we encounter on the cello is upper fifth. The easiest way to find this position is to play the natural harmonic (an octave above the open string) with the third finger, then find the correct places for the second and first fingers. The following exercise will help you to find and settle into this part of the fingerboard.
The next step is to find upper fifth position from fourth position an area of the fingerboard that you are familiar with and overlaps fifth position. These exercises will help you to become familiar with the shift from fourth to upper fifth position.
All of the above exercises should be practised on all four strings.
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Position cello 4th on
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