Left Hand Habits for Success
Solid left hand technique is vital to a cellist’s intonation, musical precision, and long-term physical health. However one technique does not fit all, in more than one way. Not only do many accomplished cellists play with vastly varying techniques, but differing types of passages require us to move in different ways. This blog will cover three habits necessary in playing in tune and with efficiency of movement, the latter a habit that is paramount when playing quickly.
Many highly recommended methods and etude books exist to promote good habits in left hand technique. For example Janos Starker An Organized Method of String Playing, Hans Jørgen Jensen and Minna Rose Chung Cello Mind, etudes by Cossman, Popper, and others to name but a few. May I submit to you that many of these technical books do not explicitly define the left hand alignment with words but rather model it in visual aids or infer the shape by the demands of the exercises. Of course a qualified teacher is indispensable in every student’s quest to develop good habits. This introductory blog to the left hand is designed not to replace a teacher but rather to clarify some concepts necessary for getting the most benefit from the previously mentioned resources. It can serve as a point of discussion for further learning in lessons. The following approaches spring from habits I have learned from lessons, masterclasses, reading, and personal practice over the years that can help you revolutionize the way you think about your left hand.
String crossings on violin family instruments can be an intonation nightmare. Every time we move a finger from one string to another, we incur the risk that the finger might end up in a different place than the one we intend. I remember vividly a lesson in high school when my teacher stopped me at the top of a particularly out of tune scale. “I would be rich if I got paid for every out of tune first finger I have heard in this room,” she claimed. Knowing that string crossings pose such a great intonation hazard, how can we practice them to gain more reliable intonation? Here is one exercise I have found helpful in my own studio.
Measuring the Distance
Take a scale, say the two octave C Major scale beginning on the open C string. We will stick with first position fingerings for this example. On C 0-1-3-4. Once you have reached the F, continue to let it sound with all fingers down on the C string as you add the open G. The result will be a double stopped major second between F and G. As you prepare to play the first finger A, let fingers 2, 3, and 4 continue to rest on the C string resulting in a double stopped third between F and A (fig. 1).
After you have placed the first finger A, the fingers on the C string may be lifted to prepare for the following notes. Repeat this pattern going up each string of the scale. Once you are comfortable with this procedure, let the bow return to playing single notes as normal so that the lower bracketed notes do not sound. However continue to let the fingers gently rest on the string as before.
What about going down the scale? All the left hand fingers must be lifted to allow the open string to speak, so can we still apply this principal? Yes! When coming down the scale, the fourth finger must be prepared two notes early. For example, coming down the C scale starting on the A string would look like this:
Repeat the pattern as before, initially sounding double stops and later silently placing the fourth finger on the lower string. Once this skill is mastered on the scale, apply it to arpeggios, broken thirds, and repertoire. Incidentally this exercise often has the added benefit of making string crossings smoother for beginning students, as well as more in tune. This is in part because a truly legato string crossing requires an almost imperceptible moment of double stopping to connect the sound of the two strings.
Hand Frame on a Single String
In addition to aiding in good intonation across strings, our left hand alignment also affects our intonation and physical endurance on a single string both when playing in position and when shifting. Today we will address primarily the hand frame only in terms of playing in position. A good left hand philosophy for playing quickly can be summed up in the adage “quiet hands.” In other words, a movement should consist of the minimum of motion possible like a golfer seeking to sink a putt from the green. Any tense or extraneous movements should be eliminated. These extraneous movements manifest themselves in several ways.
First consider the motion of lifting the fingers from the strings. Think back to the scale exercise. Were you aware of how fast or how high you were lifting your fingers from the string? Likely not! When thinking about left hand movement, most string players automatically think about putting fingers down to depress the string. Just as maintaining a sufficiently light touch is crucial to maintaining a loose hand, equally as important is the motion of lifting the fingers. In general, strive to keep the fingers just clear of the string when lifting them. Overly exaggerated movement leads to excessive tension such as hyper-extension (fig. 3) and slows us down tremendously.
This bad habit of lifting the fingers excessively high manifests itself both when playing in position and when shifting. The faster the tempo of the music we are playing, the more important this becomes because the closer the fingers are to the strings, the more quickly and accurately they can execute passages. Strive for quiet hands when lifting the fingers from the strings.
Just as the movement of the fingers up and down can be optimized, so movement to the left and right should also be brought to our best advantage. Perhaps the most common misalignment is the left hand knuckles angling away from the fingerboard so that the pinky knuckle is furthest from the fingerboard. Although this positioning can be a very advantageous for vibrato, as advocated in David Finkel’s Cello Talks, we are considering only the factor of efficiency today. Notice in fig.4-5 below that the pinky is in a particularly poor position and would need to move a considerable distance to even reach the string. Students often strain and straighten the pinky in order to reach the string from this disadvantageous position.
This position commonly occurs after ascending shifts when the elbow either does not move at all or does not move enough (more on that in a future blog post). Not only can this alignment change the hand frame and interfere with good intonation, it also requires an additional motion of the arm in order for the fingers to reach the lower strings. Let me recommend the following exercises to remedy this habit.
While in first position with the 4th finger on the C string, place the 1st finger on the A string as shown in fig. 6. Notice that the knuckles are not parallel to the neck but rather that the pinky knuckle is closest of all the knuckles. This position is somewhat of an exaggeration, of course, but it is helpful in maintaining a strong, rounded 4th finger, the pinky being the shortest finger.
Next bring fingers 2, 3, & 4 to rest on the A string moving only from the knuckles, not the wrist or elbow. The following video demonstrates two motions. First the video shows an incorrect motion from the wrist that takes the knuckles out of alignment followed by the correct motion from the knuckles. Repeat in all positions ala Starker’s Organized Method of String Playing.
As a brief introduction to maintaining this alignment while shifting, practice the following exercise (fig. 7) shifting between 1st and 4thposition. Keep the 4th finger rounded as is often necessary. Notice that the 4th finger is placed on the lower strings when possible. Keeping the pinky is rounded while on a lower string assures that the alignment will be correct. When bringing the pinky to the next string to the left, the pinky will still be round, assuming the correct motion from the video above. Again, repeat this exercises on all strings and in all positions to gain facility.
In one of the next blog posts I plan to apply these principles further to shifting and thumb position. Thank you for reading, and please be sure to comment below and to subscribe to the blog for notifications of future posts.
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