Rules I Break (Part 1 of 2)

Beginning cellists learn all sorts of necessary ground rules as they begin learning the instrument – how to sit, how to hold the cello, where to place the hands, etc. These rules are useful for establishing healthy habits for playing, but strict rules do not necessarily take into account the variety of techniques needed to play the infinite variety of music cellists are called upon to perform. Below are a few of the of the left hand rules that I break with the next blog post will focus on the right hand rules.

Rule #1: Left Thumb behind the neck

I first learned to place the left hand by putting the thumb directly under the other four fingers on the strings.

Cello Life Blog Jonathan Simmons - Left Hand Rules

Many times, this place is as good as any for the thumb. However, by no means is it the only place the thumb can stay. The thumb can move to either side of the neck for various reasons.

Moving the thumb to the left side of the neck can help combat a squeezing thumb, especially on the two higher strings. Squeezing becomes much more difficult (though not impossible) when the thumb would be squeezing to the right rather than up against the opposing fingers.

Cello Life Blog Jonathan Simmons - Left Thumb Rules
Practice moving the thumb to the left side of the neck when you feel the urge to squeeze. Learning to use arm weight instead of thumb counter pressure to hold down the strings will relax the left hand allowing you to play more freely and for longer periods of time without fatigue.

In addition, resting the thumb on the right side of the neck can also serve to our advantage. For example, when playing on the C string, you may find moving the thumb to the right side of the neck is helpful. Students often arch the wrist in an effort to reach the lower strings without touching the upper strings. Resting the thumb on the left side of the neck in this instance would only exacerbate the problem by keeping the wrist further from the neck than it could be.

Bad Left Hand Rule
Negative Example

Instead experiment with bringing the thumb to the other side of the neck. This allows the entire wrist and hand to come closer to the notes that the fingers need to reach.

Cello Life Blog Jonathan Simmons - Left Hand Rules 1

Rule #2: Thumb over 2 strings in thumb position

In thumb position, many students are told to keep the thumb over two strings. Many cello methods including Rick Mooney’s book Thumb Position for Cello advocate this habit. In general, placing the thumb over two strings is a beneficial habit to adopt. However, certain circumstances can require removing the thumb from one string or the other in order to play the music, especially for cellists with smaller hands. Two examples of this are open strings and large stretches.

An extreme example of open strings used while the left hand is in thumb position can be found in the Ligeti Solo Sonata. In the following section, the thumb can either rest on one string, the D string, or can come off both strings.

Personally I anchor my thumb on the side of the fingerboard to provide a reference point for the rest of the hand while raising all of the fingers during the open string notes.

For cellists with small hands, everything we can do to reach another centimeter is necessary on the instrument. Take this stretch in the Ligeti Sonata for instance.


With my small hands, I have trouble reaching the major seventh from A up to G# with the thumb over both the A and the D strings. When I place my thumb only on the A string, the elbow is able to come around just enough to enable the extra reach up to the G#. Large stretches sometimes necessitate breaking the rule of resting the left thumb over two strings in thumb position.

As you are practicing, experiment with what rules might need to be broken. Endless curiosity is a must! Let me know what you discover.



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