String players come in all shapes and sizes. Some violinists look like they were born to play the double bass, and other people like me seem so small that they should be banished to a partial size instrument into adulthood. If you are in the second category, I feel your pain. Although we must come up with solutions to the unique technical challenges that we face, playing a large instrument is not impossible even for petite individuals like myself, a short-armed cellist.
As a side note, this is not to say that adults should never consider a 3/4 or 7/8 size instrument or a shorter bow in some cases. Some physiques may require this. Be sure to seek your teacher’s advice on instrument setup (endpin length, angle of the instrument, etc.). Likewise students who are not yet fully grown should seek their teacher’s input before moving to a size that may be uncomfortably large. In this blog I simply hope to share several ways I have found to overcome the challenges that come with being a small-handed, short-armed cellist. Let’s get started.
I can’t reach the tip of the bow!
With arms seemingly too short to play at the tip, what can we do to make use of the whole bow? Simply raise the right elbow up and out. Here is a video demonstrating the difference elbow height can make.
The technical difference could be explained in great length, but suffice it to say that to use the whole bow, the whole arm needs to be involved. Video recording yourself and playing in front of a mirror are two ways that you can check whether you are truly using the upper arm to fly your elbow up and out into the correct position.
In addition to the above video, try the following exercise by David Finkel to “make the bow feel short.” He demonstrates another excellent way to achieve the desired result.
I can’t spread my fingers far enough in first position!
Even cellists with larger hands can find themselves with this problem. Beginners who start with tapes on the cello’s fingerboard can visually see that their hands do not spread wide enough to leave the fingers on the tapes. With every out of tune note, the ear also reminds us that the fingers are too close together. I suggest two methods to remedy this.
First, explore a slanted left hand. In general, cellists fall into two camps when talking about hand shape – (1.) square, fingers falling perpendicular to the fingerboard, or (2.) slanted, fingers falling perpendicular to the floor.
|Square Hand Shape|
|Slanted Hand Shape|
For those with large hands, my experience is that either the square or slanted hand shape can work. However for those of us with smaller reaches, the slanted hand shape is preferable. The following video demonstrates why.
Just a note, no matter what hand shape works best for you, be sure to align your arm so that you never hyper-extend the base finger joints.
|Hyper-extended index finger base joint|
Even with a slanted hand shape, you may find yourself still unable to reach notes. In that case, consider another alternative. The truth is, you only need to be able to reach one note at a time. The three fingers not actively playing notes, do not necessarily need to stay on the tapes for those notes. So long as the current note is in tune, you can rest the hand with the fingers close together moving the fingers apart just in time to play the next note.
In this way, the fingers can walk across the fingerboard fluidly with each note seeming like a position of its own. Here is a video showing an example of the fingers “walking” in first position.
I can’t reach extensions with my left hand!
This common issue is address at length in another blog post here. In addition to everything written there, I have one additional piece of advice for the forward extension – drop the wrist. Watch this video to demonstrate.
So often cellists leave the wrist immobile for the forwards extension, but as was mentioned in the previous blog on extensions, the forward extension involves both a forward shift and a backward extension. To some eyes, the wrist may not seem to move at all, but rather the arm looks as if it is moving. Dropping the wrist is perhaps more of a sensation than an action. In other words, perhaps there is a feeling of dropping the wrist even if the actual movement occurs at the elbow.
Short arms and small hands should not prevent you from playing the cello! I am just one of many cellists to prove that point. I hope this post has been helpful in giving you some tools to survive as a small-handed, short-armed cellist. Happy practicing!
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