Thoughts on Shifting




Following on an earlier post about the left hand, today’s blog will explore some of the mechanics of shifting. How do we shift while maintaining an effective hand position throughout not only the neck positions, but also in thumb position. Let’s get started.

The Shifting Mechanics

The Shortest Distance Between Two Points or Lines and Circles

The left elbow’s position is not static as we play, but rather the elbow moves based on the needs of the music. The elbow moves to allow us to play in tune, to extend, and to shift seamlessly to wherever we need to go across the fingerboard. Today let us consider the action of shifting specifically, building on the concept mentioned in the last blog that extraneous motions should be eliminated, especially in fast passages.

That the elbow “leads the shift” is one point of technique about which many cellists agree in terminology, but in application this maxim can look quite different from one person to the next. A popular idea is that the left elbow leads the shift as the left hand moves by travelling in the shape of an arc, a smiley face, or even in the circular motion of a baseball pitcher’s windup (fig 1). From my understanding, this movement is intended either to add or remove weight from the fingers on the strings during the shift in order to produce the desired sound.


Figure 1

Whenever I hear this advice, my mind immediately recalls the truism learned in geometry that “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” In the interest of removing extraneous motions, consider allowing the elbow to travel to its destination via a straight line. As an example of this kind of elbow movement, watch Yo-Yo Ma in the first three shifts of the following video. Notice that his elbow moves from one point to the next in a straight line free of unnecessary motions.


So if the elbow “leading” does not necessarily involve an arc motion in everyone’s terminology, what else can the phrase imply? In my own terminology, the elbow’s leading refers to the order of movement. The elbow arrives at its post-shift position one or more notes before the hand ever shifts. In other words, shifting is a two-part process. First the elbow leads, and then the hand follows one or more notes later. If this is the order of movement, the arch shape the elbow makes in movement is inconsequential because the elbow will not be moving while the hand shifts. Oftentimes shifting in this manner is so subtle that to an observer, a shift seems to be over before it started.

Lest I seem to be devaluing the teaching of such great string educators as Paul Rolland who encourage round shapes in movement, let me confirm that round motions are to be encouraged more often than not in strings playing. However shifting is one instance in my own experience and observation where accuracy of intonation is aided by thinking in terms of straight lines instead of arcs. My assumption is that this has to do with the accuracy of measuring a line as compared to an arc. A straight line between two points will always be the same distance, but the path of an arc can be slightly larger or smaller without our noticing, thus causing our minds  to measure them less accurately. In addition, hitting two moving targets at once, the correct elbow position and the correct finger placement is fraught with more challenges than finding the spots individually.

That being said, how does one know when the elbow is correctly located for a given position? In short, a range of acceptable positions exists. Wherever your hand can achieve the correct frame without undue tension can be one of many correct positions.


In our search to shift accurately and consistently, the elbow remains only one piece of the puzzle. Ultimately our hand must arrive at the correct spot on the fingerboard. The following three types of landmarks serve as aids in our quest for dependable shifts.

The End of the Neck

Both fourth positionand upper third position (also known as 3rd ½) rely on the thumb being placed at the very end of the neck to easily find the placement of the four fingers. I am amazed at how many students do not know this fact. I am equally amazed at the immediate progress they make in shifting gracefully and accurately once they make this one small change in awareness, namely using their thumb as a reference for these positions. The thumb always goes directly under the 2nd finger. So to find upper third position, the thumb goes as far as it can down the neck and 2 goes down on top of it, like this (fig. 2):


Figure 2


As the one exception to the rule, fourth position is the only neck position where the 1stfinger is placed directly above the thumb. So for both third and fourth positions, the thumb shares the same spot. However in fourth position, the 1stfinger will be will be placed above the thumb replacing where the 2ndfinger was in upper third position like so (fig. 3):


Figure 3


Substitution Shifts

A second aid in shifting, substitution shifts promote accurate shifts using a note from the current position as a reference. The following video demonstrates literal substitution shifts where on one note two fingers are substituted to play the same pitch.  



The sheet music for this exercise would be as follows in fig. 4.

  Figure 4


Notice that the final and highest note of this exercise is an F, a minor third above D, the highest note of first position. To find even higher notes, this substitution shifting process can be repeated beginning on higher notes, shifting up a minor third each time ad nauseam.


Finally most positions have harmonics that we already know and use which can serve as reference points for our shifts. As an example, take the ending of the Ligeti Sonata for Solo Cello. The penultimate measure has an A# that is incredibly tricky to find for many. However using the octave harmonic on the D string, we can shift early and help our chances of nailing the note (fig. 6). Below is written first the suggest practice method sounding the harmonic audibly. Eventually take out the harmonic but still place the finger as demonstrated in the following video.  


Figure 6



Until I discovered the invaluable tool of using harmonics as guide notes in shifting, watching performers seemingly leap into thumb position and find a note out of thin air astounded me. As I think back, the shifts still impress, but they do not seem unachievable anymore because I know one of the secrets of their shifting: they were shifting to harmonics along. With an awareness of where harmonics are in any given position, shifting accurately to distant pitches becomes possible. This is an example of shifting to the position instead of to the note (more on this later in today’s post). See the exercise below I have developed to help me grab the same notes in basic thumb position out of thin air (fig 7). Accompanying the music is a video of my demonstrating the first line of the exercise. Notice that the thumb is placed on a lower string than the higher goal note in order to develop the habit of keeping the thumb over two strings. For another exercise geared specifically to the neck positions, see last week’s blog here:

Figure 7



If you are not yet fluent in locating the harmonics on the cello, let me recommend the book The Secret Life of Cello Strings: Harmonics for Cellists by R. Caroline Bosanquet. This book thoroughly and concisely explains harmonics in an easily understandable way. It is truly one of the best resources I know of on the subject. 


Shift Early, Shift Often

In addition to utilizing the inherent landmarks on the cello itself, good habits can also facilitate more accurate shifting. One of the best shifting habits any cellist can develop is the habit of shifting as early as possible. If you noticed in the Ligeti example (repeated again below), an open A string preceded the shift.


Open strings are an excellent time to shift. If you arrive in general vicinity of the position early (not merely the note. Remember: Shift to the position, not to the note.), you have a better chance of landing in tune. More advice on that from Lynn Harrell in a future blog.

Shift to the Position, not to the Note

As has already been mentioned multiple times, shifting to the position as opposed to only the note we intend to play is critical. This concept involves multiple factors. First the hand must maintain its correct shape and orientation to the string. Stretching a single finger to reach a note does not constitute a shift. Rather a shift is a whole arm movement as discussed at the beginning of this post. Second we must develop an awareness of what some call “fingerboard geography,” an intimate knowledge of what notes lie under each of our fingers on all strings in any given position. Knowing the note corresponding to each finger in every position enable us to utilize the three reference points. This assumes a thorough knowledge of intervals and left hand frame that can be learned from a competent teacher.

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