Left Hand and Arm Technique on the Cello
Slanted or Square?
Remember these Principles
Know your pivot joints
Know your active motions
Know your passive motions
Use anatomically neutral positions
Motion can loosen tension
Do not hinder passive motions
Use fluid rather than static technique
Divide up the work
Use large muscle groups
Tension and release
Slanted or Square Left Hand Position?
Among string instrumentalists probably none has as much variance in basic left hand technique as the cello. There are two basic schools of thought.
- Boxed or square hand position. The fingers strike the string at 90 degree angles. Famous examples of cellists would be Casals, Leonard Rose , Pierre Founier, and Fritz Magg.
- The pronated or slanted hand position where the fingers strike the finger board at an angle. Famous examples would be William Pleeth, Piatigorsky, Starker, and Rudolf Matz.
Both techniques have excellent performers and teachers as examples. So what are the advantages to these techniques?
Square hand position
A great place to look for an excellent description and defense of the square hand position is in Luis Potter's book, The Art of Cello Playing. In his book he writes that
- The fingers should be equally spaced at right angles to the fingerboard
- The fingers should be held directly over the notes
- When playing a note the fingers should drop vertically to the string from the "knuckle base" (pp. 15-18)
The position of the fingers over the notes at 90 degrees is to be maintained as much as possible, also during extensions (except for the finger extending).
Usually with the square hand position the thumb should always be across from the 2nd finger.
The main argument for the square hand position is that it improves intonation.
Slanted hand position
Those who advocate a slanted hand position point out some weaknesses in the boxed position. William Pleeth, the teacher of Jacquoline Du Pre, in his book Cello points out that due to the natural build of the hand,
- The fingers will never be able to strike the fingerboard vertically at 90 degrees
- Only the two middle fingers are square
- "It is all but impossible not to deform the fourth finger: it meets the string like an old shoe which is worn down at the side" (p. 59)
Gerhard Mantel in his book Cello Technique writes that the boxed hand position does not depict the real conditions of the hand,
- The fingers are not the same length
- The fingers are not the same strength
- The fingers' ability to spread apart is different (less spread between 2 and 3) and must be measured out anew every time
- The last joint of the bents fingers are not parallel
- The finger tips are different widths
- The knuckles do not lie in a straight line (p. 67)
The argument is that if you adopt a slanted hand position, many of the difficulties of the boxed position are solved or made easier. For example,
- It is easier to compensate for the differences in ability to spread between the fingers. It is much easier to create a larger distance between 2 and 3 from a slant
- The fingers can strike the fingerboard at same angle
- Weak fingers can strike the fingerboard from a greater distance
- The most natural position for the forearm is between its extreme positions (most pronated and most supinated), with the palm of the hand facing the ground
- A feeling of weight is easier with a slanted position as objects only travel one direction, towards the ground
There are advantages and disadvantages to both positions. Here are some weaknesses I see with both positions,
Weaknesses with the boxed position
Tension:While not all who hold to the boxed position insist on this, the emphasis with the boxed position tends to be on keeping the fingers over the notes at 90 degrees at all times. This has advantages, but ultimately it can lead to tension. In my opinion it is simply is not necessary to always have the fingers over the notes in a given position. This is particularly true with slow playing when vibrato is being used. Even with moderate playing, there can be tiny releases between the fingers to relax the hand.
Finger Spacing: The advocates of the slanted position have a point when they argue that adjusting finger spacing is easier from a slant. Try this experiment,
Hold you fingers in a box position and try to stretch between your 2nd and 3rd fingers. Now, hold you hand in a slant and try to stretch between 2 and 3. It is easier more most cellists to adjust the spacing between the 2nd and 3rd fingers from a slant.
Position of Thumb: While I do not agree with always keeping the thumb across from the second finger, if you do play in this way it takes more energy from a boxed position than from a slant. When playing in a slanted position, if you draw an imaginary line at a 90 degree angle to the fingerboard at the point of your second finger, your thumb will be closer to opposing the second finger than when in a boxed position.
Thumb Position: When the elbow is high in thumb position, the most natural position is one where the hand is slanted. If you adopt a slanted position in the lower positions you have a uniform position throughout the whole fingerboard.
Weaknesses with slanted position
Elbow Position: Try this experiment,
Hold you elbow high and find the point where the slant in your hand and forearm feels most comfortable. It should be halfway between the furthest you can slant (pronate) it and the furthest you can supinate. This is probably a poition where your palm faces the ground.
Now hold your elbow lower (Leonard Rose style). Now find the most comfortable position for your hand and forearm, halfway between the furthest you can slant and and supinate. You see, the halfway point changes with the height of the elbow. You will probably discover that a more boxed position feels best with a low elbow.
So it is entirely possible to have a comfortable position in a boxed position. But the elbow needs to be lower than the slanted position. What are my points?
- It isn't necessarily true that the most natural position for the hand is one where the palm faces the ground. It all depends on the height of the elbow.
- A slanted position where the palm faces the ground requires a high elbow. Constantly holding the elbow high to maintain a comfortable slanted hand position is taxing on the rotator cuff Of course, one can adopt a less slanted hand position where the elbow is lower. This is preferable, in my opinion.
Fourth Finger: While it is true that a boxed position tends to create a "worn shoe" position of the fourth position, the slanted hand on the fourth finger tends to create a straight, stiff fourth finger, which is not supported by the whole arm.
A Middle Way
When it comes to this question of hand, forearm, and elbow position, I try to take the best of both worlds.
Instead of prescribing a fixed hand and elbow position, why not have a more fluid technique? Gerhard Mantel, mentioned above, advocates rand rotation as does Janos Starker. Why not vary the slant in the hand along with the height of the elbow? In other words, each finger can have its own "comfy position."
What is hand rotation? Essentially your hand will rotate between a more slanted position and a more square hand position, depending on the finger used.
Hand rotation in slow playing
1st finger: more slanted with higher elbow, thumb by first finger. This enables you to have a more balanced hand when playing on first finger than playing completely in a square position.
4th finger: hand boxed, lower elbow, thumb by 2nd finger. This allows you to have a more balanced hand on 4th finger than playing in a complete slanted position.
Here is the transition from 1st to 4th finger:
1st finger: highest elbow (not too high!), hand and forearm most slanted, thumb by 1st finger.
2nd finger: slight drop in elbow hight, less slanted, thumb moved closer to 2nd finger (i.e gradually moving towards square position).
3rd finger: another slight drop in elbow, less slanted, thumb moves closer to 2nd finger.
4th finger: Square hand position: elbow lowest, thumb across from 2nd finger, no slant in hand.
Hand rotation in fast playing
I find that hand rotation can also be used, with some adjustments, for fast playing as well. Here is the difference:
Less rotation: The amount of hand rotation is determined by the speed at which you are playing. The slower the tempo the more rotation you can use. The faster the tempo the less you will have time to use.
The great thing about hand rotation in fast playing is that some of the work is transferred to larger muscle groups.
Always be especially careful not to overdo hand rotation in fast tempos; it can cause excessive motion and work.
The thumb stays across from first finger. There simply isn't time to move the thumb around. I personally like to keep my thumb by first finger in fast playing because I believe that is the most natural position of the hand. For example, when we completely relax our hands, our thumbs are by our 1st fingers, not our 2nd fingers. This is the most natural and relaxed position for the thumb. Also, the tension in the thumb effects the hand. The tighter the thumb, the tighter the hand and the looser the thumb the looser the hand. And a lose hand is vital in fast playing. Please see, Position of the Left Thumb in Cello Technique.
Advantages of hand rotation
- The hand remains more balanced
- Forearm helps raise and lower the fingers. It is always good to divide up the work!
- It is easier to create more spacing going from a slanted 2nd finger to 3rd finger
- The extra motion helps keep muscles loose. The idea that we should avoid motion in the name of efficiency can create tension
Muscles that move, as long as they are an efficient and helpful motions, can aid in relaxation.