Shifting on the Cello

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One aspect of cello playing that often has the least organization among student cellists is shifting or position changes. There are many important aspects of shifting that need to be thought out carefully. Consider the following,

All of these questions need to be answered if we are to organize our shifting on the cello and have more musical control and accuracy.

Shifting from position to position

I believe that thinking of shifting from position to position instead of note to note can greatly increase accuracy. So often when we practice shifting we only practice the note we are leaving to the arrival note instead of practicing shifting from position to position. But how does one practice this?

First, I highly suggest practicing shifting from each finger in the old position (the position you are leaving) to each finger in the new position (the position you are shifting to). Practice all the possible combinations from position to position (including the different strings). Second, practice double stops from position to position. Practice as many combinations of double stops as you can think of. Be sure to pay attention to intonation at all times. Following these steps is a highly effective way to practice shifting from position to position. For more detail, I highly recommend An Organized Method of String Playing by Janos Starker in which he uses actual examples from the repertoire and shows how to practice difficult shifts using double stops.

Keep the speed of the shift slow

With the exception of desiring a certain effect on the cello, I recommend shifting as slowly as possible. Try this experiment;

Hold your hand out in front of you with the palm to the ground. Move it from point A to point B and back again as quickly as you can. Now move it slowly. Which caused more tension in the arm and hand? If you move your arm suddenly and too quickly, the arm tenses up. If you move it smoothly and slower, it stays looser.

So when we shift, it is necessary to develop shifts that are not sudden and quick but smooth and as slow as possible. But how do we do this?

Move the arm and hand early

The key to a slower shift is to begin the motion early in the arm and hand with the finger the last to move. This provides a couple of advantages. First, the overall speed of the shift will be slower while still enabling you to arrive on time in the new position. Think of this; let's say you have to be somewhere by 2 pm. You could leave at 1:45 or 1:55. Which enables you to drive slower and expend less gas, the 1:45 or 1:55 time? It would be the 1:45 time, of course. The same is true in shifting; if you leave early you can travel slower and expend less energy.

Establishing inertia in the arm before you leave the position also helps prevent tension. By establishing inertia early you do not have to suddenly move the entire mass of the arm all at once. To wait and move the arm all at once and quickly results in a sudden contraction in the muscles of the arm, creating excessive tension.

The tell tail signs of late, fast shifts are sudden jerky motions in the arm coupled with tension. Shifts that begin early and move more slowly are smooth and look effortless.

Using half circles when shifting

Try another experiment; hold you hand out in from of you with your palm to the ground. Now move in a straight line from point A to point B and back again. Now move your hand with a slight arch (half circle) from point A to point B and back again. Which had less tension; the straight line or the half circle? I find that in my arm the half circle results in less tension than the straight line. Why is this? If you merely travel in a straight line, all of the work is accomplished by one set of muscles, the bicep and tricep. If you move in a half circle, other muscle groups are involved, such as the shoulder. When you involve other muscle groups - when you divide up the work in cello technique - no one muscle or set of muscles does all the contracting and the overall effect is a feeling of less tension. How can we apply this principle in shifting?

Here is what I suggest: When moving the arm and hand early as discussed above, make the motion a half circle in the elbow with a slight rise in the wrist with the finger the last to move. This creates an early, slow shift with a half circle motion.

For Action Studies to practice all of these motions see Trampoline, Diving Board, and Bunny Hop.

The rest of the issues will be covered in forthcoming articles when I discuss portamentos (so-called French shift) and clean shifts (so-called German shift).

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