Extensions on the Cello and Tension

Extensions on the cello are essentially one and the same as “stretches”. In the four finger positions (1st through 4th positions), adjacent fingers are in half steps, 1-3 and 2-4 are in whole steps, and 1-4 is a minor third. When we deviate from that pattern in order to make larger intervals, such as making a whole step between 1-2, an A2 between 1-3, or a M3 between 1-4, we employ extensions or stretches. In other words, we create larger spaces between fingers. This, of course, is necessary to avoid excessive shifting and to create a legato line. But there is a problem when employing extensions that needs to be addressed.

The problem is that for most hands, extensions cause tension at the moment of execution. Try this simple exercise: Shake out your hand and let the fingers relax to their natural finger spacing – the “default position” for the fingers. Now stretch the fingers apart as in an extension and compare the feeling. Stretching the fingers apart creates tension in the hand for most cellists.

Now, tension is completely unavoidable when playing the cello; tension is created every time we contract a muscle. What we want to avoid, however, is holding tension in a part of the body when we could release it. This unnecessary holding of tension in the left hand often occurs after executing an extension.

I find that many, if not most students, come to me with the habit of unnecessarily holding extensions in the left hand after the extensions are completed. For example, students will stretch between 1 and 2, such an E to an F#, and continue to hold the stretch between these fingers even though there is no return to the E. Holding the extension in this situation creates unnecessary tension. The resulting excessive tension makes it difficult to vibrato, can cause poor intonation, fatigue, and lack of facility. So how do we release the tension after the extension?

If at all possible, after an extension or stretch, we should immediately let go of the stretch and “re-balance” the hand. For example, assuming there is sufficient time, after an extension from G to E flat on the D string in first position, we should reposition the hand in half-position. What often happens is that cellists keep the entire hand and arm in first position while holding the extension to the E-flat. Why not bring the entire hand back to half position and re-balance the hand? Why continue to hold the entire hand and arm in first position when the note is in half position? Do yourself a big favor and release the stretch, bring the thumb and arm back to half position, and curve the first finger! Again, this assumes there is sufficient time to do this.

Remember, do not hold tension when it is not necessary.

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