There are only a handful of reasons we miss shifts:

  1. no clear idea of the note’s physical location on the fingerboard
  2. technique is inconsistent or maladaptive
  3. cannot hear the interval between the first and second note

Any one of these can cause a shift to feel uncertain forever, no matter how long you’ve bashed away at it, because (stop me if you’ve heard this before) it’s how you practice much more than what you practice that offers a direct path to progress. Today, we’re crossing off item #1 on the list:

Mapping the distance

When we shift, it’s easy to fall into the trap of measuring the distance from the old finger to the new one.

Let’s start with a simple example, from Danse Rustique, that wonderful old warhorse. We’re moving from C to F, from 2nd finger in 1st position to 2nd finger in 4th position- likely the most common shift cellists are asked to perform. In order to be really precise in your conception of the distance, think instead of where first finger begins and ends. The idea is that, unless you’re playing like some insane spider-fingered pianist, your first finger will always be down (or at least very close to the fingerboard), and that dramatically reduces the number of shifts you have to learn to measure.

With this in mind, 1st position to 4th position should always feel like 1st finger B to 1st finger E. Practice that shift first, then add the 2nd fingers.

Here’s a slightly more complicated shift, from La Cinquantaine. (tenor clef alert!)

This shift is tricky because there is an open A string trying to tempt you to lose your place on the fingerboard. While the repertoire does offer us a few truly blind shifts- where there is absolutely no way to have a physical connection with the fingerboard before a jump- this is not one of them.

So the question you always have to ask yourself is what note is my 1st finger on at the beginning of the shift? And follow it with where does my 1st finger end up?

In this instance, your 1st finger is on E in 1st position, and in order for your 3rd finger to end up on E on the A string, the first finger moves to G on the D string.

Wait what, Emily? Why isn’t the move on the A string?

Because the D string is the only place your left hand should be while you’re playing the open A. Also because I’m a proponent of the Old Finger Shift in the deepest possible way. Not only should you do the move on the old finger, but if a string crossing happens between notes, I say move on the old string, too.

If this is not what you’re doing, I’d venture to say you should be, 99 times out of 100. Although other teachers talked about shifting on the old finger our lessons, Hans Jensen really drilled it into me as I worked on Haydn C major one summer.  And I suspect it’s the reason I feel, even as a rusty broken cellist in recovery, like I could practice for 5 minutes and still drill the living hell out of the shifts in that piece, even the scary ones. There is no guesswork. 

So the first thing you should practice is what I call the actual shift. These are not the written notes, but rather the infrastructure that supports them: that crucial first finger move. In this case, E on 1 to G on 1. You could finish up by crossing the string to play D on 1 if you like. Practice the shifts both directions, up and down: you’re not trying to learn something novel, you’re trying to establish the physical size of the interval. 

Next, play the actual shift, but add the written last note. So the move is E on 1, G on 1, E on 3 on the A string. Do that a while- until you feel like your chance of hitting it is better than your chance of missing it. I like to gradually make the second to last note shorter and shorter until finally:

Play the notes as written, but continue to cultivate the feeling of the change in position as registered by the arm.

Next post, I’m going to review the technical foundations of shifting.