So last post we talked about getting a feel for the distance the arm travels to put the hand in the right place for an accurate shift. Today is all about the mechanics involved and a bit of the mental approach behind policing your technique.

Shifting physically

Although the mind may seem very active during playing, practicing the cello is at root a physical act. You may be trying to keep corrections and new techniques in mind while you work, but if they are just words, like:

don’t overshift

keep the shoulder down

remember to breathe

…the chances are very slim that you’re able to do much towards these ends, because your brain is churning out a stock ticker of words instead of listening intensively or monitoring physical phenomena. I’m not saying the brain can’t multitask- but the quality of each effort diminishes as more tasks are added to the list. Plus, nobody ever avoided screwing up by thinking “don’t screw up”. The thinking isn’t what gets it done: it’s the doing that counts. (In the final post, we’ll explore a specific kind of musical thinking that will serve your efforts better)

What to do? This part is tricky to describe, but I’m going to give it a shot.

You need to bring your attention— your physical attention— to the area of your body you’re trying to regulate. This is where having an attentive and descriptive instructor really makes a difference, because you need to have something very specific to concentrate on. So, for instance, if you’re trying not to overshoot, there is a physical phenomenon to cultivate- shortening the distance the arm travels. If you’re correcting bad habits, like shifting with your fingers instead of your arm, you have other things to monitor, too. Get yourself out of the habit of activating the verbal part of your brain when you’re practicing. You can assess whether the note is high or low without labeling them as such in your mind. Focus instead on what it feels like to over or undershoot a note. You’re chasing after a physical sensation to hone and repeat, and if you can begin to recall what it feels like to miss, there’s no such thing as a wasted repetition. You’re just sorting things into piles: too high, too low, and right on. Just like in philosophy, learning what “not n” is can be helpful when describing n.

This is why it is so crucial to have an understanding of the actual mechanics involved, and what kind of mistakes are common among well-intentioned students.

Here’s a rendering of a typical shift gone wrong:


To start, let’s address the mechanics of a shift. The fingers DO NOT SHIFT. The arm is what puts the hand in the right position for the notes. That, combined with the spacing of the fingers, is how you account for intonation. Sometimes students get into a habit I call bloodhounding the note, where they start the shift with the arm, but finish by searching out the destination note with their finger. This is a ruinous habit for several reasons:

  1. it’s not exact, therefore making it hard to repeat and hone
  2. it contorts the hand
  3. sounds like hot garbage

Don’t go sniffing for the note with your fingers!

The essential form of the arm/hand system is fairly simple, and should be easy to maintain, especially in 1st through 5th positions. We’re looking for an arm that is low and comfortable, hanging out of the shoulder socket as much as possible, running through a flat wrist and creating an angle between the hand and the fingerboard that is roughly perpendicular. Look at these beauties: Jackie, Natalia, Ron (my man!), and Ifetayo.

The number one problem I encounter with students shifting in lower positions is pronation (rotating the hand backwards/towards the ear). This either bunches or splays the fingers in a dramatic way— in fact some students become pronators when they learn extensions because the splay seems helpful…but it isn’t— and ruins the spacing between the fingers. A backwards rotated hand also allows you to overshift 4th position. A square hand will stop you from coming up and over the shoulder of the cello, while one that is pronated can overshoot into 5th or even 6th.

To emphasize the arm-shift instead of one that is driven by the fingers, imagine that your finger extends all the way back up your arm, through the elbow, into your shoulder. The fingertip is an extension of your arm, and it should move only at the express direction of the larger muscles.

Another tidbit: in positions 1-4, consider the thumb as a part of the arm, not bundled in with the fingers. It’s natural for the thumb to lag behind and act as a speed brake or clamp during a shift. Develop a sense for the movement of the thumb and arm as a unit, starting on small shifts and working your way into larger leaps. The thumb serves the hand, but it is not an anchor. It moves and should be flexible, pliable, and soft on the neck of the cello.

The next enemy that affects your ability to shift is mental resistance. This manifests itself as dread, anxiety, avoidance, unpleasant associations, and thinking of the note (especially if it’s a jump to a higher pitch) as the top of the mountain, as opposed to the next note in line to be played. It takes up valuable energy that could be used to muster calm confidence (in performance) or investigative curiosity (during practice). Breaking this habit takes de-programming and exposure to what scares you most.

To start, look at a piece of new music away from the instrument. Make sure it has some larger shifts, perhaps larger than your current ability level will allow. Pick one, then imagine what the shift might sound like. Don’t worry if you are reading the interval correctly at this point- it’s not crucial for this mental exercise. Now imagine you’re walking on a sidewalk or other level path. The first note is the foot you’re currently on, the second note is the next step. It’s not a jump to the moon- it’s just the next note, the next thing in line, nothing dramatic or athletic. Inside your mind, hear a large intervallic leap (some find an octave easiest) going up and down, back and forth between one foot and the next. The experience of shifting, even over a large distance, is not like jumping into a cold pool. It’s just taking the next step, I promise.

Keep this image in mind as you try the shift without any right hand involvement (no sound and completely without responsibility for note accuracy) on your instrument. This “silent shifting” technique is something my first teacher had me do quite a bit, because my technique would contort in desperate search of the note when my bow was moving. “Note first” thinking is dangerous because it prioritizes individual actions instead of drawing from a reliable stable of trusted techniques that can be applied broadly. Remember, if you’re a student, you’re not learning the piece per se: you’re using the piece to learn how to play the cello. Resist the temptation to ignore the fundamentals as you advance. The further along you go, the more you rely on a rock-solid foundation.

As an aside, many adult students get into a pattern of seeking notes and intonation above all else. While of course these things need to be developed, they cannot be the only priority if you hope to make music. Allow yourself to work on tone, to work on pure technique, even if there are other parts of your playing that suffer while you focus elsewhere. I’ve seen students work myopically on intonation for 10 years and still be unable to play a phrase with musicality. The notes may be in tune, but the product is nonsensical. As Fellini said, “You have to live spherically – in many directions. Never lose your childish enthusiasm, and things will come your way.” Explore the whole instrument, your whole effort as a cellist and musician. Stay humble and curious, and things will, indeed, come your way.

Next post: training your inner ear to recognize intervals. Perfect pitch not required.

Share This Post!

One Response

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on my website.