To form correct cello hand position, the thumb should be placed on the back of the neck opposed from the 2nd finger. The hand forms a curved C shape, with the fingers perpendicular to the strings (Image 1). If students are having problems with correct position, ask them to reach their arm out away from the instrument, touch the 2nd finger to the thumb, then bend at the elbow and bring the hand to the instrument.

The arm weight should be leveraged to help the fingers press the strings to the fingerboard, Correct elbow placement and a balanced hand allows the fingers to push down the strings without the thumb (Image 2). There is a sensation of pulling in a downwards motion toward the chest with the fingers. The thumb should not squeeze the neck, as an upward pushing motion by the thumb is counterproductive to the downward pulling motion of the fingers. The left shoulder should be relaxed and the left elbow should float, with the arm in a “wing” like shape. There should be a straight line from the Elbow to the Wrist to the Pinkie (Images 3 and 4).

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Common left hand position problems for cello

There are a number of problems to watch for and correct in beginning cellists. Providing students with a correct model is essential, as is modeling going from incorrect to correct. (Correct hand position can be seen in Images 1-4 and Image 6).

The Collapsed wrist (Image 5) is a common problem. The collapsed wrist is often caused by the thumb being out of position. If students are persistently playing with a collapsed wrist, place a small piece of Velcro on the back of the neck as a tactile reminder for correct thumb placement. Frequently ask beginners to reach their arms out and form the C-shaped hand.

A Hyperextended Wrist (Image 7) is less common, but can occur if a student is trying to play on the very tips of the finger. Remind students of the Elbow, Wrist, Pinkie line, the C-shaped hand, and to play on the pads of the fingers, with all finger joints relaxed and curved.

If the student has an incorrect Thumb Placement (Image 8) it can cause problems with placement of the fingers.  The so –called “hitchhikers thumb” is fairly common. Students thumbs come in many different lengths so there is no one correct placement,  but the thumb needs to be placed in a way that allows the wrist to be straight, the fingers to be curved and over the fingerboard, and the hand to be balanced.

If students get fatigued they may develop a collapsed elbow (Image 9), where the arm rests against the torso. The sagging elbow will lead to other problems like an overly bent wrist, sloped fingers, incorrect thumb position and a raised shoulder. Have students play the wing flapping game and give them plenty of opportunities to rest their left arms so they can maintain a correct arm position (Image 10). When cellists are not playing they can rest their left arm on the upper bout of the cello, or their left leg.

Sloping fingers (Image 11) are usually caused by the forearm being rotated so the palm is faced towards the ground. The palm should face towards the students chest so that the fingers can be perpendicular to the neck of the instrument.

Students with a lot of tension may play with a raised shoulder (Image 12). Walk behind students and tap them on the shoulder to remind them to relax. Hugging the cello and playing the wing flapping game can help students learn to relax their shoulder.

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Strumming, Tapping and Plucking Games

Strumming, tapping and plucking games help strengthen the fingers of the left hand and develop correct hand position for the student.  

Cellists can participate in the strumming, tapping and plucking games shown in Movie 1.1. These games help develop good hand position, while keeping tension out of the left hand and arm.

The Ants game is excellent for establishing correct hand position and strengthening the fingers. There are three ways to play with game. Pluck each string 4x with the pinkie, Pluck each string 4x with all the fingers together, and Pluck each string 4x, 1x with each finger of the left hand, 4th, 3rd, 2nd, and 1st. Movie 2.2 provides a demonstration of the Ants game for cello.

Basic Shifting Movements

Movie 2.2 also provides examples of basic shifting games for cello. Basic shifting movements can be taught from the first days of instruction when establishing left hand position. The purpose of introducing the basic shifting movements early is to help foster freedom and flexibility in the left hand, and to develop a broad conceptual framework of the fingerboard. These shifting movements will also provide the foundation for developing vibrato. Cellists can participate in the shifting games show in Movie 1.2 for violin and viola. There are three basic positions – first position, neck block, and thumb position. Once these positions have been established, ask students to shift the left hand around the neck while doing these strumming, tapping and plucking games.

Hand Frame

All of the fingers work together. When the second finger is down on the string, so is the first. When fourth finger is down, ALL the fingers are down. This is a very important principle of left hand technique. Play a game with your students to develop this principle. Start with all four fingers down on the same string. Starting with fourth finger (pinkie) lift off one finger at a time, Challenge students to keep fingers close to the string, keep the fingers curved, always above the fingerboard, always working together - these are the foundations that will lead to correct intonation - and the ability to play fast.

Some students will have problems with their fingers hyperextending as they press down - especially with the weaker fingers. They must train their fingers to bend the correct direction.