Tuesday, March 30, 2010

 

Thumblessness


After several days of consciously NOT using my left thumb on the neck of my cello, a couple of interesting things have become apparent.

This began last Wednesday with my teacher having to remind me dozens of times during my lesson to let go of my thumb, don't push the strings down onto the keyboard, but let the weight of my arm pull my fingers into the strings [later I read a comment somewhere that my wrist should be just high enough above the plane of the fingerboard to allow my curved fingers to move freely on and off the strings].

Since this is a major issue that if not resolved could lead to permanent disabling problems, my teacher told me to just forget about making progress in my current lesson pieces for a while, and focus instead on relearning how to finger the notes. I could use my lesson pieces if I wanted for practicing the new fingering, but I should not worry about tempos, and I should just slow down if I hit any tough parts.

I started out the first day with scales, slowly. As long as I kept my attention on my thumb, it was OK, but as soon as my attention drifted to note quality, my thumb gradually "wandered" back to the neck. I fixed it and kept going, though. Then I moved onto my current etudes [slowly] and a few random pieces I've been studying lately. By the end of my third practice I was able to not have to concentrate so hard on things thumb.

Since then, it's become almost "normal" to not use my thumb! It didn't take nearly as long as I'd feared to get used to it. So now I only touch the back of the neck when I shift beyond third position, and then only lightly to properly "locate" the hand. That's not to say I haven't still found myself starting to grip again once in a while - these mostly happen when I try to master a passage way too fast and then stress about it.

Last night at orchestra, I was able to play our pieces thumbless...

What's really surprising to me is how much more accurate my extensions are. When I was thumb-locked, I would lock my thumb into place on the neck and try to roll the rest of my hand forward or backward to reach the extended note - seldom far enough. Now I still keep my hand in the appropriate place and I still extend for the note with the first (or fourth) finger, but I let my hand go with the extended finger enough to ensure the notes are accurate.

The same goes for shifts. Rather than barely releasing my thumb just enough to let it slide hard back and forth with each shift (which, of course, led to crappy shifts), I'm focusing more on where the fingers should be going and just going there. I still haven't played anything very fast, and I am slowing it down for the trouble spots, but my thumb isn't sore after practicing, so I must be doing something right.

The other thing that's different is how the notes "feel" as I play them, pulling down into the strings instead of pushing down onto them. They seem to sound rich and pure.

This is kind of exciting. I feel like I've learned a new skill.

Comments:
That is exciting, indeed. Go, you!

This is one thing I took away from my recent Emily lessons: Just Do The Thing. We can amaze ourselves with the speed of progress once we give up our need to focus on the piece and instead focus on The Thing.

If only I could remember that consistently!
 
Another advantage about thumblessness --- Go back to the Breval Sonata and try those trills with a relaxed, completely non-pressing thumb thumb; relaxed all the way down to the base (which extands almost down to the wrist). I'll bet you'll find trills easier.
 
Funny you should mention it, Terry - I actually picked up the Breval this weekend, but quickly realized I'll have to do a lot of refreshing before I can tackle those trills.
 
This is so very confusing. I keep reading things that say you should never play without the thumb, and now I read this and it appears there's no detriment to playing without.

I have to relearn my fingering. I started playing with my fingertips, but my instructor said that was wrong and insisted I play with fingerprints. Now I'm told that's wrong and I should be playing with fingertips. It would be so much easier if everybody would just make up their mind and stick with it.

Still, thank you for posting this. I think I will try to remember to try it and see if I am more relaxed and how my sound quality is.
 
Before the internet we had only on our teachers and lesson books to rely on for technical advice. With the internet we're seeing lots of conflicting advice about almost everything related to cello playing and technique. For example, my teacher advises using rosin sparingly, while David Finckle, in his "Cello Talks" promotes extensive rosin use...

The main reason I am having to learn to play 'thumbless' is because I acquired the damaging habit of gripping the neck with my thumb so tightly. My teacher had told me many times over the past several years to "relax my thumb", but until the recent advent of significant pains in my thumb I simply hadn't taken it that seriously. I probably wouldn't be having to learn this thumbless approach if I'd been able to just relax it more.

One thing I've noticed from watching various performing cellists, is that there is no standardized style or technique - that goes for posture, bow hold, fingering, vibrato, and so on. Each performer has developed his/her particular techniques after years and years of practice. But for us novices, we can't really know what works best for us individually, we just have to trust our teachers' recommendations.
 
Since there's already so much disagreement on the Internet, please indulge me while I add a little more. I find, when you look at the basics, there's actually a lot of agreement and similarity between cellists, considering there's so many thousands of cellists, separated by countries and traditions and "schools" of thought and musical styles. Somehow, you can sense right away from how one moves, when someone is at home behind a cello.
 
I should have been more specific. I was thinking mostly about postures when I wrote this last comment. Compare, for example the way Yo-Yo leans so far back in his chair and the way he holds the cello compared to someone like, say Armen Ksajakian, who seems to wrap his whole body around his cello. Or Alisa Weilerstein, who holds the cello more vertical, with the scroll high above and in front of her head. Some cellists use bent endpins, etc., etc.

You are absolutely right, Terry, that there are certain basic techniques that all cellists need to attain in order to make these oddly shaped wooden boxes sound any good at all. As we all struggle to advance from our initial clumsy scratchings (who doesn't remember their first sounds?) to master those basics, we each have to find our own path - what works best for us.

I recall a posting by one of us cellobloggers several years ago about how learning the cello was a process of two-steps forward, and one-step backward. As soon as you think you've learned a technique, you are then told it is all wrong and shown how to do it properly. But until you've first learned it the wrong way, you cannot possibly be ready to learn how to do it right.
 
that was me that posted about two steps forward, then one back. And I wholeheartedly agree with your next-to-last last sentence. This process has been a continual one of learning and revising and refining. I'm glad to hear that your left thumb pain is going away. I've been trying to get rid of right thumb pain. I ended up redoing my bow grip yet again, but this time it seems like I might have found a good bow hold that works for me without pain. It was really painful practicing through the months it took to fix, but the reward is a much better sound, better control, and a much happier thumb!
 
Hi Guanaco! I´m sure you´ll be very surprised when I tell you where I live.. I´m a 37 year old Venezuelan girl who finally, after many, many years, took the decision of learning how to play this magical instrument that caresses my soul every time I listen to it..I dream every day whith playing my cello. I allready have a teacher, and I´m looking forward to buying my own this month!! I found your bloggsite in the internet today, and it´s very inspiring. Thank you very, very much for those articles about adult beginners!! I promise I´ll keep in touch and inform you about my cello baby steps!!!
 
Oh, okay. Well I guess I'll leave in the thumb play. I don't have problems with my thumb. I have problems with my pinkie so I stopped pressing hard, but my instructor said I needed to press harder. I started pressing harder, and my pinkie started hurting again, so I stopped pressing harder. Not sure what to do other than not press too hard.

I only find myself gripping with my thumb when all of my other fingers are tense. It's like my entire hand tenses up and I have a really strong hold on the cello, and that's when I notice my thumb is holding on for dear life.
 
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