Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Thumb play

I've started using my thumb again. After spending the last few months relearning how to play without using my left thumb at all, my teacher told me at my last lesson that it was time to start letting it "touch" against the neck once more. But I had to make sure that I kept it loose and not go back to squeezing it again; and to remember to let the hanging weight of my arm pull my fingers down onto the strings to stop the notes. Also, it is important not to forget how I've been holding my cello without my thumb (more pressure with the knees, etc.)

I realized that I had to come up with some sort of mental reminder to constantly assess what my thumb is doing - for example, each time I change strings or shift positions, mentally check to make sure that my thumb is loose and not pressing against the neck. [Another thing to learn to do while not thinking about doing it...]

The first thing I noticed was that I was able to play those sixteenth notes in the second part of the Vivaldi piece faster, cleaner and more accurately. (Although it was really hard not to let myself start squeezing again.)

Since that was my last lesson until July, my teacher left me with several new assignments. First, the next part of the Vivaldi piece - another Largo, in tenor clef and 12/8 time. Then, two more etudes in Percy Such targeting upper positions on the G and D strings. Also a piece by Rudolf Matz, Andante and Rondo for cello and piano - this one has some parts that go up into fifth position. Finally Suite Francais by Paul Bazelaire. I'm starting with the second part, "Chanson d'Alsace" - also in tenor clef.

It's so cool to be working on so many new things at once. Of course, I am trying to follow my regular study plan: [first clapping all the rhythms with the metronome and figuring out string crossings and shifts; then identifying all the other tricky parts. Next, after familiarizing myself with all this, I'll start playing pizzicato, slowly, measure-by-measure, until it begins to make sense. Finally, when my fingers "know" the piece, I'll take up my bow and go back and slowly work through each measure using both hands.]
(Writing this out each time helps remind me what doing.)

After trying out a set of Passione A & D strings for a few months, I got frustrated with a certain hollowness in the sound and ordered some Larsens from Cellos2Go. The improvement was welcome.

I'm excited for you!
The thumb has been one of my problems too, and for a long long time. But if I understand your blog correctly, you are making improvements very fast! Good luck with your Vivaldi, which piece is it? And enjoy your new strings, it's always heavenly to have new strings, I think. Have you ever tried gut strings, by the way?

Best wishes from a cellist from the Netherlands :-) xMM

My cello page in (my version of) English can be found here: http://martinemussies.nl/site/music/cello.html
I was interested in your reaction to the Passione A and D strings. I've had mine on for several months, too; they remind me a lot of Jargars and they have the nice characteristic of staying in tune through a lot of playing. Like you, I love the special sound of the Larson A and D and will probably go back to them at some point. I do like the Passione's for Bach Suite playing. I have Belcanto Soloists on the G and C: what lower strings are you playing with right now?

I'll be interested to hear how you like your new pieces, the Rudolf Matz, "Andante and Rondo" for cello and piano and the Suite Francais by Paul Bazelaire. I have a recording of the Suite Francais, I love the music, and would like to learn it. The Matz piece I don't know, but I like the Matz etudes and duos that I have played.

I've been meaning to say this for a long time: thanks for a great cello blog. It's been helpful to me so many times.
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Saturday, April 10, 2010


Aligned again

As I was getting out of bed the other morning I rolled onto my left hand and heard / felt a sharp "crack" at the base of my thumb. All the pain I'd been feeling in my thumb for the last few months was gone, just like that! It hasn't come back.

I'm guessing that there must have been some triggering event earlier this year that caused the misalignment - probably aggravated by all those years of the cello death grip. It took a few days of Ibuleve (thanks E for the tip!), applied generously to my thumb, to relieve the inflammation enough for the spontaneous realignment to occur.

Maybe I should have gone to a chiropractor.

I will continue playing thumblessly until I've completely broken the habit.

As an adult beginner, I enjoy your blog. I have problems with my joints but I figure that I am just arthritic and clumsy. LOL.
Ouch, super ouch...but at least the pain is gone.
Dear god...
You play thumblessly? How long have you been at it?

I must commend you because playing without the use of your thumb is quite an acheivement but the damage it can leave is permanent.

My suggestion is that you play with your thumb on your neck. It's not supposed to hurt you to play to the point where you have to seek medical attention.

Stylistically, i suppose i can see where this might help you but it's not all that great for your vibrato.

I've been playing for five years and i know that you cannot acheive a warm, round, vibrato, by not using your thumb. Without your thumb more pressure goes to your fingers and you have to work more with your joints.

Use your thumb and clasp your finger on the string gently enough to put the string to the fingerboard. Make a full bow and roll your wrist forward and backward on the tip of your finger. This will help to strengthen your vibrato and overtime your fingers overall.

Whatever you do, use your thumb and keep it on the neck.

With the exception of the thumb position as you work your way into the upper register (if you are not there yet)

In the meantime, nurse your thumb back to health.

Plus, it might be a good idea to ask your teacher if your bridge is too high.
To see a very high level, Grammy-winning professional demonstrate playing without left thumb touching the cello, see talk 80 at http://vimeo.com/channels/davidfinckelcellotalks/page:1

If it's ok for him to do some, and demonstrate to the world, and even recommend it if helpful to get a clean sound, then I think Guanaco is doing just fine. The thumb is useful in left hand balance but should never be used to oppose finger force.
My teacher has been encouraging me to let go of my thumb- with the goal of better intonation, and she is completely correct! Works for me in the lower positions. OTOH, I agree that you really need your thumb for vibrato. So it's not one of those hard and fast rules, but something to try, and use when appropriate.
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Wednesday, April 07, 2010


Weight and Balance

I've continued to work on playing thumblessly, and I've reached the point where I no longer have to keep reminding myself about it. In fact, I now have to remind myself to go ahead and let my thumb touch the base of the neck as part of going to 4th position - then of course to let go again. The pain on the inside base of my thumb is still there, but nowhere near as bad. I've been "treating" it with ice/heat/analgesic salves and so on. I recently acquired a certain anti-inflammatory gel from xxxxxx which has really been helpful [too bad it's not available in our great country; maybe our new health care system will rectify that...] Best of all, playing (thumbless) does not aggravate it.

At my lesson today we started out playing a few scales, which led to a discussion about appropriate hand shapes. I then pulled out two Russian pieces I've been working on for the last month or so. [My teacher found these in her files and gave them to me to work on since I'd had so much fun with Tchaikovsky's "Chanson Triste". All the text was in Russian, so we had no idea what they are called or who composed them. A challenge! I eventually contacted one of Y's coworkers, who came here from Russia many years ago. She told me one piece is just titled "Romance" (no composer was listed), and the other is called "Kantilena", by Alexander Gideki, an early 20th century Russian pianist/organist.] The melodies are not very complex and both pieces are 'andante' and mostly stick with quarter and eighth notes, but they both make extensive use of third and fourth positions on the G and D strings, which is just the right thing for me right now.

I'd only begun to learn these 'the old way' so it wasn't very difficult to go back and start over thumbless. I'm almost at the point where I can start thinking about presentation - the rhythms and tempo are fine, the intonation is good, the shifts are almost all OK. So we spent quite a bit of time discussing how to play it, where to emphasize, where to use 4th, where to play in 1st, etc.

We talked a lot about keeping the left hand fingers loose unless they're actually playing. It's OK to let them rest on the string (if appropriate), but weightlessly. The weight of my arm can then be focused only on the finger that is playing. I'd been trying to "think" this as well as the thumbless thing, but not very successfully yet. She suggested I think about vibrating (even if I don't). But more importantly, keeping the weight and balance on just that one finger makes my hand flexible and it makes it a lot easier to do extensions or change positions.

Funny how we're both dealing with the same issue, yet a very different manifestation, at the same time. I, too, am working on weight focused on only one finger at a time, but one of those fingers happens to be the thumb. On notes other than the A-D line. Same issue, just on five fingers rather than four, so expect to re-visit this issue a couple of year down the line.
Just letting the fingers rest on the string when not in use is an interesting concept to try. I know all the instructors I have had tend to stress pressing down with all fingers (I have a tendency not to do that at all on violin so it carried over to cello). I do think not having the weight on all the fingers will make shifting easier as well.

Your instructor sounds very knowledgeable. Once I get through book three of my current cello studies I hope to be able to find a good instructor where I live so that I can continue to progress.
Thanks Guanaco - you've given me hope. My left thumb problem means I will have to learn to play differently, and it's good to know that's possible!
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