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I just started learning cello for about 40 hours, I am really puzzled about whether my left thumb should press hard on the neck, in the same way pliers clamps something, meaning that the thumb apply the same amount of force as the fore finger pressing the string.

I think it has some effects:

  1. If the thumb apply no force at all, with the other finger pressing the string, the cello body would lean back a little, so between pressing and de-pressing the cello body would bounce, making shifting hard, especial a fifth shift.

  2. If the thumb clamps, vibrato would be hard to do.

And another related problem is the horizontal position of the thumb, do the thumb stay at the same position when playing different strings, or should it be a little left when playing on A string, and a little right on C string?

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"Love your instrument; don't fight it." As the great answer below says (and this applies to any instrument), learn to work with, not against, the instrument. –  Carl Witthoft Jun 2 at 11:38

1 Answer 1

The answer to the main question in the title is :

NO, be firm but as light as possible in your grip !

But it may take time to be achieved, and it does not always come naturally.


Now to the details and the very good points you mention

  1. the bumping cello A cello is quite heavy, and is usually putting most of its weight on the pique and the upper part of your body. So bouncing is not the main trouble once you do not use your hand as a forced clamp to move it : your cello must stay in place when your left hand does not touch it.

    • Beginners usually overestimate the force needed to stop the string. Good strings should even play beautifully when just lightly pulled horizontally and maintained on the fingerboard by the finger's plump part.

    • If you have a teacher, you may ask him to check your position and if your bridge and top nut are correctly adjusted. Sometimes, they are too high compared to the fingerboard level and angle so that stopping strings requires a lot of strength and hurt the fingers, especially when you go towards higher notes. Make sure you have strings with middle or low tension gauge.

    • Take time to play very basic things while experimenting and adjusting your instrument position. When you find one that feels right, organize to be able to play always in the same position, with the same chair, the same pique length and distance, etc. It is mainly so you can focus on teaching your hands and body how to play while in a consistent setup. Of particular importance for the left hand position is that your left elbow and shoulders be confortable when in first positions (index finger on B or Bb on the first string). Make sure that the back part of the cello's neck as well as the pegbox does not touch your body (shoulder or head). It is better for many aspects of playing and sound production.

  2. firm grip and vibrato You are correct, taking the habit of clamping one's thumb is a major problem when learning vibrato, and also quite a problem when shifting positions, because they have to "release" significantly their grip before moving, adding at least two steps to the process and making them stiff. Also about vibrato, taking from the start the habit of clipping your nails short and stopping the strings with the extremity of your arched fingers, not the middle of your last knuckle is essential. Try also to have your wrist as loose as possible, so that it own weight helps you. Usually, by the time you practice vibrato, you will be more confident in your ability to stop the string, you will have integrated position shifting as a natural part of playing and will be able to play with a very light pressure from the thumb.

  3. moving the thumb when changing strings There are several opinions about that. It also depends of the size of your hand, palm and fingers. Shifting one's thumb when shifting from one string to another (without changing position) is not usually taught. It happens naturally anyway, as the hand changes its form, especially if you take care of always having your whole thumb curved towards the index (as if you were making a "C" in front of you with your left index and thumb), which I consider being the best way. Having your fingers drop the most vertically possible on the string is usually a good thing. But I think you are not correct on what you imagine. If you want to move your thumb consciously, your thumb should be a little more to the right of the neck when stopping the A string, and a little more to the left when stopping the C string so that your wrist and palm participate in the move and so that your thumb and fingers are more opposite across the neck. You will have more control, and you are less likely to slip and deform your fingers.

  4. I see some players block their thumb "outwards", very often because they want to apply a lot of pressure on the neck and strings, but doing this is a source of pain and an added difficulty to get to the lower strings, especially in the neck positions, notwithstanding the tension it adds to the other finger of the left hand when extending them. Sometimes this way of using the thumb might be useful when stopping more than one string at at time (guitar "barré" style) to have a fifth chord.

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