I've played viola for several years, and I'm starting to learn cello.

On the viola, I can use my 4th finger to play the same note as the next highest open string. We do this for convenience or the difference in tone, or to reach a higher note on the A string. I don't mind playing open strings on cello, though I know some people don't like them.

But there is a particular song that is all in first position except for a single E I need to play on the A string. Right before that I have to play a B, so there's no real way to shift up ahead of time, and whenever I try to shift or extend my hand everything gets way out of tune and I can't get back for a while.

I also have a really short pinky and sometimes it hurts just to play with it in first position, so extending it is not possible. How is this kind of shift normally done? I also tend to shift around my second finger, not my first if that matters, and the song is Battle Cry of Freedom.

  • I'm looking at sheet music for battle cry of freedom and I don't see a single higher pitch, regardless of key. Without seeing the music it's hard to say specifically, but from what you've described I would shift to fourth pos. On the preceding B (3rd finger D string), then 1st finger A string for the E, then come back down the A string when returning to 1st pos. For 4th pos. The thumb should basically be in the saddle with 1st finger directly opposing it.
    – MAA
    Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 14:22

2 Answers 2


Just like there's more than one place to play the open string notes, there's more than one place to play most notes. For example, you said that one of the difficulties of playing the high E is that you have to shift immediately right back down to play a B, but actually if you play that B on the D string it won't be that hard. Just play the high E with your first finger on the A string (we call that fourth position) and then—without shifting—you should be able to play the B on the D string with either your third finger or with an extended 2nd finger. We cellists actually spend a lot of time up in fourth position. I would recommend practicing a lot of fourth-position scales and practice getting in and out of that position. It's possible that you could play a lot of the notes there, and save the shift for easier places in the music.

By the way, although you should work to strengthen your fourth finger, it would not be normal technique on cello to use it to stretch all the way up to an E on the A string while staying in first position. Very few cellists have hands large enough to make that extension. We do stretch up to the D#/Eb fairly often, but not all the way to E. Instead, we tend to shift up to get it. That's one of the big differences in left-hand technique on cello vs violin/viola.

  • The problem is playing in a higher position on a lower string has a different tone, which I don't like as much
    – cat40
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 16:18
  • 1
    True, there's a brighter sound when playing on the A string as opposed to the D string, but sometimes playing the line fluidly supersedes the relatively subtle timbral difference. If there's a huge difference in the sound however, I'd suggest that you start working on that: the difference is real, but shouldn't be massive. Anyway, if all-A-string brightness is required for every note, you will have to use fourth finger in second position or maybe third finger in third position in order to play the E. it will take lots of practice to smoothe out the sound of shifting. @cat40 Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 16:24

Without seeing the music I can't be sure but it sounds like you have a very difficult jump to make in the music.

I would encourage you to practice changing positions on cello: It will greatly help you in the future to be able to change position without going out of tune.

Playing open-string notes on the string below is encouraged because of the afore mentioned quality of tone, which is considered very important for cello. It also allows the use of vibrato on that note, however this is mostly used when playing solo. In an ensemble vibrato tends to lead to a lower overall clarity.

Being a double bassist, I cannot say much else about cello (having only played it a few times to various degrees of success... Curse you and your strings tuned in fifths!), however I would encourage you to play notes on lower strings when possible. It may be the case that an open string is needed in this particular piece of music.

On a side note, doing exercises to increase the strength of your little finger would help to reduce this problem, since most of these notes would be played with that finger.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.