100 Cello Warm-ups and Exercises Blog 19: Cello Geography -Part 5: Thumb Position and the Upper Registers

Cello Bello Blog - Mon, 2016-02-08 02:00

Blogs #15 and #16 discussed the geography of the lower regions of the cello. In sorting out the “latitude” and “longitude” in this part of the instrument the main organizing principle is the knowledge and use of positions. We identify the positions by the location of the first finger on the string up through Seventh position, with “normal” and “extended” variants throughout. When the first finger is playing the A in seventh position on the A string the thumb is still behind the neck – so this is still considered neck position. Seventh position is a significant place on the cello, because it divides the string into two equal parts, and as a result we find the A harmonic there as well.

After seventh position, the thumb is used as a finger up on the fingerboard. (It can also be used on the fingerboard in the lower part of the cello, and is employed there very often for octaves, double stops and special fingerings, even in literature as far back as Boccherini and Haydn.) When the thumb is up on the fingerboard we call it thumb position. I described the basic outline of the thumb in thumb position in Blog #18 (the “inny and the outy”, the C-shape, the Perfect Fourth between the thumb and the third finger, etc.)

The organizing principles of geography in thumb position are different from those of the neck region. We don’t identify positions in the upper part of the cello. Instead, there are three important techniques for understanding location and for navigating around in the cello’s upper regions.

1. Using nodes and other fixed points for reference

2. Measuring distances:

a) understanding and using intervals

b) the “Configuration of the Hand” across string

3. Using the basic thumb position, as described above, and organizing   the finger spacing with tetrachords

1. Using nodes for reference

We use the harmonic nodes on the cello in the upper positions as a fixed reference in our GPS system to locate where we are. Most cellists are aware of the second harmonic, because that is often used to help tune the instrument. For example, on the A string the second harmonic is the A in seventh position, which divides the string in two parts. (The first harmonic is actually the open string; the second harmonic is also called the first overtone – but rather than confusing things further I will just refer to these as harmonics!). The 3rd harmonic on the A string is the E that divides the string into three parts. The 4th harmonic is the A that divides the string into four parts, and the 5th harmonic is the C# that divides the string into five parts.

Below is a simple chart that shows the most important harmonic nodes. The view here is looking down the cello towards the bridge (bottom up). There are many more harmonics on the string than indicated, but these are the most important nodes to use as points of reference. Naturally these harmonics repeat themselves in mirror image going up the string (but we don’t need them right now for this discussion about thumb position). We need to practice finding these nodes using muscle memory with a certain amount of rote practicing, so that we can locate them easily. The 3rd, 4th and 5th harmonics should become as easily accessible as the 2ndharmonic.

Another piece of information that is useful is to know is what note is right at the end of your fingerboard. Usually it is an F or F#, though depending on the length of your fingerboard it could range from an E to a G.

Once you know where the harmonic nodes are, or knowing what the note is when you put your finger right on the edge of the fingerboard, you can find other notes around by using the second method mentioned above:

2a. Measuring distances – understanding and using intervals

The second important system for understanding the geography of the instrument is to know the distances between notes in different parts of the fingerboard. Basically we measure distances from the node to a note, or from one note to the next. Our unit of measurement is the interval. Unlike the piano, where the distance between half steps remains constant through all 7+ octaves, on the cello a half step (or any interval) gets smaller as you go up the string. This is why it is so important to do scales and arpeggios in all keys in the upper part of the cello – to know and feel the distance of a whole step or a half step, or a minor third or a perfect fourth all over the cello.

Since the basic thumb position involves a perfect fourth between the thumb and third finger, it is important to do exercises for sensitizing this distance all over the cello. A great warmup is to do the Feuillard thumb position scales (#26) and the arpeggios (#27) in every key:

Practicing octaves is important for the same reason, since the octave shape across strings in thumb position is the same as a perfect fourth on one string. Similarly, it is great to practice artificial harmonics to maintain the P4 hand position on one string. So, practicing artificial harmonics is a great way to reinforce octaves, and vice versa. And both are great for maintaining the all-important relationship between the thumb and third finger.

It is critical for cellists to know the sound and spacing of the intervals all over the cello, both on one string and across strings. I like to do whole tone scales and chromatic scales to focus on whole steps and half step distances up the cello.  

    Two other warm-up exercises that I like to do are great to focus on intervals and distances going up a string: an octotonic scale (alternating whole and half steps), and a diminished seventh arpeggio with a replacement fingering to sensitize the distance of the ascending and descending minor thirds.  

Once the intervals are clearly understood, and the hand “knows” the distances in different parts of the cello, we can use this information to find notes related to the nodes.

2b. Configuration of the Hand

Knowing the intervals and distances on one string is vital in understanding the geography of the upper part of the cello. But one still needs to know how notes relate across the strings. For this it is important to understand the intervals that are created when you play two notes on two neighboring strings. I address this with a system that I call the “Configuration of the Hand”, in which we explore all the combinations of the fingers across two strings. Here is a chart with all the combinations of the fingers for playing different intervals. Notice that the fingerings are reversible for fourths and sixths, and for thirds and sevenths (in reading the fingerings, the first number is for the finger is on the lower string, the second number is for the finger on the higher string. For example, 3-1 means 3rd finger on the D string and 1st finger on the A string, producing a P4).  


It is important to know these fingering combinations for playing across strings in the upper part of the cello.

3. Tetrachords

 As discussed previously, it is important that the basic thumb position is stable and consistent. In other words:

  • the octave or P4 relationship between the thumb and 3rd finger must be clear and the intonation solid
  • the “inny and the outy” shape of the thumb must be consistent
  • there should be a C-shape between the thumb and the first finger so that the knuckles are not squashed down
  • the fingers should be round
  • and the fingers should be strong enough so that joints don’t collapse.

The next important step in creating a usable thumb position is figuring out the spacing between the other fingers within the octave (or P4) frame. Since we can play four notes with the four fingers in thumb position (using thumb, 1,2,3) it is useful to identify the various possibilities as tetrachords (four note groupings), giving them names. The most common tetrachords are:

Major:                           W      W      h

Minor:                           W      h       W

Modal (Phrygian):      h       W      W

Octotonic:                     h       W      h

(W=whole step; h=half-step; A=Augmented 2nd)

 Notice the relationship of the first three to the Marys that were discussed in an earlier Blog (#17) – the intervals from the bottom up are the same. All of them are named after the scales that they initiate. The Harmonic Minor Tetrachord is used in minor scales, with an Augmented Second between the 2nd and 3rd fingers:

Harmonic Minor:         h       A       h

We also have Tetrachords in which the interval between the thumb and the 3rdfinger is bigger or smaller than our standard octave or P4. For example the Chromatic Tetrachord, the Lydian Tetrachord (named after scales that begin this way). The Gypsy Tetrachord, and two others are used less often in western music, but they do occur and it is useful to practice them.

Chromatic:                       h       h       h

Lydian (whole tone):   W      W      W

Gypsy:                                W      h       A

                                             W      h       h

                                             h       h       W


I find it helpful to do a variety of different scales in thumb position, recognizing that scales are made up of two tetrachords. In the following chart I present some of the many possibilities of scale systems using thumb position tetrachords. The first three are symmetrical scales, with the same tetrachord on both strings. The others use a variety of combinations of tetrachords. They should be practiced in all keys going up the cello. The ( w ) or (h) in the middle column indicates the interval (whole step or half step) between the third finger and the thumb as we cross strings. In the Locrian, Whole Tone and Octotonic scales the thumb has to move back a half-step during the string crossing. In the Octotonic scale we need to use the 4th finger as well.

Of course sometimes the interval between the thumb and 3rd finger will be much bigger than a P4 (as in the examples of the Locrian, Whole Tone and Octotonic scales above) – often we may need a 5th or a 6th. In playing 10ths across the string, such as in the Haydn D-major concerto, we are playing a distance of a 6th on the top string between the thumb and third fingers, or an octave between the thumb and first finger across the string. Any interval is possible between the thumb and the third finger on the same string, up to (or perhaps more than) an octave. This will be discussed next Blog on the Alexanian exercises.

Analyzing passages in the repertoire using Tetrachords can be very useful. For example, in this passage from the 3rd movement of the Saint-Saens Concerto we can see that there are groupings of Major Tetrachords, Minor Tetrachords, Octotonic Tetrachords and Modal (Phrygian) Tetrachords. The numbers in this example show the fingering patterns; the colored lines show the tetrachords (not the bowings).

In the second half of this passage the thumb works like a percussive finger, lifting each time it moves back. More about this in the next blog (#20) with exercises by Alexanian for the moveable thumb.

A hearty welcome to everyone arriving for auditions! Be good to...

Tumblr - Sun, 2016-02-07 10:00

A hearty welcome to everyone arriving for auditions! Be good to yourselves today!

Snowy Day.

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Snowy Day.

Looking to the future

Exploring El Sistema - Fri, 2016-02-05 14:59
While much of the rest of the East Coast was busy shoveling out from the major snowstorm, twenty Sistema Fellows reunited for a weekend in Boston last month. This was an opportunity for us, all alumni of New England Conservatory’s Sistema Fellows Program, to share our individual experiences since the... Sistema Fellows Program

Friday starts NOW.

Tumblr - Fri, 2016-02-05 09:45

Friday starts NOW.

Breaking | Norwegian Air Announce New Violin-Friendly Cabin Policy

Cello Bello Blog - Thu, 2016-02-04 23:11

Reprinted from The Violin Channel February 4, 2016

Read this wonderful news from the Violin Channel and then go change.org and sign the petition insisting  that WestJet Airlines also adopt Industry standards for accommodating musical instruments. Together we can make a difference – Thank you!

Norwegian Air has today announced a new official cabin-baggage policy – allowing violins and violas to be brought onboard as hand luggage.

The policy change comes after an expose was posted on The Violin Channel on January 20th – which to date has received over 160,000 page views, and more than 400 comments, 3000 social media shares and 15,000 Facebook likes.

“We understand that sometimes you’ll want to bring your instrument with you onboard … if you’re traveling with a larger instrument, such as a violin or a viola, then you can bring this instead of a carry-on bag,” the new policy has officially stated.

“If your instrument’s bigger than 90cm x 35cm x 20cm and you’d like it to travel in the cabin, you must book a separate seat for this,” the new rules have outlined.

The social media furor erupted after an incident in Copenhagen on January 19th where Principal Second Violinist with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Ari Vilhjamsson was informed his violin, valued at over 200,000 EUR (US $220,000) ‘must without exception be stowed in the cargo’.

The Violin Channel’s October 2nd, 2014 coverage of Air Canada’s inconsistent viola policy received over 4000 social media shares, 200,000 page views and 33,000 Facebook likes – leading to the airline also promptly readdressing their stance.

Power to the people.

Rainy day watercolor

Tumblr - Thu, 2016-02-04 10:48

Rainy day watercolor

Getting so excited for our Vixen!

Tumblr - Thu, 2016-02-04 10:00

Getting so excited for our Vixen!

For our morning.

Tumblr - Wed, 2016-02-03 09:30

For our morning.

Sunshine on our face…

Tumblr - Tue, 2016-02-02 11:41

Sunshine on our face…

Ok Campers, rise and shine!

Tumblr - Tue, 2016-02-02 09:00

Ok Campers, rise and shine!

For this gorgeous morning

Tumblr - Mon, 2016-02-01 09:29

For this gorgeous morning

El Sistema for Choruses

Exploring El Sistema - Sat, 2016-01-30 22:29
The qualities central to the El Sistema way—including working in underserved communities, intense focus, high expectations, and joyful learning—are also key aspects of many children and youth choral programs that do not identify as "El Sistema-inspired"… But Grogan and other founders say that El Sistema-inspired choral programs are different in... Sistema Fellows Program

El Sistema: Music for Social Change

Exploring El Sistema - Sat, 2016-01-30 22:19
"This collection of essays, edited by Christine Witkowski [Sistema Fellow '10], offers practical information for those seeking knowledge, inspiration or guidance for adapting El Sistema to widely diverse settings, particularly within the USA. This book explores the voices and experiences of teachers, leaders, parents, and experts from related fields with... Sistema Fellows Program

Kidznotes 2015 annual report

Exploring El Sistema - Sat, 2016-01-30 22:10
"Since 2009, enrollment has grown dramatically from 60 to 330 children who participate, and next year we are poised to take Kidznotes [founded by Katie Wyatt, Sistema Fellow '10] to the next level. In the 2016-17 school year our goal is to serve 500 kids, expanding our enrollment by 200... Sistema Fellows Program

The Ensemble, February edition

Exploring El Sistema - Sat, 2016-01-30 21:58
The February edition of Tricia Tunstall and Eric Booth's publication chronicling the emerging field of El Sistema-inspired activity in the US and beyond is found here. Sistema Fellows Program

Synchrony and Musicality Project

Exploring El Sistema - Sat, 2016-01-30 21:39
Jonathan Govias (Sistema Fellow '10) invites your participation in an El Sistema-related research project investigating the non-verbal interactions of chamber musicians. The study is comprised of of eighteen audio excerpts, none more than about a minute long, to rate on three different criteria. It takes no more than thirty minutes... Sistema Fellows Program

WestJet Airlines: We Challenge Your Policy on Seats for Musical Instruments

Cello Bello Blog - Sat, 2016-01-30 11:32

Edited by CelloBello from the Change.org petition of January 30, 2016

Read this petition and the two blogs below it, and then, please… go to Change.org and sign this petition. We must insist WestJet stop bumping cellists off its flights!

Nathan Chan, a young student cellist at the Juilliard School, was recently prevented from boarding a WestJet flight because he was traveling with his cello – even though he had purchased a ticket for the instrument in advance.

WestJet, whose policy is clearly out of step with virtually all other airlines, refuses to budge, and thus prevents musicians from doing their jobs.

In February 2014, the International Music Federation adopted a regulation facilitating the transport of musical instruments in cabins:

F.I.M. Adopts regulations for musical instruments in cabins

Then, in a December 2014 ruling, The U.S. Dept. of Transportation stated,

“Carriers are required to carry large musical instruments in the cabin if the passenger wishing to carry the instrument in the aircraft cabin has purchased an additional seat to accommodate the instrument […]”:

Musical Instruments as Carry-ons

In light of these regulations, which are followed by virtually every other airline, WestJet Airlines must change its current policy and accommodate for musicians with instruments.

With this petition, I wish to support not only Nathan Chan, a young virtuoso cellist bumped by WestJet, but also every musician around the globe who has experienced horrendous travel problems. WestJet refused to allow Nathan to board even though the instrument had a valid boarding pass that had been purchased and cleared by TSA.

It is my wish that all musicians, locally and globally, are able to travel side-by-side with their treasured instruments. With this petition, we can make a difference, and I ask for your help and the help of all musicians and music lovers worldwide.

Signing the petition takes less than 2 minutes.

If you feel this petition sounds reasonable, vote to support this positive change. Each signature will further encourage WestJet Airlines to take immediate action and change its policy, and to recognize that musicians with instruments are traveling professionals.

On that note, I’d like to thank you each and everyone for reading, signing, sharing/re-posting this petition. Please help spread the word!

A Note from CelloBello: 

We salute Air Canada. They offered Nathan Chan and his cello a flight back to YVR after hearing about his experience with WestJet!

AIR CANADA offers seats at 50% for Musicians’ Instruments

“Purchasing a Seat for your Musical Instrument […] If you wish to purchase a seat for your musical instrument, you will receive a 50% discount on any published fare (including the lowest available fare)* to accommodate the instrument in the same cabin you are traveling in.”

Comments from Change.org signers:

“The first sentence on WestJet’s About Page states: “WestJet was founded in 1996 by Clive Beddoe and a team of like-minded partners, who believed that just because you pay less for your flight, doesn’t mean you should get less.” If this still holds true, WestJet should match Air Canada’s policy of allowing musicians to purchase seats for their instruments. WestJet’s current policy is an impediment to musicians’ livelihoods and alienates a group of people who must travel frequently and who may have become frequent fliers on WestJet had this policy not been in place.”

“Canadian-based WestJet Airlines, to my knowledge, is the only airline with an official policy of not allowing a cello onboard, yet they seem to have no problem selling a seat for a cello and then denying boarding at the gate! Read in the Boston Globe how this happened to me in 2013. The situation has been suffered by cellists numerous times since, the latest being Juilliard student Nathan Chan, who I applaud for fighting back! By contrast, competitor Air Canada recently adopted a a “friendly skies” policy towards musical instruments as cabin baggage, even offering seats at 50%, and in the United States, the Passenger Bill of Rights says that airlines must allow the purchase of a ticket for a cello. Lets send letters of outrage to WestJet! Use your Facebook and social media pages to publicize WestJet’s outrageous behavior.”
– Paul Katz
Cleveland Quartet
New England Conservatory
Artistic Director, CelloBello.com


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Famed Cellist Angry That Canadian Airline’s Policy Banning Cellos from Cabin Still Unchanged

Cello Bello Blog - Fri, 2016-01-29 00:36

Juilliard-trained cellist Nathan Chan says WestJet refused to allow his cello in the cabin during a flight from Vancouver to Toronto earlier this month, even though he bought an extra seat for the instrument.

[Blogmaster’s note: If you are upset after reading this story and want to add your voice, please go to change.org and sign the petition!]

Paul Katz says he is ‘outraged’ after WestJet refused a cello in the cabin during a flight from Vancouver, four years after he received the same treatment.

Reprinted from the Vancouver Metro, January 28, 2016
By Thandi Fletcher

A renowned American cellist says he is “outraged” after hearing that WestJet refused to allow a young musician’s cello in the cabin during a recent flight from Vancouver, even though he bought an extra seat for the instrument.

Nearly four years ago, Paul Katz says he received the same treatment. “I get angry,” he told Metro. “I just think WestJet is so indefensible, and their attitude is so cavalier. They’re just so out of step with the whole airline industry.”

Renowned American cellist Paul Katz is “outraged” that WestJet refused to allow a cello in the cabin during a recent flight from Vancouver to Toronto, nearly four years after he says the airline gave him the same treatment.

Earlier this month, Juilliard School cellist Nathan Chan attempted to bring his cello onto a flight from Vancouver to Toronto but was refused by the airline.

The 22-year-old bought his ticket through American Airlines, which allows passengers travelling with a cello to buy an extra seat for the instrument. When he arrived at the airport, however, he found out that the flight was operated by Calgary-based airline WestJet, and was forced leave the instrument behind with family and forfeit his US$250 ticket for the extra seat. (American Airlines has since reimbursed him for the forfeited ticket after Metro published a story about his experience.)

According to WestJet, the airline is “not licensed to carry anything in our seats that requires a specialized strap or other device to attach it to the seat.”

But Katz argues that WestJet seems to be one of the only airlines in North America with such a policy.

A member of The Cleveland Quartet, a successful but now defunct string quartet, Katz spent nearly 50 years touring the world with his cello in tow.At the height of their touring career, he said he took his cello on more than 200 flights a year, mostly without incident.It was only in 2012, on a WestJet-operated flight from Calgary to Los Angeles, that Katz said he encountered an airline policy that seemed off-key.On that day, Katz had already secured his cello in the seat beside him— the tickets for which he had also booked through American Airlines— when a flight attendant informed him that the instrument would need to be stowed in the cargo hold.Without knowing anyone in Calgary that could hold on to the cello for him, Katz said he eventually agreed to allow the airline to check the instrument.When the plane encountered severe turbulence, Katz said his stomach was in knots throughout the flight, fearing for the safety of the priceless instrument, which was made in 1669. Fortunately, when the plane landed, he said was brought to tears when he opened the case and saw the cello was still in one piece.

“My particular instrument is historic,” he said. “You just cannot take that instrument with that kind of historic significance and leave it to chance. When you own an instrument like that, I think of myself as a caretaker for the next generation. It’s a treasure for humanity and you feel a responsibility to take care of it.” Katz wrote about his experience for the Boston Globe. Soon after, he said he was contacted by an Air Canada flight attendant who told him she was shocked to hear about his experience. She told him that she would take the issue to the airline’s administration and, within a year, Air Canada announced a new policy allowing passengers traveling with a cello to buy an extra seat for their instrument at a 50 per cent discount.In the U.S., an airline passenger’s bill of rights protects passengers wishing to carry a large instrument in the aircraft cabin to purchase an additional seat to accommodate the item.After hearing about Nathan Chan’s experience, Katz said he is shocked that WestJet still hasn’t changed its policy.

“It seems so simple to me that WestJet would just, as a matter of customer relations and its own public image, do the easy thing and change its policy,” he said. “But I don’t know that there are enough cellists in the world to effect a big powerful business like that.”Metro reached out to WestJet about its policy, but the company refused to comment.