100 Cello Warm-Ups and Exercises Blog 15: Cello Geography – Part One: Neck Positions

100 Cello Warm-Ups and Exercises Blog 15: Cello Geography Part 1: Neck Positions — by Robert Jesselson

Learning to play a string instrument means having to figure out where the left hand goes on the fingerboard in order to play the notes. Since we don’t have a GPS system for the cello, most people initially learn where the notes are by knowing the positions. The positions are like the latitude and longitude of the cello, and knowing them can help organize the grid of the fingerboard. Unfortunately many students learn just First and Fourth positions, because then they can play almost all the notes in the lower part of the cello. However, that limits the myriad choices of fingerings that can produce different shifts, slides, string crossings, etc. It reduces the creative possibilities, and it can make it almost impossible to play difficult passages that require the intermediate positions.

As students advance they often forget that the way they initially learned about the fingerboard was through the positions. Sophisticated cellists use their well-developed aural skills, including pitch memory and intervals, as well as their kinesthetic memory. However, I feel that even for advanced cellists it is always useful to go “back to the basics” and revisit our fundamental knowledge of the positions. It is an important piece of information about the cello that should be a resource for improving intonation, relaxation, and discovering new fingering possibilities for various passages in the repertoire. It is especially important for teachers to remind themselves of the positions so that they can teach it properly to the young student.

We generally divide the cello into Neck Position and Thumb Position (though in advanced playing the thumb could be used anywhere on the cello). It is really important to have a good system for identifying the positions in Neck Position. There are several good systems around, but the one I prefer in my teaching – and the one that I use in these videos is the following:

Every position has a normal and an extended variant. Knowing these positions refines our understanding of the cello geography.

I use what I call “block” positions as the initial way to treat the left hand. Block Position means that the fingers are basically perpendicular to the string, and the fingers are all relaxed but down on the string. This square shape of the hand is especially important for double stops, chords, string crossings, and fast playing. It also is a good way to stabilize intonation for the neck positions.  

After the block position concept has been absorbed by the student I begin to address the other way that we use the left hand: balancing on the finger that is playing. This way of playing is preferable for expressive vibrato and for releasing more tension. In this position the arm weight is centered on the finger that is playing. This is especially important for melodic playing on one string.

For each position the elbow is in a slightly different place – it moves forward as you change positions. This becomes really important when we focus on shifting, since the elbow really is what moves first. Even in small ½ step shifts, the elbow moves first and the hand and fingers follow. And even in the extended variants of each position the elbow moves slightly forward. (Next week’s blog will discuss the extended positions).

With my students I make sure that they are very clear about the geography of the Neck Positions before moving on to Thumb Position. Even though most of my students have already played in Thumb Position – and most of them have worked on difficult pieces involving the thumb – if they don’t have a good understanding of the “cello lowlands” then we review that before visiting the “highlands” of Thumb Position. Many people have a special problem with the “Bermuda triangle” of V, V 1/2, VI, and VI 1/2 positions – and especially the extensions in those positions.

In next week’s blog I will discuss extended position and give some exercises for training and re-training this important part of our technique.

About the Author:

Robert Jesselson

Robert Jesselson is a Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina, where he teaches cello and plays in the American Arts Trio and the Jesselson/Fugo Duo. In 2013 he was named as the Governor’s Professor of the Year by Governor Haley and the SC Commission on Higher Education.

Dr. Jesselson has performed in recital and with orchestras in Europe, Asia, South America, and the United States, and has participated in the Music Festivals at Nice (France), Granada (Spain), Santiago (Spain), Aspen (CO), Spoleto (SC), the Grand Tetons (WY), and the Festival Inverno (Brazil). His performance degrees are from the Staatliche Hochschule fuer Musik in Freiburg, West Germany, from the Eastman School of Music, where he studied with Paul Katz, and the DMA from Rutgers where he studied with cellist Bernard Greenhouse. He has been principal cello of the South Carolina Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Orquesta-Sinfonica de Las Palmas, Spain. In 1983 Dr. Jesselson was in China for a six-month residency, one of the first Western cellists to visit that country. During that time he performed as soloist, gave master classes, and taught at several conservatories (including Beijing, Shanghai, and Canton). In December, 2001 he led a delegation of string players and teachers to Cuba to begin professional contact with Cuban musicians. He has also taught at Sookmyung University in Korea, Sun Yat Sen University in Taiwan, University of Auckland in New Zealand, at the Royal College of Music in London and recently in St. Lucia in the Caribbean. His recent CD of new music for cello and piano is called “Carolina Cellobration” and is available on CD Baby and Cellos2Go.

Dr. Jesselson was the national President of ASTA, the American String Teachers Association, from 2000-2002. During his tenure as president he initiated the National Studio Teachers Forums (2000 and 2002), started the National String Project Consortium (with sites now at 44 universities and grants of $3.1 million), and began the planning for the first stand-alone ASTA national convention in 2003. He was the founding Executive Director of the National String Project Consortium, and is currently on the NSPC Board.

Dr. Jesselson is former conductor of the USC University Orchestra and the Columbia Youth Orchestra, and he was the cello teacher at the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts for 17 years. For 15 years he was the director of the USC String Project, building the program into one of the largest and most prominent string education programs in the country. His pioneering work on this program was recognized in an article in the New York Times in December, 2003. ASTA awarded him the “Marvin Rabin Community Service” Award in 2009 for his work with the NSPC and teacher training. He is the recipient of the 2015 USC Trustees Professorship and the 2010 Mungo Distinguished Professor of the Year, the highest teaching awards given by USC. He has also been awarded the 2002 Cantey Award for Outstanding Faculty, the 1992 Verner Award, the 1989 S.C. Arts Commission Artist Fellowship, the 1995 Mungo Teaching Award, and the first SC ASTA Studio Teacher Award in 2005. Next summer Dr. Jesselson will be teaching cello at the Green Mountain Music Festival in Vermont and at the Cellospeak Festival. He plays a 1716 Jacques Boquay cello.

Robert Jesselson website: http://in.music.sc.edu/fs/jesselson/index.html
Articles by Jesselson: http://in.music.sc.edu/fs/jesselson/articles.html