How to build strength and flexibiltiy for a truly agile left hand with Adriana Larosa Ransom, profesor of cello and string project director at Illinois State University, US
For cellists, finger independence is a critical skill to develop actively – it won’t necessarily just evolve on its own. Without it, you will struggle to play chords and fast passages; you will also have trouble with left-hand agility, intonation and left-hand pizzicato; and you will struggle to produce a beautiful vibrato on every finger. To develop independent fingers successfully, you will need to work on left-hand mechanics and finger strength, with really round, arched and strong fingers and a relaxed thumb.
To build up basic finger strength, begin with some finger push-ups. Resting your fingertips down on the string or on a hard surface such as a table top:
- lift one finger from the base knuckle, curved and poised to strike the string or surface
- release the finger so that it strikes the string or surface with strength and precision
- repeat with t5he other fingers, focusing on the pulling and releasing motions
Another really effective way to loosen up the hand and build left-hand finger strength and independence is to spend five minutes a day working on left-hand pizzicato. This will also help you to develop a good hand position, because you won’t be able to pull the string successfully unless you curve your fingers in the right way.
Christopher Bunting’s book Essay on the Craft of Cello-Playing contains many useful left-hand pizzicato and finger-independence exercises:
- Work on strengthening all four fingers in exercise 1, using varying finger patterns: 1234, 1324, 4213, 3124, and so on.
- In exercise 2, articulate the ‘!’ notes with a strong striking motion of the left hand. Hold those fingers down as you play the open-string left-hand pizz.
- Notice how both exercises automatically encourage mobility in the elbow and require you to use a good natural hand and arm shape.
- If you are worried about tension in the left hand when you practise them, or you think you are gripping too hard, try playing them with your thumb away from the neck.
Trills are another fantastic way to build finger strength and agility. To begin, practise exercise 3, then try the more complicated finger patterns in exercise 4. Play them mindfully and not too fast, with good intonation; then increase the speed, keeping your fingers strong and round, and concentrating on the feeling of working evenly from the base knuckles.
There is so much material available for working on trills that you should never get bored! You will find pages of examples in Feuillard’s Daily Exercises, Klengel’s Daily Exercises and Cossmann’s Studies for Developing Agility for Cello.
Finger independence exercises
These exercises are puzzles for the left hand, and they require great coordination and concentration. They can be quite addictive to practise! Exercise 5 is written in harmonic cadences and so more pleasing to the ear than some of the other options. You can also try exercise 6, in any position and on any string.
If you want to try some more challenging exercises, I would recommend the Cossmann trill studies, where you will have to play simultaneously in different rhythms on different strings. Other good examples can be found in the Bunting, Klengel and Feuillard books.
It is vital to have good finger strength and independence in order to be able to play the chords and contrapuntal writing in Bach’s Cello Suites. For example, try applying the ideas in this article to the first minuet of Bach’s D minor Cello Suite (example 1).
Even harder is the cadenza from Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, written with counterpoint in thumb position so that you have to play the melody with your upper fingers and the counter melody with your lower fingers, both at once (example 2). You will need to have strong, tall and round fingers to play these passages without disturbing your other strings.
In Britten’s Cello Suite op.72 (example 3) you will also need good finger strength and independence, in order to play all the left-hand pizzicato – something which becomes increasingly common in 20th- and 21st-century works.
In your practice
Devoting just a few minutes of your practice to finger strength, finger independence and finger agility each day will yield good results; however, take care not to over-tire your left hand. In Bunting’s book and others, you will find instructions to play two lines, then to rest and shake out your hand before you play two more. Alternatively, you could practise these exercises intermittently across a whole session, to avoid spending too many minutes on them at a time.
Even when you feel you have a good level of finger strength and independence, keeping them as a part of your daily warm-up will help you to check that all the mechanics of your left hand are working correctly. It’s good maintenance.
Tips for teachers
Make sure your students know they shouldn’t spend too much time on finger independence work, and that they focus on exercises that are of an appropriate level. It is important to be sensitive to each individual’s hand size, finger length and strength: you can’t just give them an advanced exercise and expect them to be able to do it if they haven’t built up enough finger strength already.
If they have a short or weak pinkie, give them exercises to help them address it. It’s not going to get better if you avoid it. Some students will just have to work harder to make sure that all their fingers are strong.
There are so many exercises available to train finger independence that I find it useful to have a big stack of them on hand when I am teaching, so that I can point students to the right place and they don’t have to play the same studies so many times that they become mindless, boring drudgery. A lot of them are freely accessible on IMSLP, so it’s easy to keep inspiring students with new, fun finger puzzles that they have to work out.
I teach a lot of young and beginner cellists, and I find that finger independence exercises can make a big difference for their finger shape and strength. Particularly on the cello and the double bass, even to play a one-octave scale takes a lot of effort when the student is eight and not yet sure what they are doing – especially if they don’t have a nice instrument and start to get into bad habits, collapsing their fingers and squeezing with the thumb just to try to press the string down. I start using some of Bunting’s left-hand-only pizzicatos with students as young as ten years old. Even the beginners can do left-hand pizzicato on open strings
Klengel’s Daily Exercises volume 1 (not to be confused with his three-volume Technical Studies books) is a great resource for training finger independence. It is available on IMSLP.
Bob Jesselson has compiled a series of isometric exercises to help build finger strength. You can see his videos on Cellobello at bit.ly/2IGu0zI
INTERVIEW BY PAULINE HARDING