How to make the challenge of creating fingerings fascinating and enjoyable

In the world of the cello, it’s no secret that good playing requires good fingerings. But how can you decide what distinguishes a good fingering from a bad one, and what criteria can you use to figure out the best possible fingering solution? Find the answers by following a simple set of steps.

A discussion of cello fingerings is largely a discussion of when and where to shift (along with which finger to shift to and from, which position to shift to, and on which string). Since there are both technical and musical reasons for shifting, you can further divide the criteria for good fingerings into these two categories as well.

Most situations involve both musical and technical reasons for shifting, but it is useful to keep their different purposes distinct in one’s mind.

I have identified the 13 most common and—most important—technical criteria for shifting to the right. These criteria can also be broken down further into fast technique and slow technique.

Fast technique is about such things as precision and accuracy, cleanliness, and articulation, and it usually involves playing closer to the tips of the fingers.

Slow technique, on the other hand, is more about a beautiful tone and vibrato, imitating the portamenti, sustain, and the language of the human voice, and it generally involves playing more on the pads of the fingers.

In most cases, for technical shifts, violating one of the following criteria has a cost in terms of the amount of effort involved, the time it takes, and the degree of accuracy that is likely to result. Once you’ve determined the best fingering given these criteria, make sure to mark it in your music with a pencil—you wouldn’t want to do the work twice!

Technical Considerations for Fingerings

The criteria are not listed in order of importance.

  1. Select a combination of positions that minimizes the number of shifts.
  2. Select a combination of positions that minimizes the size of the largest shifts.
  3. In fast technique, try to shift on the stronger beats whenever possible.
  4. Shift at a half-step wherever possible.
  5. Avoid awkward string-crossing patterns.
  6. Favor stronger fingers over weaker ones.
  7. Avoid playing only one note in a given position whenever possible.
  8. Try to avoid using the same finger to play two adjacent notes in different positions on different strings.
  9. Shift between phrases whenever possible.
  10. Shift to avoid successive perfect fifths.
  11. Shift during an open string (or a harmonic) whenever feasible.
  12. Select regular positions over extended positions.
  13. Minimize the number of times that you change finger spacings.

In real life you’ll almost never choose a particular fingering based on only one criterion. Once you know these criteria, you can spend the rest of your life figuring out how best to prioritize them in any given passage of music.

Musical Considerations for Fingerings

In addition to technical considerations for fingerings, there are musical considerations:

  1. To purposefully create audible shifts for expressive purposes;
  2. To add variety and interest;
  3. To fit the sound’s color to the musical line;
  4. To make the shifts inaudible;
  5. To prevent the musical line from suffering or being disturbed.

These musical considerations apply mostly to slow technique. In fast technique, a player tends to shift more often for technical reasons.

The degree to which each musical priority applies is completely dependent on, and can vary considerably with, the musical context and the performer’s interpretation and intentions. Musical priorities can and should “trump” the technical criteria at any time.

Apply the Criteria

Before you start writing your own fingerings, you may want to study carefully the fingerings of others. Sure, we have all played other cellists’ fingerings, but have you ever considered alternate possibilities and why this cellist thought this particular fingering was the best?

The first step toward accomplishing this is to understand the aforementioned criteria. The next step is to systematically consider all possible fingerings for any given passage. In order to do this, one must consider:

  • All possible locations for every shift;
  • The possibility of using each of your five fingers before and after the shift;
  • Playing the notes on as many of the four strings as possible.

To ensure that you have considered all possibilities for a passage, take each note in turn and systematically consider the ramifications of trying to play that pitch with each of your five fingers and on as many of the four strings as possible.

You might be saying to yourself that, even for a short excerpt, the number of possibilities would run into the tens of thousands, and you would be correct. But you can quickly rule out any fingerings that would truly have no desirable qualities at all.

Make Your Mark

You must learn to mark your fingerings well and clearly. If you come up with a good fingering that you might forget, you should mark it. If you miss a fingering more than once, then mark it, or, if it was already marked, mark it better or more clearly! Also, be sure to specify the string if there could be any doubt at all! Many cellists neglect to do this.

The fingerings you derive by just looking at the music, but not playing it (like solving a puzzle) are sometimes quite different from what you devise while playing. You should use the fingerings you favor while playing the cello. Likewise, the fingerings you devise while playing music from memory are sometimes quite different from those you devise while playing and reading the music. Trust the fingerings you devise when you practice from memory.

Favor the fingerings that make you sound best at that point in your life, but always strive to expand your viable options.

Practice extending between fingers other than first and second, or work on double extensions, or pivots, all while playing various etudes and exercises during your warm-up routine. Also work on what I call “quasi-shifts” (half extension, half shift). Increase your finger strength and independence.

There will be times when you have to make up fingerings as you go (such as when you’re sight-reading). In these cases, it is very useful to have practiced using some unconventional fingerings.

Keep your mind open to all the possibilities. Get in the habit of weighing the merits of at least two fingering solutions for any given passage. You may be astonished at the brilliant fingerings you end up discovering!