By Alex Kelly
Here is a guide to improving pitch accuracy, body alignment, and shifting on the cello by learning the seven points on the fingerboard.
I think we can all agree that obtaining and maintaining pitch accuracy in all positions on stringed instruments is one of greatest challenges for string players. I have addressed this challenge in a progressive method for cello that I call the Seven Points. This new method has two goals: to attain pitch accuracy through a fingerboard-mapping technique; and to facilitate a relaxed, ergonomic style of playing. While this method was conceived for cellists, the principles easily apply to all nonfretted string instruments.
It’s a method that encourages even the most experienced player to look at his or her instrument with a fresh perspective, and it features a meditative warm-up, included here, that can allow a player to attain a new level of relaxation before a practice or performance.
The Seven Points method is based on a simple concept: we divide the string into seven points, corresponding to audible harmonics played by touching the finger to the string without making contact with the fingerboard, and we then use these points to reference all other notes. Just as many beginners use tape on the fingerboard to mark the notes in first position, the seven harmonic points serve as a kind of mental “tape” to guide the cellist in locating pitches.
The idea of dividing the string into proportions—fractions or ratios—can be traced back to the time of the Greek mathematician Pythagoras (c. 582–507 BCE). Through division of the string into whole number ratios, Pythagoras defined musical intervals mathematically. His approach to dividing the string into proportions can be applied to any stringed instrument to create landmarks.
Most cellists do not use the entire fingerboard. The upper positions on the G and C strings are generally avoided due to the tone quality and difficulty of fingering in these regions. While I have mapped these regions for practical purposes, let’s focus on the most commonly used areas of the fingerboard. All seven points are mapped on the A string, five points are mapped on the D string, and three points are mapped on the G and C strings, as shown in Fig. 1.
To get an initial sense of these landmarks, play these harmonic points as a meditative warm-up. Shift very slowly, with your focus on aligned, relaxed positions. Play the harmonic points forward and backward, up and down the string. As you are playing, walk through the following checklists to align your body.
Left-arm position checklist
- Shoulder down
- Elbow up
- Wrist straight
- Knuckles high
- Fingers and thumb are curved in a “C” position, not collapsed
- Left thumb does not squeeze, but is bent and placed slightly to the left of center on the neck
Right-arm position checklist
- Shoulder down and resting at the frog but engaged at the tip
- Elbow down and resting at the frog and opened up at the tip
- Forearm pronated (rotated counter-clockwise)
- Wrist up at the frog and down at the tip
- Right thumb does not squeeze, but is bent and moving on bow changes
- Fingers moving and engaged
Now that your body is aligned to the instrument, engage the position with two steps: inhale and transfer energy all the way from your grounded feet through your legs, back, shoulders, elbows, wrists, and into your fingertips. Then exhale and sink into the strings. This sense of “letting go” or sinking into the instrument takes practice. The breath can be a powerful aid. Inhaling on the up bow and exhaling on the down bow (or vice versa) is extremely helpful. Instead of working hard to produce a huge sound, simply relax and drop the weight of your arms into your fingers. This produces a free, vibrant sound.
Try beginning your practice sessions with a slow, meditative warm-up on the seven harmonic points (Fig. 1). Then practice matching the pitch of the harmonic to the pitch of the stopped note (Fig. 2). Harmonics have a wider range than the stopped note, so find the “sweet spot” where the harmonic rings the clearest before pressing down the string.
If you can play these points with the harmonics and stopped notes, this alone will give you a major confidence boost in the upper positions. A great way to test if you know these points is to take your left hand on and off the fingerboard and randomly play each point with different fingers. Use this “target practice” technique first with harmonics and then with the stopped notes. Cellists of all levels should not feel ashamed to place tape on these points to learn them. (Here’s a tip: buy a roll of thin black pinstriping tape from an auto parts store to mark your fingerboard.)
Mapping the Fingerboard
The next step in mapping the fingerboard is to fill in the notes between each of the seven harmonic points. Fig. 3 shows all of the notes and fingers associated with the ? point on the A string.
After the initial mapping of the fingerboard, the exercises in the Seven Points method become increasingly difficult by mixing up the order of the measures and by combining the strings (Fig. 4).
Mindful, focused repetition is needed to relate each note to the nearest harmonic point. Relaxed shifting and careful attention to body mechanics will help develop positive habits and consistent pitch. The cellist is then “weaned” off of the harmonic and the stopped note is used exclusively (Fig. 5).
The next step is to play the reference point silently before each note (Fig. 6).
By this point in the progression of exercises, the harmonic points have become so ingrained that when they disappear in the final exercises, the cellist can associate any note to the nearest harmonic point without seeing them (Fig. 7).
No note exists as an island unto itself, for it is also found within the context of a key signature and the resulting whole step/half step pattern, or “shape,” of the hand. Included in this method are a number of exercises that relate all of the possible hand shapes to the harmonic points (Fig. 8). The shape exercises are developed in a similar way to the single-note exercises, increasing in difficulty (Fig. 9).
The Seven Points method can be used for multiple purposes. It can serve solely as a meditative warm-up to center one’s core to the instrument before diving into the literature. It can also be used as a reference book to work on the regions on the instrument that are in the same range as a difficult passage that you are working on. Exercises are graded from beginning to highly advanced. A major goal of the method is to relieve the fear of the upper positions and to get cellists playing in the upper positions sooner. My hope is that this map will help beginning cellists blaze the trail through undiscovered territory, help intermediate students solidify pitch in the low register while introducing thumb position, and help advanced students achieve mastery of the upper positions.
This article was originally published in the December 2008 issue of Strings.