Tag Archives: position names

Sensible Position Names for Cello

I’ve always felt that if I can’t understand something myself, I can’t really use it as a musician, and I certainly can’t teach it. This is how I’ve felt for a long time about the standard position naming system for the left hand on cello.

The system widely in use, for example in the Suzuki Method, by Samuel Applebaum in the Beautiful Music series, by Rick Mooney in all his otherwise excellent books, is totally mystifying.

I’ve been using my own system of sensible position names with my students for about 10 years now, with much success. When we talk about positions, I get a smile and a nod of real comprehension, rather than the uh-huh and dull eyes of non-comprehension. I even get laughs as my intermediate students read the standard position names written in their music, translate them immediately to their sensible names, and ask jokingly “Why would they ever call that fourth position??!”

I took some photos of my left hand on the cello fingerboard (actually, my wife was the photographer), and illustrated the sensible names for the positions on one sheet. I then notated all the fingering possibilities for the first 6 positions on the A and D string. Finally, I correlated the sensible position names to their first introduction in the Suzuki books for cello, volumes 1 – 3. That way, a teacher or student can easily look up the sensible name for a position when it’s first introduced in the excellent sequenced repertoire of the Suzuki method. This pdf is available for download here.

A little more about why the standard system is confusing: [Warning: this will get a little technical.]

“Second Position” seems to describe a range of possible positions. Not particularly helpful for aspiring cellists. For example, it can mean the position where the 1st finger falls on C on the A string, or the position where it falls on C#. “Third Position” seems to refer to the position where the 1st finger falls on D on the A string, and “Fourth Position” to the position where 1st finger falls on E. What then should we call the position where 1st finger calls on D#? Is it “Third Position?” Is this same position called “Fourth Position” when the note is spelled Eb in the key? I wouldn’t wish this conundrum on my worst enemy. Maybe there’s a key to understanding what’s going on, and I just don’t get it. If there’s a cellist out there who gets it, please help! In the meantime, I’ll be using my sensible position names.

De-Mystifying the Cello Fingerboard!

The first through fourth positions are presented to progressing cellists to aid in establishing a mental map of the fingerboard.  The development of such a map is an excellent pedagogical goal; however, I have found the positions to be more hindrance than help, both in my own study of cello and in teaching.  The problem lies in the nomenclature: there is an underlying irrationality to the numbering convention that mystifies instead of clarifies the fingerboard.  Here I explore the cause of the problem, and present an improved alternative nomenclature drawn from my experience with the violin and the guitar.

The first through fourth positions on cello are problematic for two related reasons.  The first is the issue of arbitrary-seeming duplicates.  This is a stumbling block for many young cellists.  Why is there only a single first position, but two second positions– low and high?  The second reason is enharmonics.  For beginning cellists, the position names on the A string seem to be derived from a diatonic scale — D Major.  A reliance on a particular diatonic pattern to understand the numbering convention leads to confusion in keys with flats however, since for example in the key of Bb there is no first position on the A string— it just gets skipped over.  Another example of this is the position on the A string where the first finger falls on D# / Eb.  The conventional name ‘high third position’ makes sense in a key that ascends diatonically A, B, C#, D, E.  However, in the key of Bb this position would more intuitively be called ‘low fourth position’, since the diatonic pitches ascend Bb, C, D, Eb, F.

In contrast to the cello, the violin positions feature a correspondence between finger number in first position and upper position name, and thus the nomenclature is more intuitive.   Take again the A string as an example.  In first position, because the second finger is responsible for either C or C#,  it makes sense that there would therefore be two possible second positions: low and high.

Looking at the cello nomenclature through my guitarist-eyes,  I am immediately mystified.  Attempting any position nomenclature on guitar beyond a simple chromatic ordering of positions corresponding to frets one through twelve would be irrational.

Taking these observations from violin and guitar and applying them to the cello fingerboard suggests two requirements for a better alternative.  First, there should be correspondence between the finger numbers in first position and the higher position names.   Second,  the basis must be universal chromaticism rather than a particular (and therefore arbitrary) diatonic scale.

The following system meets the above two requirements (A string):

1 on Bb:  Half Position
1 on B:  First Position
1 on C:  Second Position
1 on C#:  Third Position
1 on D:  Fourth Position
1 on D#: Fifth Position
1 on E: Sixth Position (The intersection position)

Let me know if you have any thoughts or suggestions.  I am planning to update all my beginning cello books!