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.