Raising, Lowering Thumb

Emileigh Vandiver

  • Fundamental shifting principles.
  • Specific techniques for shifting in and out of thumb position.
  • Because the big muscles of your back and upper arm need more time to move than your hand and fingers, think of initiating the lift necessary to shift from your upper arm. This motion is called the anticipatory motion. This anticipatory motion is necessary in order to shift smoothly, accurately and with interpretive intent. The upper arm lifts the hand and brings up the thumb: the hand or thumb does not lift the upper arm.
  • When shifting over the side of the cello, anticipating and preparing your elbow level is especially important. If you bend your wrist in order to move over the side of the cello, you will lose the feeling of arm and finger weight on the fingerboard. Anytime you bend your wrist, you create tension in the hand and limit finger dexterity.
  • When bringing your thumb up, initiate the motion from your upper arm. Your arm should feel like a one-piece unit; this feeling will keep the wrist flat and unbent before, during and after arrival in thumb position. Be careful not to hunch your shoulder as you raise your arm and thumb. Watch the clip and notice the semi-circular motion that takes Emileigh in and out of thumb position.
  • Your shoulders and upper back should feel relaxed: the principle of ‘softness’ begins in your neck and shoulders and continues through to your hand and arm. Never hunch your shoulders; let them hang low within the structure of an erect posture.
  • Your playing finger should feel like a hook upon which you hang your arm from the fingerboard.  This feeling gives your finger a sense of depth, security and “belonging” to the fingerboard.
  • There is an alternate school of cello playing, not described here, that advocates keeping the elbow high enough in the lower positions in order to clear the side bouts when going into the upper positions.   “Hanging” the arm and feeling a soft upper arm will bring some players to a lower position of their elbow.  If a lower elbow releases tension in your upper arm and shoulder, I view this lower elbow position as healthier.
  • Relate the sound of the shift to your musical intention.  Each shift presents itself differently within the music and passage that you are playing. You may decide to make an expressive slide or you may want a clean, inaudible connection. In some cases, it will make musical sense or feel better to shift first and then bring your thumb up. Most of the time, bringing your thumb up at the same time you shift will be preferable as you arrive with one fluid motion, rather than two separate ones.  Try both techniques and then make your decision based upon the music.


Keep your left wrist flat; bending your wrist creates tension in your hand and limits finger dexterity. Paul Katz