When learning about playing the cello, there is always the anticipation of learning a new hand position. It is exciting to have more options of notes to play and to be able to freely and easily move around the cello. However, I think there are too many method books, and music that emphasize what “position” you are in, rather than just learning if you hand is in this place you are going to be able to play these notes. So with this in mind, I usually tell my students there are really only 3.5 hand positions that I emphasize.
Why is there a .5 in there? It is half position. This is something that isn’t necessarily used a lot, but it is important to distinguish it because a lot of the time students tend to just extend in it rather than actually moving the hand. Usually when I say .5, or half, students instantly remember what to do with their hands. It is just placing everything a half step lower than regular first position.
So what are the other 3 positions?
The most basic~ the first thing you learn. If you don’t know this position, you probably shouldn’t be learning others. It is usually where all the stickers are going so that you can learn how to place your fingers. But it is far more important to be able to find these notes without having to look at your hand. Be able to call out the letter names of the notes if someone was to quiz you on what note your finger is playing on a certain string. I wouldn’t just assume that you will always have finger numbers either. You really want to identify the location of these first position notes so that you can be able to find them out of the blue.
Ok, so now you have a grip on first position. You have probably already done quite a bit of shifting in your songs as well as in your scales. There aren’t many scales where you stay in just one position. To me, fourth position signifies the transition point. The thumb should be tucked into that curve of the neck and you should be able to explain how the fingers lie on the fingerboard playing the notes. “Officially” fourth position on the A string will start when your first finger is on a high E.
While a lot of technique books usually refer this position starting with the thumb in the harmonic A position, you can also think of this as any time you are using your thumb as a fingering for a note. This can generally mean when you are high up on the strings, but it can also mean when you are lower but need the thumb to make a fingering or tricky passage work. What is important to maintain is the shape of the thumb and making sure the hand shape doesn’t collapse in and is still in a nice, strong, round shape.
I like simplifying the positions into just 3.5, because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what position you are in, it is just important that you play the right notes and rhythms. Advanced music won’t list what position you are in, and will often not even give you a fingering and it is up to you (or your teacher!) to decide what fingering works best in the situation. I hope this simplifies the different positions on the cello so that you can concentrate on learning all of the fingerboard geographies and not worrying so much about the numbers!