By Miranda Wilson
Open up Google and type in "Can I play cello if I...". The first thing that came up for me was "...am double jointed?"
The answer is a resounding YES. Cello is for everyone. Humans come in all shapes and sizes and abilities, and that includes people with hypermobile joints. (Technically, there's no such thing as a "double" joint, but I use the term because it's common parlance for a common problem.)
I'm no contortionist, but I do have mild hypermobility, to the delight of my Alexander Technique teacher and the other children at my elementary school. Also, I've taught many college students with joints that can stretch way farther than mine. In cello playing, this manifests in fingers that buckle on the string and the bow, joints that lock painfully, excess tension, and pain.
Here's a little slideshow of some of the different types of wrongness that can happen -- and these are just the ones that have happened to me. (Not pictured is the very common problem of the locking pinky -- more on that in a minute.) Click the arrows to scroll through...
What can a person with hypermobile finger joints do to make cello playing comfortable?
1. Well, you could just ignore it, but that's not an option if it hurts or if you seriously want to improve.
2. You could do what I did with my hypermobile middle thumb joint: make it not buckle by force of will and lots of practice at never, ever hyperextending it. (Not recommended, as this takes a long time and is very frustrating.)
The general consensus is that letting your fingers buckle is bad news. And yet there's so little information out there that can genuinely help the ambitious but confused super-bendy person. So...
4. Find some exercises that encourage rounded finger shaping so that this becomes habit.
I was excited to read this article by the violin teacher Lora Staples, where she encourages students to practice an exercise using a clothespin to build finger strength. Inspired, I found one in my laundry closet and tried it. But after a few repetitions, the tendons of my wrist started hurting, so I had to go to the grocery store to seek one that was more loosely sprung. Even that kind of hurt.
I did want to keep doing the exercise, however, because I was looking for solutions for my undergraduates, so I started thinking of other household objects that might do the same amount of good without causing pain. The answer came to me while I was cleaning my bathroom -- the trigger of a spray bottle! I tried the exercise on that and it worked brilliantly. Much "softer" than a clothespin, but with the same good results.
Here are some of the ways you can practice rounded finger shaping using a spray bottle.
Getting back to the cello...
5. Adjust your technique in a way that encourages rounded finger shaping and discourages buckling/locked finger shaping. For example:
a) Locking, tense left thumb? Avoid having the pad of the thumb press the cello neck. Look at how your fingers come together naturally -- your thumb comes in sideways. Let it do this on the neck too.
b) Fingers buckle on the string (especially in thumb position) and you can't find a comfortable angle that enables rounded shaping? You can, especially at high speeds, play on the side of the string and still get a good sound.
c) Fingers keep locking and causing pain? Try moving from finger to finger not by over-exercising the hand and fingers, but by thinking of the arm's weight as the agent that gets you from finger to finger-- like you're swinging from a bar at the gym. Keep your left thumb free (touching the neck with the side of the thumb helps with this, because you can't "press" so easily) so that it can move to "oppose" each of the fingers.