Target Practice: Getting Tenor-Register Shifts Right Every Time

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By Miranda Wilson

The tenor register of the cello — the part of the A-string that spans between fourth position and the upper positions — can be tricky to navigate. Many of us fear shifts on the “cusp” of the neck and upper positions because the body of the instrument feels like an obstacle to be overcome.

Recently, I was teaching repertoire to two students of very different levels of advancement, but the problem was the same: approaching a note above the A-string harmonic from the neck position. One student, a mature beginner, was studying Tchaikovsky’s Chanson Triste; the other, a music graduate, was studying an excerpt from Brahms’s Symphony No. 2. In spite of their radically different experiences, both experienced a lot of anxiety about “nailing” the shift in tune.

Here’s the Tchaikovsky excerpt:

(m. 30 features a shift up to a high B-flat)

(m. 30 features a shift up to a high B-flat)

And here’s the Brahms:

(mm. 4-5 feature a shift up to a high B)

(mm. 4-5 feature a shift up to a high B)

There are two factors that go into the success of this type of shift.

  1. The arm’s elevation and hand’s shape, which need to remain consistent between the neck and upper positions. If the arm has sagged down beside the body while in the neck position, it’s almost certain that the player will miss the shift because she/he can’t get up and over the body of the instrument fast enough to reach the B-flat. Click here to read my article “Transitioning From Neck To Thumb Position.”

  2. The intermediary that helps us measure the shift: our old friend the A-string harmonic. Most of us can find this place with no trouble at all because we use it so much for tuning, etc.

I wrote the following exercise for Chanson Triste to teach the shift. Follow this simple four-step process and you’ll never miss it again!

  1. Measure the distance of the shift by using the second finger to travel between F and the A harmonic. Check that the arm’s elevation is consistent. What is the most economical trajectory your arm, hand, and finger than make between these two pitches?

  2. Add a B-flat with the third finger, stopping on the A harmonic with your second finger on the way to the B-flat. The A is the intermediary step between F and B-flat.

  3. Practice the shift from 2 on F to 3 on B-flat with a “ghost” A between them. That is, imagine where the A is, but don’t actually play it.

  4. Now attempt the Tchaikovsky passage itself, remembering steps 1, 2, and 3.

A fifth step: rejoice in your success! Now repeat the successful strategy many, many times. If you still randomly miss the shift in among correct executions, go back to the first step and figure out what’s going wrong. Your ability to perform this skill depends on how you teach it to yourself in practice, so only practice the correct way. Enjoy successful shifts! These small victories are as satisfying as hitting the bulls-eye again and again in target practice.

Here’s the exercise written out in notation:

Tchaikovsky exercise.jpg

…And here’s a video of what it looks and sounds like. (The recording quality isn’t great and there’s a lot of background noise — thanks, University of Idaho music students! — but it gives an idea of what to expect.)