The Rule of Thumb: All About Thumb Position on the Cello

By Miranda Wilson

Are you all thumbs in thumb position? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) You’re not alone — this is one of the most commonly misunderstood advanced cello techniques. Today, I’m going to thumb my nose (OK, I’ll stop now) at a few misconceptions about thumb position.

Misconception #1: the thumb needs to push down hard on the strings

In reality, unless the thumb is needed for creating a pitch on the string, it can lightly graze on the surface of the string without pushing it down to the fingerboard.

Misconception #2: the base knuckles need to be flat

This one is a mystery to me. So many people think this — my younger self included — and I have no idea why. Doing this is very uncomfortable and makes you play out of tune. The hand shaping should be very like the hand shaping in lower positions, that is, curved as if you were holding an apple. (Further reading: “Playing the Cello Naturally? Ask Your Hands How.”)

The starting point for thumb position hand shaping is to make a fist with the thumb gently alongside the hand. Then you “unfurl” the fingers into a good playing shape, as shown in the two videos below.

Misconception #3: the part of the thumb that touches the string is the side of the knuckle.

The contact points between thumb and string vary greatly by individual, since humans come in all shapes and sizes. As a general rule, when you begin to play in thumb position, it’s a good idea to place the thumb on two strings simultaneously. For most of us, it’s best to touch the lower-pitched string with the side of the thumbnail, and the higher-pitched string at a point somewhere between the nail-bed and the knuckle. For the photo below, I drew on my thumb to show the recommended contact points. The black line is for the lower-pitched string and the red line is for the higher-pitched string.


Now, let’s talk about a few guiding principles for success in thumb position.

Rule #1: the wrist should be generally straight

The wrist should always be (gently) straightened. Not ramrod straight or stiff in any way, just relaxed in alignment with the forearm. It isn’t good for your wrist to be stuck in a bent stance for long periods of time. Here’s a photo of what it should look like:


Rule #2: the arm’s trajectory needs to be consistent between neck and thumb position

When your first cello teacher kept telling you to get your left arm up, this was good advice. You want an arm elevation that will get you from the lowest to the highest positions without too much flapping about. With this in mind, do the “Knuckle Knocks” exercise invented by one of my teachers, Phyllis Young, in which you drum up and down the fingerboard with a loose fist, as shown in this video. Notice that the arm’s trajectory is as economical as I can make it. No need for superfluous movement!

What you don’t want is to run into a roadblock, i.e. the body of the instrument, when you try to get past fourth position. You need to get up and over. This means that your thumb needs to seamlessly transition off the back of the cello neck and up into thumb position, as shown in the next video:

Rule #3: the thumb must stay alongside the hand

Most of the time, the thumb needs to stay close enough to the hand that it could, if needed, play at a pitch a major second behind the pitch played by the first finger. I see a lot of students trying to shift around in thumb position but “leaving the thumb at home” — which leads to a disruption of the rounded hand shape since it inevitably flattens out the base knuckles.

Rule #4: the joints must be flexible so the fingers can “walk”

Just as we transfer the arm’s weight through the fingers to “walk” from note to note in the lower positions, we can do the same thing in the upper positions. (Read “Fingerboards Have Feelings Too. Don’t Hit Your Cello!”) Use all the same tools at your disposal: balance of arm weight, forearm rotation, flexibility of finger joints. Finger-to-finger trajectory should look something like this:

Establishing good hand shaping and logical habit in thumb position isn’t necessarily the most intuitive thing ever. I like to use the natural harmonics as guideposts. Starting with the hand in a loose fist, I place the thumb position on the natural harmonics high on the A and D strings and, with the bow on both strings in a double-stop, glissando down to the natural harmonics in the middle of the string. This helps to get the thumb used to lightly grazing two strings as you move around in the upper positions.

Next, place the third finger lightly on the high A harmonic and the thumb on the A below it on the D string. Lightly raise the thumb so that it only touches the D string, since the A string harmonics will not sound if the string is touched in more than one spot. With the bow on both strings in a double-stop, glissando down an octave, maintaining the curved hand stance. You will notice that the distance between thumb and finger must get wider as you move towards the nut, and smaller when you move back towards the bridge. This will set you up well for playing scales in octaves later. (Warning: because you are now not playing on the same spots on two strings, the harmonics “on the way” don’t occur at the same time. Don’t be alarmed if this is not the most beautifully melodious thing you have ever played.)

For a free PDF download of the notated exercises performed on these videos, click here.

What are some of the lightbulb moments you’ve had when it comes to thumb position? I love to hear from readers, so please leave your thoughts in the comments, or come on over to the Cello Practice, Cello Performance Facebook page and join the discussion!

Copyright Miranda Wilson, 2019. No part of this blog post may be reproduced without permission of the author.