It was a grey Thursday when I got a call from an unknown number. Listening to the voicemail, I heard that my interlibrary loan had come in. The excitement bubbled up in my throat as I got ready to head over (the library is about 3 minutes away). I have been looking for a book called "Pour Se Mettre En Doigts" by Jean Silvy for some time. Quite out of print is how I would describe it; the book is unavailable even from used sources. The Bibliothèque nationale de France informed me that they couldn't make a copy since it was still under copyright. My next try was the Free Library of Philadelphia's Interlibrary loan service, which can be amazing. I usually hear nothing from them until I get a phone call from the branch library saying a book has arrived for me. Giddy with excitement, I got the book home and opened it up to play and I discovered a short but stunning series of exercises. Silvy was apparently very aware of the time limitations cellists face; he dedicated the book to "those amateur and professional violoncellists who have just a few minutes to practice their instrument every day". At the bottom of each exercise, Silvy included a duration (for example: Durée 3 min. 40). But it is the exercises themselves that are the stars of this book. From finger agility training to scale shifting and a brilliant "interval training" exercise that takes you around the entire fingerboard, the book is a joy to play. I only wish that Silvy had been a little less "efficient" and had given us more; he clearly thought about cello technique in a unique and very special way. Please, Delrieu, bring this book back in print!
Placing the thumb on its side across two strings and using it as a note-playing finger (known as thumb position) is one of the defining skills of advanced cello playing. I typically start teaching thumb position when my students are comfortable shifting in first through eighth positions (Serial Shifting, The Shifting Book for Cello, Part Two, and Finger Exercises for the Cello, Book Three). They need to have learned Tenor Clef and should know their three-octave cello scales (Three-Octave Scales for the Cello, Book One).
Depending on the student, I will start with either Thumb Position for the Cello, Book One, or Thumb Position School for the Cello. I usually begin with Thumb Position for the Cello, Book One, which focuses on moving in and out of thumb position and teaches the notes one at a time, providing a simple introduction to the idea of thumb position. Thumb Position School for the Cello, on the other hand, is an in-depth study of the notes and finger spaces in thumb position, with exercises and short pieces in different keys.
Teaching cello thumb position involves a fair amount of specific guidance regarding thumb placement (I like the thumb on its side, across the A and D strings, with the knuckle on the A string and the side of the thumb next to the nail on the D string.) The wrist should remain straight so that the arm can help support the hand. Care should be taken to avoid strain and tension from a high left shoulder or from a bent wrist. Around 5 minutes of thumb position each day is sufficient time to build beginning thumb technique without overdoing it.
After students have studied some thumb position in the method books, I like to have them start studying pieces that use thumb position: Duport's Sonata in G major, Breval's Concerto No. 2, Vandini's Sonata in G, Senaille's Allegro Spiritoso, and Popper's Gavotte.
After some proficiency has been gained, books such as Thumb Position for the Cello, Book Two, and Thumb Position Studies for the Cello, Book One can be helpful in building further thumb technique.
Getting ready for the upcoming ASTA Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, where we will be hosting an exhibit. Stop by booth 810 and say hi!
We are releasing a number of new cello technique books today: Half Position for the Cello, Double Stop Etudes for the Cello, Book One, Octave Shifts for the Cello, Book Three, Scale Studies for the Third Octave for the Cello, Book One, and Thirds in Thumb Position for the Cello, Preparatory Studies. The preparatory studies for thirds in thumb position is one of my favorite new books: a method to teach double stop thirds on the cello before they occur in the repertoire.
New violin technique book releases are The A-String Book for Violin, Playing the Violin, Book Two, Serial Shifting for the Violin, and new viola technique releases are Finger Exercises for the Viola, Book One, Serial Shifting for the Viola, and Third Position for the Viola, Book One.
Working on editing Thumb Position Studies for the Cello, Books 2-14. As there are 14 books in the "Thumb Studies" series, and only Book One is published, I'm finding the idea of editing the rest somewhat daunting! It's fun to continuously play through the books, though, and as long as I don't think about how large the task is, it's quite a pleasant way to spend some time before I teach.
Cassia Harvey is a cellist, a cello teacher, and writes technique for strings.