Joseph Mendoes - cello expert

Left Hand Fingering Tips

Learn how to choose the right fingerings for your left hand.

In this video, Prof. Mendoes approaches fingering on the cello in a very natural and musical way. The famous cello concerto by Dvorak in B minor is featured in this video.

Released on December 3, 2014

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hello, everyone. This is another video for My name is Joseph Mendoes, I'm the cello expert at this website and today, I'd like to talk about just basic fingering principles. Really, how to choose different fingerings and what fingerings to choose, which fingers to use for what and just basic strategies for doing those kinds of things.

So this is kind of a difficult subject because it's a very personal one and I know that there's...well, to be honest, there really isn't schools of cello playing anymore, that's kind of gone away. There used to be the German school and the French school and the Russian school and all these things. But international as things have gotten, as the world has gotten smaller, these kinds of schools of cello playing have tended to evaporate. You do sometimes tend to see certain things in bow holds that are more common in certain parts of Europe than others. But these are, I think, pretty residual at this point. You see a wide variety of different bow grips and different fingering approaches. There are just about as many cellists as there are approaches at this point.

However, one of the holdovers from, particularly, the German school which was really for a long time, one of the strongest schools in the world all throughout much of the beginning of the 19th century. Names like Friedrich Grutzmacher, Bernhard Cossmann...there's more Grutzmachers. There was a long line of family of cellists. They definitely influenced how we finger things, I think, in many ways more than the French. The French influenced more how we use the bow than anything else.

So as far as fingering, today, what we're going to do is we're going to be talking about what is kind of the basic idea of the German approach and seeing whether that's always applicable or not. So you can open up a lot of these old German technique books, especially like a Grutzmacher book and things like that and find a lot of fingerings called "block fingerings." Where basically, you kind of stay in one position and then you move to the next position and you move to the next position. And unless you need an extension or something like that or a forward extension or something, then it doesn't really change.

So for example, fingerings that would include, that would go between positions don't really show up very often. Let me give you an example of this. For example, the kind of fingering that you would never see in the German school would be something that uses kind of a long extension. For example, if there's an F-sharp or an E, an A, to a C, very often you would see instead of going to a first finger, you would see go to a second finger. Because that's keeping it in the block so you have a block here and then you have a block here. You would never go back like that.

Now, I think that block fingerings are good sometimes and also, they're not good sometimes. Really, you need to try to figure out what's going to sound the best and what's going to give you the best phrasing. What's going to give you a slide in the right spot. This is a good example, actually, is the second theme. It's a very common theme that everyone knows. The second theme of the Dvorak cello concerto of the first movement. So there's many ways to finger this.

For example, in the old Casals recording, he starts open string on the open A which is amazing to us. Today, we would never start and then go to a fourth finger or whatever finger. We would never go on the open A. Now, Casals probably did this because the actual A string he was using was a different A string than we have. They weren't using a metal A in those days. Most cellists were using a totally pure, uncovered A string that was made out of sheep gut. So it had a different quality to it, it had a darker quality. So for us, we have to use the D string. That's just too shrill and bright.

Anyway, getting back to this block fingering thing. This would be an example, I think, of block fingering.


You see where I stayed in the same position. Now, this would be an example of not block fingering. Where I'm shifting quite around a lot and I'm not really staying in one position for very long. Now, I prefer this second way. I don't know which sounded better on video, but I prefer this second way because I think that I can get a better sound even if I'm shifting more. That's one of my basic fingering principles, is that whatever sounds best, that's what I'm going to do. Not necessarily what is going to be the most statistically consistent.

For example, this first fingering, this block one is easy because you just stay in the same position. You don't have to worry about shifting or anything. But you see, it's going back and forth between the A string and the D string a lot. So the color (?) is changing quite a bit. That's a problem, I think. I think it interrupts the flow of the phrase, having all those changes and shifts in color. Whereas this keeps at the same color for longer. So I think that that's better, actually.

Now, I know there's a lot of argument about this. The easier fingering, which is sometimes these block fingerings. Versus the harder fingering, which is usually a more expressive fingering, are better for the music. Obviously, if there's a fingering that is the easiest one and it sounds the best, I'm going to use it. I'm not going to not use it just because it's an easy one. But generally speaking, I think that that's the direction we need to go in. We always need to follow our ear when it comes to the fingers.

Now, to talk about the equality of the fingers. Each finger should be able to vibrate and do all the same things that all the other fingers do equally, they should be able to. Now, for most of us, that's something that we work on. But most of us, in fact, I think almost all of us don't necessarily achieve that to the level of perfection that we would want.

So that means that when we do choose fingerings, we tend to favor certain fingers over others. For most of us, that usually is the second finger. The second finger is the one that sounds the strongest. You'll see me use the second finger quite a bit in concerts...I'm going to start posting some performance videos and things like that later on my website, actually. I'll be starting to do that hopefully this next year. You'll see the kinds of fingerings I choose, they seem kind of wacky sometimes. Like, "Why would he do that?" Because I'm really just going for the finger that I think is going to give me the best sound. Which sometimes, even a fourth finger might be more comfortable to use in a particular case. Instead, I'll shift to a second finger in order for the second finger to do the job it needs to do better than the fourth finger. Because the second finger is stronger and I can get a better sound on it.

So I know today's video has been very general. I apologize for that, these fingering principles are tough to get across. But let me just try to summarize it and bring it together a little bit.

In general, block fingerings or this kind of German style of fingering, they're good, but they tend to be problematic when it comes to being really expressive. They're very good at making sure that your playing is very much in tune and things kind of stay well-organized. But to me, this is not necessarily the overall goal of a good fingering. A good fingering is not only to play it in tune, but also, to play it expressively and to allow you to slide in certain places with the way you want to slide and allow you to really say what you want to say with the piece.

I encourage you then to really be free with the fingerings that you use. Don't just consider something..."Oh, I could never do that because it breaks some particular rule." Don't do that. Make sure that, really, the fingering that you're picking is the one that sounds the best for you. Is the one that gives you the most confidence in the passage. Makes you feel the best and makes you feel that you can really say what you want to say.

So thanks for watching this video. There will be, of course, many more coming. I've had some requests for videos on the Shostakovich first concerto. But that will be coming sometime in the future. That's a more involved video and I need a little more practice time to get ready for something like that. But definitely, I would love to go through at least the first movement to talk about some of the techniques in that wonderful piece and whatever other suggestions that any of you have.

I know at this point, I've covered a lot of the technical approach of how I approach the instrument and how I think the instrument should be approached. But if there's anything I've forgotten or anything you can think of that I haven't hit, I would love to talk about it.

Once again, this is Joseph Mendoes for

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User Comments and Questions

Comments, Questions, Requests:

KB on May 14, 2016 @2:01 am PST
Hello, professor. I am just starting to learn the cello and my teacher and I are having problems finding the perfect posture for me. I am obese and short and I can't place the pegs behind my left ear and at the same time keep the cello between my knees. Is it ok to play the cello with the pegs in front of my left ear not behind? thank you very much
Joseph - host, on May 19, 2016 @8:31 am PST
Sure, that is fine, however you will have to make an adjustment with your left hand positioning. The danger with having the neck of the cello that far from your body is that your left wrist will be rotating a little too much, but if you keep your left elbow high enough it shouldn't be an issue.

Anthony on March 28, 2016 @12:53 pm PST
Mr. Mendoes. Thank you for the video it is very informative and useful, especially for a beginner like myself.

I do have one question that I can't seem to find the answer for anywhere. As a beginner, I'm looking to find the how to correctly use my left hand and I'm finding it very hard to press notes on the D string without touching a bit of the A string.

I've read that many people are saying to learn play the left hand without touching any strings other than the one you're actually playing on, however, there seems to be an equal amount of people saying that it's OK to do so.

I've seen videos of GREAT cellists touching every string while playing on other strings, and I've seen other great cellist do the opposite.

I've asked my cello teacher about this and she's in the school of not touching other strings while playing, but I'm just unsure about this. Thanks!
Joseph - host, on April 12, 2016 @8:55 pm PST
Certainly touch other strings! The only rule is how it affects the sound. Whether or not you touch other strings will have to do with your unique physiology, so if you sound good while touching other strings then you should be fine!

Maureen * VSM MEMBER * on December 31, 2014 @3:20 pm PST
Hi Joseph,
I am a cellist and teacher and I really am enjoying your videos, most of which I share with my students. I feel as if I never got enough instruction on the bow, so I have been working on the sevcik op 3
Would you please do some videos on the variations, esp #24 and on
Joseph - host, on January 3, 2015 @9:08 am PST
Hello Maureen,

I must admit I have never looked at the Sevcik! Most of the bow work I do revolves around making slight changes to Dotzauer etudes (the first volume is easy enough for the left hand so that you can focus on everything the right hand is doing, and if you mess with the bowings in many of them you will eventually encounter just about every possible problem related to the bow.) I will take a look at Sevcik though!

psoucy * VSM MEMBER * on December 11, 2014 @4:56 am PST
Great video again Joseph, thank you. I was wondering if you would consider playing the first two notes of the Swan with fingers 3 and 2 instead of 4 and 3. I saw at least one world class cellist play it that way, but it seems to be very uncommon. I believe that it could help do exactly what you mentioned in your previous video and this one, that is, a challenge in the Swan is maintaining the same vibrato on all fingers, and vibrato on 4 is the weakest one for most of us. Obviously a downside is that B is then farther. Another downside I see is that you will have to play vibrato on finger 4 elsewhere in the piece anyway, but those two notes are particuarly important and need perfect vibrato. Wonder what are your thoughts about this.
Joseph - host, on December 15, 2014 @12:01 am PST
You are totally right about the fingers needing to be equal. I would go as far as to say that if your fourth finger vibrato is weak, drop everything else you are doing and work on getting the vibrato to match your second finger (or whatever you think is your best finger.)
Having said that, I do usually use a third finger on the first note of the Swan, but I don't always teach it that way. Having a student practice that first note with a fourth finger is a good idea, especially if their fourth finger vibrato is very weak. Heifetz used to say that if you want a better fourth finger, you have to use it more!

Kathryn Bowman * VSM MEMBER * on December 10, 2014 @11:37 am PST
Joseph, I love your videos! They are very helpful, and they give me pointers that I can pass on to my students. Please keep making these instructional videos! Best wishes, Kathryn
Joseph - host, on December 14, 2014 @11:53 pm PST
Glad you are enjoying them!
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