Joseph Mendoes - cello expert

Shifting on the Cello

How to approach shifting on the cello

In this video, Joseph approaches the shifting technique on the cello, and gives you an extensive lesson on how to master it correctly from the beginning.

Released on May 7, 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 Joseph Mendoes with another video for I want to thank you all for viewing and commenting on my previous video on vibrato. I know I tried to cover a lot there and probably I'll need to do another video on vibrato sometime soon, to talk about some of the things I didn't get to and to address some of those questions.

But today, I'm going to talk about shifting. Now, shifting and vibrato actually have a little bit in common. They both require some of the same basic setups. Now, in my vibrato video, I stress the thumb of being free quite a bit. That was really something that's important. In terms of the vibrato and in terms of getting a good vibrato. Your thumb has to be really free.

Now, in order to shift, your thumb also has to be very free. If you're squeezing during a shift; for example, I'll just do a second finger to a second finger here. If you squeeze with your thumb a lot, you're going to get stuck as you go, and you're going to get this horrible sliding sound. Unless you really want that sound, then that's something we want to avoid. So, that's the first step, is to get the thumb out of the picture.

The second step, when we're doing a shift like this and we'll, for right now, just discuss shifting on the same finger, since things change a little bit when we start talking about going from a lower finger to a higher finger, or a higher finger to a lower finger, and shifting down versus shifting up and all that stuff.

But for this kind of shift, this single finger, you know, second finger to second finger shift, the second thing that needs to be happening...first thing was the thumb. Thumb needs to free. Second thing is the finger really can't be down on the string the whole time.

So, if I keep the finger down on the string the whole time, I still get some type of slide. If I really want to hide that shift, if I really want to make it hidden, the thing I've got to do is I've got to make sure the finger rides on top of the string. So, you can kind of see me depressing the string right there, getting the string down.

If my finger rides on top of the string during the shift, almost like it's playing a harmonic. And then, when it gets close, it comes down. We'll be a little bit more effective at hiding the shift and eliminating that kind of nasty sliding sound.

So, as you can hear, there's still a tiny little bit of slide, but now, it's quite beautiful and now, it's manageable. Once you've learned how to do that, then you can put in whatever slides you want.

If you want to make a very...kind of know, something like that, very emphatic. Or something very poetic. Something very poetic and subtle like that and you can do anything in-between. Even grotesque...really big one, or a completely, you know...Or...You can control it any way you want; as soon as you master that ability to hide the shift, that's number one.

Now, this has secondary effect. First of all...well, not first of all. The secondary effect is that the shift is more in tune this way. Now, I have a little bit of a theory on this shifting and intonation, things like this. First of all, the first thing you have to have in your head, before you leave a note, is you have to have a clear picture of what it's going to be like when you're playing your target note. That's, first of all, the pitch. Exactly what the pitch is going to be. So, if you can't sing it in your head, you're going to have difficulty playing what the actual note is. That's number one.

Number two, you want to complicate that target even further by saying "Okay, not only is it going to be in tune, but I'm going to play it with vibrato or without vibrato." Make that determination before you even make the shift. Instead of kind of, you know...kind of sheepishly going to the note and then vibrating it late, think that "Okay, I'm either not going to vibrate at all or I'm going to vibrate right from the beginning of the note." You have to make that kind of determination that's going to help you actually to play it in tune. By complicating the target, by making the target more complex...complicating the target, you'll actually make it less likely that you'll miss the bigger goal, which is intonation. And you can kind of keep complicating the target more and more, in fact, by determining exactly what kind of sound you're going to have, apart from the vibrato. So, I'm talking about the bow. There's all sorts of things you can do to kind of help that.

Something else to consider when you're shifting. Now, when you're shifting up, the bow also has to move closer to the bridge. Regardless of what kind of sound you want, you have to be conscious of what the bow is doing while you're shifting. This has another secondary effect in that it helps your left hand to kind of ease up. You know, it helps your left hand to not press and to not feel, even if you're feeling anxious or nervous. If you're focusing on what your bow is doing while you're shifting, generally, you'll find your shifting is much more successful. And also, your arrival note has kind of a courage to it, or a bravery to it, that it didn't quite have, if you're focusing on that bow a little bit more.

Another thing, if you're shifting up, since we're still on this. You want to want your left hand to kind of be leaning a little bit in the direction of the shift.

Now, I can kind of show you this if I position myself this way. I hope all of you can still see this. That if you see me when I shift, then right before I shift, you'll see me kind of lean this direction. Maybe you can see it a little bit better from this angle here. Then if you can kind of see me leaning a little bit like that. And then, so I'm basically kind of making the shift inevitable.

That kind of momentum, you know, it kind creates a feeling that there's really no way that you can miss that shift. If you're starting from back here and kind of having to...I'll show you from here. If you're starting back here and you're kind of having to shove at it with the whole arm, you know, you can kind of miss shifts like that. I'm sure some of you have done that before.

You know, I think of the first really big shift that you have to do and The First Movement of the Lalo Cello Concerto, I don't know how many of you have studied that piece.

That...Those big shifts, you really want to feel that you're leaning like that the whole time.

Now, here's a good excuse for a shift coming down. You'll notice that now I'm leaning back. So, I lean back on that shift that way in order to shift down. So, I lean forward to shift up and I lean back to shift down.

This has to do...I mean, a good analogy for this is jumping. You know, when you jump forward, you have to first lean forward. And if you jump back, you have to first lean back. You can't jump forward from a straight-up sitting - standing position. You have to lean forward a little bit and then you can jump forward. So, that's really critical, I think.

So, let's see. I know I've covered a ton of stuff here. Let's see. Let's talk about the old finger shifts. Now, old finger shifts, they're also called "delayed shifts." These I use sparingly, I don't use them a lot. I find them to be actually not terribly vocal.

Now, just to be clear, that kind of old finger shift is where you slide on the old finger and then you come down on the new finger like that. So, this kind of shift is a little bit old-fashioned actually. They used to use a lot more of these in the early part of the 20th century. I still think you should know how to do them, and there's a lot of players today that still use them.

I use them, primarily, actually, in pieces that were originally for piano. So, in cello transcriptions from a piano piece. Because to me, it kind of emulates the closest we can get to that kind of a feeling on a piano where, you know, you have one note here and then one note there.

It's kind of my feeling...that's kind of a piano move to me, I guess you could say, but it's not very vocal. What would be more vocal would be...that's more vocal because the voice can' can't make a stopping sound like that.

Anyway, so this shift, it operates the same way. Again, the thumb needs to be free. The finger that is actually doing the moving, which is the index finger here. In this case, the first finger. This kind of shift, same thing. You just ride on top of the string and then you kind of have to measure it out.

I don't necessarily know exactly where my first finger needs to be before I put my fourth finger down. I just kind of know where my fourth finger needs to go down. So, I'm not worrying about, like hitting an E-flat or hitting a G- hitting an E in order to get that G. I just think at some point, I've got to ...I've got to get my fourth finger up there.

So, anyway, I know I covered a ton of stuff here. Sorry about the amount of information. I hope you enjoyed this video, I certainly enjoyed making it and I can't wait to see all of your comments. I know shifting is a big topic.

But again, if I can just kind of put everything together here. The two biggest things are the same things with...the first biggest thing is the same thing with vibrato, is the biggest thing. It is that thumb. You've got to get that thumb so that it's not squeezing. Any sort of squeezing, it's going to really damage your ability to make the shift.

The second thing is making sure that finger, the finger that's traveling is riding on top of the string when it moves, not pressing it down. Oh, and one more thing, in terms of hiding shifts, this is going back to the beginning. When you hide a shift, you've got to make sure you use the bow as well. I stopped the bow for just a half second when I want to make a hidden shift. The bow has kind of a little bit of a hiccup. Right at the moment of the shift, I kind of loosen up on the pressure. I slow the bow down just the tiniest bit. And that helps to hide the shift even more than what I can do just with the left hand. So, that will help considerably, too.

To continue the review, shifting up leaning forward. Making sure you're always feeling that lean and then you can go forward. And then shifting back, making sure you feel that lean back as you go.

If you watch videos of Rostropovich, he's a really good, I think, example of this, of this leaning when he shifts. He does this kind of stuff all the time.

And especially, you'll see him in these upper positions. His hand is completely flattened out like this, you know, and the thumb is stretched out as far as it can go when he wants to come back down. And that makes his shifting really easy instead of kind of being here and then having to come back here. He's all the way out here and then, all he has to do is come back there.

So, anyway, hope you enjoyed this and I'll be looking forward to making more videos in the future. And please leave comments down at the bottom of the screen there and I'll try to answer them as quickly as I can. This is Joseph Mendoes with and thanks for watching.
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User Comments and Questions

Comments, Questions, Requests:

Dottie * VSM MEMBER * on February 15, 2017 @1:01 pm PST
Thanks so much.This was very helpful!
Beverly * VSM MEMBER * on February 1, 2017 @6:59 pm PST
Hi Joseph
Thank you for a great video on shifting. I looked at your website but all I found were blogs. Where are your past videos?
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on February 2, 2017 @2:26 pm PST
Hi Beverly, you can find all Joseph's videos by browsing his dedicated page below:

Please, let me know if you have any further questions.

Thanks for watching!
Kathryn Bowman * VSM MEMBER * on February 1, 2017 @1:55 pm PST
Thank you for your helpful videos. You said with the "old" shift, you shift with the finger last played, and then you put down a different finger on the target note. If you don't shift using the"old" shift, do you slide with the target finger? That was a little confusing.
Joseph - host, on March 19, 2017 @9:09 pm PST
My apologies for how late I am!

Yes, you do slide with the target finger! That is called the new finger shift.
Leah on October 22, 2016 @4:35 pm PST
Hi Joseph,
I'm looking to put some Portuguese subtitles on some of your YouTube videos. I teach cello at a music school in Brazil, and I think that your videos could be a great resource for my students. Let me know who I should get in contact with, and I can assemble the necessary files!
Mark LaPolla on April 10, 2016 @1:05 pm PST
Do you ever shift with the finger between the strings? I saw this in the Elements book. Rather than simply leaning with you hand, it looks like your leading the shift. That is, starting the shift before you are finished with your first note. Is that the case?
Robert on August 13, 2015 @7:57 am PST
I'm an intermediate cello player; I really enjoy your teachings.
Can you please teach the thumb positions, and how (and which materials) to best get familiar with high positions.
Joseph - host, on August 13, 2015 @12:22 pm PST
Hello Robert, I will make a video on this soon, but until then, have you played the Gavotte in D major by Popper? I find it an excellent introduction to thumb position. Also try the second volume of studies by Stephen De'ak.

Sean on August 10, 2015 @6:13 am PST
Thank you so much for this helpful video! How do you know when to shift to which position. Especially in a song. If there are no numbers that tell you where you need to go and what fingers to put down. How do you know when and where to shift to? Thank you.
Joseph - host, on August 13, 2015 @12:23 pm PST
Hi Sean,

This question I think is best handled by your local teacher. When and where to shift really depends on the demands of the piece, and there is no clear rule on this.

dsdray on June 28, 2015 @5:41 pm PST
Prof. Mendoes, as always your advice is invaluable! I have watched all your videos time and time again to ensure your teachings are properly understood and performed. Can I ask please, what is the name of the peice used at the intro of all your videos?
John * VSM MEMBER * on May 23, 2014 @9:08 am PST
Just a question, if you are not a fan of "old finger shifts", then what do you call the kind of shifts you usually use? And do you not use descending old finger shifts as well?
Joseph - host, on May 23, 2014 @11:21 pm PST
Hi John,

Just to be clear, I do occasionally use old finger shifts, I just use them sparingly because I don't think they sound inherently vocal. I would say I use descending old finger shifts more than ascending ones, but again, this is a question of taste, and I am certainly not the ultimate judge! The kinds of shifts I mainly use are new finger shifts, where the new or arrival finger stays in contact with the string during the entire shift. Old finger shifts are the opposite, where the old or departing finger stays in contact with the string until the last possible second, when the new arriving finger is put down. I hope that is clear!

Kathryn Bowman * VSM MEMBER * on May 22, 2014 @2:58 pm PST
I love your videos! I learn something every time. I'm an intermediate player, so your videos help! Please keep them coming, and thank you!!
Joseph - host, on May 23, 2014 @11:16 pm PST
Your comment made my day, thank you!
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