Joseph Mendoes - cello expert

Thumb Position on the Cello

Learn the secrets of the left hand thumb for cello playing

In this video, Prof. Mendoes gives you a lesson on the left hand thumb, and how to use it when playing cello repertoire.

Released on November 4, 2015

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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 for So today, I'd like to talk a little bit about thumb position actually. There's been a lot of requests for a general thumb position video and that's what I'd like to talk about today. So thumb position, really there's almost 2 types. There's the kind where you have just the thumb on the harmonic, there's the midpoint harmonic on all of the strings. Then you just kind of can play a scale like that. So that's really kind of easy enough, you just have to find where the midpoint harmonic is with the thumb. Lay your thumb across, I generally use closer to the actual pad here, I use that spot. This is a much better spot, you can maybe see on the video. I'm not sure if you can see that or not. This kind of weird looking lump I have on my thumb if I compare it to my other thumb, you can see.

Some cellists are taught that you should play more here, on this part of the thumb closer to the nail. I'm not a big fan of this unless, you absolutely have to. There are some cases where you have to do this, but I'm not really a big fan of this because there's 2 reasons. The first reason is there's the skin here is really, really sensitive right next to the nail there. Whereas as right here, the skin is much tougher and it's much easier to build a callus on that part of the thumb, just right there right next to the joint.

The other reason is because it makes the whole lever a little bit smaller. Now when I say lever, I mean the way we put the thumb down is we operate from this joint right here. That's where we're actually putting the thumb down on the string from. There. If we make that lever a little bit smaller, by making it contact the string there instead of there, it actually adds a lot of strength to the whole thing because the amount of leverage then that I have then is much greater than if I try to put it all the way out here. So generally speaking, that's what I do. Now there will be some cases where that's impossible, but those cases are few and far between.

Now getting back to what I said about the lever system, a problem that a lot of people have with thumb position is once they get out of this kind of position. Then they have to start actually putting the string all the way down, like that maybe across the strings or like that, when we have to do octaves when we have to move the thumb in that kind of way. A lot of people end up doing something like this, they end up collapsing the thumb in, like that, instead of allowing this frame to still be here. Now the best way to learn this, the best way to get this, is this little exercise.

What you do is you pick a spot almost anywhere on the cello, but preferably in these upper positions. You can put a second finger down or a third finger down, I'll put a second finger down. What you do is you leave that second finger down, which puts the string down, which makes it a lot easier to do this and you just practice just tapping the thumb at various spots, any kinds of spots. It doesn't have to be any sort of pitch, we're just practicing getting this motion, of lifting the thumb up from this back joint right here. It's kind of straight out of the wrist, you can see it move that way. That's the essential motion when we put the thumb down and that's what we want to be using when we actually have the thumb down, is that ability.

In the same way that we use these row of joints to put fingers down, we want to use this joint here to put the thumb down. Or else we're going to be kind of hanging back like that and then we can't really use the other fingers. So it becomes a really big problem. As with just about everything else that we've talked about in other videos, the fundamental thing is really the thing that we want to go for here, what the foundation is. The foundation of this is making sure that this joint is working in this particular way. That way we can put the thumb down anywhere we want and we can play octaves comfortably and everything works really well. Because also the thing about octaves of course is we have to be able to do this kind of motion. Back and forth on the cello because the distance between the notes gets smaller as we get higher. So we need to be able to independently control that thumb from the rest of the fingers. So that's why again, we have to be really aware of our ability to use and operate just from here. So that's why again that exercise of just tapping around the thumb is a really, really a good idea.

That's basically all I have to say about thumb position. As far as exercises or etudes to use for a thumb positions the very first volume of Dotzauer's is really, really great to do an octave up. What you do is, you do all the open strings, you play instead as harmonics and then you just have to kind of slightly adjust the fingerings. This is something I can maybe demonstrate in a later video. But for example, I think I did one video on the Dotzauer etude. Maybe some of you remember that video. You can take the same etude and work it that way to really get comfortable with thumb position. You learn it first down an octave and then you come up and learn it up the octave.

There's lots of great pieces for learning thumb position too. The "Gavotte" by Popper, I'm not sure if that one's on this website or not, maybe it will be soon. The Popper "Gavotte" in D major is very good for thumb position. The Popper etudes, of course, have a lot of thumb position in them, which I believe are on the website. There's a variety of things like that. But really the main thing to focus on is making sure that you're not collapsing back, like this, and not really able to use the other fingers, as you want to be able to just operate just with your thumb just on that kind of level.

I think that's all I have to say there. Thank you for watching this video. Please leave comments. If you are watching on YouTube, I will remind you, as I do in all the other videos, to please go to and log in there and comment. I will see those comments and I will do my best to reply to those comments. I know there are some outstanding comments right now, maybe by the publishing of this video I'll have them answered. I apologize for that. Once again, this has been Joseph Mendoes for
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User Comments and Questions

Comments, Questions, Requests:

Terry on August 23, 2018 @12:51 pm PST
Thank you, Joseph, for your thoughtful and sensible videos.
Regarding the position of the thumb callous, mine is not as far toward the thumb base as yours, although not so near the nail like some people's you describe . I'd like to use the thumb a bit more toward the base as you do, but the G-string interferes. I'd like firmer stopping of the D-string with the thumb outside of mid-string thumb position but, it seems, the "lever" is long if I stop the string near nail, or have to also push down on the G-string if the lever is shorter. Might I be missing something, or do I just need to cope with both D-String and G-string to stop the D-string?
Michael on May 26, 2016 @8:17 pm PST
When I play in thumb position, not on a harmonic, the act of pressing my thumb down hard enough for both strings to touch the finger board causes a lot of strain on my thumb joint to the point that it burns sometimes. Is this normal pain?
Amy on April 4, 2016 @6:05 pm PST
Thanks so much for your video on thumb position. I am an amateur and have been doing it the hard way for years. Plus the fact that I'm double jointed. And that resulted in poor playing habits and carpal tunnel syndrome. I will have to work on that since there are a few pieces I'm playing in my community Orchestra that require thumb position.
Brenda * VSM MEMBER * on January 6, 2016 @6:25 am PST
Just wanted to add that thinking about keeping the bridge of the fingers high will also help to make sure that you7w don't collapse the left hand in thumb position.sometimes I put a tiny marshmallow in the curve of the hand just to remind students to round the fingers. ..if they don't use their hand properly they squish the marshmallow. ..don't worry. ..kraft marshmallows are to hard to get gooey!
Brenda * VSM MEMBER * on January 6, 2016 @6:25 am PST
Just wanted to add that thinking about keeping the bridge of the fingers high will also help to make sure that you don't collapse the left hand in thumb position.Sometimes I put a tiny marshmallow in the curve of the hand just to remind students to round the fingers. ..if they don't use their hand properly they squish the marshmallow. ..don't worry. ..kraft marshmallows are too hard to get gooey!
Arya Keyvan on January 1, 2016 @7:43 pm PST
Hi. I have trouble finding what fingerings to use when doing arpegios. Im doing three octave. I know the fingerings in the lower positions, but when it gets to the higher positions i get confused. Should i be playing any of the notes with my thumb?
seahawk41 * VSM MEMBER * on December 3, 2015 @4:57 pm PST
Hello. I am an older person who took up the cello in my 70s. I've been at it for about 2-1/2 years now. I have some arthritis in both thumbs; I suspect that will make it tough to do the thumb up/thumb down exercise you suggested. I haven't tried yet! But I wonder whether you have worked with older adults who face such issues as they learn the cello.
Joseph - host, on December 11, 2015 @8:22 am PST
I am sorry to hear of your arthritis, I know it can be difficult to deal with. If your thumb is in a lot of pain, try using different fingerings! I know of some professionals who do all they can to avoid using the thumb. There are many passages depending on the size of your hands that you can use alternate fingerings on.
Jim * VSM MEMBER * on November 18, 2015 @5:50 am PST
Pauper should be Popper
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on November 18, 2015 @8:37 am PST
Thank you Jim! No idea why that was so misspelled. Fixed!
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