starArched vs. Level Knuckles

I'm not sure that arching the knuckles is a good idea. What are the advantages?

The advantages with level knuckles are:

  1. You don't have to stretch as much in normal positions. You won't be changing the shape of your hands and thus won't have to re-orient your spacing every time you use a different finger or shift to a different position. If you watch Slava or Yo-Yo's left hand, the level knuckles are constant in all areas of the fingerboard (all positions). It helps you to direct the weight of your entire left arm more directly into the string. You therefore don't need to squeeze the string down, you simply let the weight of your arm hold the note down as it is balanced into your fingers where they contact the string. The overall effect is that your left hand is much more relaxed. (The benefits of a relaxed left hand could fill another post!)
  2. You'll be able to reach much further than a P4 from your thumb with your 3rd finger (6ths and octave reaches in certain positions with thumb and 3 are much easier).
  3. Using your 4th finger in thumb position is much more possible.
  4. With knuckles low and level, there is a much better sense of balance because your entire hand is lower and closer to the fingerboard. The higher up your knuckles are the more they have to use strength to just stay balanced. Think of this: which is more secure, to stand on one foot or to sit on the floor?

I found that playing runs up and down the a string in thumb position much easier with the level knuckles in the left hand.

So...what are the advantages to arching the knuckles? I'm really interested in hearing this and possibly learning something that I've overlooked.

Actually, until I began studying with Panteleyev and Feigelson, I used arched knuckles myself. Not that I was taught to do that. Until then, I'd never been told otherwise. Many of my left hand and intonation problems were solved with these left hand principles.

Paul Tseng

Tim Janof replies: The feedback I've heard is that you lose your line of power when you have flattened knuckles. You don't have that arch in your hand, the key to architectural strength in buildings as well. The sound suffers as a result (less focused). When it was demonstrated, it seemed to be true. And the knuckles should be arched throughout all the positions, with exceptions of course.

My guess is that people like Starker, Mantel, August Eichhorn advocate or advocated the arched knuckles.

Paul Tseng replies: It is a very common method in the Russian school. I've seen many cellists from Russia who play quite naturally this way and play very well. And I learned it from Feigilson and Pantaleyev at the age of 30 when I converted from Arched to Level. Actually, Channing Robbins (Rose's assistant at Juilliard) taught me a bit of this too when I was 17.

You know, initially, I "thought" I lost my line of power too. But after you get used to not using so much force from your fingers to play, you realize that the you are actually much more relaxed. You don't use any strength (force) to hold the string down, especially in thumb position where you CAN'T squeeze the neck. It's all balance of arm weight.

This illusion of losing strength comes from the limiting of the range of motion of your fingers. But I discovered that your really don't need to lift your fingers very high off the fingerboard to play. How high do you need to lift your finger when you play with a different finger? Actually, not high at all.

The level knuckles are actually more architecturally sound than and balanced than the arched ones (maybe not for buildings, but for human hands on the cello.) Sound might suffer if the balance is not understood. What I mean is when someone who is not accustomed to this hand position tries to simply force his hand into this position and approach the execution the same way as he would with arched knuckles, they will feel very disoriented. Sound (as Feigilson pointed out my interview) comes from the bow. The left hand is responsible for vibrato and pitch. If you are saying sound suffers from playing with level knuckles, I have to ask if you think Rostropovich or Yo Yo's sound are suffering?

It's clear that arched knuckles are advocated by 'respected' cellists. But I'd like to know if they use their 4th finger at all in thumb position and if they have a jump of a 6th, 7th or octave, do they always have to shift or slide? How do they feel about playing 10ths? It's interesting to note the difference in fingerings for the Prokofiev op. 125 edited by Rostropovich (Boosey & Hawkes) and Nelsova (International). Clearly two different approaches to the piece and greatly affected by fingerings. I don't know if Nelsova advocates level or arched left knuckles. But I know that Slava's fingerings would be very diffcult to use if the knuckles are not level.

By the way, if you are attempting to change your hand position to level knuckles while not fully understanding the proper balance, you might feel disoriented in your left hand and might very well naturally imitate this disorientation in your right hand. After all, our hands have a tendency to imitate each other (that's why it's difficult for many people to rub their tummies and pat their heads and switch hands). This may very well be the cause of sound suffering "when it was demonstrated." Who demonstrated this? Did they really know what they were doing when they tried to level their knuckles?

P.S. I have a picture of Starker playing in 4th position and his left knuckles are level, not arched. I don't know if this was just for a pose or if his left hand looks different while he's playing in other postions.

Tim Janof replies: I do question one statement you made:

"The level knuckles are actually more architectually sound than and balanced than the arched ones (maybe not for buildings, but for human hands on the cello.)"

I have a hard time buying this. The musculature is not at its strongest when it is extended. Just rest your weight on the edge of a table top with flat knuckles and watch your knuckles hyper-extend. The energy goes into bending the knuckles backwards instead of into the tabletop. This is much less powerful than resting your weight on the tabletop with curved fingers and knuckles.

I also question whether the hand is more balanced. Just because you are crouched to the ground doesn't mean you are more balanced. It just means you have less distance to fall. I think of balance as meaning that your body is in more of "power stance." Having flat knuckles does not represent this, at least as I'm envisioning it.

There do seem to be some advantages to flat knuckles. So the question is whether these advantages warrant using flat knuckles ALL the time or just in certain circumstances. I also wonder if flat knuckles work better when playing with a long end-pin. When the cello is more vertical (i.e. short endpin), the fingers/knuckles may need to be more curved just to reach the string.

Gerhard Mantel through an e-mail to Tim Janof replies: It is an interesting issue. We should keep it far away from any moral or ideological reasoning. The "pro-curved" argument with architecture does not really always apply to physiology. In physiological matters, only physiological arguments are really applicable. They may or may not have analogies in the dead physical world. The "pro-collapsed" arguments you mention are not very satisfactory either. The hand may be closer to the fingerboard, which is not an advantage in itself, and the stretching between 2nd and 3rd finger does not depend on the arched or collapsed form of the fingers, but on the degree of pronation of the forearm: With the forearm pronated somewhat, the lack of spreading ability between fingers 2 and 3 is substituted by the difference in stretching of these two fingers, the 2nd being more curved than the 3rd.

One of my teachers, Paul Tortelier, recommended locked (collapsed) end knuckles. It then was regarded as a heresy, and the "arch" argument was even then brought up against it. To me, the only argument applicable is what works best for an individual person.

I therefore do not see any "school," neither Russian nor otherwise, to promote either one of the two possibilities.

As is so often, "it depends." It depends, to start with, on the individual hand. With some cellists, the knuckle is locked if there is an angle of 180 degrees, meaning no angle at all, as for instance with me. I therefore use both positions with ease. With others, there is an angle of almost 90 degrees if the finger is pressed on the fingerboard with collapsed knuckles. Here, I would at least recommend to EXERCISE an arched position, if only to get some more strength into the fingers. If a player observes that his end knuckle collapses, which invariably is the case with the first finger in thumb position with the thumb at a distance of a halftone, he should play like this with a good instead of with bad conscience. He should play this position intentionally, not as a bad habit occurring. The bad conscience certainly is worse than the collapsed end knuckle!

If a finger is not on the fingerboard, but in the air, its end knuckle is always curved. (I strongly advocate that fingers that are not used should leave the fingerboard, with the exception of fast runs. That is, we should "play the piano" for various reasons not to be discussed here). The MIDDLE knuckle is always curved naturally. With fingers in the air, nobody can stretch the end knuckle, if the middle knuckle is curved, which is always the case in cello playing, maybe with the exception of very short 4th fingers. That means, that every finger reaches the fingerboard in an initially curved position. It then can collapse or not. To me, therefore, there is a difference if I play very fast runs or if I play melodic, slow finger application. In fast runs, it would waste time to have the end knuckle arrive in a curved form and then collapse, I therefore leave them curved (this happens without particular intention), with the exception of the above mentioned 1st finger in thumb position, where playing on the finger nail is worse to me (also with rare exceptions) than locking the finger end knuckle.

There is another aspect in favor of the collapsed end knuckle, at least with fingers that are not hyperextended. A locked end knuckle does not have any movement tolerance, while a curved one does. With a locked knuckle, the hand has one joint less. This means, there is one joint less to represent a leeway of insecurity of movement. Therefore, there is a difference in shift security which can go as far as producing a relaxed feeling in the trunk. In many cases, security is much higher with both the starting and the arriving fingers locked, since there is less (intonation) leeway in the fingers. It would probably exceed this discussion to name a few shifts in the classical repertoire where this can apply. In an upward scale, for instance, the first finger doing the shift is more secure in a locked than in a curved form. Here the 1st finger touching the fingerboard stays locked during the whole scale.

The sheer vibrato quality difference between the two positions to me is so tiny that it is negligeable as compared to the other arguments.

So, I think there is no such thing as right or wrong in this issue. Forcing a student to do something which contradicts his or her physical conditions certainly will do a lot of damage. On the other hand, exercises to strengthen our fingers will never hurt, even if we finally choose to play with locked end knuckles.

The discussion is similar to the question of the right thumb. Rostropovich locks it, with the exception of fast movements at the frog, where there is no thumb pressure needed, and where the thumb can stay therefore in its slight natural curve.

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