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What to learn after first position?

Some teach fourth position after first position. Others recommend teaching second position next. Why?

JL Turok

Oy-Oy replies:The 4th position is the most dependable spot on the instrument due to the crotch of the neck. A strong argument could be made for STARTING a student there. All other positions (other than thumb on the harmonic) require some pitch sense to be sure you're in the right place. Not 4th. If you can play in tune in first position (which is the second most-stressful spot on the fingerboard, after half-position), it would seem to me that you could play in tune in all the others.

Having said all that, the utility of having the four open strings right nearby, the immediate availability of many scales, and the universal use of that position in beginning chapters of all method books constrains me to start students there as well. But 4th position is the most logical next step; adding that one position and including extensions, the student now has access to the entire chromatic scale from low C up to Ab below the harmonic.

KS replies:With my students, I always teach them 4th position next for several reasons. It's a good way to introduce the G and F major scales. Also, from a technical standpoint, it's an easier shift. I always tell them to shift with their thumbs. When their thumb hits the corner of the neck, they are in the perfect position. It's a very easy shift to feel. I bet 99% of the time, if they are out of tune, it's because their thumb hasn't shifted up with their hand and therefore their fingers are flat.

In 2nd position, you have to train your hand just how far (or how little) a distance to move. IMHO it takes longer to train your hand to get this shift 100% of the time.

I use the FeuilliardYoung Cellist Methodwith most of my students. It teaches 4th, 2nd, then 3rd positions and then uses exercises that use all four positions. My goal with my students is to have them be equally comfortable using all four positions. So I can't put too much emphasis on 4th position or they don't like to use the other two positions. I also use the KraneNew School of Cello Studies - Book 2that has quite a few etudes that only use 2nd, 3rd, or 4th position with no shifting, so they learn how to stay in one position and find out how many notes they can play without having to shift.

I call it which notes live next door to each other in each position, and which notes live across the street (string).

Tracie Price replies:One major reason schools teach 2nd position first is that method books are written for class instruction of mixed instruments. They are all based on what violinists would do or on the need to play a certain note, like E on the A-string. I always had trouble with this when teaching orchestra because I felt that 4th position was much easier for students to learn next, yet the books do not teach it that way. Violinists and violists simply use 4th finger for the "next" note, and do it more often when they are learning to use 4th finger; the books will have cellists shifting to 2nd position to play that same note. When all instruments are learning together, unfortunately, you often have to make some less-than-ideal decisions concerning how you will teach certain things simply out of necessity. There isn't a really good solution for this. Second position is not really a good choice to teach next because it changes depending on whether you have F-natural or F-sharp and C-natural or C-sharp.

Incidentally, school method books have the bassists shifting all over the place within a few months, and the bass students I worked with never had any trouble with this. They just thought it was easy because they always had to do it. Then they would feel superior when the violins were learning 3rd position and they'd already been shifting for a long time.

If you saw the fingering suggestions that are given in most school concert music, you'd either be horrified or laugh your head off. They are obviously not written by cellists.

screece replies:Like most of the others here, I started out in 1st position and worked on to 4th next. My teacher had me practice shifting from 1st to 4th after only about 3 months, although I don't think I actually played anything in 4th position until I was 9 months into it. I've been working on a couple etudes and a little Haydn piece lately, and all seem to contain groups of notes which are most easily played somewhere in '2nd' or '3rd' position. My teacher is of the opinion that the only three definitive positions are 1/2, 1st and 4th since there are 4 half-steps between 1st and 4th, and it's just as easy to refer to the individual notes and which fingers are used with them in each instance. It seems to be giving me an interesting perspective, and it forces me to more carefully consider what other notes are in reach when I place my hand in a particular spot; figuring out fingerings and shifts is probably a little different for me, although I don't think any more difficult.

Oy-Oy replies to screece:Your teacher is extremely wise. Unusually wise. I am an experienced professional performer and teacher, and I STILL don't know where "second" position is, or rather, I don't know when it's in one place and when it's in another. I'm sure there's an explanation, but the reason I haven't sought it is because it doesn't matter.

For each note you play, you're supposed to have a grid in your mind, based on the three data: which note, which string, which finger. That grid, based on those data, gives you the critical information you need: "what other notes are available to me at this instant, without shifting, across all 4 strings?" It is through increasing speed and certainty of these continually-changing grids that one learns the geography of the fingerboard and acquires the ability to sight-read real music. Nothing else is needed.

Assigning these "names" to the different positions simply distracts us from the real work that needs to be done (learning all the grids). Since they're such universally understood terms, I will reluctantly use "first position" (which is really "second position," if one's going to be technical about it), for instance, but I stop doing so as soon as possible with a student.

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