We’re all fond of quoting that puritanical proverb: ‘It’s a bad workman who blames his tools,’ but if you experience discomfort in your left hand during or after playing, it would be wise to consider whether some aspect of your cello’s set up is responsible.
Some makes of strings are easier for the left hand than others. This is both a function of the tension of the string and its elasticity or pliability. Choosing a pliable string is a pragmatic way to ease the strain on the left hand and does not require any modification to an instrument’s set up. The most pliable cello strings available are those with a gut or Perlon core (eg. Eudoxa and Dominant). The most rigid strings are metal strings with a solid wire core (eg. Jargar and Larsen). Some metal core strings use a woven core and lie somewhere between the two extremes (eg. Helicore, Spirocore, Flexicore and Evah Pirazzi).
However, players sometimes find that they cannot get the tonal effect that they desire from the string which is most comfortable to play. At this point it is worth reviewing all aspects of the set up which influence the height of the strings above the fingerboard.
Excessive string height above the fingerboard is one of the major causes of left hand strain. Strings need sufficient clearance to ensure that they do not clatter on the fingerboard when they are played. As a general rule, the stronger the player and more pliable the string, the more string height is required. However, if your strings never clatter on the board and they are uncomfortably difficult to push down, your strings may be set unnecessarily high and it may be possible to adjust your set up for lower string clearances.
The standard measurements for string clearance are made at the bridge end of the fingerboard, measuring the perpendicular distance from the surface of the fingerboard to the centre of the string. In this system the standard height for the C string is 8.5mm and for the A string is 6.0mm. However, these measurements could be altered by as much as 2mm either way, depending on the flexibility of the strings used and the strength of the individual player. Most players struggling with over-high strings ask to have their bridge height reduced. This can help, as long as there is enough wood in the bridge to work with without compromising its acoustic design.
String clearances can change in response to atmospheric conditions. When there is a lot of moisture in the air, string clearances increase and they decrease when the air is very dry. In some countries cellists have different bridges and sound posts for different seasons. Most cellists in the UK manage with one bridge – in which case it is important to find a compromise which works across a range of atmospheric conditions. If string clearances have increased it may also indicate that some part of the cello has lost its structural integrity (most commonly when the fingerboard has become unglued from the neck).
String height problems are sometimes caused by a mismatch between the bridge curve and the curve of the fingerboard. For example, if the fingerboard was originally made for a bridge with a flatter playing curve than the current bridge, the D and G strings will have excessive clearance in high positions, causing discomfort and creating a bow clearance problem in high positions.
If playing in first position is tiring, you should check your string heights at the nut. It should be just possible to slip a business card beneath the A and D strings at the nut; if the gap is any greater, the nut should be lowered.
Strain experienced around 4th, 5th and 6th positions is usually associated with two possible causes: fingerboard scoop and neck shaping at the root. 5th position is about half way down the length of the fingerboard and the degree of scoop planed into the board influences how far the string must be pressed down to make contact with the fingerboard. The amount of scoop in the board can be viewed by gently pressing the string down at each end of the fingerboard until the string just touches the surface of the fingerboard at each end. The air space remaining under the string in 5th position should be between 1mm to 1.5mm. If this space is much more than 1.5mm it could make life difficult in 4th, 5th or 6th positions. Some players like to have even less scoop than this, particularly for a rigid high tension metal A string (e.g. Jargar or Larsen).
Good neck shaping is very important for playing comfort and the critical point is at the bottom of the neck where the precise height and shape of the neck root determine how far the thumb must be stretched away from the other fingers in 5th and 6th position – too much stretching can induce a lot of tension in the palm of the left hand. Re-shaping a cello neck is a fairly expensive process so it’s important to check the neck shaping very carefully when choosing an instrument.
Another major cause of left hand strain is excessive stop length (ie. the playing length of the open string). Some cellists have such flexible, strong fingers that they can manage a long stop, even though their hands are not large, but cellists with smaller hands tend to find a moderate stop more manageable.
Luthiers can make reductions to the stop length of up to 10mm by repositioning the bridge slightly higher up the instrument and by fitting a special nut. Shortening the stop length from both ends leaves the feeling of the neck at 4th position unchanged, but the best solution of all is to find a cello with a comfortable stop for your hand.