Cello LH Pain (If any cellist can help)

April 19, 2019, 7:52 PM · Disclaimer: I know I this is a violin website, but I also know there are some cellists on here, and I’ve been trying to find some general answers online to my problem without much success. I’ve purchased a cello technique book which will be coming in the mail in a couple days.

Background: I have been practicing violin for a couple years. I had a teacher up until a couple months ago. I bought a cello from Shar back in 2015 just for fun, and I take it out every once and a while just for fun as well. I’ve never taken cello lessons, but I have done some research online as to basic principles and theory behind posture and playing. I haven’t sat down to play the cello seriously until a couple days ago, like actually practicing scales to a metronome and doing long tones. I wanted to start making my own music and would love to be able to incorporate cello as a middle voice instead of something like a guitar.

Problem: Any time that I’ve ever played cello, I start experiencing pain in my left wrist. Sometimes it almost feels like the circulation in my arm is being cut off. I know to keep the hand in line with the fore arm as much as possible, and I focus on that while letting the weight of my arm drop to hold the finger down to the string, but I know that there’s more to it than that. I used to have some strain in my right hand as well, but lately it’s kind of disappeared. I think I’ve learned how to really relax and sink my weight into the bow, but maybe I’m not managing the same with the left hand?

I know a video would help. I’m typing this from work since it’s slow, so I’ll try to work on that tomorrow if I can. I’m looking into finding a teacher currently through friends, but until then I still want to be able to practice and use cello in my musical projects.

If any of you on here are cello players and have basic LH posture/principles that you could share with me, even with crossing strings or the position of the thumb, or anything at all, I would GREATLY appreciate it.

Replies (17)

Edited: April 19, 2019, 8:57 PM · At this stage you can think of your left arm as hanging by the finger that is stopping the string from the fingerboard. We generally do not play the cello with all our fingers in place on the strings as we do on the violin. The palm of the left hand is kept parallel to the cello's neck - well, except for sometimes when playing with the index finger in 1st position.

The cello bow is also held differently than a violin bow with the stick rather perpendicular to the fingers and across the 2nd finger joints -BUT- there are fine cellists that do this differently. In my opinion there is no better book to get some details of cello technique than Victor Sazer's "New Directions in Cello Playing."

Proper cello playing is much more ergonomic than violin or viola playing. Applying violin technique to cello playing is bound to hurt you. Written from experience - my first month of cello playing followed 10 years of violin but preceded my first cello lesson - some 70 years ago. My teacher straightened it out at my first lesson - and then followed years of hard work. Learning to play the cello without a teacher can lead to problems and maybe even physical damage and pain. So - try to get a teacher.

April 20, 2019, 7:07 PM · https://youtu.be/1dCtZvXSoEg

Here’s a video of me playing a C scale three octaves, trying to relax.

Edited: April 20, 2019, 7:26 PM · Thank you for the advice, Andrew.

I was thinking as I go up the fingerboard, I wasn't bringing the elbow up with it and the result was my wrist bending outward.

That aside, I just generally feel tense in my upper left arm. Like the circulation is being cut off or something. It's more of a pressure than a pain. Like I sat on my leg for too long or something. I tried not moving my elbow too far back, because I've heard about that being an issue, but that makes my wrist bend outward sometimes.

I also notice most cellist don't change the angle of their left elbow very dramatically when changing between the different strings.
I forgot to add, I am in the process of finding a teacher.

Edited: April 21, 2019, 5:59 PM · Fingers square to the board, not slanted back like a violinist. Also don't cock your fingers and wrist backwards. Your fingers should be cupped forward, not splayed awkwardly backward away from the palm.

Drop your hand palm down fingers hanging loose and relaxed, slightly cupped, elbow bent 90 degrees, forearm straight out forward parallel to the ground in front of you, with your elbow at your side and that is how it should look while on the cello. Keep that position and turn and lift your hand to the fingerboard, thumb naturally opposite your first finger or back a bit.

In your video your elbow is generally too high, your hand straining. I can't even force my hand into the position you are in. . . no wonder you hurt!

April 21, 2019, 5:37 PM · Not a cellist, but will say that if you feel any numbness, tingling or lack of blood supply, you ought to stop playing and search professional help.
April 21, 2019, 11:58 PM · Michael, thank you as well for you feedback. I was going to post a video earlier, but I've been watching others cellists playing and I'm starting to see more about the fingers sort of hanging there awkwardly. I'm thinking my thumb needs to be a bit more centered on the back of the neck. I feel like most cellists have just a bit more room between the palm and the neck than I'm allowing for.

I notice some play with their elbows more behind, as well, but I wonder if that's because their body is tilted in relationship with the instrument to allow for the bow arm to come more "up and around."

In any case, thank you all for the advice. I'm still looking for a teacher. Hopefully soon. I don't intend to do anything extreme on cello. I really just need it for simple bass-like accompaniments for my musical projects, but if my lessons allow me to advance enough, I would love to be able to incorporate more into my endeavors. Playing cello is so fun in a very different way than violin and I love every second of it.

April 22, 2019, 6:51 AM · Yes, cellists put their thumbs on the back of the neck, not resting the neck in the crook of the thumb.
Edited: April 22, 2019, 8:16 AM · Speaking for myself - I've been playing cello for 70 years:

1. Cellists do have their thumbs touching the back of the neck, but as a "sense of place," when playing with vibrato (which is pretty much always) the thumb does not (need to) touch the neck, since most cellists use an "arm vibrato" with which the whole hand moves parallel to the neck. For those who use a "rolling vibrato," which involves rotation of the forearm the thumb will touch the back of the neck - this might be necessary when playing with the index finger in half position (and for some even in 1st position) - it depends on how high you hold the cello and how your arms work. The weight of the left arm provides the force on the strings, not any squeezing between thumb and other fingers. Because of this the cross section curvature (i.e., shape) of the cello neck is not so critical as it is for violinists and violists (I know this because I have 3 cellos with different neck cross sections and it makes no difference to my playing - but I have 2 violas and 4 violins and having even very slightly different neck cross sections is very disconcerting.)

2. We extend the endpin (and thus adjust the angle of the instrument to the floor) in such a way as to get maximum mechanical advantage (i.e., leverage) with the bow and fit the instrument to our body (essentially to our torso)

3. Many cellists rest the cello against the left knee/thigh region and rotate it as they move from string to string. This allows them to play all strings pretty much the same way both with their left hands and their right. Those of us who can may also rest the upper bout against our chest.

4. I notice you are playing the C scale with virtually no bending of the bow hair - doesn't sound bad at all, but there is a lot more sound to be had with more friction - when you want it.

May 1, 2019, 10:41 PM · Hi!

I just wanted to say thank you again and say that I met with my new teacher yesterday, who told me I was pronating too much in both hands and also told me to use the side of the thumb on the back of the neck for the LH which since starting to do that has been REVOLUTIONARY! It's a lot easier to keep the palm square to the neck like that. Now just to do the same with the RH.

There's obviously more to work on besides that, but it's nice that I was able to improve after one lesson, even if it was a little bit. I intend to see her next week as well.

I will say, I feel like I need to work on my calluses! I play violin very regularly, but I think I need a bit more for sustained cello playing.

Edited: May 18, 2019, 7:47 AM · Your life will be easier if you don't try to "nail" the strings to the fingerboard to get a good solid sound. In fact Victor Sazer's book recommends placing your finger tip in the fingerboard to the right of the string you are stopping - it works! The real pain will come to your left thumb when and if you start playing in thumb positions and you try to stop the string with the side of your thumb. But with a teacher you will work it out.
May 17, 2019, 4:39 PM · First, I am glad you have a teacher. I hope this person plays well, and can teach you effectively.

Second, work hard, for it is easy to play cello "not so well".

And, this brings me to say, for the first three or four years, the physical thing that is the cello will be teaching your body how to work with it, and this will lead to some muscular challenges, etc -- not pain, but growth. So, manage your practise so that youn can always practice.

It is good to hear you are not afraid of shifting, but 3 octaves of any scale at this stage is a bit premature. Get your hand frames well formed in first position, I politely suggest, and this will take anyone at all several months, at least. But your teacher will sort this out. (Shifting correctly is a huge art in itself, if you care about intonation.)

Enjoy the trip.

May 18, 2019, 6:59 PM · Update:

My teacher is a performance major at SDSU. She's helped me tremendously with both hands. A lot of what she's helped me sort out is also applicable to the violin. We go slow in our lessons and focus on only technique. I know that wouldn't be ideal in most cases, but I personally thrive on diving into the deep end of understand technique and how the body should work with the instrument.

The right hand isn't perfect, but it's come along very well in a relatively short amount of time. The left hand has been the hardest, but focusing on staying on the tips of my fingers and thinking of the direction of my palm/forearm has helped. My other problem has been collapsing at the base knuckle, especially in my first and second finger. Keeping my hand naturally curved from there to the fingertip has been difficult, but I'm more aware of it now.

May 20, 2019, 2:41 AM · A good teacher is a great investment. Well done.

I look forward to the time when your right hand is the hardest!!

May 20, 2019, 9:19 AM · Beware! Don't get too stuck on the idea of staying on the tips of your fingers, it can be the source of a lot of pain. Watch some videos of Rostropovich!
May 20, 2019, 12:37 PM · Andrew, I find this to be quite staggering information (warning about fingertip pain).

The fingertips are placed rapidly onto the fingerboard on the right hand side of the string, and the pads of the fingers press the string. The fingertips relax immediately they land.

You can't play vibrato or with good intonation if your hand is clenching the fingerboard and neck (with the left hand thumb).

Try to play some three or four octave scales in one bow stroke with this clenching stuff.

Where does this stuff about pain come from?

Now, before you respond, please take the time to listen to and watch any of half a dozen experts, say, Paul Katz on CelloBello, or the Cello Academy from Munich.

Or, look this up in Maurice Eisenberg's Cello Playing of Today, as one modern authority in print. I would cite page numbers, and other books, but I am touring in Spain for a month, and don't have these refereces to hand.

The "pain" I mention in my post above relates to building muscle strength.

Moreover, I have a lot of faith in a conservatorium graduate teacher.

May 20, 2019, 1:00 PM · Graeme, I agree with you completely.

It was this phrase of Wesley's that I was commenting on: "focusing on staying on the tips of my fingers and thinking of the direction of my palm/forearm..."

I was assuming that he was trying to with his fingertips on the strings rather than the pads. I seem to recall from 70 years ago, that hurt!

May 20, 2019, 5:49 PM · This is incredibly interesting. However, I should have clarified that my teacher wanted me to stay on the tips of my fingers for now to help promote a properly bent base knuckle whereas I was continually bending in the opposite direction and essentially collapsing the whole hand frame. Especially in the first and second fingers.

I have a lesson tomorrow. I'm going to ask about this.

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