Shifting Introduction and Q and A

By Hans Jensen 


This blog post features an excerpt from CelloMind by Hans Jensen and Minna Rose Chung followed by answers to last week's Instagram Q and A by Hans Jensen! Follow us on Instagram at

Having a solid shifting technique is one of the most important aspects of playing a string instrument. When mastered, it should be a very simple and natural part of your total technique. A great cello technique should be mostly autonomous so that the greater amount of concentration and energy is directed toward artistic and expressive purposes.


The four main elements of shifting are:

  1. Visualization

  2. Preparatory movements for shifting

  3. Shifting motions, of which there are three types

  4. The four finger categories

Visualization is a tool that we are accustomed to using all the time before doing just about anything. It is mostly triggered automatically without any conscious awareness. For example, if you are thirsty and want a drink, you imagine drinking water; before you realize it, you have a cup of water in your hand.

Similarly, when throwing a basketball toward the net, first you imagine the ball going into the net and see in your mind the movement required to make the shot.

When practicing and cultivating a solid shifting technique, it is important to spend time developing clear mental images of how the shift should sound, feel, and look. Auditory, kinesthetic, and visual images will help with this visualization process. When shifting is mastered, these individual mind-sets come together to form a unified visual image.


Auditory Image

  • The more vivid and specific the auditory image, the more secure your shift will be.

  • Hearing the whole passage in your mind—including the note before the shift, the shift itself, and the arrival note—will make the shift more accurate.

  • The auditory image of the exact pitch or pitches should include the tone color, vibrato, and volume.

Kinesthetic Image

  • Imagine the feel of the bow on the string, the weight of your arm, and the amount of resistance from the strings.
  • Perceive the feel of your left hand and fingers touching the string and the fingerboard.
  • Let your ear guide the movement of the hand and arm along the fingerboard

Visual Image

  • See in your mind’s eye exactly how your body, arms, and hands look and move before, during, and after the shift.

Preparatory Movements for Shifting

Understanding and implementing the proper preparatory movements before the shift is an essential component for an impeccable shifting technique.

  1. Ascending shifts: Anticipate the shift from the back by lifting your upper left arm and elbow to the height of the arrival note before shifting.

  2. Descending shifts: Anticipate the shift from the back by slightly lifting your elbow before shifting.

  3. It is important not to exaggerate the preparatory movements:

    1. For shorter shifts, the preparatory movements should be very small and nearly invisible.

    2. The longer the shift, the larger the preparatory movements must be from both arms.

  4. Make sure the bow leads the shift at the start of each preparatory movement.

  5. The preparatory motion should not be isolated—it should be an integral part of the shifting motion.

Shifting Motions

Using curved movement patterns are a very efficient way of shifting. Allowing the movements to originate in the larger muscles promotes smoother and more balanced shifts. The curved rotation originates in your back, then to the upper arm and forearm before flowing into the hand and fingers, and thus into the strings and fingerboard.

  • It is important to release the energy from the back and allow the momentum to produce the shift.

  • In long-distance shifts, the movements originate in the feet and the hips, flow through the torso to the back and the upper arm, then through the forearm and into the hand and fingers.

  • The circular shifting motion is one smooth and continuous movement.

  • Coordination between both arms is essential.

Instagram Q and A

Question 1: How would you approach relaxing the hand during large shifts to land comfortably? 


  1. When shifting always shift to a hand position so that there is a great support for balance in the hand.
  2. The time taken for a shift should always be taken from the old note so timing the shifts is important.
  3. Always practice shifting relative to a tempo even when practicing a shift in a slow tempo

Question 2: Is there a good/smooth way to shift onto a different string with the same finger?


  1. One of my rules for playing the cello is to avoid as much as possible to shift from one string to another using the same finger especially in fast or legato playing.
  2. It is almost always better to use a different finger.

Question 3: Do you have any tips for shifting an octave or so smoothly and confidentially?

Answer: In addition to the answer for question no. 1...

  1. Whatever note we shift to should always be visualized and heard in the mind of the player with absolutely certainty before shifting.
  2. In the beginning when practicing a shift, it is ok to practice it consciously, but eventually it has to become automatic.
  3. Thinking about what we do at the highest level gets in the way of doing it.

Question 4: How do I get comfortable shifting from a C sharp to a high A:


  1. Read the answers for no. 1 and no. 4
  2. Additionally, it is also important to be balanced in the position that we shift from.
  3. Prepare the hand and arm in the old position before shifting.
  4. As an example, when shifting from C sharp in the first position on the A string to a high A place the thumb up on top of the string or strings before shifting. That way the hand has the same angle in the low position as in the high position and aiming the hand like that make it much easier to hit the high note consistent.

Question 5: How do you do it smoothly?

Answer:  In addition to answers 1-2 and 4 it is important to never rush always take the time needed by shifting early.

Question 6: How to do it without stress?


  1. There is good stress and there is bad stress. 
  2. The stress that makes us worry about a performance and then makes us practice and prepare better is good.
  3. However, the stress that makes us worry too much so that we wake up or don’t sleep well at night is not productive.
  4. One of my rules that I used to use when performing was that I should be so well prepared that even if playing bad it was ok. If we are so well prepared that we can perform ok when being stressed or nervous we usually don’t get so nervous.
  5. But being a bit nervous or stressed before performing is part of being a performer. I always tell my students that worrying about being nervous is an extra set of worrying that is not needed. Being nervous is part of the game but focus on the music and playing and the nerves will not bother you and slowly go away.

Question 7: How do you practice coordinating legato shifting with continuous vibrato?

Answer: I use shifting exercises from CelloMind for my students such as the one finger scales playing legato and shifting exercise 25.4 enclosed here.

Question 8: Tips for shifting with octaves/thirds or sixths: 


  1. When practicing double stops always make sure that you know exactly how you want the double stops to sound. One of the best ways to train the ear is to use Tartini tones like in the enclosed sample 26.2. When playing a major third the Tartini tone that is heard is the low pitch 2 octaves lower than the lower note. In this sample it is the low C the same as the C string.
  2. When shifting in double stops lead with the finger that shifts further.
  3. Shifting up from a smaller interval to a larger interval lead with the finger on the lower string.
  4. Shifting up from a larger interval to a smaller interval lead with the finger on the higher string
  5. Shifting down from a larger to a smaller interval lead with the finger on the lower string.

Shifting down from a smaller interval to a larger interval lead with the finger on the higher string.

Question 9: How do you think about shifting down as opposed to shifting up?

Answer:  It is more difficult to do descending shifts. Practicing chromatic scales in the high register using only second and third fingers will help improve the descending shifts a lot.

Question 10: How do you practice coordinating legato shifting with continuous vibrato?

Answer: My favorite shifting exercise with vibrato starts with the one finger scale from CelloMind. The one finger scale exercise can be practiced first with separate bows and after that doing it legato is a great shifting and vibrato exercise. For bigger shifting and vibrato exercises I use shifting exercise no. 25.5 from CelloMind.

Question 11: Finding the right note in any position.

Answer:  Two very important aspects when shifting:  no 1. Always visualize the sound of the pitch that you are shifting to.  No 2. It is best to always shift to a hand position instead of just shifting.