Shifting Positions | Chapter 2

Shifting positions 

Prof. Lihay Bendayan - Head of the Violin Class Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance

Why and how do we shift positions?

We shift positions either when distances between notes exceed the extension capacity between our fingers or for musical reasons. In a musical context, our shifts create vowels inside the words we use. The aesthetic choice of where we place our shifts (i.e., the fingerings we select) can be compared with word choice in poetry or literature.

For example, consider the first four notes of the second movement of the Mendelssohn concerto in E-minor. If we start with the 2nd finger in 3rd position on the A string (Mi) and stay on the A string for the next three notes, we can play either Mi-Fa-Re-Si: 2, 3-3, 1 with a vowel between Fa and Re; or 2, 3, 1-1, with the vowel between Re and Si. The vocabulary changes using moving the vowel to the next syllable, creating a new word that is aesthetically different - in the same way, we employ the beauty or aesthetics of words in shaping poetry and literature.

In addition to the vowel placement, which defines the words, there are two more functions for this “elevator” we take between two points: we either increase the tension between point A and point B, or we release the tension between those two points, according to their placement inside the words and the general context of the phrase. If we play a shift starting with one finger and ending on another, we can choose to travel on the finger we started with or with the finger we are landing on, and these options will sound very different.

Moreover, we can extend when shifting from one finger to another, thus reducing the distance between the fingers before we shift. This will alter the width and sound of the glissando, which itself becomes another interpretative decision. This works when we shift to higher positions, for example, when shifting from Si played with the 1st finger on A string to an octave higher with the 3rd finger on the same string - the farther you stretch the third finger before your shift. While playing the first finger, the shorter the distance will become.

Naturally, this also works when you shift back down to the same Si in 1st position, this time stretching the first finger backward (releasing the finger while keeping it above the same sting) before you shift. By contrast, even if we do not use an initial extension, we can still choose the precise point at which we land on the string during the shift - but the glissando will generally create less tension.

Applying all these elements together with glissandos of different speeds and widths in a sophisticated and calculated way allows for creating a musical language, which can serve different aesthetics and the repertoire of different periods in a cultivated way with highly developed, fine, and very personal musical taste.

Technical notions

1. Memory

Before the technical aspects, the capability to switch from one point to another with a perfect intonation has to do with memory. We have to know exactly where our starting point is, where we want to end up, and finally, we must know the path and distance between those two points perfectly. In general, the more senses you involve in this process, the better memory functions. Therefore, remembering, for example, that the 1st finger on the third position on A string is a Re is one element, but being able to look at the string and know exactly where this Re should be, and also remembering the feeling and position of your hand and arm for that Re, while hearing internally how this Re should sound - all these elements together are naturally much more effective. The next time you practice your shifts, try using each element separately before combining them. You might notice that you usually use only some of these senses or that you execute the shifts almost automatically. The exercises in the video shows how to memorize the places of the notes on the strings and the positions of the hand, wrist, and arm corresponding to these notes.

2. Morphologies of shifting

Shifting can be initiated by our fingers, hand, or arm - and in different proportions and combinations among them. Naturally, we can shift small distances such as half step or whole step with the fingers only, without moving the arm or hand, and keep the arm where most of the notes of a passage are played. Shifts initiated by the hand are usually executed either for small distances in lower positions and more generally from the third position and higher.

The arm is naturally very active until about the 3rd to 5th positions, with more and more involvement of the hand occurring the higher we shift. To develop an effective and structured technique, it is important to develop each capacity separately before mixing them. You can do this work in an organized way over a scale or smaller groups of notes activating each finger separately and on every string, and then do the same for the movements initiated by the hand and arm - with every finger and overall the strings as shown in the video below.

Note that it is important to control the angle of the fingers during the shifts, which should stay the same unless you choose to change the color of the sound of the note you arrive at. In general, the flatter the fingers, the warmer or more expressive the sound. On the other hand, the closer you get to the nails (fingers at a 90-degree angle from the string), the more focused and thin the sound will be. Naturally, it is also more comfortable to control the intonation with flatter fingers.

Therefore the angle you use in general as your basic playing position should be decided as a combination of all these elements together. Then, you should be able to play shifts without losing your basic position, preserving the sound quality.

3. Preparation for long-distance shifts

Shifting from low to very high positions and back down requires movements by the arm, the hand, and sometimes the fingers, since, from the 3rd position and higher, you need to come around the violin’s upper bout, which starts at the end of its neck. Naturally, movements that are initiated by the arm alone will be stopped by the contact of your right wrist with the bout of your violin. In fact, in long-distance shifts, another movement is involved in the violin - the movement of the left elbow to the right, creating diagonals during the shifts.

The execution of diagonal movements in the context of straight shifts along the strings can become a source of tension. A very active elbow moving to the side in the context of a fast passage might be very disturbing to the phrase and requires a lot of energy. This is why it is important to initiate the movement of the elbow to the side before your shift.

Your shifts will then be executed freely, with straight and more economical movements, requiring much less effort. Moreover, if, for example, you actively move your left elbow about 3 centimeters to the right side (which should not require much effort) before a long shift from 1st to 7th position, the shift itself might become the consequence of this small gesture and be played very freely, as a release.

The capability to transform shifts, which are often played very actively, to occasions to relax can contribute a lot to your virtuosity (see In-depth article “Can We Unlock the Secrets of Virtuosity?” Chapter 6). The video here shows perpendicular movements of the left elbow in preparation for changing strings and positions.

4. How to practice shifts that involve two fingers

To solidify shifts between two fingers, we can practice by paying separate attention to all the distances played, actively or passively, by each of the fingers involved in the shifts. For example, if you shift from Si 1st finger, the first position on A string towards Fa with 3rd finger on the same string, you can practice the shift in the following ways playing repetitive sequences of 1-2 minutes for each one of them:

a. 1-3; Si-Fa on one legato bow played downbow, followed by Fa-Si legato upbow - repeatedly and with perfect intonation during 1-3 minutes.

b. 1-1; in the same way, Si to Re third position is the shift played by the first finger passively or at least emphasizing the place of the 1st finger when Fa with 3rd finger is played.

c. 3-3; in the same way, Re 3rd finger to Fa 3rd finger, which is the distance played passively by the 3rd finger.

d. In the case after the Fa, you have to play a Sol with the 4th finger in the third position; for example, you can also work 3-4 Re-Sol, and 4-4 Mi-Sol, which will strengthen your [1-3 Si-Fa] shift even more and better prepare the position of your hand for the next note (Sol) that you need to play.

If you need to change strings while shifting, the same method should be applied, first keeping the arrival finger on the same string as the departing finger to practice the distance along the string before contemplating the perpendicular movement towards the new string. In fact, it is more effective to work on those two elements separately.


5. Shifts with the same finger

When working on shifts with the same fingers, it is important to assess the amount of finger pressure on the strings during shifts to ensure you do not add any unnecessary pressure at various points, which will require more energy. Greater friction between the fingers and the strings might affect (in an uncontrolled way) the position of your fingers, hand, and wrist during shifts.

It is important to control the speed of the shifts as well, which should not change over the course of the shift. Logically, it is easier and more effective to memorize movements that are always executed under the same conditions. If the same shifts are played each time differently, at different or varying speeds, with inconsistent positions of the hand, fingers, and/or wrist, and with varied weight on the strings, even repetitive hard work will not ensure a solid result.

The video below shows shifting positions with the same fingers in the spirit of the method written by Gaylord Yost.

P-C 0200102 Chapter 2 – Shifting Positions (Article & Videos) ultima modifica: da iClassical Foundation