Learn to make a smooth transition when changing positions on the violin or viola fingerboard
by Paul Stein

The Problem

How to find your target on the fingerboard and overcome obstacles when shifting.

The Solution

To improve your accuracy, a good place to start is with a variety of études. Harvey Whistler lays a wonderful foundation in his Introduction to Positions, which includes all the patterns that playing in different positions entails. What it lacks in musical context can be explored in Samuel Applebaum’s shifting exercises, presented in two volumes, from the String Builder series. He presents simpler, capsulized shifting moments, along with musical phrases that make the shifting more enticing and user friendly for a beginning or intermediate player.

Études give you the opportunity to explore shifting, but it will take imagination and experimentation to capture the feeling. To avoid the near misses, the down shifting feeling weaker than the up shifting, and the uncooperative bow, explore three organic concepts that define shifting and make it feel more natural.

1. Note Your Place in Space

Rather than succumb to the drudgery of “pushing” the finger up the fingerboard, imagine the distance, or spread, between the “end points” of the shifting cycle. One of our lesser-known senses (it doesn’t even make the top five) is the ability to know where something is in space. At its most elementary level, you experience it every time you reach for a door knob. At its most sophisticated, quarterbacks are able to connect with the receiver, all the while trying to avoid being sacked while throwing against the wind.

This sense (it even has a name: proprioception) is quite handy when you simply want to connect two notes while shifting. Measure carefully with whole steps and half steps. Practice slowly only a couple of times, so that you don’t feel rushed. However, you’ll be more accurate if your shift fits precisely within the pulse. The image of a pendulum or a swing will help you to feel the rhythm naturally.

You’ll arrive exactly on the pitch, and there won’t be any time for wavering or fudging.

2. Dig into the Strings

How you move your bow can either help or hinder your shifting. The much feared “bump in the road” (when the bow jumps up at the moment of shifting) can be smoothed over by “burrowing” into the string. Let the bow move a little faster than usual and apply just enough pressure to compensate for the bow’s unwanted reaction to what the left hand is doing. To develop the bow-shifting relationship, practice music by Fritz Kreisler. His phrases give lots of opportunities for glissandos, and the bow is more likely to move smoothly during these types of shifts.

3. Find your target

Shifting down is a little more complicated than shifting up, but a slight “shift” in mental gears will make the process easier (walking backward feels quite different than walking forward). To achieve the same security that shifting up gives you, try this thought exercise: before shifting down, create a visual sense of where the new note is by setting up a “ladder” from the first finger up to the note. For example, if you’re shifting down to third position, create the ladder from first position. Once you can pinpoint where the shifting target is, channel the childhood game of hopscotch. Jump from one position to another. The distance is now streamlined and defined, and the music’s rhythm sets the parameters.

Shifting opens up the world of proprioception, and you soon realize that bow distribution, phrasing, vibrato, and music in general, are artfully connected to one of our least-known senses. Now, if someone could just come up with a better name for this phenomenon!