By Miranda Wilson
If there’s one thing that almost all advancing violinists, violists, cellists, and bassists have in common, it’s a fear of playing in the registers beyond the neck position. Why? Part of it is to do with our anatomy. Like the chimpanzees with whom we share 96 percent of our DNA, humans have opposable thumbs, giving us the ability to grasp objects. It therefore feels natural to play in the neck position, where the thumb can comfortably oppose the fingers as you move from note to note.
Once you get beyond the neck position, however, you can no longer do this, and without adequate technical support from the way you’re using your body, you can end up feeling totally unmoored. Intonation goes haywire, especially at high speeds, and tone quality becomes thin and unresonant.
Obviously, the best way to improve at upper-position playing is simply to do it more often: Practice it every day in your scales, arpeggios, études, and repertoire. But practicing with poor technique can frustrate players and fuel the feelings of inadequacy and anxiety about upper-position playing from which even advanced musicians suffer. In order to be in a position to practice the technique effectively, three main elements need to be in place.
1. Focus on the Whole Body
One significant barrier to upper-position proficiency is illogical positioning of the entire body, not just the left hand and arm. The player, whether he or she is standing or sitting, should take care that the overall stance is balanced and relaxed. The left arm’s trajectory needs to carry the fingers from the neck position over the “cusp” of the body of the instrument into the upper position without too much repositioning. Therefore, violinists and violists should make sure the arm isn’t clamping to the side of the body. By the same token, cellists and bassists should avoid a “sagging” left arm that will necessitate a rapid jolt upward as they approach thumb position—it should feel easy and flowing to draw the thumb out from under the neck and into the upper positions.
2. Find Your Optimal Hand Shaping
Every player needs to find his or her individual sense of optimal hand shaping for the upper position. If you hang your arms and hands down by your sides, you’ll notice that your fingers automatically take on a loosely curled shape. As you form a hand shape on your instrument, try to keep it as similar as possible to this relaxed posture. Some players find it useful to have a teacher or friend take photographs of the hand’s natural shapes from several angles as they try to translate it onto the instrument.
Since many players’ anxieties about the upper position are focused on intonation, there’s a kind of false logic that clamping several fingers down at once will provide security. However, this completely sabotages the independence of the fingers and makes intonation worse. In daily scale practice, care should be taken to cultivate a finger-to-finger trajectory that “walks” the arm’s weight through the fingers so that each finger has the independence to reach for an accurate pitch and start vibrato immediately.
A very common problem in string players is hypermobility or hyperlaxity of the joints—sometimes called “double-jointedness”—where the finger joints buckle while playing, especially in the upper position. This can impede mobility and cause pain when the joint “locks.”
Violin teacher Lora Staples has come up with an interesting solution in a popular YouTube video, where she suggests practicing joint-strengthening exercises with the aid of a clothes pin. I have found this useful in helping students cultivate better finger shaping, with the caution that you should only practice it with a loosely sprung clothespin to avoid overusing the tendons of the wrist.
“In daily scale practice, care should be taken to cultivate a finger-to-finger trajectory that ‘walks’ the arm’s weight through the fingers.”
3. Keep Your Eye on the Bow
As soon as stance and hand shaping are working well, the next step on the way to confidence in the upper position is to reinforce the left hand’s good work with appropriate bowing technique. A central point in my book Cello Practice, Cello Performance is that all techniques are both-handed techniques, and nowhere is this more apparent than when playing in the upper position. Bowing technique is different for notes played high up on the string than for notes that are closer to the nut, principally because the string is now “shortened.” Because of this, it’s necessary to play close to the bridge, with appropriate adjustments in arm weight (heavier) and bow speed (slower) to pull a resonant tone from the instrument.
Daily scale practice of one-octave scales in the highest register, using one full bow-stroke per note, will help reinforce this technique. Use continuous vibrato and pull the bow as slowly as possible while maintaining your best tone.
In addition to the published étude repertoire, you can create your own études to improve upper-position playing. Take a relatively easy “lyrical” piece and play it up an octave on the same strings as the original version, modifying the fingerings as necessary. For advanced violinists, this could be the opening section of Jules Massenet’s “Meditation from Thaïs”; for violists, the slow movement of the J.C. Bach Concerto; for cellists, Fauré’s Sicilienne; for bassists, Pergolesi’s Nina. Less advanced players could use familiar beginning pieces, such as those from Suzuki Volume One.
Building confidence in intonation and tone quality in the upper position also has a very pleasant side effect—it actually improves your intonation and tone in the neck position and all over the instrument. Prioritizing logical upper-position technique in everyday practice and learning means that in time, anyone can learn to be fearless on the high notes.