Second Position: No Man's Land

March 10, 2016, 6:17 PM · A violinist’s left hand is a picture of focused fireworks, energy unleashed in a small area. Its requirements seem simple, on the surface. It has to maneuver four very distinct angles required by the strings. Complications ensue when the hundreds of finger combinations require awareness of countless new angles which tax the conscious mind but make total sense to the unconscious. The unconscious provides a flexible hand to maneuver an infinite number of possibilities, like a furniture caster with multiple ball bearings, in a multi-dimensional living room.

Different positions are simple when the violinist feels comfortable and confident with intervals and doesn’t hang on to one position any longer than necessary. Spaces between notes lock into the technical mind, and are connected to the ear by what can only be described as muscle memory and a musical miracle.

The Second Position Conundrum

By the time a student is introduced to second position, the bias of having learned third position first rears its ugly head. There is a mental block against second position, and in the peculiar “logic” and “intuition” that serves as the foundation of much musical perception, it’s not surprising that second position ends up being harder to learn than it needs to be.

second position

Three things make second position seem daunting. First is that it may be presented as an optional position. Who’s going to yes to that? Another is that the intervals are different than those in first position; the angle of the hand is very different if you start with a half step instead of a whole step. And finally, there’s the subliminal message that it must be difficult if it’s taught after third position.

Because of the mental block many violinists have against second position, its mastery unleashes confidence to learn all of the other positions. Here are four things to make the transition easier:

  1. Learn second position at the same time third position is being worked on. That will remove any stigma associated with it, and it will speed up the process of learning both.
  2. Sometimes a violinist will depend on touching the violin’s shoulder when shifting to third position. This becomes a crutch that is impossible to use while playing second position. Instead of developing a bad habit, the player should learn to depend on more organic reference points: targeting the actual space on the fingerboard and keeping the fingers supple and firm so they can hit the right pitch without wavering.
  3. Scrunching the hand within second position can be avoided by realizing how the hand expands like an accordion when moving from one finger to another. Even a half step places the hand in a different orbit. Watch such reference points as rings, watches and knuckles to see how far the hand actually moves. If nothing is moving except the fingertip, it is a red flag indicating hand inflexibility.
  4. The player should challenge himself to work on second position all the way from low first finger to high, augmented fourth finger. Observe the large trajectory so that the wrist, palm and arm are fully malleable and stretchable. Don’t move the finger first, before getting all the other parts in place. Then the fingertip will confidently pop into place. It’s harder than it sounds, because there is no faster reflex than a moving fingertip mindlessly getting to the wrong place on the fingerboard.

On Your Way to Second Position

Here’s a list of reminders, hints and pre-requisites that will make second position what it should be: no different than first position.

  1. Know the intervals so that when you hear the next notes coming up, you automatically translate them into fingerings. All positions become comfortable if you don’t have to worry about which fingering to use.
  2. Don’t think you can know where second position is without referencing it to first position. The mind has a marvelous ability to scan an area such as the fingerboard and divide it into matrices. The geniuses of the violin do it from the moment they start their instrument, merely recognizing the need to do whatever is necessary to achieve music that’s in tune. They are masters at seeing reality. The rest of us can learn to think the same way.
  3. Observe what your hand feels like in first position until you know it cold. The mind has a certain way of remembering the feel of whole and half steps. After you learn what feels right and wrong, then sharpen your sensitivity to that feel. Don’t be satisfied until you can control those measurements both consciously and unconsciously.
  4. Transfer all your muscle memory from first position to second position. Even though the distances are slightly shorter in second, the ear will easily make up the difference by sending subtle messages to the fingertips. What only existed as mere muscle memory expands into a mental overview that goes beyond muscles. Muscles are the great unknowns, the hidden properties that a violinist can only guess at. On the other hand, remembering many other things such as correcting old habits and knowing what the hand feels like on different strings creates a solid foundation known as multi-memory. It’s far more effective than guessing what the muscles are doing.

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March 11, 2016 at 01:08 PM · As a child learning the violin, after first position comes third position. Then you start to get studies from the likes of Wohlfahrt, Kayser, Schradieck, and Levinson that move among first, second, and third positions. These studies are pretty good, actually, and there are a LOT of them, so in my view if taken seriously they make the three positions almost interchangeable. My recollection, however, is that *repertoire* editions intended for young students are fingered so that everything in that region of the fingerboard can be either in first or third position. And I wonder if that's the origin of the fear and loathing of second position.

March 11, 2016 at 07:35 PM · After many years of teaching intermediate students, I find that the most effective book for helping students master second position is The Doflein Method, Book 3. It presents a well-balanced mix of exercises, short pieces, duets, and then also puts them in the context of both first and third position. Love it!

March 11, 2016 at 07:47 PM · I have never understood where that fear of second position comes from. I learnt to shift very early in my learning process and my first teacher Eligiuz Stoinski, who was a student of Auer, taught me the positions in order, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7. I have taught them this way throughout all my teaching career with no problems whatsoever. I even do things like make my students play Kayser 1 in both first and second postions to help the student open the brains to the music and not the fingering. None of my students have ever learn that second position is hard, as I hear from so many other students. I wonder like Paul Deck where this might come from,,,

March 11, 2016 at 10:21 PM · I love second position. Unlike fourth where I am rapidly lost...

March 12, 2016 at 01:02 AM · Thanks, this is very helpful. Do you teachers spend much time identifying which position one should play in for each piece at the lower levels? Figuring out fingerings, even for simple pieces, is somewhat intimidating. Advice is much appreciated.

March 12, 2016 at 01:21 AM · Kreutzer Etude 2 uses the 2nd position quite a bit. That never occurred to me when I was learning it, until now when I read this blog!

March 12, 2016 at 01:45 AM · the problem lies in a moveable 1st finger. Took me years to figure it out, and now its my best friend as a violist (avoids extentions which are nearly impossible).

March 12, 2016 at 02:33 AM · One of my favorite shifting books is Sevcik opus 8, because the melody is repeated enough times so that the ear is engaged. So by the time you play the melody in 2nd position, you will have already played it in first position. The difficulty I wrote about stems from a mental block that a student might develop, not any inherent complication with second position that doesn't exist with first position. One vivid memory I had when I first learned third position decades ago was that I depended on feeling the shoulder of the violin with the palm of my hand. I remember It wasn't a good feeling; it felt like a crutch. I don't regret that I used the crutch, because I don't think I had any choice. And I'm not convinced it was a bad thing. But I know better things came later.

March 12, 2016 at 07:23 AM · I was taught 2nd position before 3rd (1,2,3,4, 4, 5..., half position somewhere in between), which is probably why I feel fairly comfortble with 2nd position.

"Sometimes a violinist will depend on touching the violin’s shoulder when shifting to third position."

This was something my new teacher eradicated almost immediately as a bad habit.

March 12, 2016 at 02:01 PM · I find 2nd harder than 4th...and I'm working to improve on both...

I think I'm getting there...

And I do wish I had all this in place while I was still a child and not overthinking everything!

Great article!

March 12, 2016 at 04:20 PM · Get out of the way of the muscles and ears. Let them run

the show. They know how to work together. Trust them.

Don't look.

The eyes have their own ideas - at best, a waste of time - often,


Get out of the way of the muscles and ears.

March 12, 2016 at 05:28 PM · Buri suggested the challenge of playing Kreutzer No. 2 entirely in second position. I took him up on it and it was very enlightening. It's brain-training, like every new or new-ish thing in violin study. Some of the early Kayser studies would be good too, as Jesus Florido suggested, as they are in even less friendly keys than K2. There is only one note toward the end of K2 that needs a fourth finger extension, so it's a good fit, but there are some awkward string crossings that make for good practice.

March 16, 2016 at 03:40 PM · To, Teachers can help young students by writing in not only the fingerings, but also the string the note is being played on (in Roman numerals) and even the number of the position. 2p, 3p, 4p etc.) It is intimidating for a student when she is not sure which fingering to use, especially since music needs to flow. Also annoying would be having to stop all the time to think of which fingering to use. Muscle memory helps, but only if you practice with a lot of repetition. When the teacher writes in a fingering for the young student, it does not have to become a crutch. We grow up with tape on the bow to help bow distribution and tape on the fingerboard for intonation. Until the mind sees these "divisions" and "attention-getters" within its own imagination, I'm in favor of all the help we can get.

There is, however, a need occasionally for the student to figure out their own fingerings. They can facilitate it by thinking of the intervals, so that if they're in 2nd position, they can figure out the next fingering by logic.

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