Shifting Perspectives: Violympics Event 3, Part 1

July 18, 2020, 11:01 PM · It's time for the third event in the "Violympics" - violinist Nathan Cole's summertime program, inspired by the Olympics and designed to improve skills by posing a series of technical and musical challenges. Several hundred violinists and violists from around the world - including me - are participating in his paid course this summer.

The theme for technique this week was shifting, and it was toughest one yet for me.


My challenges began the moment I started watching Nathan’s introductory video, titled "Goodbye, Ghost!" The first step in developing our shifting technique, he said, was to banish use of ghost tones in shifting. (Ghost tones are the floaty, airy sound that you get when playing a harmonic. These are different from guide notes, which one uses in old-finger shifts.) He pointed out that while he knows many teachers use this method when teaching students to shift, it’s not how he or "the greats" really shift, so it’s better just to learn it the right way from the beginning.

Having spent a long afternoon working on shifting with several of my own students - asking them to release to a harmonic, then shifting, then replacing the weight -- using "ghost tones," in other words, Nathan's statement brought up my defensive shields. I felt almost personally attacked!

It’s easy, in some cases, to say, "Teacher is the expert, who knows far better than me, so I must be wrong and he/she must be right." As students, many of us fall into this mentality. But what if you’ve had multiple teachers, all experts in their fields, and their pedagogy conflicts?

To give a brief summary of the conflicting expert opinions I had in my head:

All three teachers are professional musicians and pedagogues with the highest caliber resumes, and whose methods have been successful with several of their own students. It’s impossible to take one of them out of the mix and say, "Teacher B is clearly an inferior teacher and player to Teacher A, so they must be wrong."

So who is right when the experts disagree? With so many teachers and players creating online courses and tutorial videos that anyone can access, it’s easier than ever to find different viewpoints on violin technique. It’s common for each teacher to have their own following of students who firmly believe they have found "The One True Way" and that all other Ways are simply inferior. Also, there can be some disparity in the way teachers teach, and the way that their students interpret and apply those instructions.

When my own students are preparing to play in masterclasses or attend programs with different teachers, I tell them to try anything they are asked, to see if it works, and then to talk to me afterwards. Maybe we will decide to stay with how we have done it in the past, or maybe we all will have learned something new!

Learning to navigate different viewpoints with grace is an important skill - and as I was reminded this week, it's really hard when you encounter a new teacher who tells you the way you've been doing things (and the way your teacher, who you respect) is wrong.

So, what did I do? I took my own advice, and I followed Nathan’s assignments to the best of my ability, using the techniques that he recommended. Our material for the week was selected exercises from Otakar Sevcik’s Op. 8, which you can access for free on IMSLP:

Sevcik Op. 8

For Nathan’s helpful strategies for shifting, you can watch his YouTube video:

Never Miss A Violin Shift Again

One of the keys for shifting without a ghost tone is to be playing with minimal left hand pressure, and Nathan also has a YouTube video on that.

How To Find Your MVP

My shifting *did* improve quite a bit this past week. I found Nathan's focus on the timing of the shift, particularly in coordinating it with bow changes or slurs, to be really useful, as well as his method of practicing the shift slowly enough that you can actually hear your arrival to the new pitch. I have heard that advice from multiple teachers, so it was nice to be reminded.

So, what’s the "right" shifting technique? For me, I think it depends a lot on musical context. I’m sure that there are musical examples where each of the shifting techniques I described above would be applicable and effective. In my own playing, I'll try multiple strategies and see what works the best for each shift.

For my students, I am going to continue teaching as I have been. It is working for me and for them, and I think there’s a big difference between teaching a young player to shift for the first time and teaching professionals and adults to refine their already-existing shifting technique.

This week brought up a lot of questions about what forms a shifting technique, and I encourage you to reflect on these for yourself and see if clarifying the answers also helps you in your shifting technique:

At the end of the day, it's up to you. It's your violin playing, your body, your music, and your life. Find the method that is effective, consistent, musically meaningful, and healthy for your body to do. If it's not *all* of the above, then look for adjustments or explore other methods until it feels right for you.

I wish you the very best of luck on your shifting journey!

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July 20, 2020 at 08:46 PM · Claire: This is a beautifully written and heartfelt article. I thank you for the honesty it took to share your struggles, as well as your insights. I fall into the camp that believes there is not always one "right" way to do anything. I've appreciated teachers who had strong opinions, but were willing to try something else if his/her stated approach wasn't working for me. I firmly believe that the struggles you have as a player are what make you a fine teacher. Your motto to "look for adjustments or explore other methods until it feels right for you" seems to be very sound advice.

July 20, 2020 at 10:08 PM · Hi Claire,

It seems like teachers A and C are essentially in agreement, whereas teacher B sounds like has a very different approach. I wonder if teacher B does a lot of remediation or is working with people with essentially working shifting mechanisms. Or maybe different things work for different students.

July 20, 2020 at 10:45 PM · Ah, the big difference between Nathan and Teacher C is that Nathan says not to release to a ghost to shift at all, whereas Teacher C insists on it.

July 20, 2020 at 10:46 PM · And yes, Teacher B does a lot of remediation. I was one of those students. :-)

July 25, 2020 at 10:34 PM · Fantastic article! Well-written and appreciated, Claire!

I have studied with Nathan privately and have definitely noticed how his shifting methods differ from other great pedagogues.

In the end, I agree with you: do what works for you!

And I loved the questions you wrote as a check-in. Thank you!

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