Printer-friendly version
Corwin Slack

Shifting and finger patterns

November 17, 2008 at 2:58 PM

My good friend and mentor Edward Lawrence has three rules for shifting that have had a powerful impact on me.

1. All shifts are slow

2. Shift on a finger on a string

3. Shift to a position not to a finger

Rule three has been a particular recent focus of my practice. What this means is that when shifting we shift the whole hand from one finger pattern to a new finger pattern in a different position. We can't just shift a finger to another finger. 

So what happens to the fingers? Is there a guiding finger or do all the fingers move during the shift?

Well there is a guiding finger that controls the shift. It is usually the the last finger before the shift but it can in some cases dictated by the music and expression be the finger that will end the shift. The old-timers sometimes started the shift with the last finger down and ended it with the next finger down. This can be a rather voluptuous sound.

But what about the other fingers?

There are many circumstances but primarily the new pattern should be formed at the earliest possible opportunity -- at the latest on beginning of the note that starts the shift but earlier if possible. Fingers that are not on the string should be formed into a pattern in the air.

This requires a lot of thinking and planning. We can almost always do things a lot sooner than we think. We can cover notes on adjacent strings sooner than we think. We can prepare for shifts sooner than we think. 

So how to get to this? This is a lot to think about. I suggest that three questions every violinist should start with and ask every moment of their practice is "where is my first finger?" and "why is it there?" and "would it be better if it were somewhere else?" 

I think that these questions will help one better follow rule three of shifting: "shift to a position not to a finger".

From Tom Holzman
Posted via on November 17, 2008 at 10:25 PM

Re Rule 2 - my teacher usually advises shifting withthe first finger down if possible.

From Craig Coleman
Posted via on November 17, 2008 at 10:54 PM


Thanks for reminding me of these three basic points in shifting. Now where is my Yost!!


From al ku
Posted via on November 18, 2008 at 12:22 AM

great points corwin.  to be honest, other than the ways you have stated, i cannot think of any other ways to do it.  lightly sliding into a new position with the "last finger" is definitely safer than "jumping" into a new positiion,,,for better intonation at least.

as you said, if i have to shift  from my first finger on e string on the first position (fa) to a very  high note,  8th position 4th finger (tee) ,,,,i should slide into the new hand position by keeping the first finger from fa to the octave fa, and then press down the 4th fing tee. 

otherwise, it is one heck of a jump:)

ps, not sure if i got my do re me right on the above:)

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted via on November 18, 2008 at 12:41 AM

This blog is very pertinent to what I'm working on--if I don't know where my first finger is, usually the rest of them are fuzzy too.  Thanks!

From Stephen Brivati
Posted via on November 18, 2008 at 1:33 AM


al, your point is fine but I think maybe the idea of jumping might stand a touch of clarification.

Badically there are four shifts.

1)  From the previous finger. (Classical or French shift)

2) From the previous finger and changing to the new half way or so...(Combintion shift)

3) Using the finger that is going to play the next note to slide. (The Romantic of Russian)

4)  The finger moves onto the new note and the hand follows later.  (Delayed shift very ppular in Galamian school.  Galamian editions indicate this with a box around the number)  These are more typically used by player swith big hand si htink.  Sort of like crawling around the fingerboard.  

Not one of these techniques can be classified as a jump. Jumping refers to the tehcnique of shifting to a new note without and guide.  On ocassion it has to be done ,  but if it is done as an alternative to shifting it is generally a technical fault.  The romantic or Russian shift is highly emotive,   inapprpriate for classicla and baroque and shuld be used sparingly  een in romantic music (in my opinion.) Heifetz used to use thes eshifts and he made them a feature of his playing by changing bow -before - the shift and literally playing the portamento all out so the target nte lmost became of secodnary importnace. As he matured he use dthis hallmark effetc less and less.



From al ku
Posted via on November 18, 2008 at 2:19 AM

buri comes to the rescue.  thanks buri for that thorough explanation, very helpful.  by jump,,,for a beginner,,,i really mean it:)  meaning, to blindly hop onto a note pleading that it is the one and it never will be:)

what i have in mind i guess falls more into the first grouping then.

what kind of shift do you yourself employ these days ?

in some heifetz playing, i often hear a teeny slide, up into a note when the note is a long, expressive one.  very flavorful.   that is something i don't hear much these days.  do you know what i am talking about?

From Corwin Slack
Posted via on November 18, 2008 at 4:54 AM

Tom, The first finger should usually be down but the important thing is down on what note? Before I got serious about these rules I  would complete a shift and then have to adjust the first finger after the shift. 

In general one should be able to play the notes in the new position without any pattern adjustment.


From Corwin Slack
Posted via on November 18, 2008 at 4:58 AM

Buri-Sensei, In general I agree with your shift categories. Tonight while practicing I came across a situation where it looks like a romantic shift (to the end finger) but it really is a technical shift.

All the notes below are eighth notes on the eing played with 1 and 2 fingers (with a shift from 3rd to 5th position notated as ----)

a b flat a b flat ----- c d c d

The classic shift would be an overshift from b flat to d but opening the half step to a whole step during the shift or even on the last b flat is awkward. So I propose to shift to the c with the first finger and set the whole step in the air. 

This is the "romantic" shift but not at all in the context of a romantic sound or affect just a technical 

Your thoughts Sensei.


From Craig Coleman
Posted via on November 18, 2008 at 5:08 AM


Thanks for the clarification about shifting and jumping to the note without a guide. When playing Prokofieff ,sometimes jumping is all I can do because his works are beyond the technique of the violin. The only guide is my teeth grinding before I jump.


From Stephen Brivati
Posted via on November 18, 2008 at 5:57 AM


Corwin, you are quite right.  According to the very loose comments I made that is a romanric shift.  It isn`t at all.  My comments were cocnerning only where the following finger is higher.  What do you wnat to call this one?  Perhaps a `shove it out the way shift`?  Your comments about preparing the hand in advance are extremely important. It is a very neglected but fundamentla part of technique.

Craig,   know the feeling.  I think at this point we are getting into a diffenrt area of technique that implies absolute awareness of eerynote on the fingerboard.  The super players have this.  Hwever,  I think the rest of us really can benift from a greta deal more work on exercises where on takes the hand cmpletley off the instrument,  vizualizes and plays a note wihout correcting.  Just deciding if it is sharp or flat and then repeating the procedure over and over.   One of the best exercise sin Kievman`s boo (Practicing the violin mentallyy/physically) I think.



From Tess Z
Posted via on November 18, 2008 at 6:32 AM

Point #3 is the hardest.  We have to think in patterns and I don't do that consistently, especially if the music is challenging and I'm intent on hitting the right note but not thinking ahead to the second note after the shift.  All the adjusting gets frustrating.

From Craig Coleman
Posted via on November 18, 2008 at 7:21 AM

Thanks Buri for the recommendation,I'll look into Kievmans book.


From Corwin Slack
Posted via on November 18, 2008 at 1:23 PM

Craig and Buri re jumping

Perhaps there may be some times when jumping is called for. My repertory isn't so advanced that I have found that necessary. Whenever I come to a big shift say from first position to fifth position crossing strings  I still practice the shift by moving up the string with a guiding finger. I try to have the end finger placed (patternwise) before I start the shift if not on the string in the air. 

I rather suspect that mentally grabbing a note on the violin from the air) would be benefitted greatly from mentally sliding to it on a mental guiding finger. 

From Tom Holzman
Posted via on November 18, 2008 at 8:56 PM

Corwin - it should shift from wherever it is before you shift to wherever it should be so that the finger which will play after the shift is in the right place.  It plays the role of guiding the shift, helping you know where you are before you put down the next finger which will play the first note after the shift.  For example, let's say that you are playing 4th finger E in first position on the A string.  Your first finger position at that point would be B.  Suppose you need to shift to 4th finger G on the A string.  You guide the shift by keeping your first finger in contact with the string and moving until that finger is at the position of D on the A string.  At that point, you put down your 4th finger on the G.  Of course, the first finger does not sound in either position.  It only serves to guide the shift, since going from 1st to 3rd position moving on the 4th finger might be tricky to implement.  I hope this isn't completely unclear. 

From Stephen Brivati
Posted via on November 18, 2008 at 10:07 PM


that`s an interesting example.  I wouldn`t do hat too ofen I think.  It involves a lot of extra mental work and I only have limited capacity.  In hta case ,  for me the firts finger might well be a stabilizer but 4-4 is reasonable.  It is useful to practice octave shifts on the fourth finger.  The exercise in Drew`s book in which one plays a pattern in first position and repeats an octave higher on the same string is helpful for developing shifting on the fourth finger.   Gotta keep strengthening it...



From Stephen Brivati
Posted via on November 19, 2008 at 12:08 AM



re your example of moving from first to fifth I think you are quite right in using a guiding finger. This is not a situation calling for a jump.   In order to maxcimize saftey I usually recommend practicing both as you suggest and the alternative which you are not going to use IE placing the fourth finge ron the upper string and shifting on that. Also work on the combination shift across two strings. When getting back to your intended approach you may be pleasantly surprised.

As far as the mental work is cocnerned I am not a beliver in the mental glide.  I think there is an absolute mentla image of every note on the fingerboard and the ability to just go directly to it is the hallmark  of a top player.  One can see Heifetz hinting at it in his masterclasses and elsewhere.  The trouble with thinking of a mentla glide is that is the image your body will then repsond to whereas our ultimate objective is to play the left hand of the violin like a piano sort of.

There is nothing worse than watching a player messing aorund in various ways to find a note befor ean entry.  That is amateurish in the derogatory sense of the word.  



This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music: Check out our selection of Celtic music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases Summer Music Programs Directory
Find a Summer Music Program Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

The Wallis Presents

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine