The Art of Shifting: Tips and Tricks from a Student's Perspective

September 26, 2008, 7:44 PM · I had recently seen, and commented on, a post about “fluid shifting” and accuracy in shifts, and I was inspired to blog about it. It is a very fascinating topic with many different insights and views. Is there a “right” way to shift? I really don’t know. I do, however, know some processes, which, over a period of time, work very well.

First, a small but entertaining anecdote. About three weeks ago, my parents and I made the long drive up from our home in Northern Virginia up to Philadelphia to have a lesson with a Philadelphia Orchestra violinist I had been studying with for a while. I was to go and play the first movement of the Saint-Saëns concerto, and the Schoenberg Phantasy. I thought I had prepared quite well, and I was quite confident as I walked to her front door. A bit too overconfident, if I knew what was to come…….

After saying hello and unpacking my violin and music, I lifted my violin to play. Right after my bow hit the strings for the Saint-Saëns, something went wrong. The first shift went completely flat. I fixed it and went on, but something was wrong. Every shift that came up was either hit horribly flat or horribly sharp. When I reached the end of the page, I put down my violin and looked sheepishly at my teacher. She looked at me, smiled, and said ever so sweetly, “Would you like to try that again?” Ouch.

That lesson, we went over my entire shifting technique, which, for all these years, I was doing all wrong. No matter how much work I did, the reason I could never play anything in tune when under pressure was because of the way I was shifting! However, this was not any fault of my teacher's. If anything, it was all myself. My wonderful teacher here in Virginia, whom I learn so much from, had told me many times to fix my shifting, but I was too just lazy to do it. I should have listened to her sound advice. However,I now know exactly what I was doing wrong, and what to do to fix it. And, more importantly, I now know how to make shifts accurate in tempo. And that, my fellow student violinists, is what I will be attempting to share with you.


Shifting is not in the hand, as many of us violinists believe. This was the policy I went by for about 8 years, ever since I learned how to shift. Shifting comes from the arm, and the arm only, about 90% of the time. The shape of the hand, and, more importantly, the fingers, should stay perfectly still when shifting. This means everything must stay constant-the arching of the finger, the angle of the fingernail to the fingerboard, and the shape of the wrist. This does not mean, however, that the hand must be stiff. Quite the contrary, actually. The hand must be very fluid during the shift, but the movement in the slide, as I stated before in the paragraph, must come mostly from the arm. That said, how do you practice this? The process is beautifully simple, but deathly boring and incredibly long.

Put your violin and bow up, and stand in front of a mirror. Practice the shift very slowly with a relaxed hand (let it, for the time being, be a shift on the A string with the first finger from the first position, B, to the third position, D). Now, first look at your hand. Is the shape of the finger staying exactly the same during the shift? Notice the contact of the fingertip to the fingerboard to the first knuckle. While moving on the fingerboard, this section of the finger may not drag back whatsoever. If the hand is moving back, while the shifting finger is “lagging” behind, then you are practicing the shift wrong. The reason why this is wrong is because if the hand shape doesn’t stay constant, the shift will be marginally different, or inconsistent, every time you practice it. And if you practice intonation with an inconsistent finger shape, you will be getting absolutely no work done. Then, secondly, look at the overall shape of the back of your hand in the mirror. Work on keeping the shape of the back of the hand the same as well, so you are 100% the shift is coming from the arm. Also, make sure the thumb is travelling with the hand, not lagging behind. A thumb dragging on the neck, like a finger dragging on the fingerboard, will make the shift inconsistent too. Then you might as well just not practice.

Okay….take a deep breath. Did you get that down? Can you make the shift (in tune?) very slowly with a relaxed but consistent finger shape? Great! On to step two! Now, we must speed up the shift. This is the crucial step to getting the selected shift in the piece in tune, and in time. So, let’s work the same shift we did in the first exercise (B to D) with a metronome. However, we will not be speeding up the metronome’s beats, instead, we will be speeding up the shift to the metronome. Set the metronome to, you guessed it, quarter note=60! Now, let’s start slowly. Start by shifting up in one bow, slurring the two notes, spending one quarter note on each note. Then, without stopping, change the bow and shift down on quarter notes again in one bow. You should be going up and coming down in a total of four beats, two bows, and in a note pattern of B-D,D-B. Ponder this for a moment; it may be hard to understand. Repeat this exercise 10 times, consecutively in tune, with the consistent hand shape. Once you’ve done that, you can go to the next step, shifting up with 3 eighth notes to the B and 1 eighth note to the D, and the same way coming down. Notice we speeded up the shift by cutting the time we had to shift in half. Repeat this another 10 times consecutively in tune, with the same consistent hand shape. After this, subdivide the quarter notes into sixteenth notes, and shift up with 7 sixteenth beats on the B, and one sixteenth note on the D, doing the same thing in the next bow coming down. Do this 10 times. We have cut the timing of the shift in half again! Now you are shifting about 8X (forgive me if this is wrong-too lazy to do the math) faster than you did when you first started with the metronome! Congratulations! Now we can go to the last step. Do the same thing you just did, but lift the bow during the last sixteenth beat. When you lift the bow, do the shift in that small space. You should be able to get that in tune, even though you are not hearing the slide of your finger. Once you get that perfectly ten times, you have finished practicing the shift! It should be able to be perfectly in tune every time you play it now. Shake yourself out….you did it!

You now need to go through every single shift in your piece like this (yeah….depression kicks in now). You might wonder what to do when a shift isn’t just on one finger. Lots of slides start on one finger and end on another. With this, you use the idea of “hovering”. Practice the shift the same way, but when you get into the position where you need to stop, ping the second finger down. It should hover close to the fingerboard so it can go down accurately as soon as you slide into position.


So that’s it! It’s actually a very simple concept that you will get the hang of very quickly. Yes, it will take a long time, but it will be worth it. I know that it definitely worked for me; two weeks later, I walked into a lesson with a different teacher, and played the first page of the Saint-Saëns almost note perfect!

So I hope you have not died from boredom while reading this, and I hope that you students will try this method. I know that there are other ways of shifting out there, but this is the process that has really helped me grow as a musician, in a technical perspective. I will leave you to ponder this huge fountain of knowledge that I condensed into three pages, and I welcome criticism for my writing, my views on technique, and, overall, my musical ideas. After all, I am only 14! ?



September 27, 2008 at 01:34 AM · Brian,

Bravo, bravo, bravo! Well written, clear and to the point.

Also reverse those rhythms, especially if the accuracy is not coming, and allow for the hand/finger size change — shrinking up towards 4th finger and expanding down away from 4th finger. (Always adjust in the direction of the shift except when the Hand Group — intervals — dictate otherwise.)

The "face" (fingernail) can and must be kept the same unless one is changing the type of passage, say from single notes to 3rds, etc.

When we shift up over the top of the instrument we are elongating the fingers while shrinking and saving 'face,' and therefore retracting/curling the fingers on the way down while expanding the hand and saving 'face.'

It is all in maintaining the ratio of measurement. Shift up an 8va and you shrink 50%.

Have fun!


September 27, 2008 at 02:23 AM · Good job, Brian! I will add these exercises to those you previously prescribed.


September 27, 2008 at 03:39 AM · Ilya Kaler mostly shifts in the hand, I would know. He sounds pretty good, no?

September 27, 2008 at 05:23 AM · Not criticism of your writing, but a compliment. Every time you write, not just this blog, you have really clear progression in your thoughts, and great expression. I suspect you are quite some 14 year old. BTW, that's helpful information in your post for me.

September 27, 2008 at 05:53 AM · I think your acceleration shifting drills would work wonders for learning to shift or a tricky shift.

I agree with Sharelle that your writing is super clear. There's no re-reading several times, trying to figure out what you're trying to say. Great!

September 27, 2008 at 09:34 AM · My teacher recently taught me about "hovering," and we're, um, a bit older than 14. This was a really good blog and has provided me with a lot of food for thought and something to discuss at my next lesson. Thanks!

September 27, 2008 at 10:53 AM · concur the writing and the instruction are good and the more impressive aspect is that brian conveys vividly his enthusiasm about the topic. this is exceptional for a 14 yo and anyone for that matter.

to make the presentation even more clear and precise, may want to consider mentioning the function of the wrist, elbow and shoulder when taking about "hand" and "arm" motion, etc.

in between the wrist and elbow is the forearm; between the elbow and the shoulder, arm.

"hand" moves by way of wrist movement since brian suggests to minimize the motion of the wrist joint, thereby keeping the hand and the forearm on the same plane when shifting.

"arm" motion: i interpret that brian suggests to shift by way of flexing and extending the elbow joint, where the forearm moves on the arm, while keeping the wrist joint straight but not tight.

to summarize, the elbow, instead of the wrist, is the main driver of this shifting mechanim that brian proposes and came to discover.

again, great job, brian.

September 27, 2008 at 12:50 PM · Good job, I'll try those exercises today.

September 27, 2008 at 01:19 PM · And to think that Maestro Hong calls me, "Mr. Faina". He's the teacher, I'M the student!!!! I've filed this one away along with Buri and Drew Blogs! My teacher Dr. Pinell told me about hovering & stepping, now it's been expanded a little more.

You also have quite a command of the English language! To convey what you did with simplicity with such brevity that simpletons like myself understood right off the bat, but also on par with the well seasoned and expirienced!

September 27, 2008 at 02:48 PM · Thanks for the great blog, Brian! :)

September 27, 2008 at 10:44 PM · wow, you did a great job! it was very easy to read/understand, and i agree with you almost entirely! keep it up kid! :)

September 28, 2008 at 05:39 PM · Thanks so much, everyone, for your kind comments. Especially to Mr. Lecher and Mr. Faina. I was taken aback that Mr. Lecher approved of my shifting views and gave me some great advice. Thanks!

And Mr. Faina, in many cases, I am the student. Just by knowing you on this website, I have already gained insight into so many other views and life lessons.

However, credit for this blog goes to my wonderful teacher in Philadelphia.

September 28, 2008 at 10:35 PM · Dear Brian:

This is incredibly articulate, thorough, and thoughtful - thank you so much for sharing with all of us.

September 29, 2008 at 08:09 AM · Thnk You, and I/we are looking forwards to your next posts.

September 29, 2008 at 12:10 PM · Very finely written. One would be amazed at how this becomes an imperative once the shoulder rest is abandoned.

September 29, 2008 at 09:53 PM · Brian-

Again, thank you for sharing so clearly and thoroughly - and you are also to be praised for your humility! Bravo!

September 30, 2008 at 03:32 AM · Hi Brian,

Just returned. Goodness sakes, you shouldn't be surprised that I approve of your shifting method as shown to you by an obviously fine violinist and teacher. You wrote with great purpose and clarity keeping to the 'straight and narrow.' In doing that, you left a few very important things unsaid, but still, Bravo!

Though my blogs get 'rather long' I am describing the complete simplicity of the technique on the violin and viola.

It is not easy, but it is simple! THEN it indeed becomes easier, and when mastered……it IS easy.

Piece of cake:-)


September 30, 2008 at 11:15 PM · Well, I still thank you for that, Mr. Lecher. If you haven't already, perhaps you could write a blog about shifting to clear up the many points that I haven't yet covered?

October 1, 2008 at 02:13 AM · Brian,

You are most welcome:-)

Click on my name and check out my blogs on shifting.

They are:

December '07 — “GPS” –– 2.1 Shifting

December '07 — “GPS” –– 2.2 Shifting

January '08 — “GPS” –– 2.3 Shifting from an Open String

March '08 — SHIFT TIPS

Go through them slowly and adapt one or 2 things at a time. Check it out with your teacher(s). Feel free to print the blogs out to show your teachers as that will give them a chance to peruse the blogs in their own time.

If they tell you another method, that is fine as long as it works.

Hope the blogs help and let me know if you have any questions:-)


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