Secrets to Shifting

October 4, 2013, 4:52 AM · I seriously try to think back to when I first started to learn how to shift. I know that at the beginning of my violin journey I loved to play on the E string and loved the high notes. Now I am completely the exact opposite - I can't get enough of my lusty G string.

What I do remember when I first learned shifting were the books. Introduction to the positions (Excellent Books – Can be a little intimidating to the younger student. I love Avsharian's Sliding Fingers with Big Notes and the children love it too. I use this before Harvey Whistler's Intro to Positions for the wee ones.)

I learned shifting fairly early in my violin journey. The teacher that first taught me shifting just went through the books really and never seriously dissected shifting or taught me how to listen to the pitches I was shifting from and too. Books are great, but honestly if you play through the books without having truly learned the concepts – what good is that but really a waste of time and money for those lessons.

Don't underestimate the importance of shifting and shifting properly. Shifting to higher positions without knowledge or a good foundation can set you up for catastrophic failure.

What is shifting? Well, you have to have an understanding first of the positions on the violin. The violin fingerboard is setup as a grid and the moving of the left hand from one position to the next is what is known as Shifting.

It is imperative to have an understanding of the positions before shifting. If you don't know what or where 5th position is it makes it pretty difficult to accurately shift somewhere you don't even know.

If you find yourself needing to shift to a position - not only practice the shift but practice in that position so you are familiar with the new lay of the land.

11 Shifting Secrets

  1. Use a Tissue – In some cases, When I introduce shifting to a student I use a tissue. This helps the student have a feeling of polishing the strings with the finger when moving up and down the instrument and encourages a relaxed feeling. I had one teacher compare it to jumping of a diving board. That analogy didn't really work for me but hey if it works for you great! What he was trying to describe was the feeling of a solid finger playing a note then the releasing motion after the note is played to begin the shift and landing solid again on the new pitch.
  2. Stay RELAXED – Do not strangle the instrument. It is Impossible to shift with tension. The tension is actually creating friction on the instrument making it difficult to shift smoothly. If you find this happening use a tissue and investigate your thumb. Is your thumb gripping the instrument? If so practice shifting without the thumb and then slowly bring him back into the picture. When you feel tension in your thumb do what I call the thumb dance. Take your thumb away from the instrument and wiggle it around.
  3. Start SMALL - Start from shifting first to third – easy enough exercise. Play B and D on the A string in first Position. Really listen to the Pitch D, hear it in your head and then shift from B to D with first finger.
  4. Teamwork - Have the Arm hand and fingers work as a team. Don't just shift up with the finger and leave everone else behind. It is all about teamwork.
  5. Siren or Tornado Exercise – My students love this exercise because they could annoy their parents or brothers and sisters. This exercise works for all levels. First it encourages practicing the shifting motion with teamwork. Start with any finger in first position and just shift up and down sounding like a siren. For Intermediate Level – Know exactly what position you are shifting to and vary positions, fingers and strings. Advanced level – DOUNIS :)
  6. Keep an Eye on that Left Elbow – Let your elbow help you maneuver around to the higher positions. Bring it under the instrument to have easier access to higher positions
  7. I can't emphasize this enough – Always know what position you are shifting from and to.
  8. Always HEAR the new pitch in your head before shifting to it. You will seriously be surprised at how quickly this improves your intonation accuracy in shifting.
  9. Be a posture inspector. Inspect your hand, thumb, arm – are they truly in the correct position. It is very easy after shifting not to know where you are in the posture department. So INSPECT. When shifting to seventh ask yourself “Am I truly in this position?” When shifting back to first again ask yourself”Am I truly in first?” Inspect your thumb that he is truly in the new position. This can be a GAME CHANGER in the intonation department let me tell you!!! This simple fix can change many intonation problems.
  10. Practice Shifting down the instrument as much as up. So much time is spent on shifting up. Have you ever started from seventh position and practice shifting down? When practicing shifting don't neglect the downshifts :)
  11. When isolating shifting in piece work make sure to practice the shifts fast. This is a different and difficult concept but just because the piece may be slow you still need to get to the new position just as cleanly without slides in most cases so the shift needs to be practiced fast.

If I had to narrow this all down in three SECRETS – Always HEAR in your head the pitch you are shifting too, TRULY BE in the position – new or old, KNOW where you are going.

Kind of sounds like life doesn't it – Listen, Be and Know. Happy Shifting :)

Heather Broadbent


October 4, 2013 at 10:28 PM · I have two questions: 1)in very slow motion, say one is moving 2nd finger c# to 1st finger d on a string, when does the first finger start moving?2) what happens to the thumb going down from very high positions, say 15th, to high positions say 7th?

October 5, 2013 at 06:16 AM · Mark

Excellent questions. I see you are a viola player - do you play the violin as well? In this video I discuss more about the thumb and an excellent daily position practice.

Come to my shifting secrets class October 9 12:00PM CST and I will be sure to answer your questions with visuals - It is quite a bit easier. "See" you there :)

October 6, 2013 at 02:46 PM · Gonna try this, thanks for posting these tips!

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