Second Position: No Man's Land
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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