Printer-friendly version

Tapes on the Fingerboard. To use, or not to use? That is the question.

Paul Huppert

Written by
Published: December 17, 2014 at 5:50 PM [UTC]

Learning aids that address a multitude of endeavors are nothing new. The ubiquitous training wheels are a vital, sometimes necessary component in the travails of the learning process. How much of a price do we pay for added security and comfort? When do we venture away from that security? When do the training wheels come off?

Tapes on the violin fingerboard are meant to help give definition, clarity, and security, in an endeavor that (for most) is an adventure into the unknown. I will submit in this article a couple of concepts, and a couple of ideas (i.e. opinions) that are really meant to contribute to the conversation. A discussion that I suspect is not either/or but an opportunity to address a relatively accepted pedagogical concept, and see it from a slightly different angle.

I use tapes with my beginning students (generally age 6-9). However, my journey as a violin instructor has taught me that tapes on the fingerboard are not a good idea for two reasons. 1. For the student they offer an opportunity to avoid the responsibility of aural integrity (i.e. play in tune dude) and more...the fingerboard is not a keyboard, there are many shades of grey, and a multitude of subtlety involved with intonation. That's one of the things that makes playing the violin, and other fret-less instruments so great. 2. It allows the instructor an easy path to a mediocre end. It's just plain easier to 'teach' the beginning student that has the added pitch crutch of a placement indicator for most, if not all of the notes they wish to employ in a given selection of music. The point in this humble diatribe is to express a different point of view concerning the use of tapes on the violin fingerboard.

Imagine for a moment that instead of the usual four tapes in the first position, we utilize only two (first, and third finger) but not for the reasons generally assumed. My personal epiphany came courtesy of the left thumb. Thumbs are basically the anchors for both left, as well as right hand technique. Noticing that many violin students early on have difficulty with thumb placement, and have (not yet) established a good frame in their left hand. The first finger tape is a good landmark position for the thumb and first finger, especially when engaging the third and fourth fingers. My beginning students become quite accustomed to hearing "check your thumb tape." In addition, I like to introduce the G string early on, and instruct the student to practice a basic four finger pattern, this also helps to establish the 'frame' for the left hand, as well as better left arm positioning. The second finger being the strongest, and the student needing to learn the difference between 'higher and lower' generally progress quite nicely without the aid of a tape. Now on to the third finger tape....

The idea that one must not necessarily begin their study of the violin in the first position, is not a new one. However, this is a pedagogic concept that has yet to achieve any popular resonance in the violin teaching community. My interest in this teaching approach is twofold. One, observing a pronounced inability in the vast majority of players that have taken private lessons to ever perform in anything but the first position. And two, the observation that particularly with small hands, and the introduction of the fourth finger, early exposure to the third position has certain advantages over the first. In addition to the above, there is also the concept of cradling the violin in your hand as opposed to letting a shoulder rest do all the work. Coming to the rescue of this dilemma would be the 'third finger tape' now of course it has become the 'first finger tape' or more importantly, the new 'thumb tape'. This familiarity with a new region of the fingerboard, in the very early stages of learning the violin opens up whole new realms of possibility.

Mark O'Connor, in his early competition days distinguished himself in the fiddle world by frequently shifting between first and third position, and utilizing fourth finger extensions from the third position. None of these techniques were anything new in the classical world, but applied to a different genre, were ground breaking. O'Connor took an old concept from baroque times and applied it to improvisational folk playing. The point here is that a violin instructor, by shifting their perspective on what is taught when, can incorporate some interesting and beneficial changes in how violin technique is addressed for the beginning violin student.

Posted on December 17, 2014 at 8:14 PM
Why not just put a tiny piece of tape for the thumb to use as a guide, and let the fingers find the whole and half steps on their own?
From Paul Huppert
Posted on December 17, 2014 at 9:35 PM
That's a great idea, nothing like "downsizing" only I might worry that the tiny piece of tape would go mobile :). Perhaps a mark of some kind?
Posted on December 17, 2014 at 9:59 PM
I've been experimenting with a tape for the thumb and no tapes on the fingerboard with an adult student and two very young students. It is working (they can play in tune) and there is less tension in the left hand.
From Philip Voll
Posted on December 18, 2014 at 1:59 AM
I agree with not using tapes, and I dont agree that they are "training" wheels because you are not going to fall overplaying inaccurately (although people who have to listen to it may :-)), it is more like not steering striaight.
There is no need for tape because the notes you produce will tell you if you r plying in tune, so if you use tape, u r not using ear, just as you mentioned.
Posted on December 18, 2014 at 5:49 AM
I've found tapes to be useful for many students. I also tried a liquid paper pen to apply small and more accurate marks to the fingerboard when I ran out of tape one day. They had advantages, I discovered - 1)They naturally gradually wear off, 2)They don't move EVER, 3)You can be extremely accurate with the placement. The major disadvantage is that if you goof and misplace them, you're stuck.
Some students, especially if they begin a bit later, take a LONG TIME to learn to listen with ANY degree of critical usefulness, and so for these kids, tapes are essential, as without them, violin becomes just too hard and they are likely to quit. I will leave them on for as long as these kids need them, because if the ear is underdeveloped, they are already behind the eight ball. Kids who are listening in the normal range lose their stripes as soon as I can get away with it!
I really like the idea of using the third stripe for first finger in third position, and being the possessor of extremely tiny hands, I remember only too well the misery of trying to stretch the fourth finger as a beginner. I now play a 7/8 size, and it changed my life!
From Gene Wie
Posted on December 18, 2014 at 6:29 AM
> there is also the concept of cradling the violin
> in your hand as opposed to letting a shoulder
> rest do all the work.

I really like this...I have all of my beginners play in what is usually called "third position" right away, just to get out of that fear of playing in other places on the fingerboard other than "first position." Then we do Yost, and concentrate on learning where notes are on the instrument rather than what specific "positions" are. :)

Posted on December 18, 2014 at 3:11 PM
I picked it up 6 years ago at 55 years of age. I still keep little dots on the side of the fingerboard -- the way some guitars do. I still rely on them despite constant ear training.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on December 18, 2014 at 3:47 PM
It's fine for beginners to use tapes (and you mention here that you use them with beginners). One has to learn the aural skill, but also the physical skill of landing a finger in the correct place. I'm not a fan of having students slide around constantly for the right placement, either, that is also a nasty habit that can form from doing things completely by ear. So as a teacher, one needs to work with the student at hand. Some will barely need tapes at all, some will play completely out of tune, all the time, without them.

And if you are teaching a room full of first-graders, use tapes.

I like the idea of the "thumb tape"!

From Sarah Skreko
Posted on December 18, 2014 at 4:34 PM
While I like the idea of not using tapes, or only using them for a very short time, I agree with Laurie that it's not always workable depending on the age and ear of the student. I've also found that taking the tapes off is a process for some students. Sometimes I take them off and intonation goes right out the window, even after allowing for a generous adjustment period, especially if the student is playing in multiple keys. In that case, what I usually do is put one tape back on (generally the first finger tape) to give some point of reference, and then work a lot on listening and playing with the eyes closed.
From John Berger
Posted on December 18, 2014 at 8:12 PM
In my experience tapes are an essential guide in the early stages, especially for very young students. I use very narrow automotive pinstripe tape, placed so that the upper edge is precisely at the correct pitch.

At the same time, even with young beginners, as teachers we should endeavor to never let an out of tune note pass. Good intonation from the start is achievable and soon becomes a lifetime habit. If this isn't clear from the start, it takes arduous hours of correction later - when the ear has become accustomed to accepting less than precise intonation.

It took me many years to realize how simple this is, after I saw a couple of teachers in St Petersburg do it.

Posted on December 18, 2014 at 10:57 PM
To use or not to use--how apt. Because Fingerboard Tapes are like heroin: they are addictive and difficult to get off of.
Posted on December 19, 2014 at 3:08 AM
My kids all learn to chant my tapes slogan when I put them on their fiddle:

Tapes are guidelines, not rules!

From Paul Deck
Posted on December 19, 2014 at 5:08 AM
I think there is nothing wrong with tapes, but I'm not sure they're really all that helpful in terms of training the student. They're a crutch, so you can't leave them on too long. But where I think they help is minimizing some of the early frustration and especially in keeping parents and other household members from going completely insane.
Posted on December 21, 2014 at 10:12 AM
I second the thumb dots. I am an adult starter. Seems to me adults are very self-critical and more in need of feeling assured to be playing the right notes, than young children. I have thumb dots on pos 1 and 3 and occasionally when they fall of, I try for a few days to go without, and everything sounds horrible :-/

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

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

Shar Music
Shar Music: Protect your instrument this winter

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Starling-DeLay Symposium
Starling-DeLay Symposium

Los Angeles Philharmonic
LA Phil

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

ARIA International Summer Academy

Study with the Elizabeth Faidley Studio

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