A question about when to change hand positions on the violin.

April 26, 2010 at 11:00 PM ·

I do not have a violin teacher and I am a intermediate player.

I am learning the gigue from partita no 3 for violin. The music is not notated with hand positions.

 My problem is , i do not know when I should  change hand positions in the music. How does one learn when he/she should change hand position?

I have seen some violin music notated with  finger notation. for  example, if the music is notated with a 1 over a G, then that means to move to the  3rd hand position.

 If anybody could please help me with figuring out when I should move to another hand position in the music, I would be on top of the world.


Replies (25)

April 27, 2010 at 12:49 AM ·

I think at first it's trial and error. Just try any given passage on first position, second position, third position, etc, and see what works best. Notice I didn't say what is EASIEST, but what works best.  Depending on your experience, shifting to a higher position may seem harder, but you may find that if you play the passage in first position you end up crossing strings a lot more. When choosing a fingering, ease and evenness of tone would be my top priorities. So, at first just try and see what works best. Eventually it will become more evident.

I hope that helps!

April 27, 2010 at 03:59 AM ·


it`s an interesting question.  With the great players fingering (what one woudlc all your point of discussion) was a factor of their persnal taste and type of technique.   For example Heifetz produced his typicall intense sound by insisting that (very often) a pharse which started on one string should be palyed on that string going higher and higher to preserve the color of that string.   Milstein on the other hand tended to use lower positions as much a spossible and on many ocassion an open string where a contemporary player would not. One reaosn he could do this wa shis use of gut strings which are a little less strident .   Oistrakh had a slight tendency t favor lower positions and simpler fngers for techncal security as he felt that he got nervous at times.  peronally I have never noticed this but I have apersonal prefernce for players that tend towards the lower positions and opne strings as I think that lets the violin resonate a little more naturally but it is not suc a major differnce.

There are other guidelines that help one choose fingerings.  For example,  it is better not to cross strings on a semintone so one might use a differnet psoition to avoid that.  Or it is possible that a finbger in one position creates an anti clockwise /or clockwise bowing that is extremely akward whereas a simple change ofpsoton might eliminate this.  

You would be well advised to buy a copy of `Szigeti on the violin` to get a rel ind epth discussion of the above point.

Not everyone agres with this but I actally don`t think it is that useful for an interneduite player to be hunting around for their own Bach fingerings.   To my mind it is much betterto work from a decent edition and learn from the fingerings that are given.  Alternatively buy the Henle Verlag which has a blank copy ad a fingered copy by an superb violinst whose name I have just forgotten.

Anotehrstabndar edition of the Bach is by Galamian.  I am not personally too enamoured of this version.  From both a bowing and fingerng perspective I consider Szeryng to be much superior. Szeryng had a very clear concept of how Bach should be played from a msuical point of view. That is,  he equated the four strings with the four basic rangegs of the human voice and insisted that if the melody (or hidden melody )of the movement was in the tenor or whatever then the fingering should keep that note on that string.  For example,  if you look at the finl gigue from the d mino partita it is typically fingered (Galamian et al) using the open d string for thefirst note of the first bar. Actually this is a convnience fingering and not much else.  Szeryng felt that the d was being sung by a bass and that it should be played using a fourth finger on the g string.  Experimenting with this shows that Szzeryngs approach leads to a beautiful range of sunds across the whole isntrumnt rather tan a rather stingy approach which plays everything on the same string taking the easy way out. 

As far as the gige you are palyign is cocered you could learn a great dela fro the Szeryng edition fingering wise.  It i well worth careful study.  There is one e(a third above middle c) right in the middle of the first section which he fingers as an extension of the fourth finger on the g strng inorder to get teh across theviolin chorale effect.  That one note is the only time I have ever compeltely disagreed with Szeryng about a fingering. To my ear t sound a million times better to play it as a simple first finger on the d string even thought it conflcits with Szeryngs brilliant cocnept of yhe violinas chorus.

As  violin note ,  I regard Heifetz as my secnd greates teahce rof violin fingering after Szeryng.  This is because I bought (at great expense by the way...) all his books of arrangements and transcriptions and stuied the fingerings very carefully trying to figure out what he was doing and why. After that work I fet I had grown tremnendously as a player in understanding he artistic possibilities of the violnists left hnd which is all to often reduced to th4 status of a machine.



April 27, 2010 at 01:45 PM ·

I usually resist sending compliments (some sites ask us to send such directly to reduce clutter), but, Buri, your answer here is really terrific! You could consider shifting it to a blog on Bach so it doesn't get buried. (no pun.) I heard Szeryng live in Amsterdam playing Sibelius. Sat on bleachers just barely behind the orchestra. Concert of a lifetime.... Sue

Re an intermediate trying to self-teach Bach, the usual mantra here, "Find a teacher", at least for a few lessons, is certainly in order. There are guidelines for the basics of utilitarian shifting/fingering which it looks like you may not know. Getting an understanding of those, and then heading towards the "fingering choice as expressive element"makes some sense.


April 29, 2010 at 03:06 PM ·

Thank you,  Manuel, Stephen and Sue for your replies.  They are very helpful.

April 29, 2010 at 06:57 PM ·

 Hey folks, I just ordered "Sonatas and Partitas: for Solo Violin (Schott)"

Henryk Szeryng; Paperback; $13.22 from Amazon.

thanks all


April 30, 2010 at 12:30 AM ·


Although others have attempted (bravely and well, I might add), explaining the subtleties of fingering are way beyond the scope of a forum such as this. The decisions involved in choosing fingers depend on too many factors, and usually a combination. There is style, both historical and contemporary, there are pedagogical considerations, there is tempo, and there is the unique sound and response of each violin. For example, I'm convinced that the editing of many famous violinists reflects the strength of their violins as well. Fingering preferences change over time, which is why the Suzuki books are artistically as fresh as sushi from a gas station.

In the end, fingers are an artistic decision. Spend the money and have some lessons. Why try to reinvent the wheel yourself?


April 30, 2010 at 01:43 AM ·

Mr. Brivati made the comment, "Another standard edition of the Bach is by Galamian.  I am not personally too enamoured of this version.  From both a bowing and fingering perspective I consider Szeryng to be much superior. Szeryng had a very clear concept of how Bach should be played from a musical point of view."


Having studied all the Bach Sonatas and Partitas with Galamian (over 8 years), I agree totally. with his comment.

In my opinion, Galamian viewed these works as excellent pedagogical exercises. Musical considerations came second. In his edition which thankfully includes a facsimile of the original he has fingering and bowing solutions which may not be the best musically speaking, but teach fundamental principles of violin technique. In many cases, I ask the student to religiously follow his fingerings and bowings because they can learn fundamental principles of modern violin technique. in more advanced students I explain the reason for his decisions, but ask students to come up with solutions which have a better musical result. The better musical result can include considerations such as which notes work better on their individual instrument.

I thoroughly respect his edition, but having performed these works on both modern and Baroque violin I have come up with my own solutions. Needless to say I have completely different fingerings when playing them on Baroque violin or modern violin.

These works are very personal to Bach and very personal to the interpreter. At the age of 61 I find new and better solutions on a daily basis. In many cases I throw away my "new and better" solutions after a couple of weeks and find yet a newer and even better solution or go back to my old and forgotten solution.

There is no end to the possibilities in these great works and my wonderful frustration and fascination is that I will never find the true answer. Bruce

April 30, 2010 at 03:29 AM ·


thanks for your informative comments Dr Berg.  It does indeed all depend on the situation.  I concur that a student who studies what Galamian suggested will certainly learn a great deal about violin playing and for many this is the standard.  The reverse side of the Szeryng coin is that a player with a radically differnet hand structure might struggle on ocassion whereas Galamian`s fingerings are usually quite suitable for most hands.  I would never suggest his version is a `bad` edition and would certiaily prefer a student tackling the works for the first time use his instead of a the urtext.



November 11, 2010 at 08:22 PM ·

 It has taken me since April to November of 2010 to understand how to use hand positions on the violin. It just came to me out of the blue a few days ago.  I was looking at a Bach invention, No. 4 in D minor.  It starts off with D1.  I discovered that I can play either the open string D, or 4th finger D on the G string, or 1st finger D on the G string in 4th hand position. All the following notes just fit into place. The upper hand positions are easy for me to play, because when I started to practice the violin 2 years ago, I decided to approach the playing of  scales using the single string scale.  I played these 8 notes scales starting in the 1st hand position, then in the 3rd hand position, and in the 5th hand position. If you start a scale in the 5th hand position, your 2nd 4 notes start in the 9th hand position.  I find the higher the hand position, the more comfortable I am.  My starter violin does not do well with upper hand position notes.

 Thanks everybody for your comments.

November 11, 2010 at 09:51 PM ·

A lot of interesting information and comments from some obvious experts!!

For myself I've found that the Bach edition I have which is edited by Carl Flesch has for my taste too much use of high positions - and i prefer to stay down in first position as much as possible because I feel (rightly or wrongly) that as Buri hs pointed out, the sound is better and the natural resonance helps. Also I feel that in Bach's day players would have used first position more, rather than fancy fingering. Some of the more original bowings also appear on a smaller stave underneath, and I feel they often work better, or more musically, too.

Just a few thoughts of my own.

November 12, 2010 at 02:04 AM ·


That is a very good point.  I wish they had YouTube in Bach’s day.  We would all learn something.  Thanks for your comment.


November 16, 2010 at 02:31 AM ·

I love your colour-coding idea for various positions, John.  I used to use a variation on that when I taught recorder to elementary students. I would chart their sheet music on huge sheets of primary graph paper. If there were, say, three voices, I would write each voice in a different colour.  The kids were able to follow their own lines without any trouble. They could perform such things as "Sheep May Safely Graze" in three voices with relative ease, with each section (Sop 1, Sop 2, Alto) following its own colour.

It worked like a charm until I ran into a Grade 6 teacher who happened to be colour blind!

November 18, 2010 at 12:38 AM ·

 Thanks John,

I am having lots of fun with hand positions.  I consider my hands small, so I can work the violin better in higher positions.  This hand position stuff has opened a whole new world for me.  I am actually  getting somewhere on the violin, finally.  I have to thank you and all the good people who have helped me. My biggest complaint now is my starter violin.  My ears are telling me to upgrade.  

November 18, 2010 at 03:57 PM ·


Are you saying to play the higher notes (E string) in a lower position, and transfer the fingering to the high notes?  If so, that is a good way to go.  I never thought of that. I think it is also important to learn the ledger lines above 4th space E.  You can only have so many ledger lines, after that, the music is noted with 8va…..  Although, I don’t have to worry to much with higher notes, case my starter violin has it’s limits.  It does not do well with the higher notes. Sorry to say. I judge everything on the violin by ear.  Coming from a piano background, I never developed a good ear.  My violin learning is forcing my ears to work.  This is a new experience for me, and I like it. 

November 23, 2010 at 11:46 PM ·


Thanks for all the great info.  You are making an impression on my violin studies.  Now all I need to do is get another violin, before my starter violin drives me nuts. 

November 24, 2010 at 03:32 PM · Thanks Fiddlerman.

November 24, 2010 at 03:36 PM ·

Another method or sub-method ( which is included in Guru Buri's post, but not immediately obvious), would be "shift through the tone, or higher, gaps, and glide through the semitone gaps". All depending ultimately on the sound you want to make. 

November 27, 2010 at 05:33 PM ·

 Thanks Jim.

November 27, 2010 at 07:07 PM ·

When to change hand positions on the violin?

Just like your underwear - once a day?

November 27, 2010 at 11:50 PM ·

I find that a simple pencil mark, a little slanted vertical line, marks the spot where you change position. The finger number (usually 1) will be what you play the next (position) 1st note with. Other tips include writing the number "5" for  a 4th finger extension (usually of a semitone). Handy if it's the last note of the the phrase and you can avoid changing position.

Beware of Peter's advice. Because he changes his underwear every time he changes position, that is why his practice sessions last for 19 hours, and why one day he will get arrested when performing in public  :) :) :) :)

November 28, 2010 at 08:18 AM ·

I have been arrested but not for performing in public, only for demonstrating against nuclear missiles!! (Britain is a police state).

September 19, 2012 at 05:12 PM · this is somethimg I struggled with too. When I play from sheet music for example I lately played Bach's concerto in A minor and Haydn's in G major and on the sheet music fingering was specified. But when playing by ear I do have difficulty. However, I am now in the process of preparing fro Grade 4 ABRSM Violin exam and they provide prep excercizes for scales required to perform, so practicing scales they give whch clearly specify position shifting has really helped me alot to developm my intuition on that. I would recommend practiicing scales starting on first position and working your way up. It helped me a million.

September 20, 2012 at 12:48 AM · As Hilary Hahn once said...you have to try the piece several different ways till you find the one way that makes sense. Its about efficientcy and sound. Whats the easiest way to convey the phrase? whats good for you is different from me, maybe. that being said, at some point you will have to shift, its up to you to find that out through experimentation. go ahead, give it a shot, what do you have to lose?

September 20, 2012 at 11:01 AM · Does anybody know which edition of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas is the one that is included in the following CD Sheet Music collection?

Violin Sonatas: The Ultimate Collection

I own that CD, it contains older, now public-domain editions, but the bad thing is that it does not say exactly which editions.

These CDs have been popular a few years ago so I assume someone may know the answer to my question.

September 20, 2012 at 12:41 PM · Having played the Bach S&P for 50 years or so, I mostly use my own fingerings and bowings, which are constantly changing and evolving. Practically every time I pick up a movement of Bach I find myself trying something different. That being said, I regard the Galamian edition as a good basic starting point for students, and a good basic reference -- violinistically solid, musically within the mainstream, and thorough. It is particularly valuable, for students as training for chord fingerings, for extension and contraction, creeping, etc -- without which it is not possible to play this music.

The Szeryng edition is fascinating -- intensely personal, detailed to the point of extreme fussiness, representing a lifetime of artistic development of a great artist. I get it out periodically, play through some movements, and put it awe, filled with admiration, and finding very little that I feel I want to incorporate into my own playing -- it springs from the hands and arms and muscles of Szeryng, from his violinistic habits and his strong musical personality -- a great inspiration, opening our eyes to new possibilities, but not something to copy.

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