New to shifting -How to keep 'it all' straight in my head ?

November 23, 2010 at 07:51 PM ·

I'm a 41 Y.O. adult and have been playing for about 18 months. I work twice a week with a teacher that I really enjoy. During our last two lessons we've began to introduce shifting. My teacher is not a Suzuki teacher but she does really like the Suzuki position Etudes book & that's what we're using. I also have a pretty decent library to draw from including most of the books found in the wonderful recommendations on this site. 

While the books have an inordinate amount of great information about shifting technique, what I am struggling to find (including searching here) is something that tells me how to keep all of the notes straight (memorized, related, whatever) as I move into second and third positions. I talked to my teacher about this but I'm still a little confused so thought I'd seek some guidance here.

Playing 'patterns' (as opposed to seeing a note, recognizing fingering & placing finger)  in 2nd so far seems fairly easy but I'm thinking ahead (maybe too far :) ) to when I actually have to look at a piece of music and now first finger that was one note on the staff is now a different note. As I think about this even for just 2nd & 3rd positions near term it seems somewhat overwhelming..

I guess I'm just looking for some pearls of wisdom about how these 'new' fingerings are actually learned / absorbed..  I don't know that there's one 'best' way but given that I'm so late in beginning I always strive to try to learn / practice / etc as efficiently as possible..


Replies (21)

November 23, 2010 at 08:09 PM ·


1. Even when you are in first position, start visualizing the notes as where they are placed, not which finger is playing them.  In your mind, assign the notenames to spots on the fingerboard.

2. Realize that when you shift up into a new position, your first finger is taking over notes formerly occupied by another finger, then freeing that finger to reach new notes .  i.e. in shifting to third position on A string, 1st finger is taking over the note D, 2nd is taking E, now 3rd can reach F and 4 can reach G.

3. once you have the map in your head play with it.  Play patterns, songs, tunes like you have been with your teacher--it is so natural to play up there, really--but as you play try to be aware of what notes you're playing.  (Especially notice where sharps and flats are located, and what notes have halfsteps between them.)  At this stage I often have students say letter names as they play, even if they aren't playing form music, so they know that they know what they're playing.

4.  Either start doing it from music, or do the reverse, play a pattern in position and see if you can write it down.  If you've got the first few steps assimilated well this may even be easy!  :)


Have fun!  You are opening up a new owrld of notes!  :)

November 23, 2010 at 10:47 PM ·

Knowing where the notes are on the fingerboard is what will help you the most.  The intervals stay the same, although spacings get closer as you move up the fingerboard...but the main information you need to digest is what note is where.  The fingering/shifting becomes easier after that.


November 23, 2010 at 11:00 PM ·

 When I first started doing different positions some years ago now, my teacher taught me by teaching me to see where the original notes were. For instance, if I was going to move up into third position, the 1st finger takes over where usually the 3rd finger would be. So I would place my third finger down like normal, but then slide up my first finger to where the third finger was. 

I hope that makes sense! 

Anyway, position changes become very easy (most of the time!) and automatic after a lot of practice. Maybe trying simple exercises such as scales would help you to find your way? Take your time at position changes too. Finding a way of cracking the position change problem will be a matter of trial and error but believe me, it becomes much easier! Keep trying your best! Every new technique is a new test to the player. 

Good luck!

November 24, 2010 at 12:49 AM · If you think a visual might help you understand various notes as locations on the fingerboard (which can be played with any finger, depending), please look through your books to see if any have a fingering chart. Some are just vertical lines w/circles, others are sketches of the fingerboard w/brackets showing each position. Sue

November 24, 2010 at 02:16 PM ·

I'm coming at this question from a fiddler's perspective (Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton, a little Country). The first position we're normally encouraged to experiment with beyond 1st is usually 3rd. This is because a lot of celtic fiddling is in the key of D. Playing tunes in D an octave up from where I normally play them is good practice for intonation, and it has the added advantage that the note names are the same. In addition, a common key in Scottish/Cape Breton fiddling is Bb, for which a slightly modified 1st position "box" , with your first finger on the A string Bb, will open the door to the common Bluegrass key of B, still in first position. Shift the box to the lower strings (thanks to everything being in fifths) and you access Eb and E as well as Ab, all without leaving first position.  And that advice to memorize note names and not which finger goes where is excellent.

November 24, 2010 at 03:10 PM ·

I too struggled. Thought there was some magical formula or incantation to be learnt and all would be clear. In the end it turns out to be one word: PRACTICE

November 24, 2010 at 05:25 PM ·

Bill, let me offer some additional input as a kid beginner, a traditional, non-Suzuki learner.

My first teacher introduced me to position playing after only 10-12 weeks of lessons.  She sensed that I was ready, and she was right.  We used Harvey Whistler's Introducing the Positions -- two volumes: positions III and V in Book 1; II, IV, VI, VII, and higher in Book 2.

It's important to master the basics of playing in a given position first -- before attempting to shift to it from a previously mastered position.  I don't know how Suzuki works, but Whistler first gives scales and studies exclusively in each position so that you nail down the finger patterns.  Then, after the basics of 3rd position, for instance, come shifting exercises between 1st and 3rd.

Regarding shifting: Shift with the finger that was last down -- the "old" finger.  Don't hop with the "new" finger.  There are special moments to break or bend this rule in performance for special effect -- but that comes later.

Also on shifting: Be sure you clearly hear in your mind the destination note before you aim for it.  As I've said in previous threads: Listen, listen, and listen.  I do this daily in reviewing shifting exercises.  While I'm still on the old note, I listen carefully in my mind for the new one before I shift up or down to reach it so that I already know what it should sound like.

November 24, 2010 at 10:04 PM ·

Hello Bill!  It was wonderful to read your post and hear that I'm not alone in struggling with shifting.  I'm 36 and have been playing the violin for just over a year now.  I've moved along at a fairly nice clip through the Hohmann and Suzuki books and am now nearing the end of Suzuki book 3 and am so pleased to be sounding less and less like a feral cat and learning to pull the beginnings of violin-song with my bow (just a year ago the neighborhood cats would gather outside the house as I practiced, and occasionally leave me "offerings" of mice and such.  No joke!  It was hilarious and I rather miss it!)  We started into the first Whistler shifting book in September and it's a combination of deer-in-the-headlights with suddenly being fluent in blonde.  Yes, I'm putting in my at least an hour a day of practice time, with a good portion going to 3rd position.  Two months later I'm only a couple of pages into the book.  Moving different fingers up and down piano keys was never a problem, so I'm confident that with practice I'll get this, too.  Consciously I have the notes memorized, but engendering automatic finger-to-note responses shifted is a very, very slow process for me.  So exhausting at times!!!  I'm working very hard to establish that big-picture sense of the notes up and down the violin on each string.  I know I'll get it eventually and with much, much practice.  Just wanted to say: you're not alone!!!  Vibrato is a similar story (surprised the cats haven't returned!) but that's coming, too.  Happy Thanksgiving!!!  

November 25, 2010 at 12:11 AM · Yes, Whistler is fabulous! Kira, curious your take on hohmann-I have never seen the books till I got a transfer student who has been using them, borrowing her copies this weekend while she works on other music so I can look through and see what they do. Can you share any strengths/focuses of those books? Maybe for a separate thread :)

November 26, 2010 at 07:27 PM ·

Thanks to everyone for all of the wonderful input. It sounds like the consensus is that it's best to first have a clear mental map of the location of notes up & down the fingerboard, second understand the fingering pattern(s) of the particular position and once these two prereqs are covered then worry about moving between the positions.  I also think I'll grab the Whistler books to supplement what we're doing.

Appreciate the insight.


November 26, 2010 at 09:02 PM ·

Bill, you have self-discovered the pedagogical nightmare that is the violin due to the mediocrity of instruction and supplemental materials.  The typical response is: "more practice is required" on your violin.  For your specific problem, the Gerle book on practising is a bit useful.   But don't hold your instructor in such high esteem.  This is primarily a business, and as such,  isn't interested in you doing it right, just that you're doing it.   You should challenge your instructor at all times, especially regarding the very basics of holding the violin,  bow-hold, and bowing mechanics.  When I demanded to my first instructor in lesson #1 that she demonstrate the flaws/perfect technique  in a number of concert violinists from the past 50 years through videos, she thought I was absolutely nuts.  Another example: try and find a book with a detailed examination (and transparent drawings) of thumb position in the bow-hold.  We, as beginner adults, cannot afford the inevitable later 'patches' to overcome flawed technique that even many concert violinists display.  We don't have 7-10 years of wasted youth to throw away nor oodles of cash on a half-dozen instructors with various biases.

November 26, 2010 at 09:32 PM ·

The way I teach revolves around hearing interval relationships, learning to recognize them when reading music and hear them mentally before playing them.  I use the moveable "do" system, and at first, "do" is always on an open string.  We begin with learning to hear the intervals that form the major scale.  Then we work on the intervals of the major triad--what they sound/look like.  Only when they get pretty good at hearing the intervals do I assign "do" to other fingers, which moves the half step to different locations within the fingers.  But this is not a problem, because they are keeping track of where they are in the scale and can hear where the half steps should be.  After this gets easier, then we try it out in other places on the fingerboard.  Usually, any time I'm introducing new positions, I use simple tunes they already know in first position. 

If you know what it's supposed to sound like, then all you have to do is train your fingers to reach for the right place.  And that's just habit.  All habits get built with lots of correct repetition, and you go as slow as it takes to let your mind sort it out.  If you can't hear what it's supposed to sound like, then just telling yourself "low 2nd," "high 2nd", etc.,  isn't enough to get it in tune.

After a while, it will become second nature, but it does take time.

November 26, 2010 at 11:49 PM ·

The Suzuki nonsense of "Knowledge is not skill,  10000 repetitions produces skill" or something like that is the disease of our times.  The only half decent supplemental material that pretends to be comprehensive is from Simon Fischer.   Naturally, if you watch videos of experts of the past you will notice considerable differences in even physical absolutes such as finger spacing on the bow compared to what is demonstrated in books from what you hoped were  credible theorists.  Therefore commonsense should tell you that empiricism rules,  that is, knowledge is skill, and the only way to discover it is to watch videos of the technical masters.  Unfortunately, the majority of instructors cannot differentiate a real master from a media-induced one so all the repetition in the world won't do you any good.

November 27, 2010 at 01:10 AM ·

Ok. A couple more good replies..

To Emily: I'm so thankful for your input. You absolutely hit upon something that Lana, my teacher, really has been encouraging me to take on lately. I never have been much of a vocalist (I feel like I _really_ can't carry a tune :) ) but when Lana is introducing a new piece to me I watch [in amazement] as she first sings through it and I absolutely know in my heart that if I could add that skill it would help all of my musical endeavors immensely.

In considering working on that skill, I have read a little about movable vs immobile 'do'. I've had a bit of a hard time figuring out where best to start and (not to get too far off topic) since you brought it up I was wondering if you had a solid recommendation for a good book/cd/cbt whatever (hopefully with some av content) to help a beginner in that space get up to speed?

To Frank:  I share your thought in that as an adult beginner, I recognize my late start & place a serious premium on trying to educate myself as to the 'best' or 'right' methods & materials (Fischer, Lecher & so on), etc so that I can learn & practice as efficiently as possible. I will readily concede that often it seems that there may not be a right answer but a handful of respected answers..

I trust Lana, my teacher in all things violin. At the same time, though, I know that no one can possibly know everything and occasionally multiple perspectives are helpful. As an adult learner I always strive to go above & beyond in educating myself with regards to optional perspectives. When I find information that I think may help me, I am not shy about sharing it with Lana just as she shares with me new information passed on from her professor in her doctorate program.

Thanks again to everyone for the great input thus far..


November 27, 2010 at 01:35 AM ·

"But don't hold your instructor in such high esteem.  This is primarily a business, and as such,  isn't interested in you doing it right, just that you're doing it."

Frank, I do wish you'd make more sense.

November 27, 2010 at 09:48 AM ·

Frank - you say "Therefore commonsense should tell you that empiricism rules,  that is, knowledge is skill, and the only way to discover it is to watch videos of the technical masters. "

That means that before the video age no one could discover knowledge/skill? That one on one tuition is worthless? Methinks you are a walking contradiction.

November 27, 2010 at 11:48 AM ·

I think Frank is right about Sazuki though. But that's just my personal opinion - I've always disregarded it, and felt it was all wrong.

November 27, 2010 at 05:55 PM ·

 Hey Bill,

You might want to check out my thread called “A question about when to change hand positions on the violin.”  Just do a search on Also, A great way to learn hand positions is to play single string scales. Let me explain:

On the G string,  only using the 1st finger, play A, then shift to 2nd position and play B, shift to 3rd position and play C#, shift to 4th position and play D, shift to 5th position and play E.

I am sure you have the idea.  Another practice method I use is: on the G string and in 1st position, play A, B, C#, D. Then moved to 2nd position and play, B, C#, D, E. Then moved to 3rd position and play C#, D, E, F#. And so on…  Positions get to be 2nd nature very quickly.

Here is a link to a free violin finger board chart.

You have to learn where the notes are on the finger board, there is no other way.  Finger patterns are great, but nothing takes the place of knowing your instrument.

Also, John Cadd (a member of has some great violin charts.  Check him out. He is always happy to help.

December 26, 2010 at 11:02 PM ·

When I started different positions I found doing scales in those positions to be quite helpful. 

February 18, 2011 at 08:31 PM ·

Hello fellow student,

I play scales, but it doesn't help me memorize the notes and places. It helps me hit them in tune.

What I find very useful to really  *see* the notes is playing a piece I used to play in first position, in second, or third position (or higher). Say, instead of playing Twinkle, Twinkle where it belongs, I play it elsewhere on the fingerboard. I may play the same notes, or transpose.

I'm giving Twinkle, Twinkle as an example. My fav is actually a Piazzolla piece called Oblivion. It is so nice to help me learn where the notes are (I mean to say *help my muscles* learn where the notes are). I'm addicted to arranging this piece, changing fingering for it, etc. I must have played it over 1000 times. Surely. Oh, boy, where is my violin????...

February 18, 2011 at 09:32 PM ·

 I find it quite helpful to play all the notes in one position then in the next. I'll explain:

Say I'm learning third position. On the D string I play D E F# G A. Then I shift my first finger to where the G used to be, check it with my open G. I then repeat the process and play G A B C in third position. I do this with any string.

If I'm practicing second position I'll choose a string (say A). I play A B C# D (or C natural, depending on the key). Then I'll shift my first finger to where the C (or C#) used to be and play C(#), D, E, F.

I do this with all of the positions. I find it helps me a lot.

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