learning positions vs learning notes...

December 4, 2010 at 08:12 PM ·

Something I'm fooling around with.  I originally learned violin with positions - the result was a quick ability to play in 1st and 3rd.  However, learning other positions then became very hard as I had to relate each note to these or go into never never land.

What I'm doing now is starting from the open string and practising playing any note with all the fingers.  Thus, for example, I play E on the D string and then shift up to C# (on the same string).  This is followed by playing F# and making the same shift, G and then A.  The idea (naive perhaps) is to set up the position of the high C# in my mind so that any finger can hit it.  Its an amazing feature of the brain that it can remember position very well - and that position learning (and the motor skill that goes with it) is one of the most basic ones we have.  This way I hope to establish each note in my mind independently of position.  The next step will be to create maps that link the positions.  No positions, just notes.


Replies (29)

December 4, 2010 at 08:24 PM ·

I like it.


December 4, 2010 at 08:54 PM ·

I think that to play in any position is the same as playing in first  position without open strings.

There are only 4 diatonic tetra chords which are applied to all the positions. The order in which they follow depends on the position.

No matter how far the shift, whether it be a simple glissando, compound or complex, it is the antisipation of the interval and or pitch that gets me there. 

When I get there it is important to know which tetra chord you are in and the related tetra chords on the other strings, this can be done by messing around to identify all the tetra chords which forms a map on all strings in that position. 

December 4, 2010 at 08:55 PM ·

I actually learned that way and am very grateful I did.  I made myself charts of each position and a global chart of the whole neck.   That way, I could know where the notes were within the position but also take my global nack chart, go sit at the piano and see which notes were where on the violin and with what finger they could be played (according to the position). 

I would recommand such charts to any adult starter.  Some violin teachers (just IMHO) haven't understand that violin is also something visual.  (not necessarely with tapes though!)  I mean with paper charts of the fingerboard anatomy.  It helps very much and is a wonderful complement to ear. It builds mental patterns in your head.  


December 4, 2010 at 09:27 PM ·

I think this is one of the reasons why it's really important to learn MUSIC as opposed to violin (or any one instrument).  A good grounding in theory makes this a lot easier because you think in terms of the notes and the music as opposed to where your finger happens to go on your own instrument.  Learning from positions to me sounds like learning from tab on a guitar.  You aren't becoming a musician so much as a machine operator.  It's only part of what you need to know.

December 5, 2010 at 05:39 AM ·

I imagine a beginning student would run into a lot of difficulty.  First of all there is the difficulty of the "even" and "odd" fingers switching when you're trying to sight read.

More fundamentally I think they would be slow to learn how to shift with the arm keeping the hand and fingers structured and would also have trouble playing rapid scales with the next note prepped in string crossings...

That skill you're talking about is (very) important too, but there is a reason we are taught the way we were. What you are doing is basically Yost (I think).

December 5, 2010 at 10:25 AM ·

Joseph - thanks for the pedagogical link, I had not heard of Yost - thats Gaylord Yost right (just googled) before (not being violin college trained).  I'll look him up....

December 5, 2010 at 10:58 AM ·

Elise, I understand your objective but I can't make sense of the fingers / notes as you described. Could you say which string/note/finger you use in your sequence to get from low E to the high C#?

Also, I often wonder why 3rd position is taught before 2nd. Any good reason for this?

December 5, 2010 at 12:41 PM ·

I think 3rd is taught before 2nd because that enables you to do a full scale going onto the next string up.

Fingering: 1st on the D string, shift up to C# with each finger in turn.  then play F# (second) and do the same.  That way your mind 'learns' to hit C# regardless of which finger you start with.  The whole idea really is to make it confusing for the fingers so that the mind has to take over to create a C# location (not a memory of how , for example, finger 1 gets to C#.)  Does that make it clearer?  This is then repeated for each note. 

In essence you don't learn how to get from point 1 to point 2, just where point 2 IS.  The starting point is really irrelevant to playing a note.

December 5, 2010 at 02:06 PM ·

I just read my own post and its obviously overstated.  Obviously, nothing is more important than the starting point for a specific piece - that sets the fingering you use.  But since there are surely virtually an infinite ways of fingering thats really a separate issue from knowing how to make a particular note.  The point here is to separate it form knowing what position you are in.

December 5, 2010 at 02:46 PM · This sounds like mostly a matter of semantics to me. The 1st exercise you describe goes from first position up a major 6th, so you are still practicing shifting 1st to 6th position, (if you are landing on 1st finger), whether you're assigning a position number to it in your mind or not. In the 2nd example, if you meant that you would play the F# with first finger, then you are going from 2nd position somewhere.(You don't name a top note.) Some of the better position-work books, imo, address both facets of getting around the fingerboard: playing all the available pitches in a given position, and how to get somewhere from somewhere else. The Whistler Intro to Positions is very good. Applebaum's Best of Sevcik Book 1 could be helpful, too. I do agree your exercise plan could be useful. Sue

December 5, 2010 at 04:10 PM ·

I think you missed the point.  The idea is to hit the high note in essence randomly with any finger - dissociating the position of the hand from the note that is going to be played.

Indeed, I would add to this by suggesting that the first 'shifting' excersize should be to hit an octave on any string with any finger.  There are two reasons for this: first its easy to do and check as soon as the student learns what a harmonic is and, second, it opens up almost the entire fingerboard for exploration. 

If one has to learn by positions I think the fourth would be better to start with than the third because that puts the fourth finger on the octave - a terrific start to understanding the keyboard.

December 5, 2010 at 04:13 PM ·

Just to add to that the high note is the objective.  Thus, (D string) to octave D starting from first position with any finger to any finger.  The NOTE is the repetaed endpoint, not the hand position so, no, it is not the same as 6th.

December 5, 2010 at 06:52 PM ·

I understand what you mean now, Elise. That might work for some players, but I'm not sure I could change my way of thinking after all these years. Just for the record, here's how I find notes (with or without pre-navigation) - eg, hitting that high C# you mentioned - I know roughly where it is just by looking at the fingerboard. With violin in place, and without thinking, I know it's going to be 3rd position, so I place my hand there (heel of hand just touching body of fiddle). I also know immediately that if I drop my 1st finger on the E string, it will be the 1st high A above the open A string. So, the C# will fall under my 3rd finger.

If I want to play the same C# with my 2nd finger, I know I just need to shift two semitones up (shifting while fingers are still above the strings). If I need to play the same C# with my 1st finger, then it requires arial shifting of  two full tones. Lastly, to play the C# with the pinky, one semitone shift down is required.

This probably sounds like quite a laborious method, as I've spelled out just about every movement, but in reality it works really quickly and intuitively too. It's a bit like reading words - you don't consciously interpret every individual letter - you just "do" it. It would be more difficult to apply this to the very high positions, and even though I can physically play in the highest positions with ease, my hearing loss has dictated that I can only hear pitch accurately up to 1st octave E on the E-string, therefore I do not play above that point (apart from the occasional splash harmonic a 5th above that, which is a B). With a splash harmonic, you can't go wrong!

December 5, 2010 at 09:49 PM ·

I agree that we all should be able to find any note with any finger. That would give more freedome to our playing. I believe fingerings should be chosen with phrasing and tone being higher priorities than ease.

However, I think that thinking of hand positions, as opposed to individual notes, is helpful for intonation. When you have a good frame for your hand, it is easier to keep the distances between fingers proportional all the way up and down the neck. I'm not sure if this has relevance to what you were saying though.

December 5, 2010 at 10:26 PM ·

Jim - that was the high C# on the D string - I think you just described it for the E.  Most of us, at lest past the '3rd position in classical training, would find that very easy but insanely hard on the D string.

December 5, 2010 at 11:19 PM ·

Elise, if I'm reading you correctly, you're talking about the C# on the D string, just below octave D? If so, similar drill applies - hand in 4th pos, pinky over the D octave, so the C# is then easy with any finger. If you mean the C# above octave D on D string, then yes, more difficult, I agree.

It's so difficult when you can't see what someone is doing!

December 6, 2010 at 02:08 AM ·

Oh dear. Lets go with high E on the D string then Jim.  Slide up to it with any of your ifngers and nail it.  Do that randomly until you can do it every time - 1st, 2,nd, 3rd or 4th finger.  just keep nailing it in  random sequence.  No position, just hit the note. 

As said above, its easiest to do this first with octave D (or other string) becauise of the harmonic check but with practise you can do any note.  By the way, you slide up the string to get there, not jump.

December 6, 2010 at 04:32 AM ·

Third position is usually first because it's "easier" than second because the fingers don't switch from even to odd.  Basically the "3" finger becomes "1" instead of "2".  I think this probably has as much or more to do with the bow as with the "evenness" of the fingering though (when it crosses strings rhythmically).  

Also, supposedly Gavinies teaches this skill (that is, that of saying F# and playing it with any finger or saying "down a major third and across two strings and leaping there without measuring).  My teacher calls it "fingerboard geometry".  I don't know if this term is standard...

December 6, 2010 at 04:52 AM ·

I haven't had formal violin training, just figuring it out on my own/with books and youtube (I'll get a teacher if I can ever budget one in, don't worry).  Anyway, a few months ago, after playing for about a year or so, while in the middle of trying to figure out a song in a key I hadn't practiced before, something clicked and I had the revelation that to figure out any major scale I just needed to start on that note and put my 1st finger on it, 2nd finger a whole interval above, 3rd finger another whole interval, and 4th a half interval; then repeat it on the next string, ending on the octave w/ 4th finger.  And to figure out the minor scale just drop the 3rd and 6th, etc. for the others.

Since then, I have had a lot of fun jumping around the fingerboard, playing a melody anywhere I want on the fingerboard then jumping up or down an octave with relative ease.  It gets tricky sometimes if I forget where in the scale I am and get caught "in between" a tetrachord, if you know what I mean, but now..for me transposing is hardest in first position!  I think this is because I have to visualize the break between strings, instead of just shifting up or down...

Anyway, I don't write all of this to brag or anything, it is extremely old news, I know, but I was just curious why something like what I wrote above isn't taught/talked about more often?  I had been trying to learn all of the notes by their location in each position and whatnot and it was sorta frustrating and overwhelming to be told by books that I needed to memorize which fingering combination went with each scale in every position, agh!  But when I started thinking of it in the above way It completely demystified the harder scales (just find the root note and you can play the scale!)...reading the notes in a piece on sheet music can still be difficult sometimes, but it really takes a lot of the sting out of it.  I also find that instead of looking at positions I am paying more attention to what kind of intervals the music contains and adjusting my hand accordingly to play it best.  What do you guys think?

December 6, 2010 at 05:23 AM ·


Something similar to what you talk about is the "paganini" fingering where every scale starts with 2 and you just use the same pattern on every scale.  This is the pattern  used by Flesch in his scale book.  Some people do start with 1 for the reason you described

There are reasons why this is good and less good.  I'll only talk about the theories about why it's less good as I personally understand them to answer your question, but the real answer is that most students do practice their scales like this for at least some part of their life.

1) This isn't always the best sounding or most appropriate for the music being played

2) It's not always the most physically practical 

3) Because #1 and 2 are important in real music it's important that scales develop the inner ear so that when you choose a fingering that you haven't been drilling every morning your daily scale practice still helps you.  Not to say that the Flesch scales do not because they will give you a solid understanding of the fingerboard; it's just a different approach, or rather the logic/patters that are being emphasized is different. 


A very simple example:

the one method means that F# is no different than D

in the other you are aware where the open strings are

December 6, 2010 at 06:05 AM ·

"the one method means that F# is no different than D"

I see your point, and will definitely agree that it is important to know what notes the open strings' notes are, and that it's important to check your notes often against the open strings for intonation purposes.  (read: I don't want to get into an argument about intonation.) :)

I guess the point of my post was kinda trying to explain that it seems to me like learning the first position notes and scales the traditional way makes it scary and brain numbingly confusing sometimes to to traverse out of the beginning "simple" scales, aka out of d major, g major, c, a flat, e flat, etc.  and in to things like F# and Db and shifting up the fingerboard.

I think a similar kind of problem happens to a lot of people on piano...they learn something on the white keys and are happy that they can play some tunes in C but try to talk to them about sharps and flats or moving the tune over 1 half step to tranpose it and they act like the world is ending and it's impossible. Now, f they just learned say...the F# major scale to begin with, and memorized the interval formula for scales, they would never have need to be scared...or get stumped on that kind of music theory stuff, ya know?


So, I don't know...It seems (to me, in my opinion) that the way paganini/flesch/my way it makes those key sigs that have that "tough" reputation much less mysterious and much more accessible, which means more music is accessible..

December 6, 2010 at 06:28 AM ·

The positions used to be taught the way you describe (this is the one where if you start on 2 and play a major scale you have D major, for example) for a long time.   

Here's my thinking:

Most beginners don't learn much music theory when they're first introduced to new keys.  It's more of a new configuration of the hand than a matter of this key vs that key and early etude books are written with this in mind.  Since you have to be able to play all the keys anywhere on the fingerboard they drill these skills in children that are too young for these theoretical things. 

December 6, 2010 at 06:35 AM ·

I see, that makes sense.  thanks Joseph, by the way - I really like that recording you did of liebeslied

December 6, 2010 at 06:56 AM ·

Thank you, I'm flattered (maybe intimidated that you listened...)  I'm sure now, of course, that an experienced teacher will come along and give you some nice clear reasons why I'm full of ****.


December 6, 2010 at 07:47 AM ·

Hey now that its mentioned - share - :)  Where's the link...

December 6, 2010 at 07:53 AM ·

It is in my profile (click my name).  I hope that that is allowed incidentally... 

December 10, 2010 at 12:01 PM ·

@Elise - just after I read your reply my modem burnt out and I lost my internet connection for a few days ;(

Anyway, I understand your idea perfectly now (although your original post said to shift to the note, but you later explanation said to slide to the note). I think it might work for some, but not for me. I'm too used to "gridding" - ie hand instinctively goes to a suitable position, depending on the notes required, then the note has to got with 1 of 4 fingers. Any other method for me seems to be adding complexity, when my aim is to reduce complexity by aiming for simplicity, if that makes sense. Who knows, maybe your method will work OK for others :)

Just a little add-on here .. I'm also learning an Indian style of fingering, which often uses the same finger for consecutive notes. If it does anything, it improves your intonation and makes you think differently about fingerboard navigation.

December 10, 2010 at 03:09 PM ·


Nailing notes with different fingers is a good exercise.  Here are two thoughts.

First, another way to learn the relative placement of fingers in different positions is to do the Flesch double stop exercises. He runs you through many shifts and the fingers/brain have to keep track of relative placement. Do this daily, working through the keys, e.g. one a month, and you won't feel lost about finger placement across strings.

Second, my teachers have always said that learning intervals (the distance between 2ds,3ds, 4ths, 7ths, etc. at any position) comes first, then at a more advanced stage (years later?) one learns to nail any note with any finger.  My book, Arpeggios, Rhythms and Scales, has exercises to learn several repeated fingering patterns, i.e, interval patterns,  for arpeggios in all keys over 3 octaves.  Though the book is aimed at improvisers, believe me, if you practice the arpeggios with several fingerings for each key, you will not get lost on the fingerboard again.

Give yourself the gift of navigating the fingerboard.

December 10, 2010 at 05:27 PM ·

There are other reasons third position is usually taught first.  When you shift to 3rd, if you wrist is straight, the heel of you hand will hit the edge of the bout, giving you good tactile feedback as to whether or not you've move you hand enough, too much, etc.

Second, 3rd position gives you more notes at the top.  2nd usually involves just moving your hand up a half-step, and the top note, such as C on the E string, is often taught with the extended 4th finger even before positions are introduced.

Third, 3rd position is more friendly towards the keys music is often written in for students at this stage, where second is most useful for flat keys or stuff with lots of sharps, such as B or F# major.  Same holds true for 4th vs. 5th.

That said, my definition of a good teacher includes teaching 2nd, 4th, and 6th, and a good player will use these as the situation demands.  Elise, learn it in a way that makes sense to you and gets you where you're going.  Above about 7th, who's counting anyway?  Especially if the notes are in the "gerbil range", or written with an 8va, it's all about the intervals anyway. 

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