Shifting and Finger Accuracy at Slow Speed

November 27, 2011 at 11:25 PM · I just revisted Handel D major Sonata after few years and spent 1 hours just working on the first few notes. The beginning is Open D, #F, Open A, and 2nd finger E on 3rd position.

I was so shocked that I couldn't shift from open A to 2nd finger E 3rd position accurately. The most bizarre part is that I can perform the same shift accurately if I do it faster. I can also nail the shift accurately if I just do open A -> shifts -> 2nd finger E. But it always falls apart whenever I try to shift in Handel.

After spending one hour analyzing, I realized the inaccuracy has to do with the TIMING of the shift. If I prepare the shift too early, for example, moving my hand to 3rd position as I began to play open A, my shift is highly inaccurate. My accuracy is much higher when I delay the shifting motion so the actual shifting speed resembles faster shifts.

Having said that, I'm still not confident on these blind shifts because there is no guiding note. I don't know if I'm 100% on spot until I hit the note. Of course I can hide the inaccuracy using vibrato but I want to hit it accurately every time without vibrato. What is the proper technique for blind shifts? I tried to glide my 2nd finger on D string to 3rd position after playing #F and switch to E on A but I'm not sure if this is a right technique.

Another similar problem is finger accuracy at slow speed (>50 bpm). My fingers are the most accurate at moderate speed but the accuracy goes down when the tempo is extremely slow. What is the cause? Lack of slow practice? Hesitation? Too much conscious observation of where to place the fingers?

p.s. I don't have a teacher at the moment.


Replies (23)

November 28, 2011 at 01:39 AM · One possibility is that you're just as inaccurate at higher tempos, but you just don't notice it. That's one reason why teachers will always tell you to take the tempo down to improve intonation ... because you can actually hear it.

November 28, 2011 at 02:49 AM · Hi Paul,

I understand where you are coming from. I might indeed just as inaccurate in high tempo. However, I don't think this is a "You can't hear faulty-intonation-at-high-tempo issue" because I'm holding the last note E and comparing it to E string. In fact, regardless how fast I play that passage, I will know if I play the last note E right because I'm isolating and comparing it.

I actually found a new way which gives me high consistency in hitting the D, #F, A, E: block fingering. I drop 1-2 to play #F and shift with 1-2 to play E.

Any take on this approach?

November 28, 2011 at 05:56 AM · Hitting a 2nd finger in 3rd position shouldn't be a "blind shift." It should be a 99% shift at any speed. It's more bread-and-butter than real, actual bread and butter (but not the pickles, which I despise).

Shifts into 3rd position should be the most accurate and dependable of the fingerboard, even more than first position. It, and not 1st position, is really the default position. The reason is that you have a built-in reference point: the edge of the violin itself. If you calibrate the shift with reaching the body of the instrument with the edge of your palm, you will never miss it. A shift should not be thought of as a place on the fingerboard for your finger, but an entire hand position. People miss 3rd position shifts because when they reach the note (or general area of the note as it were), their hand is not yet touching the upper bout, and they really don't have a reference point. The only position for which this is not true is for 2nd position, which is why so many avoid it (just look at any late-19th c. edition). A blind person may not be able to see their furniture, but they know exactly where everything else is by touching one of the familiar objects in the room.

December 1, 2011 at 03:45 PM · I agree completely with Scott, for all of the same reasons.

December 1, 2011 at 07:00 PM · Scott,

so, you're supposed to touch the violin with your hand when you shift to 3rd? I don't. My hand is small.


I also shift better when I shift fast passages, because I'm not thinking. My arm muscles already learned where 3rd is, but if I have time to think and worry if I'll hit it right, I ruin it. My nerves are my worst enemy.

December 1, 2011 at 08:04 PM · "I also shift better when I shift fast passages, because I'm not thinking. My arm muscles already learned where 3rd is, but if I have time to think and worry if I'll hit it right, I ruin it. My nerves are my worst enemy."

Exactly what I experience, which is why I play poorly in my lessons but nail it in practice. I concentrate too much on getting it perfect through sight as well as feel, so I'm not letting my ear and muscle training take hold. Once the memory has been established, letting go and "just doing it" works 99% of the time.

December 1, 2011 at 08:42 PM · Try practicing with closed eyes sometimes, you should not rely on eyesight, feel it.

You could also try this: If you have to play another note before the shift, make sure you really wait until the end of this note before moving on. Enjoy the note, then move on to the shift.

December 1, 2011 at 09:44 PM · Well keep the second finger down on F# and shift it up to A while you are playing the open A. Don't shift in the air.

December 2, 2011 at 05:08 AM · "so, you're supposed to touch the violin with your hand when you shift to 3rd? I don't. My hand is small. "


I'm not sure that hand size should matter. It's just a matter of adjusting the hand angle so the hand reaches the bout at exactly the same instant as the finger reaches the position.

So is one "supposed to" do this? I don't know. All I can tell you is that the technique of using a fixed reference point has helped my accuracy and that of my students. Of course people shift without touching, but it becomes about the odds, and I like to increase my odds.


December 2, 2011 at 08:51 AM · Thanks Scott.

I've since experimented different techniques including touching the palm against the body of the violin, and they helped.

I also discovered the cause of this mis-shift. When I usually shift to 3rd, the 1st finger is usually the anchor. My Mind uses it to measures the imaginary distance between 1st position to 3rd. As result, my shift to 3rd is usually spot-on because it's automatic reflex.

The trouble comes in very slow shift such as the Handel passage because the last finger used was 2nd. When I shift, I erroneously uses the 2nd finger instead of 1st as the imaginary anchor and measure the shift distance from it. The end result is miscalculation.

The problem has disappeared after I imagine my 1st as the guiding finger while shifting even though it is not used in the passage. I believe this is also the reason that block fingering(shift to 3rd and drop 1&2 at the same time) because it re-aligned my mental focus back to the 1st finger.


I have a gap between my palm and the violin as well at 3rd position. The way you use the bout to anchor is similar to a snap-back movement. When your wrist is straight, you will have a big gap. To touch the bout, simply shift, curve your wrist so the bottom of the palm hits the violin, then immediately snap straight. Your finger will be at the right position after this motion.

If you have a shifting passage that gives you trouble, try to play it few times and compare with a success shift and feel how it is different.

December 2, 2011 at 09:15 AM · The hand does not neccessarily touch the body of the violin in third position. Body contact becomes clear in fourth. In third position, my small hand may or may not grace the body of the violin, somewhat like an uncommited relationship. Kinda tantalizing, that third position...

December 2, 2011 at 05:24 PM · Emily,

It's probably a personal thing. I use hand contact from 3rd all the way up to 7th. If I'm shifting say, from 3rd to 5th, my hand comes away slightly and is recalibrated to touch when I reach 5th. Once a position is reached, though, the hand doesn't have to just sit there--it's just for the shift.


December 2, 2011 at 08:50 PM · Hi Nick.

I played this piece a good few times as a recital opener. It's no surprise you find it unreliable - it's a slow rhythm and you sit-and-sing on that note and notice the tuning in a way that maybe you wouldn't at higher tempo/rhythm. It's true that it should be a 99% note for good player, but nothing's ever guaranteed.

Slowing it down further is unlikely to help i.m.o. - the truth is that although ultra-slow study is good for learning and developing secure technique you can go too slow. If you asked a tennis player to hit too slow, it would mess with the unconscious/instinctive collaboration between brain and muscles.

In one of my best ever concerts, there was one piece I hadn't had time to learn perfectly. I had to rely on second nature and instinct whilst being far more nervous and twitchy than normal. I didn't miss a note and still find it hard to believe 2 years later.

December 3, 2011 at 04:35 AM · Hi David,

This piece is really difficult play well because it's hard to sound convincing without close-to-perfect intonation and excellent technique.

99% of the student recordings on Youtube always played an extra note B in the descending scale. I used to make this mistake and now I know I wasn't the only one.

What fingerings do you usually use? I'm comparing to Auer's editing and Stern's recording. Auer uses a lot of "strange" fingering and open strings which might be a factor in tone production.

Stern's recording is very nice and I notice he doesn't use a lot of open strings compare to Auer:

Do you know any good recording that uses a lot of open string and still sound nice?

December 3, 2011 at 12:27 PM · There is something wrong with your left hand which you need to address with a good teacher - because this opening of the Handel sonata should not be problematic. I used to play this piece as a kid and I don't think I ever had help with it, but then 3rd position was no problem as I had more or less sorted out my left hand. Of course, I've sorted it out even more now and have firm ideas about how the hand should be shaped etc, and the relationship of the thumb, as well as the angle the fingers stop the strings.

Also, it might just be down to ear training. If the note and pitch is firmly in your head you are more likely to play it in tune.

When I heard a bit of the Stern recording you linked to it all came back to me, even though its probably 45 years since I played this piece. So thanks for that, it was agood reminder!

December 3, 2011 at 03:10 PM · You could always play the opening in 2nd position; no shift involved...

December 3, 2011 at 04:00 PM · I believe any shift that jumps into the air w/o a guide finger somewhere is a hazard, but if you've followed the general scheme of when skills are introduced, 3rd position should be the easiest/most reliable. Can you go from open A to D w/1st finger with near-100% reliability? If not, then the problem might be adjusting the finger-spacing between 1st & 2nd fingers as part of the shift. Many people do seem to shift just about when they need to be at the next pitch: a mirror-motion sort of thing where timing & shifting work together in the player's brain, but don't HAVE to. Sue

December 3, 2011 at 04:10 PM · In 3rd position, the 2nd finger should also be a guide finger. It's used too much not to be.

December 3, 2011 at 05:20 PM · Definitely!!

December 4, 2011 at 01:22 AM · @Peter,

You are right about having a problem with my left-hand. I've since fixed it as indicated by my replies.


December 4, 2011 at 08:49 AM · I'm pleased to hear that and good luck with the Handel, it's a nice sonata.

December 4, 2011 at 01:52 PM · To clarify, "guide finger", as I use & was taught this concept, is when some finger is on the string & you use that finger (and the slide sound, however quiet) to land on the same finger in a new position. You can also use this guide finger concept to slide on the finger that is on the string, land quickly & change to the next finger required. Shifts from open to whatever lack guide fingers; they require some sort of motion & distance memory, and are thus somewhat more chancey. Sue

December 4, 2011 at 05:31 PM · @Nick Lin try the recording by Hiro Kurosaki, very nice. One or two of the sonatas are accompanied by organ, which is lovely in my opinion.

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