Shifting question?

September 7, 2012 at 04:12 AM · Hello, I was wondering if you guys could clear a question I had up for me. The situation stirred up last week at my violin lesson. I was playing a section of the Bach partita in EM (measure 13) when my teacher noticed that I wasn't correctly moving my thumb back to third position from fifth. I understood what I had done and fixed it. It got me thinking about what my thumb does when I'm shifting. After messing around with it I concluded that in the first position my thumb is right behind my first finger. Same with the second position. Where I fear is the third position. As I shift to third my thumb moves behind my second finger. Is that bad? I have done this for years without any problems. I'm afraid of having to relearn how to shift... All this week my effort has been in correcting this.

Any comments will be appreciated.

Replies (18)

September 7, 2012 at 05:35 AM · It's not a bad idea to continually analyze and adapt your technique as you advance. I've totally changed my left hand shape more than once in my career, and adapted my shifting as well. Your teacher is obviously going to be able to better help you because she can see exactly what you are doing. In first position, and in all positions through fourth, I personally like my thumb approximately opposite my second finger, to help balance my hand better. Your hand may not be the same shape as mine (probably isn't) and if you were to play with the same tactics I use, it might not be helpful.

The main deal with the thumb is, it needs to be relaxed and move with the hand, and the hand should try to stay consistent in shape for better accuracy. And that's all I'm willing to say about that. There are a lot of ideas about what the thumb should and should not be doing while shifting, and they are not all in agreement.

September 7, 2012 at 09:02 AM · To get a feeling about the (un-)importance of the thumb, practice some shifts without the thumb touching the neck. At first it will feel strange but after a while you maybe realize how little finger pressure is needed to get a clear tone and how much the thumb often presses and stops the shifting movement. I asked once a teacher of mine about the thumb position, and if mine is good. She stared at me and said: "play the way it works." I tried to go into more detail then but she just said something like "look at your hands and look at mine, they are so different in size and form..."

So about the thumb to me there is just two rules. First one: touch the neck as softly as possible. Second one: Don't let the thumb get in your way.

September 7, 2012 at 12:56 PM · Oooh a thumb topic :) Pedagogy without fights(I hope).

It seems there are as many thumb positions as pedagogues - and the best of the latter take no stand! From my limited reading we already have the two extremes above: keeping the thumb a at a constant relationship to the fingers, and doing exactly the opposite!! As I see it the former provides confidence in finger placement -you can retain their relative positions easily (adjusting a bit for the shorter keyboard upstream of course).

The most extreme alternative I've seen is in Ricchi's book - where the hand never moves into the 1st position but the thumb lies almost flat along the neck so that it can act as a pivot. This is scary stuff but according to the author its how Paganini achieved his amazing dexterity.

[Disclaimer as usual - just the perspective of an amateur and posted primarily to get more input from our teachers and pros.]

My thumb? My recent teachers have favoured the thumb relaxed backward in a reasonably constant position. I do TRY but I swear it is controlled by a tiny brain in my hand that does exactly what it wants...

September 7, 2012 at 01:31 PM · I was reading Ricci today. He has 3 ways of shifting - basic shift, crawling, and pivoting.

I think violinists have been cheating since gaining their chinrests. Leopold Mozart was one of the first - he shows it's more aesthetic to play from the chest, but easier to learn on the collar bone with aid from the chin on the tail piece. Previous masters, Leopold included, had to learn to shift by moving thumb and fingers independently. No hold-it-with-your-chin whilst moving your whole arm up or down easy-as-you-please. It reminds me of those pianists who can't play legato without the pedal! I'm a beginner by the way.

September 7, 2012 at 02:09 PM · Actually there isn't much debate among the pedagogues, perhaps only over slight variations in terminology. As Ricci writes, "[t]here are three types of shifting: crawling, pivoting, and the basic shift (glissando). Crawling occurs when the fingers precede the thumb; pivoting, when the thumb remains in position and the hand rotates to another position, then returns to the former position. The basic shift involves the movement of the entire hand and arm as one unit," (p.30, Left-Hand Violin Technique) after which he goes on to show what types of basic shifts are neglected, namely thinking finger patterns across strings.

Ricci outlines his purpose in publishing his ideas in the Foreword to the above mentioned book:

"No magic can transform a player into an instant Paganini; there are many elements which must be approached with intelligence, discipline, and the patience necessary to achieve a particular technical skill. I believe, however, that the way practice time is spent and how technical problems are analyzed is of critical importance. If there is a secret, it lies in efficient practice.

There are many problems involved in the development of the left hand, and it is not the intention of this volume to relate to each technical aspect in a step-by-step procedure. Rather, this text deals with the basic concepts that underlie the building of an advanced left-hand technique." (emphasis added)

Though Ricci equivocates in his use of the term glissando (in his first book he associates it with the basic shift, in his second he associates it with independence between fingers and thumb) he does not deny the importance of the basic shift, just it's potential to limit advanced technique. I think trying to crawl before we shift is putting the cart before the horse, as does (I'm guessing) Victor's teacher, and I'd suggest Ricci calls it the basic shift quite intentionally.

A great way to develop the basic shift is to simply do it every day. Pick a key (different key every day, or every week,) and shift through all of the intervals.

E.g. shifting 2nds in G maj:

Play on G string: A-B-B-A (1-1-1-1), continue the pattern, B-C up and down on 2, C-D on 3, D-E on 4, across all four strings; and descending on E-string: C-B-B-C on 4, B-A on 3, etc. back to 1 on the G-string, then play:

B-C-C-B (1-1-1-1), C-D on 2, D-E on 3, E-F# on 4, and descending C-B-B-C on 4, on E-string etc.

Repeat this pattern between every position up to VII/VIII positions.

While you do this you're

A) thinking about at least 1 of the following three things:

1) interval pattern, Maj/min seconds in this case

2) note names

3) degree of the scale or solfege

B) feeling the finger pattern, i.e. while you're sliding on any given interval, your fingers are measuring out the next interval; feeling the contact with the neck, then the upper-bout and beyond; paying attention to whole-arm-shifts to Vth position; feeling the contact between thumb and button at Vth; feeling the upper bout with various parts of the palm at various contact points on the lower plate, rib, upper plate for different positions; feeling the thumb at side of neck, or finger board, or upper bout for higher positions

Also do:

3rds: in G maj: A-C-C-A (1-1-1-1), B-D on 2, etc, all the way up to VII and IX

4ths: up to VII and X

5ths: up to VII and XI

etc. obviously, the lower and middle positions take priority at first. Until we're secure of the thumb's position at the crook of the button/neck, it's difficult to launch into higher positions, and even more difficult to find the middle positions from higher positions, with any security (for rapid scales, arpeggios, big shifts.)

Also do:

positions I-II-II-I, I-III, I-IV up to VII on each finger ascending; VII-VI-VI-VII back down to VII-I on each finger descending

Do this over 3-6 months everyday in every key, and it will map out every note on all the positions, every interval shift ascending and descending, sense of interval for both shifts and finger-patterns simultaneously, sense of key and tonality. The idea of ambiguous positions becomes moot, since positions are always trained in the context of key. But in light of the OP's question, this exercise will show specifically where we need to whole-arm-shift and where we transition over the upper-bout, where we need to pivot the hand into high positions, all relative to player's proportions and instrument proportions. After basic shifts are mapped out, at least in the rough, crawling becomes much easier to measure out. Also, or alternately, work on Sevcik Opp. 1 and 8.

As for the thumb's relative position with respect to the fingers, I think Flesch states it well, "[h]owever, the place on the thumb where it should make contact with the neck of the violin depends less on the thumb itself than on the other fingers, or more precisely, on the lengths of the other fingers; these proportions can vary a lot." (Art, p. 5) So there are as many thumb positions as there are differently proportioned hands.

Edit: You beat me to the punch Bud :) but I guess we've drawn opposite conclusions

September 7, 2012 at 04:02 PM · You can read my views about this subject from a thread I initiated in 2006, before Mr. Ricci's book came out. (Paganini, Extreme Backward extension in Paganini) It seems I came to the same conclusion he did.

September 7, 2012 at 04:09 PM · I thought I read it somewhere that one should be able to play/shift even without one's thumb so I guess it doesn't really matter as long as it's comfortable for one's hand?

I read Ricci's book too, considering practicing his method if I have time.

September 7, 2012 at 11:56 PM · Thanks Jeewon Kim! Very good exercises!

September 8, 2012 at 01:59 AM · Glad you like them Simon. I've found them to be quite effective, not only for basic and classical shifts, but for more advanced types of shifting. I use them almost exclusively for a while, for students who need to improve their left hand technique quickly, along with whatever etude or rep they need to be learning. It helps them get a good grasp of keys and tonality and prepares them for some serious work on scales and arpeggios too. I think working on the left hand in a systematic way like that really maps out the fingerboard for the brain, so that it becomes a permanent framework from which to work out more complex fingerings. Let us know if you or your students find them useful.

September 8, 2012 at 03:49 AM · Thank you guys so much for all the replies. I know it is very difficult to answer a technical question from x amount of miles away.

September 8, 2012 at 08:30 AM · Sounds like there is too much weight in the shifts and you are pushing and pulling the fingers instead of using the arm to guide the fingers. Get the image of an arc or

sad :( in your mind to help you shift without touching the fingerboard. Heavy shifts are loud, slow and inaccurate. A light shift with the arm and shoulders doing all the work makes it easy. Whatever lags practice putting it first. Practice moving the elbow forward or up, then shift.

September 8, 2012 at 09:50 AM · ok, er...imagine a sad face, dusay?

September 8, 2012 at 10:42 AM · Jeewon, its a very effective way to get every possible shift covered and a very good warm up exercise. I once heard about a similar exercise in an masterclass, but I didn't write it down and forgot over time.

I like, that you point out to think about the interval, note name or relation to the groundnote. Because doing this, while seeming extremely simple and basic, helps a lot to improve the knowledge of the fingerboard. Also it helps focusing on every note and interval. When you give things names, they become more important. Like your dog compared to the lots of nameless animals one eats over time. ;)

September 8, 2012 at 01:12 PM · Yes Henry, the sad image :( for shifting and a smiley image :) for spiccato, but you need to turn them 90*. You can say arc and inverted arc to be proper, or some teachers use the letters C and U. I find the letters C an U are not true to the correct form and the student may end up using too much movement.

September 8, 2012 at 02:04 PM · Actually, I don't think you want to be able to do things the way Paganini did. According to the book "The Violinist's Thumb" by Sam Kean, Paganini had a genetic condition that allowed remarkable contortionism, but resulted in many serious health issues. As far as "his" thumb is concerned Paganini reportedly could touch his pinky with his thumb reaching around the back of his hand. He was quite ill during much of his shortened life.

The book is really an incredible one about genetics and the title subject is treated in only a few pages of Chapter 12.


September 8, 2012 at 02:05 PM · (repeated) sorry!

September 9, 2012 at 10:19 AM · :( for shifting and a smiley image :)

Ok, I get it now......

For shifting this shape represents the finger releasing pressure and after arriving at the new position re-applying finger pressure. And the smiley image is the movement of the bow through the stroke.....

September 9, 2012 at 10:56 PM · post removed

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