Teach a beginner using higher positions rather than first?

July 25, 2014 at 09:40 PM · I'm curious if anybody has experimented with teaching beginners to start somewhere around fifth position rather than first. Bear with me while I go into a long, confusing explanation.

For a few years I had little time for the violin, so I've been in a bit of a rebuilding mode for the past year. One issue I really wanted to fix was left arm/hand tension. I've never been very flexible, and this always made it difficult for me to position my fingers on the string with a straight wrist without pressing the base of my index finger into the neck. I could never rotate the hand enough. I made sure to apply the suggestion to reach back with the index finger rather than forward with the pinky, but I could never rotate very much. So I set out to fix this.

I noticed how comfortable I felt in about 5th-7th position, where my palm would rest on the side of the violin and my fingers could sit comfortably on the strings without any strain in the arm or wrist. So I used this as a starting point. I would play scales and simple tunes in fifth position for a while and then try to reach back to lower positions. Once fourth position would feel comfortable, then I would work my way down to 3rd, etc. Some days I never felt comfortable enough to really go down as far as 3rd without feeling overly tense, but I kept at it. Eventually I could work down to 1st position again.

I am still working at this a year later. I still play my first notes in 5th position and work my way down. The results have been very good. I don't think I'm any much more flexible, but still there is much less left arm/hand tension. It feels like I've mainly just learned how to use my hand better and how to adjust according each position. I can feel how stance and posture affect my ability to use my left hand correctly as well. Shifting feels smoother and easier. I don't use my head to stabilize the violin nearly as much, and I don't press my violin into my neck anymore (didn't even realize how much I did this before - and now I don't get the dumb red spot on my neck after practicing). And another cool side effect of the slow, careful practice is that my bow control has also improved. Now if it just didn't take me so long to warm up...

I wonder if it would be beneficial to teach beginning students left hand technique by starting them somewhere around fifth position. It seems like a struggle for most beginners to straighten the wrist and avoid squeezing the neck. Perhaps feeling a comfortable hand position further up the fingerboard and then working down to first could help one to learn better left hand technique more quickly.


Replies (41)

July 26, 2014 at 02:08 AM · Many teachers atart vibrato usung hand exercises that are in a high position but I think the lower positions are more forgiving in terms of the accuracy of finger placement.

July 26, 2014 at 05:01 AM · As a beginner who is just starting to do exercises for 2nd and 3rd positions, I find it difficult to even imagine starting with any other position than the first.

Regardless of any good reasons such as wrist position, how would one keep intonation? At least in 1st position you have a clear reference with the open strings, which is both audible (you can *hear* the whole tone between the open string and 1st finger) and visual (you can *see* the distance between the nut and the 1st finger, which is very similar to the distance between 1st and 2nd fingers).

Perhaps an alternative would be to start regularly with 1st position but quickly enough starting with exercises for other positions?

Anyway, not my area, but there you have my 2 cents :)

July 26, 2014 at 08:13 AM · I've taught beginners before starting in 3rd position. It's great for situations where they can't find an appropriately sized violin (usually too large). It's easier to work the left hand since the intervals are smaller.

For intonation's sake, you have an open string at the interval of an octave from the first finger on every string except G. A player sensitive and mature enough to hear and understand the relationship shouldn't have any problem. That's about as specific as I could get though, it really depends where the student is cognitively and physically.

July 26, 2014 at 10:59 AM ·

You are just prolonging the inevitable.

July 26, 2014 at 01:38 PM · When you discover how simple and safe fingering can so often be if you use 2/3/4 positions you'll have an incentive.

July 27, 2014 at 08:44 PM · After years of teaching the traditional first position right off, I have begun to teach my students a one (first) finger scale on all 4 strings as soon as they have the correct violin posture and bow hold.

I am seeing some exciting results from doing this. The concept of moving comfortably around the violin becomes natural and not something that has to be learned later. Also, it makes teaching the students to play by using intervals and patterns so much easier and that's just a few of the benefits I've noticed so far. I'm eager to see what the long term effects will be.

July 28, 2014 at 06:49 PM · If we include singing and solfege then teaching Positions amounts to teaching clutter-producing text. They were invented for amateurs and as such destine their practitioners to that state.

July 28, 2014 at 06:55 PM · Starting beginners in higher positions would require the immediate use of 4th finger. Since the 4th finger is the weakest, for extremely young students, this may not be a possibility... Depending on the progress of the student, I don't put on a "4th finger tape" until a month or two of study, sometimes longer...

Which brings up a question...

Has anyone ever tried teaching a beginner with no tapes on the fingerboard, but just relied on the ear to find the pitches? I've never done this myself, but my students always seem eager to get rid of their tapes before they are entirely ready.

July 28, 2014 at 08:24 PM · Personally I don't use tapes to teach private students, and have not needed to. However, I usually get them when they are old enough to distinguish pitches and can make the connection between the physical distance between their fingers and the pitch they create. My colleagues teaching three-year-olds have a different experience with the stage of cognitive development their students are at. Visual aids can be quite useful in that situation.

Now, as a school orchestra director with 4th and 5th grade classes, I do use visual aids. Given the limited instruction time that we have, they are very helpful for the year or so that we do use them (eventually they come off as the kids develop their ability).

You'll see a lot of posts from people here who condemn finger tapes universally and claim they should never be used, but I'm willing to bet that most of them have never had to teach elementary music classes with hundreds of students to play a stringed instrument on 45 minutes of instructional time per week.

July 28, 2014 at 08:33 PM · Yes, it is "prolonging the inevitable" as someone suggested.

The practical ramifications are that, without exception, the entire repertoire for beginners is predicated on starting from 1st position. Beginner books, methods, Suzuki, early orchestra, you name it. So if you want to go there, fine: you will have to either somehow adapt or entirely rewrite the entire repertoire.

Good luck with that. Let us know when you finish.

July 28, 2014 at 11:56 PM · Gene, most of my beginners are very young, and need the tapes as a general guideline. They are never meant to be permanent, and are to be used as a tool, not an end all. I could understand not using them for older beginners or adult students, who have a more "seasoned" ear, and have more control over the body.

I heard on This American Life recently that most children cannot understand references to right and left until the age of 6, such as, the red ball is to the left of the yellow square. If this is the case, can they understand that putting the second finger higher will result in a higher pitch? Just a thought.

July 29, 2014 at 09:56 AM · Yes, concepts like color, length, weight, volume, rotation, etc. (ala Piaget) They are comprehended at different stages of cognitive development, so there's not a "one size fits all" approach that works for teaching everyone.

Scott, one of my colleagues actually had a few Pre-Twinkle Suzuki students starting at age 3-1/2 whom were started off in third position to get the hand shaped properly against the lower bout, and played fingered notes with the group class rhythms that way initially. She transitioned them to first position when they were ready to play Twinkle, and the it really helped with the frame of the hand and introducing the concept of reaching back/scissoring the fingers as opposed to stretching the fourth finger up.

My surprise was that it was something I always did with older students to help shape their left hand if they had trouble with it...I didn't expect to see it used so effectively with really young beginners.

July 29, 2014 at 04:10 PM · One of the vintage method books I inherited from a family friend and neighbor who had been a professional violinist is Preliminary Hand Training for Violinists by Lillian Shattuck. The book advocates starting violin pupils in 3rd position instead of 1st, but the emphasis is on preliminary hand training. As others here have said, beginner repertoire focuses on 1st position.

My very beginning lessons were in 1st position, but my teacher introduced me to 3rd position after only 10-12 weeks. She felt I was ready. She was right. For a long time, 3rd has been my default or home position -- just as ASDFGHJKL;' on the computer/typewriter keyboard is home row to typing students. I start warm-up sessions in 3rd position, then move down to 1st to open up the hand still more.

July 31, 2014 at 05:24 AM · I tried this for the first time today, mainly because I am tired of telling the children to 'not play using a 'fry pan' but use a 'stop sign'....It begins with the hand in the rest position against the heel, and fingers on the belly like the 'tiger's paw'. The fingers are then raised and curved to play upon the strings. To keep the wrist in a good playing position, i.e. straight wrist, the hand is actually in 6th position. As the child played a bow pattern on the open string and then on the first finger in 6th position, I noticed improved posture all over i.e. arm, wrist and shape of fingers, and violin support was much easier thus enabling the head to maintain a good posture after correcting......We'll see how it goes and then revert back to first position once good postures are established......

August 1, 2014 at 03:17 PM · Left wrist problems? Where is the left thumb?

Eye vs ear?

Here is one possible answer:(Snitched from a similar post)


August 1, 2014 at 05:02 PM · Learning to play an instrument uses kinetic, auditory and visual abilities.

You need the kinetic and visual aspect in order to learn to hold up the violin using posture mainly, and not the left hand, so that the hand is free to float over the instrument and make pitch-- that is the primary job of the left hand. So it won't matter where you start fingering the instrument as long as the player really understands how to hold it up and is completely comfortable with the instrument/player interface of shoulder and chin rests (the part that actually touches the player); that is critical, and accounts for as much as 90 per cent of your left hand success, from what I've seen over 35 years of private teaching.

Then you need auditory to help the spatial and kinetic in order to make pitch. If we don't teach students to listen primarily, they won't learn to play in tune as well as they potentially could.

It doesn't matter where you play your instrument in whichever position, you must be comfortable balancing the instrument on the shoulder, not crunching down and locking it (and all your upper body muscles!)into place, but balancing it. Students need to learn how to do this critical task separately from making pitch with fingers if they wish to learn to play instruments with any kind of success and happiness.

August 1, 2014 at 10:01 PM · Dennie,

I completely agree with you on the importance of creating that relaxed left hand without clenching the instrument. That is the main goal to the approach of starting in a higher position. Of course, if this is all just as easy for you in first position, then there is no point starting high. However, for people like myself who do not have that flexibility or who are just struggling with the left hand, it seems to make sense to spend some time in a higher position where a relaxed hold and properly shaped left hand/arm come more easily. Then work slowly down to first position in order to keep that feeling in lower positions as well.

August 2, 2014 at 09:46 AM · What causes tension? It's the ignoring or lack of thought to a muscle movement.

Playing in 5th position is a different hold than 1st; therefore, you are not really addressing the issue. To fix problems in 1st position, you need to play in first position and think about muscle control. Also, tension is not a problem with the muscles, but a problem with the mind.

I wouldn't say a year at working on something and only slightly improving it, as a success. Generally it takes 3 months to fix a problem or learn something new. If the problem is not resolved in 3 months then you either need to practice it more or take a different approach.

August 2, 2014 at 04:07 PM · John, a fair amount of the time when I play the cello my thumb barely touches the neck, if at all. The thumb needs to be relaxed and flexible in its movement anyway so that the cellist can move it swiftly into position for the "thumb position" (equivalent to a moveable nut).

Another interesting use for the thumb, which isn't mentioned in the older tutor manuals for the cello, is to place it under the fingerboard in high positions beyond the neck if you don't need to use the thumb position, so that it helps to stabilize the finger on the string. I don't know who thought of that but I remember seeing Paul Tortelier advocating it in a televised workshop many years ago. So I tried it.

August 3, 2014 at 06:01 AM · Sean: It doesn't matter where you start; the point is BALANCING the violin on the shoulder, using mainly the upward lift of the thoracic area which in turn gets its support from the hips, and the hips in turn from balancing body weight in a relaxed alignment with the feet, so right you are about using posture to hold the instrument up. I say that about 90 per cent of your left hand success is riding on your posture, because your left arm is left free to deliver the fingers, which need be free to make pitch, not hold the instrument up. With an upward lift of the ribs you don't need to do much more with the head than just look to the left, lengthen the back of the neck (this is Alexander Technique) and drop the chin down. Understanding how the upper arm "floats" off the clavicle/scapula via modalities such as Feldenkreis or Alexander is beneficial for everyone, and especially so for tighter people, and has helped this player a lot. Larger sized hands may feel more comfortable in upper positions of the violin because the neck is wider, and when in fifth position, the left hand is closer to the instrument's center of gravity. But you should not be asking your left hand to hold up the instrument while at the same time trying to make pitch, because those are two conflicting activities.

Relaxation and avoiding tension is always a combination mind AND body issue, and thinking of it as caused by "either" one thing "or" the other (binary thought process) doesn't help the most because when attempting to remedy a problem, you can't really use the same kind of thinking that caused the problem in the first place.

Players also need to understand how critical the chin rest/shoulder rest interface is to left hand success, because you don't need to be distracted by lack of real comfort and support there. Not having the kind of comfort you can count on just makes you feel insecure, because you literally have nothing to base your left hand technique upon.

August 3, 2014 at 09:31 AM · > But you should not be asking your left hand to hold

> up the instrument while at the same time trying

> to make pitch, because those are two conflicting activities.

I'd venture that if they were still with us, you'd have an interesting time trying to convince Ruggiero Ricci or Nathan Milstein of this hypothesis. :)

August 3, 2014 at 05:46 PM · The fundamental problem with starting a student in third position is that ordinary passages such as simple scales do not include open strings which are highly useful as auditory reference points for developing interval awareness and intonation. In my opinion this reason is completely deal-breaking for the whole idea.

@John wouldn't it be easier to hold up the violin if you completely cut off the scroll above the peg box? I mean, that is a small amount of weight but it's the farthest from the fulcrum.

August 4, 2014 at 12:50 AM · @John wouldn't it be easier to hold up the violin if you completely cut off the scroll above the peg box? I mean, that is a small amount of weight but it's the farthest from the fulcrum.

Now that's just crazy talk.

"> But you should not be asking your left hand to hold

> up the instrument while at the same time trying

> to make pitch, because those are two conflicting activities."

Does our proprioception sense( kinesthesia, tactile, feel etc...) require the thumb to aid in accurate intonation? My assumption would be no, but we do need the thumb to compensate for the added weight by the fingers; that's all we really need it for.

Tension does kill good intonation.

August 5, 2014 at 07:23 PM · Of course it appears as if your violin is being held up by the left hand, but everyone who's actually really studied (and not just a trolling amateur trying to sound like He Knows It All) understands, without needing silly discussion boards, that the primary heavy lifting is being done by the left shoulder.. Still not sure about that? Ask Milstein (ha ha-- yes, my teacher did work with him, and Oistrakh, too, every summer when he was still in Russia..) Seriously, just think of all the exercises little bitty kiddies have to do to prove that this is how you support the weight of the instrument.. So, once again, kids: The left hand itself is not meant primarily for HOLDING, meaning "supporting the weight of the instrument," but mainly for making pitch. And arrogantly just quoting late, great players who you never worked with personally isn't going to change this reality. The fingers are connected to the hand, the hand is connected to the wrist, the wrist is connected to the arm and the left shoulder drives the arm-- can you follow the "delivery" system, or is just too complicated?

August 6, 2014 at 01:47 AM ·

In the words of Gordon Ramsey: Wow, shocking!

I disagree with a lot in what you say and how you are saying it. Your principles don't make any sense. I would get into it, but it would fall on deaf ears.

August 6, 2014 at 01:50 PM · Charles, I was just kidding about cutting off the scroll, sheesh!

Delivering the fingers? That sounds like more of a Mafia thing.

August 6, 2014 at 06:30 PM · This (starting in higher positions for beginners) is something I've been promoting for some time. Fourth or fifth position is good. Use the fingerboard as one position. (See my recent blog which I can't find now?!!)

August 6, 2014 at 09:36 PM · Fourth or fifth position is good....

Sixth, and the hand can rest on the bouts.

I suppose this may depend on the size of the hand...?

August 6, 2014 at 10:07 PM · Peter, I agree. You've probably known for a while what I'm recently discovering. That treating the fingerboard as a whole instead of "parts" creates a nice fluidity that I haven't seen when teaching each position individually. I'm enjoying seeing the improvements in my students playing as I make this change in my teaching.

August 6, 2014 at 11:39 PM · > that the primary heavy lifting is being

> done by the left shoulder

I don't think that we disagree with that in principle; rather the issue is with the hypothesis that "the violin should not be held up at all with the left hand, ever." I would say the extremists at both ends of the argument for or against are missing the point, and that there is a *balance* that is required depending on how one holds the instrument in the first place.

Those who play with a shoulder rest and chinrest can hold the instrument without using any support from the left hand/wrist/arm. Those who play sans shoulder rest but with a chinrest have to divide that work somehow to varying degrees depending on the physique of the player. My colleagues who specialize in period instruments play without either a shoulder rest OR chinrest, and have to hold up the instrument with their left hand/wrist/arm or it would just fall down.

There's certainly a diversity of valid approaches, and plenty of evidence out there of world-class players in all of them. Just because one doesn't personally agree with or understand how they are able to do it doesn't mean it's necessary to react negatively.

My boss (an author of works for screen and stage) likes to say, "the success of other does not diminish us." :)

August 7, 2014 at 11:09 AM · Bev (Hi and best wishes)

Yes, all these ideas can have a positive outcome if it makes one think laterally or out of the box, and as Gene says, we can all have different ways of playing the instrument and some methods suit one player and not another so much. The good thing about this forum is that we bounce ideas off each other and we can try out new ideas (and old ones) and learn from them or reject them.

However, there are some suggestions that can cause problems, and the most important thiung is to avoid all strain and take some of these ideas as perhaps being a bit suspicious.

But I'm pleased the "fingerboard as one position" is a help for you, and it's pretty harmless as its just another way of thinking, which probably won't work for everyone. It's Ruggerio Ricci's interpretation of the way he thought Paganini played - so I'm just repeating what he said, and benefitting from it as well myself. All this can be a "win/win" situation for us all, if we keep an open mind.

August 7, 2014 at 11:14 AM · Henry

Yes, you are quite right, and the size of the hand will dictate which "position" - so I would say anything around forth to sixth will work.

I had this idea from reading books on left hand technique, and particularly the one "Ricci on Glissando." (I'm not getting commision for recommending the book by the way, I just think it has some great suggestions!)

August 7, 2014 at 04:00 PM · My cello teacher taught me to think of the whole length of the fingerboard as a unit rather than as a series of "positions". His friend, the cellist the late Christopher Bunting also taught the same system. Consequently I never thought of positions when I was playing the cello and would have had to think what "position" I was playing in if someone asked. My violin playing is now rapidly approaching that happy situation, if not already there.

August 7, 2014 at 08:57 PM · 'Positions, Positions, Positions.'

It's just terminology to describe an area on the ebony board. A place where you will find the other notes, another location for your fingers. Or a polite way of telling a student they are out-of-tune....'play in first position'....

Moving the hand up and down the board is executed by using intervals with various shifting devices. You focus on that technique rather than think ...'I must move to such 'n' such position now'....You think 'intervals' so one can play in tune...!?

August 8, 2014 at 05:48 PM · Charles, I'm impressed you could see right through my "results have been very good" comment and call it how it is, "slightly improving".

Don't mean to sound like a jerk, just interesting how things can be interpreted so many ways...

August 9, 2014 at 04:04 AM · I came across this thread and had to mention that my teacher had often mused that if he ever taught a beginner, he would start in fourth position! I don't think he's ever done it, but he had quite a violin mind and I never discount anything he's said about the instrument.

August 13, 2014 at 11:41 AM · My colleague uses the Massau method which starts in 3rd position: better hand shape, and it's easier to play in tune in C major and play with flautists, beginner pianists, etc. The method's contents are drivel, though, as in most French methods..

Helen, I totally agree about the ear guiding the fingers; but in music where my fingers have to go faster than my poor brain, a more "physical" fallback can help.

August 13, 2014 at 12:12 PM · Gene

You last post makes a lot of sense and we have to be flexible and divide the function of each area, shoulder, arm chin etc. Some outstanding soloists seem to almost lock the fiddle and it never moves - but at least one of these has stated that you should not lift the shoulder or grip tightly, but hold with the left hand at least some of the time. It doesn't look as if he's doing that, but I'm sure he is as his left hand and bowing are totally relaxed, even in Paganini Caprices.

August 13, 2014 at 05:21 PM · While I have never taught this way, I find it interesting that a Romanian friend once told me the gypsy people sometimes teach their kids to play first in the upper positions while imitating bird calls. Then, as "studies" progress, they work down the fingerboard and conclude at first position.

This is really neother here nor there in regard to your post, but it made me remember that idea.

Ultimately, starting in about 4th position might only offer more physical support to the hand as structure is established. I think the more traditional approach of starting from the open strings still makes sense, but one might experiment on a case by case basis if the going gets rough and the student needs the rug pulled out from under them for a fresh start (even a temporary one). Interesting idea.

August 13, 2014 at 07:51 PM · I saw a photo of a very small "gypsy" lad with a full-sized fiddle perched way back on his shoulder with the middle bouts near his chin, so that he could reach 1st position.

A Hungarian friend told me he started "gypsy" style in the high positions simply because he couldn't reach the lower ones..

August 14, 2014 at 03:06 AM · Trying to imitate bird calls is a very good idea. You can also try to mimic video game music:


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