How big is a fingerboard

July 28, 2014 at 03:22 PM · I understand a little about "positions" but is it correct to say:

"A fingerboard position is a specific array of notes chosen to accommodate the range(pitch) of the music and includes all of the notes that are outside the array but possibly more convenient for certain passages."


Replies (33)

July 28, 2014 at 04:31 PM · In violin methods, scale books etc, the "positions" go up one note name at a time, but this is insufficiently clear when we play a semitone between 4th and 1st fingers, or when we play in a key with lots of sharps or flats.

My own position numbers go up by semitone: Half, 1st, low2nd, high2nd, 3rd, high3rd=low4th etc.

The "real" position depends on the base-joint of the index, not on the note name.

Then there are extensions and contractions which do not affect the "real" position.

I can be more explicit, but its's hard to be succinct!

July 28, 2014 at 05:18 PM · Position is defined, as Adrian says, by where your hand is. From there you can reach above and below the traditional "boundaries" of the positions, and the ability to do this will expand your fingering possibilities tremendously. Cellists are more formal about this ("extensions" etc.) because reaching "outside the position" is physically more difficult for them. Best not to get too caught up in the numbering of the positions and just think about where you logically need to be to reach the intervals in the passages you're playing. Intervals are part of the music, positions are not.

July 28, 2014 at 06:55 PM · Glad to read that there can be useful exceptions but something else just came to mind.

Do all players in a string(s) section use the same fingering?

Does anyone worry about that?

July 28, 2014 at 07:13 PM · When a particular fingering is integral to phrasing, tone color, or playing a quick passage cleanly then yes, there is a good case for everyone in a section doing the same, including shifting in the same places. Otherwise, it's no great matter, given that you should always try to do what the first desk requires if they say it is important.

What I've just said is obviously applicable to professional and the better amateur orchestras, but for other ensembles with, shall we say, a somewhat broader spectrum of ability it is usually more important to get timing and dynamics as good as possible rather than worry about niceties of fingering.

July 29, 2014 at 08:47 AM · As well as extensions & contractions, we can also leave the thumb in place and shift and tilt the hand temporarily.

I have noticed that my viola students who had women teachers, usually with small hands, have better understanding and use of these "false shifts", half positions etc. than my violinists.

I have short fingers, and on the viola I often "borrow" 'cello fingerings: 1-234

July 29, 2014 at 09:34 AM · As a cellist (although not a particularly active one nowadays) I am aware that the important factor for big reaches - a word I prefer to "stretches" - is not so much finger length as width and flexibility of the left hand. You can't do much about the hand width you're born with but flexibility can, and should be, developed. An easy octave reach across the strings in the first position should be available to any cellist with training (on a small size instrument for children, obviously), and the equivalent reach for a violinist would be a tenth - I'll leave others to comment on big reaches for the viola.

July 29, 2014 at 03:00 PM · Another way to think about "positions" is which finger is anchored on a particular note. This does not mean that finger is down on that note, but rather we are conscious about that location. Conventionally, we often think of the index/1st finger as the anchor. If we learn to think of another finger (say 3d finger) as the anchor, for short periods of time, then we can move the 1st finger, and other fingers, around to get those stretches and accidentals, and smears, etc. We can stay in tune by referencing the anchor (3d finger in this case) location in our mind and letting the other fingers roam to those "1/2 position locations". I find that with practice this works well for 1st,2d and 3d finger temporary anchors, but its hard to get the 4th finger believing that it is an anchor for the rest of the hand.

July 29, 2014 at 04:11 PM · It helps me to conceptualize my problems and there may be a useful mind set in this question:

Some have defined "position" as hand position and then there are the fingerboard diagrams to consider.

Isn't position ultimately a matter of muscle memory whether it is 2" or 6" from the scroll and the diagrams serve as an interim learning tool?

( I once had a teacher explain that when your hand hits the violin, that's an "A" (on the "E" string. ( This is known as the anatomical approach.)

July 29, 2014 at 06:38 PM · Darlene, yes, you have to be able to find where your hand needs to be, very quickly and accurately. You're right about that. It's something every violinist finds difficult, and it takes time, so please be patient with yourself.

But finding notes "out of the blue" is not really what you do most of the time when you play ordinary music on the violin. Most of the time you're going from note to note within a position or between positions that are fairly close to one another (first to third, etc.). The early exercise books like Wohlfardt and Kayser and Schradieck and Dont have a LOT of exercises for that. It's important to have your teacher show you the technique for executing smaller shifts correctly, the technique will apply to the big jumps later on, as you'll see.

July 29, 2014 at 08:05 PM · Little challenges help maintain a lively wit.

Paul I'm suspecting that it never becomes easier :)

July 30, 2014 at 12:35 AM · Darlene, these difficult things becoming easy - when it happens it is often quick and unexpected. I think it is something to do with the way the brain lays down new neuro pathways. Nothing seems to happen until the process is complete, and then success is sudden. Shifting, vibrato, and bowing techniques are examples. But of course a good teacher is absolutely necessary to make sure the student starts on the right track and keeps to it.

July 30, 2014 at 02:24 AM · I am very familiar with the mode of learning you are referring to and it is often my source of hope when things are bad.

However my last episode still has me baffled. I simply walked away from the violin for about 3 months. Did not touch it.

On my return I clearly was much improved in many important ways!

(There are those who might suggest that I sound the best when I don't play!)

I must say however that the recent replies on this thread and others have been very productive with my Bach Magnificat. I believe that I am making it more difficult than it really is and my practices are improving.

July 30, 2014 at 03:15 PM · Muscle memory is rather variable: weather, fatigue etc. The joints have their own, more reliable sensors.

Shifting is not just a muscular movement, but also a recalling of skeletal angles.

I confess I am surprised when folks' hands touch the violin shoulder in third position. For me it's definitely the fourth, (back plate), or fifth (top plate). Perhaps I have primate-type arms?

July 30, 2014 at 04:37 PM ·

I do not feel sorry for violinists trying to navigate around perhaps 10" of fingerboard and then making excuses about questionable results.

What if you had to find notes on a piano ..... many don't watch and some (God bless'm) are blind !

Is the piano player also tapping in on muscle memory? Then what?

July 30, 2014 at 05:57 PM · It's the same sort of skill - proprioception - that you use when driving a car and change gear without having to look at the stick (one hopes!), but developed to a higher level of accuracy.

July 30, 2014 at 10:40 PM · My experience is that the piano is much less physically demanding than the violin to initially learn and play at an amateur level.

A simple example:

If one's finger is off a little bit on the piano, one still sounds a perfectly intonated note. On the violin, that same miss translates into a noticeable quarter to a half tone off depending where on the fingerboard one is playing.

I was taught piano by sight reading. So from the very start, except for the occasional peek for a big hand shift, I was playing the keys "blind". It comes as no surprise to me that a blind person can master a keyboard.

I occasionally practice the violin with my eyes closed so I am relying entirely on my sense of muscle stretch and relative positioning. It makes me really focus on repeatable hand positioning and fingering and accurate bowing, especially on string changes.

I am sure one can learn to play a violin well this way, but I could not make the same progress on the violin as I did on the piano playing "blind" like this.

July 30, 2014 at 11:44 PM · Coincidentally, I saw a live performance by a blind violinist.

Michael Cleveland who is well known but if you want to ponder muscle memory, here is some food for thought.

Let him warm up for a few bars.

August 1, 2014 at 07:55 PM · I am a fair sight reader so I can not monitor the finger board.

I discovered something that I think is hilarious. If I look at the finger board from the scroll end, I have very little recognition of the location of the notes.

Sure, I eventually figure it out but in a largo sort of way!

August 1, 2014 at 08:13 PM · I think we've got your message, John :)

August 1, 2014 at 08:25 PM · The last time I saw Itzhak Perlman play, I am sure I caught him peeking at the fingerboard a couple of times!

Ability to execute various note runs (especially descending), string crossings and sound point changes on autopilot is an ongoing learning process. I see no reason to give up my sense of sight to make the journey the first few hundred times.

The most extensive piece I can play from memory and without peeking at my fingers is a modest 68 bars long (not including the repeats) and covers 3 of the 4 strings. But an occasional glance at the sounding point during some rapid string crossing still occurs.

But perhaps by the time I get to Carnegie Hall...

August 1, 2014 at 10:57 PM · I generally have yet another complication which has become routine. That is, that I almost always look at the next bar while playing which often puts the current bar on autopilot while I scout out what is next. My speed increased significantly when I started to do this on a regular basis. Sometimes I could "see" two bars ahead.

SO ... never had time to watch strings but I know what I would find ....... falling off the sound point. Don't have to look !

August 2, 2014 at 10:24 AM · John

Not to change this into an argument over something I think we all actually agree on, but there is a big difference between something like:

1. a practiced player moving up and down 4 diatonic scale notes within easy reach of 4 fingers on the same string, and

2. needing to do a rapid string crossing from first finger to fourth finger with accidentals thrown in requiring an odd finger stretch or maybe a small hand position shift.

The former most amateurs can do in their sleep.

The latter will need quite a bit of eye contact before it gets committed to muscle memory.


I suffer from the same issue when reading ahead on sheet music I am not comfortably familiar with. My bowing goes out to lunch while my fingers continue to work diligently.

It has gotten better since I have been doing open string bowing exercises every day. Again, I will eyeball the contact point intensely and gradually close my eyes for longer periods of time until I am working only from proprioception. It has helped me develop a better autopilot for my bowing.

August 2, 2014 at 01:18 PM · John I have no good idea as to what you are talking about but strangely, I might know an answer.

I'm sure you recognize "Ya can't bat and think at the same time!" :)

August 2, 2014 at 02:44 PM · I liked John's comment about climbing the stairs -- do you always start with the same foot? I think that relates more closely to bowing. My teacher regularly suggests that I play studies with the bowing backwards, and I've found this to be a fun challenge. For example Kreutzer No. 17, how can you NOT practice this study both ways?

Regarding positions, Buri once suggested practicing K2 entirely in second position, and I did that, it's really interesting and you will learn a lot about your violin that way.

Regarding eye contact -- I have never looked at my fingerboard to find notes, I personally have found it much more efficient to learn how intervals and jumps feel in my hand. Looking at your fingerboard is not too reliable anyway because of the grazing angle of observation. I think if you want to look at something it should either be looking at yourself in a mirror to see whether your posture and hand positions are correct and you are bowing straight, or you should look at the contact point where your bow meets the string.

August 3, 2014 at 03:54 PM · >> OK Bottom line , when you look at your fingers how can you use what you see ?

Here is an example for first position that any beginner can use to find the notes of a major scale.

Dominant (Perfect 5th, Sol):

Look sideways at the G string. Visually divide it into thirds. Find a spot on the side of the neck where the first third ends. It is typically near where the neck bends down from the fingerboard to the cleat.

Once you have that mental image put the violin on the shoulder and place the pinky about where you think that third point is (Actually a little behind that point.)

Now alternate bowing that and the open string and adjust your thumb position so a natural fall of the pinky hits what sounds like a perfect 5th, or use the next highest open string until the pinky matches the open string.

You now have a visual reference that you can easily see in playing position for finding your first position "hand".

Supertonic (Major Second, Re):

Visually divide the distance from your pinky position to the nut in thirds again. The end of the first third is darn close to the supertonic. It depends on what type of intonation system you want.

I find the second interval played a little "flat" sounds nicer than the equivalent piano-tuned second so this visual cue is perfect for that.

Mediant (Major Third, Mi):

You have two options here. You can look at the distance of the first finger from the nut and drop the second finger at that same interval. Or you can look at the distance between the first the fourth fingers and visually divide it in half.

Subdominant (Perfect Fourth, Fa):

Same as the Major Third only drop the third finger just after the visual reference.

One can learn to visually divide up first position string lengths into halves and thirds in the blink of an eye in one practice session.

Any first year violin student doing modest scale and etude practice will soon shed a "dependence" on visual cues for finding the diatonic scale notes.

But while they are learning, if they hit a sour note, they can quickly correct their position by using the simple visual cues given above.

August 3, 2014 at 09:52 PM · I think it's still useful to have a definition of positions that doesn't leave room for ambiguity. You have to start with some kind of foundation in order to expand on it later. Therefore (taking the A string as an example) I like to think of myself in first position whenever my 1st finger is on a B of any kind. Second position whenever my 1st finger is on any C, etc.

There are two big reasons why this is useful to have as a frame of reference. First, it encourages the 1st finger always to "be" somewhere, that is to remain on the string on an in-tune note! Your intonation improves dramatically when your hand frame is solidly constructed in this way. Second, when you do reach or extend (which you will do constantly as you advance) you do it in an orderly way. Either you extend one finger but remain in the same position, or you extend then let the hand follow into a new position.

August 3, 2014 at 10:20 PM · >> I think it's still useful to have a definition of positions that doesn't leave room for ambiguity.

Thank you for sharing those observations about first finger positions and extending then shifting. A light bulb went on when I read it and I thought of a bunch of situations where those mental images will be a big help.

August 5, 2014 at 12:29 AM · I don't have a problem with "wrong notes" occurring in patterns, but my use of visual cues has evolved so that I now use them in two situations.

1. Practicing to maintain existing technique, and

2. Practicing/playing a new technique.

In the first case, I noticed that as I become familiar with a piece, I can sometimes get lazy about finger or bow action that is normally second nature to me. So I may go back to an exercise to remind myself how that technique is performed.

The exercise will normally be performed slowly and with visual cues that I know work, similar to the finger positioning stuff I mentioned earlier. Of course the sound is important, as that is what ultimately determines if the technique is "correct".

The visual cues let me quickly zero in on the proper sound/positioning. As I repeat the exercise, I start removing the visual cues until I am playing only from muscle memory.

When I retry the piece after one of these exercises, it sounds a lot better (and easier to play!)

Auer published a series of "daily dozens" as warmups that cover quite a broad range of techniques. I find them and the visual cue "tricks" very helpful to keep what meager skills I have sharp.

In the second case, I find establishing sound and visual cues important to quickly and accurately learning something new. They are always geared to some piece I am learning since I practice to be able to play some specific piece of music.

When executing that technique in the actual piece, I tend to continue to use the visual cues until I have mastered the move in the exercise.

Here is a recent example:

I needed to play a quick, syncopated descending sequence with an equally quick return: D#-C#-D#.

The easiest way for me to do it and still get the sound I wanted was to cross over from the D to the G string while stretching the 4th finger to play a D# and the 3rd finger to play the C#, so it became 4-3-4.

I have exercises to practice string crossings with a stretch, but the muscle memory has not fully settled in yet. So having a visual cue while playing the piece really helps so I can enjoy making music before mastering a technique needed to play it the way I want to.

August 5, 2014 at 04:51 PM · I do have the Carl Flesch Scale System supplement to the "Art of Violin Playing" book, but it is overkill for me. It seems focused on the serious student and professional who wants a compressed method to cover a variety of rhythms, bowings, etc for daily reinforcement.

A more accessible reference for me has been the various Leopold Auer publications that focus on fingering exercises for single strings and variations in bowing techniques and dynamics for a single scale, with and without accidentals.

These things are all neatly separated out although concisely presented on one or two pages for each key so it is easier for me to pull out the sections that are relevant to the piece I am learning.

The introductory Auer stuff also has a heavy focus on 4th finger work which has been especially beneficial for me.

August 7, 2014 at 11:38 AM · John, has your wife hit you with her handbag yet? (wink) I frequently get handbagged!

On another point (and I'm not disagreeing with the concept) which someone made, I try and avoid the use of the word "anchor" as they are heavy things, and may give one the idea that you have to "anchor" that finger by pressing it heavily into the string. I'm splitting hairs I know!

Also, as certain late soloist has said, the fingerboard is about 11 inches in length, and so if you have your left hand against the body of the fiddle, you are about half way, so its only 5.5 inches either way to navigate.

August 7, 2014 at 04:52 PM · With apologies to Oscar Wilde ... a handbag?

August 7, 2014 at 07:28 PM · John, how did she manage to miss out on the cyanide in the tea. She would have done the world a favour.

August 9, 2014 at 04:05 AM · Sure, we can call it "point of reference" if you like. Resting lightly on the string would be preferable to driving it through the board! :)

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