Playing in very high positions

February 26, 2017 at 04:06 AM · A couple weeks ago, my orchestra instructor at school gave us Brahms' First Symphony, Movement Four. If you search "JW Pepper Brahms First Symphony Movement Four Leidig" it will be the first one. It goes all the way up to a high A. I've never had to go higher than an F in 5th position on the E string. I don't know how to put my left hand all the way up to a high A in 7th position. I've tried watching videos on YouTube and when I try to imitate them, it feels weird and uncomfortable. Am I just doing it wrong or does my hand just have to get used to the awkward feeling of reaching around/over the body of the violin? Or might it be because my left hand and wrist are pretty inflexible?

Replies (29)

February 26, 2017 at 05:51 AM · Try tucking your elbow in more, and turn your hand so it's facing the body. Move the thumb a titch if that helps.

February 26, 2017 at 06:03 AM · Thumb stays in the corner of the neck and the instrument--on the very edge if necessary--but do not move your thumb over to rest on the shoulder of the violin. People with small hands who can't reach the top of the fingerboard sometimes will bring their thumbs *up* under the edge of the fingerboard, but you shouldn't need to do that just to reach the A.

You are probably not placing your hand high enough either. In the lower positions your base knuckles should be more or less even with the fingerboard, not hanging below it.

February 26, 2017 at 12:19 PM · Just my 2 centimes d'Euro.

With short fingers on a 16" viola: in 4th position my wrist lightly touches the edge of the back; in 5th position the edge of the belly; in 7th position the pad of my thumb has slid to the crook of the neck; in 8th position the thumb pad has left the neck and rests on the shoulder of the viola. For higher positions, it either comes round the shoulder (allowing all four fingers equal access) or , as mary Ellen says, under the edge of the fingerboard. In either case firm support from the shoulder (with or without a shoulder rest) is vital.

I show my slender-handed young lady violinists the same tricks.

February 26, 2017 at 04:39 PM · I hate to disagree with a well- respected poster, but please do not let your thumb rest on the shoulder of the instrument. Corner of the neck or under the fingerboard only please.

February 26, 2017 at 05:43 PM · I use the shoulder slightly, but I maintain some thimbbpad contact with the neck heel (for the very top of the fingerboard).

February 26, 2017 at 05:46 PM · Mary Ellen, why not? I find it keeps my hand open, and high enough to keep a good shape; but I confess I have my viola more steeply tilted (on its axis) than my violin, for easy access to the C-string.

With all due immense respect, Adrian

And A.O, in that situation my figers reach nowhere near the end of the fingerboard, and for my students neither.

February 26, 2017 at 06:36 PM · Adrian, first of all, it shouldn't be necessary. I just watched a youtube video of Midori (I was specifically looking for a violinist with small hands) and at no point did her thumb lose contact with the heel of the neck. If you and your students are reaching nowhere near the end of the fingerboard with your thumb in the proper place, then I respectfully suggest that either you are keeping your thumb too high up on the other side of the neck--it is both permissible and necessary to allow the thumb to gradually slide under the neck as you go higher up in positions; at the top, mine is maintaining contact with the edge of the corner where the neck meets the fingerboard, no more--or your entire left hand is set too low relative to the fingerboard, or some combination of both. In the lower positions, your base knuckles should be more or less level with the fingerboard but I see a lot of students whose base knuckles are well below the fingerboard. Adjusting the left elbow helps with that.

You can see Midori's left hand position at 9'16" in this video, and also keep watching for the beginning of the 3rd mvt:

In addition to not being necessary, allowing one's thumb to slide around the shoulder while shifting to higher positions will change the shape of the hand and eliminate what should be your point of reference. You also lose facility when you put an entire bout of the violin between you and the notes.

Finally, this entire question is moot for the OP as an A in 7th position is nowhere near the end of the fingerboard and should be easily reachable with her thumb in the proper place. I suspect she has some of the same left hand position issues that I frequently see in students here.

February 26, 2017 at 06:43 PM · I believe the A in the 7th position is the highest note Bach used on the violin. Now Locatelli .... !

February 26, 2017 at 08:29 PM · To the OP: what you may be experiencing - when trying to imitate those videos - was what I my hand felt "wrong" and "uncomfortable." Essentially, I felt like I had no security in my notes. Long story short, it turned out that I was doing it correct, but playing in higher positions just feels inherently different than playing in low positions. Don't expect it to feel the same and keep practicing, and you should be fine.

Remember that the first time we all held a bow, the temptation was to grab it like a club with our fists. This felt the most secure, but if we'd stayed in that security, we wouldn't have progressed very far.

Also, you might need to bring your left elbow IN more (towards your body) to allow the hand to reach higher.

February 26, 2017 at 08:31 PM · Also, how long are your fingernails?

February 26, 2017 at 10:55 PM · @Adrian: I play violin, and have a long thumb, though even pre-Sr violinists did this (unless huge hands-cannot comfortably vibrate up there if you leave the whole thumb on the neck joint). :)

Nate Robinson also does this, though his hands are bigger than mine.

February 27, 2017 at 09:21 PM · I specifically refer to the viola, and I have a very short pinky, but many children have the same problem on the violin. Both Bashmet and Vengerov (when on viola) let their thumbs come along the side of the fingerboard occasially, as does Midori (I can't find the video now). I shall have to find how to share photos (at my age!) to show my totally "pro" viola setup!

I don't use the thumb-on-the-shoulder on my violin, but on the viola it actually allows all four fingers to reach the A-string with equal facility as they come in from the side.

Violists a more ready than violinists to seek unusual tricks e.g. using two different fingers in double-stopped perfect fifths...

February 27, 2017 at 09:23 PM · Thumb on the side of the fingerboard is OK and that is how I teach my students with very small hands. Thumb on the shoulder is not OK.

February 27, 2017 at 09:50 PM · To be more precise, in 8th position, my thumb tip is where the neck joins the top-plate,(on the A-string side) as in the Midori video that Mary Ellen cited; but the viola's extra length plus my stubby fingers, mean I am far from the highest notes. I use either technique, depending on the music. But I shall really have to add photos or videos to show that I am not mad..

February 28, 2017 at 02:59 AM · @Mary Ellen: Why no thimb on shoulder? It is the one secure way to play the highest notes with no sr, side of the fingerboard is insecure and very tricky to get back down, hence why no restless player ever does it (watch older players on YT please). ??

February 28, 2017 at 09:37 PM · A.O.--I have been thinking about your question for a day, and realized: (a) it isn't an issue for me at all since I have large hands, so I have no personal experience with *not* being able to reach from the corner of the neck. (b) I don't play restless, never have, no interest in trying to do so either, so I will defer to the experience of restless players in that case. (c) All I can say is what I was taught, what I have experienced, and what I have observed, none of which encompasses putting the thumb on the shoulder ever. I have never seen it done by anyone other than students, but it's true that I haven't seen every violinist ever in the history of the world. It seems to me (as I said earlier) that it involves losing one's point of reference and changing the shape of the hand in a way that is not helpful. But I really don't want to continue this argument, especially since it has no relevance to the OP's question--surely we can all agree that it is possible to reach the "A" in seventh position from the neck?

At any rate, if you could direct me to appropriate YT videos, I would be happy to watch them. It's always worthwhile to learn something new.

February 28, 2017 at 10:43 PM · Well at least we can agree to differ: I have learned much this way in my 53 years of viola..

March 1, 2017 at 12:57 AM · With my small hands, I use thumb-against-the-fingerboard for the very top notes on the G string, and also on rare occasion, sometimes thumb-against-the-upper-bout.

For the OP's question, though, 7th position shouldn't be any effort to reach.

March 1, 2017 at 04:41 AM · It's so interesting to hear different opinions on this.I was initially taught shifting (on violin) by a teacher with very small hands who taught me the thumb alongside the fingerboard technique. I was later told to NEVER do that on violin, but to use the thumb on the shoulder instead. My main instrument is viola, so the thumb alongside the fingerboard technique is necessary for me to play certain notes at all (especially since my viola has wide bouts), but I've been trying to move away from that on violin. I've actually found the thumb on shoulder to allow for a more consistent hand shape, I've generally found that when students don't do either thumb alongside the fingerboard or thumb on shoulder, that they just reach up with their fingers, creating a really awkward hand shape and flat fingers. I'll have to do some more experimenting and observing.

March 2, 2017 at 06:21 PM · I don't use a rest, and I agree: never lose contact with the neck, at least some part of it. I never have thumb on the shoulder. Otherwise you are forced to clamp down with the head in order to "get back" to the lower positions.

Some players aren't aware of just how much space they can create between thumb and first finger (although it takes time and work on the flexibility), or how much the fingers can lengthen to play some of those high notes. Happy to show this in a video if needed!

March 2, 2017 at 06:58 PM · Nathan, has anyone every said no to one of your offers to make a video? =)

Shifting into high positions is an issue every beginner must face, so making a video on this topic seems natural. Maybe you could also cover how to develop a better sense of where notes are so shifting large distances can become more natural over time as one learns the instrument better.

Myself, I found that Flesch's one string scales, thirds, etc (the first page of every key) to be EXTREMELY helpful in developing a spatial sense of where notes are, which has subsequently made shifting fairly easy for me compared to the development of my other skills.

March 2, 2017 at 11:13 PM · One size does not fit all!

Nathan, I really bebefit from your videos. But

- I never clamp with my head: I use its weight to balance the viola with the shoulder rest as fulcrum; no tension (and no hickey!)

- Exercise lengthens ligaments and tendons, but it has never lengthened bones.

Just to show I am really mad, I have set up a 15" viola as a violin to show my young violin students how to manage with small hands while keeping a healthy pinky. Great tone, too!

March 3, 2017 at 07:31 AM · I've never been comfortable allowing my students with small hands to put their thumbs along the rib when they go into the upper positions. I play restless and have relatively large hands and long thumbs so that I can keep my thumb hooked around the heel of the neck and play to the end of the fingerboard, so though I can encourage them to keep their thumb on the neck, I can't experience their difficulty in doing so. This discussion has been informative and useful to me.

One of my students, who has quite small hands, had her shoulder rest fall off the violin in a lesson once while she was playing with her thumb along the rib... the instrument started rotating as it fell, and since she had her bow in her right hand, she had to desperately try to catch the violin with her left hand alone. She did manage to catch it before it hit the ground, but it always makes me nervous to see students relying on the shoulder rest alone to keep the violin from falling.

March 3, 2017 at 12:37 PM · My long-legged Kun is stabalised by two loops going from the screws to the lower bout corners.

Strategies also depend on what we call "reaching the end of the fingerboard"; a viola string needs a firmer hold than a violin string, which makes a shimmering vibrato physically harder.While it is not always necessary to press the string right down to the fingerboard, we may still need a firm but resilient pinky. I fing coming in from the side allows me a more flexible, 'cello-like (if narrow) vibrato.

BTW, am I the only one to have thought of a 15" "violin" to better understand the problems of tiny hands? Some students hav started filming my hands on those "smartphone" thingies..

March 3, 2017 at 11:23 PM · That's a good idea for the 15" violin! I should have added in my statement about "clamping" that with a shoulder rest, you have more possibilities regarding how to get back down to position. Clamping will happen if you're not using a rest though, if you let your thumb lose contact with the neck.

And agreed that you're probably not going to lengthen bones, unless you go in for those surgery that were (at least at one point) popular in Korea: breaking leg bones in order to insert metal rods and lengthen either the lower or upper leg!

That said, I often ask students to keep the thumb centered on the neck and show me just how far they can reach with the various fingers. Many are surprised at the difference between us, even with similar hand size, and find that they can comfortably reach one or two whole-steps more by the following week. They had been afraid to really open up between thumb and 1.

March 4, 2017 at 05:08 AM · Make sure your left elbow comes out so that your hand can be over the notes. Discomfort is natural if you aren't used to getting out of the first few 'comfortable' positions, but that will go away with practice.

March 6, 2017 at 05:32 PM · @Mary Ellen: I didn't see your request until now, sorry.

Starting at 2:00, note how tricky it is without moving the thumb (and he has much longer fingers than me-I cannot reach the last few tiny tones unless I strain my hand):

Nate Robinson also had a video where he played tenths, and the thumb movement could be seen very clearly towards the end (I will ask if he can give me the link).

PS: Your contact button needs an update, as it doesn't work at the moment. :)

March 6, 2017 at 10:03 PM · Thank you everyone! It's gotten much easier with practiced. A in 7th may not seem that high to some but it's the highest I've ever had to play because my orchestra only plays grade 3 pieces. I play with a shoulder rest, so I can support my violin with just my head if I tried, and I keep my nails very short since I bite them anyway... And I have tiny tiny hands, probably the size of an 11 year old's hands.

March 6, 2017 at 10:03 PM · Thank you everyone! It's gotten much easier with practiced. A in 7th may not seem that high to some but it's the highest I've ever had to play because my orchestra only plays grade 3 pieces. I play with a shoulder rest, so I can support my violin with just my head if I tried, and I keep my nails very short since I bite them anyway... And I have tiny tiny hands, probably the size of an 11 year old's hands.

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