How to become more familiar with the finger board

February 28, 2017 at 04:16 AM · Often, when I'm trying to play a new simple song, I have a hard time figuring out when and into which position it makes most sense to shift. (I'm not playing past third position yet.)

The easy way out would be to ask my teacher, obviously; but I want to understand what the thought process is and/or what it takes to figure it out on my own.

Is there some sort of general layout to follow, with regards to fingerings for songs with certain key signatures or chords?

Or does it all just come with time and experience, which develops a natural familiarity with the positions and fingerboard? And if this is indeed so, what are some good exercises I can practice as a beginner that will lead me in the direction of becoming more knowledgeable with higher positions?

Thank you for your input and ideas.

Replies (34)

February 28, 2017 at 05:48 AM · I would say one needs to practice (3-octave) scales daily.

February 28, 2017 at 06:50 AM · I'd say play Yost 1-finger scales daily, first one octave then two octave, starting with major, minor, the Flesch arpeggio sequence, then all the intervals, and chromatic. For every string. That will help get you much more familiar with your fingerboard! :)

February 28, 2017 at 07:50 AM · Also, think of each posotion as two handframes of an octave combined:

3rd pos- 1 on C, 4 on C, cross to A and E is a next octave (D to D) with a whole tone separating them. :)

So- Each pos is 1 octave, skip a whole tone, then another octave.

February 28, 2017 at 12:03 PM · A kinesthetic sense of the fingerboard is learned by playing a lot of scales, arpeggios, and exercises.

But the OP actually asked a somewhat different question: "I have a hard time figuring out when and into which position it makes most sense to shift".

Deciding fingering is an art form. But at some point in time you will have an instinct for good fingering when sight-reading. You'll learn to anticipate and your fingers will automatically favor certain sequences without you having to think about it (that's part of the aforementioned drill so the patterns are set in your memory).

Choosing a fingering for performance is a combination of technical practicality (including "safety", which is basically reliability in performance conditions) and artistic intent, especially when you want to use portamento (an expressive shift).

February 28, 2017 at 02:51 PM · Most of us amateurs have some deficiencies in our violin skills (and instruments) and therefore some finger and bowing patterns work better for us than others. In addition when we are playing a piece of music we want to maintain certain tonal connections between the notes. We use some combination of fingering and bowing to get the desired results. Therefore while someone who has trouble making a smooth string change might choose to play a certain small passage in 2nd or 3rd position with no string change a smoother bower might choose to play it in 1st position. This is just one example of the kind of choice the OP asked about.

Another (I think related) issue has to do with the playing of open strings. We have often been told to avoid open strings in many cases because open strings have a different tonal quality than finger-stopped strings - especially the E string! And I think it is important in ensemble playing to be very aware of this. But sometimes a soloist wants to make the statement that that an open string does. (z.b., The best recording I have of the Beethoven Op. 50 Romance is of a professional violinist playing with our community orchestra back around 50 years ago. In the opening solo part the soloist plays E5 twice and most scores show different fingerings for the two playings of that note (open string the first time, 2nd finger on A string the 2nd time. But he played the open E string both times and it gave that note a special meaning that I have never forgotten, so much so that I have always chosen to play it that way when I have performed the piece.)

When one is sight-reading music (playing it for the very first time) it can be difficult to pick the best fingerings "on the fly." So it is important to took ahead when you have a chance and see where a phrase is going to pick the best way to get there. For violinists and violists this is fairly straightforward; for cellists, who are not able to play 4 fingered contiguous whole tones on any string in the four lower positions, the choice of positions when sight reading gets real hairy - especially if they want to avoid open strings. In fact, cellists don't think "positions" the same way the chin-instrument players do - probably because of this (at least I don't). (In the higher (above the neck) thumb positions playing contiguous notes with 4 (even 5) fingers is possible on cello - but the pinky becomes awkward up there (I believe some cellists think of it as "down there" it all depends on whether they think musically or physically).

February 28, 2017 at 09:41 PM · I'm impressed that the OP is even asking this question, but I think "scales, arpeggios, time and experience" is the best answer. It's definitely worth asking your teacher about fingering principles, but I'm not sure that someone just learning 3rd position would be ready for a global application of the same.

Editing to add, if your teacher adds or corrects fingerings during your lesson, it's a good idea to ask for the reasoning behind the fingerings.

February 28, 2017 at 10:02 PM · Move to a position that allows you to perform a given phrase/passage with a minimum number of string changes. I think that's the fundamental principle in deciding which position to be in.

February 28, 2017 at 11:37 PM · I'll add my $0.02: Take an easy first position piece and play it in third position in addition to the scales and arpeggios. A familiar tune helps you get you used to playing and using different fingering for the same notes. Thinking in upper positions takes time because we first associate a note with a particular finger and then have to re-learn the relationships.

Eventually, it will be the ease of playing or the tone quality of your instrument in higher positions that will dictate when you shift.

For me, certain keys are easier to play in other than first position so I tend to shift automatically when those keys are played. For example: "On Wings of Song" was, in my opinion, written for second position although many editors think otherwise. However it works beautifully for me.

March 1, 2017 at 02:47 AM · Thank you for all this advice. I've actually never tried 3 octave scales yet, so I'll definitely add that to my scales practice routine.

"Flesch arpeggio sequence, then all the intervals, and chromatic." I know what chromatic is (although I don't know how to finger it. I wish it were as easy and fun as it is on piano!), but I'm not familiar with the other terms. Can you explain, Mr. Wie?

A.O. - I'm afraid you lost me there...

"Take an easy first position piece and play it in third position in addition to the scales and arpeggios." I like that idea, thanks Mr. Wells!

March 1, 2017 at 03:54 AM · In addition to scales, scales and scales, I would say that personal preference of fingering really comes with experience. Scales are an essence, but some of them relatively rigid when it comes to fingering. This, of course has its didactic merits.

Do not forget scales on one string - they will speed-up the process of leaving "positions" behind.

Lastly, be patient! Inventing your own fingering is a sign of independence and maturity as a violin player.

March 1, 2017 at 08:04 PM · @G.A.: To know when to shift, you must know where you are and where you want to go (thus the chromatic scales).

But, often trouble arises when thinking of the notes in each shift itself (eg if 1 is on A, B is? Finger).

Therefore, it helps to think in a frame across all the strings vs the limited concepts of positions, like so:

In 1st pos, the first finger and 4th form and octave in range. Crossing to the other half of the instrument (sul g and d) is the next octave, B to B, separated by a whole tone.

Therefore, wherever you shift to, think of it as a frame of lower octave-space of a tone-higher octave. Sightreading becomes easier via using this moveable frame, and fingerings become more intuitive. :)

March 2, 2017 at 07:17 PM · The first page of each key in Flesch is a great way to get more familiar with the fingerboard.

March 3, 2017 at 10:53 AM · It somewhat depends on the era that the music comes from; however, to put it in general terms (the best I can do under the circumstances):

We want to stay in one position as long as possible, rather than shifting back and forth. Think of each shift as a compromise. We MUST shift sometimes, but only to a position that allows us to STAY in that position for a while. A shift that allows 13 sequential notes without shifting again, for example, is superior to a shift that would only allow 7 notes before having to shift again. In addition, a shift that allows us to play a long, continuous stream of notes on the SAME STRING is superior to a shift that would have us darting back and a forth between two or more strings. The exception to this rule is when we are trying to acheive a barriolage effect.

Of course, these are all things that you WILL realize with time and experience, but it's an interesting internal dialogue that you can have with yourself when playing any particular piece and deciding on shifts.

March 3, 2017 at 03:10 PM · I have to disagree with the statement that "we want to stay in one position as long as possible." What we want to do is find the fingering that allows for maximum musical expression while allowing the violinist to play in tune and with a beautiful sound.

For example, I try to avoid having one note stick out in a phrase, so I may shift in order to avoid playing a single note on the E string--or conversely, if I am trying for maximum brightness of sound, I will shift down on the E rather than cross over to the A while staying in one position.

Sometimes it's better to shift up or down a little bit in order to avoid playing a consecutive fifth with the same finger, especially if that is the 4th finger. So I might shift from 3rd to 4th on a string crossing to make the interval cleaner. Also, often several smaller shifts (half-steps or sometimes whole steps) can make a fast passage cleaner than one big shift (1st to 3rd or 4th position).

However, if I am teaching an orchestral excerpt to a student whose shifting is not yet secure, I may advise that student to do a different fingering (stay in one position and cross strings rather than shift back and forth as I would) on the premise that playing in tune is better than playing out of tune. In those cases I explain to the student how I would play the passage in question, why I would choose that fingering, and why I am giving a different fingering to them.

March 3, 2017 at 05:19 PM · I agree with Mary Ellen. Fingering purely for utility is for students just learning to shift. But the goal is to produce the best sound while still being able to feel like the fingering is reliable.

To add to her list:

Sometimes it's better to shift rather than do a string crossing in high-speed passages -- an accomplished player can actually shift faster than they can cross strings.

Sometimes a single big shift is better than several smaller shifts. Each small shift is a risk and potentially a tiny discontinuity. A big shift is not meaningfully slower than a small shift. Shifting in a way that's sensible for the rhythm or harmony of the passage can make it more secure.

Sometimes you'll choose a shift because you deliberately want a portamento. The type of slide you're going for will also influence your departure and arrival fingers, which will impact the fingering of the whole passage.

Pedagogical fingerings have totally different rules. Suzuki books use pedagogical fingerings intended to exercise particular skills. Teachers may also mark non-artistic fingerings for this purpose.

Carl Flesch wrote an entire book on this topic: "Violin Fingering: Its Theory and Practice". Worthwhile reading for advanced players.

March 6, 2017 at 01:30 PM · " what are some good exercises I can practice as a beginner that will lead me in the direction of becoming more knowledgeable with higher positions?"

There must be many which can serve this purpose. A well-known one which comes to mind is Kreutzer No. 2. It's mostly in C major with several octave groups, which can give you a sense of notes around the fingerboard. The original has few (if any) fingerings, and current editions vary. Galamian's fingerings are probably a good modern reference -- RCM's and others' may be based on these. Looking at the differences can give you an idea of how others may be thinking of them. While much of it can be played in first position, a point of this exercise in this view would be to not do so.

March 30, 2017 at 03:40 AM · So I spent twenty minutes a few days ago trying different ways of playing one line in a song, and stopped out of frustration. Ugh.

Is it better to have more string crossings, or more shifts? And then there's avoiding open strings as well.

My teacher said there's no right or wrong; it depends on your preference. Problem is, I don't have a preference at this early stage. I simply want to be able to play the tune and like how I sound!

March 30, 2017 at 04:18 AM · G.A., It's not clear to me what kind of song you want to play. If you can tell us a bit more what exactly the song is and what key it is in, we may have better idea to help you with the fingering. I think many of us assume you are working on classical music, but I wonder if you are in fact talking about a song? In such case, you may not even need to think about shift.

Your preference at this point should be how secure your fingering makes you feel; with the simplest fingering, try to play the song in tune in tempo. Once that's achieved, then you may want to try different fingerings to see if they express the music better. Make sense?

BTW, spending 20 minutes trying different ways to play one line is not unusual for me and I've been playing for more than 10 years. Welcome to the violin world! :)

March 30, 2017 at 02:09 PM ·

"So I spent twenty minutes a few days ago trying different ways of playing one line in a song, and stopped out of frustration. Ugh.'

This is because you don't have a foundation for different positions.

It's better to develop a strong foundation in the position first, and then shifting to that position, understanding what sounds best, or what is easier to do becomes clear.

Variation seems to be the best(fastest, more accurate) way to learn something. Having a few scales and exercises in that position is not enough for most to create a strong foundation. A great way to learn a position is to also have several 2 octave pieces that keep you about 80 percent or more of the time in that position.

Fiddle tunes are excellent for this.

Here is a list:

- Ashokan's Farewell

- Lavender Blue

- The Road to Lisdoomvarn

- Westphalia waltz

- Walzing Matilda

- Ode to Joy

more advance:

- Bach:

Partita 2 allemande



Maybe others can tell us their favorite 2nd, third and forth position pieces.

March 30, 2017 at 03:21 PM · You've asked two questions. The first, the title to your post, asks how to learn the fingerboard itself. This is simply the old-fashioned way, with etudes, scales, arpeggios, pieces (not "songs", unless you are actually singing them...), and hours of practice.

The second question is how you know what position to use. The technical answer is that you have to balance string crossings with shifting, slurs, speed, and sound color. It takes many years to develop an instinct, and even many of my more advanced students need guidance. Much of it is subjective (and they'll even catch me changing my mind at the next lesson...).

Many students like to be spoon-fed these decisions, but I try to have them think about it and mark in something. Then, we can talk at the next lesson about why I think something works or doesn't. I'll play it for them and see which they prefer. Sometimes there are no wrong answers, and sometimes there are definitely wrong answers.

This has been my primary objection to Suzuki: students are, in principal, not supposed to think. They are supposed to follow directions. I suppose a good Suzuki teacher will gradually make the student come up with fingerings and bowings. I also suppose a rigidly-trained teacher will not, or at least not do it early enough in the student's training.

If you play in orchestras, what you see is that no one uses exactly the same fingering and positions. But what I have seen is that in better orchestras, fingering and positions do tend to converge, though, as people start to agree on what "better" seems to mean.

March 30, 2017 at 10:24 PM · Here is a chart I created of the violin fingerboard in 7 positions. Its a pdf you can download and print:

March 30, 2017 at 10:45 PM · There's an interesting question as to when students should start coming up with fingerings and bowings themselves, and teachers seem to vary widely in when they encourage students to start taking a crack at it themselves.

For Suzuki, arguably, by the time a competent student is old enough to start making those decisions, they are also old enough to be well out of the Suzuki training (especially given that many students leave the Method in the book 5-7 region). They're not really any different than other students who have bowings and fingerings dictated to them in the beginning, and often early intermediate, stages.

March 30, 2017 at 11:18 PM · Ms. Zhang: "BTW, spending 20 minutes trying different ways to play one line is not unusual for me and I've been playing for more than 10 years." I just forgot to mention that I, in the end, didn't figure it out. :) I play hassidic songs, mainly, some of which have a style similar to classical, which I love.

Mr. Cook: "This is because you don't have a foundation for different positions." Absolutely correct. That was why I asked my question to begin with. I'm not especially into fiddle tunes, but I'll give your idea a try.

Mr. Cole and Ms. Leong: Interesting, about the Suzuki method. I have no experience with it, though; I'm not learning through any specific method. But I'd definitely prefer not to be spoon fed.

Mr. Wilkin: Thank you! It looks a little complex, but I'm sure it's as simple as it can get :) I'll print it out and study it.

I definitely have a long way to go till I become slightly more familiar with second and third positions (I think it makes sense to begin with those two first?).

Thank you everyone for all your responses.

March 31, 2017 at 04:25 AM · G.A., hassidic songs are beautiful! Although for decades I limited myself to classical music only, lately I've been learning a few Hassidic songs(e.g. Vehi sheamda)for the Passover to play with a few musician friends. I also heard some really great Klezmer music played in the old fashioned so now I've learned to do kretch and kvetch. I think with classical music training, you'll be better equipped to explore lH and RH techniques, various colors, bowing techniques,etc. It'll definitely give you a lot more freedom to play once you've acquired certain amount of techniques. That said, you may work with your teacher to explore a different path other than the usual route of the classical violin training many of us here have taken, which requires different techniques for different repertoires than what you have in mind. I can't offer you any help, but sincerely hope you will keep exploring and playing from your heart. I will end by sharing this wonderful video with you:

March 31, 2017 at 06:55 PM · Ms Zhang, I'd be interested in the fingerings you use for hassidic songs that you play! I'm very familiar with Vehi She'amda, time appropriate.

Yes, I'm beginning to realize that classical music includes all techniques. I think, though, that I should first get through the beginning Schradiek exercises; I'm still on the first ;) It takes me a while to memorize, since I don't read music that well.

March 31, 2017 at 07:06 PM · "I'd be interested in the fingerings you use ... " All right, now I just contradicted myself. I'll admit to wanting the most of both sides. So be it!

March 31, 2017 at 10:53 PM · G.A., my fingerings are varied, very much depending on the key of the song and whether I want to play lower voice or high ones. Generally speaking, I avoid open string. For a group of fast notes, I try to stay on one string as much as possible. For longer notes, if I want a bit slide sound, then I'll do a shift to create that sound. For kretch, obviously you have to stay on the same string, whichever position you are on. For kvetch, I do half step slide from a higher finger to the lower one without shift. Perhaps nothing I'm saying you don't already know.

For instance, Vehi She'amda on the YouTube might be E minor, but my friends might want to sing a bit lower, so I have to adjust accordingly. When I play songs (as opposed to classical music stuff) I can play by ear, just learn the melodic line of each song and use solf├Ęge moveable do to adjust whichever key I should play.

I think you should ask your teacher to help you with the fingering. It's not entirely a personal preference. I did some Schradieck when I was young. For me, the most helpful technical work that I have been using is Carl Flesch's "Scale System", and I believe practice scales and arpeggios on a daily basis is the quickest way to understand how fingering and shift works the best. Lately I also use Simon Fischer's "The Violin Lesson" for all sorts of great ideas.

Last but not least, if you want your violin sing the song beautifully, the work should be focused on your bow hand/arm. This is another thing why classical music training is important, as you might also have noticed.

April 2, 2017 at 01:19 AM · Flesch scales seem to be so basic, yet I can't find any videos on YouTube that teach it slowly and clearly. I downloaded the file, but it is quite complex and would take me a long while to learn even a few measures, especially since I'm not familiar with the meaning of all the symbols and numbers.

Does anyone know of a video that shows how to play Flesch scales?

Tone production is of course another big factor that I'm working on. Plenty of videos on that topic.

April 2, 2017 at 06:25 PM · G.A., Flesch scales system is not easy but you can still do it if you want to. Try this way, start from page 1, C major 1 octave scales and arpeggios. Do only #1-3 so you don't have to go beyond the 3rd position, which is what you told us that you are able to do. Notice the fingering choices (above and below the notes). Now, start with one bow per note, at 60bpm. Listen very carefully for intonation and your sound. Keep checking with the open strings to make sure your notes are exactly in tune. There are fingerings marked for your reference. If you can follow them consistently, I believe you will begin to learn how to shift (which is one major benefit of doing scales and arpeggios) properly.

If you do this on a daily basis for a month or so, you should have a much better idea about where the fingerboard in 1-3 positions. Don't do too much, just do it right and feel it in your hand when you play so you learn it kinesthetically as well as mentally.

Here is one video you may want to check out, but I wouldn't use vibrato when practicing scales as she did:

April 3, 2017 at 02:23 AM · I have just become a fan of Simon Fischer's "Scales" book, which is really fantastic, and should be looked at as an alternative to doing Flesch.

To vibrate or not on scales is a matter of personal preference. Scales make for a good vibrato exercise, after all.

April 3, 2017 at 04:35 AM · Yes, I like Fischer's "Scales" too and use it from time to time. G.A. has got free Flesch though so why not start from there? I agree also scales should be practiced in both ways, with and without vibrato. But I'm not sure it's a good idea for someone who is not familiar with practicing scales to use vibrato as a default. It can lead to finger wiggling, instead of shooting for the exact spot each time, and it can mess up with hand shape too.

April 5, 2017 at 03:52 AM · Looking at the first line only of the first Flesch scale exercise, is it played entirely on the G string? Excuse my ignorance.

I'd do it with my teacher, but I'm not having another lesson for another two weeks and I don't want to wait that long to practice it.


April 5, 2017 at 06:10 AM · G.A., it'll be too hard to play all on the G string for you, I think. Instead, try positions you have learned (1-3, right?). If this is too hard, try the D major scales and arpeggios (#1-#3)on page 101. Start from D string and follow the fingerings below the notes. They are easier I think. You can ignore the bowing suggestion for now. Just work on intonation and sound. That's a lot to work on.

Hope this is helpful.

April 6, 2017 at 12:57 AM · Ms. Zhang, I will try out what you suggested and see how it goes.

Yes, so far I've only been playing up to third position, plus a bit of fifth in a three octave scale G.

Your suggestions and advice have been very helpful! Thank you for spending the time to answer here.

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