How to play in 5th position?

June 10, 2018, 1:41 PM ·
Starting to learn 5th position and I have a couple questions.

Is 1st finger in 5th position on the E string normally C natural or C sharp?

Do you just have to basically slide your first finger from 3rd position to get to 5th because your thumb doesn't go any further?

Do you twist your hand so that the thumb is on the back of the neck?

Sorry if these are really stupid, but thank you for the help if you have answers

Replies (16)

June 10, 2018, 2:01 PM · First finger in 5th position on the E string can be either C or C-sharp depending on key signature.
Your thumb moves when you go from 3rd to 5th position. Your hand basically touches the body up there.
June 10, 2018, 2:03 PM · There are two fifth positions, just as there are first and half positions.
Learning positions by semitone will save much frustration, confusion, and uncertain intonation.

My thumb pad is indeed under the neck in the "crook."

June 10, 2018, 2:24 PM · Those are not stupid questions at all, but rather important topics. The cellists and guitarists have a better system of labeling their positions; a separate position for each half-step. For me, 1st finger on C# is fifth position. 1st finger on C is 4 1/2 position. Another example; 1st finger on Db, A string, is 2 1/2 position, not third. 1st finger on C#, A string, is the same spot, 2 1/2 position, not second position. This confusion about where to place the 1st finger can cause much of our intonation problems. One approach to using the thumb, not the only way, is to let it gradually move diagonally under the neck until it hooks on to the saddle point of the neck block. Then leave it there, stretch between the thumb and 1st finger as you go higher. When you get to ultra-high notes, some players let the thumb slip over to edge of the top plate, but that is a little dangerous, as you lose support and shifting down from there is risky.
June 10, 2018, 6:02 PM · I'll speculate that the original designers of the violin were thinking of the interval of the 5th when they designed where to put what - in more than the tuning. I'm sure the heel of the neck was intended as a landmark for the interval of the 5th and was intended as a tactile beacon for the 5th above a note fingered in first position. The thing I don't understand is why no teacher ever told me this when I was learning. It's as if finding positions by touching, much as you can bump the ribs in 3rd and 4th, was frowned upon by some. I mean of course you have to still pitch the shift correctly but the heel is a big help.
June 10, 2018, 8:57 PM · One of the most important notes on the violin is the octave of each string--the exact midpoint. If you can memorize the position of that note using different fingers, you can find many other positions from it.

In the case of 5th position, memorize where that note will lie under your 3rd finger. This is tremendously helpful in locating your first finger. Finding a position isn't just about finding 1.

June 11, 2018, 1:31 AM · Violists, or violinists with small hands, need more elbow swing to negotiate the upper bout and align the fingertips in a reliable way, frmom 4th position upwards.

And as Joel says, there are no silly questions, especially as teachers often say one thing and do another!

June 11, 2018, 3:11 AM · Scott's tip is good for all high positions. Instead of thinking about where to place your 1st finger, I would even suggest using whichever finger falls on a natural harmonic as a guide finger.
Edited: June 11, 2018, 7:10 AM · While I think Zoe's questions are good ones, when I think back to my first exposure to 5th position some 70 yeas ago (I was 14) I remember that I was asked by a couple of "church ladies" to solo Massenet's Meditation with harp and organ accompaniment - so I learned it and 5th position and started a lifetime of great musical adventures that have not yet ceased. My formal violin lessons had ended 3 years earlier and never resumed except for some wise coaching and 2-1/2 years of very good cello lessons during my mid teens.

As far as Andrew H's suggestion about finding the high note - it is the way I did it until (when I was well into my 60s) it was contradicted by the violin coach of our (my 2nd fairly long-time) community orchestra suggested aiming the first finger and use the "hand frame" to nail the target note. It was good advice and helped the intonation of our 1st violin section (and helped me ever since). The coach was Charles Meacham, retired from decades as principal 2nd violin of the San Francisco Symphony and Concertmaster Emeritus of the Marin Symphony (one of the "Freeway Philharmonics" in the documentary movie of the same name). Having him around at every rehearsal was like having a lesson every time an issue came up.

On the other hand, Andrew H's suggestion of using a natural harmonic as a guide may not be a bad one if you can do it and it works for you. I started to do that on cello 20 years ago after I had been playing cello for 50 years. Because I played violin so much I got rusty on cello and finally marked the location of the natural harmonics on the right side of my fingerboard so that I could quickly see where to frame my hand for big leaps into the 2nd and 3rd octaves up each string. It still works for me. I used white-out to make the marks.

June 11, 2018, 11:07 AM · Scott's comment is on point. When I was beginning to relearn the violin 2.5 years ago, I learned 5th position relative to the string octave harmonic. This was much better than when I was a kid and thought of it relative to third position only. If you think of fifth in terms of the harmonic, then the first finger's location is relative to this fixed point, and the key signature isn't nearly as critical for thinking about where to shift.
June 13, 2018, 9:00 AM · Oh, I see now! Thank you guys, all of your answers have been so helpful! ^_^
June 14, 2018, 12:19 AM · Wait a minute: Andrew V, what's the approach that doesn't work? I don't see any suggestion, posted by me or anyone else, about "finding the high note."

I use natural harmonics as my guide for every position above 1st, and use hand frame to place all my other fingers. Turning the first three natural harmonics into instinct, on both halves of the string, was what made it possible for me to play confidently more than an octave up the string and start learning Romantic and 20th century concerto repertoire.

June 14, 2018, 6:09 AM · "There are two fifth positions, just as there are first and half positions."

Technically one could say there are 3 5ths positions: C flat, C natural, and C sharp. However, I've never found it helpful to think this way--to me there's just 5th position. The hand is in the same position anyway.

Hopefully the OP has a method book such as "Introducing the Positions." The shifting exercises are a great time to teach and/or reinforce interval identification.

June 14, 2018, 3:36 PM · continued-- finding those harmonics with any finger sounds totally reasonable, I'll have to try that approach. What I have been doing is thinking of the positions mentally labelled as: 1/2, 1, 2, 2 1/2, 3, 3 1/2, 4, 4 1/2, 5, 6, 6 1/2, 7, 7 1/2, 8. Above that the position system breaks down and fingering becomes very personal. I don't care whether it is notated in sharps or flats. It can be demonstrated by doing a chromatic scale in 1-4 parallel octaves. The whole number positions just happen to be the same as a natural minor scale. That same numbering system will work for all the string instruments. The guitarists number the frets in whole numbers. For shifting I prefer to think of the interval distance
June 16, 2018, 10:37 AM · Scott's suggestion applies to every aspect of life. For example, driving a car. When you're driving in traffic, it's not your first finger that you need to be ready but your third.
June 24, 2018, 12:53 AM · "To me there's just 5th position. The hand is in the same position anyway."
For a temporary accidental maybe, but for the perfect fourth "frame" in a given key (e.g. Cb, C, or C#), the base of the index, and often the thumb, will shift a semitone. After all B would be "high 4th", and Db "low 6th".

Teachers don't always observe what they themselves actually do...

June 27, 2018, 7:01 PM · Lots of good advice here! Just a couple of things I'd add:

3rd and 4th positions can be good foundational positions. You don't generally want your palm touching the violin in 3rd position, but it is acceptable to use a "bump" to help you be comfortable in 3rd position. For many people 4th position is where their hand naturally begins to touch the violin. So I have an easier time using 4th than 5th as a rung of the ladder.

What's important is not just one guidepost (1st finger to c sharp) but a whole spider's web of guideposts with different fingers and ways to access them. That's how you gradually get comfortable with the upper part of the fingerboard. You get there my practicing scales and arpeggios with as many different kinds of shifts and fingerings as you can think of. And as you read music in orchestra or chamber music rehearsals, try to push yourself to not just use the predictable fingerings you're comfortable with, but experiment a little (since in a rehearsal a bad shift won't kill you.)

Just like a soccer player benefits from learning how to use both right and left feet to kick, violin players need to try to overcome our tendency to bow and finger and the predictable ways that we are taught. Like being able to play sixteenth note passages up-down just as well as you can play them down-up -- there will be many times that comes in handy. Shifting is the same way. You want to try to be comfortable in all positions because then you can use modern "creep" style shifting.

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