Hitting high first notes
So I've been wondering about this for a while:
There are a few virtuoso pieces and concerti that blast right out the gate in high positions. The few that come to mind are:
Sarasate Carmen Fantasy & Habanera (A on the G string)
Mozart 4 (6th position on the E string)
Wianiawski Concerto 1 (10ths in 5th position)
I asked an experienced teacher/friend about this and he told me "there are some notes you rent, and there are some notes you own," and that you just have to be able to find those notes at all times, whether or not you can hear them.
Can people weigh in on how to best handle these opening notes?
One of the violin coaches I have had (San Francisco Symphony, principal 2nd violinist retired and Marin Symphony, Concertmaster Emeritus) advised aiming the first finger when you have to shift up (including way, way up) rather than the "target" finger. It has worked for me.
Can you find your first finger in first position 99% of the time? If you're fairly advanced you should be able to. What about finding most of your fingers accurately in 3rd position? You can feel where they are, right?
Can cheat and left hand pizz to check if you're in the right spot ;)
I agree with Scott, but are there tricks that we amateurs can share with one another? Maybe that's what the OP is getting at.
I'm not a pro, but to Cotton's point about the left hand pizz, you can get an even quieter preview of the note by coming down onto the string hard with the finger of your left hand, kind of like a "hammer-on" on a guitar. I know it may scream amateur, but do performing violinists really not do this kind of stuff?
The problem with those "secret note check" moves is that it's more audible than you think. Especially when you've got 20 violinist in an orchestral section all doing the same "secret note check," all plucking "inaudibly" or thumping away at their fingerboards.
Seems more difficult when you are first learning, and then listen to all these works. After a while it all becomes second nature, as your brain and muscle menory works together to find any spot on the fingerboard, with the help of reference notes (as stated above.)
First and foremost for me is to "hear" the note accurately in my head before I play it, and then the fingers know where to go, provided of course that the requisite high position scale practice has been done. If I can't "hear" the note then my fingers could end up almost anywhere. My cello teacher gave me this advice when I was in my 'teens.
"Can cheat and left hand pizz to check if you're in the right spot.."
If I close my eyes, I can imagine the kinesthetic feel of shifting to most of the common reference points. Somewhere in my childhood I did enough target practice, as Scott puts it, to know the feel.
I remember when I performed Sarasate’s Habanera years back, I missed the opening A by a country mile. I must’ve been at least a 1/4 tone sharp and was mortified. Luckily the rest of the piece went well after that note.
Practicing octave slide-shifts helps. What I learned from a cellist was shifting by increasing intervals, a 1/2 step higher each time. I had a pro stand partner who had a marvelous instinctive knowledge of the fingerboard. He would reach, land, right every time. I think it is something like low-tech archery, no sights , no machinery, no tricks, eyes on the target, then release, trusting the motor skills to do what you have trained them to do. How does a baseball pitcher know how to put a curve-ball on a chosen corner of the strike zone? Oops-cancel that analogy; pitchers are allowed to miss, musicians are not.
The problem with all these "target practice" analogies is that those activities (archery, etc.) are all visually cued. Watch Marcus Roberts play the piano. That's what you have to do with your fingerboard -- get to a sufficient state of proprioception that you can do the archery entirely blind.
I always practice a shifting structure for the wind up (usually 1st finger if I have a choice) I.e. I decide what position to shift up from (usually third, sometimes first), then practice that out loud a bunch, and then silently (no bow). I decide exactly what beat of the rests to execute on, then do it without pizz checking, which I have found makes me neurotic. I find deciding when to shift is really important for me personally.
I also use a shifting structure, without pizz checking, for positions above 7th. My first shift is to 7th (1st finger on the octave harmonic), and then either shift or stretch from there. (I don't really have to go that much higher, because positions above 9th are extremely rare on viola.)
Along with great suggestions above, it's important to know 5th position like 1st and know how to reach higher positions from fifth by pivot shifting from there.
Trick from Manny Hurwitz from years back, when he coached our county youth oechestra.