Hitting high first notes

October 2, 2018, 8:25 AM · 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?


Replies (17)

October 2, 2018, 8:40 AM · 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.
October 2, 2018, 8:55 AM · 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?

The highest positions are no different--you have to know your reference notes and be sure of where they are. One of the most useful is the exact middle point, the octave, on each string. If you can memorize how to nail that one with 1, 2, and 3, then you're well on the way to learning the upper positions. You can do it visually, by feel, or both, but memorize that note.

In response to ""there are some notes you rent, and there are some notes you own," I would say:
"You need to own all of the notes on the fingerboard."

Edited: October 2, 2018, 9:01 AM · Can cheat and left hand pizz to check if you're in the right spot ;)

You can't memorize all the notes on the board, but you should definitely be able to shift to all the key harmonics and work your way up or down from there. Then once you're oriented around the keycentre, you should be able to find any pitch. But, that's beyond your question.

October 2, 2018, 9:19 AM · 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.

Hitting a high first note isn't any different than hitting some other note "out of the blue." Except that you have longer to prepare! Anyone who has played tennis knows that if you have forever to line up a shot (especially an overhead smash), that's when you're most likely to blow it.

I liked Andrew's comment about the first finger because very often I find notes "out of the blue" by shifting into them. So if I need to find B on the E string with my first finger, and I have time, then I'll find my first finger on A first (easy third-position note to find with confidence) and then shift to the B (easy whole note shift). I find I can do that one pretty quickly and accurately. Obviously the higher you go, the harder that gets, but it works pretty well fairly high up.

October 2, 2018, 10:21 AM · 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?

But on the other hand, you can really talk yourself out of the idea that you already know where the note is, because chances are, if you're not in your head about it, you really will find it just fine.

Edited: October 2, 2018, 10:29 AM · 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.

I've noticed that cellists seem much less worried about that, not sure why.

October 2, 2018, 10:44 AM · 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.)

I personally don't think in terms of positions-just learned many reference points, and let the brain/hand do the rest. No one is born with this, and it must be developed-I remember once how difficult the Vitali/Charlier Chaccone seemed when I was first learning it eons ago-the thirds-octaves passage-and it's now just a simple jump, no "faith" required anymore.

Regular scales, scales on one string (Flesch 1-4), arpeggios, etudes, and advanced repertoire will help any dedicated violinist to get there. There's no substitute to actually playing these sort of works for all these "guessed leaps of faith" to become routine and comfortable, but that they will, in due time.

For what it's worth, none of those examples are very difficult to find on the fingerboard and be in tune 99%+ of the time (though the Mozart must be PERFECT, and is ironically the hardest of the 3, regardless its apparent "easy" positioning.) The Wieniawski is just a matter of finding F# and doing tenths, and the A on G string Carmen fantasy, just remember the position of the natural harmonic G (by the time you play this
Fantasy, you should not have any trouble.)

October 2, 2018, 11:09 AM · 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.
October 2, 2018, 11:32 AM · "Can cheat and left hand pizz to check if you're in the right spot.."

Yes, it can be a good idea. Soloists do it often. However, sometimes, you simply don't have time or there's too much going on.

One other point I'll make: instead of just trying to get a note, try to get a complete hand position.

A good example of where this is needed is the 2nd page of the 1st movement of Brahm's 2nd symphony (1st violin), one of the most common excerpts. You have to hit not only the lower A, but the upper one at practically the same time. What I often see with students learning the upper positions is that they may place the first finger correctly, but the rest of the hand is left open and not ready to play anything else.

In the end, whether you're an amateur or a seasoned pro, there's really only one answer to the original question: target practice. Lots of it.

October 2, 2018, 12:16 PM · 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.

With my latest return to the violin, I've found that summoning that mental feel of the shift is super helpful before actually doing it. I don't spend enough time practicing now for it to have the same instant recall and dead-on security at speed.

Like most people, I use the harmonics for primary reference points.

Edited: October 2, 2018, 2:31 PM · 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.

I sometimes see violinists or cellists softly test a note in an awkward position before an entrance either with the bow or discreet left hand pizzicato. I remember seeing Tretyakov do this in a performance. I knew this fine cellist at Juilliard that studied with Leonard Rose, who would mark her fingerboard with a white chalk before a performance if she was having trouble with a long shift or awkward entrance. It seemed to work very well for her.

With the Mozart 4th, you can simply play the opening E as a harmonic and it will always be in tune. My friend who plays in the Chicago Symphony showed me this trick.

Edited: October 3, 2018, 11:00 PM · 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.
October 4, 2018, 6:44 AM · 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.
October 4, 2018, 6:57 PM · 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.
Another good way to practice the confidence of this is to do what I call Bullseye Practice (I think others here have called it target practice), which you can find in this video here:


In performance, I always use my shifting structure to get there (not bullseye) - I just do this to convince myself that I really do now where things are on the violin and build that 6th sense so to speak.

October 4, 2018, 7:54 PM · 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.)

For 5th and 6th positions, the octave harmonic, with on the 3rd or 2nd finger, is the reference point.

Edited: October 5, 2018, 1:50 AM · 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.


Practice I to V on 1:
A Luthier told me that a well made neck is designed so that if you flip the thumb back to the crook of the neck in 1st (I) position, the distance between 1 and thumb is roughly the same in 5th (V) position with the thumb at the crook near the upper bout. E.g. on A-string play B and flip the thumb back; straight shift until the thumb hits the upper crook, and 1 should be roughly at F#. Practice shifting 5ths on all fingers and in all keys. Once you get the space between thumb and 1 in V, you don't really need to flip the thumb back in I, though I'm in the habit of doing that.

It's useful to know the straight shift to V, so that you can then begin to measure the pivot of the hand forward, toward you, with the palm taking over from the side-of-finger contact.

Practice I to VII:
Straight shift to V then continue onto VII, feeling the thumb bump the crook, then the palm glide over the bout until you hear the finger slide into VII. Make sure you feel the pivot of the wrist in VII (the final position in VII.) Gradually make this two step motion into one seamless motion. Practice on all fingers in all keys. In slow shifts, you keep this same motion, but perhaps rotating (supinating) earlier than V to prepare the hand to go over the bout (unless you have large enough hands to just pivot a bit from V.) In fast shifts, the hand rotates earlier still, in 1st position, to prepare the hand going over the bout. Feel (proprioceptively, or visualize) the final position: the distance between thumb and 1, the palm contact on the upper bout, the pivot at the wrist. As Joel said, it's good to do octave shifts every day, paying attention to the feel of the motion, and especially the final position, which is how you find notes 'blind.' (i.e. by training Paul's proprioception. Note that proprioception is largely unconscious. To use it to our advantage, we must attend to it when practicing. The other aspect of proprioception we're not used to doing is noticing what the touch, itself, feels like. We're very object oriented; we sense the things we touch, but we also need to pay attention to what it feels like in the hand when we we touch; the pressure sensitivity helps regulate the force we use at the joints.)

As Scott said, ultimately we have to map out the whole fingerboard, which means practicing shifting from every position to every other position, both up and down, in every key, with every finger, and knowing finger patterns, both within the frame and in extensions and contractions, and be able to pre-hear and pre-feel everything. That is, if we want something approaching a Hahn-like left hand (ultimately we're creating brain maps, like Lydia's brain.)

Carmen: practice shifting I to V. Since most will use third finger, practice placing 3, either on G or G#, m3 or M3 from E, and extending a wholetone or semitone. E.g. play A, E, G#, high A; then play A, ghost E, G#, A; then play A, ghost E, ghost G#, A; then play ghost A, ghost E, ghost G#, A (eventually the extension of the 3rd finger should be integrated into the shift so it's one smooth, seamless motion.) Don't forget to attend to proprioception. With each rep. pre-hear/pre-feel everything. Once you're proficient with the exercises, start playing the high A blind (which really means with pre-visualizing,) keeping in mind the extended finger pattern, at random moments throughout the day.

Mozart: practice shifting from I to VI (and I to V plus pivot to VI) but make sure you find VI with 4 in mind (or even, extended 4) because you want to find your palm position which will help you reach the upcoming D triad. E.g. play F#, C#, pivot to D, and play E, F#, G#, D, E; then play F#, ghost C#, D, E, F#, G#, D, E; then play F#, ghost C#, D, G#, D, E; then play F#, ghost C#, ghost D, E, G#, E, D; then play F#, ghost D, E (with the feel of G#), D; then ghost F#, ghost D, E, D; you need to really ingrain the palm position (with the feeling of 4 on G#), thumb-1 distance, D-E distance; once proficient practice blind.

Wieniawski: do shifting exercises like above; you need to ingrain V plus fingered 1-3 octave, but with a palm position of pinky on high A, and of course the 10th itself; to vibrate, you may need to release 3 on F#. I've coached this piece, never performed it, but I might ingrain a VI rather than V and reach back for the F# with 1. In other words, center the hand more within the 10th to aid with pivoting the hand for the rest of the passage, i.e. to prepare for the pivot to G# from E#.

Another way to find higher positions is with finger substitutions, starting with a more familiar position. E.g. to find F# on A-string, feel D in III, finger F# with 3, then substitute with 1 to find V. I find I do that a lot when I'm not very familiar with the music (but that just means my brain map is not very clear on the less familiar positions, or I'm insecure about it.) Of course tapping and even ghosting the note helps check it.

October 8, 2018, 8:51 AM · Trick from Manny Hurwitz from years back, when he coached our county youth oechestra.
You know where the harmonic is (E on the E string). So replace that with your first finger and you will be o.k. up to A on the E string.
(Or relace it with 2 etc.) Same goes for lower strings.
It still stands me in good stead now. And never fails.

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