Rant: just play the open string, please!

October 2, 2018, 11:57 AM · Let's have October be international "All teachers explain rules for 4th fingers in orchestral music today" and all teachers, please explain when to use the fourth finger while playing orchestral music.

I was giving a sectional this morning at a high school, and they were having trouble with rhythm and intonation of a passage. All of them were going from the d string to the g, on a slur, in order to play a 4th finger d instead of an open string. It threw the whole thing off musically and the intonation was terrible, not just for that note, but for the next few after. I asked them to play open, don't worry about getting the 4th finger and they looked at me like I told them to go home and drown their pets. I had to tell them 3 times, and give a lecture before they actually did it. Who tells people to do this?

Replies (38)

October 2, 2018, 12:45 PM · Lol.
October 2, 2018, 12:48 PM · Well, since you've christened October as international "all teachers, please explain when to use the fourth finger while playing orchestral music" month,

How about if you do that? I'm willing to admit I'm not entirely sure.

October 2, 2018, 1:55 PM · Lol, don't change strings if you weren't on that string already or going to to that string for the note after. Even if it's piano, because you should be able to play an open string without honking it out. Open strings are okay.
October 2, 2018, 2:03 PM · I'm sure if they are young, then they may have taken an admonition to use the 4th finger a little too literally. I bet there are some teachers that explain to never use open strings as a general rule, and maybe haven't considered the nuances of that kind of advice, but I'd bet those kids got a little ahead of themselves. Some of these kinds of figures might be able to played in higher positions on the next string down if a certain kind of sound and consistency of sound is wanted, that an open string would not be compatible with, but this sounds like more of a teenage thing to me.

This could be an interesting moment for you to ask the students why they are doing something, which could make them reflect when they may have entrenched themselves with some notion. You could say, if you want a certain kind of sound for the phrase, is it going to be more jarring to use the open string or to do a string crossing, and why?

I'm sure you are already having this conversation with them, but I would think of this as more of an interesting opportunity, because even if they are telling you what their teachers said, you may be playing a game of telephone.

October 2, 2018, 2:04 PM · Ok my first post was on someone else’s discussion about having lung problems and it was deleted before I finished typing so I guess it put it here XD.
Edited: October 2, 2018, 2:18 PM · It's always helpful to keep one or more fingers on a string(s). That way your left hand knows where it's at. In descending scales or passages, using open strings results in the left hand losing that guidance. I'm not suggesting that one should never use open strings on a descent, but that's the general principle.
October 2, 2018, 2:58 PM · I was taught that it varies depending on what you're playing (what the score calls for), what's most comfortable personally (some folks have tiny hands), personal preference, and what the conductor wants (that last one overrules all others), but /usually/ when going up you may prefer to use an open string and when going down might be better to use 4th finger.
But ultimately as a player one should be able to do either way!
October 2, 2018, 2:59 PM · "It's always helpful to keep one or more fingers on a string(s). That way your left hand knows where it's at. In descending scales or passages"

I disagree with that statement as a justification for overusing 4th fingers. In my experience, that stretch is way more unstable for most people than lifting fingers. Besides, who said you have to take off all fingers at once? If I'm on the d string descending E-D-C, I put the 3rd finger on the C when I put down the E. Your thumb is also a guidepost for where your fingers go.

October 2, 2018, 3:34 PM · Believe it or not, there are orchestra teachers who instruct their students that they should ALWAYS use fourth finger and NEVER play the open string. I really hate it when I have to deprogram a kid who was taught this.
October 2, 2018, 3:39 PM · Julie, et al.,

For the record I started playing in a community orchestra just shy of 40 years ago. This very same issue was alive back then. Our conductor, noted that people don't like open strings because you cannot make them vibrate. WRONG! His instruction for that open G, D, or A string is to put down the third finger on the next higher string and do some vibrato on the non-bowed string. Ah, the wonders of acoustical physics it actually works and the open string sound is replaced by a vibrating note.

October 2, 2018, 4:29 PM · I also was taught the upwards-open-string-downward-4th-finger rule. But in practice I find it depends on the bow stroke. A string crossing following a down bow is more comfortable, at least to me, than one after an up bow and that is how I decide.

Of course if the conductor objects we all have to do what he/she asks. Conductors can objectively hear the sound of the section; its members can't. Anyway, it is their job to decide how the music is supposed to sound. So why not play the easiest fingering one can find and assume it is ok unless the conductor objects?

October 2, 2018, 4:51 PM · I play and teach scales open ascending/4th descending, but that's not a rule I extend to every passage that's scalar- I almost exclusively play runs with open strings.

If the conductor says no open strings, and it's not something that I can easily play in first position, (some awkward string crossing, or whatever) then I'll use either 2nd or 4th position. Actually, I play in 4th position all the time, especially when I'm playing second.

October 2, 2018, 5:46 PM · >Who tells people to do this?

Perhaps the editors? Were there fingerings printed in the music?

I watched a student quartet sightread a piece. In the opening lines, the violinist attempted an ambitious, schmaltzy shift. Their coach heaved a sigh, saying, "Why in the world do people keep playing that shift? Why have students become so afraid of string crossings?" In this context, I thought the reason was obvious - the edition of the piece had that fingering printed in it, and if you're sightreading (or inexperienced), you sometimes try them out.

October 2, 2018, 6:44 PM · I've seen a lot of students (both adults and kids) who either use the 4th finger exclusively, or never use it at all. It's not always the previous teacher's fault though. They may have explained the rules a dozen times but that doesn't mean the student internalized it. I've found that kids are almost always purely pragmatic: they do what is easiest. In this instance, it's physically harder to always use 4s, but it's much mentally easier to just make a mental rule of "always use 4s" than it is to figure out when or when not to see them. This is especially the case because kids quickly figure out that they're statistically more likely to be reprimanded for using open strings than they are for using 4s.

With that said, I've found it pretty effective to randomly pop-quiz my students in the middle of lessons on what finger we should choose on a particular note and why. When kids are routinely asked to choose a finger and explain why they chose it, they're far more likely to remember than if they were just told it as a rule and never questioned.

I also find it's helpful to ask them questions before I ever give them the answer, and then to provide the answer after they struggle with it for a bit. The brain becomes a thirstier sponge when the question is asked before the answer is given.

October 2, 2018, 6:50 PM · Also, Julie: I almost always teach scales the opposite of you, with 4s ascending and opens descending. I would be curious to hear from other posters which way they consider superior, in a general sense?
October 2, 2018, 7:03 PM · I must bookmark this thread.
October 2, 2018, 7:48 PM · Then there's me. I'm just delighted to have the opportunity to play an open string and make my life a little easier in difficult orchestra parts. No shame at all. It's all about playing as many notes as possible, as in tune as possible. Life goals. :-)
October 2, 2018, 8:12 PM · And then there's me, avoiding both open strings and 4th finger. My instinct to shift is so strong that I have to write in reminders not to shift if the passage is easier staying in 1st position. That mostly comes from playing viola with small hands and not wanting to reach with the 4th finger. In 1st position, a natural 4th finger note is already a bit of a stretch for me.
October 2, 2018, 9:28 PM · I avoid open strings like a cat avoids baths, but because I have been playing Eudoxas some months and the truth is I just don't know how much they have detuned during the session. I can correct with fingerings, but not open strings.
And like Andrew Hsieh, if there is not a good reason to go to first, I'd rather be in third and second position as standard.
October 2, 2018, 10:54 PM · Erik - I'm the same with 4 ascending and open descending in scales and that may have been the way I was taught. I did have a student once whose parent was an advanced player, who preferred the opposite (use the same string where the next note is and especially if avoiding slurring over a string crossing). I had given a reason (4 ascending for a beginner is to build the LH shape from having 3 fingers down already and open descending to make it easier and check intonation) and had the child do both.

For my own playing, and when teaching students about making fingering decisions, it's a balance between "easier" and "sounds better".

October 3, 2018, 12:46 AM · I played for years in an orchestra that accompanied choirs. That means a lot of different conductors and we listened especially to our concertmaster. When one of us played an open string, she turned around and shouted 'no open strings'. So, who tells people to do this? Well in my case the cum laude master educated concert master. Who am I to doubt what she said. My current teacher 'deprogrammed' me , to use the words of Mary Ellen Goree ;)

On the other hand: I play in cold churchbuildings (the European medieval chruches are ALWAYS cold in winter) and in summer in humid open air while the air cools down. I always play without using open strings there because my strings get often out of tune without opportunity to tune them constantly. The only way to play in tune then is to use fingerings without open strings en trust my ears.

October 3, 2018, 1:58 AM · Surely it all depends on the musical context - what sounds right for the phrase? An open string sound without vibrato is liable to stick out unless you're very careful with it. Played by a whole violin section the effect can be pretty horrible, especially if they're all in tune with each other!
October 3, 2018, 2:52 AM · Steve, I think the main point here is where you're dealing with kids that can't yet consistently sound good on 4s regardless of the situation, then open strings are often their best chance at sounding *acceptable*. Obviously more advanced players would choose based on the phrase and other factors.
October 3, 2018, 7:42 AM · I have a copy of the Harvey Whistler scale book for first positioning, this is the guidance given on the back cover: Capitals as used in the book. Does anyone go this far in their guidance to adult students?
FIRST POSITION FINGERING FOR SCALES (based on the Joachim system)

When ASCENDING, the OPEN STRING is used unless it is: (1) preceded by a half step, (2) the late note of a slur, (3) the last note of a scale, or (4) the last note of a group of notes. In such cases the FOURTH FINGER is used.

When DESCENDING, the FOURTH FINGER is used unless it is: (1) preceded by a half step, (2) the middle or last note of a slur, (3) the last note of a scale, or (4) the last of a group of notes. In such cases the OPEN STRING is used.

Admittedly this is very hard to apply as a beginner on the fly so I have simplified it in my mind to ascending open and descending fourth with the hope that some of the more complicated instructions would "stick" as I got better.

Edited: October 3, 2018, 8:58 AM · I encounter this a lot too. I think many orchestra directors (especially in middle school) are so adamant about students using the 4th finger that they get the mistaken impression that open strings are never to be used at all.The random 4th fingers printed as an option in every possible place in the current edition of the early Suzuki books doesn't help either. My guidelines for 4th finger for students:
*Use a 4th finger if either the note before or the note after it is on the string the 4th finger is on, don't change strings exclusively to use a 4th finger. If both notes are on the original string, you must use a 4.
* If the tempo is medium to slow, use 4th finger (or an upper position) for notes that are a half note or longer (sometimes quarter notes if the tempo is very slow), where possible. In other words, don't sustain an open string, if possible.
* Don't use a 4th finger if it adds a string crossing or otherwise interferes with your ability to play fast or accurately.
* No one will hear the difference in tone, when you are playing fast, in fast passages 4's are used exclusively for convenience, not for color/vibrato.
*Be careful with open E's (but don't avoid them entirely) because they tend to stick out more than any other open string.

I also go against popular wisdom on the opens ascending and 4's descending in scales. I think 4's going up build hand shape, and opens going down helps to check intonation. I also think, in general, that going from a 1 to a 4 is much more likely to be out of tune than vice versa, so I often avoid this in fingering music, especially for students (I will sometimes use it in etudes and/or more advanced students playing scales).

Edited: October 3, 2018, 9:06 AM · In the most beautiful performance of Beethoven's Op. 50 Romance I have ever heard (all recordings included) the violin soloist played an open E string every chance he got in the first few lines (instead of the fingerings shown in most editions). To my ears this made a musical statement that no other version ever has.

He was a professional violinist soloing with our community orchestra. I was fortunate to obtain a tape recording (this was 53 years ago) that I could study when I was to perform it about 15 years later and I chose to play it the same way.

In most ensemble playing (which is mostly what I do) my choice of open string vs. fingered note (it is 4th finger only if you are in first position) is based on several considerations:
1. smoothness of transition of bowing to that note, if smoothness matters
2. evenness of transition of tone to that note, if even tone matters
3. awkwardness of one method vs. the other. This is typically a matter of how fast the passage is and what the other fingers are doing.
4. another consideration has to do with the sound of your instrument - some are very smooth in the fingered to open string sound and some are not.

I think this issue is worth considering for everything you play - especially if you are playing a solo, but also in some ensemble situations. I think the choice between playing a fingered note and an open string should first be a musical one, and idea that I first had after the experience related at the beginning of this post.

In all honesty, however, when sight reading in ensemble I do whatever comes easiest at that instant!

Edited: October 3, 2018, 10:25 AM · Where to use 4th finger isn't necessarily a simple matter. It requires judgement and experience.

I suppose you could either tell exactly what to use when, or give them some very basic rules:

1. Use 4th finger on an upper neighbor or a slow, legato passage.
2. Use open for passing tones on fast passages.

Of course, you may have to teach them the meaning of "passing" vs "neighbor" tones. Most kids don't know these terms.

Edited: October 3, 2018, 2:19 PM · Andy I was taught to play the Op. 50 Romance with open string in the theme too. I've now been listening to a few versions on YouTube and Spotify and lots of players use open E or a combination of open and fingered. The Youtube with Capucon is really nice.
October 3, 2018, 3:36 PM · One of the simpler and more effective explanations I use with kids (or adults, for that matter) is that if an E is the "black sheep" of a group of notes (in that it's surrounded by A-string notes on either side), then we use a 4 so that it's a group of pure A-notes.

However, if E-string notes come right afterwards or right before, it's OK to use an open E.

In other words, we only use open Es when they're adjacent to another E-string note.

I'll generally play a passage both ways (and exaggerate the "open E" metallic tone) so they can hear for themselves why the 4 makes sense in these situations.

October 3, 2018, 3:39 PM · I'd be asking the section "Is using that 4th finger helping you get the passage in tune and in time with the rest of the section, or is it getting in the way...?"

In orchestral music I tend to default to open strings when sightreading, unless there is a good reason not to (and there's only ever a good reason if we've got an audible musical line, which rules out half of the music anyway...)

In chamber music by contrast I find open strings are one of the leading cause of intonation howlers, thanks to the wonders of just intonation and also frankly just the wonders of intonation. :)

October 3, 2018, 3:39 PM · I'd be asking the section "Is using that 4th finger helping you get the passage in tune and in time with the rest of the section, or is it getting in the way...?"

In orchestral music I tend to default to open strings when sightreading, unless there is a good reason not to (and there's only ever a good reason if we've got an audible musical line, which rules out half of the music anyway...)

In chamber music by contrast I find open strings are one of the leading cause of intonation howlers, thanks to the wonders of just intonation and also frankly just the wonders of intonation. :)

Edited: October 5, 2018, 9:03 AM · One way to firm up 4th finger intonation is to practice scales by playing twice the note of each open string you come to, first with the 4th finger and then as the open string. If the scale is ascending then you play the 4th finger followed by the open string; if the scale is descending then the order is open string followed by 4th finger.

If the key of G-flat is your favorite then be my guest and ignore the above ;)

Edited: October 4, 2018, 11:48 AM · "An open string sound without vibrato is liable to stick out"

I once played second oboe to an excellent first oboist who said he never bothered with vibrato in orchestral playing except in solos.
That probably doesn't translate into a string section, but just in case, I thought I'd mention it. I suppose it's also an indication that you can avoid constant unconscious vibrato if you have will-power.

October 4, 2018, 4:11 PM · I try to use 4th finger a lot - partly for the practice (especially on viola!) but also because an open string has such a different timbre that it doesn't really fit well among a series of fingered notes. Sometimes, as others have mentioned, this effect is deliberate - listen to the first part of Kreisler's Praeludium and Allegro, for instance. But most of the time, the 4th finger gives a note that is more uniform - at least if I get it right. (I'm still working on that - and if a vibrato is needed I must decide whether to shift and play it with a stronger finger.)

If the note is in the middle of a fast series, or is being played softly, I can often get away with the open string.

Sometimes, when playing in a quartet, intonation is so critical that the open string never seems to be right. Fingering the note lets me adjust it as required.

October 8, 2018, 9:00 AM · Mary Ellen is right.
And reading this thread makes me realise that ALL rules are wrong.
Same goes for vibrato.
How many times have we all heard - always use vibrato.
Watch a professional orchestra.
There's a difference between playing a tune, and playing the end of a phrase etc.
That's not a rule. LISTEN.
October 27, 2018, 7:42 PM · Suzuki told me to avoid open strings... seemingly at all costs. I never thought about it much till I restarted after a long gap with a teacher who grew up in France and had most of her violin training there. She went on a rant about it! Also about the overuse of vibrato. There's no good reason to *automatically* value one choice over the other. Thinking about just a LITTLE, I agree wth this.
October 29, 2018, 3:58 AM · I forget where I learned the open-up, 4th-down protocol, but I did at one point. It is a good default setting, but I also have since learned to ignore it when it sounds better the other way.

[Note: supposedly Bruno Walter would press guilt on his string sections. "What would Mozart say if he heard you playing an open A string here?" Another Mahler acolyte, Otto Klemperer, once said that the main difference between the two was that Walter was a moralist, while he (Klemperer) was an immoralist.]

It's worth remembering that not too many decades ago, vibrato wasn't that common in string sections. Listen to the Arnold Rose Quartet recordings for one indication. So open strings, especially if unwrapped gut, wouldn't have have been so shocking. Franz Kneisel, the BSO's concertmaster for some years before WWI, did an edition of the Brahms G-Major Sonata that starts with a harmonic on the D-string. When I performed it in college, I went one better and kept the whole first motif on the D string, ending with an open D.

Edited: October 29, 2018, 9:58 AM · I find that the Warchal "Russian" A is a fairly convincing replica of a plain gut A, especially if the two lower strings are wound gut. I'm not afraid to use the open Amber E and the Russian A.

I must admit, however, that the low A-double flat (or its piano keyboard enharmonic equivalent F##) on the G string doth puzzle me.

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