Exercises to develop high position tone

August 1, 2019, 7:07 AM · Hi all,

Does anyone know any good exercises/studies specifically to develop strong tone in high positions?

I understand the basic exercise for this is 'son file' long slow strokes with careful attention to the consistency of contact point. So I'm doing this on high position scales and I think that's helping

Does anyone know any other good exercises for this? Or studies? E.g. Kreutzer no.1 is great for this in low/medium positions, is there one that you'd recommend for the upper register?

Replies (23)

August 1, 2019, 7:11 AM · I have a similar problem - not high positions, just 3rd on the D and A strings, pianissimo.
August 1, 2019, 8:12 AM · Making a good tone in high positions is not different *in principle* from making a good tone in low positions. You just have to spend time at the end of the fingerboard doing similar exercises. Flesch suggests bagpipe exercises as being the magic bullet of tone-production: play a one-octave scale on one string while maintaining an open-string drone on a neighboring string, and try to get as much amplitude on each note as you can. Watch the middle of the sounding length, and adjust until it's vibrating as widely as possible. Other tone exercises like son file and various pulsing (weight / speed) exercises are good too. The main thing is not what you do while you're up there, but how you think about it. Here are some common pitfalls:

1 - Since the string is so much shorter, it *feels* harder under your fingers, but in fact can take much less pressure before cracking. Typically you will want to press harder, but you actually have to lighten up.

2 - Since the string is so much shorter, the sounding point range shrinks proportionally, so everything is closer to the bridge.

3 - OTOH, since the string is so much harder, the sounding point is not *quite* as close to the bridge as you would anticipate, so be cautious not to over-correct!

4a - On many instruments, the strings at the end of the fingerboard are quite high. This can make it feel like you have to press down *REALLY HARD* which can generate a lot of left-hand tension. Excessive tension leads to slow choreography which leads to noise when your bow doesn't wait for your left hand to get set. You only have to press down hard enough to get a clean sound.

4b - OTOH (hah!) if you don't get the string stopped sufficiently with your left hand, the sound will suffer no matter what you do with the bow.

For both of the preceding, Simon Fischer's "harmonic fingerings" exercise is a good one. Play everything as though it were a harmonic - just touching the surface of the string. (It will sound horrendous - great fun!) Then play at periscope depth (just under the surface), below the thermocline (half-way down or so), and then CRUSH DEPTH! (Don't play at crush depth too often... your hand will get sore.)

Make sure you have plenty of rosin. Short hard strings want to "slip" more than they want to "stick."

Finally, sometimes there's just nothing you can do. When I was in high-school I started working on Ravel's Tzigane, and the inability of my violin to make a good sound at the end of the fingerboard is what prompted my folks to spring for my first "professional level" instrument. Do your best to make a good sound, but be aware that instruments have physical limits and that you have to work within them.

August 1, 2019, 8:26 AM · Thanks Nate, that's really helpful! I think I'd got points 1-3 on an intellectual level, just a case of working out the right balance of position, weight and speed in practice... but I hadn't considered the LH tension issue.

And yes, my violin isn't wonderful up there, it's worth about £5k in British money, but doesn't have amazing singing tone that high. Just a case of making it work as hard as it possibly can :)

Gordon - what you need is Kreutzer No.1, practiced as slowly as possible ;)

Edited: August 1, 2019, 11:43 AM · Hi Chris,

I was just going to suggest what Nate wrote with the Flesch exercise. You can do a D major or minor scale up the D string while bowing the open G string as well the whole time. I have found that going through the Rode etudes, my sound in higher positions has gained in clarity, so I think that it also kind of works itself out if you are playing things that demand it.

Check the opening of Paganini's 20th Caprice for the same idea.

August 1, 2019, 11:45 AM · @Chris. Thanks for the suggestion. Kreutzer 1 is often ignored. I don't know why. Is it difficult? Is that the reason for the wink? ;-)
August 1, 2019, 11:46 AM · Kreutzer 1 is surprisingly difficult.
Edited: August 1, 2019, 12:22 PM · On cello, approaching the string with your finger from the right side of the string can be a big help and the string can be stopped without being "crushed" to the fingerboard. The fingertip touches the fingerboard but the finger pad does not. As one goes higher up in pitch along a cello string it becomes impossible to push the string all the way down to the fingerboard, anyway.

Equivalently, on violin, approaching the strings from their left side can be used with similar effect. It is worth trying.

And, of course, Nate B's suggestion about bow sound point (position wrt the bridge) is essential.

August 1, 2019, 12:54 PM · The quality of the equipment; violin, bow, string, becomes more important as we move up to higher positions. An experienced player will test an instrument in the high positions looking for wolf tones and unresponsive high notes. The diameter of the string is of course the same along its length, so it becomes stiffer as the vibrating length shortens. It takes more energy to start it. I have read that the optimum point of contact is about 1/9 of the vibrating string length, so you gradually move closer to the bridge. I like to use a thin gauge E on two of my violins because it responds quicker on the high notes.
August 1, 2019, 6:23 PM · Lydia, yes, Kreutzer 1 is surprisingly difficult. What I find a little odd is that it is No. 1 in the book, when the practicalities dictate that the student in fact first needs to get Nos. 2-10 well under their belt. When the student is then ready for Kreutzer 1 it is then that they will be starting out along the royal road to real bow control.
August 2, 2019, 5:22 AM · Christian - thanks :) Actually I've been working on Rode a fair bit in the last 6 months, and I do find it helps my tone, but still I think I need some dedicated high-position practice as well. I might actually give Paganini 20 a go sometime (though looking at Kreutzer 1 has also reminded me I skipped over Kreutzer 23, which would also be really useful for me at this point... so maybe Pag20 goes on the list for the Autumn!)

Gordon - yes, it's tricky - it's an exercise in playing the long notes very very very slowly, works wonders for your tone production - and then there are also the very rapid shifts.

Trevor - I've often heard it said that No.1 should go between 22 and 23, but Kreutzer put it first because No.2 didn't look impressive enough - if you were a violinist in 1805 of whenever and you opened the book to see Kreutzer 2, would you buy it?

Edited: August 3, 2019, 8:44 AM · Here is a live performance example of slow playing with perfect bow control:

This particular piece seems simple and straightforward on paper, but ...

August 3, 2019, 11:38 AM · Trevor - that is a simply beautiful piece! I found the music for it...
August 3, 2019, 4:18 PM · I looked up the Fischer exercise (Nate B). I, and perhaps my brethren gorillas, wonder if you need to press all the way down to the fingerboard in high positions such as around 10?
August 3, 2019, 11:38 PM · When you are really high up try just touching the string rather than pressing down all the way. You need hardly any pressure. Then see how little pressure you actually need lower down too!
August 4, 2019, 10:02 AM · David McLellan:

In the old days, there was the view that one had to push the strings all the way down, all the time, no matter what. The idea was that you were trying to re-create the nut any time you put a finger down. I know some players who still think this, even some low-strings players. They basically hold that if you can't get the string all the way down, wherever you are on the instrument, it's a personal failing and you need to work on your grip strength.

The current view in vogue (advocated by Simon Fischer, for example), that one should push down *as little as possible,* seems to me to be an overcorrection in response to the former view.

It seems to me that there is room for quite a bit of nuance here. The old view originates from a time when everyone used gut strings, often plain gut, even for e-strings. Even under high tension, gut strings feel more flexible under the fingers and are easier to stop. Asking someone to play a 27.5 gauge Westminster E the same way they do a plain gut E is unreasonable. Getting that string to go the 5mm or so down to the fingerboard 2 or 3 inches away from the bridge just isn't going to happen in a reasonable amount of time. (That's assuming you can get it to happen at all, since the string will be burrowing into your flesh.)

On the other hand, I think the idea that you should hold down the string as lightly as possible turns left-hand technique into an excruciating 3-dimensional lottery. When you push the string down, the tension goes up, and the sounding length increases. Depending on your instrument and the strings you use, this will have a pronounced effect on your intonation. Instead of trying to locate one spot on the surface of the string where, when you push it down, you get the right sound, you are now trying to locate the exact spot on a 1-5mm window of a giant arc where the string will both speak and be in tune; *and* you're trying to make that spot be as far away from the fingerboard as possible.

Additionally, there's a physiological element involved. Our hands are made to grip. You can hold things in your fists all day long without fatigue. What creates fatigue is clenching. Even clenching is not unhealthy per se - it is only chronic unreleased clenching that causes pain.

What I tell my students is that there is an amount of force that feels natural. You can find it by making a circle with your thumb and an opposing finger. You can easily feel when you're over-crushing your finger pads, and you can easily tell when your finger and thumb are just touching each other and not gripping firmly. The firm grip is the feeling you're looking for - no slack in the system, but you're not crushing your finger pads either. This is what they call "song" in Chinese martial arts. A kind of ready-firmness. You can easily and quickly open the circle and you can also quickly snap it closed again. If you're clenching, you won't be able to open quickly; if you're soft and noodley you won't develop the "snap" that gets the string to stop immediately when you drop a finger. It takes a lot of "snap" to punch through an already-vibrating string to get the next note to speak clearly in legato playing.

Anyway, what I'm getting at is that it is biomechanics that determines the right amount of left-hand force, not a rule about the tool (all the way down) or an abstract principle (as little as possible). If you've found the right relationship in your hand where your fingers are strong but still fast and your violin doesn't respond well, you should adjust the violin. Maybe the action is too hight, fingerboard scoop or neck angle too aggressive, or something along those lines.

August 4, 2019, 11:01 AM · I see what you are saying in theory but don't find this in practice. I press very lightly and never felt that it made problems with intonation. I think anybody can try pressing very lightly for themselves and see what works.
August 4, 2019, 12:12 PM · Hi Christopher;

It's very context-dependent. You must stop the string sufficiently, but what "sufficiently" means in terms of left-hand depends on many factors - instrument, strings, specific passage-work, your own physical parameters, even what kind of venues you play in. When you say you play "very lightly," that doesn't tell me very much about your playing, really. Maybe what feels very light to you would be sufficient to stop the strings on my violin in high positions. Or maybe you never play louder than my mp. This kind of thing is pretty subjective, and hard to address solely with language. So, I don't disagree with your conclusion - everyone should investigate for themselves, starting with harmonic-fingers. On the other hand, saying "as little as possible" or "press very lightly" is not a good across-the-board generalization, especially if you are trying to teach students to play in tune and make a good sound.

What is clear is that great violinists never clutch or crush the strings. I think Simon Fischer's exercises are great for revealing the use of excessive left-hand force - which is why I mentioned them in that previous post. On the other hand, it is also clear that no great violinist plays with light pressure, in the sense of just resting their fingers on the surface of the strings as much like a harmonic as possible.

There's another way of thinking about this that can be useful, and that is, why does the fingerboard exist in the first place? It's not a necessary component of the universe that we just happen to encounter. Philosophers would say that fingerboards are contingent! :) That is, they were developed by humans to serve some end.

As a thought experiment we could imagine a violin with a tall bridge and the nut lifted 10mm or so to completely remove the fingerboard from playing. We would stop the strings only with our fingers and no counter-pressure. In fact, there are some instruments that work this way, although they tend to be fretted. The Chinese Pipa works like this. It effectively has no fingerboard; the strings are stopped by pressing between very tall wall-like frets. It is a specific feature of Pipa playing that this creates crazy pitch-bending techniques of the type that we're trying to avoid in violin-playing. :)

Anyway, the point is, the fingerboard exists for a reason, and that reason is to assist us in getting a clean stop by providing counter-pressure. If you are intentionally trying to avoid touching the fingerboard, then you are obviating one of the tools that defines violin-playing.

In my experience, great players don't really think about left-hand technique in terms of pressing or not pressing anyway. They think in terms of speed of movement. As an alternative thought concept, imagine that - instead of the fingerboard not existing - the strings themselves don't exist.

Your job is to play on the fingerboard, and good technique is defined by how quickly you can get your finger to the fingerboard or pick it up off the fingerboard. The strings will happen to get in the way, and if your finger is moving quickly enough, they will get carried along. If your violin is well set up, the underside of the strings will make contact with the fingerboard. If it isn't, they may not make it all the way down, and will instead nestle into your finger pads. Either way, you will not have the sensation of pushing down hard on the strings to try and get them to move anywhere in particular. You will just have the sensation of putting your fingers down on the fingerboard and picking them up again. This true even in the high positions. You shouldn't work hard to *push* the strings down, but they will go down, except in some edge cases (high action, the very end of a heavy E string, etc.).

Edited: August 4, 2019, 4:26 PM · Yes, it may depend on your string action but I believe it would be foolish to press down all the way to the fingerboard in the very high positions on any string clearance. I've actually tried what you say - my fingerboard fell off one day and I tried playing it without. It worked! Probably foolish to keep the tension on without the fingerboard but I quickly tried it. You mentioned Chinese instruments - perhaps we should mention the erhu which is bowed instrument without a fingerboard which also works fine.
I tell my students that it's better to start at under effort and bring it up gradually than too much effort and releasing.
August 4, 2019, 7:05 PM · LOL your fingerboard fell off - that's a great story! I've played an erhu a time or two; interesting instruments.

Ideally, the very high positions will feel identical with first position in terms of effort required to hold down the strings. Sadly, the real world seldom conforms to the ideal one, and when it would be most helpful (I mean, inexpensive student instruments) such quality is least often to be found.

August 4, 2019, 8:29 PM · I find working on hand and finger angle in the upper positions helpful - experimenting how the fingers approach the string. The achilles heel is usually to overrotate (i.e elbow is too far towards the right) which is not necessary. Also, the knuckles closest to the hand shouldn't stick out but be more flush, the second knuckles should be more bent. More fingerpad helps too. In terms of exercise: A teacher had me play passages down in first position (let's say on the D string), pay attention to the sound and feel...and then try it up in position and aim for the same sound and feeling (on the G string). That usually does wonders for me to not work too hard, which is a sound killer. I like the above suggestions about pressure and not playing too close to the bridge as well!
August 4, 2019, 9:24 PM · Sorry Nate - the high positions are not identical in effort to put down the strings unless you have a really really really low action! With an action that low it would buzz!
August 5, 2019, 9:41 AM · Sorry Christoper - I hate to be contrary, but what you just said is simply not true.

It's perfectly possible to have a well made violin that is properly set up (i.e., normal string height) that is just as easy to play at the end of the fingerboard as it is in first position. In fact, I just had such a violin out on trial a few months ago - a nice old Klotz that played effortlessly up and down its whole length. All that's necessary is that the violin speak well with medium/low tension strings (say, Dominants and a Gold Label E) and to have a well-carved fingerboard scoop. There's no need for some kind of excessively low folk-fiddle action.

Of course, at the same time, there are plenty of violins with actions that are lower than standard and that still do not buzz. Again, all you need is a well carved scoop.

There are just a lot of violins in existence, spanning a wide range of design, quality, and setup. You can't really make easy universal statements about them without contradicting the facts.

August 9, 2019, 4:13 AM · Just to say - even a few days of practicing the "bagpipe exercises" with high positions is making a big difference.

I have no idea what my cat or my neighbours think about me playing an F-sharp minor scale starting in the second half of the E string, with an open A drone, as loudly as I can for an extended period of time. And I haven't even dared to do it while my wife is in the building. But it does seem to be working!

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