Did some/any/all of "the greats" use fingerboard aids as beginners?

September 6, 2019, 3:07 PM · It seems that fingerboard tape is something to aid little kids who don't have a clue but as an adult beginner who plays other instruments and already familiar with the concept of intervals I haven't been using tape, doesn't seem to have hindered me so far. The idea being I want to develop an intuitive feel for where the notes are, not depend on a visual cue.

Any other adult beginners here - did you start out with tape or other visual aids?

Anyone familiar with the bios of famous players and whether they started out using fingerboard markings of some sort when they were beginners? Is it something violin teachers have always used?

Replies (29)

September 6, 2019, 3:10 PM · I mean, why not? I did.

It's great way for kids with zero musicality to visualize the notes on the fingerboard as they develop their ears.

Edited: September 6, 2019, 3:38 PM · I would be flabbergasted to learn that the historic greats used fingerboard aids as children. They didn't even always have proper sized fractionals--wish I could remember which famous violinist I have seen a childhood picture of, with a violin clearly too big for him.

For what it's worth, such things were unheard of even in my beginning Suzuki class in the mid 1960s. Never had anything on my fingerboard. We learned to use our ears from the beginning.

Edited: September 6, 2019, 4:18 PM · Me neither, I never had any marking on the fingerboard. I did have a tape around the bow stick at the middle point as well as 1/4 and 3/4 up. And I think that helped. Beginners tend to use only the middle of the middle of the bow and the stickers were a reminder how much more bow there was to use.

I used the Doflein method and in there were nice drawings of the hand for each of the different positions of the half step. Those were very clear and enough for me.

Edited: September 6, 2019, 4:18 PM · When it comes to older greats (ie born before ~1970) I would guess very few used tapes. There are a number of reasons I am making that supposition. First, most started later than current players (age 6-10 was probably most common, some even older). Most of them also took both piano and violin, at least to some extent, and so their ears were being trained, at least to some extent, by the piano. And they just didn't have the same kind of freely available fancy tape that we have these days.

I would guess that some of the players who started in the 1970s and 1980s may have used finger tapes. Definitely by the time early training was common through the Suzuki method tapes were being used widely.

September 6, 2019, 5:31 PM · I honestly cannot remember if they had me use tape in 1966 when I first learned the violin at 7. After 45 year break, when I returned (last December) I did not use tape at the strong encouragement of my teacher. Very thankful I listened.
September 6, 2019, 7:06 PM · I used tape (the automative detail tape recommended these days). Started in the 70s. Never hindered intonation development for me.

In the past, many students who didn't have circumstances that were ideal would quit rather than successfully working through the beginning stages.

September 6, 2019, 7:46 PM · Most of the adhesive tapes on the market today were invented in the 1940s or later. Though some tapes existed earlier, they would have been both expensive and hard to find.

And children starting younger than 5 would have been extremely rare in the pre-Suzuki era. Suzuki almost singlehandedly created the market for fractional violins below 1/2 size.

I started at 16. No tapes. Violin and viola were my fourth and fifth instruments.

September 6, 2019, 8:15 PM · You know those adhesive reinforcing rings for three-hole-punched paper? The ones you lick? That's what kids had on their fingerboards when I was a boy.
Edited: September 6, 2019, 11:31 PM · Susan, the Suzuki approach was definitely known in the U.S. in the 1960s. John Kendall, the Starrs, and Alice Joy Lewis all come to mind as early proponents, and children were starting at five or younger. At age five, I was in Alice Joy Lewis's first Suzuki violin class ever which started in Ottawa, Kansas, in 1966. No tapes.
Edited: September 7, 2019, 12:26 AM · Leopold Mozart writes about markings on the fingerboard, in Chapter 2, section 10 of his Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule.

"If the pupil has a good musical hearing, then there is no need to make use of such excesses; but if he lacks that, then he is incapable of playing music, and he may take on a barrel organ rather than a violin with more advantage."

(my translation, from the Dutch 18th century edition)

September 7, 2019, 2:24 AM · We'll never know, because that isn't the kind of information a "great" would want to see included in his/her biography. My teacher didn't use tape, which could be why I'm still not entirely sure where to put my fingers down
Edited: September 8, 2019, 6:10 PM · I have seen non-pro cellists (and perhaps one or two pros!) in orchestra very occasionally using an inconspicuous marker high up on the fingerboard, but this is generally done to mark the location of a specific note that may be too difficult timewise to prepare for, and which they dare not risk fluffing during performance. Bearing in mind the length of the cello fingerboard this is not unreasonable.

My cello teacher's technique for hammering in an intimate knowledge of the geography of the fingerboard was to tell the young pupil (me) to shut their eyes and then to play a random note he'd call out, and do it on a particular string with a particular finger. A few weeks of that regime does wonders for finding one's way round the upper reaches of the fingerboard without looking! Much more recently I have used that method on the violin.

Edited: September 8, 2019, 8:46 PM · I started at the age of seven and restarted three yeas ago. No tapes!
Edited: September 8, 2019, 9:20 PM · I don't use them with my private students, but then again, having a dedicated lesson every week, one-on-one, allows for approaches to learning proper hand frame, finger placement, and intonation that don't necessarily require visual aids like tapes.

However, tapes are really useful in group string classes with 50-100 (or more) students, especially in the fourth and fifth grade level that is common as the entry point for ensemble education in the United States. With my K-12 program, it's fairly common for fourth graders who have never played an instrument to make use of the visual aids, as it speeds their comprehension of the abstraction of the written notes on the page to the equivalent location of the note on the fingerboard, as well as the concept of whole and half steps. Respectfully, I would venture that the folks who say they should *never* be used have not had to be in front of a huge elementary cohort of beginners who don't read music yet--and thus lack that particular perspective which could provide some understanding and empathy of what our public school music teachers face all across the country.

Interestingly enough, a successful bass soloist (!) that I know has a gorgeous decorative inlay in their fingerboard on their solo instrument--one time backstage they demonstrated to me how visual elements of the inlay actually served as a virtual "fret" for them to have better accuracy with the high register, especially for all the harmonics near or off the end of the fingerboard.

September 9, 2019, 3:23 AM · The use of tape is more of a function of the teaching style of the instructor rather than the natural ability of a student. I don't think it particularly matters.
September 9, 2019, 6:55 AM · I watched how my daughter was taught where to put her fingers. When something was out of tune, her teacher would name a familiar tune that everyone knows like "Mary Had a Little Lamb" (or whatever happens to match the pitches in question) and explain that the pitches should sound like that. One you know how the first three notes of a major scale should sound, you're off to a good start in violin playing.
September 9, 2019, 10:07 AM · Well, maybe I go back further but when I started (1958, England) nobody used tape. I thought it weird when I first saw it in the US many, many years later.

BTW we had steel E strings (sounded like cheese wire), plain gut A and D and wire wound G (that made a loud whooshing sound if you happened to slide up it). And no SR either, but a bean-pad was optional ;)

September 9, 2019, 10:24 AM · I have found that one in ten beginners correct their intonation spontaneously. I did too, but at 15 yo, I had had 5 years of piano (a nimble left hand) and years of hymns and anthems (a polyphonic ear). And very musical parents..

A student who has to "learn" good intonation will probably advance too slowly to become a professional, let alone a "great". But he or she still deserves our full attention, just through wanting to play. Do they not!

September 9, 2019, 10:51 AM · Gene, I agree that the tapes are enormously useful in a large class of violin beginners such as one encounters in many public school systems. However, the danger is that the kids develop the habit of *looking* at their left hand every time they need to put down a finger. I spend a lot of time with students who come to me from such programs explaining that "low 2" isn't blue or "high 3" isn't yellow, or whatever those colors are. In my opinion the tapes become damaging pretty quickly after their initial use.
September 9, 2019, 1:21 PM · Attention span is also a major factor in determining if tapeless learning is viable.

I have personally found that tapes are rarely a problem in my own teaching, and I'll usually add tapes any time that I'm trying to really get into what the names of the notes are, even if the student has good attention span. This is because it provides a basis for visualization of the distances and intervals. Some people are just visual learners, which means that they'll learn faster if they can see what's going on first, even if we quickly get away from literally looking, and instead imagine the distances in our head.

It's extremely rare that I have issues with students not being able to look away from the tapes. But I think this has to do with me adding a fair amount of supplemental sight-reading to their studies early on, which switches their brain to looking at the music instead of their hands. I also don't make rules about never looking at the the left hand, because occasionally peeking to prepare for a difficult transition is, in my opinion, a fine habit.

I think video games or typing are a really good example of why visual symbols aren't really an issue, and in fact are quite necessary in some cases. You'll notice that if a kid is using a console controller (like an Xbox or something), the buttons on the control are all labelled. Usually X, Y, A, B. However, once a kid has been playing on this console for a short time, they're not looking at their fingers at all anymore, because the screen in front of them *demands* their attention. Yet, having the reference to the letter-names on the buttons is still crucial for the initial learning process. They need to be able to "imagine" the letter-names in correlation to where their fingers are in order to be able to look exclusively at the screen.

Typing is another great example. Imagine that you're new to typing, and you look down at the keyboard and it's just a mass of black keys, with no letters on the keys. When you press a key, you see the corresponding letter appear on the screen, so it's theoretically possible to learn this way. But it would take *forever* to become proficient in comparison to the student that has letters on the keys. Because even though we quickly learn to type without watching our fingers, that initial visual aspect is very important to gain traction.

However, if I hadn't taken a good class on typing, I would still be looking down at my fingers. So clearly it's vital that the teacher recognizes that the tapes will become the primary source of attention unless music is routinely given that is fresh to the student, thus requiring them to look at the music itself a majority of the time, while still utilizing the visualization aspect that the tapes provided.


I should also mention: ----*none of my students have tapes after Suzuki book 3 level is finished, and all of my ideas about tapes correspond to the beginner stage*---- It is my opinion that if a student is still routinely using tapes in the intermediate stage, then they probably missed out on some important aspect of training in the beginner stage.

80% of the time, I take the tapes off of a young student's fingerboard because they're not using them anymore. A lot of the time they've forgotten they're on the violin. I consider this a good thing. When I do take tapes off, I usually take the 2+3 off simultaneously, and then later on I take the 4 off, and finally the 1. When all tapes have been removed, I have the student do something I call a "left hand calibration" to really sort out the intervals and to start focusing on a new level of intonation which exclusively uses the ears.

September 9, 2019, 1:45 PM · Yes, I agree we don't want them stuck with the false equivalency of a colored tape being equal to a specific note.

I use them for the fourth grade beginners so they can develop the hand frame, then over the months we gradually remove the tapes as they learn the whole/half step concepts until they only have the first finger one in place, and once they reach fifth grade we do additional ear training that allows them to remove it entirely--and then the tapes have served their purpose.

I also feel terrible when I get a new student who has been playing for 4-5 years in their school programs and they absolutely have to look at the colored tape every time to put a finger down...

Edited: September 9, 2019, 4:50 PM · I learned the violin using the Suzuki method when I was 7 yrs old, but my teacher did not put a tape on my violin. Instead, I learned by "hearing" the notes without the guide.

My daughter, who started at 4yrs old, also uses the Suzuki method, and her teacher put tapes on her violin as a guide.

I just took the tapes off her violin a couple of days ago. My daughter, who is now 7 yrs old, and has graduated from book 1, and starting book 2. What I observed is that she has become reliant on the tape to figure out where the "note" is, instead of relying on her ears to make sure she is actually in tune.

Once I took the tapes off, it did not take too long for her to be in tune and adjust when needed. She plays her A, D, and G major scales very cleanly and in tune, as well as all her book 1 pieces.

I told her teacher, and her teacher agreed that sometimes the tape can be a crutch after a certain point.

September 9, 2019, 7:55 PM · "Once I took the tapes off, it did not take too long for her to be in tune and adjust when needed." Sounds like it was not so damaging after all.
September 9, 2019, 8:10 PM · I am an adult beginner, just started violin a year ago. I didn't use tape. There is a reason for it, but I can't claim this is effective or better method.

I started violin on a private lesson, but quickly move to group lesson because of lack of fund. In the 2-3 private lessons I had so far, the teacher spent a good chunk of time talking and correcting me on posture. According to him, looking at the fingerboard while playing the violin is a bad posture. He told me that you get neck tension if you rotate your neck to the left to look. The more you look, the more neck tension you get. In turn, you may pick up stress/pain, and discourage to pracitse for a longer duration of time. Ideally, I should always look forward, either at the music or at the audience.

As a result, I never use tape because I am not suppose to turn my head left to look at them.

However, it doesn't mean I magically get the intonation right. I don't have a lot of music training as a child, apart from casually playing recorder, sing some hymn and folk tunes. I started ear training a few weeks after I started to violin, and it took me the entire semester to identify some basic intervals. I still practise the tonalization exercise from the Suzuki book, and playing double stop with an open string. Do I nail the intonation in those exercises? Far from it.

September 10, 2019, 9:27 AM · @Paul Deck: "Sounds like it was not so damaging after all."

No, sir. It wasn't damaging at all. In fact I truly believed it aided her tremendously. But I also believe there is a point where you just need to take it off and truly listen, rather than using it as a crutch.

September 10, 2019, 6:31 PM · "The greats" generally seem to have started on the violin at a very young age indeed. It is therefore a good bet that they'd have little if any recollection of fingerboard tapes, which probably wouldn't have been used (if at all) for more than a small handful of lessons; by which time the little prodigy would doubtless have started on their first Mozart sonata :)
Edited: September 10, 2019, 6:42 PM · My first go at violin in the 70’s - no tapes
My second assault, started 2 y ago, no tapes, and hadn’t heard of them till then.
My violin is a Manby, which was originally built with “frets” notched into the fingerboard which would serve the same purpose . Most , including mine, made roughly 100 y ago in France , have had that fingerboard replaced with a normal one, but you can still find them on eBay, mostly in a sad state, presumably discovered in a house clean out .
September 11, 2019, 10:09 AM · I started in public school group classes and I remember tapes being used. I also remember fellow students in the high school orchestra still relying on tape for basic intonation.
September 11, 2019, 3:29 PM · I started using tapes, but I distinctly remember that I would typically get tapes on the instrument, then slowly remove them as I learned how to use it. When I moved from 3/4 size to 4/4 size, my teacher didn't use any tapes on the full size instrument, so I essentially had to relearn intervals without tapes starting from the age of 12 or so.

Of course, that also means I got my first full size violin, then went through puberty, which was a whole different set of learning challenges.

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