Sight reading

Edited: January 9, 2020, 10:07 AM · I mean real sight reading - playing a piece for the first time ever. On CG forums you get people who think sight reading means playing from music rather than memory, so forgive me if I've been flippant about the subject before.

I have had plenty of experience sight reading piano music, but it occurred to me that the violin has one crucial difference - choosing what position to play in. For this alone then, what materials can you recommend?

[added: and perhaps another important difference is open strings vs the pinky]

Replies (13)

January 9, 2020, 9:57 AM · I find it's really just like piano in that sense. If the part isn't fingered, then you're fingering it on the fly, and you just develop a sense for that, and it involves looking ahead a little. I don't know that there's a silver-bullet kind of solution to getting better at it other than just doing it (a lot). Second-violin parts of string quartets are good for this because (at least in my experience) they do not "fit the hand" as predictably as the first-violin parts.
January 9, 2020, 10:08 AM · If it's just about experience, that's fine by me. Sometimes materials can just be clutter.
Edited: January 9, 2020, 10:12 AM · Try to play without over-committing the hand. Thus, playing in third position as much as you can allows you to reach 'surprise' notes much faster than in first. 2nd is great too if you are good at it because by reaching down to first you have continuous cover of 12 or 13 semitones on each string!
January 9, 2020, 10:44 AM · Within a position, interval mastery helps. Knowing the actual distance between the notes, regardless of how it is notated. The same idea for shifting. It is very helpful to know the interval distance between the positions.
January 9, 2020, 11:09 AM · Sticking to 3rd (or 2nd) position is very interesting, thanks. When I started with the orchestra in September I was surprised that third position seemed to be almost the norm rather than simply something common.
January 9, 2020, 11:09 AM · I agree with Joel. Being able to look at two notes and to know instantly that it's a third or a fourth or whatever, and how that plays out in the logic of the violin fingerboard, is very useful.

The other thing is that being able to shift ("crawl") around among the lower positions is a skill that some people had emphasized in their training (for example, Dont and Schradieck studies), whereas others were taught to play as much as they possibly could in odd-numbered positions (especially third position) because that tends to keep finger spacings more uniform in typical diatonic passage work. The downside, of course, is that a shift of two positions at a time is intrinsically harder than a shift of one. When my daughter was having lessons, I noticed that her teacher would often re-finger her editions (for example solo Bach, and sometimes even studies) so that there was a lot more crawling, and he emphasized the placement of same-finger shifts (1-1, 2-2, etc.) on half-steps as a fundamental principal of fingering. So if that kind of thinking is ingrained into your playing from your early tutelage, then you can apply it while sight reading. If you've been taught to aim for odd-numbered positions, then that's what you're going to do when you sight read.

January 10, 2020, 4:52 AM · If you are a good sight reader on the piano you have all the important skills in abundance. All you need to do is take your violin and play. You'll soon see that most of the time it is quite obvious which position to choose. I know many more good string sight readers than piano sight readers because on the piano sight reading is more difficult.

I disagree with the idea of using the third position as a home base. I suggest first position. Otherwise you sacrifice the possibility to use open strings. Anyhow violins sound best in first position.

January 10, 2020, 4:03 PM · I think the study of "how to change positions" will provide all the options of "choosing what position to play in"...
January 10, 2020, 7:01 PM · From what I was taught, if you do Baroque, it is ok to use open strings. For Romantic pieces, you try to avoid open strings.

When I was learning Bach S&P with my teacher, I did a lot of 2nd and 3rd positions, in addition to doing 1st positions and open strings. The 2nd and 3rd positions allowed me to avoid having to do a lot of string crossing. When I was learning Bruch, I avoided open strings to give me more nuance, and also allow vibrato when needed.

Playing scales also helped me a lot because it helped me instinctively know how a key is supposed to sound like. It therefore made it easier for me to be in tune.

When looking at a piece for the first time, I always look at the key and time signatures, then choose whatever fingering instinctively comes to mind based on the things that I've learned, while at the same time trying to read 2 notes ahead. Once I get the gist of what I am playing, then I make modifications on my fingering depending on how I want the piece to sound like.

Edited: January 10, 2020, 8:36 PM · With the benefit experience, I tend to instinctively see certain cues to play in a certain position. Certain patterns jump out at me. Lines that are entirely contained within a fourth or an octave may suggest a hand frame, or the bottom note of an arpeggiated figure can often be played with the 1st finger, any note a half-step above or below an open string suggests a passage in either half position or 2nd position, etc. It has become so automatic that, in orchestral music, I more often write in fingerings to remind myself not to shift than to cue a shift.

I notice that violists are more likely to crawl-shift, and violinists are more likely to stick largely to odd-numbered positions. (Of course this is only an overall tendency.) I think this is because violists have a harder time with extensions and sometimes with using the 4th finger on the lower string in string-crossing passages.

In orchestral viola parts, I think I'd roughly estimate my time spent in each position as follows:

Half: 10%
1st: 30%
2nd: 20%
3rd: 25%
4th and higher: 15%

I think I use 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th almost equally, and I don't find the distinction between positions all that meaningful beyond 5th position because there is so much crawl-shifting needed and because I use 3rd finger rather than 4th finger extensions above 5th position.

Edited: January 11, 2020, 4:53 AM · And then again, high positions on the E string are arguably not real position playing. I see studies which claim to involve 7th position and all it is is two final high notes on the E string. Playing in 7th on all four strings is a totally different ball game.
Edited: January 11, 2020, 9:07 AM · Since you mention it, making the shifts between strings in any position is critical to high-fingerboard sight reading - to avoid constant scrambles up and down.. Recognizing a fifth is the way to start - where you use the same finger on the neighbouring string (with the catch of Bb/F B/F#). Once that is instinctive you start recognizing 6ths and 7ths as well. At that point reading high passages starts to become automatic.
January 11, 2020, 11:38 AM · On the second half of the E string the position system and the fingering system breaks down. Everyone needs to work out their own system up there. Examples; my 4th finger is short, so the third finger actually reaches farther than the 4th. The half steps are a lot smaller than the width of my fingers.

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