Normal, high, low position - confusion?!

Edited: March 8, 2020, 12:26 PM · Hi all,

I hope you can clear up my confusion. It's hard to describe but I will try.

In learning positions systematically I tried to make a chart, where a position starts and so on (..kind of fingerboard geometry..)...

Very basically things a clear: G-String (A (1st) -> B (2nd) --> C (3rd) ...

But on E-String: Same 1st position on fingerboard would be F# (A/E/B/F#).. the F in 1st position is actually lower and lies in the 1/2 position!

Or another Problem, if I play in F-Major, first position is B-Flat, which is again in 1/2 position or play in A-flat you have a D-Flat, so do you shift on A-String to a D and move the finger lower or would you shift the whole position by a half tone...

In a violin school I read about NORMAL, LOWER and HIGHER position.

So to summarize my question is, where do you shift to, especially in different keys!? Is the position changed with key or is it than just a lower / higher finger?

Thanks a lot for any recommendations

Replies (38)

March 8, 2020, 12:28 PM · If you're asking about finger patterns, my previous teacher gave me a way to learn one for all scales. Start with finger 1 on the tonic, then go up to third finger on the A (D if viola) string and shift up where the 4th finger would be. Do the 4 fingers and then go onto E (A if viola) string and do 1-2-3 then shift on 4th to reach top note. This is how I practise my scales and not done me wrong yet
Edited: March 8, 2020, 1:22 PM · I define my positions by semitone: half = low first, first, low second, high second, third, high third = low fourth etc. The naming will depend on the "spelling" of the notes.

We often do semi-conscious downward semitone shifts as we cross from lower to higher strings, requiring great care in arpeggios (where we only play one or two notes on each string). I prefer all these adjustments to be planned consciously: e.g. marking II-, II+ etc.

Special case: 3 whole tones, setting the 4 fingers thus:
- either 1,2,high3,high4,
- or low1,low2,3,4,
- or even a "three-quarter" position, where the fingers open symmetrically to link e.g. high second position to the left and low second to the right in a smooth motion.

All this can be described as "over-thinking" by those who have long since absorbed such precision.

Edited: March 8, 2020, 1:58 PM · Things like this confused me a year ago.
I think what Julia is asking is, in the case of the A string in the key of Ab, you play the C with the second finger, then do you play the Db with the 2nd finger or the 3rd? It so happens that my favourite fingering of that key involves sliding on the 2nd finger from C to Db. Superficially that looks like you are still in 1st position, but you aren't, you have shifted to 2nd position - continuing on up puts your 1st finger on G on the E string and then Ab with your 2nd finger.
Playing Bb on the A string with your 1st finger is 1st position. It is not 1/2 position unless you play the B with your 2nd finger.
Edited: March 8, 2020, 2:18 PM · If you move your thumb, it's a different position. If you don't, it's not. Okay, that's a very black-and-white theory, but I think it has some merit.

So when you get to F-natural on the E string, you're just kind of reaching your finger back for it a little, then that's still first position. But if you're moving your thumb back because you're going to play not only the F, but afterward a bunch of other "lower" notes like G (or Gb!), Ab, and Bb, that's when I would call it half position.

In terms of your actual playing, one thing that is really good to think about as you finger a tricky passage is if and when you will actually move your thumb and when you will just reach a little or splay your fingers a little differently.

I didn't really learn about all that until I started playing in pit orchestras as a teenager. Broadway shows often have tunes that are in the weirdest keys, but I quickly realized (with some hints from more experienced stand partners) that if I just moved my thumb up and avoided open strings, it would fits pretty well into the hand and I could almost ignore the key signature.

Studies where you have to "shift" in and out of fractional positions are very good for you, especially if you play viola because on the viola the "reaching" is more stressful.

Edited: March 8, 2020, 2:44 PM · The difference between Gordon's and Paul's (and my) definitions i.e. between written and physical positions, has not been clarified in any method I possess.

When my colleague and I had students in the same performance, mine had better B flats and F naturals etc. as they used the physical half position for certain passages. My colleague herself did this too, but had not thought to show it to her students!

Discussing this with the amateurs I now play with shows a similar inexcusable blind spot in much teaching.

March 8, 2020, 3:44 PM · As a student and teacher of the Doflein Method I have learned that there are four "Attitudes" of the hand.

If the key signature is the same as the open string "First Attitude" is used. The half step on the key-signature string and the next higher string is between the second and third fingers and the fourth finger the same as the next higher pitched string.

If the key signature is the same as the note of the first finger on the starting string then Second attitude is used on that string and the next higher string and the half-step is between the third and fourth fingers. The second attitude is used on the next higher pitched string.

Third attitude is where the half-step is between the first and second fingers. Generally when progressing to higher pitched strings, third attitude is used on the next higher pitched string after the two first attitude strings are played. (exmaple: Key of G-major = first attitude on the G and D strings and third attitude on the A and E strings)

When using Second attitude on the primary and next higher string, it is followed by First Attitude on the next higher strings.

Finally there is Fourth Attitude which is where the half step is between the nut and the first finger.

Positions are a whole different matter. Generally, we learn first, third, fifth positions as defined by what note on the string being played. Third position begins with C, G, D and A being stopped by the first finger and assuming that that first finger is the same as the key signature that means you play that key with second attitude adjusted for shorter spaces between notes. The same rule of going from second to first attitude applies as you play on higher pitched strings.

Second and half positions (as well as fourth, sixth,..) are not commonly used except... Second position is useful for B-Flat, Half-position for A and E flat. However, Second can be either B-flat or B-natural, F-natural or F#,...

While pedagogues make a lot of rules the reality is that bare fingerboard strings are highly flexible and the real skill is knowing your basic music theory to figure out where the best hand and finger placement lies and works best for you and your body.

I realize I may have added more confusion but take a moment and look at the fingerboard and visualize where all those notes are and how they are related on to another. These instruments are miraculous. And we non-magical people get to play them.

March 8, 2020, 3:57 PM · This is a deficiency in our technical training, causing intonation problems and wrong notes. The Guitarists have a better system; a different number for each fret, a half-step apart. We can't do that, but we can adapt the Cello system. My way of numbering the positions is: 1/2, 1, 2, 2 1/2, 3, 3 1/2 4, etc. Notice that there is not a 1 1/2 position. I don't care if it notated in flats or sharps. Three out of four standard finger patterns have a perfect fourth between the first and fourth fingers. 1/2 position is whenever the first finger is a 1/2 step above the open string AND the fourth finger is a half-step below the next open string. For the spread-out, 3-whole-step pattern, that is either a first finger extension or a fourth finger extension, and you need to be aware of which one you are doing. An example; A string, 1st finger on C# is 2 1/2 position, not high 2nd. 1st finger on Db is also 2 1/2 position, not low 3rd. This way of thinking puts all the "difficult" flat keys into half position, and C# major is easier in 2nd position.
Edited: March 8, 2020, 5:22 PM · George, has anyone ever accused you of being afflicted with the heartbreak of analysis paralysis? ;-)

If you put up a video of your playing, we can probably figure it out pretty quickly.

March 8, 2020, 5:59 PM · The F natural and the B flat you have described are known to me as the "backward extension". This is where the hand stays in position and the finger extends backwards a semi tone. The backward extension will also be required in other positions, such as G major 2nd position, the first finger plays B and F# on G and D, but extends backwards to play C and G on the A and E.

The finger pattern of the Ab key in first position is the same finger pattern of A natural in first position, but shifted down a semi tone, there is no shifting or extending required with in this pattern. This same finger pattern can also be used to play other keys just by shifting this exact pattern to 2nd pos Bb or B, 3rd pos C or C#, 4th pos D or D#/ Eb, etc...

Edited: March 8, 2020, 6:39 PM · All this about attitudes is just going to give the OP an attitude. Overcomplicating everything.

To answer the OP's actual question, if the entire phrase fits more or less in one position, and you don't have anywhere to go later (don't have to move to a higher or lower position immediately afterwards), then the solution is simple. Just reach! Move the hand, but keep the thumb in place.

It is useful to think of the fingerboard in perfect little blocks a fourth tall and four strings wide when you're first learning, but as I became a better player I realized that it's often much easier to play around positions rather than in them. There's no need to shift everywhere when you can just stretch a finger to hit the note.

Edited: March 8, 2020, 6:55 PM · This is all overcomplication.

There is no such thing as "normal" position. Position numbers are essentially crutches that we use to teach the fingerboard to children who are learning the instrument.

"First position" is our baseline position, where the first finger is generally anchored on (starting from the G string and going to the E string) A-E-B-F# and the 4th finger makes an octave with the 1st finger on the preceding string / is the same as the next string, placed on D-A-E-B. Within that, we can stretch the first finger back a half step, or extend the 4th finger up a half step, also, without leaving the position.

We usually learn a 3rd position baseline, where the first finger is anchored on C-G-D-A. Once again the 4th finger makes an octave with the 1st -- that's the normal "frame of the hand", so the 4th is framed out as F-C-G-D.

And lots of people learn a 5th position baseline, where the first finger is anchored on E-B-F-C, and the 4th octave is framed out the same way. Note that the anchor notes in 5th position are not a fifth apart above; I notated it that way deliberately because most people's frame of reference for 5th position is that way.

We sometimes talk about "half position" where we play the lowered first finger and then the next note up is played with the 2nd finger.

But other than the reference baselines we learn, the notion of "position" is fluid. It's easiest to just think of the fingerboard as a sequence of chromatic (half-step apart) octaves created by the 1st finger on one string and the 4th finger playing the same note on the next string up. Within that, we can stretch the 1st finger down and the 4th finger up beyond that octave frame, and how we get the individual notes within that octave is a matter of convention and convenience. (In highly chromatic music we may use the same finger twice in a row for different notes.)

Advanced players should do scales and arpeggios in octaves, and do one-octave scales within each octave. Beginners don't need to worry about it.

Edited: March 9, 2020, 2:52 AM · "The finger pattern of the Ab key in first position is the same finger pattern of A natural in first position, but shifted down a semi tone, there is no shifting or extending required with in this pattern."

We can do it like this, of course, but I have observed time and time again that with all four fingers curling back, intonation is less reliable than with a semitone backward shift. Especially for those with narrow hands, short fingers, and violas!

Over-thinking? Over-complication? Welcome to the violin!!

March 9, 2020, 3:54 AM · Over-thinking? Over-complication?

You sure have...…

From Ab to A is a change of position, so move your entire hand up a semi-tone, no need for "all four fingers curling back"...!?

Edited: March 9, 2020, 6:39 AM · The first book I had used roman numerals for position, so I merrily pencilled them in everywhere. Then I realised that fingering is more important than position notation, and roman numerals are more useful for indicating which string you are on.
Edited: March 9, 2020, 7:36 AM · "There's no need to shift everywhere when you can just stretch a finger to hit the note."

"Hit the note" maybe, but articulate it and with a suitable vibrato, I'm not so sure..

There is an ineresting pdf comparing Galamian's and Flesch's editions of Bach, Kreutzer etc. Galamian's long fingers favoured extensions, while Flesch's stubby hands preferred cross-string tritones and multiple mini shifts (good on viola!)

BTW Gordon, I referred to going from A major down to A flat major, either curling the fingers or a semitone shift.

March 9, 2020, 6:42 AM · If the high notes are rare enough, extensions can be better than shifting; otherwise position aids orientation and good hand shape and is part of good technique, as far as I can see.
Edited: March 9, 2020, 8:29 AM · Constructive over-thinking? In passages which are too rapid for instant adjustments, we have to over-practice with over-thinking before we can perform without.

So, in a word (or two):
Ab major will be in "low first position", while
G# major will be in "half position".
And physically speaking, they are the same!
I think that answers the OP....

March 9, 2020, 11:40 AM · I agree with those who believe the OP is overthinking the problem. Here is the advantage of teaching positions the way they are usually taught: they make it easier to learn note reading.

As it is we play a c sharp on the A string with the first finger in second position ands d flat with the first finger in third position. It is the same pitch (if we are pedantic it isn't but for the purpose here it is close enough) and we call it third position in one case and second in the other. But: Optically those two notes look one step apart. For beginners it is therefor easier to play them in "different" positions. The system where the first finger plays every flavor (sharp, flat or "neutral") of a, e, b and f is easier for beginners to learn to use than a system with high, low and intermediate positions which sometimes overlap and sometimes don't or a system with positions a half step apart (which is what I thought would be smart when I was a beginner). Note that very often the first finger has to stretch down on some strings and not on others (even in C Major in first position!)--we can not even be in the same position on all four strings if we differentiate too far.

March 9, 2020, 2:20 PM · David,

The most common comment I get is: "You think like an engineer." Sometimes it is a compliment, other times a dig.

The reality is that I love getting lost in the details.

As to videos - don't have the equipment or the desire.

March 9, 2020, 3:34 PM · This is the kind of thing that seems really important at a certain point in your learning violin, but in a few years, you might not really understand the question because you won't be thinking so much about positions. The more you practice different scales the more you will internalize the hand-shape and feeling of each position, and at some point your hand will mostly know what to do, without any thinking, across the whole fingerboard.
March 9, 2020, 3:56 PM · I liked George's post on the attitudes. These "attitudes" as George calls them are also known as finger patterns and are actually fundamental. Primrose wrote an entire scale book on them.
March 9, 2020, 3:59 PM · George, as someone who is also an engineer and likes thinking about things in a systematic way: I think there is a danger in "intellectual" systems that don't really work, or are fragile. (I think given your own level of playing, you might not have encountered literature at the difficulty where those systems really break down badly.)

I think that positions are useful for establishing basic reference points for beginners and early intermediate students. That's why I advocate thinking in terms of octave reference points, and the scale in which that octave is the tonic. That doesn't require thinking about numbers and "position 3.5" or whatever. You're just at the location anchored by Note X and your fingers naturally form the major-scale pattern within the octave frame, and you can place a half-step up or down within that octave frame (you can learn the appropriate spacing by playing a chromatic one-octave scale).

March 9, 2020, 4:19 PM · Lydia, that is indeed how I work with students; but I also had a second year pupil who spotted the B-natural/F-natural-2nd-position-thing and was pleased with my nitpicking!
I only mark my +/-position labels when it helps master a passage, or in transposing exercises for more advanced students.
March 9, 2020, 5:13 PM · the violin is hard to play as it is... after reading some of the theories presented here... it became impossible. Kudos to the authors.
Edited: March 9, 2020, 5:21 PM · I find position numbering isn't terribly helpful to playing outside of 3rd and 4th (i.e. 4th, 5th). Outside of these, it becomes difficult to define "position" aside from a reference point to think about fingerings.

Not even getting into super advanced technique, north of 5th position the way your left hand and elbow are framed begins to really change across strings. You essentially have to "practice a different fingering" for "5th" position on each individual string.

Which position you shift to is going to depend on individual preference, although there are generally rules of thumb to follow.

March 9, 2020, 5:31 PM · I referred to going from A major down to A flat major, either curling the fingers or a semitone shift...…….

All I was trying to say is that Ab major in the first position is the same finger pattern as A major in the first position, and, 'within' that pattern there is no 'shifting' or 'extending' required, thus the Db in Ab major on the A string is played with the same finger position as D is in the A major pattern. And, this same pattern can be repeated 'chromatically' up the fingerboard every time anchoring the first finger on the tonic note, in fact it is a very good exercise. And, of course there is a position shift for each new key. Don't know what this 'curling the fingers' is all about...?

Edited: March 9, 2020, 5:40 PM · .. after reading some of the theories presented here...

And they are all in response to a really basic question...?

March 9, 2020, 6:19 PM · continued;-- another way to demonstrate my point is to do a chromatic scale in parallel 1-4 octaves. The arm and the thumb move for each half-step.
March 9, 2020, 9:21 PM · Hey Julia,

You're right--the most basic finger placements, with "standard" 1 and 3 finger, don't cover all the pitches in common keys. What we generally do, instead of shifting the whole hand to a new position on the fingerboard, is just adjust the fingers to reach back or forward to the needed notes. For that F natural on E, just reach the 1 back to it! (As Cotton said above.) And, *listen!!!* to hear that it's in tune :)

That is the simple answer, and there are some other great ways to think about it, and plenty of technical nuance as you learn further, or reasons to finger things differently as detailed above, but I don't think that's what you're looking for right now :)

(By the way--and possibly part of the confusion in some answers above--may be that generally the phrase "positions" refers to moving the whole hand quite a ways up the fingerboard to higher pitches. And it can also mean sliding down to "1/2 position", which is a real thing, but mostly only relevant if your whole hand is shifting to play flats. But if you just need to adjust a finger or two by a half step to reach the pitch, you do not need to shift your whole hand to change positions--again, just reach!)

Edited: March 10, 2020, 7:46 AM · "And they are all in response to a really basic question...?"

It is not such a "basic question".
Joel and Kathryn are both clear and right.

A good example is a 2 octave scale of B flat in first position:
- E-flat on D-string: a "curled" index;
- B flat on A-string, semitone shift, a "square" index and high 3rd finger for the D (otherwise curled 1,2,&4, with shakier intonation.)
If I had used half position earlier, for the E flat, the pinky would be too extended for comfort

March 10, 2020, 11:03 AM · continued,-- thanks, Adrian. That Bb scale, first octave: If I use open D and open A, I am in 1/2 position. If I use 4th finger D and A I am in first position with a first finger extension. The second octave is in 1/2 position. I also prefer first finger extension to fourth finger extension. Cellists only use first finger extension. On Violin all of our fingers can do extensions and contractions, play multiple notes. The over-lap of our position system and finger-pattern system creates a lot of mental confusion.
Edited: March 11, 2020, 11:14 AM · I just think of position in terms of where my thumb/hand rest and 1st finger as per the key of C starting with A (1st position) on the G string (i.e. a whole position is never set on an accidental, half positions are always on an accidental). The key will define if a finger needs to extend, up or down from the "rest" position. Low or High finger is to me the same as saying semitone vs full tone. Hence a "low" finger is set right against the previous finger, a "high" finger set a distance away.
March 11, 2020, 12:33 PM · Fine, Roger.
Now, what about keys with 4,5,or six sharps? Or flats?
Is the thumb allowed to "give the fingers a hand"?....
March 11, 2020, 12:59 PM · If your brain can stand the strain I think it makes sense to find your optimum fingerings for all the scales/keys.

How you finger bowed string instruments also depends on your "playing" situation. If you mostly study individual pieces long and hard you will work out positions and fingerings and apply them. If most of your playing is "ad hoc" and involves sight reading or very little specific practice you will tend to play from the "integer-numbered positions" and apply extensions --- if you are a violinist!

If you are a cellist you may well have learned to play without even considering position numbers (certainly not above 4th) and have become familiar with "half positions" because, like most humans, your hand is not large enough for the stretches otherwise required.

If you are a violist you will likely be somewhere in between, extending fingers when you can and changing positions slightly when you must -- and there are definitely times when you must.

Whichever instrument you play there will be times when, for artistic reasons (i.e., vibrato, etc.) you will move your hand to play an extended note if there is enough time. But when things are too fast for that, you will have to use your hands and fingers differently - whatever works for you!

March 13, 2020, 12:21 PM · This thread is probably dead, but coincidentally I'm playing the Gigue from Wodicka's Op 1 No 4, and my teacher is very keen on my always shifting and never stretching when using it as an étude at least.
Edited: March 13, 2020, 7:25 PM · In the words of Nicolo Paganini: “There is only one scale and one position.”

Ruggiero Ricci in his book, "The Glissando Technique..." He makes the point that the invention of the chinrest and shoulder pad supposedly made violin playing easier, in fact these devices limited flexibility and increased riskiness in left hand technique because of the necessity of increased shifting.

Now, for those of you who might condemn my comments as being "anti chinrest and anti shoulder pad" this is not the case. It is possible to have these devices on your instrument for even more security, when needed. However, the violin needs to be free to move so the human body is not locked into place in order to follow the violin.

An brief example of playing without shifting is here, double bassist Francois Rabbath:

The following comments will be of little use to the majority of those on this forum, but I include it for the very few who may find it informative.

One of many examples of the same technique is available in the third Paganini caprice. He expanded new possibilities of left hand technique through finger extensions and contractions. In the first 29 measures of the presto the notes range from ½ position through 2nd position. He seems to settle his point in the last note before the repeat when he writes a totally unnecessary doubled B natural in order to show that the range of the left hand on a single string is easily a 5th. In M. 30 he finally has us shift up to a higher place on the fingerboard which we now call 5th position to prepare for the gradual extension downward from C to E, the interval of a 13th and the biggest one in all the caprices. In M.33 it is next to impossible for a hand of normal size and flexibility to reach that distance. It is possible though if you let go of the top C natural in order to extend back to the E and then to jump back (without shifting) to the C. Paganini conveniently gives us the option of an open D string in the next measure which gives just enough time to shift down to first position. Or possibly just to extend back with the wrist to first position without moving the left arm. From M. 34 we creep back through extensions, then from M. 43 all the up to 3rd position in M. 51. Through the use of nonstandard fingerings the whole Presto can be performed with only one true shift in the modern sense. For instance starting in M. 72 the fingering 124234/123432/143212/1 will do the trick.

In order to play this extraordinarily fast find the 2, 3, 4, or more notes where the fingers fall naturally . The hand should be shaped to the notes under the hand in a given key. The extensions will naturally slow you down a bit.

March 15, 2020, 10:23 AM · Bruce, I recently bought this book. I wonder if you find the notes are sufficiently articulated when using the left hand this way.
But then I am principally a violist, where the left fingers need a clear, firm "smack" on the longer, more widely-vibrating stings.

However, many of my slender handed female violist friends use such constant mobility evenwithin the standard "positions".

March 15, 2020, 1:17 PM · Articulation comes from the speed at which the string is sufficiently stopped, not the weight used to do so. And you also get a pop when the finger is lifted from the string at high velocity.

You can really hear this in Nathan Milstein's playing, in descending passages. There's a little ping for each note being popped off.

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