Fingerings and positions in an orchestra
Hello fellow string players!
I play the viola, but I am by no means a professional violist. When playing in an orchestra (professional symphony or philharmonic- mainly) does each string section play its music with the same fingering? I understand that a lot of times just by looking at the musical phrases you can see what fingering would be easiest. I’m just curious in terms of positions and fingering how this is decided. Sorry if it sounds like a newbie sort of question.
Thanks in advance!
I think fingerings can be dictated to you by your section principal if a certain sound is required. Kind of an obvious example, but playing a stopped note instead of an open string, or a higher position instead of a lower one. Also in the case where if half the people play a different fingering then it might not sound clean (although I suspect that is more of an amateur-orchestra issue). If your part comes with fingerings already put in there by your principal then I think you're meant to respect those. But otherwise I think the decision about whether to play A# with a high 4 or a low 1 is up to each player because everyone has different hands and physiques and especially with viola, even different sized instruments. If the fingerings are printed in the edition, then it's hard to know if your principal meant to keep those or just ignored them (at least in my limited experience in amateur orchestras) but in that case you can inquire of your principal. In my orchestra I share a stand with our principal violist. She's less than half my age but she's definitely a better violist. We discuss fingerings quite a bit because with viola parts they can be really awkward. I am always trying to make things easier by shifting into half-position or second-position, but she's just more skilled and more able to just dog it out in first position.
I have a feeling it could depend on the orchestra, but I have never seen totally uniformed fingerings, unless its a musical reasoning, or indicated in the piece.
I really appreciate the responses that I’m getting. Didn’t expect them this fast! Haha. I played in a community orchestra setting so no one really played the same fingerings (mind you there was only a few of us violists).
Absolutely not, and it would be impractical. The only times I have ever seen any fingerings dictated (and the only times I have ever dictated fingerings as a principal violist) have been instructions to either use or not use an open string, or play a passage on a lower string. Even then, except for open strings, plenty of discretion is left to the individual player.
In general, directives on fingering are limited to four things:
I rarely use the same fingering as my stand partner for longer than a few measures -- I can't, when I play viola and my glove size is XS. My fingerings are the exact opposite extreme from Lydia's and give people heartburn for the exact opposite reasons: lots of shifts, very little use of 4th finger even in its "normal" placement.
Awesome, this is great information. Very insightful for someone who hasn’t played in a professional symphony orchestra.
Colton - you're quite right, that ideally everyone should use the same fingering in order for the phrase to sound the same across the entire section. But having spent at least a year of my life sitting in amateur orchestras I can't remember a single instance of being told to use a certain fingering apart from the circumstances Lydia mentions. We can spend so long getting the fingering "just right" in solo pieces, maybe this is a practice that elite orchestras ought to adopt!
“We can spend so long getting the fingering "just right" in solo pieces, maybe this is a practice that elite orchestras ought to adopt!“
Steve, we spend a lot of time getting the fingering just right
Andrew - I never pay the slightest attention to anyone else's fingerings! What I'm suggesting is that if an autocratic conductor seriously wants a string section to sound homogeneous they might insist on uniform fingering as well as bowing. But I can understand why this could be unpopular with the players...
Bowings are another matter altogether because there is a visual aesthetic that one strives for -- all the bows rising and falling together in an orchestra or at least, say, the string sections individually. It looks like c-r-a-p when it's all random.
Except, no, uniform fingering would not result in a homogeneous sound. People have very different hands.
Too funny, Steve. First thing that comes to mind when I think of an autocratic conductor would be Herbert Karajan. I could easily have seen him being like this! (Yes, I’m sure I’m probably wrong, everyone, so please don’t bite my head off! Haha).
I have been in a community orch for 20 years and have never had anyone try to specify a fingering in any context. Bowings are a different story entirely; their are subject to direction by the conductor or section leader.
It's so elegant when the bowing is all uniform. Trouble is, I've seen cellists sway from side to side but not in unison, and that spoils everything!
They really should teach in-phase cello-swaying in conservatoire. First step is to watch some ZZ Top videos.
I'll note that the fingerings that you use for concertos and other solo music will generally not be the fingerings that you use in an orchestra section.
I agree with Lydia’s pro friends about optimizing fingerings. A frequent motto is, “First position is my friend.” Maybe a bit of an exaggeration but I prefer to avoid excessively fancy fingerings.
Lydia's totally correct (of course)
I have occasionally had a conductor ask that fingerings be standardized, but mostly people do what they want. But I have noticed that the better the orchestra, the more they all use the same fingerings intuitively, because those are the ones that make the most sense.
I find it a bit interesting how little I use 5th position in orchestras, even though I learned positions in the same order as Julie. Somehow I use 4th, 6th, and 7th more often than 5th. But for me the reason is probably my short 4th finger. I often get into 4th position by crawling, most commonly extending my 3rd finger from 3rd position because it's more comfortable than using my 4th finger.
Harmonics are always written. If you don't see it written as a harmonic, don't play it as one.
Hi Samwit! Nice to see you here.
I also think of harmonics as equivalent to open strings. As fast passing notes, open strings and harmonics are legal, and can solve some technical problems. Older editions show more harmonics and open strings, but of course, the strings were straight gut.
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