Fingerings and positions in an orchestra

June 5, 2020, 2:45 PM · 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!

-Colton

Replies (27)

June 5, 2020, 2:49 PM · Nope.
There are exceptions of course with passages a leader wants on one string. This summer my conductor asked for a octave shift instead of staying in a higher position, but that was for purely musical reasons. I often use different fingerings than my stand partner but in the end it’s about blending sound.
Edited: June 5, 2020, 3:04 PM · 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.
June 5, 2020, 2:52 PM · 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.

For viola, my stand partner and I often have different fingerings, because our hands and violas are different, and we move around the instruments differently! She relies on 2nd position quite a lot, because her hands are quite small, whereas I don't necessarily need that.

June 5, 2020, 3:05 PM · 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).
Edited: June 5, 2020, 5:43 PM · 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.

There is even a common orchestral convention for writing in fingerings if needed: outside player should write fingerings above the note and inside player should write them below the note, so as to avoid confusion when the two are using different fingerings.

June 5, 2020, 4:10 PM · In general, directives on fingering are limited to four things:

1. What string to play on for uniform tone color in a passage -- most commonly, it will be "sul G" (all on the G string).

2. An instruction not to use the open string.

3. Portamento on a certain note, or conversely, an instruction to make sure that any shift is inaudible.

4. Use of a harmonic, or directive not to use a harmonic.

These may come from the conductor, concertmaster, or a section leader. Broadly you should strive to blend your sound with your section and with your stand partner.

Fingering is a very personal choice, otherwise. I use a lot of extensions, and to prefer a few big shifts to a bunch of small shifts. My fingerings give everyone else in my section heartburn.

Edited: June 5, 2020, 5:21 PM · 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.
Edited: June 5, 2020, 6:14 PM · Awesome, this is great information. Very insightful for someone who hasn’t played in a professional symphony orchestra.
I know that playing phrases in certain positions will completely change the tone and character the music is written in. It makes sense though that not everyone has to follow one particular fingering, as what may be easy and doable for some will be a great challenge for others.

Thanks for all the feedback!

June 6, 2020, 12:56 AM · 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!
June 6, 2020, 1:01 AM · “We can spend so long getting the fingering "just right" in solo pieces, maybe this is a practice that elite orchestras ought to adopt!“

No.

Lydia is correct about the only circumstances under which a fingering may be dictated. Otherwise musicians are trusted to be professional and choose fingerings which suit individual needs while producing the desired sound.

June 6, 2020, 6:02 AM · Steve, we spend a lot of time getting the fingering just right for ourselves in solo pieces. We do not all play a given piece with the exact same fingerings. Have you never changed the fingering in the process of learning a piece? Have you always taken someone else's fingerings note-for-note?
Edited: June 6, 2020, 6:36 AM · 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...
Edited: June 6, 2020, 7:42 AM · 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.

About finding "ideal" fingerings for a piece that will work for a whole section of violinists is not happening. Just think about why we have at least 10 editions of the major repertoire pieces to choose from: Because nobody, not even top pros entrusted to edit these important works, can agree on the fingerings (or the bowings). Just how many discussions have we had here where people say this or that edition of the Bach S&P is terrible because of the fingerings.

June 6, 2020, 12:54 PM · Except, no, uniform fingering would not result in a homogeneous sound. People have very different hands.
Edited: June 6, 2020, 3:14 PM · 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).
June 7, 2020, 7:41 AM · 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.
June 7, 2020, 9:23 AM · 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!
Edited: June 7, 2020, 1:45 PM · They really should teach in-phase cello-swaying in conservatoire. First step is to watch some ZZ Top videos.
June 8, 2020, 12:45 AM · 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.

If you're playing solo, for instance, you are more likely to use riskier fingerings that are better artistically -- for instance, to keep a phrase entirely on the same string in order to avoid a color change mid-phrase, or at least to be thoughtful about where you allow that color change to occur.

In orchestras, even elite orchestras, convenience and safety trump that kind of consideration, every time. (Pros have told me, "Sure, that fingering is great if you're solo, and you're not missing your shifts so it obviously works for you, but it's risky. Do the easy thing when you can.") Optimize, in other words, for less practice time.

June 8, 2020, 1:16 AM · 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.
June 8, 2020, 3:48 PM · Lydia's totally correct (of course)
Instructions from the front are not dictating fingerings, but styles.
Do this on the G string, do it on the A, use a harmonic (or not) etc.
June 8, 2020, 8:58 PM · 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.

Personally, I've found that 1st and 4th positions are the most useful in orchestral playing, which is opposite to how I was trained- 1st, 3rd, 2nd, 5th, everything else.

Edited: June 9, 2020, 1:28 AM · 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.
June 17, 2020, 5:50 PM · Hello!

I have a related question.

Are harmonics usually written in the sheet music, or does the performer choose when to use them? Does everybody in the orchestra use the same harmonics?

June 17, 2020, 8:44 PM · Harmonics are always written. If you don't see it written as a harmonic, don't play it as one.

(That said, when I was a less proficient player than I am now, I sometimes cheated and used the first harmonic to ensure good intonation in community orchestras.)

June 17, 2020, 9:07 PM · Hi Samwit! Nice to see you here.

Harmonics will be written into orchestra music when the composer wants a particular effect. (Some not-great editions might note harmonics for convenience, but this is less common.) Otherwise, the concertmaster or section leader (or on occasion, the conductor) will note when they want a harmonic -- or if something which is written as a harmonic should be played as a solid note.

In solo music, harmonics will usually indicate a desired effect, although again, not-great editions may show inappropriate harmonics. Soloists may choose to use harmonics where they aren't written in order to get the effect. In virtuosic solo music (notably some Paganini, such as Caprice #5) there will also be the use of passing harmonics in extremely fast arpeggiation, which indicate the use of the open string which at fast enough tempo will sound at the higher octave.

June 17, 2020, 11:16 PM · 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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