Absolute beginner starting violin at third position.

February 3, 2021, 10:01 AM · I myself am learning third position using the Doflein method book three. In some of my research for practice third position repertoire I read that some teachers, way back before Suzuki became “the standard”, used to start off violin beginners from the third position. I think that might have been a good idea since it brings the fourth finger into heavy use right away and the finger stretches would be easier.

Did anyone here start in third? Would you have started in third it if you had the choice and the knowledge you have now? Can anyone recommend a teaching method book that starts off in third position.

Replies (31)

February 3, 2021, 10:58 AM · Checking your profile it looks like you were an "absolute beginner" 5 years ago. So, how has it been going for you?

Your previous experience on other instruments might have prepared you for position work on violin. I was start conventionally in 1st as a tiny kid and stayed there quite a wile. Ten years later when I took up cello one day I was 1st and 4th position by lunch time, etc. Real cello lessons started a month later, by which time I had played cello in a string quartet and became a charter member of the local community orchestra. -So, I don't doubt it can be done.

However, from a physical standpoint playing violin is more difficult, complex and taxing than cello.

February 3, 2021, 11:58 AM · Hi Andrew. I was hoping you would weigh in. I think I will always be in the beginner category especially as it is defined by others on this site ie. What level classical repertoire are you playing? Getting into third position has lead me to the question on why it took so long to get here. I went by the syllabus of study Doflein laid out. I figured I didn’t have any expertise to question that. But I wish I had.

My initial aspirations were these: get good enough so that I can sight read most fiddle tunes (always 1st position) and Irish session tunes plus some bluegrass. I’m mostly there but am having trouble learning tunes strictly by ear so that is a work in progress.

Despite my late start I view learning and getting better as a significant goal so I keep at the Doflein method but without a teacher which is obviously not contributing to rapid progress. In some ways learning violin starting at 58 is a way to keep challenging my brain matter. I like the classical material but consider it out of my reach but who knows, maybe if I can get comfortable in positions playing in a community orchestra is within grasp. That would be awesome.

February 3, 2021, 11:58 AM · My first two years of lessons were with the Laoureux method, which starts in first position. Leopold Mozart's method begins in first position. Baillot's method starts in first position. I don't think you can pin any of this on Suzuki.
Edited: February 3, 2021, 12:13 PM · I've never heard of anybody starting out in third position. It doesn't seem to make sense for many reasons.

I too am now getting comfortable with third position. We're using some of the Suzuki curriculum plus Whistler's Volume 1 and the Kayser etudes. I'm learning by the Galamian method as my teacher was a student of Sally Thomas.

The secret of third position seems to be shifting exercises from one finger to another. And for me, making finger charts of the spacings required by different keys.

Edited: February 3, 2021, 5:26 PM · Ann, I think he meant he's absolute beginner in third position.

There's a method for learning third position? Of course there is... I always find the method talk funny.
My method, besides a couple of personal shifting exercises, is called: D major scale two octaves, Kuchler's D Major Concertino Vivaldi Style, then Vivaldi A minor with Kreutzer Etude nº2. That's your third position starter and advanced pack.
I wonder what teachers have time for methods with two 45 min. lessons a week with and lazy students. That's probably the reason why you're playing for 5 years and still an "absolute beginner".

Edited: February 3, 2021, 1:00 PM · Third position is an excellent place to practice hand vibrato (what we used to call "wrist vibrato"), but being able to move between positions is the real challenge. (4th position is the cellist's equivalent of the violinist's 3rd position.)

If you can play first and third positions you can essentially cover an octave on every string and have flexibility for most folk and Baroque music.

Starting violin at 58 is bound to be a physical challenge and there is no doubt that it is more difficult to develop the autonomous responses to printed music and other external stimuli that one might carry from childhood study. I think if you keep at it you will continue to progress.

Personally I liked the technical progression of the Susuki books - at least when I started to use them with students in the 1970s (the books are different now and I am not familiar with them). When I decided to get serious about viola playing 6 years ago (when I was only 80), I bought the Suzuki viola books (4 - 7, that's as far as it went then) and went through one a day that week to see where my problems would be.

You asked me what I am playing now --- I am mostly playing the stuff (salon pieces) I played in my very early teens. I really can't do the concertos any longer and Bach's Chaconne is now out of the question too. In string quartet I would most likely stick to 2nd violin, viola or cello - but I have been able to handle most of the first violin parts in our chamber orchestra (Oh Yeah! That was a year ago! I hope we soon see what this "break year" has done to me and it).

There is still some more distance for me to fall before there is none left.

February 3, 2021, 1:00 PM · I just found this. It is not what I was referring to in the op paragraph but it is pertinent to the discussion topic I think.

A Comparison of First and Third Position Approaches to Violin Instruction
Robert L. Cowden
Journal of Research in Music Education
Vol. 20, No. 4 (Winter, 1972), pp. 505-509 (5 pages)
Published By: Sage Publications, Inc.

February 3, 2021, 1:23 PM · I really hope this does not devolve into a Suzuki pro/con discussion. I like the Suzuki repertoire and have the first two books for material. You have to admit that if someone in the violin world asks “what book are you on?” - the method is understood to be Suzuki, further clarification is not necessary. I’m ok with that.

As to why use a method series? It because they give a selection of graded and progressive material that the non-lazy beginner can practice on and aspire to play. There are lots of highly motivated adults learning to play violin. We can’t find willing teachers but that’s another topic.

February 3, 2021, 2:56 PM · Colourstrings method, which is takes its lead from kodaly, starts off in positions. The first step after open strings is 'magic notes or harmonics in different spots.

I've used it on a few students now and found it works well for young kids if their first instrument is violin/viola/cello. Not so great if they can already read music - sassmanhaus seems to fill that gap nicely cause it also works with kodalys sol-fa approach and introduces 2nd then 4th finger to make a lovely hand shape while practicing intervals.

The two hardest things for me are 4th finger and positions, and learning them early in colourstrings seems to make them a non issue for the kids I've taken through the first couple of books. I'm not sure what their teachers think once they've moved on from me though...

Edited: February 3, 2021, 5:29 PM · My teacher started me in 1st position and we didn't start in Suzuki - though we did eventually go there after he taught me to read music.

I would not have wanted to have started in 3rd position, not at all.

February 3, 2021, 5:26 PM · Starting in 3rd position makes no sense at all to me, never heard of it.
February 3, 2021, 5:38 PM · Greetings,
I guess it can be ok depending on the teacher.
To my mind, a more important point is to start on the second finger rather than the first which is usual. Done well, I think this eliminates a slew of basic hand position and usage problems.
February 3, 2021, 6:11 PM · This issue has come up before on violinist.com. There's no real problem with starting off in third position, but the thing about "minority" methods like that (and I would guess fewer than 1% of all students start in 3rd position these days) is that you'll have more trouble finding people who have done that and can advise you within the context of your specific path. One nice thing about playing an open string once in a while is that it's really glaringly obvious if your hand position has drifted at all. Of course you can tell that from the resonances in third position too, but it's more subtle if you have not trained your ear (yet) to hear that.

Suzuki has a very nice progression of pieces. Third position usually starts in Book 3.

Edited: February 3, 2021, 6:55 PM · Hi David. I see you went back and edited your first post above. You somehow felt the need to disparage my (to you) slow progress at learning the violin and brand me as a lazy student. Why did you do that? I see your bio states that you went to Portuguese Catholic University and hold a Master's degree in Music Teaching. You are a teacher. Is this the way you were taught to interact with learners at a Catholic school?

You have no idea about what I have gone through, how many immediate family members (four) I have had to watch suffer and finally bury over the last two years and that I’m currently the 24/7 caregiver for my wife’s 90 year old mother who is recovering from a significant stroke and leg injury. I’ve been slightly distracted with life and more than my share of death so my practice time has been precious. I’m not on your schedule. I do it for fun and distraction from my other priorities. You have a lot of nerve!

February 3, 2021, 6:39 PM · I've heard of people advocating starting in third position. I didn't learn that way, but I wonder if it has particular merit for certain students. I have small hands, so I am more comfortable in third position than first on both violin and viola.
Edited: February 3, 2021, 7:23 PM · James, I went back because I thought you were only talking about third position when saying "absolute beginner".
Oh sorry, I never intended to label you as lazy student, I wasn't referring to you a tall, I was talking in general. There's just no time for method books. Maybe an exception could be those dedicated music schools where you have all the other subjects in the morning (english, math, science, etc.) and violin lessons almost every afternoon of the week, there you can have time to burn with methods for very single thing. But I've always taught at a regular school, so from my understanding and experience, not practical at all.
Edited: February 3, 2021, 6:59 PM · I’m wondering if it was a way to start off children on a full sized violin (or at least a too large fractional) in the days before small fractionals were easily available.
Edited: February 3, 2021, 7:08 PM · David, I meant I have never heard of anyone starting in third position, meaning a method that starts in third. That's all. Sometimes I find your posts slightly snarky but maybe there's a language barrier.
February 3, 2021, 7:09 PM · Mary Ellen, That's a good thought!
Edited: February 3, 2021, 7:46 PM · Ann, I got what you said, no method starting in the third position. And I added that it wouldn't make any sense imo... I doubt that it could for most people. But with all the things I've seen... I wouldn't be surprised if someone decided to start teaching on the fifth position, why not. These days people come up with theories to support almost anything.
I've seen students learning theory for three years who can't even identify the notes on the sheet music, because "they don't know them but they feel them, and by feeling them they know them" :) It goes without saying that those students also can't identify any intervals, modes, keys, etc. After this, anything is possible. The same can be applied to instrument teachers, like violin teachers, surely "innovative teachers" can be found around the world.
February 3, 2021, 7:17 PM · James, Music is a great way to unwind from the terrible things that happen to us in life. I am struggling with a serious illness with a drug treatment that affects my vision, coordination, and memory. I get around this by having a teacher who is very relaxed and not treating me like Juilliard material. Thank God I'm retired.
February 3, 2021, 7:47 PM · ‘I wonder what teachers have time for methods with two 45 min. lessons a week with and lazy students. That's probably the reason why you're playing for 5 years and still an "absolute beginner".”

David’s post is quoted above - you edited the post to add the last sentence which is clearly aimed at me and not just a general comment like your first sentence was. I’ll take it as a language barrier issue and leave it at that. Your apology is accepted and appreciated. Peace.

Maybe it is also a language misunderstanding but your posts seem to state that you are against violin teachers utilizing any method (Suzuki, Doflein etc.) except in a school setting. Is this correct?

To clarify - I have gone through books one and two of Doflein which is all first position instruction. I am starting to learn third position. I was just curious if anyone here had begun their violin instruction journey at third position and if you did, what were your experiences and what method book or instructional material did you use.

Edited: February 3, 2021, 8:05 PM · Hi James,

I don't know why you seem to be getting flack - I don't find your thesis all that crazy. I probably started in 1st position, and I'll have to ask my teacher how she does it.

My hunch is that a sensible approach where the teacher has a way of guiding the student into the position (check 2nd finger with open e?) reliably would work fine, and that the benefit of having the smaller spacing could be useful for someone (1st position and 1/2 position are decidedly NOT comfortable if your hands aren't big). I can't imagine a scenario where this would be the dealbreaker for someone learning violin.

So, remembering that this topic has been discussed here before, but not remembering the particulars, check this thread out - A number of people with experience aren't scandalized by the idea, regardless of the assurance presented in this thread by at least one confident poster.


Edited: February 3, 2021, 8:18 PM · greetings,
Milstein preferred the lower positions so maybe just pretend you are him. I don’t really care where I am on the fingerboard as long as the sound has an inner beauty and truth. That is a good goal for anyone of any level.
Edited: February 4, 2021, 7:01 AM · James, yeah aimed at you or your teacher, the method part, not the lazy one. With the regular two 45 min. lessons a week, even not lazy students will have a hard time moving forward if going through method books for third position, I imagine also for other positions, vibrato, trills, bowings... How do they get any repertoire done? But again, I'm talking in general. I think it's a teacher's job to be able to teach those things through more comprehensive etudes and Concertos, pieces.
February 4, 2021, 9:49 AM · Christian. What an informative and on topic link! Thank you. I did a search before posting but I didn’t include blogs I guess so I didn’t find that. I encourage those interested in the topic to read it.

Two new takeaways I got was that for some, third position becomes the “home” position and they shift to first or other positions as demanded by the music but try and remain on third. That is interesting.

Another was to introduce third very early in the learning process before first becomes too ingrained. I experienced this myself, spending all that time (years) at first position made the transition to third very difficult. My sight reading - muscle memory link was fighting me making the transition since using a different finger was required. I liken it to a computer user who moves the mouse from the right hand to the left side of the keyboard. You know what to do but the mouse -curser movement and which button to press becomes confusing. I am overcoming my muscle memory issue by only playing in third for weeks straight.

Edited: February 4, 2021, 10:22 AM · It may be a function of the repertoire, a natural tendency, or maybe just a reflection of historical performance practices, but 3rd position becomes a pretty natural alternative to 1st - Perhaps someone with a degree in topology could figure out that if you had just two positions to choose from, you'd get the most bang for your buck using 1st and 3rd.

And that's the tendency among learners - Most starting with 1st, then adding 3rd, and the shifting between. Which leaves a gap with 2nd and 4th, and there is a reason that you start seeing etudes written specifically for 2nd position or 4th position later on - Teachers probably identified the aforementioned tendency for students to be stuck between 1st and 3rd. Being able to operate with 2nd position, which at first is a little awkward, becomes indispensable, because it opens up not only a lot of paths for fingerings and phrasings that are more musical, but it introduces a greater variety of shifts, as shifts between adjacent positions can actually be a little tricky (this may really only be because the shifts skipping a position get practiced more, but I wonder if it has more to do with how all the finger-spacing needs to adjust).

So once you can more freely shift between both adjacent and non-adjacent positions, it gives you a taste for not thinking so much in terms of static positions, and being able to shift freely in general. And 4th position, which can actually be pretty comfy, is a gateway to playing higher up on the fingerboard, where the requirements of finger pressure and handshape in the left hand, and soundpoint in the right hand start to change.

If you want something a little more formal to practice on, grab the Schradieck book, which has little exercises that are graduated in difficulty, and start off in the various positions without shifting, and then start to have little exercises with shifting in between positions. Of course, the first two or three pages in 1st position are the key to the whole book. With Schradieck (as with anything on violin really), if you aren't completely and totally relaxed, you may actually be digging yourself into a hole.

February 4, 2021, 10:36 AM · I have started only one student at 3rd position, because her only violin was too large for her at the time. It would be mentally confusing. It would be inconvenient to use the open strings as part of a melody and as an intonation check.
My order for learning positions is rather conventional: 1st, half, 3rd, 2nd (both versions), 5th, 4th, 6,7,.. higher than that the position concept starts to break down.
Edited: February 4, 2021, 2:39 PM · This was actually a big deal when I was young (late 60s /early 70s) and many people found it an interesting idea. The argument was that third position was more comfortable for the hand and even small hands would not have to stretch overly for the beginning (I don't remember the thing about using larger instruments). This is undoubtedly true but the disadvantages are easy to spot and have already been mentioned in this thread.

I have never met anyone who was started in 3rd position though such guinea pigs must have existed and most of them would be expected to be alive today.

I think it is possible that the success of Suzuki's method and materials put the idea out of its misery.

February 4, 2021, 3:23 PM · James gave us the reference going back almost 50 years.
February 4, 2021, 6:56 PM · Dear James,
your last comment about ‘using a different finger is required’ makes me think that if you were my student I would suggest you forget about positions and switch your focus to finger patterns. There is a book by Robert Gerle about this which is still in print. Alternatively, buy a copy of Simon Fischer’s scale manual (which I suspect you need anyway) . The point about the four basic spacings of the fingers is that they very quickly become second nature.( You can even practice them away way the instrument just by telling your fingers what to do! ‘ok. Give pattern 1. Stat!) Then you can try color coding music if that suits your style or not. But , we begin to automatically recognize these patterns , first within scales then simple studies and repertoire. Once the patterns are clear you could practice the Galamian two octave scale exercise across all four strings thinking only about finger patterns not position.Thinking about positions becomes, for the most part redundant. My gut feeling is this kind of approach could help you move forward. BTW I found this quote today. I love it!

Aikido instructor George Leonard on mastery:
?"How long will it take me to master Aikido?" a prospective student asks.
"How long do you expect to live?" is the only respectable response.
Ultimately, practice is the path of mastery. If you stay on it long enough, you’ll find it to be a vivid place, with its ups and downs, is challenges and comforts, its surprises, disappointments, and unconditional joys. You’ll take your share of bumps and bruises while traveling – bruises of the ego as well as of the body, mind and spirit – but it might well turn out to be the most reliable thing in your life. Then, too, it might eventually make you a winner in your chosen field, if that’s what you’re looking for, and then people will refer to you as a master. But that’s not really the point.
What is mastery? At the heart of it, mastery is practice. Mastery is staying on the path."

If you every want to just skype and have a chat let me know.

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