Adult beginner Dorian fingering difficulty

February 8, 2021, 7:28 AM · Hello good people!

Let me briefly introduce myself: I'm almost 50 and I'm trying to teach myself violin... pause...
OK, I've waited until you stopped laughing (for a good reason, trust me I know it) and now I want to hear your opinion on what could be the reason for my difficulty fingering the Dorian tetrachord.

Let me explain what I mean and I want to keep it simple for the purpose of clarity (as much as my English allows me). Below I'm talking about keeping all fingers down, pressing(and lifting) them in turn.

- When I finger 4 of the 5 common fundamental tetrachords, namely Ionian, Phrygian, Lydian + Locrian in the first position - they are all fine and easy on my fingers.
- For instance, Ionian on the A string (WS = Whole step, HS = Half step):
Open A - WS - B(Finger_1) - WS - C#(Finger_2) - HS - D(Finger_3) - WS E(Finger_4)

The above Ionian fingering position comes to me naturally with the straight foream-wrist, no tension, nice and easy.

However once I finger Dorian on the same A string and there is an HS between my Finger_1 and Finger_2 and a WS between my Finger_2 and Finger_3 I'm in trouble.

In this fingering layout I have to really start manipulating my fingers to get them on the right notes:
Finger_2 while positioned next to Finger_1 in a half step distance (B-C) pulls with it Finfer_3 and I have to make considerable effort to separate it from Finger_2 to put in down on the D note.
What is worse, when I do put my Finger_3 on D it begins to pull with it Finger_2 from the C note position so when I go back to C Finger_2 is already in the C# position.

Is it my age or what?
I've seen couple other threads on the similar subjects but I didn't get anything from reading them.

In those threads it was suggested to:
- Not to call a WS between the 2nd and 3rd fingers in the first position a "stretch" (But it DOES feel like a stretch to me!)
- Reposition ones hand to make that "stretch" easier. But I really have no room to adjust my relatively small hands and fingers. Once I start changing the shape my wrist begins to bend outward...
- Grab a baseball and see how fingers are naturally separated. Yes! - Indeed - But the violin neck is not a ball, it's a "bar" and the analogy is rather far fetched.

Any suggestions?

Replies (34)

February 8, 2021, 8:44 AM · Despite a degree in music, I barely understood your post! I think if you are a beginner, getting bogged down in modal scales is probably not the first thing on a priority list to do on the violin. Might I suggest more focus on the standard major and minor scales first?
Edited: February 8, 2021, 9:51 AM · Sergio,
If I ever doubted that SUZUKI and/or the Suzuki books were good paths into violin playing (and I did prior to the 1970s) your query has reassured me. One note at a time, one key at a time - even if you learn a book a day or a book an hour - or a book a year. SLOW & STEADY - one finger at a time for starters.
February 8, 2021, 9:26 AM · I agree with both James and Andrew, one step, one key, one piece at a time. I returned to the violin just over two years ago and, thankfully, my teacher keeps me from going down rabbit holes like this ;-)
February 8, 2021, 10:15 AM · Please disregard the "theoretical" appearance of my question.
It's way way simpler than you may think about what I wrote above.

Tetrachords is just a fancy name for standard finger patterns on the violin. It has nothing to do with modal playing at all. If you combine these finger patterns in certain order for different starting notes on the fingerboard you'll get all Major scales and Natural Minor scales.

What I'm really concerned with is the essense of my write up: how to make the "what is not considered a stretch" between the second and third fingers feel natural.

UPDATE: Today I tried to setup my fingering not from the index (#1) finger but from the middle finger (#2) instead. Interestingly enough when starting from Finger 2 and fingering a whole step up with Finger 3 there is no such feeling as a "stretch".
Another noticeable thing that this setup automatically places Finger 1 in a different position: the nail is rotated more perpendicular to the string in this setup but it needs getting used to.

Should I focus more on Fingers 2-3 starting point setup instead of setting my finger 1 first?

Edited: February 8, 2021, 10:28 AM · I've been playing the violin for 82 years and have never thought about the things you are questioning. What I thought about (if I thought at all) was (and is): is it in tune for what I am playing because unlike a fretted or keyed instrument, intonation with un-fretted string instruments allows variations in intonation not possible on fixed-intonation instruments. The position of the fingers and the spacing between them and the angles and stretches you use to to achieve your desired ends depend on your entire "physique" and what you can do with it. It is definitely not the same for every one. And then there are the many different positions up the fingerboard one can use to get more compatible fingerings - and these too differ for different people.
On cello, for example it is very common to play with only one finger down at a time, or perhaps 2 fingers if one is supporting the other and even when playing chords one might "break" the fingering as well as the bow-string contact.
Edited: February 8, 2021, 10:38 AM · I just found a reference to what I just mentioned above. It's called "Balancing from the Center" (fingers 2 and 3). Here is an example from Suzuki people:
https://suzukiassociation.org/news/balancing-from-center-clearing-path-to-fluid/

Do HTML hyperlink codes work on this forum? I can't make a direct link to the Suzuki article.

February 8, 2021, 10:51 AM · - Get a clothes hanger and hang it up at eye level (or find a seated position where your eyes are at its level).
- With "natural spacing", space your fingers with tips on the bar, no thumb, and feel the weight of your arm pulling (rather, gravity) the bar. The tip section of your middle and ring fingers should be practically vertical, and do not allow knuckles to collapse.
- "Square" up the 3rd finger arch as much as you can and place the 2nd fingertip VERY close to it. The 2nd fingertip section may be angled (think of using a spatula to reach the last bits of whatever food is in the "square" edge of a container) and the middle knuckles do not touch.
- Carefully slide the 2nd fingertip away from 3rd finger, towards the left side of the hanger bar (corresponds to the violin nut/scroll direction). In order for the 3rd fingertip to stay where it was, it has to elongate a bit from the initial square position. You can use a piece of double-sided tape there to help it stay while you experiment.

The essence is building the hand from, and thinking of spacing in relation to, 3rd finger, instead of the nut or 1st finger. The reason I said start with the clothes hanger is to get rid of the distraction of thumb contact, tendencies of the hand/wrist to get in the way, etc. This exact difficulty happens with the mini Suzuki kids so I wouldn't be so quick to blame age!

February 8, 2021, 10:59 AM · I'm not absolutely sure. You might want to check out Rob Thomas's Modern Method for Scales, where he has exerices for the modes of the major scales. It sounds like you are looking for a framework across the strings. Are you using half position? Or are you just using the first position?
Edited: February 8, 2021, 12:13 PM · I would think there'd be a lot less confusion if you had said you have problems with the finger pattern where fingers 1 and 2 are a half step and 2 and 3 a whole step. :)

I think that perhaps you should not be always thinking of keeping your fingers down and especially not PRESSED down but instead walking from note to note and letting your ear guide you moreso than the physical position of your fingers. I'm guessing at the problem here, of course.

There's security in keeping you hand rigid but I think it's somewhat false. I'm simply an amateur though, so correct me if I am wrong.

Edited: February 8, 2021, 12:36 PM · Interesting. Yes, Finger patterns = tetrachords = Doflein's Attitudes. What you label as Dorian [H-W-W], I call Phrygian (or Spanish). The other 3 patterns I mentally label; Minor, Major, Whole-tone. That HWW is more stressful than the other two basic patterns because it puts a major third between the 2nd and 4th fingers.
Recalibrate your 1st position: Start with the third finger tuned at the octave above the adjacent string. extend (Not stretch!) the second finger back a whole step back, and extend the 4th finger forward a whole step. Release the thumb, then put it back where it is most comfortable. It might move forward, towards you, next to the second finger instead of the 1st. This is your new first position. It might look like your old second position.
The other half of the problem would be "leaving fingers down". We see that direction in the majority of beginner's books and a lot of older editions of etudes, but at the intermediate or advanced stages, after learning where the notes are, leaving fingers down causes problems.
Leaving fingers down instead of lifting them is like fingering double-stops but only sounding one note. It damages intonation, vibrato, and fatigues the small muscles.
At some some point, work on the harmonic minor scales. Those help extend the hand by putting a minor third between each pair of adjacent fingers.
February 8, 2021, 12:26 PM · It's also important to not press the fingers down too hard because that can lead to injury as well as intonation problems.
Edited: February 8, 2021, 7:00 PM · If you play DEFG on the D string (0123) and then repeat the same "attitude" on the A string, you get ABCD, and you've traced out a Dorian mode scale in the key of D. So, "Dorian tetrachord" makes perfect sense to me. Most violinists don't think in those terms, but there's nothing wrong with it.

I know what the OP means -- he means it feels weird to have no space between 1 and 2 and then more space between 2 and 3. My advice to him is simple: "Live long and prosper."

On a more serious note (and D minor is already "the saddest key of all"), my suggestion is just keep playing nice slow scales and strive for relaxation in your hands, wrists, forearms, etc., and the different "attitudes" will feel more natural in time.

February 9, 2021, 4:09 AM · Sergio pay attention to your left wrist. It is said to beginners that it should be straight, and not flat against the neck, as you sometimes see gypsy street musicians or traditional fiddlers do. BUT sometimes beginners exaggerate that good advice and actually push their left wrist outwards. That makes a supple placement of the left hand fingers impossible. It is actually fine to just ease in your left wrist just a little bit for some finger patterns.
Edited: February 9, 2021, 4:36 AM · Hi Sergio, first of all, I think it is great that you pick up violin playing. I'm a 55 years old restarter, I haven't played in about 35 years.
Let me assure you, you can still make good progress at my age. I am able to play pieces now that I couldn't when I was young.
For me some position do not feel comfortable, sometimes I even start to feel a slight cramp in my left hand and my shoulders. What works for me is I take a break when I feel a strain. Usually I play before going to work, Sevcik and Kreuzer, after work I play pieces and it feels much more comfortable. For me it is better to practice more that once per day if time permits from one long practice session. You might still consider taking a teacher, a bad position it is hard to correct if it became a habit. Also you might consider some exercises to build muscle and flexibility in the left hand with a stress ball for example.
Edited: February 9, 2021, 5:58 AM · I understood the "modal" descriptions before doing a degree in music, via English folksong and Gregorian chant! But I suggest a more graphical/physical approach:

- "Natural" grouping: 0-1-2.3-4 (place the 4 curved even if we don't use it straight away). Note that with narrow hands and/or short fingers, even the "natural" grouping may need a slightly leaned-back index finger.

- "Low two": 0-1.2-3-4: lift just the 2, and curl it under itself to touch the 1 (well trimmed nails essential!)

- "High three": 0-1-2-3.4: lift just the 3 (ouch!) and stretch towards the 4

- "low one" (with low 2): 0.1-2-3-4: lean the 1 back: the fingertip will touch the string with its corner rather than its end

-"High four"(with high 3): 0-1-2-3-4 : the pinky stretches nearly straight.

February 9, 2021, 6:25 AM · I liked your reply Andrew,

'is it in tune,'.

That is all I think about when I play, and usually it isnt lol.

Edited: February 9, 2021, 3:30 PM · Sergio Viner wrote:

Do HTML hyperlink codes work on this forum? I can't make a direct link to the Suzuki article.

Yes, if you're careful you can insert various HTML tags in your message. Here's an example of how to embed a link. (Note that I had to play a few tricks to make all the punctuation show up.)

<a href="https://suzukiassociation.org/news/balancing-from-center-clearing-path-to-fluid/">here</a>

And here's what happens when you include it in your message. Readers can follow the link by clicking here.

February 9, 2021, 6:10 PM · I have used the "modal descriptions" to refer to the "tetra chords" but for me they all begin from the first finger not the open string. This is so that they can be transferred to any position on the fingerboard.
Anyway, the high "2" position is used to begin most violin methods because it's the easiest finger pattern which starts a major scale from the open string.
When the finger moves chromatically it must be considered that the finger moves 'back and forth' rather than from 'side to side'. The action of 'back and forth' is quit like the finger action when typing. Pressing the key is the 'extended' position (diamond shape), letting the key up is the 'folded' position (square shape). To achieve these actions on the violin the line of the knuckles must be at an angel to the side of the fingerboard; that is the first finger knuckle is the closet or near touching the finger board while the forth finger knuckle is the furthest from the side of the finger board. This will allow the 'extending and folding' of the finger for chromatic movements, where as if the knuckle line is too parallel to the finger board the fingers can only 'stretch' side ways from each other causing tension and inaccuracy of intonation.

Edited: February 10, 2021, 5:08 AM · Agreed!

Hence my "curled" low 2, my "stretched" high 3 & 4, and my "laid back" low 1...

Edited: February 18, 2021, 10:57 AM · continued,--
Finger patterns = Tetrachords = half-scales.
If we use all combinations of the 4 half-scales we get 16 possible scales or modes. Adding the gapped finger patterns, augmented 2nd between adjacent fingers, brings the possible total up to about 40. Most of them do not have names, are not found in our scale books. Ricci's book has more than most. We do find these odd-ball scales in real music; Tchaikovsky, Hindemith, Bartok, etc.
As for the most "natural" finger pattern: one could argue that it is W-H-H. That is the cellists' extended first finger pattern, and I have seen some Violists with big instruments use it. But- that pattern doesn't fit most of our music.
The whole-tone pattern, W-W-W, is either a first finger or fourth finger extension, and you need to be aware of which one you are doing, or it could pull your whole hand out of position.
February 10, 2021, 2:13 PM · Perhaps one thing to try is to avoid the pure scale pattern, and just focus on the difficult notes. If the second finger doesn't sit well, play second finger in tune until it feels right. Then drop adjacent fingers down until they are in tune and also feel OK.
February 11, 2021, 10:50 AM · If I understand your problem right you find that when you keep all fingers down with a low 2nd it pulls the 3rd finger back?
I too was taught to keep all fingers down but found that I would lift the low 2 when I got to the 3rd and 4th fingers. At first I felt like this was wrong but then with extensive experimentation I came to the conclusion that it is actually better to release the 2 if it is a low 2. Say I'm playing up to a 4th finger, 1 and 3 can still be down but not the low 2 -just let it hover close as comfortable. You may not hear about this elsewhere but you can try it and see how releasing the 2nd finger releases the 3rd finger. You can actually play faster up and down this way.
Edited: February 11, 2021, 3:51 PM · continued,- Agreed.
Just try to do a 3rd finger trill with the 2nd and 4th held down.
Or. play Kreutzer Etude #9 two different ways; fingers lifted when not actually in use, and, as notated in some editions, with fingers held down.
Edited: February 12, 2021, 2:40 AM · In agreement with just about everyone here (including Andrew Victor's first), I suspect the thumb is the problem. The complaint seems to be about when 2-3 is a stretch and when it isn't, and I suspect it is a stretch when the thumb is jammed up against the scroll. I notice it with the intonation of my 4th finger. The thumb has to become nimble and be the slave of the rest of the hand. It's not a drag anchor. Modes, schmodes.

I like the Phrygian dominant, though, but that depends more on learning harmonic minors than anything else.

February 12, 2021, 5:48 AM · Hi, i too started learning the violin during uk lockdown in nov 2020. I have come on very quickly fue to alot of spare time to practice. I am learning using youtube, the online violin and piano teacher, alison sparrow. She is sn examinar for grades and a reputable violinist. Go look her up. She offers free lessons and takes you step by step. Ive become a patreon for £2 month and have access to hundreds of pieces of music and can ask her advice on issues. In 10 weeks ive gone from never having touched a violin to playing hungarian dance no1. I am only 5feet 4 inches, i have small hands and my little finger is very short and im using a full size violin, the way she has set up learning has gradually loosened my flexibility and i am able to move my fingers round easily. Im 52, theres reason for it to be harder than it is.
February 12, 2021, 6:02 AM · Joel -- one that's pretty tricky on the violin but very useful in improvisation is the octatonic scale.
Edited: February 12, 2021, 8:10 AM · Hmm, Howard Goodall mentions octatonic scales in his Story of Music, but he doesn't give any examples. I vaguely recall looking them up, but the source made a mountain out of a molehill and I lost the will to live.

Justine, if you edit your surplus posts, it will give you the option to delete them.

Forgot: apart from the mobile thumb, your left wrist should be straight too, Sergio.

February 12, 2021, 10:54 PM · Hi Sergio! Great work learning the violin!
It sounds like you are struggling with what I call finger pattern 2 (the second finger pattern I teach students) where your first and second fingers are close together and 3rd and 4th are 'on their own'!)

Without seeing your hand, I would give you the following things to try:
Practice some left hand exercises away from the violin - first and second fingers close together, 2nd and 3rd close together, 3rd and 4th close together - and swap between all. Some finger patterns on the violin are not natural at all and we need to build up strength and muscle memory.

Make sure you are relaxed when attempting this position - esp if you have small hands! Tension is a great way to make sure you'll never get there!

Make sure your wrist stays neutral and you are only moving your finger - you can practice sliding 2nd finger between 'high 2' and 'low 2' without the bow to develop strength here. Of course check your left hand technique/positioning to make sure you are in the optimal posture.

Hope this helps - if you want more on violin technique I have a course in basic violin technique launching in April and offer worldwide lessons via zoom. melodymusicschool11


February 13, 2021, 5:37 AM · I like the notion of working outwards from the middle fingers.

Consider the WWW shape. Depending on where we come from, and where we're going to, it will be either 1-2>3>4, or 1<2<3-4, sometimes with a semi-conscious semitone shift as we cross the fingerboard.

But in WWWWWW scales, or in "diminished" SWSWSWSW scales I like to to open and close the hand symmetrically: 1.2.3.4, 1-2.3-4,; or 1.2-3.4, 1-2-3-4. Shifts will often be minor 3rds and diminished fifths.

In major scales, the transitional WWW will be in a "three-quarter" position we go rom first- to half-positions across the fingerboard.

February 13, 2021, 6:19 AM · I once mentioned whole-tone scales and was rebuffed, but perhaps they do have a use?
Edited: February 14, 2021, 6:54 AM · Without venturing as far as atonal music, whole-tone and diminished scales are a good preparation for late 19th/early 20th century music: highly chromatic, shifting tonalities, where the traditional octave 1-4 "frame", and the standard positions, dissolve into a frequently out-of-tune mess..

In crossing the strings from low to high, whole-tone scales make the hand advance towards the bridge, diminished scales make it retreat.
So the "symmetric" finger groupings contract and expand, with many mini-shifts.

I find I must number the positions by semitone, based not on the written notes, but on the position of the base of the index: low 1st (="half position), 1st, low 2nd, high 2nd, 3rd, high 3rd = low 4th, etc.
But the symmetrical, fan-like groupings, (with "quarter positions!!) must be learned separately, or they will lead to squishy approximations.

Ultimately, we must just learn where every note lies, and place the hand in the best way, as on the piano, so the finger drop cleanly on the notes.

Edited: February 15, 2021, 11:36 AM · Sorry, I've been off for several days and now I only have time to briefly ask for advice. (I'll read everything above tomorrow.)

Thank you everyone for so profound input! And please comment...

So... I've been setting my left fingering/hand position from the 2nd finger for 5 days or so. The spacing between the second and third fingers (a whole step on minor in the open position) begins to "even out".

However! - This places the index finger in the more flat position. From the very beginning I tried to keep it perpendicular and that made the 2nd-to-3rd finger "stretch" very awkward. Now it becomes easier but the index is more flat and the contact point of the index on the side is now almost on the first crease above the base joint.
Initially I tried to keep the contact point of the index almost at the level of the base joint on the YT advice of Mike Sanchez.
Again, it also contributed to my awkward hand position.

Since my hand is not large (I only have an octave spread on piano, fully stretched) I have to make my hand more "spread out" on the violin fingerboard (is it clear?), so to speak.
As a result I have to make some compromise and since my little finger is rather short and recessed the index becomes less elevated above the fingerboard and more flat than I'd like it to be.
And... this makes the whole hand position much more comfortable and balanced.

February 17, 2021, 9:55 AM · Dear Sergio,
I also found it harder to stretch 2nd and 3rd finger in the tone/semitone/tone/tone pattern. I think it has to do with how muscles and tendons keep middle and ring finger closer together, so they're harder to stretch for some people. Especially if you have small hands.
I suggest you try and play on each string by alternating 1st and 2nd fingering pattern, and feel how your hand moves slightly to accomodate each position. There's a very useful exercise in my book which basically trains the 2nd finger for this: imagine being on the A string. Play with the first fingering pattern, one note per bow: A, B, C#, D. While you're playing D, slide your 2nd finger back to create the "dorian" pattern, and play C natural. Then play D again, and slide 2nd finger up again to play C#. Repeat this process many times, on each string. After a while, instead of sliding the 2nd finger while you're playing D, lift it and drop it in the new position. Train your fingers to lift and let fall quickly without tension.
Don't press too hard on the strings. Check your left thumb as well: if you're pressing with your thumb, you're locking your entire hand into a position and it's going to be hard for you to switch finger patterns. Relaxed hand is key and it takes a while to understand it. Make sure you're not bending your wrist outwards to compensate for the lack of stretch, which is something I instinctively did back when I learned this new pattern (and wouldn't have noticed if my teacher didn't tell me). Good luck!
February 18, 2021, 10:56 AM · -"I tried to keep it perpendicular"-- That might be part of the problem. What counts is the posture, the angle of the last digit in the finger to the fingerboard. If a finger is vertical to the fingerboard it can flop over to the wrong side while shifting up. For the 2nd and 3rd fingers you want a slant of about 30 o back from vertical. That angle allows easy 1/2 step slides and a vibrato around the note (that's a different, controversial topic). Depending on its length, the 4th finger will hit the fingerboard flatter, for me about 45 o. The first finger is also slanted back more. It is in that awkward square formation, and needs to be ready for extensions. Our best vibrato and trills will always be with the 2nd and 3rd fingers.


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