Third Position Trouble

Edited: January 3, 2023, 10:45 AM · I never thought I would learn third position. As an amateur violinist – a hobbyist – it didn't seem worth it to put in so much effort for what, two extra notes?

Yet here I am, putting in the effort to get those two extra notes.

I have actually been going over basic scales and arpeggios, mostly D major and G major, for the past few days. And things have mostly been golden, but as you may have guessed from the headline, there is some trouble.

The problem, my fellow Internet users, is that the space between F# and G on the A string is a little too small for my liking. Sure, I can sort of make it work, but if things are awkward when I'm practising slow scales, they'll only get worse when I'm playing fast scales.

Is this a common problem when tackling third position, or are my fingers just too (looks around and adds in a barely audible whisper) f*t?

EDIT: Due to a random brain fart, I originally typed D string instead of A string. This error has been rectified.

Replies (28)

Edited: January 3, 2023, 11:52 AM · Funny that you mention third position. I always thought my third position was very strong until I pulled out a Rode caprice that I'm pretty sure is supposed to played entirely in 3rd position. After about 15 minutes of working on it, my hand was absolutely aching with exhaustion. This is not a study that you should be attempting yet - you're not ready for it, so I won't even mention the number :-) :-). Your post simply reminds me of my own discovery of my OWN weakness.

Anyhow, it's rather hard to tell what you're doing wrong without seeing a video of your hand while you struggle to play in third position. Ask your teacher to watch your hand carefully. If you're new to third position, you might be tempted to let your wrist collapse so that your hand is gripping the neck of the violin. You may also not have your hand correctly rotated, so that the reach of your fingers to the fingerboard is too great, making the contact point of your fingers incorrect.

By the way, never make this statement: oh, I'm just an amateur. I don't need to learn this. Eliminate a teacher who tries to tell you this. Whether we are just an amateur or hoping to be a pro, we all need to go through the same due process of learning before we are going to sound good. How far along that path you get depends on your motivation and talent, but it doesn't change the fact that you need to follow the same path.

January 3, 2023, 11:24 AM · Even the biggest hands should be able to play that half-step between the 3rd and 4th fingers. Bruce gets at some of the key issues, in that if you have a relaxed handframe, the fingers should be able to align. But it may also be something that you need to put some reps into before you establish that consistency.

If you feel more comfortable in 1st position, you can still practice that half step on the A string (d sharp to e) with the 3rd and 4ths fingers, keeping the 3rd down lightly, and tapping the 4th on and pulling it off, trying to keep the rest of the hand and thumb light and relaxed. If you feel more comfortable practicing the half step in 1st position, then do that, and later move it up to 3rd position.

January 3, 2023, 11:33 AM · Are your fingers too flattened to allow the tips to stand nearly vertically?
Is the hand leaning back due to the mistaken notion that the wrist should touch the edge of the violin in 3rd position?
And yes, are you too stiff and frightened? ;)
Edited: January 3, 2023, 1:47 PM · Alas, Bruce, I am my own teacher for the most part. I suppose I ought to eliminate myself right about now.


In any case, to give a clearer picture about my left hand frame (is that what it's called?), it's relaxed enough for me to vibrate with ease.

I just took up my violin to check and I see that my wrist is certainly NOT touching the edge of the violin. My thumb is behind a little though (is that bad?). Other fingers are not flattened, except for the first finger, I guess. (Again, is that bad?) It honestly feels a lot more comfortable when the first finger is flattened, so I figured it was the right thing.

Er, I never mentioned this, but I actually tuned all my strings a tone lower. The dry weather made my pegs keep getting loose, so I figured I might try tuning the instrument down. Anywho, could this possibly be the root of the problem?

EDIT: Yikes, another brain fart. When I said my first finger was flattened, in my head I was saying it was curved almost like a slanted 'n'.

I think I'm getting senile.

Edited: January 3, 2023, 12:24 PM · Er.. yup... you probably should eliminate yourself as your own teacher. Nothing against you. I'm sure you're highly intelligent individual who thinks that you can work these things out, but. ... we can all benefit more from a good teacher. Having said that, I too, am struggling without one, but I managed to get myself to an advanced level in my younger years when I did have a teacher. Right now I choose to go without because money is limited, and I'd rather spend that money on my own children's lessons.

Anyhow, with a little Google, I came up with the following page. How does your hand setup compare?

By the way, if you consistently played with all of your strings, one tone too low, even if all notes were correct with respect to those strings, you would drive me absolutely bonkers. Ha ha! I don't have perfect pitch, but despite this, any notes not played correctly with respect to A440 or close to it, make me very uncomfortable. I don't think this is good ear training for you. You might want to take your violin to your luthier and have it checked. Even dry weather shouldn't make them slip that much. Make sure the strings are wound correctly in the peg box, and maybe invest in some peg grease.

Edited: January 3, 2023, 2:04 PM · If a finger has to move in order to play a neighbor note in tune, YOU MOVE IT!
Imagine how Perlman is able to play 7th, 8th or 9th position in tune - or find a video that shows how.

The "hand frame" is a nice concept for beginners in first position, but once one starts to shift positions such concepts are not helpful. This should not be a problem for scales, but arpeggios may require additional experimentation.

In other words, there are different "hand frames" for every situation for every player. And never forget, the pitch of a note (at any instant of time) is determined by the leading edge of the finger.

January 3, 2023, 1:01 PM · Andrew, when we first get started on the violin, we start with a certain set of rules that may or may not be the best for us. However, it's a starting point. As we get more advanced, we learn that these rules are not perfect and can't be applied in all cases, however, to start a beginner off with the idea that she shouldn't be framing her hand, it's likely a mistake.
January 3, 2023, 1:07 PM · Agreed. As one moves up in positions, the finger spacings get closer together. Perlman, who most consider to have been much more than an OK player, had "fat fingers", and there is a lot to learn from his videos, moving one finger out of the way for another.
January 3, 2023, 1:08 PM · Dear Bruce, I have read the Violinspiration article.

My hand setup looks like the image for lower positions. Honestly I'm a bit confused. One image shows the correct hand frame for 'lower positions (below third position)'. The other image is for 'higher positions'. It's a bit unclear which one is right for third position.

Anyway, I'm pretty sure about what I said about the weather affecting my instrument. It happens every year around this time. Here in Nigeria, we have this extremely dry season called the Harmattan. The weather is extremely harsh for both people and instruments.

Normally, when the harmattan winds arrive, I simply leave my violin in its case with a DIY humidifier. This year, I've been bringing it out of its case for an hour a day as an act of defiance. The strings still get loose but ever since I tuned them down, the problem has lessened somewhat (I think).

January 3, 2023, 1:28 PM · Both pictures are correct. What are you observing here? You're observing a wrist that isn't collapsed against the side of the violin. You're observing nicely rounded fingers with the tips, landing squarely on the strings. You're observing a hand nicely rotated so that fingers land comfortably on the strings without a stretch that flattens your fingers. These are rules that you generally want to follow in the early stages of your development.

After this, what Andrew saying is correct. As you move up the string in higher positions, those spaces become smaller. For some of us with big hands, like me, in the higher positions, I have to move fingers out of the way to make room. However, unless you have exceedingly fat fingers, I really don't think you should be noticing that spacing issue in only third position.

January 3, 2023, 1:56 PM · Having read everything, I think what I need might be a compromise between the two extremes.

My fingers AREN'T FAT. They're just a little chubby. :(


Anyway, I'll be sure to experiment tomorrow and find out what really works.

Thanks for taking the time to respond to the ramblings of this wannabe violinist. He sincerely appreciates it.

Edited: January 3, 2023, 3:50 PM · My suspicion is that your fourth finger is landing flat rather than curved. When your finger lands flat, it's occupying more space. However, without seeing your hand, this is all one big whopping guess.
January 3, 2023, 2:11 PM · Andrews answer is the one, for me anyway, as I learned what he says through practice. You have to move fingers to play in higher positions its as simple as that.
January 3, 2023, 2:38 PM · Hi Becky, I can't help you and can only wish you good practicing and not expecting to be able to do it in a few days. However, I want to correct your misunderstanding that 3rd position is only for two extra notes. It is also useful for playing certain passages easier. For example, take a passage of consecutive notes BGAGBGAGB where each B is to be read as B flat. Suppose these are sixteenth notes to be played in one bow. In first position, starting the B flat with first finger on the A string, try it, it will be a mess :-) In third position, it can be played cleanly on the D-string using fingering 312131213. On top of that, the passage has a different sound quality thanks to playing it on the D-string. So the third position increases your scope in various ways.
January 3, 2023, 3:25 PM · This question has mostly been answered but I'll add only a few thoughts.
(1) "The purpose of hand position is to reach the notes." So when you shift, make sure your hand position is coming into a comfortable frame -- basically the same kind of frame you have in first position. If, for example, you're just reaching for the higher notes without moving your thumb by the required amount, then their angles of contact with the stops will be wrong.
(2) Eventually you reach the point where even with thin fingers, you have to move them. It's unusual to reach this point in third position, but on the E string you'll often find that you want that C# really close to the D for musical reasons.
(3) Perlman had the advantage that he learned the entire fingerboard as a young child and therefore his adjustment as his hands grew was very gradual. It's not really a fair comparison to an adult beginner.
January 4, 2023, 11:18 AM · I have never thought about third position only adding two notes to first position but of course that is a fact.

Anyway, are your fingers dropping straight down onto the string or are they reaching for the string at an angle? That is the first thing that comes to my mind when someone has a difficult time getting fingers close enough together.

For myself I do find that where my thumb is makes a huge difference in whether I play in tune or not. I look for a comfy thumb spot and don't make my thumb be stuck in any one place.

January 4, 2023, 11:37 AM · Update: The problem has been solved!

*celebratory dance*

It looks like my thumb was simply too high. I adjusted my hand frame a bit and now the tips of my fingers are able to 'stand' on the strings. Consequently the spacing is no longer an issue.

Once again, thanks for the help, everyone. :)

January 4, 2023, 11:57 AM · Also, this a bit of a digression, but I thought I might add that I have to respectfully disagree with you, Bruce.

"By the way, never make this statement: oh, I'm
just an amateur. I don't need to learn this.
Eliminate a teacher who tries to tell you this.
Whether we are just an amateur or hoping to be
a pro, we all need to go through the same due
process of learning before we are going to sound
good. How far along that path you get depends
on your motivation and talent, but it doesn't
change the fact that you need to follow the same

For as long as I can remember, I have always had very conservative goals concerning violin.

- To be able to play in tune in most keys
- To play with good tone
- To be able to vibrate (with every finger)

There is A LOT that isn't strictly necessary for the accomplishment of these goals. In other words, I think I'm perfectly right to say that I don't need to learn X or I don't need to learn Y.

As I explained, I am a hobbyist, not an aspiring professional. I have every right to do things on my own terms.


Now that I've typed all this, I'm feeling a little hungry. I think I'll have some rice.

wOuLd YoU lIkE sOMe?

Edited: January 4, 2023, 1:10 PM · I'm glad you managed to solve the problem. Now, lots and lots of slow steady scales reinforcing this technique.

As per your last comment directed at me: I'll be sure to pass this on to my daughter, who was tormenting me this morning for playing the Paganini Caprice #16, too quickly, and out of tune. I'm trying to get this easiest of the 24 caprices up to full speed and struggling a bit. I'll be sure to tell her: who cares if it's out of tune. I just wanna have fun playing this at breakneck speed, after all, I'm just a hobbyist who enjoys that weird detached feeling when I'm playing this at full speed. It's like my body is on auto pilot, and I'm looking down on myself, and saying: am I actually doing that? But wait, isn't the purpose of music to give enjoyment to other people? Yes, if you're just doing this for yourself, you can set whatever limits you want to. However, if your ultimate goal is to give music to other people, you need to build your skills in a specific way so that you can get the quality that people will want to listen to.

January 4, 2023, 2:11 PM · You didn't say if you wanted some rice too :P

In any case, I only ever play music within the limits of my skill. I personally would never play something that's too fast (or difficult in some other way) for me to play well. If I can't make it sound good, that's a clear sign I shouldn't be attempting it.

January 4, 2023, 2:20 PM · Well, it's a process. You won't get something up to speed and sounding good unless you work at it. And that was the point I was trying to make, unless you're just doing it for yourself, there's a process you need to go through to reach the point where you are able to sound good for the people that are listening to you. Anyhow, you go ahead and do whatever is best for you. :-)
January 4, 2023, 3:31 PM · good for you Becky. to quote the famous violin pedagogue Ivan Galamian: "the fingers have to be placed in such a way as to allow them the most favorable conditions for their various actions. Once this is done, everything else---thumb, hand, arm---will subsequently find its corresponding natural position". So that's what you found out on your own!
January 5, 2023, 9:55 AM ·
Coming back to violin after some decades of not playing, I've been having my own frustrations with 3rd (and 2nd) position. But I'm finding, it just takes practice.

For example, I played Gesu Bambino recently at MidNight Mass with an excellent pianist playing an electronic keyboard. During a portion of the piece, I'm playing 3rd position on the E string: D natural, down to C natural to B natural. I finally determined that I could have only smallest portion of my 3rd finger touching the string to keep the C natural in tune. (Most of the 3rd finger is off the string to the right.) At least, that's what worked for me. (We're all different.) It sounds like you found what works for you.

Remember, the fingers have to be closer together in 3rd position, compared to 1st position. For practice, try playing simple pieces that involve 3rd position. Eventually, it will hopefully become second nature.

A comment: it's not just "two extra notes." It's more than two, when sharps/flats are considered.

Another comment: Because we're all different, to some extent, we have to be our own teacher. Like I mentioned, we're all different. So in solving these kinds of problems, we have to search for what works for each of us.

The Perlman videos on his series of videos on MasterCalss.COM are first rate. (They've helped me a lot, in addition to lessons that I'm taking.) In one or two of the videos, he focuses on intonation and position playing.

January 5, 2023, 10:07 AM · However, Neil, as you progress, you will discover that solutions you may have selected in the past are no longer necessary. For example, in the past, I used the same excuse that my hands are too big and my fingers too fat and as a result I was excessively lifting my fingers off of the fingerboard. The trouble with this though, is that once you start getting into very fast passages, you can't get away with this anymore. Your fingers are too far away and inefficient. This is when I discovered that I didn't have my left hand rotated correctly. This problem seemed to be solved as I dug deeply into double stops. All of those thirds and six and octaves forced my hand to rotate closer to the neck of the violin. Having discovered this I realized I didn't need to lift my fingers to the extent that I thought I did to make room.

Anyway, we all go through our own process to find the best solution for our own hand, despite a certain set of good rules, we should all strive for in our playing.

January 5, 2023, 10:41 AM · As has been said, the two extra notes are not really what it is about.
If you play in an orchestra, it's surprising how useful 3rd position seems to be. It's often very useful for things like convenient legato phrasing, etc. (similarly 2nd position in baroque music often seems to offer the same advantage).
The most common keys on a violin are Dmajor and minor, so that D on the E string in 3rd is a fairly important extra note.
Edited: January 5, 2023, 11:47 AM · Yes, Gordon, exactly. However, this makes another point that I've discussed with my wife in the past. What is the value of learning more advanced skills and repertoire if you're unlikely to perform them? Well, the answer is quite simple. Through the effort to learn the more advanced skills and repertoire, we are developing tools and options that make us much more effective with the less difficult repertoire. For example, one doesn't need mastery of the Brahms violin Concerto to play his sonatas. However, his sonatas will sound much more effective in your hands if you made the effort to advance to the point where you can play his concerto.

So, don't stop at third position. Master that and move on to fourth position and fifth position etc. That first finger D on the a-string in third position has a very different colour if you play that same note on the D string. More advanced skills, more options on the easier music.

Becky, you can introduce yourself now to fourth position in a very simple way. I'm sure you've played the D major scale in third position, starting with second finger on the D on the G string. Now, on the G string, move that second finger up one tone to the E. Exactly the same finger pattern as the D major, but, oops, now you're in fourth position.

Edited: January 5, 2023, 11:09 AM · I'll add something that I've said before and will probably say again.
In 1962 Galamian wrote that (paraphrased) "obsession with the odd-numbered positions and scorn for the even-numbered ones is now old-fashioned."
Whistler's books obsess over odd-numbered positions and scorn even numbered ones. They were written in 1947.
January 5, 2023, 7:04 PM ·
Become familiar with the '7 modes', which include the other scales within the tonic major key. Begin in first position E major, play something melodic within the octave including the arpeggio. Now shift to second position and play the same melodic pattern as before using the notes in the key of E major; this will be the second mode of E major; F# Dorian. Continue this melodic pattern as far as possible in each mode, but 5th pos is where a return to first position can occur on the adjacent set of strings.
This melodic sequencing can also be practiced with skips over some modes such as 1st pos to 3rd pos or any combination thereafter. Of course, the method of shifting need be studied prior.
Once the 'troubles' with intonation have been sorted out eg; scale/mode finger patterns memorized, or fat fingers moved out of the way, etc, now begins the practice of 'anticipation'. This is the practice of 'hearing' every note that is played before it is played. The method to acquire this skill will vary depending on each student, essentially it is 'to hear' every note before we play it and playing 'out of tune' is the indication that we are 'not listening'.
When this skill is acquired, all that is needed is to focus on the intonation 'hear the notes' and the techniques which one has practiced and mastered will become an impulse.

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