Why third and not fourth? (position)

Edited: December 27, 2017, 10:37 PM · Before I had a teacher and later when I would play silly things not in the lessons, I used to like getting out of the first position. In my ignorance, I decided that from the first position the most logical thing would be to go to what it actually is the fourth. That way one would get a whole scale-like in one string. When finally my teacher told me about shifting I showed him what I use to do (play 1st-4th-1st). He corrected me and put me in third, which is fine. I thought that it would be a warming before going to 4th and from time to time I "cheat" and go to fourth, which enfuriates him. He is adamant that the order to learn the positions is first-third-fifth-second and finally, fourth. When I asked the reason, he said "that's the way of the violin".
Is there any other reason for that order apart from the tradition? Any musical theory (subject that is my biggest Acchiles talon)?
I don't find 4th any more difficult than third (both need a lot of work, don't think I find them easy) and it seems more logical and natural.

Replies (20)

December 27, 2017, 11:30 PM · I can suggest a practical reason: violin music at different difficulty levels is written with the conventional order of teaching positions in mind. So, if you insist on learning 4th position before 3rd, you'll be seeing a lot of awkward fingerings and string crossings.

That doesn't answer why it was decided a long time ago to teach 3rd before 4th, though. Maybe it's a tradition from predecessors of the violin. I'd be interested to hear about any reasons related to the mechanics rather than traditions.

December 28, 2017, 1:41 AM · My guess would be that third position has ringy notes that are easier to find and maybe that makes it easier to get comfortable with shifting at first, for most.
December 28, 2017, 2:31 AM · Well, it's quite an old practice. In his 1756 book Leopold Mozart refers to third, fifth etc as "full positions" while what we now know as second and fourth are "half positions".

I can't remember if he says why, but I'd guess it's because all the notes in second position can be accomplished in first with extensions, so it's less necessary to learn.

December 28, 2017, 3:20 AM · Some mantain that in 3rd position our wrists make contact with the edge of of the back plate, which may be the case if we have short arms..
December 28, 2017, 4:28 AM · I don't think that anyone would find a big ergonomic difficulty between both positions and if it is about cheats on knowing where to place the fingers, 4th is the best one as you can check the first finger with the next open string (which was one of the reasons why I thought that it was the next "natural" position")
Edited: December 28, 2017, 4:40 AM · It took me a bit to figure out (just got started on 3rd position). I think this is what you (Timothy) mean. Notes on the D-string occuring in common keys:
in 3rd position: G A B C/C#
in 4th position:   A B C/C# D

The strongest ringing is with G, A; 4th position lacks the G.

Notes unique for 3rd vs. 4th position, per string:
G string: C vs G (neither is a strong ringer)
D string: G vs D (G rings)
A string: D vs A (D rings)
E string: A vs E (A rings)

Hmm. If only I didn't have sausage fingers that usually stops the neighboring strings as well...

December 28, 2017, 4:47 AM · I have found repeatedly that otherwise awkward orchestral passages become easy and straightforward if I play them in the 3rd position (sometimes 4th).
December 28, 2017, 4:49 AM · Once they understand what scales are supposed to sound like, I teach my students to do 1-finger Yost scales first, in major, minor, then chromatic, one octave, then two octaves. They have to have the tetrachords memorized to do this.

From there, it's all a matter of understanding the basic shifting motions, but then they are free to go anywhere on the fingerboard.

Ultimately, the concept of positions is helpful when discussing fingerboard geography with others, especially when trying to solve fingering for a challenging passage (i.e., "try it in fourth position, it makes it a lot easier!), but in practice a player has to be willing to put that hand frame anywhere.

Edited: December 28, 2017, 6:14 AM · I think Adrian's statement is part of it, but also in the odd-numbered positions (1, 3, 5, etc.) the odd-numbered fingers play the notes on the staff (and ledger) lines. This creates a visual-mental-finger/digital link that makes for easy and consistent sight-reading. This may be part of the origin of this pedagogical approach for violin and viola playing.

The more modern Suzuki method seems to take the positions more in numerical order.

Classical cello instruction went from 1st to 4th position - also for Adrian's stated reason - because it is a very natural place for one's hand contacting the rib area (similarly to 3rd position on violin or viola). On cello this allows for a continuous one-string 7-note scale in one shift. However because (without a humongously inhuman hand size) a scale without using open strings cannot be played on cello in any single position without also using the thumb, cello playing was learned without learning numbered "positions" so much as by thinking fingerings and the best ways to get the notes played with the desired smoothness and quality of tone. At least that is how I remember learning cello. Perhaps that was an accelerated way to do it, but I went from my first cello lesson to playing in the community orchestra in 2 or 3 hours (really-time enough for dinner at home) and that approach made it possible.

December 28, 2017, 6:22 AM · I'm glad I was assigned a lot of studies that move you around among 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. You really learn a lot about the violin doing those.
Edited: December 28, 2017, 12:27 PM · "Some mantain that in 3rd position our wrists make contact with the edge of of the back plate"

In my opinion, this is a large part of it: third position is the easiest to learn after 1st due to the tactile reference.

There are other reasons as well, and one is shifting--it's much easier to shift from 1st to 3rd because we only have a 1/2 step shift from 2nd to 1st finger. The whole-step shift from 3 to 1 is bigger and more difficult (though of course very useful). And in general, we try to place shifts on half-steps when we can, don't we? Also, we shift accurately to 3rd by touching the plate, and so we reach 3rd first in that manner. Yes, we do the same in shifting to 4th position, but we learn 3rd as a reference point. 1st and 2nd positions are the only ones for which we are not using the hand against the plate as a reference, which is why so many violinists avoided second position 100 years ago (just look at older editions...)

Another issue with 4th position is that 4 on the lower strings may be a reach that is a little more uncomfortable with many.

And yet another issue I thought of: As we ascend, the distances between fingers must decrease. By learning third position before fourth, we learn a natural progression of decreasing distance. Students tend to over reach when learning third position--they would way over reach in 4th. Does it make sense for that reason to learn 3rd first? Perhaps.

In the end, we must learn both, and learn to be in the musically and technically appropriate position, not one we "like the best" or are most comfortable with. While Carlos' teacher was typical in his approach to the learning sequence, his phrase "that's the way of the violin" seems to me to have a charmingly old-school "just do as I say and don't ask questions" ring.

Personally, I would rather explain to the student exactly why we were doing something a certain way...

Edited: December 28, 2017, 2:06 PM · Third position will put many passages more conveniently "under the fingers" than fourth will. And vice-versa. One is not inherently better or worse than the other. If you learn to be comfortable with both, it opens up opportunities.
Edited: December 29, 2017, 2:01 AM · Scott: "easier to shift from 1st to 3rd because we only have a 1/2 step shift from 2nd to 1st finger."

That would depend on the key of the music, isn't it? For a piece in G or D major on the E string (p=position, f=finger): G (p1 f2) - A (p3 f1) is a full step. Conversely, on the G string, C# (p1 f3) - D (p4 f1) is a half step.

Regarding the argument of the plate reference: how does it work with electric violins? Many models don't have a dummy rib yet they seem to sell well.

December 28, 2017, 4:41 PM · Han,
True, but even if the 2-1 shift from 1st to 3rd position is a whole step, the shift is easier in the beginning than 3-1, which is a bigger motion.
Edited: December 29, 2017, 2:06 AM · @Scott Then the real argument is that 3rd position is the smallest distance from 1st position that has a reference of the edge of the violin body. From the same argument, the logical next position to learn is 4th, not 5th. Is that the case?

@David If passages tend to be easier to play in third position compared to 4th, wouldn't that be due to composers writing with 3rd position in mind? If one of those "easy in 3rd position" passages were transposed up by one tone, wouldn't they be just as easy in 4tg position?

Edited: December 29, 2017, 4:15 AM · @Chris Keating: I was intriged by Leopoldo Mozart's mention of Whole Positions and Half Positions and I found a thesis (http://scholarworks.csun.edu/bitstream/handle/10211.3/121329/Kolesnyk-Kateryna-thesis-2014.pdf;s) that proposes that "Whole positions" are those where the first and third finger correspond with notes that are in the line of the pentagram, while "half positions" are those where the first and the third fingers are notes in between spaces.
The researcher adds "the logic of such theory is obvious for every violinist, because it is much easier and comfortable to play in positions that Leopold Mozart classified as the whole or common position, than in those that fall into the Half position group" I am not sure if this statement is not a jump of logic, but there it is.
January 6, 2018, 5:46 PM · Yes, Andrew and Carlos, that is exactly the reason that Leopold Mozart cites for presenting 3rd position as 'Whole': that the first and third fingers follow the rule that their notes are on the lines of the staff, while the notes for the second and fourth are in the spaces between the lines, just like in 1st position.
January 6, 2018, 7:10 PM · The more you feel like 2nd and 4th are equally comfortable as 1st, 3rd, and 5th, the easier it will be for you to truly flexibly choose fingerings.
January 6, 2018, 8:17 PM · "@Scott Then the real argument is that 3rd position is the smallest distance from 1st position that has a reference of the edge of the violin body. From the same argument, the logical next position to learn is 4th, not 5th. Is that the case?"

I think 3/5th positions are paired pedagogically because one is reading the same fingers on lines. And thus 2/4 are paired are similarly paired because the same fingers are on spaces.
I suppose one could simply go 1-2-3-4-5 etc positions. I just haven't tried it.

January 7, 2018, 1:30 AM · I think it has to do with the odd fingers still being on lines and even fingers still being in between lines. It's just more intuitive to read 3rd position, not necessarily easier to play it.

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