Shifting on violin: Tips and Technique

1st position: Basics

After you’ve learned 1st position and know all the notes on all four strings, it is time to move on and learn new positions. That will give you freedom in expressing yourself and playing different repertoire. Your repertoire will progressively increase when you master the shifting technique. In 1st position, you are limited to the highest B note on the E string, but with shifting, you would be able to play any music. Ok, let’s dive in.

What is shifting?

Shifting is a violin technique that allows you to move your entire left hand smoothly to any place on the fingerboard up or down to change notes. In simple words, shifting is, for example, when you play a note, let’s say you are playing note F sharp on E string in 1st position and then, you move 1st finger to A note which is 3rd position. Therefore, you are sliding along the A string smoothly. There are no stiff or unpredicted movements in your left arm; every shift should be “calculated” and expected. Simply put, your left-hand action is not chaotic. You anticipate and want to move it to a particular place on the fingerboard. It is like you park a car, aim at a specific parking spot, and leave it there.

What are the most basic positions in violin playing?

There are five basic positions in violin playing. They are 3rd, 2nd, 4th, and 5th positions in order which is the easiest to learn and understand them well.

1st position is the primary position, and this is the first and the only position which you learn when you start playing the violin. The left hand is placed close to the scroll.

3rd position is the next new position which we learn when we start shifting, and it is the easiest position to begin with. The left hand is placed close to the body of the violin, and we play the same note with the first finger which we played before with the third finger staying in 1st position. So if you played note D on the A string with the third finger, now, in 3rd position, you would be playing the same note with the first finger. Thus, your wrist moves higher along the fingerboard. Every violinist likes 3rd position and uses it a lot. This is an advancement from beginner to intermediate level.

2nd position is located between 1st and 3rd positions. I consider it less comfortable because in order to find it, we need to rely on our ears and hear the pitch – intonation. As you can guess the same D note on the A string ( the third finger), we will play with the second finger instead of the third ( 1st position). This position is mainly used to preserve the color of a melody and to avoid string crossings. In faster passages, sometimes it makes sense to play on the same string rather than to travel between strings. It is the position where we place the left-hand between the scroll and the violin’s body, in the middle.

4th position is one step higher than 3rd position and must feel pretty comfortable after 3rd position. It is like 2nd position; we want to stay on the same string to preserve the same color and tone. It is located between 3rd and 5th positions. When we play in 4th position, we do not usually move the hand, only the wrist, and fingers. It can feel more comfortable if you have a bigger hand. Sometimes, if we are forced to use and extend the fourth finger in 3rd position and play continuous notes and vibrato, which is not entirely comfortable, we might choose to stay in 4th position and use the third finger.

5th position is very much like 3rd position in violin playing. It is higher than 3rd and 4th positions. I consider it to be more difficult than everything before because we need to move our hand further up along the fingerboard, which requires more practice. We begin to learn 5th position when we can shift smoothly between all previous positions and keep the left hand relaxed and soft without clenching the violin’s neck. To play in this position, move your first finger to the same place where your third finger was in 3rd position.

When and how to start working on shifting

I start working on shifting when I see that my students are ready for it. There are some requirements such as a relaxed left hand, nicely curved fingers, an independent thumb which does not clutch the violin’s neck, a straight and relaxed wrist, and overall healthy posture. Shifting is like parking; you slide and park your finger in an assigned spot.

Tips and Technique

  1. First, move your whole arm when you shift. The initial impulse should come from the forearm. 
  2. Move it horizontally, along the fingerboard.
  3. Don’t lift it, make sure that your thumb and the base knuckle of the first finger are sliding with ease. That also means that you have to slightly rotate your wrist clockwise to release the tension between the base knuckle of the first finger and the neck.
  4. Relax your fingers, and don’t press. The more you push, the harder it will shift.
  5. Wrist comes after your forearm. It should feel like it’s lazy to move. It is relaxed and soft.
  6. When you shift, loosen the pressure in the moving finger, avoid friction, and help yourself.
  7. If you partially support the violin with your left hand( in case you play without shoulder rest) make sure that your forearm is loose.
  8. Consistent, fluid, smooth movement. Start slow, and when you feel more confident, gradually increase the speed.
  9. Never decrease the bow pressure when you shift; it’s just a bad habit that will be hard to eliminate. Just think, how would a scale sound like if I lift the bow when shifting. I know, ridiculous.
  10. If you find yourself struggling, break everything into small parts, and start slow. Watch closely, feel your muscles, analyze.

Don't give up

Shifting can be challenging if your left hand is tense. Relaxation is the primary key to success. Know your body. It takes time to master this technique and lots of practice and exercises. There is an excellent book that I use and give to my students to master this technique called “Exercises for change of position” by Yost, Gaylord. You can download it here for free and start practicing right now, with patience. Good luck.

How to hold a violin bow for beginners- read here

I would love to answer any questions related to violin lessons and violin playing. You can email me at [email protected] or book your free trial lesson here.

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