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. 

This will give you freedom in expressing yourself and playing different repertoire. Your repertoire will progressively increase as 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.  Let’s dive in deeper.

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 when you play a note in one position and then slide your fingers up or down the fingerboard to another position to play a different note. 

For example, 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, this is called a shift. 

As you slide your fingers down the A string to complete the shift, there should be no stiff or unpredicted movements in your left arm; every shift should be “calculated” and expected. Simply put, your left-hand action is deliberate and controlled – not chaotic. You anticipate and want to move your fingers 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:  1st, 3rd, 2nd, 4th, and 5th positions, listed here in order from the easiest to learn and understand 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 and the nut.

3rd position is the next new position which we learn when we start shifting, as 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 in 1st position with the third finger. 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 professional violinist likes 3rd position and uses it a lot. This shift marks an advancement from beginner to intermediate level.

2nd position is located in between 1st and 3rd positions.

I consider it less comfortable because, in order to find it, we need to rely on our ears to hear the pitch or intonation. As you can guess, the same D note on the A string ( played with the third finger in 1st position), we will now play with the second finger. 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.

4th position is one step higher than 3rd position and must feel pretty comfortable comparatively.

It is located between 3rd and 5th positions, and like 2nd position, we want to stay on the same string to preserve the same color and tone.  When we play in 4th position, we do not usually move the hand – only the wrist and fingers.

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, and I consider it to be more difficult than all other previous positions 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 prior basic 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. 

Remember: shifting is a lot like parking a car; you slide and park your finger in an assigned spot.

Tips and Technique

  1. First, move your whole arm when you shift – not just your wrist. The initial impulse should come from the forearm.
  2. Move your arm horizontally, along the fingerboard.
  3. Don’t lift your hand.  Make sure that your thumb and the base knuckle of the first finger are sliding with ease. This 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 be to shift smoothly.
  5. Wrist follows 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, to avoid friction.
  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 imagine how a scale would sound if I lift the bow when shifting!
  10. If you find yourself struggling, break the process into small parts, and start slow. Watch yourself closely and feel how your muscles react.

Take time to master your shifting

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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