When you begin violin lessons, the left hand finger placement must be learned carefully. The violin has no frets and many teachers put stickers or tape across the fingerboard. Ultimately, the best way to learn finger placing is to train the ear to listen for the pitch and practice the fingering until the correct muscle memory is in place. Your body will learn the spacing between notes just as when you have lived in a house for a while you can easily walk down stairs in the dark because you know the distance between each step.
It is much easier to show how fingering works than to explain it in an abstract way. Watch this video for a clear demonstration of the basics of violin fingering:
From the start there are certain confusing aspects to fingering the notes of the violin. Very soon we notice that the same note can be played in different places on the instrument. The fourth finger in first position on each string plays the same pitch as the next open string, and notes can be played in different positions too. There are also instances of notes that are played in the same place but have different names depending on the key. The finger chart below shows the notes of first position with some of these repeated pitches and enharmonic notes.
The violinist must decide which fingering to use for any given musical phrase. Choosing a fingering can be confusing. As you get more advanced, you will discover that most pieces of music can be bought in several different editions. The fingerings in these editions are often not the same, because they represent one violinist’s subjective idea of how the music ought to be performed. It is useful to have your own base of knowledge so you can make your own decisions about how you want the piece to sound.
Violin fingering has both technical and musical aspects, and different fingering choices affect the clarity and colour of your playing. Musically, the fingering you choose should assure the best sound and expression, and technically it should make playing as easy and comfortable as possible. The two ideals are not always compatible, and the musical purpose should always come first.
Ideas about fingering have changed as violin playing has developed. For example, in older editions of violin music, there is a definite preference for first, third, fifth and seventh positions. Second, fourth and sixth positions were avoided. As violin schools became established, different fingerings were selected, resulting in different styles of performance. Players from different schools edited music differently so editions contain different fingerings for the same notes.
Your teacher may ask for a particular edition because he or she prefers the fingering in that version.
It can be difficult for beginners and young players to choose their own fingering and decide which position to play in. There is no list of guidelines and ideas about fingerings differ from one teacher to the next. Ideally, you need to be able to answer for yourself why a particular fingering is preferable.
Books on the subject are rare and not exactly light reading. Carl Flesch published Violin Fingering, Its Theory and Practice, but the information in it conflicts with the musical editions of other teachers and performers. There is also a discussion on fingering in Ivan Galamian’s Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching.
The principles of fingering have changed as violin technique and repertoire have developed. In the 16th Century, the violin was played supported by the left hand, as there was no chinrest. Playing was confined to the first position and the G-String was hardly used. When the chinrest was introduced, it was initially placed to the right of tailpiece so the instrument was parallel to the floor and it was still quite difficult to play on the G-String. It wasn’t until the 19th Century that violinists began to hold the instrument with the chinrest to the left of the tailpiece, and it became easier to play on the lower strings and in higher positions.
One of the most comprehensive early books on style is the treatise on violin playing by Leopold Mozart, father of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart described three reasons for fingering decisions: Necessity, convenience and elegance. He was possibly the first to suggest that it is preferable for the purposes of a unified sound to stay on one string where possible, and he also suggests that shifting when an open string is played is least disruptive to the musical line.
So according to the great teachers, what makes a good fingering?
Fingering for Colour, Clarity and Style
Galamian believed in varying fingerings as much as possible, that scales, arpeggios and studies should be learned with different fingerings, and that when a piece is re-learned the fingerings can be altered. His idea was that by avoiding a rigid idea of fingering the violinist’s approach to the music would be fresher and freer. He said that sticking to one fingering leads to inflexibility in performance and prevents the player from acquiring the spontaneous, almost improvisatory quality that is ultimately desirable.
The fingerings in the scale systems by Galamian and Flesch are different. Flesch often has the player shift between the strong beats, where Galamian puts the shifts on the strong beats. Both teachers prefer a chromatic scale fingering that avoids the use half step shifts
Much of the difference in approach between these two teachers may have been due to the size of their hands. Galamian apparently had larger hands than Flesch. Difference in hand size has a direct impact on a violinist’s fingerings. A smaller hand may need to shift where a larger one can stretch. Hand size is therefore one consideration that determines your own personal approach to fingering.
It is necessary for every violinist to make decisions about their fingerings. You can do this based on two factors, sound and comfort. Ultimately if you are not comfortable, your tone and vibrato will suffer. Part of the trick to finding the fingering that will produce the best musical results is to find one that is technically secure. Look at different editions, ask your teacher, and don’t be afraid to try different things until the music sounds how you want it to.
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If anyone ever says to you, “It sounds like you’re playing the violin with gloves on!” then you can take it they aren’t complimenting you on your performance. But sometimes, especially as winter approaches, we have to practice and perform in cold conditions. Is there a solution for violinists? Something which doesn’t interfere with the sound or ease of movement, and which is smart enough to wear on stage, or are there better ways to keep the hands warm? You can’t, after all, just put your gloves on.
Keeping the hands warm and flexible is important for every violinist. Increasingly, professional musicians are being alerted to the importance of a physical warm up. Many muscle and tendon strains can be attributed to overstretching when the body is cold. It’s for this very reason that ballet dancers wear leg warmers to stop their calf muscles from getting cold and stiff. For violinists rehearsing in cold churches, practising at home as it gets colder, travelling to and from work in the winter, and even playing outdoor concerts in the summer when it can become very cold as night falls, cold hands mean loss of dexterity, painful joints, poor vibrato, and compromised left hand agility, bow control and facility of shifts. If your hands get really cold, you’ll find you can’t even feel the string.
The first thing to do if you’re somewhere you can do so, is to put the heating on. Practising in a warm room is much less tiring. If you’ve been sitting at your computer or watching TV, or something else sedentary before you decide to practice, counteract the cold by doing something physical. Exercise in general improves the circulation. Do the washing up in a nice bowl of warm water, using rubber gloves to keep your hands dry. The combination of heat from the water and physical movement will get your hands warm in no time.
It is also important to realise that cold hands can be a result of an overall cold body temperature. If your core, or torso, is warm, blood is readily released to the extremities. When you get cold, blood is kept back for the vital organs and the brain. It’s no good sourcing the perfect gloves for your outdoor gig if you don’t dress appropriately to keep warm, especially when for most concerts you will be sitting fairly still. Layers of clothes trap in body heat and full-length sleeves make a huge difference to the warmth retained in your hands. Try wearing a HeatTech™ vest (available from Uniqlo for both men and women) under your concert outfit for incredible warmth.
The next stage is to find a glove (or ideally a pair of gloves) which allows for the dexterity needed and doesn’t get in the way. Here, Maxim Vengerov gives a moving performance of the Bach Chaconne from the D Minor Partita, at Auschwitz as part of a Holocaust Memorial.
There is snow on the ground, and from about five minutes into the piece, as he moves outside, Vengerov is wearing fingerless gloves to play.
Fingerless gloves or wrist warmers, or in extreme circumstances a combination of the two, are the ultimate solution. Chose a warm material such as wool or cashmere, but make sure the fabric is not too thick. These violin gloves from Etsy are fun, and they’re made of merino wool so they’re probably quite warm, but they’re no good for the platform. Something like these unisex thermal gloves from Sealskinz, which are specifically designed to keep the hands warm whilst allowing for high levels of dexterity would be more suitable. And they’re black.
A simple wrist warmer may be less obtrusive. Orkney Angora do some good ones, but they don’t help much when it’s really cold, whereas these heated “Wristies” look great. These customer reviews on Amazon US are helpful in recommending “Wristies” for violin practice, and the product comes in different sizes with several arm lengths. The longer sleeve will give more warmth, the shorter may be less restrictive.
There is also a wide range of hand warmers on the market, whether reusable, portable gel packs, or microwaveable pads to use at home. These can be a comforting alternative on a cold day.
Avoid anything like these support gloves. These gloves are designed for knitting, and while the idea of a supportive fabric seems appealing, they compress the muscles, hampering freedom in the tendons and ligaments, in the same way that playing in a support bandage does.
If you can’t find any fingerless gloves or mittens that take your fancy, or you feel like exercising your creativity, try knitting your own from one of these free patterns. Not wishing to succumb to stereotypes, these Man Paw gloves are perfect for the violin playing man-who-knits. Or he could get someone to knit them for him for Christmas. These cable knit gloves are warm without being too chunky to play in, and would be smart enough in black for a performance. Some people even find shifting is easier with these sorts of mittens on. These smaller gloves, which have individual fingers, rather than an open mitten-style top, and therefore keep more warmth in round the fingers, are also great for busking and for concerts outdoors or in cold churches. Choose a warm wool or wool blend, something fine enough to make fairly thin gloves, or treat yourself with cashmere.
And if none of those solutions seem creative enough for you, there’s always this violin playing glove puppet.
It’s no good at all for helping your violin practice or performance, but at least it will get a laugh.
Finally, remember that when you perform, your hands will often feel very cold. Circulation in the hands can decrease when we feel nervous. Sometimes it is good to practice with cold hands, just to get used to this feeling; otherwise it’s easy to get obsessed with everything being “just so” for a performance and panicking when it’s not.
I was tutoring at a conference event recently; a slightly unusual one where I was asked to take a room full of delegates, fresh from lunch and expecting some generic team-building exercise, and teach them the basics of violin playing. I stood up and started off with the ill thought-out premise, “Your violin is held in the left hand.”
A small voice came from a lady in the middle of the group.
“But I’m left handed,” she said.
Recent surveys suggest that 13% of men and 11% of women are left-handed. This is an increase on previous figures as left-handedness becomes more accepted in society. It seems ridiculous now, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, left-handed people were severely discriminated against. Many had their left-handedness beaten out of them. They were shunned in adulthood, meaning fewer left-handed people married and had children. As this prejudice began to wane in the 20th Century, the number of natural left-handers who stayed left -handed increased.
There is however, no significant data about left-handed violinists. Apart from a list of a mere dozen players on Wikipedia, there is almost no information on the subject. There is apparently no interest in which famous violinists happen to be left-handed and play right-handed, or on the proportion of left-handed musicians working in today’s orchestras. Since a paper published in the Journal of Mental and Nervous Disease (Volume 195, number 10) found a conclusive link between left-handedness and creativity, stating that musicians, painters and writers were more likely to be left-handed than the control participants, it seems obvious that our orchestras may contain a higher proportion of left-handers than a less artistic workplace. So why do we all play the violin right-handed?
Although a mere 1% of people are truly ambidextrous, left-handed people have to learn to use both hands with similar dexterity as they adapt to a right-handed world, in which simple items such as scissors and can-openers are asymmetrically designed for right-handed use. Left-handed people are therefore more likely to develop motor skills in their non-dominant hand than right-handed people.
Playing the violin is not a single-handed activity. It requires advanced skill and dexterity in both hands. Some people are convinced that the dexterity required in left hand violin technique actually favours left-handed people; others say that both bowing and fingering are difficult so it makes no difference. Neither of these statements is entirely correct.
As a beginner left-handed violinist, you will find your possibilities limited. You will struggle to find a teacher who is prepared or equipped to teach you left handed. It just isn’t done. However, with an open mind, there is no reason why the mirror-image approach shouldn’t work. It’s also not unheard of. Terje Moe Hansen, Pedagogue and Professor at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, plays the violin left-handed. Here is his video lesson on perfect intonation.
The violin itself presents problems. Its set up needs to be reversed, with strings and bridge the other way round. Internally, the bass bar and sound post need to be moved to the opposite side to produce a comparative tone quality, and whilst the violin body is designed symmetrically, the peg box will need to be rebuilt and the neck tilt may need to be readjusted. Left-handed student violins can be purchased, but you will never have the pleasure of playing on an old Italian gem without completely reworking the instrument.
There is also the attitude that a left-handed violinist in an orchestra looks unnatural or untidy, and that the logistics of seating players so as not to cause colliding bow arms are difficult. In this age of equal opportunity, this should not be an issue.
Paavo Berglund, OBE, (1929-2012) who was a member of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1949 to 1958, played the violin left-handed. He played a violin made for him by his grandfather and had to be accommodated at the back of the first violins to account for his reverse technique. He is most famous as a conductor, and known for his work in bringing the music of Jean Sibelius to mainstream European audiences.
Other notable left-handed players include the Viennese virtuoso, Richard Barth (1863-1867), Charlie Chaplin, and Rudolph Kolisch (1896-1978). Kolisch started learning the violin the conventional way, but re-learned after losing the top joint of his left middle finger as a child. He was the leader of the Kolisch Quartet and the Pro-Arte Quartet and his playing, which can be heard in this recording of Mozart, was beautiful.
Left-handed students, particularly of classical music, are almost always encouraged to play the violin right-handed. It is much more common to find players in traditional music fields such as folk and jazz who play the other way round. It seems that of those classical violinists who do play left-handed, some are actually right-handed musicians who have re-learned as a result of an injury. The author of the only extensive study on the subject, Playing the Violin and Fiddle Left Handed, professional violinist and fiddle player Ryan Thomson, is right-handed and relearned after focal dystonia in his right arm left him unable to play.
Thomson argues that as children we naturally want to hold the bow in our dominant hand. Whilst the left hand dexterity of left-handed beginners may initially help them learn more quickly, the bow is, after all, what makes the sound, and sound production is arguably the most important part of violin playing.
As a left-handed violinist myself, I have found that I have to work twice as hard on my right hand technique. It is not just a matter of dexterity and coordination; it is necessary to be able to conceive tone quality before producing it. I often find that while my brain is processing left hand finger patterns away from practice, it is my right hand fingers that move, (apparently I practice the “wrong way round” in my sleep) and it takes a secondary step having conceived the sound to process it with the right arm. Another effect of left-handedness I have noticed in myself is a tendency to slow reading. When I learned to write, I wrote mirror writing. It took a lot of practice to turn this instinct around in my head to enable me to sight read at speed. I find my more dominant right-brained instincts very useful when it comes to intuitive musicianship, but I also had to learn that certain left-brained analytical approaches, which are essential for some players, actually hamper my ability to express myself physically and musically.
Ultimately, it is difficult to find an instrument and a teacher to enable you to learn to a high level left-handed. A good violinist is never entirely satisfied and every one of us has different physical and mental characteristics to work with. Some people are more confident, some have short arms or a long neck, some read more quickly, others learn more slowly and some are left-hand dominant. I don’t believe the answer to a satisfying experience of violin playing lies in which hand does what. I think it’s about learning to work with your own body, with all its limitations and advantages. There may be benefits to learning the violin the other way round, and in the future it may be more possible, but for centuries left handed people have adapted and produced fantastic results on the violin just how it is.