Violin Fingering

Updated: November 6, 2013

 

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:

Violin music is fingered differently from piano music. In piano music fingers are numbered one through five, with the thumb being one and the little finger five. In violin playing the thumb is on the opposite side of the neck from the fingers and not used for placing notes. The fingers are numbered one through four.

hand pic

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.

First_Position_Violin_Fingering_Chart

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

  • The different strings have different qualities of sound. The E and G-strings can be quite brilliant and soloistic, whereas the A and D are gentler sounding, particularly in their higher registers.
  • Should you use an open string or the fourth finger to play E in first position? Carl Flesch preferred the sound of the fourth finger, which is more like the sound of the older gut E-string, whereas Galamian often favours the brightness of the steel E.  This decision is also affected by which notes are around the E and where it fits in to their colour. If all the notes in a phrase are on the E-string, an open string would match better. Many violinists avoid the open E altogether, perhaps to a fault, when it can, in fact, add brilliance, clarity of intonation and ease of playing.
  • Substituting a third finger for a fourth finger in higher positions gives a better quality of vibrato and tone. Substitution of fingers can also help with the technical execution of a phrase. In a slurred legato passage where a note is repeated, substitution may be made to help articulate the note. Expressive substitution can also be used in a succession of notes to change the character of the sound and the intensity of the vibrato. The substitution of third finger for fourth also avoids having to over-rotate the left arm in high positions.
  • Where a shift travels a whole tone, it is not a good idea to attempt it with one finger unless you want a sliding sound between the notes. If a half step interval is used, the shifting sound can be eliminated unless the speed of the passage is very slow. The half step shift is performed by a quick movement of the finger, and should sound as much as possible like the sound of another finger dropping onto the string. When there are several half step shifts in a row or where the notes are slurred, shifting a half step on one finger may cause lack of clarity. Look at the context of your shift.
  • Don’t neglect the second position. It’s sometimes useful for avoiding unnecessary fourth finger extensions and shifts. Getting to second position can often be achieved with an easy, half step shift. Sometimes the use of a less familiar position such as second position can eliminate string crossings and maintain a more even timbre.
  • Extensions outside of the octave frame are another useful tool. These used to be limited to the reaching of the fourth finger to play C on the E string in first position. More recently violinists have begun using multiple extensions in place of shifting, to create a smoother technical functioning and musical line. Galamian called this style of moving around the fingerboard “creeping fingering.” The change of position is achieved by extension or contraction of the hand followed by a readjustment of the hand shape from elongated to square or vice versa. The extended finger acts as a pivot to establish a new hand position.
  • In high positions, particularly on the E-string, decide whether to shift to retain a uniform sound, or whether to remain in a high position, often written as restez. Remaining in the high position and crossing over the strings can eliminate unwanted audible shifts and give more security to your intonation, but the sound quality will be different from that on the E-sting. In the piece of music you are playing, will it sound better to shift to the higher position to prepare for the new phrase, or should you end the phrase then shift to begin the new one, keeping them more aurally distinct? Changing position by leaping to the new phrase rather than preparing the high position requires you to become comfortable with the geography of the fingerboard, knowing where all the notes are.
  • Flesch indicates that fingers should not be left down when not in use unless there is a strong advantage to your intonation to do so. Leaving fingers pressed down into the fingerboard creates tension and impairs vibrato. See if you can keep a sense of your octave shape and the placing of your left hand whilst also maintaining a light sense of independence between the fingers. Don’t allow your fingers to lift too high from the fingerboard.
  • When you are playing complicated intervals that are enharmonically the same as much easier ones, use an easier fingering. For example, the distance of a diminished 3rd is the same as a major second. Use the adjacent finger as you would for the major 2nd to avoid difficulty and confusion.
  • Use the bow to facilitate shifting. Sometimes you can eliminate an audible shift within a slur by changing the bow in a different place.
  • In order to keep a uniform sound, change position where possible, rather than changing string. It is rarely ideal to change position for the sake of a single note.

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.

 


 

Did you enjoy this article?

Why not sign up for Standard Membership to learn more about your violin-playing technique, and access our Aural & Music Theory training Software!

button3

 

eLearning for the Violin.

15 Palace Street
Westminster, London
SW1E 5HS, ENGLAND

Email: support@violinschool.com
Phone: +44 (0) 20 3051 0080
© Copyright 2018 - ViolinSchool - All Rights Reserved
LONDON, UK
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram