Shifting and Bowing - Equal Partners

June 20, 2019, 9:45 PM · The first time I shifted from first to third position was probably the clutziest day of my life. I bet my bow was bouncing before, during, and after the shift. I think I was hoping I could remain a first position guy. However, I had a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Simon who lived on the other side of the alley from our house, a two-minute walk. I imagine she smiled and complimented my first try. That’s what I needed to make it through the dismay I was feeling. In the eye-hand coordination department, shifting challenges us no less than throwing a strike over home plate. Musical talent and sports talent rarely intersect, but each need to know the properties that are at play.

shifting playing

Timing is Everything

The bow needs to be fully prepared to withstand the tremor/jolt of the shift. "Frame" the beat just before the shift. Framing helps define a beat far more than a metronome or a tapping foot can. To get a clear picture of what framing looks like, watch the principal brass players in a symphony orchestra on YouTube. Amidst the melodic flow and harmonic atmosphere, you can see the clear and rather prosaic upbeat of a trumpet of French horn player. Once you understand how to actually see the beat, you can incorporate it into your inner thinking. Framing helps define not only the movement from beat to beat, but it offers up the entire DNA of the music, from articulation to emotion.

The Bow Readies Itself for the Shift

When my bow bounced during a shift, it was just behaving normally. There were some things I needed to learn, and I didn’t have that kind of talent that divulges information on an as-needed basis. What I learned over the course of many, many years, was that the bow arm’s balance changes constantly and predictably. Also vital was knowing the skill in which extra pressure can be applied during the shift without affecting the sound. The most important trick I learned was how the hairs and the string stay attached to each other without stress-inducing pressure. Becoming aware of this kind of subtlety rescued my arm from years of having inflicted damage through debilitating muscle usage. It’s quite baffling how I escaped the damage that may have led to surgery. It seems like my arm healed itself after every practice session. About that I was delusional, and just lucky.

Playing With "Neutral Leverage"

While it’s necessary to apply a little more weight as the bow approaches the tip, adding pressure is a relative thing. Maintaining the same sound is much more important than exaggerating the leverage of the bow. During a shift, we add a little weight to the bow pressure to maintain the path and energy of the bow. It needs to be done artistically, not mechanically. This is a reminder that we start our love of music through the ear, and artistic decisions always rely on the subtle interplay of movement, weight, and balance. Don’t get bogged down with self-conscious wrist movements or clogged changes of direction.

The Rainbow Rhythm of Shifting

After months/years of practicing slow shifting, it occurred to me that shifting is a technique that happens surprisingly suddenly and quickly. This realization took a long time because I needed to "rewire" my brain to reflect the invisible frets of the fingerboard. It doesn’t take that long to do that, but it can take years to know it’s something that needs to be done. Here’s where talent comes into play. Someone gifted with spatial awareness sees a long expanse of ebony, and naturally gives it definition, depth, and boundaries. The rest of us fall off the sides, cringe at the thought of playing fifths, and forget how far a whole step is.

Once the "frets" are firmly in mind, so is the distance to be shifted. Good rhythm and framing shows us exactly when to shift. All that knowledge tells us exactly when to prepare the bow to dig in a little and avoid the inevitable bounce/tremor.

I like the term "bracing the bow" to describe the act of preparing it for the bounce. While it often has a connotation of being stiff, I refer to the definition of "giving strength, vigor, or freshness".

Shifting is quick but never abrupt. Music teaches us that not only notes are unique, but so are the moments in which they reside. Spatial rhythm is best visualized by thinking of a rainbow, which defines space perfectly. The line between a fast shift and an abrupt one is very subtle, but, with practice, a player’s sense of perspective broadens. Fast doesn’t seem so fast anymore.

The Kernels of Talent We Develop

None of us is free of talent. Instead we piece things together. We may have a strong sense of sound. Certain harmonies give us chills. We can play super-fast and somewhat accurately as long as we don’t let problem-solving thoughts interfere. Talent is a bowl of opportunity we can cultivate or waste. In the example of the bow bouncing during shifting, every new technique we learn to brace the bow adds more to the bowl. Talent is seeing what physical actions are needed to tame the bow and adapt to its characteristics. Practicing is fun when adult thinking is applied to defining what we do.

To know what to look for when I search for efficiency and natural technique, I remind myself of my friend’s skill/talent that I see every time we play bridge. He seems to let the card sail out of his hand, with a flick of his fingers, onto the table with a perfect trajectory, launching and landing speed, and not a trace of the card flipping upside down while it’s in the air. This is what talent and art look like, and violinists have to work at it in spite of the fact the two hands are doing something completely different.

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June 23, 2019 at 08:33 PM · Paul,

Where were you 30+ years ago when I was first struggling with shifting? An excellent discussion of the process.

As it is, my shifts are somewhere between spring-loaded and smooth - more on the spring-loaded side still. Still a whole lot better than when I started.

I'll keep this handy for when my current students get ready to start shifting.

We'll have no shiftless violinists in my studio!

June 23, 2019 at 09:15 PM · I had written an important response and I see someone deleted or blocked it.

Upset & Concerned ~

Elisabeth Matesky *

Artist pupil of Jascha Heifetz & Bowing Master, Nathan Milstein *

*See EM Biography here on

visit: Elisabeth Anne Matesky (on Facebook)


JH Violin Master Class, Khachaturian, JH-7, ElisabethMatesky Library of Master Performers **

June 24, 2019 at 04:30 AM · Hello E.M.~ maybe log in before writing in this department?

Shifting-- So much of this is counter-intuitive, which is one reason why the violin world has taken centuries to work out the best methods.

The three S's: Shifting should be a Straight, Smooth, and Simple motion. Too many try to shift fast, and it turns into a random lunge that misses as often as it hits. The bow arm naturally wants to release when we shift, but the trick is to do the opposite, maintain traction on the bow hair while we are releasing the left hand during the shift. I find that switching fingers during the shift helps to release the left hand, even though we are first taught to shift on the same finger. Also, it is slightly better to shift up on an up-bow, down on a down-bow, if you can arrange it. The body stays more balanced with those complimentary motions. I also find that shifting on the second or third fingers is more reliable than the first. The first finger wants to lead instead of follow the arm. Positions? Above the third position I don't really think about positions. Instead, it is more useful to think of the interval of the shift, how far we are moving between the positions. That imaginary fret system is a very good idea. The numbering system that we have inherited (1-2-3-....7) can cause some confusion and intonation problems. It is better to think of a different discrete position for each 1/2 step, like a guitarist. ~ jq

June 24, 2019 at 08:56 AM · Hello back, J.Q. ~

That was what confounded me ~ I had logged in!! ' Something' awakened me - now 3:15 AM! There is So Much to speak of about Bowing and many other ideas re Shifting ~ I do think your description/s of the basic process (easier to shift Up when bowing on an Up -V bow, etc.,) accurate, true & does work ... This subject is indeed a huge Topic & cannot be addressed in one or three sentences! But my view is from a perspective of the trajectory of The Bow Arm on either an Up or Down Bow which Paul Stein has not in-depth addressed vis a vie chording on 2 double stops strings, but even more importantly when playing 3 or 4 stringed Chords (i.e., Vieuxtemps #5 in the 3rd mov't, famed passage starting from 1st pos. & sequentially moving Up & on through to 5th pos.!!) In instances as this, one's Bow Arm Skill IS BOSS, NOT EQUAL!!) And in much of Bach's Unaccompanied Sonatas & Partitas plus Ysaye Solo Sonatas, this becomes vitally fact! I know from performing all of both that this statement is set on terra firms ~ Furthermore, the Bow Always pulls the left hand around ~ Period.!!

Arguably, navigating all of Bach's 6 Sonatas & Partitas + the Six Solo Violin Sonatas of Eugen Ysaye, takes years of live concert performance & experience giving one truly skilled confidence in doing all smoothly, and I would think, Paul Stein is not referring to these in his article ~ One must be slightly violin 'insane' to perform less practise these grand works for Unaccompanied Violin, which is actually a mind-set needed to do it!! Let it be said: I'm not advocating everyone spend many years locked away practising to acquire mastery or real control to accomplish this task! (It requires a state of mind I believe you, jq, are aware of & have gotten in to at various periods of 'I must play this' inspiration and aspiration, but Time is required and a goodly amount to say the least!!) Not too many are as crazed as some of us, Thank God, or not so much in America, as of late, excepting *Stella Chen, pupil of Miriam Fried, & fine Chamber Music pupil of my LA buddie, Paul Katz, 'Cellist and Founder of the Cleveland String Quartet, who just took the First Prize in the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium International Violin Concours of 2019 ~ (Bravo's are in order!!!) It must be said that if playing concerts as a touring artist, one is forced to travel a 'Road of Bowing Skill Less Travelled' ~

Being so early in the wee hours, it is best to leave off, but if JQ is back on here, try 'The Passage' I've mentioned when you've nothing better to do for 5 hours!

In closing, I strongly suggest viewing my mentor, N. Milstein's final Stockholm recital (UTube) in which he plays the 4th mov't Allegro of Bach's Unaccompanied Sonata #3 in C Major & if at all computer possible, S L O W IT D O W N to Slow Motion to track NM's swaying slightly Arc - Like Bow trajectory which will reveal a great secret of Bowing Mastery!!

I rest my case for now!

With Musical Regards to All ~

Elisabeth Matesky*

*(aka, Elisabeth 'M.' ~ )

June 25, 2019 at 03:14 PM · Excellent article and very helpful! I plan to em-"brace" (pun intended) your wisdom. Thanks for the insights. I'm with George... where were you 30 years ago? (Or in my case, 50+!)

June 25, 2019 at 05:40 PM · George, I like your image of shifts bring spring-loaded, because it brings to mind the propulsion of a fine pianist moving over fifths and octaves. Muddy movements from the left hand will bog down movements from the bow arm, and vice-versa. “Spring-loaded AND smooth” go hand-in-hand. (Pun intended) I’m sure your students will thank you for not letting them be “shiftless”.

June 25, 2019 at 05:50 PM · Joel, Thank you for the “Three S’s” Straight, Smooth, and Simple. Brings to mind “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line”. I read one violinists’s opinion recently that vibrato should be a circular motion, and I know that would confuse me, and even undo whatever progress I had made up until then. I’m going to apply the three s’s to other techniques and even phrasing!!!

June 25, 2019 at 06:01 PM · Diana, Thank you for your kind comments. 60 years ago I was looking at the instructions of the author of my violin primer book. Acronyms abounded for which part of the bow to use: UH,LH,BM,AM,etc. I’m still not sure what some of them mean. Just like you said, I would have liked someone to make things easier. With all the confusion, we have to admit we’re actually playing our violins and making music. Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles!!!

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