When I was a beginning violinist and started learning how to shift, it never occurred to me the importance of knowing the fingerboard. I concentrated instead on what my hand felt like, rather than the target and my fingertip. And I relied on my ear, in placing my fingers, once in position.
I have since learned methods that helped me focus on knowing the fingerboard - and turning that knowledge into well-ingrained muscle memory. There were two books that helped me with shifting, Introducing the Positions by Harvey Whistler (Rubank-Hal Leonard) and Shifting the Position, Opus 8 by Otakar Sevcik (Schirmer). The first one nudged me out of first position, which I did reluctantly. The second one made it very clear that the fingerboard needed to be divided and conquered. New rules!
Sevcik presents intervals in bite-size form, one measure of whole and half steps. The efficiency of this method is demonstrated by each successive measure, starting in the next position with almost the same intervals:
You can go up the fingerboard as far as you’d like, with the added advantage that your ear already knows what to expect from the sequence. Finally, shifting gives you the opportunity to learn where all the fingers need to be. Sevcik shows that you need to measure intervals, and the process feels like you’re rewiring your brain. Progress!
Mentally Marking Up the Fingerboard
The fingerboard is as spatial as an architect’s drawings. You can let your ear guide you for a while, but eventually it's important to map the fingerboard in your mind - to know the spaces between shifts and intervals between fingers. Sevcik gives numerous examples of small and large intervals.
Looking at the example above, each beat includes eighth notes or sixteenth notes, so there’s a moment when two or four pitches have to be measured, in terms of finger placement. Sevcik’s music may look dense, but the intervals are musical and violinistic. When it comes to the shifts, be careful not to overlook the accuracy of the first finger, because the small building-block intervals depend on the first finger’s correct placement. Those little details make a big difference. Here are some of the most important details to consider:
1. Targeting the shift. There’s a tendency to think the target is bigger than it really is. Fingertips are very big compared to the pinpoint area of the pitch. It’s better to place the finger firmly, guided by a strong, rhythmic beat. If your counting is vague, and the finger wobbly, the pitch will need an adjustment. Also, a little fudging will become part of your technique. To avoid this, have your ear and your movement in sync. Know in advance of each shift where you’re going to land.
2. Measure up to shift down. I can only speak for myself, but I noticed that shifting down was more difficult than shifting up. The reason was because I didn’t know how to measure backwards. Then I realized that it was a skill I didn’t need to learn, like walking backwards. Because of the nature of space on the violin, it is possible to measure up from the nut, even when shifting down. Since shifting is a game like hopscotch, space can include up, down, and sideways (string-to-string). Measuring in only one direction takes away the difficulty of "backward measuring."
3. Repeat for muscle memory. Repetition is always a crucial factor in retaining muscle memory. I like to play one measure at least four times in quick succession. If I stop too many times, I lose the rhythmic drive which defines the movement of the fingers. Stopping also unleashes doubt, a big cause of weak intonation. Finally, the quickness of repetition helps me assess how sharp or flat I am. In the quick world of shifting, the ear guides my finger the next time I play the same passage.
Is there a way to fit so many details within a shift without feeling overwhelmed? The bad news is that, when you arrive in a new position, you have only a moment to know where to place all of the fingers in that position. The good news is that you can practice a full minute or two to plan it all. You have to get into a slower groove of thinking. The conscious effort you make in practicing shifting and finger intervals results in unconscious knowledge - your concept of the fingerboard will be transformed. It rises to the surface in an easier manner, since the foundation has already been created.
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