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Generalities of Violin fingering


Will L
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There are certain rules for choosing fingerings.  I'm certainly not the expert to go to for these but I'll stick my neck out a little and point out that fingerings should first and foremost work in performance. Too often we put in fingerings because they make great sense at the moment, and in  theory, but don't hold up under pressure.  (Having to play without stopping, and up to speed, and also having listener/s = pressure)

 

Many things can be played without specific fingerings being established and practiced.  But there are two areas which require well thought out and practiced fingerings:  1. Difficult technical passages; 2. Musical passages that benefit from fingerings that add in some way to the musicality.

 

Technical fingerings are those which make a passage easier or, indeed, playable at all; more flowing; more accurate;  or shifting silent, or at least unnoticed.

 

Musical fingerings are those which take into consideration many things including the choice of string for timbre reasons; phrasing; shifting with a musical content, i.e. portamento.  Not so incidentally, most teachers agree that choosing a musical fingering should always trump choosing a technical one.  But I would contend that making sure the notes are played well is paramount.

 

The reasons to choose a certain fingering are too numerous to list here, but if one keeps the basics of the two above paragraphs in mind, one can judge whether a fingering is living up to what it is supposed to be doing.  At least it will offer a template by which to accept a fingering or reject it.


 

A fingering worth practicing diligently ought to already be proven to be good and workable BEFORE we put in the hours making it second nature.  Logic and a pattern of thought might save a lot of headaches and wasted time.

 

I believe choosing of fingerings is a major concern which really separates the finest violinists from those who aren't so fine.  Besides being essential, it is a wonderful intellectual exercise.  If you love working puzzles, you can save lots of money in puzzle books by using that time to explore fingerings.   No less a violinist than Nathan Milstein was noted for continually seeking a better fingering for various passages.  And I have had friends who spent countless hours listening to recordings of the great artists for the purpose of determining how an artist is fingering something.  (That was before we had so many videos)  In short, fingerings are VERY important and we gain by spending the time developing our skills in arriving at good ones.

 

Of course, most editions have fingerings by very qualified people.  They are usually good. But I think we benefit by studying them, all the while arguing and trying to find fault with them.  We gain little by accepting them blindly.  If we come to the conclusion the editor's fingerings are best, we haven't been wasting our time;  at least we have gained a better understanding by figuring out WHY they are the best.

 

I just reviewed two "bibles" on fingering:  Carl Flesch's "Violin Fingering" and I.M. Yampolsky's "The Principles of Violin Fingering".  I had forgotten how great they are.  Both are astounding and absolute must-haves in a serious violinist's arsenal.  Both present levels of thinking about the subject that most of us could spend a lifetime without figuring out.  The Flesch work gives well over 1,700 examples, and the Yampolsky has some interesting historical information about early violin playing.  I just can't recommend these books strongly enough.

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I remember learning that passage of the Magic Flute overture on viola that is a standard audition excerpt. My teacher made his students all learn it simply in first position. His argument is that optional fingerings tend to get quite complex and you must be able to play it at the drop of a hat without prepratory practice. He was right.

I have yet to find an edited fingering that I agree with more than 20-30% of the time. I think everyone has strengths that tend to influence their choice of fingering. I for one am very comfortable with shifting positions so I will often shift where others will cross strings. Also, after I left the profession and stopped practicing/playing 4-8 hours a day, I lost some strength and agility in my 4th finger so I tend to avoid it more than I probably should - especially in musical fingerings (more so on viola than violin).

I will give one piece of advice in learning to finger - become very comfortable in 2nd position, it will make life much easier. It is a powerful place to be on the instrument.

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I agree with everything Dr. S says.

I would add to what he—and I—wrote by saying IMO the simplest is a wonderful goal to seek: What is easiest for the individual player, easy to remember, and easy to execute under pressure; only resorting to complexity for a good reason.

And how well I remember looking for clever fingerings for the mentioned Mozart Overture, and how it gets discussed back stage. Thanks Dr. S for bringing back the memories. :)

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I will add that there are differences between what I would do on a violin and a viola. In fact I find this the biggest technical difference between the two instruments. Jumps and extentions are far more practical on violin whereas on viola it really takes more strategic planning, particularly if you have to go high. On violin you can just leap there but on viola you really need to take the stairs.

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  • 3 weeks later...

This reminds me of an incident regarding a piece in an RCM edition.  In that grade, 2nd position had been introduced, so they had put in some pieces for the sake of practising 2nd position, writing in fingering for the same.  Somebody else looking at the piece was highly critical, because the fingering was not handy.  His criticism went beyond the piece itself, because one main principle in violin playing is to always find the most practical fingering.  A musician should always attempt to find what creates the greatest ease.  I never forgot the comment.

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Ah, but practicing/working fingerings that may at first feel uncomfortable - such as 2nd position is valid in the practice room, because the larger the bag of tricks you can take to the stage, the better. The point is to make that good but uncomfortable fingering method become comfortable so it becomes one of your options. I still stand by the statement that you need to use simple fingerings where ever possible. So, the wider range of things you can do comfortably - or seeminly simply, the better. Comfort is for the stage, not the practice room!

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This reminds me of an incident regarding a piece in an RCM edition.  In that grade, 2nd position had been introduced, so they had put in some pieces for the sake of practising 2nd position, writing in fingering for the same.  Somebody else looking at the piece was highly critical, because the fingering was not handy.  His criticism went beyond the piece itself, because one main principle in violin playing is to always find the most practical fingering.  A musician should always attempt to find what creates the greatest ease.  I never forgot the comment.

Yes and no, IMO.  But I come from a school of learning which was very orderly:  The DeBeriot Method, which used each position in turn and introduced more techniques along the way.  There were 6 melodic etudes in first position, then six in second, etc.  Since the etudes were written, I believe with the position in mind, they were not awkward.  

 

I believe there is an advantage to being able to play long distances in one position, even if the fingerings are not entirely "handy."  It is not the way to play great Bach or Mozart for one's definitive recording :) , but it is a very good way to sight read and play in a group larger than a string quartet or small chamber orchestra.

 

The bag of tricks Dr. S describes is another good value to remaining in positions without trying to find the VERY BEST fingering.  I don't see it as specific tricks so much as I see it as training one's self.  "Meat and potatoes" fingers which can be executed well enough can be very helpful.  In our daily lives as working musicians, we don't always have the time to get fancy.  (And I shouldn't use the term "fancy" because it sounds sarcastic, and I don't mean it that way)  We don't have time, period!  So we don't have the time to think through everything.  If we can sound good with less than ideal fingerings, we will be ahead in the game.   As I re-read Dr. S. I think he is saying something similar, only less long-winded than lil' ol' me.

 

I also come from a time when auditions required REAL sight reading:  something we had never seen before.  The idea of not being comfortable with a fingering simply had to be dealt with or one didn't get the job.

 

If, on the other hand, we develop good concepts of fingering based on the best possible, it probably helps us later to come up with better fingerings under the pressure of the moment.  In short, practice both ways.

 

I don't know anything about current method books, but if one can't find etudes which allow us to become comfortable with each position, then we can simply take any Bach or Kreutzer and play long passages in each position, which ought to develop our skill.       —MO   

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