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Approaches to Violin / Viola Pedagogy

Higher Positions for Lower Register Passages
Rx for the 1-3 PS (First-Third Position Syndrome)

By Dr. Charles Heiden                                           Printer Friendly Version Printer Friendly Version
May 16, 20

High d3 (on the E string, in 3rd position, 4th finger) typically is the goal that launches a violin student's first venture beyond 1st position. After that -- with the the upward range of the violin extended to the limit espoused by Corelli, and every other pitch available in first position -- the disease of "First-Third Position Syndrome" sets in. Why pursue 3rd position down to small c (middle c) ? 1st position is so much easier! (at least initially). And 2nd position? Why, indeed? It yields no new territory. Soon the First-Third Position Syndrome becomes chronic, perhaps for life, complicated and reinforced by our edited solos and etude collections that ingrain the violin technique of yesteryear.

Early in their study, violin students need to ascend and descend stepwise, playing a given passage in adjacent positions (1st and 2nd, or 3rd and 2nd) -- to assess the facility of each solution, yes -- but more importantly to learn to evaluate expressive factors. And students need to PLAN a shift.: "The finger that is what pitch does it need to slide in order to put the new finger in range for the new note?" is the question students need to learn to formulate. Models are needed for routined practicing of the TWO intervals in most shifts -- the portamento, and then the distance to the new finger. Standardized models extracted from their repertoire piece will remind the student, "Not only for this piece, but henceforth for every similar passage -- these are the reasons for practicing."

Example 1 is a simple waltz melody on the lower strings (A,D, and G) using only the pitches of the major tetrachord mounted from the open strings. First position is quite feasible, but at the junctures marked by asterisks, the open strings create a shortcoming. Vibrato is inhibited, but more importantly, especially at measures 3 - 4, the "break" in timbre -- bright open-A changing abruptly to the more subdued sound of the stopped D-string -- is defective. Each string has its special color, our teaching needs to say -- but here the melody requires continuity of timbre [it's a good word -- our students need words for new concepts!]


Example 2 supplies fingerings to remedy the shortcomings above. Abrupt changes of timbre are smoothed out by shifting first to second position, then to third, and back again. The changes of position are elucidated with small notes that show the portamentos in each shift. These slides must be silent. It is helpful at first to require the student to "freeze," then silently produce the portamento, then the new articulating finger, then proceed with the bow, resuming the rhythm. This method of practice aims to sort out and properly separate the brain's commands to right and left hands.

The arrow in ex.2 points to a consideration that should occur with every portamento. Here it is a matter of choosing whether 1st finger should slide to C-natural or C-sharp. Sometimes it makes little difference. But here there are two reasons for the choice: the sharped C corresponds with the harmonic context, AND it sets the hand for what follows.
1. The melody is quoted from "Kylie's Waltz: A Cantilena (2'29'") with optional elementary violin part, first movement of Two Lyrical Pieces, for string orchestra (grade 5) by Charles Heiden, Heiden Music Publications. There is also a chamber music version of the waltz with flexible scoring for two violins, cello ad lib., and piano ad lib.

Continued Below









The mapping of intervals onto the geography of the fingerboard is critical. Ex. 2 compares the sequence repetition, measures 1-2 and 5-6. The M2 (Major 2nd) and M6 (Major 6th) at 1-2 are congruent [ ] -- fingers far apart. At 5-6, the m2 (minor 2nd) and m6 (minor 6th) are congruent -- fingers close.

Examples 2 and 3 define models for practicing the two intervals involved in most shifts. The display is based on the first shift in ex. 2, mm. 2-3.



First play the portamento model in 1st position, to solidify and refine the intonation, and location of the stops. Then play the portamento as indicated. The focus here is on planning the shift; the mechanics of shifting lie beyond this study. But beware! With small shifts, a student is tempted to "cheat" by simply scooting the finger back and forth. It needs to be emphasized -- this is a shift of the whole hand, forearm, etc.

The triple aspect of the models is important. The repeat reverses not only the bow direction, but also the relations-in-motion of the two hands. Also significant is the slurring: the purpose is to differentiate the roles played by right and left hands. If the bow change and left hand actions coincide, then the brain's commands will more likely be confused and misdirected.

Example 3 treats the other interval in a shift, the interval defined when the new finger falls on the new pitch-stop. At mm. 2-3, this interval is the descending M3. Since the model contains both ascending and descending motion, in both bow directions, one can conventionally start the model with the ascending interval, if the left hand fingers are taught to operate independently of the bow arm, as shown in the second version of the model.



This Rx for the 1-3 PS (First-Third Position Syndrome} teaches the use of adjacent higher positions for low register passages, but "taken as prescribed" the medicine has another salutory result. It vastly improves first position performance as the player learns to think less and less in terms of pitches as cardinal points of destination, and more and more conceives of melodic movement in ordinal terms: up or down? precisely how far?



Charles Heiden, May 16, 2010
Salem Oregon


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