Understanding And Learning Shifting And Higher Positions On The Fiddle Part One
by Carolyn Osborne
Years ago I got to watch my favorite classical violinist, Itzhak Perlman, play the fiddle music of his Jewish heritage, klezmer. He’s an amazing player, of course, having mastered the hardest classical violin music there is. But what really struck me as I watched him play with the other klezmer fiddlers is that while all the players were facile in first and third positions, Perlman was equally at home in the stratosphere of the fiddle. Watching Perlman made me realize how important knowing how to shift and how to play in higher positions can be.
There are a couple of significant advantages to being able to move beyond first position. One is that there are certain notes and chords that you cannot get any other way. For example, in Jerusalem Ridge, the part that goes to a C chord has to be played in second or a higher position to reach the C note on the E string. Or if you listen to Benny Martin’s break on Flint Hill Special, the D and B he hits in the beginning of his break (D on the A string, B on the D string) can only be played using a higher position.
A second advantage is that if you can play in higher positions, you can transpose tunes very easily and that inevitable singer who likes the key of Ab will not throw you. It’s fun to be able to take a break in a weird key.
So, how do you do this?
There are two main issues to playing in higher positions. One is playing in tune once you get to the higher position and the other is getting to the higher position accurately (shifting). After we get a couple of concepts out of the way (vocabulary and transposition) I’ll explain ways of practicing both playing in the higher positions and shifting.
People who read music tend to think of “higher” as the positions closer to the bridge and the notes on the E string as opposed to the lower-pitched notes on the G string; the higher the frequency of the note, the higher the pitch and the higher that note is placed on the written musical staff. People who don’t read music tend to think more about how these notes are organized spatially and their idea of high and low can be different as a result. In this article, I am using “higher” in the reading music way (frequency), not the spatial way.
One thing to practice before you start messing around with higher positions is to transpose many songs into the key of B, specifically, to use the B scale that begins on the A string. This means that the first finger on the A string is the tonic note (the note B, the main note in the key of B). It also means that you have to use that fourth finger because you cannot use any open strings, so dust off your pinkie!. Start off with simple tunes like Mary Had a Little Lamb (A32123332223 E11 A3212333322321), remembering that to make the tune sound right, there has to be about an inch of space between your first and second fingers and between your second and third fingers on a full-sized fiddle. On the mandolin, you would be using the 2nd, 4th, and 6th frets to play the tune. Try to get three or four tunes you can play this way because these are the tunes you can use to practice in the higher positions. [The parenthetical letters and numbers, above, refer to string and fingering. In the key of B, the 2nd and 3rd fingers are in high position. - The Editor]
Intonation in the higher positions
If you are confident about where notes are located on the violin fingerboard, fine. If you are not, it might be helpful to borrow a mandolin so you can get this figured out. A mandolin’s fixed frets will help you to learn the fingerboard of the fiddle. The sidebar to this article has charts that compare the violin to the mandolin to help you. [See the next part of this article in the next issue. -The Editor]
One thing you’ll notice is that as you look at a mandolin is that the frets get closer and closer together as you move into the higher positions. To get higher positions in tune on the fiddle, you will have to put your fingers closer together.
There are plenty of large male classical violinists with big ol’ meaty fingers who can do this, so finger size is not an excuse for not trying this.
If you can play songs correctly in the key of B (and not use any open strings to get notes), then you can play those songs in any key. You put your first finger on the tonic note and use the same fingering pattern as the key of B.
For example, if you want to play Mary Had a Little Lamb in the key of C, you could move your first finger to the C on the A (equivalent of third fret on the mandolin) and use the exact same finger pattern as you used in B, again with a fret’s worth of space between your first and second fingers and your second and third fingers. To get it in tune, you would have to make sure your fingers are just the tiniest bit closer together.
Practice all the songs you know in the key of B (on all strings) in various positions, listening for intonation. That means, you want the song to sound right. Use an electronic tuner to help you (and you can figure out the notes you are using with the violin charts in the sidebar). The most important thing here is to make sure you are playing in tune because if you are not, you will make your listeners miserable.
Getting There: Half the Fun
The other thing to practice, especially after you have learned to play some tunes in different positions, is how to get from first position to another position accurately. Fiddlers can do some sliding, which can help, but you don’t want to depend on sliding all the time because it doesn’t always fit in the music.
Let’s say you are going to use third position on the A string, where your first finger is where your third finger normally goes when you are in first position. That D is the same note name as your open D which means it vibrates exactly twice as fast as the open D. If you listen carefully, you will discover that you can hear the open D ring when that D on the A string is in tune. Practice listening for this with all notes that have the same name as an open string (see sidebar for charts in the next part of this article, to help you find these notes).
Once you know what an in-tune D on the A string sounds like, it’s time to learn how to get there in tune 99% of the time. Put your first finger on that D and get the D in tune. Now, lift your finger up 1/8th of an inch and put it right back down in the same place. Play the note to make sure it is still in tune. If it is, go to the next step, which is to lift your finger ¼ inch from the string. Put it back down and check intonation.
Keep doing this, lifting your finger higher and higher. Eventually, you can take your hand away from the neck and still get that finger back to the right place. Use this exercise until you can play the note in tune, drop your hand completely to your side, and put your hand back in the right place again. This exercise really works, so it is worth the effort it requires.
Advancing in the Positions
The exercises in this article will lead you to play in various positions in tune. Over time, you can also learn how to play tunes where the first finger is not the tonic note, but this is a good way to get started. Being able to play in positions will open a new world on your fiddle playing and allow you to learn some great, advanced fiddle tunes.
[To be continued.]
about the author
Until recently, Carolyn Osborne was the co-director of the Gahanna-Lincoln High School fiddlers, Gahanna, Ohio. She teaches in the Dept. of Education at Capital University.