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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Using Your Neighbor's Fence to Find Higher Positions

I like to help my students find positions quickly on their instruments, and I find it works well to relate the physical sensation of touching the instrument in various places with different parts of the body. Here's what I mean.

Remember the television comedy "Home Improvement"? The show starred Tim Allen, his family, his co-worker Al, and a mysterious next door neighbor whose face was always kept hidden from us in some way: by a fence, a misplaced garden tool, or by some other obstruction. I use the neighbor-behind-the-fence illustration to help my students get a picture of what a particular position might "feel" like as the position relates to the shoulder of the violin. I use a music stand as my "fence."

First position: students know this position already because that's what they've learned first. Still, we know it's first position because we can "feel" or sense other parts of the violin, such as the pegs, the fingerboard nut, or the place where the scroll and peg box connect to the violin neck.

Second position: this is the scary position, because it feels like there is no floor beneath us. Second position is part way between first and third position. Sometimes I just have to go back to first position in order to find second, or else I just practice shifting between the higher position and second position until I get a feel for the intervalic relationship I'm searching for.

3rd position
Third position: here I start using the fence illustration. To find this position, I show students how to jut their wrists forward at a slight angle to "bump" into the violin shoulder. This resembles standing next to the fence and resting one of our feet up against the bottom of the fence but the rest of us stands back about a foot away from the fence. Once my students have found the third position using this method, I encourage them to "let go" of the touch point.

4th position
Fourth position: finding this position resembles standing directly up against the fence, as the neighbor did in the television show. We didn't see the neighbor because he did not hold his head up above the fence. I show my students how to bump up against the violin shoulder using the hand completely. I encourage most of my students to maintain the same hand position in fourth position as the students do in the first three positions: keeping the base area and side of the index finger touching the fingerboard and neck. Only if a student has very tiny hands will I consider encouraging the student to raise his or hand higher over the violin shoulder. I have very small hands, but even I hold my hand in fourth position in the same manner as I do first to third positions.
5th position

Fifth position: At this point I introduce the concept of the "hump" or "hill," which is my euphemism for the ascent over the violin shoulder. I liken the feeling of fifth position to that of standing behind the fence but resting one arm on the top of the fence. I encourage my students to raise their violin hand just enough to start climbing over the hump. This can be a tricky area for students, because some students may try to "climb around" the shoulder along the side. I discourage this practice because it causes the students to play with lengthened rather than curved fingers, which causes the fingers to sound weak in tone and also makes it difficult in some cases for students to reach the accurate pitches.

6th position
Sixth position: I liken this position to that of resting both arms on top of the fence. Again, I am careful to show my students how to climb up over the "hump" or "hill" and allow the hand to rest on the top edge of the shoulder and let the chin hold the violin.

7th position
Seventh position: At this point, this position feels like someone has not only rested both arms on top of the fence but has begun to lean over the fence as if to reach something on the other side. The students are sometimes uncomfortable about how this position feels in relation to the closeness of the fingerboard, but I am ever vigilant about making sure that the students maintain the correct finger curvature (pinky curved!) in order to maintain finger strength.

In my next blog post, I will tell you how I use the back seat of a car to show a student how it feels to play in higher positions.

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