Shifting is the great divide for my viola studio. On the one hand, I have always had a handful of students who are excited to start shifting, perhaps after they have seen an older student deftly moving all over the fingerboard. Other students approach shifting with reticence and sometimes outright dread, particularly my transfer students who may have gotten a rushed introduction to shifting in a piece from school. To get my shifting-averse students on board with the process, I’ve come up with a lot of games and special review pieces to make shifting less scary.
Encourage a Pro-Shifting Mentality
It is very important that beginning students understand they will eventually be playing notes above their current first finger tapes, so they are mentally prepared when it is time to start shifting. I will often make comments to my students like “Did you see Dorothy moving her hand all the way up the viola at the recital? That’s called shifting and when you get to Lully Gavotte, you will get to do that too!” or “We are playing a 2-octave C Major scale. When we start shifting, we keep going up the fingerboard and it will become a 3-octave C Major scale!” I also like to emphasize how cool it is that we can play so many notes on the viola, pointing out that some wind instruments are much more limited in a number of notes they can play.
Introducing The High Dot
The high dot is a concept taken directly from Paul Rolland’s classic “The Teaching of Action in String Playing.” From the pre-twinkle level, I place a small dot sticker on the octave harmonic spot under the D string. This is called the “high dot” and we use the high dot when plucking pre-twinkle songs such as “Pop Goes the Weasel” or “The Ant Song”. I teach my students to pluck these songs using the 3rd finger or 4th finger of the left hand placed over the high dot. In addition to developing finger strength and independence, hovering over the high dot requires that the student keeps a straight wrist and that they adjust the elbow for each string level. Since the student has some experience early on having the left hand in the higher positions, shifting later seems less “foreign”.
For a video illustrating the high dot and a couple of these songs, check out this video from violinpedagogy.com showing a beginning violin lesson with Mimi Zweig. The part demonstrating a song using the high dot occurs around 1 minute and 30 seconds in.
When I feel that the student has a stable hand frame and intonation in the first position (though never before Book 2), I will start to teach some pre-shifting exercises. The goal of these exercises is to introduce the shifting motion in a relaxed and fun way. Once we have mastered an easy, light shifting motion, then we are ready to start adding notes to it.
For fingerboard polishing, I have the student place their cleaning cloth on top of the strings, so that the thumb is on the side of the neck, on top of the cleaning cloth (so it will be hanging over the sides a bit). The student then lightly polishes the strings with the cleaning cloth, moving loosely in between roughly first and fourth positions. While they are polishing, I am still looking for a straight wrist and that the thumb is moving along with the index finger.
This is a long-time student favorite! The seagull exercise uses the same motion as polishing, but without the cleaning cloth. Now the student polishes the strings at a harmonic level of finger weight one finger at a time, moving slowly between 1st and 4th position (but with no clear goal note). When beginning this exercise, I will draw long bows for the student, and once they have gotten the hang of it, they can start bowing themselves. Students love this exercise because when they are doing it correctly, it sounds like seagull calls, or perhaps a squeaky playground swing. Again, I am looking carefully that their thumb is always moving alongside the 1st finger and that the wrist is straight. It is also important that the student maintains a light, harmonic finger weight, so they get the feeling of lightness and ease in shifting. If they are pressing the fingers too much, they won’t get the true harmonics and I will comment that “I’m hearing too much of the normal pitches”.
Once the student has experienced the fluidity and ease I am looking for, we are ready to start shifting in earnest. At this point, I turn to review pieces, so we don’t immediately have to start reading notes in the new position. Here are some pieces I frequently turn to:
Beginning on the D string and shifting up to third position for all the A string notes (see below). For viola students, once this is comfortable in the viola key, we just move the starting pitch over to the A string and now the violas can play with the violins on Twinkle. Here is a picture of what this looks like:
For the open As and Ds and the end of each phrase, the student instead shifts up to the octave harmonic. In a group class, the shifting students could be joined by pre-twinklers who are bowing on open strings.
In the Suzuki Viola Book 2, there is also a version of Perpetual Motion which is in G Major and entirely in 3rd position, which is great for ear training as well as getting used to the new position.
Go Tell Aunt Rhody
Like Twinkle, we shift up for all notes which are usually played on the A string. Once we are doing previews for Lully Gavotte in Book 2, I will change this to what is commonly called “Aunt Rhody goes to Arabia” (I sometimes call it Augmented Aunt Rhody to talk about the Augmented 2nd) with a high 2 and a low 1 and move it to start 2 on A, so we really prep that shift at the bottom of page 1.
Long, Long, Ago (Book 1 key)
Shift up to 3rd position for all A string notes.
I’m sure there are many other ways to use review in shifting practice, but these are my current go-tos. Please share your ideas in the comments! I’ll be following this up next week with an overview of how I continue the shifting process once my students have mastered these basics.
Yours in the Alto Clef,