The Shifting Formula

The Shifting Formula

There are a lot of method books that help students with beginning shifting. When I was just starting out as a teacher, it was overwhelming the amount of shifting materials I could find. But although many books contained helpful exercises in practicing shifting, there was nothing that actually explained how to shift. When I was in graduate school, I had already been shifting for about a decade and had gotten some great teaching in how to shift. “Lighten up”, “keep it smooth”, “no jerky motions”, “use a link note”. I thought I was a pretty good shifter, but as usual, my brilliant teacher, George Taylor was able to boil a technical issue down to its essence and reveal how I could be doing better. He’s the one who taught me the Shifting Formula.

The Shifting Formula

Every shift can be boiled down to 4 steps.

  1. Place: The finger before the shift is placed on the string.
  2. Release: The finger weight releases to a harmonic level on the string. At the same time, the thumb and base knuckle of the index finger also release or “lighten up”.
  3. Glide: The finger and entire hand glide to the new position with the finger on a harmonic level of weight.
  4. Place: the finger in the new position on the string.

When teaching the shifting formula, I write down each step for the student, often on a post-it note placed on their piece or shifting exercise so they can refer to it throughout the week. Over the next several weeks and then periodically after that, I will quiz my students on the shifting formula. I want them to be able to name all 4 steps in order and using those four words. An issue of semantics: Many students will accidentally replace the word “glide” in Step No. 3 with the word “slide”. It may seem silly to argue this, but I insist on using the word glide because I want to inspire a certain kind of shifting motion.

Merriam-Webster Defines glide as:

  1. 1 :  to move smoothly, continuously, and effortlessly
  2. 2 :  to go or pass imperceptibly
  3. 3a of an airplane :  to descend gradually in controlled flight

To slide has a similar meaning but is less graceful and implies friction. I explain that while one can “slide” into home plate, it often kicks up a lot of dirt and is a tense moment in the game. By contrast, I want my student to glide effortlessly to the next position, like an eagle alighting on a current of air. After briefly discussing the Shifting Formula, I assign the first notated shifting exercises.

Barbara Barber’s “No Fear Shifting” from Fingerboard Geography

I love the Fingerboard Geography book and it’s available for both violin and viola. The exercises in this book are simple enough to memorize, so are appropriate for students who aren’t as strong in reading music. I first assign the exercise in shifting to harmonics, then move on to the next group of exercises which take the student through same finger shifts up each string. In the first week, I only have students shift up to the 4th position. The after shifts in 1st through 4th position are secure, then we can work on shifts above the 4th position, where the student must adjust the location of the thumb. I have the student play very slowly at first, usually at quarter note equals 50, and release the finger weight so that I hear a harmonic level slide AKA a “seagull” during the shift.

At this point, the shifting formula becomes a tool for the student to gauge their own shifting success. If a student plays a shift that is audible or not smooth, I will ask “Which part of the formula could you use more of?” Hint: the answer is almost always that the student didn’t release the finger or thumb weight enough!  The shifting formula gives the student a specific and simple way to evaluate their own shifts. For a student whose left hand is especially “grabby”, I may keep them shifting on the harmonic level for a while until they are able to shift without squeezing the thumb. Another trick for grabby thumbs is to place a band-aid on the top of the thumb. Regular band-aids are somewhat slick and if the student squeezes with the thumb, it will usually just slide around.

String Technique Hack Band-Aid

After the student is comfortable with the Barbara Barber exercises, then we will start working in Introducing the Positions. I’ve tried a lot of different method books for shifting, but ITP is, in my mind, the most comprehensive and organized. Many teachers dislike ITP because the material is dry and unmusical, especially in the beginning. I don’t mind that because what the book lacks in compositional interest, it makes up for in brevity. Each exercise is no longer than a few lines and the book is helpfully divided by key so I can match the ITP exercise with the key of the piece a student is working on.

Using ITP

There are two different but important skills taught in ITP:

  1. Reading music correctly in the 3rd position in different keys. These exercises contain no shifts, but remain entirely in 3rd position.
  2. Shifting in and out of the 3rd position.

As a prerequisite to ITP, I want to make sure my student is comfortable playing and identifying intervals up to a perfect fifth, or at the very least skips and steps. The ability to think in terms of intervals is very important when beginning to shift and the student who is used to thinking only in terms of finger numbers or note names will be at a disadvantage. To review or reinforce intervals, I will use the Music Mind Games Staff Slate to have students practice making intervals from different notes.

Reading confidently in 3rd position usually involves some adjustment time. For students who are really struggling with the reading aspect, I may assign scales in the 3rd position only (which are included in ITP), and have the student say the note names out loud before playing each note. In the exercises, I will have the student play very slowly while either naming notes or saying intervals.

I like to assign one exercise from each category (reading and shifting) per week. When giving comments on the exercises, I’m constantly referring to the shifting formula. If a student plays a shift that is audible or not smooth, I will ask “Which part of the formula could you use more of?” Hint: the answer is almost always that the student didn’t release the finger or thumb weight enough!  The shifting formula gives the student a specific and simple way to evaluate their own shifts so we keep coming back to it again and again as we further improve and refine shifts. Once my students are confident shifting in 1st and 3rd position, and later in 2nd and 4th position, but no earlier than Book 5, then I know it’s time to bring in the heavy-hitting etudes with Sevcik Op. 8. But that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms 🙂

Yours in the Alto Clef,


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