By Bob Phillips
Shifting, one of the major skills needed for string playing, allows for the addition of higher notes (highest string), for easier fingerings in certain passages, and for changes in timbre, but can seem to elude some students. String players and teachers need to be able to shift, but how do you build that skill in your students? Start early with precursor games and activities that build a foundation for later skills!
Prerequisites to Shifting
Before approaching this skill with your students, there are several prerequisites to helping build a strong foundation for shifting as students advance in their playing. Students must have:
- Proper instrument setup.
- Knowledge of the D Major tetra-chord.
- Finger independence.
- A releasable thumb.
- The ability to support the instrument without the left-hand.
Basic Principles of Shifting
Once students have these prerequisites under their belts, you can introduce them to some basic principles of shifting that should be kept in mind as they maneuver the mechanics:
- Squeezing or grabbing the neck will cause them to shift flat.
- Moving too quickly cause them to shift sharp.
- The fingerboard must be “mapped” mentally by using positions.
- Positions are easier to conceptualize with hand frames.
Common Issues with Upper Positions
Before implementing the precursor games and activities to build a foundation for shifting, it’s important to identify some of the common problems that will be specifically addressed, and hopefully solved! Key issues include:
- Getting to the upper positions.
- Mapping the fingerboard/re-wiring the brain for new notes on the highest string.
- Mapping the fingerboard/re-wiring the brain for notes already known in 1st position to upper positions.
- Learning to play by ear when using upper positions.
- Learning by reading (deciding what position to use).
- Adjusting which bowing lane to be in depending on how short the string is.
- Mapping the new string crossing implications when playing in upper positions.
- Shifting is harder for upper strings but physically further for low strings.
- Adjusting finger spacings as the half-steps get closer in upper positions.
Activities for Building Early Skills in Shifting
Below are several lists of strategies for you to explore with your students to build the necessary skills needed to address the first four common issues in the bullets above. Each strategy can be used as a warm-up or game and can be combined with other strategies as you choose.
Left-Hand Rote Activities
The following activities all release tension and build the muscle memory for the movements that build into shifting. Releasing the left-hand thumb and moving up the fingerboard, students can do any or all of these activities as warm-ups or game, either in a class setting or a private lesson. A focus on keeping the left hand loose is also very important from the beginning of instruction. Students can practice:
- Strumming and tapping the strings in first position.
- Strumming and tapping the strings at the block.
- Strumming and tapping the strings in high positions.
- Strumming and tapping the strings in various positions.
- Placing a finger between two strings and “ride the rails” up and down the fingerboard.
- Tapping the string and then shooting (sliding) up the string without using finger pressure.
- Placing fingers on the strings and wipe the dust off the strings.
- Reaching back and tapping the highest string peg with the knuckles and slide up, reach over the fingerboard and tap the top of the instrument.
- Creating a tunnel over the A string (G bass), slide up and down on the D string.
- Placing one finger per string, slide up and down playing “Geminiani” slides.
Left-Hand Harmonic Games
These games will help the student learn to release their finger (weight) pressure to avoid squeezing the neck. Any combination can be used at any one time. Have your students try each of the following:
- Finding a harmonic.
- Seeing how many harmonics he or she can find on their instrument.
- Knocking the peg and find the harmonic.
- Playing sound effects—playing harmonics sliding up and down the string.
- Finding the octave harmonic with each finger.
- Playing a fingered scale but after each note release the finger and play the octave harmonic.
Ear training is also an underlying skill used in shifting but can be a struggle for some students. These aural games will build students’ sensitivity to the sound notes in different parts of the fingerboard. Have your students:
- Play a familiar tune using different fingers than normally used for each note.
- Play a D scale with 1st finger only.
- Play a D scale with first finger. After each note, go back to 1st position and play open D.
- Play a D scale with 1st finger sliding up to each note.
- Play a familiar tune using 1st finger for each note.
Being part of a musical ensemble teaches students true-life skills that extend far beyond their school years. Just as students are taught about posture as an individual, they need to learn what it means to be part of the team. These skills can begin to develop in their first year. Sound Innovations for String Orchestra may very well be the resource you have been looking for. Learn more on Sound Innovations at alfred.com/si.
Bob Phillips is well known in the music education community as a successful teacher, composer, teacher-trainer, and conductor. He is the Director of String Publications for Alfred Music and the President-elect of the American String Teachers Association.