Violin Instruction-Tapes on the Fingerboard-To Use, or Not to Use? That is the Question.

Learning aids that address a multitude of endeavors are nothing new. The ubiquitous training wheels are a vital, sometimes necessary component in the travails of the learning process. How much of a price do we pay for added security and comfort? When do we venture away from that security? When do the training wheels come off?

Tapes on the violin fingerboard are meant to help give definition, clarity, and security, in an endeavor that (for most) is an adventure into the unknown. I will submit in this article a couple of concepts, and a couple of ideas (i.e. opinions) that are really meant to contribute to the conversation. A discussion that I suspect is not either/or but an opportunity to address a relatively accepted pedagogical concept, and see it from a slightly different angle.
I use tapes with my beginning students (generally age 6-9). However, my journey as a violin instructor has taught me that tapes on the fingerboard are not a good idea for two reasons. 1. For the student they offer an opportunity to avoid the responsibility of aural integrity (i.e. play in tune dude) and more…the fingerboard is not a keyboard, there are many shades of grey, and a multitude of subtlety involved with intonation. That’s one of the things that makes playing the violin, and other fret-less instruments so great. 2. It allows the instructor an easy path to a mediocre end. It’s just plain easier to ‘teach’ the beginning student that has the added pitch crutch of a placement indicator for most, if not all of the notes they wish to employ in a given selection of music. The point in this humble diatribe is to express a different point of view concerning the use of tapes on the violin fingerboard.
Imagine for a moment that instead of the usual four tapes in the first position, we utilize only two (first, and third finger) but not for the reasons generally assumed. My personal epiphany came courtesy of the left thumb. Thumbs are basically the anchors for both left, as well as right hand technique. Noticing that many violin students early on have difficulty with thumb placement, and have (not yet) established a good frame in their left hand. The first finger tape is a good landmark position for the thumb and first finger, especially when engaging the third and fourth fingers. My beginning students become quite accustomed to hearing “check your thumb tape.” In addition, I like to introduce the G string early on, and instruct the student to practice a basic four finger pattern, this also helps to establish the ‘frame’ for the left hand, as well as better left arm positioning. The second finger being the strongest, and the student needing to learn the difference between ‘higher and lower’ generally progress quite nicely without the aid of a tape. Now on to the third finger tape….
The idea that one must not necessarily begin their study of the violin in the first position, is not a new one. However, this is a pedagogic concept that has yet to achieve any popular resonance in the violin teaching community. My interest in this teaching approach is twofold. One, observing a pronounced inability in the vast majority of players that have taken private lessons to ever perform in anything but the first position. And two, the observation that particularly with small hands, and the introduction of the fourth finger, early exposure to the third position has certain advantages over the first. In addition to the above, there is also the concept of cradling the violin in your hand as opposed to letting a shoulder rest do all the work. Coming to the rescue of this dilemma would be the ‘third finger tape’ now of course it has become the ‘first finger tape’ or more importantly, the new ‘thumb tape’. This familiarity with a new region of the fingerboard, in the very early stages of learning the violin opens up whole new realms of possibility.
Mark O’Connor, in his early competition days distinguished himself in the fiddle world by frequently shifting between first and third position, and utilizing fourth finger extensions from the third position. None of these techniques were anything new in the classical world, but applied to a different genre, were ground breaking. O’Connor took an old concept from baroque times and applied it to improvisational folk playing. The point here is that a violin instructor, by shifting their perspective on what is taught when, can incorporate some interesting and beneficial changes in how violin technique is addressed for the beginning violin student.

Learning Violin – Bow Technique

This sample, taken from the “Violin Starter Kit” discusses the importance of dividing the violin bow into parts so that the student better understands how to approach the violin bow as a whole. The other aspect of this lesson is to emphasize the importance of the legato bow stoke. Basically, legato is the wellspring from which all other “bow stroke knowledge” springs forth. It’s a foundational thing, and can contribute greatly to a player’s personal enjoyment of playing the violin.

Paul Huppert teaches Violin Lessons Online on the website: