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.

Traditional American Folk Songs

Ave Maria-Schubert

This beautiful melody is associated with religious as well as secular events. In this arrangement, shifting between the first and third position is utilized. The rhythm in this arrangement can be challenging, and a metronome is recommended when first studying this selection.

Left Hand Technique – Violin Lessons – Paul Huppert

This particular lesson covers a lot of territory in a minimal amount of time. The idea being to pack as much punch into a 15 minute or so warm-up for the left hand as possible. Linear movement is addressed via shifting exercises, both short distances and longer. Drones are introduced, as well as left hand pizzicato and trilling exercises. About half of these exercises are in the first position, and some more advanced shifting is done up to the fifth position.

Introduction to Vibrato – Violin Lessons – by Paul Huppert

Learning vibrato is no easy task, considering there are still those who treat this endeavor more as an innate gift than an acquired skill. Just as shifting, bow stroke vocabulary, and tone quality are within the player’s intellectual pursuit, so too is the mastery of a satisfying use of vibrato.
In this lesson, the concept of shifting practice as a form of relaxation to proceed the practice of vibrato is introduced, and will be a mainstay throughout the three lesson vibrato series. Shaping the finger, angle, and structural integrity of the left hand in general are discussed. To better make this lesson accessible to those players that do not shift, I included exercises that do not involve shifting, and are in the first position only.

Violin Lessons – Practice Tip #2

Relaxation is a concept often bandied about as an essential element in the pursuit of optimal instrumental performance. The interesting paradox is that while relaxation can be seen as an essentially static endeavor, that is, the state of “being relaxed” a way of achieving this state can be through movement. Shifting exercises, when done smoothly and with a certain economy of movement can induce a state of relaxation in the left hand. These exercises can vary extensively, and there are many published approaches available, a good example is the Sevcik Violin Study Op. 8.

Violin Lessons – Practice Tip #1

Violin Lessons | Paul Huppert

Violin Lessons | Paul Huppert

Sometimes I think the very phrase “I am practicing the violin” leads us to an erroneous assumption that by fixating on the left hand, we are engaged in a complete study of the instrument. My practice tip of the day is to divide warm-up time equally between the left and right hands. Awareness is key, and merely a starting point from which one evolves, gradually developing practice techniques and applications…make it fun!

Violin Lessons Online –