Common Issues in the Studio: The Wonders of Second Position

Dr. David Reimer

Like a rondo theme, student tendencies seem to keep turning up again and again.  A new school year brings a fresh group of students to one’s studio, but the issues they bring with them are often predictable.  Is this a result of inadequate teaching or insufficient application of good principals on the student’s part?  The why of the matter is more complex than the what, but I tend to think that the lack of time in relation to number of tasks is a prime culprit.  Whatever the reason, the teacher accepts the student as is, then picks up the reins and steers the student in the direction of growth and excellence.

Shortly after finishing my Master’s Degree and embarking on a free-lance career in Chicago, I found myself seated with an orchestra veteran who was also an orchestra director of a nearby high school program.  We hit it off, but sometimes he would scorch me with a comment about the “gig rats” who came to play in his local per-service orchestra.  I will never forget one of those scathing comments.  He mocked those other-wise talented violinists who would shift back and forth between first and third position when a passage sat easily in second position.  He said it in such a way that I didn’t feel it was directed at me, yet I was obviously a culprit!  Thus began a journey that would bring me to a present-day reputation with my students as a 2nd position apologist.  When a fingering issue arises in a lesson or in orchestra, my students often beat me to the punch now – “Dr. Reimer would say 2nd position!”

After my stand-partner’s off-hand comment, I started looking for patterns in the orchestra parts that fit a 2nd position profile and began to apply that philosophy.  The orchestra context made the most sense because most professional orchestra parts are not fingered, so with a “blank canvas” in front of me, constant choices are made regarding the best means of fingering a passage.  The adjustment to my philosophy began to change my strategy and then my technique, as I became more fluent in using 2nd position (and its cousin, 4th position).

But what of solo repertoire that I played and taught?  It was full of fingerings either marked by editors with a 2nd position phobia or from past teachers who had passed the 1st/3rd practice on to me.  Frequent launching back and forth between 1st and 3rd defined much of what I had learned, so gradually I began to re-work the body of my solo repertoire.

One oOctave C'sf the primary strategies I use when fingering a part is to watch for intervals of an octave or a fourth.  These often frame a passage in a way that points clearly to a left hand position.  For instance, if I see octave Cs, I am going to immediately assume that 2nd position is going to be a significant part of my fingering strategy.  Most often I will be planning to use an octave fingering to play that octave (rather than having to completely cross over a string to get both notes), but sometimes will need to shift into 2nd for the ascending octave note or out of 2nd for the descending octave note.

The obvious benefit of using this strategy is to avoid bad string crossings, particularly around octave intervals.  Another is the ability to avoid shifts in a scalar passage that spans the octave – any fast scale is going to be cleaner in execution if your starting and ending notes are in the same position than if you introduce an unnecessary shift (or shifts).  Sometimes patterns simply work better when done identically in different positions, moving up one position at a time as the pattern ascends by a step.  Shifts are more efficient if they cover one position (i.e. 1st to 2nd to 1st) than two (1st to 3rd to 1st).  Octave C's (1)Tone enters the conversation as well.  When choosing a fingering that puts one’s best vibrato finger on the most prominent note, it helps if one is fluent in using 2nd (and 4th) positions so that intonation is not as much a concern.  For instance, if a prominent lyrical passage begins with a C and I want the richness of my 2nd finger on that note, I will have a better chance of finding it accurately if I am fluent in 4th position than if I only use 4th in an emergency.  (Which reminds me of that quip used about various derided string groups – they only know three positions:  1st, 3rd and emergency!)

As a teacher, I always assume there is a rational reason for why flawed techniques are adopted and why mistakes are made.  We are talking about talented, skilled, well-trained violinists here, not careless, unmotivated students.  My primary theory for the avoidance of 2nd position is that the “platform” is unsteady.  The first deviation from the norm for the beginning violinist’s left-hand technique is to move the 2nd finger from a high position (half-step from the 3rd finger) to a low position (half-step from the 1st finger).  To now put the first finger (the anchor of the hand and the finger that is most often involved in the shift) in a position that has two possible pitches introduces a level of instability.  In contrast, the raising or lowering of the 3rd finger notes comes later in a student’s development, so shifting the 1st finger to the 3rd finger location is much more consistently stable.  In addition to the platform concern, there is also the sequence of notes that follow the anchor.  It is much less common to have a scalar pattern starting from the 1st finger in 2nd position that resembles the first left hand default setting than it is in 3rd.  In simpler terms, intonation will tend to suffer in 2nd compared to moving between 1st and 3rd.  Yet, as in all “high risk/high reward” challenges, to solve intonation issues in 2nd position then opens up a whole new set of possibilities for fingering a part in the most efficient and most expressive manner.

I encourage performers and teachers to join the 2nd position movement.  Though it may require some re-working of your standard repertoire, it will open up more options and efficient practices for yourself and for your students.  You might even find yourself defaulting to 2nd position for no other reason than comfort!