While focus tends to be given to the technique of shifting, it is equally important to know why and when we change positions. Shifting has two major functions:
1. Staying on a string Staying on one string keeps the tone colour more consistent, and going up on a lower string has a warmer, darker sound. There are countless examples of this in violin and viola repertoire – including the opening of Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, and Monti’s Czardas. Especially in the second example, tone colour is changed by using a gypsy- like glissando.
2. Getting high notes Naturally, some notes are just not reachable within the first position, and one needs to move upwards to play them. There are also double stops – especially octaves – that can only be played in higher positions.
3. Using different fingers Tone colour is also changed by the use of different fingers. The most obvious example is choosing not to use open strings, another example is the opinion of some string players that second position has a warmer sound than first or third positions. Next we should have a look at some misunderstandings of shifting:
1. There’s nothing wrong about first position or open strings While there may be a warmer sound in higher positions, sometimes music prefers a clearer sound – and open strings can have a beautiful quality if used correctly and in appropriate ways. It depends on the musical context – understanding whether the composition requires clarity or contrast.
2. Practice scales going up in position on the upper two strings My opinion is that the majority of scales which encourage shifting only in the upper two strings is very limiting. Scales are meant to provide a basis for good intonation in playing, and shifting only to third position and then upwards up the E string is not realistic for a large part of the repertoire. Scales should be tried in various ways, by including various positions and shifting on all the strings.
3. Shifting is not a substitute for good tone production While shifting can seem to produce an immediately warmer sound, the use of shifting is not meant to substitute work and attention in the other aspects of good tone production. Having both of these in mind helps us to better understand how shifting fits into the musical world of bowed strings.