When we learn how to shift and practice going from one position to another, our attention usually zeroes in on two things: intonation and mechanics of the left hand. Which finger is moving? At what speed? What is the thumb doing? What pressure should the finger have? What is the interval between the two notes? Singing the music…and of course, YOLO (going for it and hoping for the best).
We rarely think about what the larger muscles are doing during shifts, and it never really came to my attention until I read The Legacy of Yuri Yankelevich, a collection of treatises by the famous Russian pedagogue, translated in English. Among this collection is a major work called “Shifting Positions in Conjunction with the Musical Goals of the Violinist” in which Yankelevich analyzes ideas of different pedagogues on the roles of different parts of the arm in shifting, along with a concrete break-down of different types of shifts, best practices to approach them, and an analysis of shifts from recordings of well-known violinists.
Shoulder as the Hero or Sidekick?
One thing that came to my attention is that the shoulder plays a supporting role when shifting positions, no matter what part of the fingerboard we are in. Let’s break down shifting into 2 different categories: low positions, in which our thumb travels alongside the neck (positions #1-4) and high positions, in which the arm has to come around the bout of the instrument (positions 5+).
In the lower positions, the forearm plays the main role in transporting the hand by moving toward and away from the player. Notice that in doing so, the elbow has to move in a slight vertical direction in order to keep the instrument stable. When shifting from 1st to 3rd position, for example, the elbow must move down, and vice versa. Basic shoulder functioning is crucial for our ability to move the elbow this way in conjunction with what our forearm has to do. What would happen if the shoulder wasn’t involved? Rest your elbow on a table or other similar surface and perform a shift from 1st to 3rd position. Notice how the scroll of the instrument goes up due to the elbow’s inability to come down.
In the higher positions, the forearm is no longer the leader in shifting because we have to come around the instrument with the hand. So in this case, the wrist gets involved in order to hit some of those high notes. The shoulder now has a more important role because the arm has to swing around the instrument, inward and closer to the bow arm, in order to reach the high positions. Without shoulder mobility, this would be an impossible (or close to impossible) task.
Keep your shoulders healthy, folks!