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shifting up is easier than shifting down

[Note: The point of view from which I approach the advice offered here is that of personal experience; in other words, I’m sharing with you what I have discovered. If you have something constructive to add, please email me (drewvervan@drewvervan.com) – I’d love to hear from you.]

This article is mostly for string players – bowed string instruments; see the end “What about other instruments” for how these ideas apply to guitar and voice.

At a recent fiddle competition, I played a lovely Scottish Air as my slow tune. It went very, very well, and I was quite pleased with my performance – until the very end.

I had planned a variation that required me to move from first, then to third, and finally to shift up to 6th position. And then, to finish the tune, I had to shift back – to third and then to first.

As I said, the tune went very well, and even the variation with all of the shifts went well, until I came to the point in the tune where I had to shift back down. I’m sad to say, I missed a few notes on the descent.

Now, I’m certain that I’m not the first player to notice that, when playing in different positions, shifting up is easier that shifting down. The real question is “why?”

WHY SHIFTING UP IS EASIER

Simply put, shifting up is easier because you already have an idea of where to put your fingers, because – and this is important – one of your fingers is usually already in the spot of the target position. So, when you start to shift, you’ve already touched the spot and you have some “feeling” of where you need to go.

Think about this example: Suppose you’re playing a tune in first position, and you play a high “A” on the “e” string. Typically, while in first position, you’ll use your third finger to play this note. Now, if immediately following this bit of the music, you need to shift up to third position, and play this “A” with your first finger, your brain already has a target in mind – literally. You’ve touched the spot, and you’ve heard the pitch, so you have two recent reference points. Together, these reference points make finding third position easier.

Now suppose you have to move back after playing a few notes in third position. At this point, all your brain can draw on is your muscle memory of where the target pitch may be, and your musical expectation of how you expect the pitch to sound.

Essentially, unlike when ascending, you have no recent reference point.

I have found that while playing tunes that move back and forth between positions several times, that the shifts – particularly the down shifts – improve after the first one. My experience tells me that the recent touches on the target locations give my brain focus points.

HOW YOU CAN IMPROVE SHIFTING DOWN (and shifting, in general)

So, what to do? In performance, we can’t consistently blow the first down shift. We have to find effective ways to practice that can improve our effective performance.

Well, certainly practicing, in general, will help. But we also need to keep a few things in mind:

    When ascending, we usually have stronger reference points, so we need to build similar reference points for descending.
    When ascending, the space between pitches decreases – which, since our hands naturally want to close up, is easier to accommodate than the expanding spaces we encounter when descending.

Repetition: During practice sessions, I like to try and isolate the descending shifts, and then try them over and over again.

Visualization: Or more accurately “imagining how it feels.” As much as we may practice a shift, it is also helpful to think about it. Study after study has shown us that simply imagining doing something helps us improve at that activity. So, once you’ve actually isolated the shift and practiced this particular shift a few dozen times, try practicing the shift in your imagination. I like to combine the two during practice time. I’ll do three things:

    I’ll play the shift to be certain I understand what I need to do. Once I understand it, I’ll play it several times in succession.
    Then, I’ll begin to alternate between actually playing it and only moving my left hand – without bowing the pitches.
    I’ll then simply imagine the whole thing – without playing anything.

Believe or not, this process helps me improve, because it begins to build target points that our brains can hold in long-term memory.

Expectation: One more thing I’ll try to do is make certain I have an expectation of how it should sound. If I don’t already have the whole tune memorized, I’ll memorize this passage – and sing it! Singing it – out loud – tests my musical knowledge. If I can sing a tune, I can then have a much better chance of playing it correctly.

OK – give it a try!

WHAT ABOUT OTHER INSTRUMENTS

So, if you also play the guitar or if you are a singer, you’re probably wondering if the practice techniques will help you too. The answer is – sort of.

Guitar: Shifting on the guitar is somewhat easier because of the frets and fret markers. Once you get to know the instrument a bit, you can, at a glance, “see” where you need to go. None-the-less, I have watched my guitar students shift position, and then reach too far to play a chord or a scale, because the size of the frets has changed (decreased). Once they adjust, they make the opposite error on the descent. So, if you use the techniques outlined above as part of your practice sessions, your position shifts – even for something as basic as a chord change – will improve more rapidly.

Voice: Our voices, in many ways, are quite similar to bowed string instruments, in that, as we change pitches, we have no visual reference points – we must move from pitch to pitch by feel and expectation. Toward that end, I have had good success practicing things like vocal scales and wider leaps of larger intervals. One mistake that I’ve heard singers make over and over again is to mis-judge just how far it is up or down (in singing, it doesn’t seem to matter which direction – leaps, which are the vocal equivalent of position changes – can be easy to under or over shoot). What I seem to hear most often is the shortening of the leap.

For example, when going up for a high note, singers often “hit” somewhere below the target note, and then (horrors) slide up. I used to do this too. To practice getting a clean leap, I’d purposely sing the note above the target note – use it as an ornament – then drop down to the target note. So add that to the steps outlined above.

I can’t stress enough the idea of imagining the pitch change or having a solid expectation of how the tune should sound. This seems to be a true test of how well we know any given tune.