How to Play in First and Second Position on the Violin - dummies

By Katharine Rapoport

If you feel good about your skills, you’re ready to move on to trying your left hand in different positions along the neck of the violin. Position is the name for the place where your hand goes on the neck of the violin in order to play the notes.

Finding first position

First position is the name for the basic left hand position violinists start with and use the most. In this position, finger 1 plays the next note up from your open string. So on the A string, finger 1 plays B in first position. The technique of moving your left hand from one position to another is called shifting, or changing position, but not, of course, because violinists are shifty characters.

Violinists change position, which means sliding the left hand up the neck of the violin to reach higher notes, for a variety of reasons. The most important are the following:

  • To play high notes that can’t be reached from the regular first position.

  • To keep all the notes of a particular melody on the same string, maintaining the timbre, a term musicians use to describe the color and character of a particular sound. (That’s one way you can tell whether you’re hearing a flute or a violin.)

  • Because the music is easier to play in a different position, and therefore sounds better — changing positions could facilitate string crossings or some other aspect of fingering or bowing music.

Smoothing out the second position

Here, you get to move up the violin’s neck to . . . second position! Actually, the move up the neck is very small, just next door to first position, but the move opens the door to playing a new range of notes on each string.

The three moves explained here get you to second position. Try them on the D string, silently at first, so that you can feel and see your moves before you pick up your bow to sound it out:

Keep the thumb nice and loose, no gripping, when finding your new positions on the violin neck!

  1. Place your first finger on note E on the D string.

  2. Slide finger 1 just a half step higher, up to note F (which your second finger usually plays).

  3. Take your thumb along the same distance, so that it remains more or less opposite to finger 1.

    Welcome to second position!

Notice that with the natural notes (no sharps and flats) you play in this example, you need to place finger 1 a whole step above its usual placement in first position on the G string.

Look at the notes you play in second position, notice that you have a bit of a safety net— you can check some of the notes (which appear as whole notes in the exercise) by matching their pitches with their corresponding open strings.

Notes you play in second position.
Notes you play in second position.

Putting second position to work

Finding all the second-position notes on the violin allows you a glimpse of the whole picture. But actually, playing music in second position usually involves only some of those notes, which belong to a particular musical key. To get started, you see how to play the F major scale in second position, and then you play a song in second position, using those same notes.

Here are the moves for the F major scale:

  1. Play a down-bow with your first finger in second position on the Dstring (on the note F) to sound out the tonic note.

  2. Make a whole step to note G for finger 2, and observe that finger 2 lands exactly on your next tape (which originally marked the spot for finger 3 but has been temporarily taken over).

  3. Make another whole step to land finger 3 on the next tape or dot.

  4. Place finger 4 very close by to finger 3 (because it’s only a half-step away), probably touching the side of finger 3.

  5. Walk finger 1 calmly across to the A string to play the note C (still in second position — don’t move your left hand) while finger 4 is playing, and release the other fingers from the D string as soon as you begin the down-bow on finger 1.

    Continue up the A string in a similar manner, following through with fingers 2, 3, and 4.

The finger placements on the A string are the same as on the D string— they’re just on a different string.

F major scale in second position.
F major scale in second position.

To play “Joy to the World” in second position, first prepare your hand by climbing up (but not down) the F major scale in second position. When you’re ready, follow these moves to get off to a good start:

  1. Set your bow on the A string, quite near the frog, so that you get a hearty down-bow sound as you draw a vigorous stroke on the top F.

  2. Try out a version of your slurred staccato on up-bows when you play fingers 3 and 2, using plenty of bow for the dotted eighth note, and just a little bow for the sixteenth note.

  3. Play finger 1 on the note C, using a full down-bow, then land finger 4 safely over on the D string after playing finger 1, and continue the downward scale.

    Whenever you cross from one string to the next, land your new finger on the new string and then begin sounding the new note just before you release the old finger. This technique makes for a smooth transition.

  4. Hop finger 1 lightly across to note C to return to playing notes on theA string on the last eighth note of measure 2, and then continue building back up to the top F, step by step, with the last notes of the song.

    “Joy to the World” in second position.
    “Joy to the World” in second position.