How to Play Open String Shifts and Same Finger Shifts on the Violin

By Katharine Rapoport

Once you know some basic moves on the violin, you need to know how to find the positions you need to play music of all kinds. Pick up your bow, and away you go!

Open-string shifts

An open-string shift is a sneaky little number where your left hand shifts (the most shifty shift!) while your bow— which you have now picked up again— is bowing an open string. No sweat! You can use an open-string shift anytime you need to shift . . . provided the shift happens right after playing an open string.

To do an open-string shift, just release all fingers from the string, keep your left hand frame in a ready-to-play shape, slide along the neck of the violin until you’re at the right spot for the next note while you are bowing the open string, and then land the new finger on its note.

Now that you have the moves for open-string shifts, try them out on this D major arpeggio. Playing these shifts gets you ready to play with a flourish! Pick up your violin and bow, and then follow these steps:

  1. Begin the arpeggio as usual, playing open D on a down-bow followed by finger 2 on an up-bow.

  2. Begin playing the next down-bow on the open A string, then slide your hand up the neck of the violin as soon as possible during the course of that down bow, until finger 1 is over note D in third position.

  3. Drop finger 1 onto the fingerboard at the same moment that you change to the up-bow, and then continue in third position to the top D of the arpeggio.

  4. Use exactly the same process in reverse to come back: When you begin bowing on the open A string, slide your hand back to first position so that finger 2 can play F♯, and then finish back home on the open D string.

    D major arpeggio, two octaves.
    D major arpeggio, two octaves.

Same-finger shifts

Violinists use same-finger shifts a lot, so learning the moves sets you up to do well in your musical endeavors. You simply travel to the new position with the same finger that you’re already playing (lightly) on the string, and that’s it.

Shifting the same finger to a new position just requires a bit of careful sequencing, and away you go! Here’s what you do:

  1. Release the fingertip weight, from fully pressing the string down to the fingerboard to just lightly touching the surface of the string before you begin to move.

  2. Brush the fingertip lightly along the surface of the string as you slide your hand to the new position.

  3. When you’re on target, press the string down to the fingerboard to sound the new note.

Always move your thumb with your hand when sliding between positions on the violin’s neck (first to fourth position). Moving your thumb at the same time ensures that your hand frame doesn’t really change shape as you shift, which helps your fingers to go on working normally.

The figure below shows you a little meowing song to get those same-finger shifts moving. Here are the moves to purr-fect your technique:

  1. Prepare finger 1 on the D string, and start with your bow on the D string too, setting it as close to the frog as possible, to allow lots of room for those meowing sounds.

  2. Count “1, 2, 3,” and then begin your down-bow on beat 4, gliding gently toward the third position in time to arrive there on the first beat of the new measure.

  3. Shift down again during the up-bow, which is the exact reverse of the action in Step 2.

  4. Land finger 2 on note F on the D string, glide lightly to third position during the down-bow stroke, and then go back to first position on the next up-bow.

  5. Continue with finger 3, using the method described in Step 4 for finger 2.

  6. Pounce on the A string with great gusto for the ending “woof.

    Same-finger shift exercise: The cat’s meow.
    Same-finger shift exercise: The cat’s meow.