Intrinsic Elements in Violin Fingering

his section describes left-hand motions which are intrinsic to the violin--fingerfall, shift, and oscillation--and correlates them with the classes of Carnatic gamaka . Most of the sources quoted here on technique belong to the European classical tradition. This is because Western classical violinist-teachers have written the most detailed works on violin technique. But the author's study of violin and fiddle styles in several musics around the world has failed to uncover other motions so basic as the ones described here.

Of course, each violin style uses a particular blend of these techniques, emphasizing some and underplaying others. In Carnatic music, shifts and oscillations are more common than the discrete fingered pitches of jantas . Most pitches in Western classical music are of the discrete type, and oscillations are less various, represented chiefly by vibrato. In some fiddle styles, the player remains entirely in first position, thus eliminating shifts. And the ornaments of the Persian classical style, while profuse as in Carnatic melody, consist mostly of trills, grace notes, and arpeggiated figures--all discrete pitches--rather than the sinuous slides and oscillations of the South Indian style (Zonis 1973:109,114).

The key used here to identify common elements in different violin styles is the concept of wave motion described by violinist and teacher Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) in Violin: Six Lessons with Yehudi Menuhin (1971). He observes that "the three main functions of fingerfall, shifting and vibrato will be seen to be not only related, but to proceed from a waving action, varying in amplitude from a narrow vibration to a broad scope" (1971:108).

Since vibrato is an oscillation, these "main functions" are the three intrinsic motions identified above. And they correspond to the three classes of Carnatic ornamentation. Fingerfall is the motion involved in janta , those stresses and turns which are fingered as in Western music. Shifting, like jaru , uses a sliding movement up or down the fingerboard. And vibrato is an example, within a very narrow compass, of the motion used in gamaka , the deflections. This match between musical style and instrumental technique is what gives the violin such a natural place in the Carnatic ensemble.

The reader may easily experience the basic wave motion by following Menuhin's directions:

Hold the left hand in the playing position, without the instrument, with loose wrist, palm facing you, and wave it as if saying goodbye to yourself. . . .See that the wrist and fingers are completely soft, offering no resistance. Now induce a passive waving of the hand by moving your forearm back and forth. . . . To introduce a circular swing into the continuing waving of the hand, add a sideways oscillation of the elbow and arm. (ibid.:109-110)

Menuhin analyzes the physical movements involved in fingerfall, shifting, and vibrato, to show how they all derive from this wave motion. For example, the trill, an ornament which partakes of both fingerfall and vibrato movements, "grows naturally out of our exercises in waves, the wave movement now becoming smaller and faster to resemble an oscillating pivot movement" (ibid.:122).

Each time the hand changes direction in the whip-like motion described above, fingers and wrist move contrary to each other. At these moments the wave acquires a circular or rotating quality, as when the top of a breaking ocean wave curls down toward the beach while the bottom is sucked up and out. Likewise, on the violin the wave motion manifests itself in rotating gestures along the fingerboard. The rotations tend to alternate, moving in one direction and then back in the opposite direction.

This alternating movement is most easily seen in oscillating ornaments like vibrato and Carnatic kampita , but it is ever-present. For example: A shift may be thought as a large rotation in which the forearm serves as radius, elbow at the center. Oscillations are repeated back-and-forth rotations on a smaller scale.

And plain fingered notes are produced through even subtler rotations, in which the wrist and the fingertip on a stopped note act in opposition to each other. A falling finger is part of a rotation up the fingerboard (toward the player), while a rising finger is part of the reverse (away from the player). Fine movements of the wrist muscles accompany and oppose these finger motions: on fingerfall the wrist bends very slightly away from the player, and on fingerlift the wrist moves toward the player.

The Physiology of Violin Playing (1971) by Ottó Szende and Mihály Nemessuri gives a scientific basis to Menuhin's analysis. Using electromyography--"the automatic photo-registration of muscle action potentials"--they observed muscles and nerves involved in playing the violin. Their results are presented according to a now-familiar threefold division of muscle actions involved in stopping (i.e., fingerfall), vibrato (oscillation), and change of position (shift).

In a comment to violin teachers, the physiologists conclude that the various muscle functions are interrelated: a student's progress in learning any one function is dependent on progress in the others.

To attain the thumb relaxing its clutch-like action [as in stopping] constitutes a persistent problem. . . . The holding of the violin itself becomes really responsive only after vibrato and changes of position have been mastered. (Szende and Nemessuri 1971:73)

It is their common origin in the wave motion that links the three left-hand functions together. A student gradually gains more facility with each function, and with holding the instrument securely but without tension, by working with the wave in its various magnitudes or frames of reference. Table 2 summarizes this discussion.




Wave motion

Violin technique

Ornament class



Jaru (Slides)



Gamaka (Deflections)



Janta (Fingered Stresses)


Of course, the physiology of Carnatic violin playing is somewhat different from that of Western playing because of different postures and holds. The author knows of no such scientific study of muscle movements in the Indian hold. But the reader may acknowledge by now the coincidence between basic violin techniques and classes of Carnatic gamaka . To fill out these connections, the remainder of the discussion here draws on comments by Western writers as well as on Carnatic practice.

Motions involved in the janta ornaments are familiar to Western violinists: precise, rapid fingerfall and fingerlift in a vertical plane, executed while the hand as a whole remains in one position. The fourth finger, which is naturally the weakest, deserves special attention.

Leopold Mozart was esteemed in his time as a master violin teacher, and in 1756 he brought out the first edition of A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing . There he gives timeless advice on the problem fourth finger: "This finger, because it is the weakest and shortest, must by unremittingly earnest practise be made stronger, a little longer, more expert, and more useful" (1948:190). Some Carnatic violinists use the fourth finger rarely or not at all. Others, like Western classical players, build its strength through exercises and regular use.

Like janta , the movements of the jaru (slide) class of Carnatic ornaments have their counterparts in Western playing: portamento and glissando. The Hungarian-born violin teacher Carl Flesch (1873-1944) discusses these techniques in his Violin Fingering (1966):

When two tones are connected by gliding, this may be a matter of either necessity or choice. The unavoidable type is designated glissando; the optional type portamento. Glissandi accompany any change of Position in a series of rapid notes and should be as inconspicuous as possible, since they have no expressive value; they merely represent a technical necessity. Portamenti, however, produce a gliding sound by which the player deliberately connects two tones and intensifies their expressive power. (1966:329)

In The Principles of Violin Fingering (1967), Soviet violin teacher amd musicologist I. M. Yampolsky (1905-1976) makes the same distinction between glissando and portamento, and he describes three kinds of portamento. In one type, the lower finger sounds its note and slides into a new position, the higher finger then dropping onto its note. In another type, after the lower finger's note has sounded, the higher finger slides into its note as the hand arrives in the new position. And in the third type, the first note, slide, and second note are all made on one finger.

The third type, "produced by the direct slide of the same finger from one note to the other, gives a particular expressiveness to the sound, similar to the expressive effect of portamento in the human voice" (Yampolsky 1967:121). It is, in effect, the jaru of Carnatic music.

In fact, all three kinds of portamento are types of slide. Further, any shift of position involves a slide--whether it is audible as in portamento and glissando, or inaudible as when the player shifts on one string while bowing a different (open) string. Common to all is a movement of the whole hand along the violin neck. Since in the Western hold the thumb is critical to supporting the violin, slides are constrained somewhat by concern that the instrument not fall while the thumb is in transit between positions.

Yet slides are inherent in the violin by virtue of its fretless fingerboard. One practical consequence of this design is what Barbara Benary calls the "one-string aesthetic," a feature of her Carnatic violin teacher's style in which even wide-ranging phrases were often played entirely on one string. Leopold Mozart describes the same ideal:

The positions are used for the sake of elegance when notes which are Cantabile occur closely together and can be played easily on one string. Not only is equality of tone obtained thereby, but also a more consistent and singing style of delivery. (1756:132)

Yampolsky too invokes the "one-string aesthetic" for cantilena passages.

In cantilena (at slower tempi) it is possible to choose a fingering which allows a greater number of shifts with the aim of increasing expressiveness. . . . One should aim at preserving uniformity of timbre by playing the phrases as far as possible on one string. (1967:125)

He recommends restricting the use of the fourth finger in such passages, because of "(a) its comparative physical weakness, (b) the limitation of the extent of vibrato possible, (c) its unreliability in the higher positions" (ibid.:127). These are the very reasons why Carnatic violinists, who play with a vocal or cantilena ideal most of the time, tend to use the fourth finger in fingered stresses but not in slides and oscillations, unless it is supported by the other fingers.

Of the three classes of Carnatic ornaments, gamaka (deflections) involve motions which are exploited least in Western classical technique. These motions generally do not involve outright shifts of position. Here the thumb stays in position on the violin neck, though it may well move from side to side, or slip further underneath the neck at times. The fact that the thumb remains basically in place provides a feeling of security in the hold, and this in turn frees the player for other movements of the hand.

In Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching (1985), teacher and editor Ivan Galamian (1903-1981) describes a comparable motion in the Western hold--the "half shift."

In the half shift, the thumb does not change its place of contact with the neck of the violin. Instead it remains anchored, and by bending and stretching permits the hand and fingers to move up or down into other positions. This type of motion, the half shift, can be used in many instances where the fingers have to move into another position for a few notes only. Properly applied, it can greatly promote facility and security. (1985:23-24)

The deflections, which include oscillating ornaments, clearly display the wave motion which permeates both Carnatic and Western violin technique. Vibrato is a prime example. Every classically-trained Western violinist has a physical understanding of this oscillating movement. But the player is usually taught to think of vibrato as a natural attribute of every tone sustained long enough to be vibrated. When viewed instead as a specific ornament (as it was before the nineteenth century), vibrato takes its place as a very narrow, relatively rapid oscillation--just one member of a large family comprising shakes, rolls, and oscillations of various widths.

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