Back in June, I wrote about extensions. I recently revisited the post and noticed that Terry had posed a question of upper position whole tone movement, and thought I would go over my approach to this potential nightmare of advanced playing.

I think a lot of it depends on hand size, but more importantly, on arm positioning. I like to think of my arm as the primary definer of position. When I shift, my arm is the genesis of the move. My arm knows where 4th position is. Where 6th is. My hand is free to float as an extension of my arm, with its only responsibility consisting of “typing”: the right finger at the right time. This idea is also good because it seems to appropriate the most labor to the largest muscle group. It also takes a lot of the stress off of 4th finger if your arm moves to accomodate it. As an exercise, try shifting from 1st finger B on the A to 4th position G, and focus on a large, swift, singular movement in your arm. Put your hand over the note instead of asking your 4th finger to stretch an additional centimeter or two. But I digress. When your arm moves up in the the higher reaches, you have all sorts of options. Maybe I’ll address them as a list.

1) thumb up or hooked behind the neck?

I usually say keep your thumb hooked until your 1st finger has to be over the A above the staff, unless you’re playing epic upward moving intervallic leaps, or are already in thumb position.

2) ok. I’m in 5th position or above, and I am being asked to play whole steps between 1, 2, and 3. My first finger is trying to mash into the fingerboard. Is this right?

Rarely, but there are times when practical mechanics mean bending rules, not fingers. It’s never good to hyperextend 1st, but if you need to straighten it to function in a passage, then straighten it. Be sure that the strength comes from the top of your hand and the sanctity of the position, not insane pressure on the joints of the finger.

3) But the rule is that 1st is curved, right?

Yep. And sometimes we have to play on the nail or other unorthodox surfaces of the finger. This is a frequent occurrence during passages with alternating 3rds between 1 and 3 switching to thumb and 2. Haydn, Popper, Dvorak, Bach, all ask this of us.

4) How much of the position should I retain when I go between notes?

It’s pretty small up there. I am speaking in generalities, but try to maintain the shape over the notes so you don’t have to waste time and take chances by fishing around. Slow practice is key here. Hands become much less flexible if the player is anxious. Play so slowly that you are nearly bored, yet engrossed in the shape of the hand, and the sound that shape creates. (associating physical sensation with sonic properties also helps cultivate perfect pitch, for any of you that enjoy musical party tricks.) With my hand, 1 is curved, 2 is mildly curved, and 3 almost straight, when I am playing whole steps in succession.

5) what role does thumb play in all of this, if I’m not using it to play notes?

If your thumb behaves, it is a huge asset to your other fingers. I like to park it close to 1, so that I could sound that half step if I wanted to. The thumbnail surface should be perpendicular to the index fingernail, and unless your thumb needs to be a few strings over, the index finger should be behind the thumbnail, on its tip.

Ok. That’s a start!