Musicians are multitaskers. Our brains, fingers, and bodies do so many things all at once to perform with our instruments. When approaching practice, I encourage students to break things down into small OMGs–Obtainable Musical Goals–rather than attacking everything at once. Similarly, when planning out my year as an orchestra director, I break down instruction into different units such as left hand (fingering and posture), right hand (bowing and tone), and rhythm. In this first of three blog posts, I am going to share some of my tricks helping students understand and master the left hand through fingerboard geography.
An essential part of learning and playing a string instrument is understanding the geography and theory behind the fingerboard. When approaching this with students, I ask myself the following three questions:
Question # 1: Do the students know how to read notes on each string?
This is always a big hurdle for many incoming middle schoolers. Some students know all four strings, while others may only know the D and A string. Using a traditional beginning method book might be a great way to go back and teach these basic concepts, but some kids may feel that using their “elementary” book seems juvenile, so I try to present the material in a new way. For example, my composition Sky Suite has four distinct movements designed to introduce one string at a time (A, D, and then G). The goal is to allow the students to feel solid at reading and performing notes on each individual string, but doing so in the context of a piece of sheet music.
Another spin is to assign an exercise from a method book through SmartMusic. The benefits to this approach are a) you don’t have to pass out the whole book for just one concept, b) the students will likely not realize it is the same book they used in elementary school, and c) there are so many method books to access–you don’t have to stick with just one. For example, I might assign some G string review in Essential Elements Book 1 (#97 “Walking around” and #100 “The Low Down.”). Then I’ll have the students skip over to Sound Innovations Book 1 to play a G major scale, saying the notes out loud while we play.
Question #2: Do the students understand the chromatic scale, all of the notes available to them, and the concept of an enharmonic?
It is so important to get students to understand there are notes beyond the D major scale. To assist with this, I teach the chromatic scale early on in the year. I equate enharmonics to “nicknames” and have students practice saying and playing the notes. I use a method of “Say Play Play,” where they say the note aloud and then play it twice to give them time to really let the note name and finger position sink in.
Examples of Chromatic Scale Resources
- Sound Innovations: Sound Development, #229 Chromatic Scale (on D)
- Essential Techniques 2000 Book 3, #185 shifting chromatic fingering (1 octave)
- Habits of a Successful Musician, #185 two octave chromatic scale (starting on C)
Question #3: Do the students understand the different finger patterns they can play on each string and how the key signature affects their finger patterns?
Understanding finger patterns is an essential aspect of playing a string instrument. Chris Selby does a great job of providing exercises for understanding these patterns in Habits of a Successful Middle Level String Musician. For example, #16 “First Two Finger Patterns” concisely shows the difference between playing F# and playing F natural, and then takes the exercise a step further by mixing up each pattern.
To help students associate finger patterns with specific key signatures, you can go to Essential Technique Book 3, which has a collection of exercises based on each key and each string. (example #125 “Finger Patterns in A Major”).
For more advanced students, you might assign a solo that contains a variety of finger patterns. Check out, Sound Innovations Soloist, a new series from Alfred Music which includes solos for all instruments along with preparatory exercises for each piece. Lauren Bernofksy’s Serenata (available for violin, viola, cello, and bass) is a great example of a piece that focuses on different finger patterns
You could also quiz the students by coming up with a SmartMusic playlist of examples in different keys and ask them what finger pattern or hand shape they will need to use for that exercise. Here’s a playlist I’ve curated that you could use as sight reading practice or just a written quiz.
Once the students have obtained the background knowledge of note reading, the chromatic scale and finger patterns, I find that they can tackle any future key signature or scale that may come their way, making them much more successful in sight reading and performance for the rest of the year. Of course, along the way we also must consider posture and all of the other aspects of playing, but with this solidified understanding of fingerboard geography, students will have a great foundation and framework for future study.