Choosing Fingerings for Viola by Heidi Castleman

Fingering choices for the repertoire we play will always be tailored to the individual and ultimately inspired by what we want to say musically.  In order to arrive at elegant fingering solutions, however, it is essential to understand fundamental principles governing consistency and expression.   A summary of these ideas, some of which are presented in Joseph Szigeti’s Szigeti on the Violin (Dover Publications, 1979) follows.


  • Building accuracy and consistency.
  • Expression; guidelines for choosing fingerings in music.

I. Constant Governing Concepts:

  1. Fingers are tactile sensors.  It’s important for fingers to feel the buzz of the string.
  2. Finger articulation comes from dropping and releasing.  No matter how strong the hand, it must stay relaxed (pleasure principle!).
  3. Physically conceive of pitch as a point on the fatty part of the finger, and not a general region.
  4. Hear first, feel next, and only then play.  Appropriate timing of these three is essential to accuracy.

II. Accuracy and Consistency:


  1. Size of the viola must be appropriate to the player.
  2. Tetrachord patterns are essential.  Play with fingers down lightly and using piston action.
  3. Extensions are important in higher positions and for a larger hand.  Contractions are important in lower positions and for a smaller hand.
  4. When projection is a concern, clarity (not color) is the priority.  Use lower positions and cultivate half and second positions particularly.

Building a Tactile Vocabulary:

1.  One-position exercises:

    • One-position scales (Galamian)
    • One-position broken intervals
    • One-position arpeggios

2. Shifts

    • Yost, Changes of Position
    • Ševčík, opus 8
    • Concepts: Fingers agree to play note if the arm transports the hand as a unit.  Thinking and feeling auxiliary notes is important.  Release finger weight before the shift while the arm weight keeps hanging.
    • Slides: Clean shifts, Russian slides, and French slides.

3. Application of above concepts in more complicated context:

    • Three-octave scales.
    • Three-octave arpeggios.
    • Two-octave double-stop scales in thirds, sixths, and octaves.

III. Expression

A. Intervals:

A1.Play unisons or repeated notes with different fingers to give melodic lines a musical direction.  For example, the Bartok Concerto:


A2.Play tritones with different fingers.  Never with the same finger.  For example Bach Suite in C:


A3.Play melodic fifths with different fingers for clear definition.  For example, the Brahms Sonata in F:


A4.Sixths of the same size should be played with the same fingers for smoother connections.  For example, the Walton Concerto:


B. Use instrument color to serve the musical idea.  If it can reasonably be done, a phrase or unit should be played on one string.  String color is an important musical element.

For example, the Brahms F minor Sonata, second movement:

and the Hindemith Sonata, Opus 11 No. 4, second movement:



C1.Because a tendency note belongs to the main note, don’t change string on semi-tones.  For example, the Bach G major Sonata for gamba:


C2.When shifting, shift on a semi-tone where possible.  This causes the least interruption in a line.  For example, the second movement of the Stamitz Concerto in D, second movement:


C3.When in a cantabile character, avoid open strings where possible because the non-vibrated quality would interrupt this character.  For example, the second movement of the Bartok Concerto:

If in true Hungarian style, the sound chosen were essentially unvibrated, the bottom fingering could be considered.

D.Open Strings

D1.Open strings create a naive and rustic quality.  For example, the first movement of the Bartok Concerto:


D2.Use open strings to facilitate fast detache passage work.  For example, the second movement of the Walton Concerto:


E. Passage work:

E1. Equalize the number of notes on each string as much as possible.  For example, the second movement of the Walton Concerto:


E2. Shift on strong beats in fast detache passage work.  For example, also the second movement of the Walton:


E3. Use half-step shifts where possible because they are less audible.  For example, the line marked “C” in the third movement of the Bartok Concerto:


To make a line flow more smoothly, choose more small shifts and fewer long shifts.  See the previous Bartok example, the lines marked A and B.

In a long ascending scale passage, distribute shifts evenly for greater physical ease and cluster at the end for a brighter sound.  See the previous Bartok example, also the line marked A.


E4. Consider sequential fingers for sequential writings.  For example, the fourth movement of the Telemann Concerto:

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