Shifting and the Right Hand


Probably the best way to learn the basic technique of ergonomic, relaxed shifting, is to play everything pizzicato at first. The fact that the bow is not maintaining the sound constantly, gives us more time in which to shift and so has the effect of allowing us to do our shifts slower (and thus be able to relax and observe what we are doing) even if we play the music at exactly the same tempo.


Just like with pizzicato, when the bow leaves the string or even simply relaxes its pressure on the string, this gives us extra time (silence) in which to find our new note, and makes our shifting “easier”. In fact, the more time we have in which to find our new hand position (do our shift), the more our shift can be considered as a “placement” rather than a shift.

When shifting during a slur, we are in the extreme opposite situation: we now have no silent time in which to do our shift, and everything that we do with our lefthand can be heard. When we shift in these circumstances (in a slurred bow), all our shifting “defects” are revealed and perfecting this skill is what really teaches us how to shift. This is where we really learn how to make every shift sound exactly how we want it to sound. But how should a shift sound ? Are there “rules” about this ? Yes!!

Ideally, every legato shift should sound like a same-finger shift, in which the amount of connection between the notes (glissando) is chosen uniquely according to musical taste and expressivity, just like for singers. The difficulty of achieving this varies according to the finger choreography of the shift. Making a same-finger shift sound like a same-finger shift obviously has “zero difficulty” but doing the same for an assisted shift is slightly more complex because we need to change the fingers imperceptibly during the shift. For scale/arpeggio-type shifts we also need to change the finger during the shift but this task is made more complex by the fact that, at the start of the shift, our new (target, destination) finger lies outside the pitch range in which we want our audible glissando. This means that, in order to sound like a same-finger shift, we will need to do our finger substitution only in that part of the shift (string) that corresponds to the space between the “old” and the “new” notes of the shift. This is what makes scale/arpeggio-type shifts (especially the small ones) the hardest in which to achieve a beautiful, vocal shift glissando. This subject is explained in more detail on the pages describing each shift type (open the links).


During a slurred shift we often make use of a momentary relaxation of bow pressure and speed in order to camouflage (diminish, hide) the audible glissando. This is a very useful tool, allowing us to shift smoothly (slowly) without having an ugly or stylistically-unsuitable audible glissando. Although this might seem to sacrifice the smooth legato, converting it into a portato, this “loss-of-total-legato” effect is in fact often barely noticeable. We use this technique especially in music of the Baroque and Classical epochs as in the following examples:

We can however also use it in music of any style  – even in very Romantic music  – to hide unwanted slides as in the following example from the second movement of the Elgar Concerto in which, to avoid two consecutive slides we will hide the downward slide with a relaxation of the bow pressure (see glissando article).



Shifting on a bow change adds one more layer of complexity to the shift as we must now coordinate the timing of the shift with the change of bow. Once again, this timing/coordination difficulty only occurs in legato bow changes. In a shift on a non-legato bow change, we have time to do the shift during the bow’s release between the two strokes, as demonstrated in the following example from Verdi’s La Traviata. The shifts enclosed in the red boxes are “resonance shifts” in which the glissando is heard while the bow is off the string. During the shift enclosed in the green box we will probably keep our bow on the string which means that the glissando is heard, very discreetly and only by the player, thanks to an infinitesimally small and light residual action of the previous downbow.

If the bow doesn’t stop at the bow change, then we must decide on which bow stroke to do our shift: on the old bow, on the new bow, or using a bit of both. Our choice will depend largely on how expressive we want our glissando to be. This is often a question of musical style and for this reason, we can name these two possibilities according to their historical epoch.

Let’s look at some examples of these now in more detail:


Upward shifts on a bowchange can be made hugely expressive – but in a very discreet way – if we shift on the old bow and on the new finger. This is a perfect technique for “Classical Period” music, for which the Romantic swooping glissando on the new bow is just too much.

This is such a beautiful and powerful expressive device that we may often want to use it even when a shift is not absolutely necessary, as in the second shift of the above example.


For “romantic” shifts (where we do our glissando on the new bow), changing the bow before its rhythmically correct moment (before the music says we should) can be a very useful expressive and technical aid. This sounds strange so let’s look directly at some examples of this:

Changing the bow early helps to maintain the legato line by allowing our “new bow” glissando to start earlier and thus to last longer (go slower). This not only makes the shift more dramatic and/or expressive but also makes finding the destination note of the shift easier which is especially useful when we are going up into the higher fingerboard regions. In the examples below, from Verdi’s “La Traviata” and the Lalo Concerto, we are shifting up to notes in the Intermediate Region:

The above examples all concern upward shifts but exactly the same principle applies to downward shifts and shifts to another string:

Whereas we might think that changing the bow early would deform the notated rhythm, in fact, it doesn’t. This is because the bow change does not have an accent or clear articulation. It is a “disguised”, “hidden”, bow change, equivalent to when we change the bow imperceptibly during a very long note (which we do often) in order to sustain it better.

In very large “Romantic” shifts, we can even use both the old bow and the new bow to shift on. This means that we start the shift on the old bow, and continue it on the new bow. This allows us to hide part of the glissando, which, if played over the entire shift distance, could sound ugly. The part of the glissando that is on the “old” bow is the “discreet”, “hidden” part whereas the part of the glissando that is played on the new bow is the “expressive” “romantic” part. Try this little trick in the Elgar and Cesar Franck examples above.