Playing on registers beyond the neck part is a common fear among violinists, cellists, violists, and bassist. Just like other instrument players like the pianist who wants to advance on higher register keys but they are afraid of doing it. Well, you get the feeling. The big question is why? For string players, our anatomy has something to do with it. Chimpanzees (who shares 96 percent of our DNA) for example are like humans who have opposable thumbs. We use this ability to pick and grasp objects. Therefore, playing in the neck position comes naturally to us as we feel the comfort of our thumb opposing the fingers are you move across different notes.
However, going beyond the neck position changes everything. Your thumb and fingers could no longer work together in the way they work in the neck area. With the lack of adequate technical support on how to utilize your body, you will end up feeling unfulfilled. Your tonal quality lowers down as it lacks resonant and becomes thin.
Most would agree that playing the upper position more often is the best way to improve it. Practicing it daily with your arpeggios, scales, repertoire, and etudes with the right technique will surely make it more comfortable in the end. However, if you play it with the wrong technique, you will eventually get frustrated, and your feeling of anxiety and inadequacy about the upper position will fire up. This is a problem most players and even advance musicians suffer.
There are three main elements that you should know and apply to put you in a position where you can effectively practice the technique.
Put your focus on the entire body
The entire body has a lot of things to do with your proficiency in the upper position. Aside from the left and right hand, the Illogical positioning of the whole body can be a significant barrier. The player must remember that their overall stance (either sitting or standing) must be relaxed and should have good balance. The trajectory of the left arm should lift the fingers that are positioning on the neck area of the instrument up to its cusp into the upper position. Remember that it must be done without too much re-positioning. Therefore the arm must be ensured by violists and violinists that it should not clamp to the side of the body. In the same principle, big instrument players like cellists and bassists should avoid left arm “sagging” which will cause a rapid upward jolt as they are approaching the thumb position. The sensation of drawing the thumb out from below the neck towards the upper position should be flowing and freely.
Discover the Optimal Hand Shaping
Having an individual sense of optimal hand shaping is very important for every player in doing the upper position. Try to hang both of your hands on the side, and you will notice that your hands would typically form a shape that is loosely curled. Having that shape in mind, create the same way with your hand on your instrument. Make sure you maintain that similar shape and make it more relaxed. For some players, photographing their hand on its natural form in different angles is quite useful. They would ask their teacher or friend to do it as they translate the shape onto their instrument.
Since intonation is the focus of the anxiety of many players in the upper position, a false logic was developed. They believed that they would be secured if they clamp several of their fingers down all at once. However, this positioning will only make the intonation worst because the independence of the fingers is wholly sabotaged. When doing a daily scale practice, you should cultivate a finger-to-finger trajectory with much care. Doing this allows the weight of the arm to provide pressure on the fingers as they run on the fingerboard. At the same time, each finger will be free to achieve an accurate pitch and begin immediately with the vibrato.
String players have this common problem, and that is called the hypermobility or hyperlaxity of the joints or also known as “double-jointedness.” In this particular condition, the finger joints are buckling especially when playing the upper position. This will obstruct mobility and will affect pain due to locking of joints.
Lora Samples a violin teacher popularized a video on YouTube, providing an exciting solution to the problem. She said that you could strengthen your joints by exercising it a clothespin. This is very useful for shaping the fingers. However, it should be practiced with a loosely sprung clothes string, as cautioned by most experts to avoid the excessive use of wrist’s tendons.
Watch the bow at all times
So if your stance and shaping of the hand are working quite well, you can proceed to the next step. The next step to gain confidence in the upper hand position is to apply an appropriate technique in bowing as a good reinforcement for the excellent work of the left hand.
The book Cello Practice, Cello Performance written by Miranda Wilson, centers on the point that all techniques are to be performed by both hands. You can see this when you keep on playing in the upper position. A specific bowing technique is applied when you are playing the notes on top position. Playing the notes near the nut requires a different bowing technique. The difference is that the string is “shortened” when playing the upper position. Because of this, you need to apply appropriate adjustments when playing the notes near the bridge area. Specific weight in the arm (heavier) and slower bow speed are the necessary adjustments for drawing out the instrument’s correct resonant tone.
To reinforce this particular technique better, you should practice your scale daily. To do this, you should use the scale in the upper position for one octave. Every note should be played with one full bow stroke. Your vibrato must be continuous, and your bowing should be as slow as possible. At the same time, the best quality of tone must be maintained.
Creating your own etudes as addition to the repertoire of published etudes will improve your playing in the upper position. You can also take a lyrical piece that is relatively easy and try playing on a higher octave from its original version. You can modify your fingers if necessary. The beginning section of Jules Massenet’s “Meditation from Thaïs” is perfect for advanced violinists. Violists can work on the J.C. Bach Concerto; for cellists, Fauré’s Sicilienne in its slow movement, while the bassists can play the Pergolesi’s Nina. For less advanced players, they could use beginning pieces that are familiar, such as Suzuki Volume One pieces.
You can also have delightful side effect when you build confidence in tone quality and intonation in the upper position. Your intonation and tone will improve in the neck and all throughout the instrument. In your daily practice and learning, make it your priority to apply the logical upper position technique, and in time, you will be fearless in hitting the high notes.