Strings – Finger Positions

A working knowledge of finger positions for string instruments is essential to a working orchestrator.

I could spend a whole week talking about finger positions. But the point I want to make today is that this is another big hole in the perception of many beginning orchestrators. It’s that section at the beginning of the string section chapter that gets skipped on the way to reading the interesting bits about tremolo, or even ignored entirely while drooling over the percussion chapter (I’ve been there, I know).

Two basic points. The first is simply that it’s the navigation mechanism for pitch on the strings. Period. An orchestrator not being aware of how string fingering works is like an automobile designer not understanding the internal combustion engine. The very first thing that I want you to do after reading this tip is to go and dig out your orchestration manual and look it up for all four orchestral string instruments and notice the difference. There are certain practicalities of slurring, skips, inflection, and double-stops, the confident scoring of which depends on a knowledge of finger positions.

What you will discover as you look through chapter 1 again is that different string family members have different spacing of finger positions. The lie of the fingers across the strings on a violin favors a simple diatonic scale. On a viola, this stretches out a bit, making it a more comfortable instrument for larger fingers. On the cello, the fingers naturally rest in a chromatic position, while on the bass a semitone can be as far apart as the span of two fingers in 1/2 position or 1st position.

As each position rises in pitch, getting closer to the bridge, its span contracts. So certain types of passage are more natural than others. A cello may play more naturally in a higher position where diatonic notes fall easily under the fingers, while an extreme position on the violin in a chromatic scale is so condensed that some tiny adjustment of fingertip may be all that’s required to change pitch.

The implications of these differences are most noticeable in passages like the excerpt below, the very last page of Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slav. It’s some typical passagework for a frenzied coda, material at which the composer excelled. Look at how the most active repeated notes are all placed rather high for each instrument playing semiquavers. These last few bars will sound terrific, and they’re very well-placed for all instruments. This is not to say that any string instrument will have any problems playing at any speed in any given register; rather, that knowledge of positions is what makes this passage have a driving unity and sparkling accuracy.

Strings - Finger Positions

Thomas Goss is a professional composer and orchestrator with an international roster of clients. He has worked with such talents as Billy Ocean, Melanie C, Sharon Corr, and Nikki Yanofsky. His compositions, orchestrations, and crossover arrangements have been performed by such ensembles as Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony Chamber Ensemble.

Thomas lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand, with his wife Erica and son Charlie, and one very unappreciative cat.

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