Finger Patterns

This blog post started its life as a talk I gave at a teacher preparation day for my colleagues in the Orange County Public Schools. It had this elegant title: Reduce Cognitive Load Through the Use of Chunking and Transposition. Actually, that’s a terrible title, but I’m evolving. Let’s pick up where we left off last time and head straight into our finger patterns.

Remember that we’re turning tetrachords into finger patterns. Finger patterns turn four discrete notes into one pattern, or chunk. These patterns have been used by many pedagogues like Bornoff, Sassmanshaus, et al. However, this information still seems novel to most learners whom I’ve spoken to about them. Here they are:

The Patterns
1. WhW
2. hWW
3. WWh
4. hWh
5. WWW
6. hhh

These patterns are listed in this order to be most immediately useful. Other people order them differently. Patterns 1, 2 and 3 are the most frequently encountered patterns for most of the repertoire that students will see for the first few months of learning the violin and viola. Don’t give students this list of the finger patterns and ask them to memorize them. Learning a series of half and whole steps goes counter to the principal of chunking. This is solely a resource for teachers. I would either show pictures of the hand positions or demonstrate them for the students. Start away from the instrument, then move them onto instruments when they’ve got these exercises securely memorized. (I’ve posted some pictures for you down at the bottom. Feel free to print them out and use them in your classroom or teaching studio.) A great game to use with younger students is “finger pattern rock-paper-scissors.” Both players have hands behind their backs, one person calls out the pattern to be shown and the hands need to be pulled out right away to see if the finger pattern is correct. Having people switch being leader makes learning much stickier.

Here are a couple more thoughts:

  • Rather than come up with yet another finger pattern for an unusual case, i.e. h, A2, h, it’s easier to remember the unusual pattern the way a jazz musician would remember an altered mode. Let’s look at measure 5, 6 and 7, below. In this case it would be finger pattern 3 with a low 2, or alternatively, finger pattern 2 with a raised 3. I prefer the former as it’s easier to reach back with the second finger than up with the third.
  • Once the patterns are learned students start to see them everywhere, just like matching tile spaces in Tetris. Here’s an example from the Bach a minor Concerto (asterisks indicate extensions or altered patterns):

As you can see, there are spans of several bars where the student can stay “in pattern”. This reduces the cognitive load by a huge margin. The learner has already memorized the pattern, offloading the need to think consciously about it. It’s much easier to recognize slight variations within a pattern than to learn a series of notes individually. It’s no wonder that people have such a difficult time memorizing. How could one possibly memorize thousands of discrete notes without resorting to techniques like those used in memory competitions? It would be like trying to remember the numbers in a phone book. And even if you were successful, would that leave any room in your brain to make music?

You can have a student practice this by first identifying the finger pattern for a section of music, placing the pattern down, then playing the passage. This can be done silently which is great for group practice. Pretty soon the student will see the music as a series of longer chunks rather than a series of discrete notes. The use of practice pauses is essential when first starting to learn these patterns. I’ll draw up some exercises with simpler music so that you can use this with beginners. (If I forget, bug me.)

Drop and replace exercises are extremely useful when learning these patterns, both away from and on the instrument. Be sure that the student is placing all of their fingers down simultaneously when doing the drop and replace exercise, or the benefit of chunking will be lost. When doing the drop and replace exercise it’s useful to remind the student of the proper arm angle (parallel motion) for the string they’re on. (I’ll make a video. If I forget, bug me, but it’s on my to-do list.)

Younger students may not have the dexterity to form these patterns right away. I’ve found that using the right hand to align the half steps is very helpful to younger students. This applies to practicing the patterns on the instrument and “rock-paper-scissors” style.

One can readily generate exams that gauge the student’s understanding of these finger patterns by bracketing passages in the music and asking the student to identify the pattern like the Bach example above. More advanced students could simply be given an unmarked sheet of music and told to add brackets with identifying marks. The students will also be tasked with finding logical/musical places to start and stop the patterns. We are wading a bit into the waters of form and analysis as we do this, but that’s awesome, isn’t it??? Thanks for reading!

Next time: Finger Angles

Copyright Rising Tide String Project 2018 (Erik Bryan and Chung Park)

Please contact me at if you’d like me to come and lead a workshop. I’m available for student workshops and teacher professional development sessions.

(Finger Patterns are seen from the back of the left hand, or the learner’s vantage point. This facilitates showing it to the instructor and the rock/paper/scissors game)