The Four Things/Transitions

I’m going to channel my inner Simon Fischer here. We’re going to go from 30,000 feet then into tight focus on the essentials of playing. If we focus on these four things we can dramatically improve our playing. It’s difficult to drill down this way when there are so many other things to fix at the same time, but putting your blinders on for a little bit will pay huge dividends. Remember, you can only learn one thing at a time! I’m going to warn you that this will be a little dense, but you’re here, which means you’re a string nerd. You got this!

If we look at string playing from 30,000 feet, we can see that there are only four things we need to do to play our instruments:

Right hand:
1. Draw the bow back and forth
2. Cross strings

Left Hand
1. Pick up and put down fingers
2. Shift

I think of these things as transitions. Literally going from one state to another. In life, all of the bad things happen during transitions. They are stressful, even when they’re positive. Moving, changing jobs, divorce. When you drive, mishaps happen when you’re going from one state to another, not when you’re sitting in your driveway. That fender bender when you change lanes, or hitting the garbage can when you’re backing out of your driveway, scratching your fancy rims when you try and eat tater tots while pulling out of the drive-thru at Sonic. The same thing is true in string playing. Mimi Zweig, director of the Indiana University String Academy, puts it much more eloquently: “All of the mistakes happen between the notes.” True, pithy and zenlike. This is an important example of the easy vs. difficult principle. But these things are both easy and difficult, which makes it even harder to figure out. Because they’re easy on the surface, people tend to be dismissive of them at the beginning. Then we freak out later and attend every session at the ASTA conference trying to figure out where things went so wrong. If we look at them with genuine curiosity from the beginning we can lay a good foundation and avoid the pitfalls that might come later. Now let’s look at what makes our seemingly simple tasks difficult. This stuff is hard, people! I’m going to stick to the “basics.”

Drawing the bow back and forth:

  • Keeping the bow parallel to the bridge*
  • Keeping your contact point consistent*
  • Changing your contact point on purpose
  • Playing with a consistent sound from frog to tip
  • Distribution

Crossing Strings:

  • Crossing smoothly
  • Crossing quickly
  • Crossing in different parts of the bow (esp. difficult at the ends)

Picking your fingers up and putting them back down:

  • Picking them up and putting them down in the same place consistently
  • Going from one note to another

I need to stop here for a commercial break. This is is the single most underestimated aspect of string playing in the early stages. We’ve all heard things like, “The bow is where the the true artist shines through”, etc., but have we ever heard anyone say,”Make sure you pick your fingers up and put them down in the same place?” It sounds ludicrous to say that we even need to think about it, but how many of you have heard someone play a trill with every repetition of the trilled note in a different place? If we’re doing that our fingers are the equivalent of lightning, never striking twice in the same place. Have we listened to a learner play a “D” somewhere, then go to a “G”, only to come back to the “D” and put it in a totally different place? That second example has two transitions, doubling the difficulty. There are simple and methodical ways to fix this, but first we need to acknowledge its difficulty.


This doesn’t need any commentary. We all know how difficult this is.

What about vibrato? I didn’t put this in the category of “The Four” because I don’t think it’s really a transition. Arm vibrato can be thought of as a static back and forth shift. If we teach the gesture for shifting well we can unlock a good arm vibrato with much less effort than if we teach the two skills in a discrete manner. There are other, higher order transitions, such as spiccato. But training these basic transitions well becomes the “mother” to gaining these skills. Sautille, for instance, can be taught with the same skills that you use to teach string crossings. I promise to explain. If I forget, bug me.

I hope this post has shed some light on the difficulties that are inherent in some seemingly simple tasks. Playing a stringed instrument is both simple and intricate. Not understanding what skills are which leads to frustration. We’ll cover all of these things, probably several times, in the life cycle of this blog. Our next post will focus on the task that I think is the most neglected, picking our fingers up and putting them down (where we want them to go!).

Next time: Stacking Seconds/Tetrachords/Why Scales are Difficult

*Basically free, but not for beginners.

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.