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When reading music how am I supposed to know which fingering to use? Let me clarify. I can read the notes. However, when there is an A how do I know if I play an open A or the fourth finger on the D string?

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    If it's not specified, then you should find some balance between what is most comfortable to play and what sounds best. This mostly takes experience, but I am sure there are violin-specific aspects that someone could flesh out better than I could.
    – user28
    Jan 7, 2017 at 2:20
  • In my experience, four fingers is to be preferred in most cases, but in some other cases, an open string is almost necessary. The main idea is to eliminate string crossings in any way possible. Jan 10, 2017 at 6:38

6 Answers 6

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You learn by starting with exercises and pieces where the fingering is marked on the score, and progress from there by experience.

If the answer isn't "obvious" in a particular situation, you try out the different options and find which is the best compromise between "easy to play" and "sounds good" - an open A string sounds different from the same pitched note on the stopped D or G strings.

Of course if you are playing music that was actually written for violin by a composer who knew what he/she was doing, that often makes the choice more obvious!

Note: you only mentioned "fourth finger on the D string" and "open A string", so maybe you haven't progressed beyond the first position yet. When you do, the will be several more fingering options available, and some of them might be easier than the two you mentioned.

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  • You are correct. I have not gotten to changing positions yet. I have so far been using the fingering that is the easiest transition.
    – user35865
    Jan 7, 2017 at 3:04
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    I would just like to add that for intonation sake beginners should rely on open strings as much as they can. I let my students in the beginning use open strings as much as possible. but as their intonation get's stronger I gradually start emphasizing the 4th finger. Jan 7, 2017 at 18:16
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This depends a lot of the time on the style of the piece, any fingering markings in the piece, and your own level of experience and ability.

A calmer, more elegant piece of music should use the 4th finger to play open strings. This makes your playing not suddenly sound so sharp (like when suddenly playing open A or E string). However, other styles of music or more forceful music can use an open string for that extra emphasis.

If a composer really wants you to use 4th finger, then they will put the little number "4" above the note to tell you to play with a 4th finger.

It's important to practice and develop your pinky finger to be stronger to play nice, lush 4th finger notes. Play your 4th finger, and play the open string that corresponds at the same time to develop good intonation. If you really need to, then shift positions (like to third position) and play the 4th finger with a different finger, like second finger.

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  • (+1) when you say 'sharp' here you mean a 'harsh' sound, or something similar? rather than pitch
    – AakashM
    Oct 14, 2022 at 10:57
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    I mean more of a harsh sound, or perhaps "not as humble" as a 4th finger note.
    – Meredith
    Oct 14, 2022 at 18:03
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One of the skills of more advanced violin playing is just that....choosing which fingering works best. For many notes, there are many places they can be played. As you reach a more advanced level and learn more positions, you'll develop the ability to decide which pattern works best for what you're playing. Hopefully you have a teacher who is taking you through a standard progression of learning so that you will get to this in due time.

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There are many aspects to choosing the best fingering such as (using your example of 4th finger vs open A):

  • The dynamics of the section. A 4th finger is often best in a quieter dynamic.
  • The tempo. In a slow tempo the 4th is usually best because it allows for vibrato.
  • The notes before and after. Always try to avoid unnecessary string crossings.
  • Period and style of the music.
  • Proficiency of the player. Open strings are 'safer' for beginners because many beginners find it difficult to consistently play the 4th finger in tune.
  • Personal preference. After other considerations, fingering is up to you. Feel free to experiment and use whatever feels most comfortable.
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The problem is that the answer depends on the experience and skills of the player. An open string is usually the wrong choice for a single long note since you cannot add vibrato or intonation corrections to it (for the open G string there is no alternative, but experienced players will finger a vibrato on the non-bowed G one octave higher on the D string, and sympathetic vibration will add some contour to the tone played on the open G string).

In particular, when playing with a straight-tone instrument like a recorder that has rather limited means of pitch adjustment compared to a violin (particularly when played by players in progress), playing an open string is close to impossible without the result sounding out of tune (of course, better results by intonation-adjusted fingering and/or vibrato require a reasonably skilled player on the violin then).

When a beginner is comtemplating playing an open string or fourth finger, more experienced players will often revert to using a different finger such that a containing phrase will get by without a string change. Even if it is the rest tone after an ascending phrase, jumping into third position may be preferable since the quality of vibrato on the middle finger might be better than on the pinky.

Bach's violin solo sonatas and partitas don't contain fingerings in the manuscript/Urtext, but some passages and partly entire movements work so obviously better with a particular choice of fingering that it is actually a immensively gratifying experience puzzling it out.

That is not a general rule: for many composers, the violin is sort of an "anonymous" melody instrument with a particular timbre, and they don't write as much for the violin as generally check their writing (or have it checked) for playability after the fact. For symphonic composers, having intimate knowledge of all involved instruments and their technical constraints may be a bit much to demand.

I've actually seen several different fingerings suggested in one part score, the fingering below the notes being "easier" (mainly confining itself to the more common first and third position) with the upper fingering being more musically sound by using positions as needed for avoiding unsavory string changes in mid-phrase.

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You should improvise and try out different fingerings and figure out which works best for you. And as you get more comfortable with more positions, you'll have more fingerings to choose from.

As for whether you should play an open A or an A on the D string, in actual performances, you should play it on the D string (or G string if the music demands it). Open A (and especially open E) don't sound very good if the note is very drawn out, and not playing an open A also allows you to do vibrato. At least that's what I've learned in my lessons

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