Thursday, March 19, 2015

Finger Patterns as a Vehicle to Upper Positions Explained

Back in 1988, I was a young violinist and teacher with a fresh music education degree, looking to figure out just how to teach strings in a way that was authoritative and efficient following my first year and a half of teaching and a great deal of trial and error.  I learned about a summer string pedagogy class at Central Connecticut University that would feature instructors Dorothy Straub, Jim Kjelland, and Marvin Rabin.  I had heard of Dr. Rabin before and had actually attended a seminar on strolling strings at the University of Wisconsin in 1986, where he was one of the featured instructors.  I decided to head up to Connecticut for the summer session, pick up a few graduate credits and see what I could pick up for future use. 

Boy, did I get an education that summer!  I developed friendships with all of the attendees and instructors that would last for many years to come.  I picked up repertoire and concepts that would become foundational to my now 27 year teaching career.  I experienced affirmation from the instructors that set me up with confidence as I moved forward in this field.   And, I learned about pedagogues that came before us, setting a standard and developing techniques that I and many other string teachers would build upon as we seek to provide the best possible instruction for our students.

One such concept was the idea of finger patterns and cyclic exercises that Dr. Rabin introduced in his classes.  He explained that this was the pedagogy of George Bornoff.  He taught us the foundational principles of the pedagogy and “Finger Pattern Exercises” that could be used in this cyclic manner.  These Finger Pattern Exercises made all the sense in the world to me and they opened up many ideas for me as to how they might be used in a teaching environment.  (I should say that my private instructor had introduced this concept to me as a middle school student, but I didn't really grasp what she was trying to teach me.  I feel like I didn't understand the nomenclature that she used and I will get to that concept later in this post.)

I went home that summer with many new pedagogical ideas and plans.  One concept that really stuck with me was the Finger Pattern Exercises.  I decided that they would become an integral part of my teaching routine.  I began to use them in class and found them to be particularly useful for teaching my 2nd and 3rd year students to play in upper positions.  I took all of the ideas that Dr. Rabin had given me and began to tailor them to my own teaching.  They were SO effective.  I came to understand that throwing everything about upper positions at students at once was a bad call.  Using this method, I could get them into 3rd position without introducing shifting, note-reading, or even note names if I didn't want to.  Using this method, students could actively listen and adjust.  They could feel the patterns, hear the patterns, and tune the notes as they listened to their teacher and the other students around them.  And, it was all done in a group environment where a mistake here or there wasn't the focus of anyone’s attention.  It was ideal. 

Over the years, I wanted to know more about George Bornoff and these ideas.  I had never heard him mentioned anywhere else.  I had heard about Shinichi Suzuki, Samuel Applebaum, Merle Isaac, Ivan Galamian, Paul Rolland, and many others. But the name George Bornoff just wasn’t out there for me.  As the internet came into prominence thorough the 1990’s, I would search Bornoff’s name every so often and only found a very few mentions.  I never really found anything that I could use. 
I really didn’t want these Finger Pattern Exercises to disappear, so over the years, I gave an occasional talk on this method and sequence when speaking to ASTA chapters or a state conferences.  I event made a few videos for my students that eventually landed on Youtube when my school put lots of its video content up online in 2009 or so.   

Then, in 2012, when the ASTA National conference was in Providence, I happened to share a cab ride with Debbie Lyle.  As we started talking, we quickly realized that we both had an interest in George Bornoff. But, hers was much more personal.  Debbie had been a student of George Bornoff and she was working to kick-start an organization that would be dedicated to the work and legacy of Bornoff. ( In the ensuing years, she, and their organization, have worked tirelessly to bring his concepts and legacy back to the forefront in string education.  If these Finger Pattern Exercises make sense to you, I strongly recommend that you seek out more of the pedagogy of Dr. Bornoff through the work of FASE.  I would call the system that I am discussing somewhat of an entry into his systems and approach.  For me, they are functional in every way and a great way to introduce and reinforce many concepts of playing, including intonation, bow technique, tone quality, and musicianship. 

The Finger Pattern Exercises that I use and teach are, at their core, the pedagogy of Dr. Bornoff.  The system and cyclic nature of the FPE’s are straight from his pedagogy as are the implementations of the concepts.  I find it interesting that I was so drawn to the idea and concepts and sort of found the philosophy by using the sequences.  I wish I would have had the opportunity to meet him and learn from him.  Here is what I DO know. As a kid, the concept of “low 2nd finger” or “half position” never really made sense to me.  “Low 1” really didn't make sense.  I knew that I was feeling the spacing between my fingers, and I could hear what I needed, but the concept of the patterns was never really introduced to me.  Finger Pattern Exercises changed all that for my teaching.

So, what, exactly, are Finger Pattern Exercises?
Here are a couple of the basic ideas:

There are 4 basic finger patterns (Dr. Bornoff called these tonal patterns)
1/2 = half step between first and second finger
2/3= half step between second and third finger
3/4=half step between third  and fourth  finger
Open= all whole steps

These can be taught in a cyclic manner where the student first plays each step of the pattern for 4 quarter notes, then 3, then 2, then one.  This allows the student to listen and make adjustments to the pitch of each finger, initially for 4 pulses, then with incrementally less time to adjust.

The same finger pattern is played on all 4 strings, reinforcing the idea that the patterns happen on any and all strings and allowing for a great deal of repetition, leading to mastery.
These can be taught in groups so that students have the freedom to make mistakes, listen, and adjust as part of the exercise.

Initially, there is no shifting.  The students find third position using the interval of a perfect fourth. (Here comes the bride) So, once they are up there, they stay there.  Shifting can come later!
Initially, there is no note-reading. The students is simply listening and playing. 

Once we have established the names of the finger patterns, they can be used in a variety of settings, including when introducing difficult passages in orchestral repertoire. This has been key to my teaching because for the vast majority of my teaching career, I have been essentially the Orchestra Director, not the string instructor. (Although I think we all know that it is always both!)

Once the Finger Pattern Exercises are ingrained, they can be used to teach other techniques.  I use them to introduce a variety of bowing and right hand techniques. (hooked bowing, spiccato, martele’, portato, and many others.)

The instructor can provide a harmonic underpinning, making the exercises much more musical and providing a harmonic underpinning for the pitches.  I started doing this using the guitar or piano when teaching 3rd position to my sons when they were little.  It made the exercises fun and my boys always loved it! (I taught my younger sons 3rd position very early in their training and it was very successful.) This also gives the instructor the opportunity to express their musicianship to the students.  The back-tracks that I have provided on Youtube can serve this role for you or your students anytime and anywhere. I have also provided the chord changes for you. (I believe that Dr. Bornoff encouraged students to use a drone when practicing these exercises.  I really believe in this as well and have been so pleased to hear my high school senior son practicing his scales with a drone lately.  It makes all the difference in the world to hear those intervallic relationships!)
This really works for older students, too.  They feel empowered to shift and learn the fingerboard in a non-threatening way. 

The resources that I have created work very well in a “flipped-classroom” environment.  Students can work at their own pace and use the audio/video resources as a practice tool at school and at home.
The concepts and system lead very neatly to scale study and I believe that the harmonic underpinning really enhances scale study. I have provided harmonic underpinning for 1 and 2 octave scales and plan to add 3 octaves in the future. 

Finally, you can modify, clarify, and adjust this system as you see fit.  For example, if you like scales to begin on 2nd finger, the finger patterns still make sense and you can use the harmonic underpinnings. 

I have organized the Youtube resources into playlists that seem to make sense to me.  They include the Finger Pattern Exercises for Violin, Viola, Cello, and Bass, and all of the one and two octave major scales. They can be found as playlists on my personal Youtube site, or on the NCSSMDistanceEd site as individual videos.  They are also linked here and on my personal website,  I hope that this is useful for you and I would love to hear from you if you try some of these concepts and ideas.  I encourage you to look further into the Bornoff Approach at as well.

I truly hope that you find this description and resources to be useful for both you and your students.



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