Basic Guidelines for Shifting

Number One: Most shifts should be made in the string. This means that when you are moving from one note to another through a shift you should not lift your fingers out of the string or fingerboard, leaving the weight of your hand in the string. This keeps the shift under control and it allows you to hear all or part of the shift, depending on bow use (see number 4). Jeff Turner, the former principal bass of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and double bass professor at the Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University, gives a great illustration to show how a shift should work. He points out that when Tarzan goes from tree to tree, he doesn’t jump. He swings on a vine and lands softly onto the next tree. 

Number Two: It is essential to consider the speed of the shift. Most students tend to shift too fast, while lifting their fingers off of the fingerboard, making a sort of clutching shift. The tempo of the music, the distance of the shift, and the character of the music should determine the speed. In general, the shift should be at a speed that allows for the most control.

Number Three: When shifting you should think about what finger you are shifting on. There are primarily three choices. First is the “old finger shift”, when you shift on the finger you were using and change to the new finger at the end of the shift. Second is the “new finger shift”, when you start the shift with the finger you will use for the next note. The last option is a combination of both when you start with the old finger and change to the new finger before you finish the shift. The music should determine what type of shift you use.

Number Four: It is also essential to determine when to shift while using a bow. Using the character of the music as a guide, you can shift before, after or during a bow change. During a slur you can decide how much of the shift you want to hear by lifting the bow off of the string to hide all or part of the shift.

Number Five: One of the best ways of making accurate shifts is learning to “map out the fingerboard”. This cannot be fully explained here, but generally it means using guideposts on the instrument (i.e. shoulders, nut, thickness of the neck, et cetera), measuring a shift by the interval your hand will move, and using your hand as a reference point (for instance, moving your first finger to where your fourth finger was in order to move a whole step). A good teacher will be able to help a student understand how to do this.

Number Six: Use your ear as your guide.