Left Hand Technique: Pivoting

Left hand on upright bass

Although I advocate a traditional left hand foundation (i.e. 1-2-4 fingering system), any bassist who plays long enough will come across passages that don’t lie well using this fingering system. “Pivoting” can be an attractive solution for such passages.

Often, especially when playing two consecutive notes on the same string more than a step apart (for example: A-C on the G string), we shift between notes.
Left Hand Technique: Pivoting - figure 1

A shift, however, entails moving the entire hand/arm to reach both notes. Such movements can be cumbersome at times.

If in the example above, rather than shifting, we left the thumb stationary and “rocked” the hand/arm to reach the upper note, we would reduce the motion of the left hand/arm. This is pivoting. We turn the arm, as when turning a doorknob, to reach the higher note.
Left Hand Technique: Pivoting - figure 2

There should be a small arc created by the movement of the hand/wrist/forearm when pivoting. Don’t move in straight lines.

Pivoting is especially useful in reducing left hand movement during quick passagework. Take a passage such as this:
Left Hand Technique: Pivoting - figure 3

The fingering given in the example above can be played two ways: With shifts, or with pivots. Try it both ways, and I think you will find the pivot to be a more fluid movement. It is easy to play out of tune when pivoting, however, so be extra vigilant about intonation.

Try pivoting on scales and arpeggios. Try them on some old repertory. The possibilities abound, and pivoting can often make difficult passages more accessible.

Today pivoting is most closely associated with François Rabbath. Rabbath can certainly be credited with the systematization of pivoting into a pedagogic system, but he wasn’t the first bassist to discover the technique. It appears to have been around for ages.

Theodor Findeisen (a student of Simandl’s) writes about the pivot as a well-known and well-established technique in the original forward to his extremely challenging 25 Technical Studies, published in the early part of the 20th century. Likely it was in use long before this as well. Whenever bassists started using it, it’s an excellent technique and it should be in all of our toolboxes.

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at www.donovanstokes.com and check out the Bass Coalition at www.basscoalition.com.

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  1. I don’t understand. Is this for double bass ? Because on bass guitar for g string notes A B C I would use fingers 1 3 4 – NEVER 1 2 4. Have I misunderstood something here ?

  2. A problem with said pivoting is that it leaves the centre of gravity further away from the point of pressure of the fingers – not good. For this A-C example, it’s better done on the D, where you can reach all the notes using 1-2-3-4 fingering. At that height on the fingerboard the distance between the notes is about the same as in the lower cello register, so no there’s no reason to not use this fingering.

  3. I’ve thought a lot about the famous “pivoting,” and scientifically it just doesn’t make sense. If the hand moves through “an arc,” rather than a straight line it’s going to move further – not a good idea. Then, if the fingers are further away from the thumb than they would be in “standard” position, they’re going to be further away from the centre of gravity, like it or not, and so apply less pressure to the string. It’s sounds lovely, but it’s going to be slower and weaker. I’ve yet to see a scientific justification to the contrary. (PS, have 3 music degrees, incl. PhD and a BSc in App. Maths)