One of the main causes of tension in the left hand is not preparing it for the angle and plane that the string is residing in. Another cause is the third and fourth fingers’ webbing, which is less mobile and less wide than that of the first and second finger. To work around these obstacles, flexibility in every joint can make the hand wrap snugly around the fingerboard. Violinists can be ready with a brand new hand template in a split second if they take the time to consider such variables.
No matter how wide the span or how long the fingers, it’s necessary to move the hand and all the other parts that are connected: the wrist, arm, elbow, and palm. I remember one violinist at Eastman School of Music who could play into eleventh position without bringing his arm and hand up and over the fingerboard. It was a bit of a circus act. I hope he didn’t ask his students to do it.
If your finger is trigger happy and moves before the mind is ready, chances are that only the fingertip will get there and leave the hand behind. To discover a range of motion that can successfully span any interval and string crossing, here are exercises that make the hand flexible and strong.
Don’t Force the Hand – Use Its Flexibility
- Practice skipping fingers, that is, going from first to third finger, first to fourth, fourth to first, etc.
The purpose of this is to focus on the multi-structural components of the hand. Sometimes it takes a little re-wiring of the mind to observe the tricky engineering of the left hand. Just going from the first finger to the third requires an interesting bit of acrobatics. That interval consists of two smaller intervals, two fingers of different length, and the less mobile webbing between the second and third finger. Nature’s quirks can inadvertently cause faulty intonation.
- Practice making the hand feel larger or smaller, depending on the half-steps and whole-steps involved. Take a moment to know where all four fingers are headed. Don’t overthink the thumb and its placement; it’s essentially just going along for the ride.
To get the hand ready for the next group of notes, it takes re-shaping the hand and pivoting it to fit the fingerboard. If the hand won’t budge, it may be clinging to the neck for fear of dropping the violin or playing out of tune. Intervals on the fingerboard don’t change, but the feeling of the hand does. The violin doesn’t have frets but it has distinct targets, little boxes that overlap each other. Two fingers can almost defy physics and inhabit the same space at the same time; instead they must push each other out of the way.
Observe rather than over-intellectualize. All the hinges that make up the arm are multi-directional. The mind is designed to direct the fingertip from point A to B without micro-managing. Planning the intervals in advance frees up the hand because there’s the confidence of knowing.
Let all parts of the arm go wherever they seem to be headed. It’s tempting to pick one detail to concentrate on, but that can crimp the movement. After focusing on the part that is stuck, look at the big picture again as soon as possible.
The Miniature World of Small Spaces
Play any interval within a position, then shift between the two notes using one finger. Use a trial-and-error system to increase your success. Remember how the hand feels in flight and make adjustments to compensate for faulty judgement. Keep track of all the variations in distances, just like a scientist would do in an experiment.
This gives you several measuring opportunities at once, a useful skill since there are no frets other than the ones in your visual imagination. Navigating the distances between short spaces on the fingerboard presents different problems than those encountered by athletes who deal in large distances.
The other issue that differentiates violinists from cellists is having the hand turned upside-down and ¾ of the hand below the fingerboard. If a violinist starts to feel sorry for himself for encountering what seems to be more difficult circumstances, he must dispel himself of such notions immediately. Even cellists whose hands face the fingerboard can feel sorry for themselves. At least violinists never have to deal with thumb position.
Stop Before You Feel the Pain
Eventually violinists possess a storehouse of memories of which movements cause which pain. Playing a high 3rd finger, G-sharp, on the D string in first position without making an adjustment in the arm can cause strain. Pretty soon two or three painful intervals in a row can turn into a lot of discomfort. Stop as soon as you realize you’re not poised and ready for what’s coming up. It may take several moments to plan how to pivot the hand to be seated correctly, but all that information will be stored for future retrieval.
Holding the Violin is Personal
There are only three points of the hand which touch the neck: the thumb, the side of the index finger, and the fingertip. Make your peace with how you hold it, because it will give you confidence and stability. It will be slightly different than any other violinist, but what you will share with everyone else is the need to play in tune and maneuver. Don’t worry about occasional pressure. A little squeeze here and a little squeeze there is normal wear and tear.
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