The troublesome 4th finger lock up

July 22, 2007 at 04:02 PM · I've only been playing for a few months now (after a 6 year downtime), but even with regular practice I can't seem to tame the unruly 4th finger on my left hand. What happens is it locks up, mainly at the first joint, which wants to bend backwards instead of curve. And when I try and curve it by force, the second joint locks up and makes quick movements near impossible.

My teacher said the locking was due to undeveloped muscles, and that they will strengthen over time, but the problem now is my wrist has also begun to hurt (I'm unable to bend my hand forward without extreme discomfort). So, I was wondering if any players here have any exercises I can do that will strengthen my 4th finger without involving the violin?

I read back in the archive and saw the mention of Chinese baoding balls, but is this the only alternative?

Even though I won't be the next Perlman, I still want to continue to get better, so any help is duly appreciated! :)



Replies (18)

July 22, 2007 at 04:56 PM · As I mentioned before I lift weights (dumbbells) with my fingers emphasizing the fourth. Just rest your wrist on your knees, sitting of course, then put your fingers of each hand under the flange of the weights and lift it up and down using your fingers. I usually use the third and fourth fingers together so I don't drop the weights. The fourth finger is now useful for the first time ever.

July 22, 2007 at 05:28 PM · I think I'd start with larger muscle groups first before the digits. 2-5-10lb dumbells arm isolated with wrist leaning over edge of chair or knee, sets of 10 for 30 then 50.

Then reverse this (it's awkward but quite achievable), and bottom of wrist is isolated rather than top--you may wish to do this standing from a table or ledge....

The first one (and to some extent the second) will also allow you to curve (retract and extend) your fingers for a good full rep.

But even before the elbow down, I'd consider some work for shoulder and triceps--easy to find... So while you are at it, start with all upper large muscles so you don't become unbalanced.

If your wrist is hurting though--rest first. Also, for general finger strength, both foam rubber and those little balls that bounce to the moon--one is very pliable, the other less so. Or maybe tennis balls. (wonder how I might have all these handy.).;)

With the smaller balls, practice transferring the ball between your fingers L>R, R>L, without touching them--one can get very proficient at this too.

For non-violin finger dexterity (bear with me here: T=thumb). Develop tapping patterns (4t321, t4231, 21t31, ....there many permutations). And do these when you are sitting around. Get very very good at this--they helped me on piano significantly in conjunction with Hanon--(he who cannot walk and chew bubble gum).

And relatedly , light stretching (light) of your wrist and fingers--separating them, backward, forward, hitting every joint. Nurture everything about your southpaw--warm soaks, cool wraps, gentle overall massage from elbow down. Get into--the relaxation...

July 22, 2007 at 07:47 PM · Are you approaching the fingerboard with a curved pinky, or a flat pinky?

If you are landing flat, it is possible that you left hand is not up high enough. Your pinky should be able to curve just like the rest of your fingers. It is very important to work on pinky exercises in order to strenghten the pinky. I am talking about exercises on the violin and not lifting weights. You may lift weights if you feel so inclined, but the most important thing for your pinky is to do the exercises on the violin.

Also, make sure that your pinky is coming from up above the violin when you are placing it down on the fingerboard rather than from a tense position lower or squeezed up against your hand.

I hope this makes sense. Good luck.

July 22, 2007 at 07:57 PM · It makes sense to Hope--actually very good sense. But given wrist weakness, I still think a little upper body strengthening would be in order--after she gets the wrist to quiet down...

There seems to be a subtle and important relationship between stamina, strength, and finesse of motion on violin that goes beyond 'Suzie, don't crack you knuckles!' ;)...

I hope her teacher is aware of the wrist pain--he/she would be the best one to advise here.

July 22, 2007 at 10:27 PM · Do a left hand exercise to find the right curve and approach of the pinkie.

In 1st position, pluck open E with the fourth finger opening the entire hand/forearm away from the fingerboard as if it was a door swinging on hinges. Then quickly reposition your hand at the top of the fingerboard and pluck open G the same way. Quickly alternate several times between plucking the low E and the high G.

July 22, 2007 at 11:41 PM · This is quite a common problem. May students claim they can't bend the pinkie properly because they're "double jointed." Sometimes the culprit can be the position of the hand as a whole. If it's not turn enough to the neck, the pinkie actually has to be stretched out. Try turn the hand more towards the neck so the pinkie has to bend.

July 23, 2007 at 06:36 PM · I've never had that problem with the left hand, but I have had my bow-hand pinky lock up, especially during my first five years.

EDIT: I can easily make my pinky on either hand "lock" by closing that finger so that the base is at a 90 degree angle or greater to my palm, and applying a bit of stress. So if this is the same cause that normally causes this, concentrate on rotating your palm slightly so that the part between your thumb and pinky is parallel to the neck of the violin. As for the bow-hand pinky-lock (if applicable), check out the illustrations that likely appear in the front of your method books...because it sounds like you're holding the bow wrong.

July 23, 2007 at 07:00 PM · Meg

Try the tapping method on a table or desk. What I would like you to do for now, is separate yourself from the problem of holding the violin. While sitting by a table, place your left hand down on the table with your fingers curved raise your fingers all at once, and bring them back down on the table making sure they land on the finger tips (not the nail) making a tapping sound. Now try the same thing, only leave your palm on the table so that you only lift your fingers. (keep your thumb down on the table as well, it will serve as an anchor). When you can do this with ease, you can now try lifting one finger at a time and tapping it on the table. Make sure that the finger remains curved as you land each time on the finger tip (but not the nail) Now, try doing the same thing with all the fingers (you can pay special attention to the fourth finger if it is really weak). In this sitting position, and without the problem of holding or balancing or gripping the violin, you should be able to eliminate most of the stress in your hand and fingers. After you've done this for a while and feel secure in the way your fingers move up and down in a curved position and without stress, you can try to translate this feeling when holding the violin in playing position. You can then try the same tapping exercise on the violin that you did on the table. If you are still having trouble when holding the violin up but not when you tap the table, then you will have to examine the way you hold the violin.

July 24, 2007 at 03:41 AM · My teacher used to have me do that, and I never figured out why. Now it makes sense!

July 24, 2007 at 02:26 PM · Thank you everyone for all the advice! I am actually thinking about posting some photos of me holding my violin as I'm pretty sure I'm not holding it incorrectly, since my teacher hasn't corrected me (except for my bowing being crooked sometimes or my posture going a bit hunchie). Then I can perhaps show what my position looks like when I start to feel pain or what my troublesome pinky looks like when in use. It starts mainly when I move my elbow in under the violin, but for now I'm just attributing that to being out of shape and not bending my arm that way for years...

July 24, 2007 at 04:43 PM · Joel Good exercises--I'm using them in conjunction with my tapping patterns, actually for f3 in a reverse/lateral kind of logic...

Meg I really don't even know how to say this other than from experience: but, after two + years for me, there should be little tension anywhere as your get your tuck. One of my teachers/coaches had me doing raggedy andy exercises, (you may choose ann), getting loose and limber. It's still quite a lot of work maintaining all that loose and lightness (I know that's a paradox), but I feel that may be part of your issue. The tuck comment clued me in...

Nonetheless, it's even a pleasure playing etudes with good tone and resonance after getting it. So, wave those arms girl! Loosen that neck. Keep a very small (very very) arch in your lower back to keep you in gentle balance with the instrument at your neck. Stay still as you learn to meditate on your feet. Stretch your triceps and shoulders.

Especially now, conserve your energy and time and focus on relaxed posture. One thing I did(actually was shown to do I think), was to lay the instrument down, find my center, and only then continue. I've gotten fairly good at this(You should see my Klayman finding my shoulder table dance;) as I put straight relaxed neck, gentle secure hold in place. Not a pretty picture but it works.

Good luck--Beat that pain!. Find your zen.

July 27, 2007 at 08:06 AM · Albert- by tuck do you mean how far my left arm is under the violin? I know I feel a bit tight when I play, definitely gotta work on relaxin. :)

Also here's a pic of my pinky. I smushed it up against a wall to show how it bends backwards, which in turn causes it to lock up at that joint when I put it down on the fingerboard. It's tough keeping it from doing that, haha. I can also bend all four fingers on both hands back to form right angles like this.

(hope the html worked)

July 27, 2007 at 08:26 AM · Wow! I hear ya--that's some stretch. hmm. I think my remarks throughout were more geared towards my body and experience, in that I am about opposite to you in every way. (short:stocky:muscular:meaty....)

And I think this is important because your stretch seems very unique, and there may be something that is unique to this that we do not know about? For example, I can see how maybe the joint issue being simply the tendency of your finger joints given this flexibility. I don't know.

Anyway, tuck:yes getting around the instrument well--a major issue for me until very recently I think--but, getting there in a relaxed manner for me is the very heart and soul of all articulation issues.

I was hitting several cylinders tonight in my play for fun segment, and getting to where I can better sense this relaxation in my body and playing now rather than sporadically. And all of the cylinders including articulation were flow related.

So still I think broadly, sense what every other muscle is doing when this happens.

August 13, 2007 at 02:12 PM · though i could do that table and finger tapping exersize right off the bat, it was a good warm up to get the pinky going well for me.

I started noticing this problem when i was playing cello, and then it translated to guitar, and then it spilled into violin. I couldn't understand why it was so bad. I was a guitar major in college, and now I've got more time to practice, i was getting less coordinated? I've been really drilling my pinky with staying curved for the last few months. It's not so much about how your pinky plays the note (so long as it's curved). It's all about what its doing when it's not playing (for me). with guitar i've been playing an exersize that uses the pinky for the beginning of a pattern, and the rest of it, i rest my pinky on my top E string. it's not playing anything, it's just staying curved. It's really a huge mental overcoming physical thing for me.

I hate it because i move my pinky without thinking and it does this little snappy motion and locks. If i move my other fingers...nothing at all. I haven't found the perfect cure, as faster passages the pinky still does his own thing, but i've seen a lot of improvement by just staring at the pinky and thinking "YOU BETTER NOT!"

Anyways, i had thought this would be a left hand thumb position problem, because i do play my violin much like a guitar. my thumb is on the back of the neck. my teacher (who is younger than I, and never had a student) didn't seem to concerned.

There's no pain, it's just that the more angled my pinky (i guess you guys (real violinists)would say parallel) the more angled..the more the pinky problem is there.

I really want to post some youtube clips of my hands moving, as its not really a double jointed thing. nothing goes backwards.

good discussion

August 13, 2007 at 02:39 PM · If I understood your question correctly, you want to avoid the pinky's last knuckle (the one closest to the tip of the finger) from bending inwards when you put it on the fingerboard. Correct?

If so, the problem is almost certainly not one of insufficient muscle development but a much simpler issue. You're pushing down on the fingerboard. Way too hard. I'd try exercises in ultra-fast pinky use and in harmonics, believe it or not, as that gets across the issue of how light a pressure is actually needed on the fingerboard.

EXERCISE I (fast pinky use)

Play a scale in perfect fourths (A-D, B-E, C#-F#, etc) in repeated pairs of notes. The bottom note (A, B, C# etc) should be a double-dotted eighth. The top note (D, E, F#, etc) should be the fastest 32nd imaginable. Let your pinky tap the string lightly, leaping OFF the string as though burned on a hot stove. Try four reps (AAAA-D AAAA-D AAAA-D AAAA-D) per bow, two bows per note pair. Play an entire two-octave A major scale this way.

If your pinky continues to "get stuck" on the string, try this exercise only after mastering this following one...

EXERCISE II (harmonics transitioning into scale in fourths)

1 - Place the first finger firmly on the G string's A.

2 - With the index finger firmly down, touch the violin-tip of the pinky lightly to the string where you'd normally play a D. (VITAL NOTE: the tip of the pinky as used in playing the violin is closer to the side of the finger facing the thumb, rather than the actual top of the finger. Or, as many incorrectly use it, the side/tip of the finger on the side FURTHER from the thumb. THIS IS INCORRECT.)

3 - Keep the second and third finger fairly close to the string, without making actual contact. Under no circumstances should you lift and pull back the second and third fingers while playing a harmonic.

4 - If you've followed the instructions accurately so far, you should be hearing a whistle-like note, two octaves above the low A that your index finger is firmly on. The pinky's light pressure on the string is there to illustrate to you just how little weight and pressure the string actually needs and to overcome the beginner's habit of shifting all the hand's weight onto the pinky with each use.

5 - Try playing an entire two-octave scale in this manner. First the low base note on a downbow (the low A), then the harmonic pinky on the upbow. Then the next note, with the index finger (B) and so forth. Shift down onto the D string after you've played a D on the G string with your index finger; in other words, you'll be playing up to fourth position on each string.

6 - When you can play a scale in consistent harmonics (not taking forever-and-a-day to achieve the whistle), try this more difficult - and more productive - version. Play the base note and the harmonic as two eighth notes, slurred, on a single downbow. Then, as you repeat the harmonic on the upbow, GENTLY AND GRADUALLY increase the pressure until the whistled harmonic becomes a solid D. Repeat, basically playing a scale in perfect fourths, through to the top and back of an A major scale.

Subsequently, (possibly MUCH later) practicing scales in broken fourths can be used as a tremendous boon for improving vibrato on the fourth finger.

August 14, 2007 at 05:33 PM · All good advice here, I would make one very small sugesstion. When playing with the fourth finger. make sure that your wrist relaxes inward a little bit, to maintain the rounded finger. If the wrist doesnt relax, then the pinky will be overstretched and the joint could colapse. Good luck.

August 14, 2007 at 06:30 PM · Okay, here's another permutation of the pinkie problem: my lefthand pinkie muscle is so overdeveloped that I CAN'T collapse it. This creates a mild vibrato problem, giving me less range of motion for vib. It's been this way for a really long time. The only way I can collapse the pinkie joint is to bring all my fingers way under it (not possible while playing). If I take my other hand, and put my pinkie into that position, the collapsed position, it is actually hard to keep it that way. It just pops back up into a curved position.

Well, Violin Doctors?

August 15, 2007 at 04:18 PM · You can also try a book by Carl Flesch called Urstudien. It's mostly a left hand only book, no bowing, that exercises each finger. There are some great ones in there, and it really helped me re-form my left hand in high school.

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