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Drew Lecher

The Left Thumb's role in shifting: Chief Supporting Actor.

August 21, 2008 at 5:05 AM


Hello Drew:

I came across a blog you wrote in 2007 (December, I think) and I have a question about one of the statements you made regarding shifting in high positions. You stated, “Do not curve the hand around the shoulder, but rather ascend over the top pivoting from the thumb, which should be under
the neck (in a hitch-hiking pose—don’t hitch-hike!) just before the need to rise up and over.”

I have been having no end of issues with shifting and my thumb placement when playing scales and arpeggios (Flesch) when I reach the high positions. Generally I see the most problems on the G string and sometimes the D string. I can’t figure out how to move my thumb from under the neck smoothly when shifting, and when I do I’m not sure where to put it, on the shoulder or along-side of the fingerboard. Generally, my thumb ends up somewhere near the violin shoulder and is drastically stretched to allow my fingers to reach. This in turn causes my fingers to end up almost
flat across the fingerboard to hit the notes. Needless to say flexibility, speed, intonation, all become affected. Down-shifting is very out of tune and rough until my thumb slips back under the neck and then I’m alright again.

My hands are relatively small, but I have a hard time believing that is the cause of my issue. I would appreciate any suggestions you have on what I’m doing wrong and how I can correct it.



"I can’t figure out how to move my thumb from under the neck smoothly when shifting and when I do I’m not sure where to put it, on the shoulder or along-side of the fingerboard."

Along side the fingerboard.

It is then a totally smooth transition from: 1. Along side the neck—lower 3-5 positions. 2. Traversing diagonally under the neck while shifting up— 2-7 positions. 3. On the high string side of the neck as the hand shifts high enough that it requires the thumb to then traverse along the near side of the neck.

The above is all very dependent upon the size of the hand and length of fingers. Suffice it to say, there must be NO STRESS in the hand and wrist when shifting. We only use the necessary strength to accomplish the move easily with fluidity.

To gain greater independence, play a note and while sustaining that note, rotate and slide the thumb all over the place—along side, under, back, forward, even around the neck.

One of the greatest exercises for proving the ease and independence of the thumb is to come under the neck per usual (lower string side) and go so far around that you can play a note with it on the Ging (Cing on viola). Then place 2nd, 3rd or 4th finger on a higher note and shift up all the way over the top where the thumb will have to be along side the finger board on the high string side. During the initial move instantly whip the thumb back and under the neck for its supporting role. Keep the shift smooth, light, fluid and easy.

The thumb going back for the shift up is the only contrary motion. The wrist must not contribute to this action by going away from the shoulder to falsely assist in the movement of the thumb. The thumb is quite capable of this feat all by itself.

“Generally, my thumb ends up somewhere near the violin shoulder and is drastically stretched to allow my fingers to reach. This in turn causes my fingers to end up almost flat across the fingerboard to hit the notes.”

Avoid the thumb going onto the shoulder thereby leaving the neck-finger board contact. This will cause extreme and stressful extensions for the fingers and hand, and too sharp of an angle for the left wrist—all can contribute to tendonitis or other injuries to the wrist, hand and fingers.

The thumb coming around and along the shoulder also tremendously inhibits agility, flexibility and ease of intervallic measurement.

When shifting, watch your fingernail ('face') of the sliding finger—it must be maintained. Let the other parts of the finger, hand and arm modify to 'save face.'

Initially without the bow, do some very light slides with all fingers on the Ging (follow with all the strings and multiple strings). You can start with one finger or all, but eventually cover all the bases.

As you approach the shoulder of the instrument simultaneously modify your thumb, bringing it under the neck where it supports the instrument. Use the 'hitchhiker' pose so the thumb does not tense up and begin to grab the neck, thereby hindering all other movement—shifting, vibrato, string-crossing and any pivot action. Make sure the thumb's angle to the neck becomes a steep diagonal, as it will eventually come to the Eing side for when you rise over the top of the instrument. When it is under the neck, it acts like a floor or resting point for the instrument.

Playing on the different strings and various types of passages will modify when the hand rises up and over the shoulder/top of the instrument bringing the thumb with it after it can pivot no further. This pivoting action is the all-important move when traversing for the lower 3-5 positions into the higher positions.

Your thumb will be approximately a 90º angle to the first finger.

If you are double jointed in the thumb, follow your instincts in modifying the shape of the thumb. There should never be any pain in any of these moves.

When shifting up high enough to require that the thumb should rise over the top and travel along the fingerboard, several key factors become 'musts' in order to avoid undue stress and terrible awkwardness. Posture is paramount. The shoulders must be kept down and the chest must be up—standing/sitting proud, but not with the shoulders pinned back. The instrument must not lunge to the right and/or down in angle or tilt. The strings should be parallel to the floor or with a slight ascent toward the scroll. Balance, balance, balance.

Try simple one 8va slides up and down and also play a while in a given position, say 5th, then 6th, then 7th, etc. Depending on the kind of passage be flexible and alert to what angles of approach are most balanced and fluid, i.e., 3rds will be very different from single notes and 8vas will be still another balance angle. Get used to each string and then incorporate 2-8va scales and arpeggios across the strings.

"Down-shifting is very out of tune and rough until my thumb slips back under the neck and then I’m alright again."

Again, the level of strings is to be maintained and even a slight rise toward the scroll when shifting down. In all my years of teaching (38+), one of the biggest hindrances to mastery and ease of shifts is the chin-rest. If you have to squeeze with the shoulder and/or head/jaw, your chin-rest is wrong. WITH OR WITHOUT A SHOULDER-REST, after the bow and instrument, the chin-rest is the most important assist to shifting and maneuvering around the instrument..

All shifts up until the higher positions, when the thumb must be brought over the top, and therefore no longer supports the instrument in concert with the collarbone, should be able to be accomplished without the jaw touching the chin-rest. I find it very successful to lift the head slowly back until your face is directed to the ceiling—not just the eyes raised—and then shift up. This requires lifting of the chest proudly and changes the angle of the collarbone. This does not work when shifting down in the lower positions, though it can be applied to the down shifts where your thumb is still slightly under the neck and supporting the instrument while your fingers are positioned over the top—say shifting own to the 4th and perhaps 3rd position. Do not grab/hook the thumb in a death-like grip; its presence is enough leverage. Remember to fully return to a balanced, well proportioned left hand, wrist and arm.

Agility and flexibility perfectly balanced are your goals.

Hope this helps—
Take care and God bless,

Author of
Violin Technique: The Manual, How to master…
Viola Technique: The Manual, How to master…

Everything affects everything.

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