Laurie's Violin School: Is It Okay to Use a 'Crutch'?

September 22, 2014, 1:28 PM · Is it okay to use "crutches" such as fingerboard tapes, the Bow Buddy, devices like Bow Right, tapes on the bow, etc.?

violin crutchesMy short answer is "yes." Used properly, such devices can help students get on the right track, particularly with issues of hand and finger positioning.

Holding a violin and bow, and then using them together, involves some muscle development and complex physical mechanics. In the end, a violinist places fingers correctly because of the ear's effort for flawless pitch. In the end, one holds the bow just so because the mechanics of the hand have been optimized, and that finger placement is what allows for freedom, flexibility and strength. In the end, one draws the bow straight in an effort an effort for uncluttered sound.

But what about in the beginning? Sometimes people confuse the end with the means for getting there. They reject any aids as "crutches" for fear that they will morph into lifelong reliance.

With care, they won't. Even if you look at the most common use for crutches, they help a person get around until they are strong enough to do so without them. Violin aids should be looked upon the same way. For example, in the case of fingerboard tapes: in the beginning, one needs physical target practice for placing the fingers properly.

Learners who are highly aural may be able to perfect their finger placement by ear, and if that's the case then there's no need for the tapes. But most people need visual help as they first teach their fingers where to land. As soon as the fingers are landing in the right place, then it's time to experiment with removing tapes; but different students need different amounts of time with them.

I used to think that devises like the Bow Right were just silly, until I met a very high-level student, who said that using the device for a few months, back when he was young, really helped him get the hang of the motion required to draw a straight bow. Of course, clamping that devise to one's fiddle for years -- that would be pretty ridiculous!

The Bow Buddy is another that can help a person learn the shape of a good bow hand. But again, there will be the occasional student that starts to form really weird habits, holding the bow buddy in the wrong places and not really using it as intended. In that case, take it off. (In my limited experience with this devise, the the pinkie part of the device works for longer than the other part, depending on the student.)

There are many more devices I haven't mentioned. One that I don't have (but want for the studio) is the really short bow; it's only about a foot long. It forces a student to play at the frog. I can still remember my own teacher pulling this out and making me use it for one lesson. That feeling of playing at the frog -- not being able to default to that comfy middle-upper part of the bow -- made a lasting impression on me. I didn't need to use the device for a long period of time for it to give me a powerful message. And sometimes getting that message in a tactile way helps more than demonstration or verbal instruction.

What is your experience with aids and devices for playing? Have they helped, or have they been a source of bad habits?


September 22, 2014 at 08:34 PM · Since I teach in groups of 15-60, tapes are a necessity for my own sanity. The other thing they give is a way for beginning students to place fingers correctly when at home alone; that way the ear learns the proper pitch quickly. I have students who after just a few months are saying, "Is this right? It sounds funny" and sure enough, the note is only a tiny bit sharp or flat, but they catch it! Without the tapes, I'd lose my mind.

September 23, 2014 at 12:27 AM ·

I like to put a narrow strip of adhesive moleskin at the end of the bow, on top and above the screw, where the pinkie perches. Many entry level plastic student bows are rounded slick, smooth, and slippery at the screw end, instead of having an octagonal ridge. (And why this is I do not know.)

This bit of moleskin provides a soft pinkie perch, and eliminates slipping. It is easily removed or replaced.

I will also use a bitty dot of moleskin on the neck for wayward left thumbs. This dot can be a good tactile reference for a beginner. It can also be a good tactile reference for those learning third position. Lagging thumbs (stationary or shifting) now have a reference point to make sure they are along for the ride with the rest of the hand.

I've been tempted to try the Bow Buddies. They are pricey for a temporary tool. Silly putty might be more fun anyway. (Smile)

September 23, 2014 at 02:04 AM · I bet Ricci never had tapes on his fingerboard. But then again, he played the whole Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in first position too. Without a shoulder rest.

September 23, 2014 at 05:05 AM · I bet Ricci didn't have to start playing the violin in a bare-bones elementary school program with no private instruction, one class meeting of 45 minutes per week, on a substandard violin-shaped-object that barely functioned, with no background in classical music and non-existent music literacy skills. :P

September 23, 2014 at 09:25 AM · Although some of these tools can be useful, they can also create problems as I have seen in masterclasses that I have given for kids. So, it is a case by case scenario. The "pinky box" for example changes location depending on the changes in the hair length of the bow. For kids who may need something, a Dr. Scholls "corn" pad maybe better.

The devices that helps with bowing straight force a movement to be created instead of doing it through understanding, namely that the bow is moved by the forearm, not the hand.

Part of the problem in my own very humble opinion, is that there is a tendency for teaching growing more and more detail oriented rather than working with macro concepts which are easier and more natural for kids to understand. Another problem, again in my own experience and very humble opinion, is that it includes certain concepts which are not natural for the body (including the overspreading of fingers on the bow) which make it more difficult to get good movements as they force the use of devices to make up for the fact that the concepts don't work.

For example, if kids are taught that the bow is moved by the forearm and will be straight unless they send it elsewhere with their hand (the bow wants to naturally go straight based on the laws of physics), and knowing where your square is helps to understand geometry, in about 5 minutes you can do a lot to address bowing problems and how to use it.

Same with bow holds - the natural thing is to have the fingers spread at the width of the hand or, extending forward from the hand (no extension of the index and pinky in lateral directions on opposite sides); this is what the great players of years past did, regardless of hold. This makes a good guide that is adaptable to everyone as it is natural to everyone's own body and adaptable as one grows - the principle stays the same and adapts although the fundamentals don't change. Same with knowing where the square in your right arm is and where to produce a détaché. It may not be in the middle of the bow (this depends on the ration of lengths of forearm to upper arm), but the fundamental concept of correct movement will continue to work as one grows. One also avoids the pitfall of hitting a wall when the geometry has changed as a growing teenager when the lengths change. But, it requires a different thinking and approach.

The one thing where I do find that it can help is the stickers. Most people are visual and having a visual reference for developing a kinetic sense of how the fingers relate to one another helps. The only drawback is that it affects the development of intonation and the ear as it is possible to be on the stickers on an out of tune violin. So, as a short term fix, removing them one by one as soon as they become unnecessary is probably the best compromise.

But, to find a better path, it would require change in that we need to work more with movements and geometry rather than fixed items on the bow, etc.. Artificial fixes for working against nature usually isn't the most constructive and successful path in the long run, at least in my experience.

September 23, 2014 at 12:01 PM · All great points. Another point is that "what helps" varies greatly from student to student. I can still remember being a student, and for years my teacher was trying to get my thumb correct on my violin hand. He explained it many ways, to no avail. He patiently kept at it. Then one day, I think he had some revelation about the way I learn things and he came over and said, "Let me see your thumb. This is the place on your thumb where you should feel the violin resting." That fixed it, forevermore.

So some students respond to a good explanation, others respond to visual cues, or to demonstration. I believe I'm a more kinesthetic learner, so I responded to the physical feeling of it. There is no one way, and when your usual way of explaining things doesn't work, it's great to have some back-up plans!

September 23, 2014 at 12:55 PM · Laurie, that is some terrific points! I also find very important that we not forget how someone relates to the world which guides to some extent how we learn. I think though we all have various element, distinguishing whether a student is primarily someone who is visual/auditive/kinetic and using that aspect of the student's learning as a strength is a great strategy and can help in re-enforcing positive learning for a student.


September 23, 2014 at 03:50 PM · I guess you could say I used a rather unusual device: a mandolin. Of course, back then I had no idea I was going to someday take up the violin, but at least my fingers already had a pretty good idea where to go. The bow, on the other hand, took some getting used to.

September 24, 2014 at 10:31 PM · I always thought that finger tapes were more tactile than visual help. You could feel where they were with your fingers and that helped you learn where your fingers should go without looking. Your angle looking down the fingerboard is so difficult anyway that I don't think visual cues are ever that useful.

But I agree with the main ideas in this blog in any case. A lot of things we do when we are kids, or when we are learning, are temporary, as it should be. We outgrow the aids and move on, but it doesn't mean they weren't helpful while they were there.

September 27, 2014 at 08:22 PM · Charlie, if I could only figure out that pick! ;)

September 28, 2014 at 06:03 AM · The only comment I will make is that as Ricci has been mentioned, I will repeat that he thought that just putting fingers down (with tapes or without) bypasses the ear.

This is why he emphasises the use on one finger scales with a drone, are ideal for training. This applies just as much to very advanced players, as we need to refresh our ears and learn to play the instrument repeatedly.

I also think Christian's points are extremely important and very well put.

You only need a crutch if you have broken something!

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