Solving Violin Posture Problems: Left Arm and Hand

December 13, 2019, 8:33 PM · Sometimes it feels like violin teachers are picky just to be picky. Straighten your thumb, bend your thumb, change the angle of your elbow -- what is this all about?

Most of us can accept that good posture is a good thing and that bad habits are best avoided.

But sometimes these tiny little tweaks to the fingers, hand and arm can feel non-sensical and wrong. To confuse things even more, any change to an ingrained habit will "feel wrong" even when it's right.

So how can you tell what is wrong, what is right? When do you trust your teacher and when do you trust your instincts? Is there a way to do both?

It helps to know what is at the root of some of the basic "truths" about violin posture. While everyone has different-sized hands, arms, necks, fingers, etc. - we all share the common goal of creating certain basic violin mechanics, using what we have.

If you can understand the mechanics behind a particular position, as well as the problems that come from the "wrong" position, this can help you find what will work properly for you and your particular physicality.

Here are some explanations of five of the most common posture "problems" that can lead to poor mechanics. In this blog, I'll focus on violin position; Part 2 will be bow position.

Head straight, spine straight, shoulders relaxed.

Generally all the talk about shoulder rests and chin rests can be boiled down to a few necessary points about how you should hold the violin: You should be able to keep your head straight, your spine straight and your shoulders down.

Why: If your head is tilting to the side, you will strain muscles and nerves. If your spine is hunched over or forced into a crooked position at the neck or anywhere else, you will strain muscles and nerves. If the shoulder is scrunched upward you will feel strain that will likely affect the other muscles in your arm. All this strain will cause you to tire more quickly and can lead to injury down the road. So any set-up that you create for your violin should have end-goal of good alignment of head, spine and shoulders.

Violin Thumb

The consensus on the violin thumb is to keep it straight, touching the fingerboard somewhere next to or behind the placement of the first finger

Why straight: If your thumb is curved, that can point to several potential problems:

Legitimate reasons your thumb could be curved:

Why thumb is generally placed next to or behind the first finger:

Legitimate reasons you would bring the thumb forward usually have to do with reach:

Elbow under the violin

The elbow should be under the violin, and even slightly forward.

Why: If your elbow is pointing backward, then so is your arm. This brings your thumb over the fingerboard and the base of your fingers under the violin. And if it doesn't, it puts a crook in your wrist. The violin should hit the side of your hand at the base knuckle of the index finger to provide maximum mobility for the fingers. If your fingers and hand are place below that point, then every time you place a finger, you have to come around the fingerboard and strain your hand to do so. This slows your fingers because instead of simply dropping from above, they have to come around. Another reason: it can cause slouching, because when the elbow and arm go back, the violin starts slanting forward.

Reasons to actually bring your elbow backwards:
Sometimes a player places the elbow too far forward, and this can create strain in the shoulder and back. It's not a matter of "the farther forward, the better." The elbow should be under the violin, and a little forward, to the degree that it enables the hand. No more, and no less.

Wrist straight

The left wrist should be straight, not collapsed inward or pushed outward.

Why: This position aligns your muscles, tendons and ligaments in a way that puts the least strain on the system and allows for the movement that you need. A collapsed wrist generally causes the fingers to move in a grabbing motion that involves the whole hand, rather than a mostly-finger motion that comes from a stable hand. That can cause inefficiency and even injury. A pushed-out wrist (often caused by over-correcting the collapsed wrist) causes unnecessary strain in the forearm. A straight wrist is best because it helps provide that stability in the hand.

Curved fingers

When placed on the fingerboard, the fingers should be curved, not collapsed. They should hit the string generally more on the fingertips than on the pads of the fingers.

Why: There is more strength, precision and speed with curved fingers that come from above. It's also easier to vibrate in that position, though you'll want that finger joint to be loose for vibrato. Collapsed fingers tend to go down with less precision, so intonation will suffer. It's also a sign of using the "grabbing" motion, which over-uses the hand.

In conclusion:

The ultimate goal of a "good position" is to enable each of use to enjoy efficient violin mechanics and ease of playing. If you have a problem with your position, the best way to correct it is to find the position that achieves the right mechanics, without straining. You might need to build muscle strength and new habits to get there, but ultimately you need to work with the demands of your own individual body. Happy practicing!

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Replies

December 14, 2019 at 04:51 AM · The left thumb is key!

December 14, 2019 at 07:53 PM · As one who is steeped in Doflein this is pretty remedial. That being said I have to work with "students" of a Suzuki-Based program that isn't at all strict about much of anything (the local school system has a non-string player teaching violin to third, fourth and fifth grade students with no string program in higher grades). Breaking a bad habit is very difficult.

The thing is, my students actually want to play the violin and when they start with me, they usually have the violin directly under their chin straight out in front of their chest, left hand flat, and they hold the bow like a wooden spoon.

FWIW: I have offered to assist the teacher, she's not interested and I have learned from the young musicians I have gotten from the school (they are the ones that actually want to play the violin) that the beginning of every class is a plea from the teacher for them to drop violin and join the chorus. I've been told - flat out - they aren't interested in assistance that the violin program is just to tick a box on the state reports saying that they have one.

My only glory moment is that a few of my students have gone on to play their violin at the school talent show. Sadly, a lot of parents think they get that training at the school.

December 15, 2019 at 03:01 AM · George, that's just heartbreaking.

December 15, 2019 at 03:43 AM · George, that doesn't sound like a teacher with any kind of Suzuki training!

It's wonderful if a student's set up is correct from the start, but unfortunately a lot of people get off to a rough start on the violin. And even a good position can go haywire over the years! I hope some of these ideas can help people who do need that remediation and really want to get things straightened around so they can move forward.

December 15, 2019 at 03:17 PM · Laurie, I found this information incredibly helpful! I'm also delighted to say that it is exactly how I was taught as a child, all those decades ago. That said, it is so easy to develop bad habits and this was a great reminder of good, healthy positioning. (My biggest issue is my left thumb. It always seems to be floating back toward the scroll.)

December 15, 2019 at 05:11 PM · Laurie, et al.,

"...that doesn't sound like a teacher with any kind of Suzuki training!" I never said she was Suzuki trained. The reality is that anyone, even a public school system can purchase the books and say that they are "using Suzuki"

I've had a few tortured conversations with the music department in our local public schools. Both the grammar school and school system music director have a similar story - they had to take strings as part of their college curriculum to qualify as music teachers and they both hated strings.

The system has to have a minimum of six string students to check off the box that says they have an elementary string program. So, they maintain six students in third, fourth and fifth grades and check the box for the state. That gets them the additional state funding.

I once tried to schedule a performance of the non-school youth orchestra in our local schools. The director of music thanked me but declined saying that she "doesn't want to encourage strings" - she wants student musicians in the band - period!

My personal approach is finding the children who actually want to play the violin but the families cannot afford private lessons. Since the school program is so small I manage to pick up one or two students and funnel them into the youth orchestra on scholarship.

December 15, 2019 at 05:38 PM · George,

I think it is a new teacher and probably someone to fill a music position without any formal training at all. It could also be that the class is so large, he/she can't monitor everything. (That would be maybe the best thing to say about it.)

With that said, my county is having problems hiring string teachers in particular and music teachers in general. The band teachers, even though they had methods classes, just hasn't played enough and they may not have had any how to teach this but just learn to play it. We all know it's the little things that make all the big difference in playing.

Also, a comment on the article. I like teaching moving the Left elbow in order to "get around the board" especially if they are new or have small hands or fingers. You should never have to reach very far and by moving the elbow according to the string they are on always makes it easier for the student to use pinky on any string. The elbow moves from left to right starting on the E string (crunched fingers are bad too) working your way to the 4th string. 2nd & 3rd string are directly under the instrument so it's not a big deal but if they can't reach the 3rd string, just move the elbow a little right and it's easy to do. 4th string points toward the belly button. How much depends oh their finger length and where they are actually placing the thumb. I found this to be really helpful with my students.

December 15, 2019 at 07:18 PM · Outstanding foundational reminders that tend to get overlooked as students try to start and rush the process of playing "recognizable" tunes! Thank you so much Laurie. I will be sharing with all my beginners, so that they can hear and watch another voice reinforcing what I have been repeating over and over!! (And I agree with your comment to George - that approach does not sound like Suzuki, as my Suzuki-trained students tend to have some of the best set-up forms. The challenge lies with breaking some of the mechanical playing tendencies and note-reading and interpretation to breathe life into the music.)

December 18, 2019 at 01:14 AM · Thank you for this excellent video! I shall reference it as I stand in front of my mirror. I'm a beginner a few months short of a year and the violinist has been so helpful to me. I have weekly lessons and a great teacher.This

site helps my adult mind get a bigger picture (I'm 52) and I am having great fun along with some tolerable frustrations...

December 18, 2019 at 07:39 PM · Thanks Laurie,

I also think that most intonation problems are caused by improper posture and mechanics. Left thumb; it's role is mostly passive, it moves with the arm. As a teacher what I often do is ask the student to put all 4 fingers down with one of the 3 standard patterns, I then hold the scroll, ask them to take the thumb away, then put it back where it is most comfortable. Invariably it moves forward, opposite the first or second finger, or in between. Never behind the first or in front of the second. Other string instrument players also do that. First finger extension is a standard part of Cello and Bass technique, and they have the thumb opposite the second finger. Guitar players use the first finger as a temporary capo/nut for bar chords, so they also have the thumb in front of the first finger. This posture also conveniently matches the right hand, first finger in front of the thumb, for leverage. Part of this decision is related to the choice of chin-rest and shoulder rest. With a secure hold on the violin the right arm and hand can be completely free to shift as a unit. Without a shoulder rest, or wrong choice of chin-rest, the violin needs more support from the thumb and base of the first finger, and the thumb frequently moves independent of the rest of the hand, leading or following a position shift. They will use the "crawl-shift" more often.

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