V.com weekend vote: How do you hold your left thumb?

July 24, 2022, 2:52 PM · The role of every finger is so important, when it comes to playing the violin - it's no wonder we tend to obsess about finger placement!

So today, inspired by a V.com discussion started earlier this week by Bruce Berg, I'd like to focus on the placement of the left thumb.

thumb placement
Two of these are famous thumbs - can you guess which, and whose?

The shape and placement of the left thumb turns out to be a pretty crucial factor for setting up the movement in your left hand, whether that's the movement of your fingers, vibrato movement, or movement up and down the fingerboard. A thumb that squeezes the neck can cause hand tension and also inhibit all of that movement.

But what does that thumb look like? For me, the thumb is straight - a habit that did take some persistence on the part of a very patient early teacher. For years, I bent my thumb and used it to help "hold" the violin. The "aha" moment came when, after years of telling me to change the way things looked, my teacher gave me a tactile instruction to feel the violin on a different part of the thumb, which he pointed out. Suddenly the entire problem was solved.

So for me, with the shape and size of my hand, a straight and low thumb provides a great deal of mobility. However, over many years I have come to understand that violinists can make a good number of different positions work. Someone with a very long thumb may find it impossible and even counter-productive to hold that thumb as low as I would hold mine.

Also, while a "bent thumb" can be a red flag for gripping the neck, it's not always the case. A number of violinists do just fine with a bent thumb - for example, James Ehnes gets around the fingerboard with more agility than most of us! His long fingers have different requirements, and a bent thumb works for him.

How do you hold your left thumb? Is it low or high? Bent or straight? Is this something you have had to work on? Is it something you have changed over the years? Is it currently working for you? Please participate in the vote and then tell us about your thumb placement and how it has evolved.

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July 24, 2022 at 08:36 PM · This one I found difficult to answer. My thumb moves around quite a lot. When playing in third position, octave frame between 1 and 4, the thumb is bent and relatively high; in first position it is lower and more straight; for wide fingerings, from tritone up to tenths, the hand goes more below the fingerboard and the thumb straightens.

Please tell us whose thumbs are in the pictures :)

July 24, 2022 at 08:50 PM · My thumb position is closest to the first photo of that woman, about 45* touching the neck above the joint; this gives the most extensive flexibility of movement in all directions in all positions.

My violin is held firmly with the proper chin- and shoulder rest (yes, I started using one five years after I left J.H. Class). I was using Kun, but recently discovered the WAVE, and despite its large size, it gives excellent, unobtrusive support.

I mention it because I try to eliminate the role of the thumb as a supporting tool for holding the violin.

Its role is to prepare slides jumps and put the left wrist in a position where the fingers can come down on the string vertically - giving the most incisive ton production and best sounding, free and narrow vibrato.

July 24, 2022 at 08:59 PM · My moves a lot as well, most low and bent, but when playing something such as Bach Chaccone, it’s hard to predict. :-)

July 24, 2022 at 09:30 PM · How about "all of the above depending on context"?

As a violist with extremely small hands, the only way I can get around the fingerboard is by having a very mobile thumb. My instinct is to play with a low thumb, which allows for more free shifting and vibrato. However, I drop the neck of the viola deeper in my hand and play with a high thumb to reach chords or in passages that involve a lot of fourth finger. The higher thumb can move toward the center of the hand and allow a wider finger span.

I didn't vote.

July 24, 2022 at 11:01 PM · It moves. It moves more on vla than on vln, but no part of my playing body really doesn't move.

July 25, 2022 at 01:00 AM · I voted "low/straight", but I'm not sure that's correct, and as others noted as well, I move it around. I used to hold like the first (upper left) picture, but holding too tight and "pinching" Now I hold more like the upper right photo, but with a (mostly) straight thumb. The change came around the time I took violin back up and met Daniel Shindarov for the first time, at the Luthier's shop. He suggested I change my thumb and demonstrated resting the neck on a straight thumb near the middle joint. It took a fair amount of effort to make the change, but it freed up my hold and playing enormously.

July 25, 2022 at 01:17 PM · Under the neck like Augustin Hadelich. For me it eliminates squeezing and allows for a free and wide vibrato. Also helps to support the violin sans SR.

July 25, 2022 at 02:49 PM · I voted straight and low although from time to time my left thumb will bend as it depends on what my fingers are doing. I try to keep everything relaxed and flexible. As for the challenge in guessing the famous thumbs in the pictures, the bottom two pictures are the famous thumbs along with famous violins. James Ehnes is the bottom left picture. I recognized the violin (1715 "Marsick" Stradivarius) and the Kun Bravo shoulder rest (along with his gray sweater too). The bottom right picture was a tough challenge. I have not figured out the violinist but could only guess that he is an older generation violinist when the picture was taken in his prime. As for the instrument (for 'bonus points'), I am going to guess that the violin is a Golden period Stradivarius, possibly the 1715 "Alard" Stradivarius (the Vuillaume ornamented pegs helped narrow down the guess). My other guess was the 1709 "La Pucelle" Stradivarius as it has the ornamented Vuillaume pegs too, but that instrument was recorded for the first time by James Ehnes in his "Homage" video and recording. And so, it cannot be "La Pucelle"

July 25, 2022 at 03:11 PM · I vote straight and low, but I should perhaps have done what Andrew did and not vote.

July 25, 2022 at 03:49 PM · I am with the straight and low and opposite the first finger crowd. It seems to be what is taught to most students. There was a time when I had to focus on keeping the thumb relaxed but the position of the thumb never changed--with th flexibility necessary to accomocdate some situations.

I wonder if my thumb is envious of the other fingers whose job is so much more exciting?

July 25, 2022 at 05:38 PM · The photo at top left comes nearest to showing my starting left thumb position. I read this page yesterday afternoon before starting the day's practice session. Hadn't thought much on this specific subject recently, so I waited till today to vote. "Bent and low" is how I start left-hand warm-ups in 3rd position on the E string. The thumb straightens out and comes under the neck as I work my way across the strings: E-A-D-G - also as I go to higher positions above 5th.

July 26, 2022 at 05:36 AM · Re: The Thumb and its Role + Photograph Famed Violinist's Hands! {#12}

Intriguing, I could not help but study the lower right photograph and it somewhat 'resembles' the not always but sometimes view of my second violin mentor, 'famous' Nathan Milstein! That said, Nathan Milstein was ever pliant never holding the thumb in any particular way for his left hand was a miracle of a spider-like hand creeping about then rapidly traveling on the fingerboard ... In the wonderful years private studying with Mr. Milstein, I noticed his beyond 'fleet' left hand yet it was all One Arm, as it were, for he was a Master of the 'Board' due to his utter mastery of The Bow!!

The photograph above in the lower right is sticking in my mind and although not truly sure it Is Milstein, surely resembles and reminds

me of aspects of the Milstein Left Hand/Arm ... I don't notice any shoulder rest which NM never ever used, so it might be, but one's another 'something' is telling me that obtaining a photograph of Nathan Milstein and reproducing it here might be difficult? Trying to emulate a previous Replier up above, who added "bonus points" for naming said 4 famous violinists or even One, I will 68% sort of respond it may be my violin mentor, Nathan Milstein, and would put it at being taken in NM's 40s or 50s of age ... I do hope not to be in trouble, as there are obviously, some younger violinists who are featured above but whom I admit not knowing well ...

The Thumb is 'the gear shift', and needs to be totally flexible but not over domineering when playing the great Solo Violin Concerti and Unaccompanied Bach Sonatas & Partitas + Ysaye Solo Violin

Sonata's, with all Paganini Caprices! Actually, the Thumb, in a mini psychological way must be somewhat ignored if it is to work most properly, aka, allowing the mind/brain/neurological imaging quick process which is 'stored' in Master Computer, (Brain) from eons of fine practising and of many violin concerti, Bach, Scales, Paganini, Kreutzer hold-over's, + all violin soloist concert pieces ... When one has obsessed over the great Big Five Violin Concerti: Brahms, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky & I will include a favorite, Aram Khachaturian, the path of technical challenges is deeply known/etched into one's brain which 'remembers' on many level's ~ the Sound Track of the inner mind; the recall of passages drilled for hours translating into years w/public concert experience & recording's of one's best suited most loved violin concerto's. To conclude (such a major subject!) if one focuses too much on the Thumb, one can become obsessed to a point of possible paralysis due to a very human desire to try to 'make perfect that which the God's destroy ...' {Biblical Quote from a violinist/conductor & very wise musician I knew most well} who told me of this which took me some time to 'recover' but in so doing I realized he was attempting paraphrasing something from either Proverbs or The Holy Bible or a synopsis of both ??? Still a mystery in origin, but a truth of Life for all of us in various situations, it did settle in my psyche ...

Nice to see a JH Violin Master Class classmate on here, Adam Han Gorski, who truly knows what he is talking about! Hello, Adam! 'Liz' M ~

Thank you's to Laurie Niles for this very important subject which is often overlooked when discussing pure violin technique ~ For the Vote record, I did not vote because I move about and the Thumb just allows 'shifts' when it neuro receives the nano second instinct from my 'wiring', to help my hand/fingers go where they know will be the next 'street' on the map, aka, the fingerboard of the violin ~

~ College Try Submitted ~

..... Elisabeth Matesky .....

^JH Violin Master Class original pupil of 7^

Fwd dg

July 26, 2022 at 01:47 PM · No joints on either hand should ever be held straight. This prevents flexibility and simply wastes energy. Lock your knees and try to run around. I don’t for the life of me know why one would have a straight left thumb unless it’s an old habit that a neglectful teacher failed to correct. Same with the bow thumb or pinky. If you don’t believe me, do this: straighten either thumb and hold it for 30 seconds. Now relax it and you’ll see how much energy you’ve wasted.

It seems to me that allowing a straight thumb to prevent grabbing is just trading one bad habit for another.

The question of where the thumb sits is really not about the thumb; it’s about the posture of the fingers in relation to the fingerboard. The bottom left photo made me cringe—the left fingers are unnecessarily high.

Here is what I taught: forget the thumb. It’s job is like a teenager newly hired at a busy restaurant—just stay out of the way. Instead, look at the first finger, which should form, more or less, a square with the fingerboard. The top of the finger should be about parallel to the fingerboard. The posture of the first finger determines where the thumb will contact the neck (not the other way around). For most hands, the thumb will make contact just about at the joint. I don’t understand why a bent thumb is a grabbing thumb. A bent thumb is at least capable of relaxation; a straight thumb is inherently not relaxed.

Elbow position will also affect the system. How far around does the hand need to be? Simple—on any given string, each finger should be just above the string and ready to just drop. No sudden reaching or special stretching for a note, especially the fourth finger.

The upper left photo shows an open hand, with none but the first finger ready for action. This robs one of speed. It doesn’t, by definition, mean one can’t play reasonably fast. Rather, It means one’s personal speed limit will be reached too soon. That one extra desired click on the metronome will be out of reach. The player will think, “I can’t play this passage any faster because my fingers just don’t go any faster” or even “I’m not talented enough to play fast.” In fact, it may just be posture that gets in the way.

It’s not about moving fingers fast, but rather about having them in the right position to begin with. a player may wonder why they can’t milk that last bit of sautille speed from their bow, but often their right thumb is locked as if they’re picking up a used Kleenex up off the floor, or the right pinky is straight and rigid.

Can people play well with any of the faults I’ve described? Sure, they do it all the time. But that doesn’t mean it is the best technique for the average person. Ehnes, for example, could probably play inside out and upside down. Most of us can’t.

July 26, 2022 at 05:40 PM · The photo at lower right could be Milstein as Elizabeth suggests. And Milstein often wore a traditional white pocket square, which I believe is also visible in the photo. However, the photos I've seen of the Milstein Strad show black (ebony) pegs.

Perhaps it's Aaron Rosand? He wore pocket squares too, but the pegs on his Guarneri were brown.

July 26, 2022 at 07:50 PM · Re ~ Paul Deck's Informed {#14} Reply! EM Response {#15} ...

Having just read Violinist.com Member, Paul Deck's, reply, I do think his observation of Mr. Milstein's 'traditional white pocket square, could be correct & admit I didn't notice this but wondered about the all white seemingly tuxedo shirt?? The reason for my wondering was a sense that the stomach somewhat hidden by the photograph, would be nearing portly status, and Mr. Milstein, to my recollection hadn't a portly stomach, (I was forever watching both his hands and body movements whilst playing less than 2, 3 feet away, and very infrequently noticed his abdomen!) All said, the violin mentioned by another Replier offers the Year as being 1715, which is not the correct year of Nathan Milstein's glorious M-T Stradivarius of 1717 ... I noted the Strad being held in the lower right corner, but thought it not Mr. Milstein's Strad, which he often invited me to play, 'so I can hear my violin away from my own ear.'

Again, it could be the NM Left Hand, which does look familiar to me, but I've still a question in my mind about this??? By now, most curious, perhaps someone else will visit here and name the Left

Hand in the lower right corner correctly! I have many photographs of Mr. Milstein and myself at his London home, and also of both N & T Milstein, but maybe not a specific photograph of his Left Hand

which on the 'Board', seemed always to possess (at rest) a slightly extended 4th finger which was a natural unforced extension ... Now Kinda' Curious, I guess we shall all See at some point!!!

You know, Paul, I didn't know Aaron Rosand, all that well, so I can't really identify his Left Hand. However, the violin being held in the lower right corner seems to me to be a Strad!

Sending warm wishes to All ~

~ Elisabeth Matesky ~

Fwd dg

July 27, 2022 at 09:08 PM · As I wrote above in my previous reply, the bottom right picture is a tough challenge to name the famous thumb. I will guess Ruggiero Ricci as he played a violin with ornamented pegs (a 1734 Guarnerius 'del Gesu' "Gibson, ex-Huberman").

July 28, 2022 at 10:50 PM · I really can't recognize a Strad from a Guarneri at all, so I'll never do so from the scroll alone -- but my hat is off to Rev. Edwin for recognizing the pegs. I agree his identification matches much better than mine. I didn't look closely enough to the shape of the pegs themselves. I did notice that the small pips on the ends of the pegs are rather larger than I saw on Rosand's violin, but I was hoping to blame the quality of the photos.

I do hope Laurie will ID the four photos before she archives the thread. The upper left photo looks like Suzuki pedagogy.

July 31, 2022 at 08:15 PM · Here are the answers for the famous thumbs!

For the picture in the lower right, Ruggiero Ricci is the correct answer. The other famous thumb is in the lower left, that is James Ehnes! The top two are just stock photos.

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