Rid yourself of damaging left hand tension: find your MVP (video)

January 25, 2017, 3:39 PM ·

Left-hand tension: sometimes you know it's there and sometimes it goes undetected. But either way, it eats away at your playing. You may notice that passages just won't get faster no matter what you do. Or your left hand and arm may tire out during pieces. And of course, if it goes unchecked, tension inevitably leads to injury.

The answer is to play at all times with the minimum necessary finger pressure. Minimum necessary, that is, to stop the string fully. Easier said than done?

Here's a quick method that you can use as a warm-up or to fix specific passages. It just takes a minute, and I demonstrate it here. Thanks again to Simon Fischer for inspiring this solution!


January 26, 2017 at 02:36 AM · This comes just in time for me, or maybe years too late. My new teacher, who says she's a former student of yours, just discovered that I'm bearing down much too hard with both my left fingers and thumb. I'm just starting to work on this, and it's a revelation to me to discover how much I was hindered by the excess pressure. Perhaps you could say something about the left thumb? I was reading in the introduction to "The Violinists' Daily Dozen," by Dounis, that the left thumb should never press against the violin neck. I couldn't understand how he could say that, but now it's starting to make some sense to me.

As I'm working with this I'm finding that it's difficult, or at least it doesn't come naturally, to get that independence in force between the left hand and bow hand, exactly as you said.

Anyway, Thanks!

January 26, 2017 at 03:11 AM · I wonder who your teacher is? Whatever good things she says only came from me! :)

Yes, although this video only concentrates on the finger pressure (vertical), the other big source of left-hand tension is lateral: between thumb and first finger. The nice thing is that freeing up the fingers often frees up the thumb as well.

If it doesn't, there's an old Suzuki trick that may help. In fact, I'll eventually make a video for this too. Laurie must know all about this... put a marshmallow in between the thumb and violin neck, and see how far you can get without squishing it!

January 26, 2017 at 03:29 AM · Or a single "Cheerios" piece of cereal -- what a mess that makes if you squeeze!

January 26, 2017 at 03:30 AM · My teacher sent me home with a foam cylinder to accomplish that same thing. Did she get that trick from you?

January 26, 2017 at 03:00 PM · There sure is a tendency to bear down harder -- with both hands -- when things aren't going well.

I'm having a problem cleaning up some of the passages in the Bruch G Minor (link below to Bruce Berg's edition for your convenience) for example bars 18 and 26. These are "fast and loud" passages (arpeggiated, not scale-type), but whenever I try to play faster, then I just cannot get it clean. My teacher says I should be able to hear every note, and certainly seems like reasonable advice. Will the technique you have described here be applicable?


Also how would you modify your advice about finger pressure, if at all, for fast sautille passages? We might as well use Czardas by Monti as an example. My instinct says higher pressure will be needed, but what does your experience say?

January 26, 2017 at 03:12 PM · Great and complete video!

This technique is great to use for passage work. I sometimes introduce it to students with scales first, since it can be easier to adapt to something they already know to get the forte RH but light LH feeling.

Thanks Nate!

January 26, 2017 at 03:32 PM · Nathan, many thanks! A very useful video!

My teacher taught me the MSP trick some years ago (although she didn't call it that), by experimenting with the various pressures until the sound is clear, and then no more pressure. In conjunction with this she talked about the thumb being only in gentle sliding contact with the nexk, and no more thumb pressure than that.

I've since found for myself that a good indication of a "light" left hand is being able to do a fast 4th finger trill and keep it going indefinitely without getting tired or seizing up. I regularly do this now as part of my warm-up before orchestra rehearsal or home practice.

Btw, my teacher was a personal student of Shinichi Suzuki in Japan, and is also into Alexander Technique.

January 26, 2017 at 03:51 PM · Sorry!

January 27, 2017 at 02:31 AM · Hi Paul, for that Bruch passage, this would certainly be applicable. My go-to technique for that would probably be the "note-grouping" technique aka dotted rhythms, on which I made another video on youtube. That would force the fingers to move in groups or sequences, which is usually the main stumbling block there.

For sautille, you don't actually need more pressure although there is something going on that would make it seem like you do. For sautille when the notes are fuzzy, it's usually not because the final finger pressure was too light. It's because the finger didn't get to that pressure fast enough or soon enough. So it's great speed at dropping and lifting.

Also for sautille, there's the fact that the finger has to be completely down before the bow gets there. I made yet another video about that, "spiccato coordination" where I play the same passage slurred and spiccato, put them side by side, and line up the audio. The spiccato fingers are clearly moving before the slurred ones.

January 27, 2017 at 02:33 AM · Trevor, if someone can do a nice fourth-finger trill, they've almost certainly mastered the concept! Most people would find that difficult though, for a variety of reasons. I love the exercise where instead of a normal trill, you lift one finger as soon as the other one drops and practice a trill that way. That forces the lower finger to release pressure!

January 27, 2017 at 02:48 AM · Nate, thanks for the response. I have seen the spiccato coordination video but not the grouping one. "Dotted rhythms" didn't really work for this passage, at least not for me. I'll check out your groupings video. I suspect that will be more effective because I can just feel that there is a significant right-hand component to the problem, just need to get better at changing strings more efficiently in a slurred passage. Basic skills need improvement I guess.

January 29, 2017 at 05:08 PM · OK Nate? Did you figure out who my violin teacher is yet???? She's a really good teacher, by the way. (Thanks to you?) ;)

January 31, 2017 at 02:39 PM · My first teacher, eons ago, did not even mention pressure on the fingers. I developed a bad habit of smashing down my fingers on the finger board. They were getting very tired. Now that I am aware of what I'm doing I make a conscious effort to tread lightly. This mental concentration is a hindrance, taking my brain away from focusing on the notes.......I did notice when playing a fast passage, running 16th, as demonstrated here, the fingers sat very lightly. Huummm if only they would do that all the time.

I will not give up retraining them.

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