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Karen Allendoerfer

My left thumb again

June 25, 2007 at 11:55 AM

As I've posted in a couple of discussion threads, I injured my left thumb by shutting it in a car door when I was 11. That was a long time ago, and while the thumb has healed, I'm still struggling with it now. What it means, how I can work with it.

The car door severed the tip of the thumb so that it is about half a centimeter shorter than the other one. More significantly it has a large scar on the back, the part that touches my viola, and a place where some skin was stitched together. You don't really notice it unless you're looking at it, but since it's there, I look at it. None of my violin teachers ever even noticed it until I pointed it out to one of them. His reaction was sort of an "oh yeah, hmm," and he didn't seem to think it made much difference. Ignore it, don't use it as an excuse, seemed to be the prevailing opinion at the time.

Except that I still now seem to naturally shy away from really using that thumb for much of anything. I've started to play pieces a few times through while thinking about my thumb and even watching my thumb. Rather than leading shifts, it usually trails behind the rest of my hand. It never loses contact with the instrument neck, but often the tip does, because the tip is short, and I end up resting the instrument agains the first joint. Up in 4th and 5th position, it's really trailing and its position is inconsistent.

I especially notice it at the end of the Prelude to Bach cello suite #1. The piece goes from 3rd position to 4th to 5th and my thumb just stays behind in 3rd. I assume that most people use the thumb as kind of an anchor, but I don't seem to. I think I'm using overall hand position, the position of the other fingers, and the knuckle of the first finger, as my only anchors. Visual input helps too (another reason to memorize, maybe). My intonation in higher positions has always been inconsistent. I've been trying to consciously bring the thumb along with the other fingers, but the feeling is strange. It's almost as if I can't use the neural input from the tip of that thumb meaningfully.

The neuroscientist in me has spent a lot time speculating on the state of my somatosensory cortex in that area. What happened to it, how did it rearrange? There's good evidence for plasticity in this area, even in adulthood. So I have hope, I just feel like I need to guide that plasticity in the right direction.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on June 25, 2007 at 1:51 PM
Poor thing! Does it still hurt?

The thumb is not an anchor. Your thumb seems to be acting like an anchor, because it is, uh, anchoring you down in 3rd when you are trying to go into 4th & 5th.

When I teach shifting, I use the "Crazy Aunt Nellie" analogy. Bear with me, as Crazy Aunt Nellie lives in the attic all by herself, and sometimes she gets to go on a picnic with the whole family, and if you leave her behind in the attic, her feelings get hurt, and she will start to cry, and no one wants Crazy Aunt Nellie to be so sad...and so you WILL take her to the picnic, but don't forget to take her home with you, 'cause if you leave her behind, she will get lost, and frightened, in the dark, and start to cry. So take Crazy Aunt Nellie to the picnic, and take her home with you.

The other things you really should do are this:

Get Simon Fischer's "Basics". He is so clear and logical that I think you will have a good time working through this book. He addresses many thumb issues.

Also, talk about this with your teacher. Do you have a teacher? If not, make arrangements accordingly...

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 25, 2007 at 2:40 PM
No, it doesn't still hurt, but if I apply pressure to the back of it, even moderate pressure, it doesn't feel "normal." It feels a little tingly, a bit like your foot waking up from being asleep, although not as strong as that.

I ran into something similar in my former biotech job when I was doing brain surgery (on rats). I had to remove an arterial clamp with my left hand while my right hand was otherwise occupied (I'm right handed). This was done under a microscope and the clamp was about half a centimeter long and a couple of millimeters wide. My supervisor said that she had done this procedure every possible way and this was the best way to do it. At first it was hard for me to gently grab the clamp and remove it with my left thumb: the tingling feeling was really strong, even through the surgical gloves, and I was clumsy.

But I learned to do it. And in the process, I really think my facility with that thumb in that situation improved to close to normal, many years after the accident. The tingling feeling was reduced as well. It just took isolating the movement, defining it, concentrating on it, and repeating it over and over. (sounds a lot like violin practice).

A boy from my youth orchestra injured his left middle and ring fingers in a lawn mower accident around the same time as my accident. He and I had the same hand surgeon. He had to make up entirely new violin fingerings for himself because he only had half a ring finger and essentially couldn't use it at all. But he didn't give up the violin and he even stayed in youth orchestra. I still remember how impressed I was by his ingenuity and stick-to-itiveness.

My injury was very mild in comparison and didn't even seem to merit discussion. I sort of remember how everyone, parents and teachers alike, was so approving of my stocism--I even played a county audition with a thumb immobilizer and the judge gave me an A- and wrote "very good in spite of the thumb!"--but I'm thinking now that completely ignoring it and pretending it didn't matter at all wasn't the best approach. I should have been more vocal about it back then while I was learning shifts. I'm compiling a list of issues to bring to a teacher when I take lessons. This is one.

In any case, "Crazy Aunt Nellie" is definitely an good way to refer to this thumb!

From Anne Horvath
Posted on June 25, 2007 at 3:27 PM
Hah! No surprise that you are smart enough to do brain surgery.

Seriously, do get "Basics". This book is very clear, and very good about explaining the mechanics of violin playing.

(Glad you liked the terrible Faulkner tribute!)

From Tom Holzman
Posted on June 25, 2007 at 10:04 PM
You have my sympathy. I assume that your neuroscientist is not an MD. I also assume that you have seen MDs including neurologists, who have been unable to help you other than to speculate about what got rearranged in your brain. What you need is someone who can point you to a medical person of some type (and maybe a physical therapist who specializes in musicians - there must be at least one in the Boston area) who can figure out a strategy for dealing with the problem in conjunction with your teacher. Good luck!
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 25, 2007 at 10:32 PM

My neuroscientist is a PhD--myself. In my day job I'm a neuroscientist. I'm mainly thinking of the work of Michael Merzenich, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco. He has a fascinating blog here that covers a wide variety of topics on brain injury and plasticity.

I haven't seen any MD's in years about my thumb, not since I had the surgery years ago. I showed the thumb to a plastic surgeon once, more recently, who said that the original surgeon had done the best he could on it and there really wasn't anything that could be done additionally. I doubt any further treatment would be covered by insurance, either.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on June 26, 2007 at 2:30 PM
Oh, OUCH! Just... ouch. Even if it happened years ago.

It's all very symbolic of a road we all need to take, I must say. The way the injuries (emotional as well as physical) of our youth can hamper us, and the ways we contort ourselves to avoid that spot or risking similar injuries and how at some point the evasion confronts us and we learn to be aware of the scar, our actions, and even use them to our advantage.

Boy... what was in MY coffee this morning?!

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