Mapping Out the Fingerboard

November 3, 2015, 1:41 PM ·


My first teacher was the sweetest woman who lived down the alley from our home in Dallas. Her name was Gertrude Simon and she had been a member of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra before I studied with her, until a crippling illness kept her at home. One of the most important things she bestowed on me was that kindness and humor should always attend the act of music making and teaching. She also taught me a comfortable, natural approach to the fingerboard. I always appreciated that she put tape on my violin, and rather than being a crutch, it served as a guideline, much as a metronome services rhythm.

Years later I had to face the realization that my intonation was good 80% of the time, and the rest was passable as long as I wasn’t listening carefully. This dilemma forced me to examine the nooks and crannies of the area of exploration-the fingerboard and the fingers. Nothing could be ignored, not the details, the pitfalls, the mechanics of denial, the ear, and most importantly, the measuring process between fingers.

While the fingerboard has no frets and a concave surface, some very talented players figure out its secrets and mysteries in a relatively short time. Many others get confused by its hidden landmines and make the same mistakes over and over. For instance, the student may play the third finger on the D string correctly, only to play the same finger on an adjacent string incorrectly, and not know it. Since each string lies in its individual angle, the mind needs to adjust for the difference.

The fingerboard is predictable, but it takes a mind that is aware of where the fingers are and which string the player is on. Thinking and observing are as much a part of technique as letting go and trusting your movements. Keep the left hand free of cramping and tense, misshapen form, because nothing should detract from measuring between fingers.

The Mind of the Gifted

To see the fingerboard organically, we need to re-visualize it in a functional way. Nothing could be less helpful than a fingerboard devoid of landmarks and fingers that have no memory for distance. To see the reality of the fingerboard is to enter the world of how gifted players perceive murky and vague settings.

The first response of some players to the curvature of the fingerboard is to cling to one angle on the A string while attempting to play on the D string. This lack of mobility skews correct intonation and causes numerous contortions of the left hand. Consider the alternative, in which a new string makes the player measure, from the nut, each finger. The awareness of the new string in its new angle makes the player patient as he adapts to the new environment.

Anyone can develop their gifts by acknowledging the essence and physics of a setting such as a fingerboard and left hand entity. Talent is both inherent and hidden. With some geniuses it’s quite obvious but not always fulfilled; in others it hides from plain sight, but it exists nevertheless.

Measuring Twice, Listen Afterwards

Putting tape on the fingerboard is a good place to start dividing the great unknown. It serves the same function as a metronome for rhythm and a piece of tape on the bow to teach bow distribution. The effectiveness of the tape is short-lived, however, because it can’t replace the method in which the mind finesses distances and fingertip placements.

The tape requires the player to see where the finger is going, but the actual necessity is for him to feel the distance from the previous finger. Knowing what space feels like is a skill familiar to string players, but nevertheless complicated. It takes several attempts to learn what whole steps in first position feel like.

There should be no fudging of the pitch; place the finger down with confidence and within a strict rhythmic framework. If the pitch is wrong, figure out how far off it is. When you try again, see if you can be accurate on your first retry. The relationship between your perception of how far you’re off and your physical skill at correcting it the first time is something I call the “ratio of correction”.

Listening too cautiously can throw off the concentration needed to measure and place fingers. Instead, listen as an afterthought so that, while you’ll be aware of the resulting pitch, it won’t interfere with your concentration. Think of listening as the act of rewinding what you’ve just played. While your listening won’t be intruding on the moment when you need to fully concentrate on the physical measuring and moving, you’ll still have the opportunity to assess what you just played. When you notice an out- of-tune note, you can strategize how to avoid it in the future.

Is the Hand Neutral or Contorted?

The left hand needs to react quickly to where the music is directing it, but is often hampered by a hard wrist and conjoined, heavy fingers. If the wrist is bent to a right angle, it will negate good measuring. The hand should be neutral and supple, turning and maneuvering as freely as a fine furniture caster.

To understand a neutral hand, let the left hand fall down by your side, dangling in a normal fashion. Bring it up to playing position, and while twisting and placing your arm in the correct position, pretend this new position is normal. (It helps to think this way because the usual thought when you are fixing an old, bad habit is that it feels wrong.) Imagine that the elbow is floating like a buoy, and not weighted down like an anchor.

For the left hand to feel the same buoyancy, and to not be cramped by holding the oddly shaped fingerboard, imagine you’re holding the air surrounding the fingerboard. The hand shapes itself perfectly around a completely flexible environment. The points of contact, the thumb, index finger and fingertip on the fingerboard, do not clamp down and further strain the hand.

All Movement Starts With the Hand, Then the Fingers

Every movement, even the smallest half step, changes the position of the hand and the arm. When the hand doesn’t move but only the fingers do, you may think you’re in tune but you’ll be surprised when you hear a recording of yourself. If you’re going to do the mental gymnastics necessary when you think of intervals and measure carefully, then don’t do it with a skewed hand. That will alter the destination quicker than the blink of an eye.


November 4, 2015 at 01:37 PM · I concur with your points regarding the neutral hand and starting movements from the hand.

Intonation was one of my strong suits as a beginner. One precept I learned early -- and I’m paraphrasing this from Kato Havas as I recall it: Intonation isn’t a mechanical process of training the fingers to play in tune but a process of elimination, training the mind to hear the tune.

I really saw this approach pay off 4½ years ago, following the April 27, 2011, tornadoes. During the 4-day power outage, I did evening practice in near-total darkness. With only the A-440 tuner to get me started, unable to see much of what I was doing, I nevertheless had some practice hours at least as good as the best I can recall in normal circumstances. The training in bow division and bow control likewise paid off.

About fingerboard tapes: I never had them, and I personally feel strongly against using them; but I know of some teachers -- e.g., members -- who have used them in group lessons with very young learners for visual and tactile guides, as your teacher did. So I won’t vote them down 100 percent -- more like 90-95 percent.

BTW, you mentioned that “the fingerboard has … a concave surface.” Did you mean “convex” or maybe “concavo-convex” -- since the upper, or outer, fingerboard surface actually curves slightly outward toward the center between A and D strings?

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