If anything seems like a comedy of errors, it’s what a violinist experiences when he or she first tries to play artificial harmonics: those harmonics that generally involve placing the first finger solidly on the string while also lightly touching farther up the same string with the fourth finger.
Inevitably, fingertips that are supposed to sit squarely on the fingerboard instead get pulled in different directions. Waiting for each finger to be in its proper place, and the need to think of too many things, throw off the rhythm of the bow. Also, the inevitable result of paying too much attention to the left hand is that the bow skids, scrapes and accelerates.
When we work on artificial harmonics, we develop several of the most essential elements of our talents and abilities. Problems will arise in relation to eye-hand coordination, bow independence, and our abilities to be patient, but with a little help, they can be worked out one at time.
Working on technique presents us with a microcosm of our securities and insecurities. If your fingers are tilting sideways, or if your bow’s rhythm isn’t in sync with your left hand, artificial harmonics is the perfect vehicle to clean out the cobwebs.
Left Fingers Should Act Like Bowling Pins
No matter what angle your hand is arranged, the fingers should approach the fingerboard in a vertical manner. Even if you play with a slanted fingertip, the general slot is similar to the way bowling pins drop straight down. Unfortunately, the majority of us have some built-in obstacles. When you place your first finger solidly on the string, with your fourth finger lightly touching the string, you may experience a magnetic pulling of the hand between the two fingers. You can’t depend on correct finger placement if the hand is imploding into itself.
Here’s a thought experiment for dealing with this problem. Make sure that your hand is fully situated on the string, not straddling the adjacent string. Every unique finger pattern, whether it’s octaves, thirds, or fingered octaves, has its own unique position. Artificial harmonics suffer because we are more used to the hand playing an octave. There is less strain when the fingers are on two strings, rather than on one string. Think of the individual placement of the hand as its own scaffold. Getting the hand in place, before the fingers touch the fingerboard, cuts down on pain and mistakes.
Stretching a finger with an immobile hand is very dangerous. Knowing how much the hand changes for each new finger pattern may or may not come naturally to you. A sign of talent is that all your movements follow the law of “form following function.” If your fingers misbehave, don’t worry. Talent can be learned. While it’s tricky to stop the quick reflex of a finger moving before the hand has adjusted, it can be done by playing very, very slowly. Just as you’re about to change the finger pattern or string, slow down to a snail’s pace. Let your mind capture the moment while it observes what the hand needs to do to set up the next scaffold.
You Have Only Three Jobs to Do
If only violinists didn’t have to time every action, we would be free to enjoy the beauty and engineering elegance that music offers us. That isn’t the case, as artificial harmonics remind us.
Three things have to happen: The first finger is placed solidly on the string, the fourth finger lightly, and the bow must engage the string. If any of those are flawed, work them out individually and carefully. The “discovery” phase of working out a technique is very slow, but incredibly rewarding. You’ll see how the light fourth finger will feel like it’s in a different place that your usual solid fourth finger. You’ll realize that, even if things happen too fast on the violin, there is a sequence to everything we do.
Is the Fourth Finger Supposed to Be Curved or Straight?
Every once in a while, a concept that supports the way we do things naturally is challenged, upsetting the basic flow or our abilities like a wrench loose in a car engine. Almost every photo in Violin Virtuosos by Henry Roth shows violinists with their left fourth fingers in a straight-out or slightly extended position. When you think of the design of our hands, the position, or scaffolding, should accommodate the three long fingers, not the little finger.
Yet, even the challenges of a little finger can easily be overcome by extending that finger. What happens when a teacher expects the student to keep the fourth finger rounded like the other fingers? Much time can be wasted because it can take years to go against nature, and in the end, nature will prevail. I remember one colleague in college was determined to change his perfectly fine wrist vibrato to an arm vibrato. While both are completely natural, in his case the wrist was “more” natural to him. Two years later he returned to the wrist.
The fourth finger dilemma is different. You can’t finesse and rationalize a tiny fourth finger. It is what it is. Extend it, and keep it slightly curved. If you decide you have to have it curved like the other fingers, you may be able to figure out how to do it. Be careful, though, not to impose it on students. There are too many other, more important, things that they’re trying to concentrate on.Tweet
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