This Fiddler's Fear of the Fourth Finger

August 16, 2018, 7:38 PM · The best advice I was ever given by a violin teacher about the dreaded pinkie, the little fourth finger that rarely reached far enough, was “Don’t give it a second thought. It’s too late to think after the finger goes down.” Reading between the lines, what the teacher was saying was to take as much time as needed to get the hand ready. If the “first thought” is thorough, the hand is in the right spot, and the fourth finger simply needs to drop and lift, like a flipper in a pinball machine.

pinkie

Three things need to happen to get the left hand into position: know how far the fourth finger has to reach, have the hand balanced over the string’s plane, and don’t skimp on the hand’s trajectory.

The Left Hand’s House of Horrors

If any of these components are off, the hand does some unfortunate things. The knuckles may dimple inwards, or the wrist may contort into a spiral twist, a form unrecognizable in nature. The distortion is so complex that the teacher cannot imitate exactly what the student looks like, without taking the risk of hurting himself.

What the teacher can do is exaggerate how ineffective and unattractive it looks. The last person to know his left hand is completely contorted is the student himself. Whereas the teacher sees an ineffectual hand, the student feels comfortable with the paralyzed appearance of his fingers. Old habits can become life-long habits. Oddly enough, they can feel as comfortable as a worn, old slipper. Only when the student begins to figure it out, on his own, will positive, healthy change take place.

A contortion cannot be finessed into something workable. It needs to be completely eliminated. There are exceptions, however, in the world of country music. I’ve seen wrists that were shoved up into the violin’s neck, yet the playing was still in tune. How did they do it?

Even a distorted hand position can be finessed into successfully moving inside of a position and shifting from one position to another. While violinists live by the mantra that form follows function, we witness that, in the case of some saloon fiddlers, the compressed and squeezed form can also follow function. While this is not a blog about make constrained hand position work, it would definitely be helpful to some of us to have the great fiddler John Hartford tell us how he did it, may he rest in peace. His YouTube videos show perfect intonation and a left hand that appears as if it is encased in a tiny space. A technique like his, truly based on a foundation of talent, makes a hand that looks compromised and distorted still work wonders.

Calling It the Pinkie Doesn’t Help

The story about my fourth finger started with an under-reaching left hand in elementary school. The basic exercise which many of us worked at, in which we set our hand position using the first and fourth finger simultaneously, solved the problem…up to a point, solving only 20% of the problem. It oversimplified the technique, and my first and fourth fingers were still pulled towards each other as if magnetically attached. What I needed was for each finger to fall into its own independent channel, without clinging to each other. The image of bowling pins dropping straight up and down, perfectly spaced, is a good analogy.

Any limitation of the hand is multiplied four-fold for the little finger. The name, the nicknames, and the size of the finger make its success feel doomed from the outset. Nothing about it gave me confidence before I was thirty. The tiny spasms of pain that I experienced were not a wake-up call to my eight-year-old so-called mind. Something happened at a much later age, however, which turned the tide. There were four problems always associated with the fourth finger, which, like any worthwhile insight or aha moment, I needed to figure out on my own:

  1. There was a negative connotation that always accompanied the finger’s usage. Instead of putting it down with confidence, I inadvertently hesitated the bow’s movement and reduced its power and rhythmic drive. What I learned from this was that the effectiveness of the pinkie gets lots of help from a strong and confident bow arm.
  2. There is an interesting relationship between the mind and playing the violin: nothing happens successfully unless there is some foundation already in the mind. If it’s already there, like a player’s instinct for playing in tune, it’s called talent. If you figure it out and lay a new foundation in the mind, it’s still talent, only latent and recently discovered.

    In the case of the fourth finger, it operates differently than the other fingers. Whereas the fingertips of the other fingers fall pretty much squarely on the fingerboard, the fourth finger falls at the end of the finger, below the fingertip, since the finger needs to be placed in an extended fashion to accommodate the structure of the hand. If the mind doesn’t recognize this, there is a tendency to often play out-of-tune with a flat pitch. I believe my early violin playing brain expected the fourth finger to behave the same as the other three. However, the obvious physiology issues didn’t make it into my thinking. I needed to re-wire my brain. Without some input from a teacher or self-awareness, it can take years or never happen at all.

  3. I’ve learned that the movement of the fourth finger is not based on building muscles or trying to make them as “strong” as the other fingers. Very little weight, muscle, or strength is necessary to connect to the fingerboard. Minimum coverage, with no pounding of the finger into the fingerboards, is all that’s required. Sometimes violinists bang their fingertips even more into the fingerboard when they’re vibrating. Technique, and the health of the player’s movements, improve when the vibrating and the touching leave as little footprint as possible.
  4. Any strengthening of the fourth finger, if a player feels it is necessary and can’t be avoided, should be approached with extreme caution. Robert Schumann was so desperate to increase the reach of his hand at the piano that he used an apparatus to stretch its width. He became paralyzed by its use and was no longer able to play the piano.

Our little finger should never suffer the same kind of indignity. As long as the hand and the wrist maneuver into new positions and half-positions, and we allow each string to coax the hand into ever unique, gentle contours, our little finger will simply drop into place. Therein lies the technical expectations of our left hand. Our obligations extend to being at the right place at the right time, not trying some potentially damaging exercise that stretches, strengthens, and elongates the little finger.

Replies

August 18, 2018 at 05:50 PM · I'm always delighted when I visit violinist.com and find another article you've written, Paul. They are so helpful and remind me that we don't all look exactly alike when it comes to hand/arm positioning. A problem I have with regard to the fourth finger is that my pinkie will "lock" occasionally. Sometimes I actually have to use my right hand to unlock the finger. I suspect this indicates I'm doing something wrong, but I can't quite figure out what. Any advice you might have would be appreciated!

August 18, 2018 at 08:48 PM · Adapt! Not all hands or fingers are perfect. I usually refer to my fourth finger as my "Diminished Fourth." Actually the finger is perfectly in proportion to the other fingers, the problem is that the fourth metacarpal is short so my diminished fourth doesn't reach as far as others. I've heard that there are professional with the same situation.

Micro-shifting works a lot for me but it used to drive my teacher crazy. Second position is also a good option. Higher positions aren't usually a problem because the intervals are logarithmically closer the higher you go, the closer the notes.

Forty years plus of playing and I've worked out my own adaptations for the fourth finger. Unfortunately they have been replaced with issues with my 70+ year old body and shoulder injury issues from bicycling and the general lack of flexibility that often comes with age. Still adapting and re-fingering pieces just to make they playable.

August 19, 2018 at 12:51 AM · I'm a lot older now than when I was playing & studying violin in Hobart in the 60s & 70s.

Does anyone know an online teacher who could help my arthritic hands find their way on the violin strings better than I'm doing alone? Ie: fourth finger & second position, 3rd position etc... Or exercises to loosen joints? Perhaps it's too late at 60 yr of age to do anything... Sadly it's probably the case.

August 19, 2018 at 01:02 AM · I like the Stephane Grappelli non usage of the 4th,

in his later years. I also like the sound Milstein gets from his 3rd finger for his most unique expression (though his 4th was superb). My teacher Margaret Kew simply avoided 4th, but was still able to perform any concerto (including the Barber and Rozsa).

Steve Kelley

August 19, 2018 at 02:26 AM · I am just a 2 year old violin player and my teacher has me playing largo she has me at the twelfth bar sometimes sometimes using the forth finger sometimes bowing the E string and doing this and now reading your article it's thumbs up I am also am learning first hand about ageing problems best regards John A

August 19, 2018 at 03:26 AM · 71, viva la difference! I love to see someone’s unique and quirky position still work well. As far as your pinkie locking, try letting the hand return to its normal position after a stretch. All these half steps and whole steps take their toll on my hand, but returning the hand to its normal state should help.

Now, sometimes the pinkie will stick straight up in the air, but still be ready to play at a moment’s notice. I don’t think that needs to be corrected. There’s a great picture of David Oistrakh on p. 144 in Violin Virtuosos by Henry Roth. His little finger is straight up in the air. I’m sure that was the last of his concerns.

August 19, 2018 at 11:03 AM · I have observed Kato Havas (at her workshops) recommend moving the left thumb a little forwards to move the 'fulcrum or pivot point forwards and this actually aids the secure placement of the fourth finger. It works I use it to prevent any strain; try it.

Stewart

August 19, 2018 at 01:26 PM · I taught a lot of beginning violin students who were 7 - 9 years old in a public school that had an orchestra program. One summer I was in a workshop where the teacher talked about the problem of the 4th finger. "Why do all beginning method books start with 1st finger after open strings? Why not start with 4th finger?"

I tried it. Just by rote - no note reading. The students would play 4th finger on the D string and tune it to their A string. The 4th on A, and 4th on G. The results were amazing! Eventually we would back down to 3rd and 2nd and 1st. Their hand shape and wrist placement improved. No more 4th finger fear or avoidance.

August 19, 2018 at 03:48 PM · Maybe you could find a work-around, perhaps with a sensitive teacher? I play the violin and the viola, but have Dupuytrens in both hands. I can't trill with my little finger or use extensions in low positions, so an F natural on the A string in first position is out of the question. Ditto octaves and tenths, but I could never play the Brahms concerto anyway! Be careful not to over-do it, 'though - RSI, and all that. It may not sound like a serious comparison, but just listen to Django Reinhardt, and he had only two functioning fingers on his left hand...

August 19, 2018 at 05:13 PM · George, you said it!! If we aren’t adapting, we stop growing. If you can change when you’re 70, you’ll be able to change when you’re 80. If we make a note too flat, it’s a wake-up call for being more careful the next time we play that sequence of notes. I think our problem isn’t making mistakes, it’s remembering that we made them.

August 19, 2018 at 05:24 PM · 1.129, I hope some other readers have suggestions about arthritis and violin playing. All of us, however, deal with the phenomenon of left hand extension and contraction. Even when we’re placing one finger, the other fingers are poised over their respective targets. No wonder the hand can develop tightness. I think in the most talented, relaxed players, there is a momentary relaxation between the many moments of stretching.

August 19, 2018 at 05:45 PM · Jeremy, Bringing up Django is a perfect illustration. No doubt, having only two fingers, he shifted a lot more than the rest of us. My biggest problem when I was young was the horse before the cart syndrome, HBCS. My finger would go down before the hand would move into the correct area. I like to call the hand’s position the “scaffold”. The scaffold changes dramatically from third finger to fourth finger.

August 19, 2018 at 06:09 PM · After catching myself from a fall (dog pulled on leash too hard) I can no longer use 4th as it should be. 2nd position is a must for me.

August 19, 2018 at 07:56 PM · After to much Sevcik, Schradieck etc.....etc....My pinkie was very good for all positions changes.....New tech. invited to use mostly 3rd finger in position shifting......I think pinkie is the greatest asset for passage playing......Check Carl Flesch 10 minutes silent exercises and Dounis independent left hand finger exercises wonderful things can and will happen.....

August 20, 2018 at 10:52 AM · Great article. Thanks.

August 20, 2018 at 11:59 AM · Hey People,

I teach the violin and this is what I tell my students. Keep the left thumb between your first and second finger(this also cures the flattening of the wrist when the kids start out) . Move the elbow so you will be on your fingertips every time. This also cures the 4th finger problem because you have now changed your approach to the board and pinky isn't a problem. It's taking the time to get into the habit of moving that elbow that is the big issue for most students who have not started with me.

So in general, the left elbow will be a little to the left of your violin for the E string. Not all the way out like a chicken wing but just enough to not contort your hand. For the D, it's under the left side of the violin. On the A, it's supposed to be under the right side of your violin, but really these 2 are close so some people with bigger hands than I have may not move at all and just be under the violin for D and A. The G string actually takes your elbow to point at your belly button, so just to the right side of the violin.

I didn't figure this out until I watched a video by Valerie Bobbett Gardner. If you haven't seen the series, do so. It's amazing.(https://violinvirtuosity.com) It makes sense. The thumb between the first and second finger give you more reach. The moving elbow gives you more reach (without stretching) and keeps you on your finger tips for your best intonation. It also makes a wrist vibrato easier.

Also, the first finger placement is important. If you start with tape, place the first finger behind the tape. The point is where your pointer and hand join. Bend it to look like an r and place it on the tape. Keep the r shape for all the fingers. It gives it a good arch. The fingers should point at you. This also helps with tunneling.

I have started getting arthritis in my left hand. I tend to get it moving in the morning by just wiggling the fingers. If they are super stiff, I take an aspirin a half hour before playing.

I hope this helps!

August 20, 2018 at 02:58 PM · I would like to agree with the comment (81.135.230.185) made by Stewart and sent to this site on Aug, 19, 2018, at 11.03am. I have studied with Kato Havas (from the early 1980s) and in recent years attended her workshops in Oxford, UK. Many of her books e.g. 'The New Approach to Violin Playing' and 'Stage Fright' go into details about the left hand action (4th finger)and were published by Bosworth and I think they can still be bought via the KHANA website. The overallsound of her teaching video and the youtube sites are sometimes not very clear, but you have to be patient and listen carefully, Gillian.

August 20, 2018 at 07:21 PM · Regarding 'super stiff hands'; I place mine in very warm water and afterwards rotate Chinese Iron Balls' also known as Baoding Balls in the palm of the hand. Each has a different 'chime' sound; one Yin and the other Yang (high and low). This stimulates the acupressure points and sends soothing pulses to the brain. You see I have proven after a serious car accident that by using Tai Chi and Chi Gung the body can control the brain which of course the inverse of the brain controlling the body.

Pease give it a try and I welcome your feedback, it only requires an open mind. My age 73, my accident 1995 my ability better than before and at this moment improving. Kato Havas said in 1996 'Stewart has performed with great sensitivity and a beautiful tone'. I hope this can offer you help and others.

Stewart

August 20, 2018 at 07:38 PM · I have also been tempted to try teaching the 4th finger first, matching the the pitch of the open string, then working backwards, using 1st finger last in the process. As it is, with complete beginners, I start with the third finger, matching an open string at the octave. Arthritis-- there are about 70 medically distinct types. It is the famous Rheumatoid Arthritis that can be an insurmountable barrier.

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