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.
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:
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.
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.Tweet
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