Scaffolds, Templates, and Fingerboard Tape - Help for Violinists

January 10, 2020, 11:16 AM · Every gadget is not necessarily a gimmick. I would like as many gadgets as possible to compensate for the quirkiness of the violin. I welcome fingerboard tape, metronomes, shoulder pads, bow guides, and pre-existing bow holds (Russian and Franco-Belgian). They become gimmicks only when they outlive their usefulness. I can’t imagine how I would have played in tune without tape when I was eight, but I spent far too long looking at the tape rather than just knowing where it was.

fingerboard and bow tapes

I once saw a photo of an antiquated shoulder pad that had an attachment that reinforces a connection between the violin and the sternum. Too much, you say? Truth be told, it looked grotesque and medieval, but to a teacher who pleads with students to hold their violins up, it was a gift from God.

Seemingly effortless perfection

Jascha Heifetz played with his violin at the perfect angle and his face lined up to convey dignity, passion, and intensity. I wouldn’t be surprised if the violin god let his “best side” be the one that the audience saw. Considering he didn’t use a shoulder pad, but merely a handkerchief tucked inside his coat, his violin appeared to hold itself in place with the magic of levitation. On the violin, nothing happens by accident. Only Heifetz can tell us how he achieved that look. I think Violinist.com would be a wonderful platform for him to share it with us. Jascha, are you listening?

One of my students is a second-grader who places her hand on the bow to create a perfect looking hold, streamlined, knuckles not to high, and fingers spaced just enough to show poise, flexibility, and a little bravado. I asked her mom if her previous teacher had made this a priority and had her work hard on it. The answer was that the student had been shown only once where to place the fingers. I would have fallen off my chair if the mom had said one of those little “elephants” that you can attach to the frog was used to create a template for her hand to fit on. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the elephant, but only to avoid a complete collapse onto the frog, not to create a sophisticated hand structure. My student won’t reveal her secret.

Imaginary Structures

Our minds do two things very well: nag us to do the right thing and form images of stability and safety. We step off curbs and follow conductors without looking directly at them. We formulate the boundaries of the beats with athletic precision and hear phrases played in a unified manner. If we’re listening correctly, the clear structure fills our mind and guides us rhythmically and dynamically. Our own gentle nagging and the unwritten rules, both musical and societal, keep us from veering off course. In the rare instances when buckaroos think they’re stars of the rodeo, stand partners try to keep their distance from such offenders, while occasionally inflicting shame on them on behalf of the rest of the section. Structure and limitations are the silent forces which guide our every move.

Left Hand Structure-Working With the Wilted Bouquet

While there are inventors who have manufactured hardware that keeps our right hand from collapsing and our left hand from letting the violin sag, nothing works as well as our imagined edifices. Think of the sophisticated structure that keeps our left hand on the side of the violin, instead of bunching up under the neck. It’s the well-designed scaffold that never sits still. Never mind that the hand is vibrating all the time; it changes radically with each half-step, string change, and finger change.

My favorite vision, however, is nothing like the prim-and-proper, perfect looking, goal most of us strive for. Instead, it’s the disheveled, seemingly anarchic left hand of the backwoods country fiddler, that, nevertheless, plays perfectly in tune with a lovely, sweet vibrato, albeit with a wilted, vibrating hand. Don’t think for a minute that it demonstrates there is a lack of structure. If the notes are in tune, there’s a very personal and unique structure. You may not see it but it’s there. (As Einstein, a well-known violinist, said, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.”) When I see non-conventional, Dali-esque hand positions, I know that God works in mysterious ways.

The Ultimate Template

There are two huge obstacles to designing a left-hand scaffold: the fingers usually want to move before the hand is ready, and, no matter how small a space you’re moving, a rather extreme change of position needs to take place. Our minds help us most of the time.

We don’t stop a yard from a door knob to open a door. We get our feet, elbow, wrist, hand, and upper torso in the exact position before we turn the knob. On the other hand, if we ask our fingers to play from one string to the next, or change from one finger to another, we try to do it without any preliminary preparedness. Small spaces belie their complexity and geography.

I keep gadgets in my drawer that demonstrate the counter-intuitive nature of playing the violin. To imitate the flexibility necessary for the left hand, the closest thing I could find is a furniture caster with ball bearings. I’ll leave it up to your imagination to build in some super features, like an allowance for changes in altitude, changes in hand structure, and variations in intervals. Your scaffold will change as you mature and the small world of the violin will seem like a universe.

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Replies

January 11, 2020 at 03:32 PM · Great article! I particularly appreciated the line: "If the notes are in tune, there’s a very personal and unique structure." I, too, marvel at country fiddlers and blue grass players. I generally see a completely different hand position than I was taught, yet it's working absolutely beautifully for these players.

January 11, 2020 at 03:33 PM · Dear Mr. Stein,

Just as your second-grade student will not reveal her secret, neither will I reveal mine.

Regards,

Jascha

January 11, 2020 at 05:03 PM · Heifetz was always the picture of perfection in his posture and such, but didn't he also basically give up performing in his mid 50s? That's still a pretty long playing career, since he was concertizing in his early teens, but Mutter is 56 and Perlman, Zukerman, and Kremer are all in their early 70s, and Oistrakh "continued to work at a furious pace" even after having a heart attack in his mid-50s (and then 10 years later another one killed him). Milstein had a grammy-winning recording of the Bach S&P above age 70 and was still playing at age 82 until he fell and broke his hand. Likewise Menuhin was recording well into his 70s.

January 11, 2020 at 06:24 PM · Paul, et al.,

I'm one who also likes those devices (Things for Strings Frog & Fish, Fretless Finger Guides, et cetera).

In some circles (and to some parents) they are controversial. To me they are the means to an end. Developing a "perfect" bow hold is much faster with the Frog & Fish. I use the Fretless Finger Guide not only to find the notes but to teach basic music theory as well as the Doflein "Attitudes."

The shoulder rest made it possible for me to continue playing after I broke my left collar-bone. (Since it is a "Wolf" I also get a bit more resonance from my violin.)

As to playing longevity: I'm in my 70's (having started at 30) and seeing the end of my playing days because osteo-arthritis is beginning in my hands.

January 11, 2020 at 07:22 PM · Diana, You bring up many different styles of bow holds and how they work very nicely. My goal is to accept the way I hold it and defy anyone who says it’s wrong.

Paul, I’m fascinated by the history of Heifetz as he encountered shoulder surgery and other physical ailments. We all want to play as long as we can, and everyone’s story involves some heroism.

George, I appreciate the gadgets you mentioned. Why anyone would be against them is beyond me. Good luck with your hands and may you have many good years ahead of you.

January 11, 2020 at 07:22 PM · Diana, You bring up many different styles of bow holds and how they work very nicely. My goal is to accept the way I hold it and defy anyone who says it’s wrong.

Paul, I’m fascinated by the history of Heifetz as he encountered shoulder surgery and other physical ailments. We all want to play as long as we can, and everyone’s story involves some heroism.

George, I appreciate the gadgets you mentioned. Why anyone would be against them is beyond me. Good luck with your hands and may you have many good years ahead of you.

January 13, 2020 at 04:17 AM · I LOVE fingerboard tapes for my beginner students, who have so much to think about as they learn the basics of violining. I am grateful though, that the AMEB here in Australia insists that tapes are not used beyond the first level, titled Preliminary. Grade 1 students must not use the tapes in their exam, and I won't let a student do their exam unless they have graduated, bit by bit, from their tapes.

I also judiciously use my favourite tuner app when assisting students with intonation issues. The visual feedback they get can be enormously helpful for some.

January 13, 2020 at 04:08 PM · Dear God,

Might I entreat you to join Violinist.com? There are many new ideas put forth every day. And you’ll be happy to know, every now and then people refer to your “Heifetz” slide.

Must humbly,

Paul

January 14, 2020 at 05:34 PM · @39, Thanks for your excellent suggestions. The tunes has changed the lives of many violinists.

January 14, 2020 at 05:34 PM · @39, Thanks for your excellent suggestions. The tuner has changed the lives of many violinists.

January 16, 2020 at 06:22 PM · I love all your responses because you understand there is no "RIGHT" way to hold your bow or tape lines on your violin. You are teaching students and sometimes we have to work with what we have. I may be asked the same technique question from my violin students, but the answers will have to be different because no one is made alike. I have to adjust for small hands, large fingers, etc.

January 17, 2020 at 12:14 AM · Thanks for writing this article! And I could not agree more with Diana Skinner. I wonder how many people have given up because of being unmercifully grilled every lesson about there bow hold , or how they’re holding the instrument. Being stuck in a never ending rut , never advancing until every thing is perfect. Whatever gets a student to the point where they feel like they’re making some progress, pulling some good tone and playing something in tune and in time , is great.It’s more important to stay engaged and have some fun. The longer you stay at it the better you get . You perfect your own unique methods over time somewhat in consciously. Keep it fun !! ...And comfortable

January 17, 2020 at 01:05 PM · @193, Each person’s uniqueness is brought home to me every day. We try to play in tune, with musicality, and good ensemble skills, but from our own personal perspectives and resourcefulness. Therein lies the miracle of musicians playing together so beautifully.

@247, You sum it up so well. Your last 16 words bring up the interesting idea of the unconscious work we do in improving. I’d like to think there’s a thin line between the unconscious and the conscious. Then, even talking about the violin would become easier.

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