The journey from the first finger to the fourth finger always seemed very far for me. As a young violinist, I had trouble spanning the relatively small area on the fingerboard, and my hand often came up a little short. I couldn’t even manage the three-and-a -half inches of first position. Even though I was a pretty fast adjuster and able to correct the pitch quickly, my hand cramping took its toll. By college, I performed my senior recital with a hand so tight that I’m surprised I was able to finish.
I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, considering the hand has very little to hold on to. I needed the imagination to find a comfortable home for my hand. I finally found security, but not with a shoulder pad, a firm chin, or fingers squeezing the sides of the neck. I realized the obvious design flaw that I was dealing with, that there was no pouch or holster to let the hand rest in. I had a dangling hand and was doing a bad job of resisting gravity. My hand fought the violin, and its contortions and dimples were starting to calcify. Dimples are caused by the hand turning into itself as it resists against relaxation and roundness. Talk about physics run amuck.
How I dealt with this problem was by keeping a clear picture in my head and undoing bad habits one at a time, finger by finger. It worked, but it was painstaking. It took a lot of blood, sweat, and visualization. Even though the spaces on a violin are small, the area that the fingers and the hand transverses are large. I needed to know the fingerboard and the airspace around it as well as someone who was talented enough to correctly gauge spaces.
Using Visualization to Correct a Bad Habit
Replacing old habits is tedious but necessary. Having a clear picture of the result I wanted made the process easier. On the road to alleviating my tension, I concentrated on three steps:
1. I observed that my hand was collapsing on the fingerboard and teetering on the ledge off the E string side. I needed more stability than merely my thumb and index finger pressing against the neck.
2. I had to rebuild my hand position one finger at a time by strengthening the movement across strings and intervals. It slowly dawned on me that the hand changes constantly to accommodate even the smallest interval.
Harold Wippler, former concertmaster of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and teacher of Eugene Fodor and Desirée Ruhstrat, showed me an exercise that illustrated the large movements that the hand experiences between notes. While placing the fingers individually on all four strings, he moved the hand in a free-flowing, flexible manner. When he demonstrated this, his hand moved and gyrated, and his wrist had the consistency of Jello. The purpose was to keep the hand from remaining fixed, a habit all too common among children.
3. I created for my hand a mental image of a furniture caster, the smooth roller built with ball bearings that you put on the underside of couches. I imagined it was built by NASA, ready to roll over the roughest terrain in space. When it came to the hand flexibility I needed to navigate the complex angles of the fingerboard, only the best image would do.
When my hand caved in, and my round knuckles turned inside out to form dimples, I wouldn’t be able to reach very far with my fingers. Using fourth finger was practically out of the question. The image that comes to mind is the tent pitched on the wall of the steepest mountain. Even though you think it won’t fall, it feels precarious and wrong.
Using another image of nature, Arches National Park illustrates my ideal left hand position. The terrain below it is rough and uneven, but the arch fits the span perfectly.
No two arches are the same. The key to being ready for new intervals is to take time to move my hand first, then drop the fingers down. It’s funny and sad how, for years, I moved the fingers first, then the hand. Horse before the cart!!
Images Evolve Until They Feel Right
My left hand’s first contact with the violin was to hold on by the seat of its pants. The image of a prong comes to mind, the thumb and the index finger making a weak and uncertain attempt at holding the violin up. However, slowly but surely, I felt something more secure was taking hold.
I would describe it as my hand holding a circle of air that fit perfectly in my palm. Of course, that air pocket changed constantly. What I felt on the G string was unique unto itself, so playing the violin made me adapt constantly. It felt so right, though. Finally an organic understanding of the violin hold had taken shape in my mind. It felt like a new element of talent I didn’t know I had had revealed itself.
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