Relaxing Your Left Hand Through Visualization

August 12, 2020, 7:39 PM · 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.

extreme camping

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.

arches

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.

Replies

August 13, 2020 at 02:03 PM · Thanks Paul Stein, for another helpful lesson! I especially like your advice that "the hand changes constantly to accommodate even the smallest interval."

Regarding tension from gripping the kneck instead of just lightly supporting it, I've had a few lessons with an early music violinist who taught me to rest the kneck in a V of the thumb and index finger. And expanding your focus on relaxation of the hand into general relaxed full body of the violinist, she's also teaching me how to barely ever touch my chin to the instrument, just rest it approximately on the collar bone and using the left hand V and the weight of the bow (no tension or force in the right hand either, just the gravity on the bow) to hold the violin stable.

Easily summarized, but actually doing it well feels a few more years away for me!

August 13, 2020 at 02:03 PM · Paul, this is a great visualization technique. I'm going to try it.

August 13, 2020 at 02:30 PM · Paul, I truly loved this article! Singers use visualization all the time, but I feel it's rarely utilized with instrumentalists. Thank you for highlighting this wonderful method. Also, as a Colorado native, I am a huge fan of Harold Whippler. I had the opportunity to watch him in action in live concerts, and also when the Denver Symphony came to my university for a residency. Not only is he an amazing violinist and musician, he's probably one of the most gracious and kind individuals I've ever encountered. A true gentleman. (I think he may have even been teacher to our Editor-in-Chief, Laurie Niles!)

August 13, 2020 at 05:28 PM · Thank you, Paul, for another excellent blog. I am enjoying envisioning those left fingers as "arches"!

Yes, I feel very lucky to have been a student of Harold Wippler back when I lived in Denver (twice actually, once as a teen and then later I went back for audition coaching!). I do remember that he could be so vivid in his demonstrations! One time he was trying to convey to me that spiccato/sautillé doesn't really have anything to do with gravity, and he somehow leaned over until the violin was completely upside down and played spiccato, upside down!

August 13, 2020 at 09:58 PM · Will, thanks for sharing your teacher’s suggestions. It does sound very appealing to feel that the violin is floating in the air.

Krista, I hope this visualization will resonate with you. Like all techniques, some work and some don’t. At least the photo of Arches National Park will be nice to remember.

Diana, I’m glad you speak so highly of visualizations. I wonder how many of us violinists feel the same way. It might make an interesting survey on v.com.

Laurie, Thanks for your vivid description of Mr. Wippler’s spiccato exercise. I wonder if he thought it up while sitting for long stretches in the orchestra.

August 17, 2020 at 04:39 AM · Cramped left hand? I must confess that I could not comprehend that. I hesitate to write anything at all, as your resume is two orders of magnitude superior to mine. But for the possible benefit of others; here goes--.

Not reaching the 1-4 perfect fourth or octave?-- That is a test for a young student moving to the next size larger instrument. the 1-4 P4 needs to be comfortable.

To gradually increase the spread and flexibility of the left hand; 3 easy to understand cures;

1) Play Viola

2) Play Piano

3) Do the Harmonic Minor scales, which will place the minor third interval between each pair of fingers.

Posture and form of the left hand; With a straight wrist, firmly grasp a baseball or tennis ball. This gives you the "round hand"; the knuckles are separated, the thumb moves forward, closer to the 2nd finger, and, perhaps most important, the base of the first finger is pushed out instead of collapsing in.

"Fingers held down" ? Aha ! We see the notation 1___, 2____, etc. frequently in the method books and older editions of the Etudes. But after the beginning year, holding fingers down unnecessarily creates problems;-- the muscles are fatigued and stressed, vibrato is inhibited, intonation is distorted. Playing with extra fingers down is like constantly playing double stops, but only sounding one note. Lifting the fingers looks like extra motion, but it is actually resting the flexor muscles. The exception to this is prepared fingering, but that is another topic. -- jq

August 17, 2020 at 02:14 PM · Thanks for your helpful suggestions, Joel. Left hands are designed perfectly for the violin, but only if a few modifications are employed. The fact that the thumb rests in a lower area than the other fingers means that they need to be raised, as if by an elevator. Hands expand, which is necessary for a violinist. They also shrink, which is good in high positions, but not so good in first.

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