Being a violinist is a juggling act, and it requires the ability to reconcile two (or more) conflicting ideas. The left hand is often reminded to relax, and at the same time to keep its shape. Vibrato beautifies the sound, but all that movement makes pinpointing the pitch rather precarious. Playing in the top part of a position makes the bottom part seem far away. So, by the time the left hand is developed, it’s a miracle that it darts around and doesn’t collapse. It resembles a solid, radar-driven machine, guided by nothing more than the artistry of the ear.
In some ways, the left hand works the same way as the structures on the sides of buildings that keep construction workers safe and secure: the first and most important requirement is that they don’t collapse. Scaffolding, for violinists, is a method of erecting the hand to accommodate all four fingers. We build the left hand’s plan in our minds, and we observe what distances feel like. The hand thus takes shape because it’s driven by purpose and design. The air that the hand envelops becomes the structure on which strength grows. Touching the violin’s neck with two small parts of the hand doesn’t inspire as much confidence and assuredness - that is not where the "scaffolding" lies. The only thing that the left hand "grabs" is the shape of air around the neck. Like squeezing a soft, rubbery ball, the left hand keeps its shape no matter what dimensions it assumes around the fingerboard.
Scaffolding – No Two Shapes are Alike
To create your own exercise for scaffolding, start with placing individual fingers in first position on the D string. Place the first finger down and notice how the shape of the hand conforms around it. Even the air that the hand holds plays an important part in this spatial relationship. Notice that the second finger isn’t over the next note in the sequence. The hand remains focused on the first finger, and is designed to spring into action when the time is ripe for the next finger to move.
In this exercise, placing the next three fingers introduces three new scaffolds. Each is remarkable in its uniqueness, so it’s vital to let go of one shape in order to insure the freedom of the next one. Finding each of these new shapes takes several moments to discover. Shortcuts lead to cramped hand positions. If you tend to underestimate the distance from one note to the next, you’ll be surprised how much shape shifting actually takes place. The space between notes and strings shouldn’t be judged by what you see on the fingerboard, but by the landscape around it.
There was one left hand exercise which I did as a child which got in the way of this flexible movement. It involved keeping a finger down on one string while placing a finger on another string. The purpose of this was to remember where the original finger was so you could return to it and still be in tune. It also helped me keep my left hand aligned and firm. However, keeping my finger down binds the hand in an unnatural way. The exercise is essentially a good one, but like many things from your childhood, you learn to trade experience for something more relevant and true.
Ramping Up Your Left Hand Radar
All your knowledge of the fingerboard is dependent on how quick you react to the next thing the music throws at you. If there’s a shift up ahead, when do your start picturing the distance and the destination? Take two scenarios and build a practice session around them:
Be prepared for collateral damage. Sometimes a shift doesn’t reach high enough or there is a surge of abrupt, unnecessary speed. The fallout can be corrected. What is gained is learning to appreciate the skills you’ve accumulated. Play through a passage without stopping. Sight-read a phrase. This will show what you're capable of - and it will also highlight what needs work.
To feel comfortable with the neck and fingerboard, make sure all the parts fit. If your hand must move up to reach the fourth finger, or the elbow needs to come over and around, don’t look for shortcuts, just do it. Our minds love a good puzzle, and while a strip of ebony with no frets may not be a Rubik’s cube, it poses a lovely challenge to anyone fortunate enough to play the violin.
You might also like:
Joel, your suggestion of judging interval distance is a good one, because all shifting is based on knowing the small increments. Scales on one string using one finger help you with half and whole steps.
With all the knowledge you gain, the final step is feeling a magnetic connection between the fingertip and target. That tightens up what could be a loose, unfitting connection.
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.
Violinist.com is made possible by...
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins
Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine
October 22, 2021 at 04:40 PM · Another fine article.
Normal humans, well, at least the males of the species, really are not good at multi-tasking. Our brain does not want to separate the right and left sides. We tend to bear down too hard with the left hand while playing loud with the right arm. Beginners tend to dig in to the fingerboard while shifting up, until they learn to release the finger pressure while shifting, which then causes the right hand to release and the bow hair looses traction. Ever notice that when missing a shift going up it is always on the flat side?--friction.
A number of self-taught things have helped the accuracy of my shifting: the interval distance of the shift is more important than the number label of the position. Mentally re-labeling the positions by half-step increments. Preferring shifting on the 2nd or 3rd finger instead of on the first. Switching fingers during the shift instead of the using the same finger. Half-step shifts can be done with the crawl-shift: extend, then move.
Posture of the left hand- the round hand-- firmly grasp a tennis or baseball. This forces the base of the first finger out, and the thumb will probably move opposite the second finger instead of the first. Same thing for the right hand.
* * *