It’s a cute little finger but it is often the bane of a violinist’s existence.
How do we get this finger to be stronger, more flexible, and to give us better sound? If you are one of the fortunate ones already blessed with a long, strong, and flexible fourth finger, then I salute you (with my short little pinky)!
For small-handed string players such as myself, it can be a challenge to gain the strength and agility that we easily get with the other fingers of the hand.
I have done work on my fourth finger with both Nathan Cole of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Jennifer Johnson, violinist, Body Mapping expert, and author of What Every Violinist Needs To Know About the Body. With their help, I have come up with six ways that help you improve your fourth finger on the violin/viola.
1. Set the pinky up for success:
The pinky is the shortest and weakest finger on the hand so we want to give it a little help. With this in mind, it is helpful to start with how it's placed on the fingerboard:
To do this, we must ensure that we do this in the most efficient way. Imagine that the radial bone (the forearm bone on the thumb side of the arm) is at 10/11 o’clock. Gently rotate the radius to 12 o’clock. If you notice, this simple rotation (supination) is what delivers the pinky naturally closer to the fingerboard.
Because it is the radius bone in the forearm that enables rotation (and not the ulnar bone on the pinky side of the hand) it is important to make this subtle distinction in the brain to prevent unnecessary straining of muscles in the forearm with repetitive use.
2. Place the fourth finger down first:
Because of the shorter length of the fourth finger, it is also helpful to place the fourth finger on the fingerboard first before shaping the rest of the hand frame.
As you place the fourth finger down on the fingerboard, notice its shape. Is it extended and stretched or is it curved in a strong arch shape? (Hint: Roman arches are the strongest shape!) We want to aim for an arched shape in this finger for optimum strength.
Even in extreme hand positions when it’s difficult to create a strong arch (e.g., chords with extension fingerings), even a slight curve would be better than no curve at all, and certainly better than a collapsed knuckle. With that said however - and depending on the hand - I think it is sometimes unavoidable to have a straightened pinky in certain cases such as when you want to execute a brilliant and strong vibrato high up on the E string or when you have a three-note chord with an extension in the fingering.
3. Re-balance the weight of the hand to the pinky side:
A good left hand frame enables all four fingers to ‘drop’ effortlessly from the base knuckle (what is known as finger joint 2 and what looks like the ‘bottom’ of the finger). To help position the hand so that the pinky can easily drop onto the fingerboard is to ask the whole arm to deliver the hand up the fingerboard so that the weight of the hand is more centered over the pinky.
To do this, I relax from the chest and bring the forearm towards my body, re-balancing the hand so that there is more weight over the pinky and so that it feels like it is “standing” on top of the fingerboard. I do this “re-balancing” particuarly from second finger up to fourth finger inside of scales, Schradieck The School of Violin Technics, and in Kreutzer Etude #9.
4. Experiment with thumb position:
An important component in good left-hand technique is the role of the thumb. Maintain a relaxed, flexible thumb, and allow it to be movable. The thumb does not need to be in one fixed position; it might need to be positioned further up the fingerboard so that the opposing thumb and pinky feel like one relaxed team. Depending on what you are playing, e.g., chords, or double stops like tenths, the thumb can be positioned further up or down the fingerboard. It is important to position it where it can be supple and serve in its role as an opposable digit to the other fingers.
5. Nathan Cole’s ‘Pinky Power’ exercise:
Nathan Cole prescribed this exercise to me and has made it available on his YouTube channel:
Roll up a small tissue (I use one square of toilet paper) into a ball and squeeze it inside of the pinky, dragging the pinky up the palm. This exercise reinforces and strengthens the arch shape in the fourth finger. I do this exercise without the tissue as well and think of the motion as “cleaning the palm”.
Please take care to stop when you have muscle fatigue in this exercise and in any other fourth finger exercises. We never want to push ourselves and lead ourselves into injury.
6. Pinky Tapping:
To train the reliability of the arch shape in the fourth finger, place the finger down with a good arch shape and slowly tap the finger on all strings, being careful to maintain the arch shape on all strings. Speed is not important in this exercise especially if it results in losing the integrity of the shape and strength of the arch.
You could also do this exercise on your lap.
I personally have found that despite regular practice of these exercises and concepts, improvements in the fourth finger may take time, depending on your skill level, physical make-up, ‘unlearning’ of habits, and how quickly you experience muscle fatigue.
Remember to be patient with these exercises and enjoy the long-term process of improving rather than expecting results overnight!
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