What do different left hands of great violinists tell us

February 4, 2007 at 08:34 PM · Milstein: violin neck somewhat sinks into the palm, wrist bends inward (towards nose) and fingers are nearly parallel with fingerboard. In other words, he plays with a lots of finger pads on the strings. Pinky often flattened. Overall look of the left hand is relaxed, comfortable and self-assured.

Zakhar Bron: hand folds as though he is holding a rubber ball, and the fingers are almost like kneading the ball when they move on the fingerboard back and forth. Fingers are well-curved and the violin neck sinks into the palm. Overall look of the left hand is relaxed, comfortable and self-assured.

A-S Mutter: violin neck stays quite away from the palm, i.e., there is lot more room between it and the area between the F1 and the thumb. Fingers are quite vertical and wrist sometimes slightly sticks out, especially during vibrato. Overall look of the left hand is not so relaxed (kind of ‘calculating’ or tiptoed).

Whether the above observation is accurately described or not, you’ve got agree with me that how they position and move their left hands are very different. I wonder about the significance of the difference in relation to the quality of the sound and intonation, etc. Personally, my intonation has improved when I change from the more Mutter-type to Milstein-type. I yet to try the Bron style. Not sure it’ll work for me. I’d love to hear your comments.

Replies (22)

February 4, 2007 at 09:22 PM · i agree with the bron assessment. there's something subtle about the way he fingers, it's almost as if he's not really moving them much at all but they just sort of magnetize themselves toward the fingerboard. what an amazing violinist...

i'm not so sure about ASM being unsure in her technique in any way. she's been known to champion some real finger-busters (berg, lutoslawski, brahms, etc). i always thought ms. mutter's left hand was held so low in order to deliver her uniquely lush tone (adding more finger pad and less fingertip to her fingerboard point of contact). at least that's the impression i get in hearing her play.

February 4, 2007 at 09:32 PM · ....that they are different speaks volumes--I'm just not qualified to say what.

February 4, 2007 at 09:55 PM · D Wright,

Thanks for being the first one to respond my message! Sorry, I didn’t make myself clear about my impression on Mutter. I didn’t mean to suggest in anyway that Mutter is in fact unsure of her finger movements. That will be crazy for me to suggest! Being such a great violinist, I’m sure she is more than self-assured! I meant the look from an armature observer (namely me)’s point of view – it’s entirely a subjective observation that it appears to be the case. I’m more concerned about the style difference among the different great violinists in using their left hands and wonder which style makes more sense from technical and physical point of view. Great violinists will play with great ease no matter what style they choose. Same can’t be said to us mortals. Sorry for not making it clear. Like you, I find Mutter’s sound is extremely lush, but I still don’t think she is using that much finger pad, in comparison with say Milstein, if you look at her DVD on Beethoven Sonatas. Maybe we are not looking at the same DVD?

Al, I can't even express the question very clearly, but the difference is so obvious that we violin students got to ask what's the pros and cons for each?

February 4, 2007 at 10:04 PM · A superb violinist and soloist with a major orchestra told me this story last year. When she was a new major orchestra member she was experimenting by copying and trying out a left hand technique of a famous (I forgot who) Concert artist. The Concert Master of her world class European orchestra asked her what she was doing. She explained how she was emulating this guy's left hand superb technique. The CM laughed and gave her this advice, "he plays that well IN SPITE of doing that, not because of it."

February 4, 2007 at 10:50 PM · I was thinking about the pinky post, many issues I've read, including experienced based on body types, and then when it seems all the greats seem so unique, it sort of overwhelms me. It makes me really respect even more, the consistency of Prof. S's students over at VMC. I cannot walk and chew bubble gum at the same time; and, I could date the Celtic woman(I wish), but not play like her!. The point being Yixi, a lot of days, we really are on our own it seems... ;)

February 5, 2007 at 01:17 AM · A good teacher teaches you to teach yourself. It's exactly like my final check ride to become a Captain at TWA. The Check Capt. said, "you passed all the tests and are now qualified to fly as a Captain. However, that does not mean you are anywhere near a fully cognizant Captain. What this means is you are now safe enough to go out and learn on your own with passengers in the back." Same with violin studies. The teacher only kind of points the way. Practice and figure out most of this by yourself.

February 5, 2007 at 01:53 AM · Very well said, Ray! I always believe I am the best teacher for me execept when I'm not:)

February 5, 2007 at 03:18 AM · I think that if a great violinist has just the middle finger raised on his left hand, he or she may be telling you that they believe you should indulge in some sex and travel.


February 5, 2007 at 03:33 AM · Neil, I'm offended by you. What are you trying to contribute to the discussion?

February 5, 2007 at 07:09 AM · Some humour, I think.. :)

This thread is great. The last year has been spent examining and re-evaluating and altering technique for maximum comfort and wider, smoother sound. The challenges of positioning the left hand on the viola nd not having tension or straining has very much helped my violin left hand. It just feels so strong on it's own, without the tension...the violin kind of rests where the note should be. It is really hard to describe, actually. My fingers, well, basically feel fatter and have to move MUCH LESS than before.

The difference is what you described between ASM and Milstein, I think. Slightly collapsing the hand and playing more on the pads of the fingers instead of the tips. Another variable is the curve of the wrist (palm facing or side of hand facing), contact point of first finger, placement of thumb in relation to fingers (thumb hanging out behind the first finger, across from it, or slightly in front of it...) and how much variation is used to facilitate movement from the lowest to highest positions on G to E string.

I have to say that visually a few of these things can be decieving. I have found that what looks tense is sometimes much more comfortable and natural and successful than what looks relaxed. Sometimes relaxed doesn't mean correct. "just relaxing" will not position the hand correctly. Relaxing the SOUND might be a better way to approach it. (or brain :).

This question, and related ones, are a sort of continuum. One of the major areas of growth that never ceases...and sometimes backslides...

I will have to watch more videos of these players...and others..and violists....of all different sizes and styles.


February 5, 2007 at 04:08 PM · Concerning left hand position and intonation: I think whatever position you choose, your left hand should be as calm as possible, so that the fingers find their way easily. This is one of the things stressed by Schradieck.

A calm hand is one of the means Milstein uses to arrive at crystal clear intonation. Using the wrist rather than the arm in vibrato is another means that stabilizes his left hand. Another thing: When he plays fast trills, his wrist tilts even more inwards than usual. It works, but organizing one's hand that way needs hard and efficient work. In fact, Milstein uses many different left hand positions in a very rational, well-organized way, following the requirements of the music.

Mutter uses a lot of arm movement in her vibrato, which is more easily accomplished when the palm is kept on distance to the violin's neck. I find her playing more expressive, but less calm than Milsteins. There is a sense of poise in his playing that I find overwhelmingly beautiful.



February 5, 2007 at 11:25 AM · What does it tell us? That they have differently shaped hands.

Seriously, that may sound blunt or ridiculous, but its true.

That said, there are some fundamental rules. The violin was meant to be held with a deep hold (why else would the neck be designed in a half-moon shape?). If you notice, Szeryng, Milstein, Heifetz all do this and guess what, they probably have the best left hands ever - and great intonation. But, they have regularly shaped average hands (Heifetz have a very long and strong fourth finger). But, this does not always work for everyone, so...

A determining factor is the lenght of the thumb and the lenght of the fingers in general. People with smaller hand or shorter fingers tend to favor a lower thumb position. Sometimes this holds true also of the opposite - people with unusually long fingers. ASM has a left hand that works for her. And at her level of talent...

In the end, it is about what works for you. But, the deep in hand hold has several advantages, not the least of which is reducing tension considerably, making precise intonation and the constant correcting of notes on the violin - a primordial aspect of our art - much easier. You have less tension in the arms and shoulders, so less chance of injury. The thumb will exert less counterpressure and be more relaxed, the fingers own weight bringing the string down - reducing tension further as well. Bowing is in general more relaxed too by sympathy (the body works in symetry) and coordination of the hands easier to acheive. And lastly, whether one uses a shoulder rest of not, the hand positions should be natural as if none was used.


P.S. If you want an example of the most classic left hand possible, watch Szeryng. About as perfect as it gets.

February 5, 2007 at 05:45 PM · What has always amazed me about Milstein (and I saw him play live several times, including his last performance in Chicago at the age of 80) is that his hand position doesn't seem to look right. It looks as if all he is doing is holding up the violin with his hand rather than holding it with his neck and shoulder. Indeed, it doesn't even seem that his fingers are moving at all. It all looks completely relaxed and natural, and he gives the impression - both physically and in sound - that he's not really working hard at all. He was remarkable. I'm not sure I follow all of the minute detail what you guys discuss on this website (and clearly with great insight and knowledge), but it seems to me that there is something about Milstein that is just different from everyone else, and that nobody can quite explain it. What IS the man doing, anyway?


February 5, 2007 at 05:26 PM · On the topic of unusual left hands...has anyone besides me noticed that Szigeti sometimes has a tendency to accidentally quietly pluck the E string while playing? When I saw a picture of his hands I noticed he has an extremely long 4th finger, can't help but wonder if it got in the way sometimes and hit the other string. :)

February 5, 2007 at 06:15 PM · Perlman made a film on PBS about 15 years ago in which he discussed compositions of various violinists,and the use of the left hand.He then showed how the large size of his own hand made some movements difficult.

February 5, 2007 at 10:33 PM · Yixi, I'm sorry for your offense.

Unfortunately for some, I have no intention of taking everything everyone says seriously and feel rather sorry for those that do. C'est la vie.

As for Perlman, I'm always amazed how he manages to play with his monster mitts. Truly wonderful that he can achieve such delicacy with such large fingers.


February 5, 2007 at 10:44 PM · Greetings,

Sander, he (Milstein) -is- holding up the violin with his left hand. The degree to which one does this varies from player to player with Milstein being somehting of an extreme. I also play this way becuase I can`t use a shoulde r rest or maybe the pother way round?.

What I think is deceptive is the statement itself. The elfy hand is balanced on the arm which is balanced on the spine which is suppooirted by the legs, all done via the porimary control of head neck and back. It is when one fals into the trap of feeling the left hand asna independent entity holding the violin thta real trouble can start. Incidentally, it is quite posisble to support the violin a lot while using a shoulder rest. That may be the best of both worlds.



February 6, 2007 at 12:19 AM · Buri,

I am glad you mentioned that last point. I hold the violin mainly with the left hand. The shoulder rest simply helps me avoid having to raise the shoulder during shifts (my shoulders are quite slanted). I get concerned, when I see students of mine who use shoulder rests having the left hand completely uninvolved in holding the fiddle...


February 6, 2007 at 01:16 AM · I'm wondering if any of the other men with big hands and fingers like me have to position their hand to compensate. Horizontal fingering is more comfortable, but I can't get my fingertips close enough together to have consecutive notes in tune without my figers being more vertical.

February 6, 2007 at 03:44 AM · Hi Yixi,

So much of this depends on one's anatomy. I know a great exercise for figuring out your natural position. Hold your violin as you normally would, but keep your left hand at your side. Then, take your arm, put your hand next to the neck (on the left side). Notice the angle of your fingers and where your thumb touches your index finger. Very quickly move your hand into playing position keeping that same posture, with the neck touching just above the middle joint of the thumb.


February 6, 2007 at 04:23 AM · Hi Daniel,

Thank you so much for the exercise! Just some clarification about the wrist: I assume you want it to be flat, rigth? Because any bending (inward or not) will change the angle of my fingers. If I keep the wrist in a neutral poistion, the angles of the fingers to the fingerboard are vary from 30-45 degrees, depending on different fingers. But if I bend my wrist a bit inward, my fingers can be pretty flat on the strings. Also, if I turn my wrist clockwise a bit to keep my palm completely parrallel to the fingerboard, then the angles of my fingers become almost 90 degree. I was taught to do this by my Chinese violinist many years ago, as it was considered necessary for shifting. Now I wonder if I should avoid wristing the wrist this way. I should instead let the left forearm to do more work when it comes to shifting, right?

February 9, 2007 at 04:41 PM · I have recently been letting the neck rest lower in the hand, almost flat in the palm but not quite. I find that this makes my wrist vibrato much easier and more fluid. However, the trade-off is that it makes proper intonation much harder.

This is a real dilemma for me, since both are important.

I just read (this morning) a book by Yehudi Menuhin. Since I love everything about his sound & style, I am going to try to emulate his suggestions. Some excerpts:


Menuhin rested the neck on the tip-most joint of his thumb. He writes that this is crucial, as it allows the violin to be "rolled" by the fingers.

He kept his fingers nearly perpendicular to the fingerboard.

In the photos, his wrist breaks noticeably towards the body, even in first position. It doesn't quite touch the body, but it comes close. This is very different from the instruction in Fischer, Violinist Master Classes, my two teachers, etc, but does feel more comfrotable to me. IMO, this helps to counter somewhat the vibrto stiffness caused by Menuhin's thumb position.

He held the scroll higher than the body. He writes that this allows gravity to aid in shifting to higher registers. This does correspond to most instruction I've seen, though few professional soloists seem to follow it.

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