Can bad habits be broken?

March 1, 2007 at 08:38 PM · Hi all,

I apologize if this has been discussed previously -- I've searched past posts and can't find something that specifically speaks to this problem.

How would you help a student who comes to you with the habit of holding his/her violin with her left hand? Her left wrist is totally bent to hold the weight of her instrument, affecting her intonation and everything else.

I've pointed out the need to hold it with her neck and not the left hand, but no matter how many times I suggest it, she keeps cracking her left wrist.

I've read past posts on instrument size, shoulder rests, etc....and I'm convinced her instrument is a good fit for her, along with the s. rest.

Anyone know a good trick to combat this problem?

Replies (50)

March 1, 2007 at 08:41 PM · Depending on the age and experience of your student, you could do a variety of things.

For a less advanced student who is still in the first position, you can try the use of an aid, such as taping a shoehorn to the back of the neck of the instrument (student model instrument!).

I have a few students who came to me and had that issue (2nd/3rd grade). Many of them are being broken of this, by simple reminders. Before starting a song, it is their job to check their wrist and make sure it is straight. If their wrist "collapses" in the middle of the song, they have to stop and start over. They quickly catch onto this.

Check the left hand thumb and make sure the neck of the instrument is NOT in the crook of the student's thumb (and thus, their thumb pokes really high up and everything goes crazy). By dropping the thumb, a lot of position issues automatically correct themselves.

Also, you could "threaten" tendinitis. :)

Good luck and hope some of this helps!

March 11, 2007 at 07:47 AM · Make a game out of replacing the old habit with a new one. Spend a Whole lesson with her holding her violin in the correct position while you talk to her and try to distract her, but keep a careful watch on the wrist, and immediately acknowledge when it goes out of place. That's just something I would try.

March 11, 2007 at 08:51 AM · What's wrong with having the violin in the crook of the hand as long as the hand isn't bent?

I personally am not used to doing it, but when I've tried it my hand is more relaxed. I am too used to holding it 'correctly' to stick with it though.

March 11, 2007 at 10:19 AM · Oh, well, I thought she was talking about a "waiter hand" anyway! Here's a trick I've heard of, you can put a cork from a wine bottle in the crook of the thumb . . .

March 11, 2007 at 11:06 AM · This is a hard habit to break, especially if the student has been doing it for a long time. (as with all habits) I tell the younger ones to pretend they are holding a bubble in their hand and they can't pop it. Everytime the wrist starts to come up I yell "nasty wrist" or "ugly hand" or anything else that is appropriate. They then stop and start over. It takes a while, some students catch-on quickly, but the students do break the habit.

March 11, 2007 at 04:36 PM · I had this same problem years ago. I fixed my habit in a matter of days by using a wrist brace. These athletic wrist braces allow some flexing of the hand, but not to the severity that causes problems. I wore this for about an hour while practicing for two days, and at the end of those two days, my bad habit was fixed. I know it sounds crazy, but it worked!

March 11, 2007 at 05:57 PM · There is a Convent fairly close to us. I notice that the Nuns there don't break their Habits, they just get them cleaned or get new ones.

March 11, 2007 at 11:13 PM · how about their shifts?

March 12, 2007 at 03:54 AM · I call it a "pancake wrist." I use the work as a verb, too, "You are pancaking..."

Also, I like to ask for a little bit of space, a "V" made by the thumb and side of hand, underneath the neck. I mention there are two ladybugs having a picnic under there, and if you let the neck rest in the crook of your hand, you'll squish the ladybugs and get nasty bug juice all over your violin neck, not to mention ruining the ladybugs' picnic.

March 12, 2007 at 04:07 AM · Can someone tell me why there should be space between the thumb and violin?

Like, how does it negatively impact technique?

March 12, 2007 at 04:48 AM · Greetings,

not sure if I follow the question completely. If you mean collapsing the hand inward the reason is hter eis an optimum position in which the fingers are most relaxed. Usually students are taugt to keep the wrist straight which is okay but actually a veyr slight inward colapse (around ten degrees) is better. Having the writs collapsed outward is a no no.

If you mean the space between the thumb and first finger then it is simply that if there is no space that is an indicator of squeezing across the neck and is going to cause tension. The thumb exerts counter pressure against the fingers (minimal) but that pressure is in an upward diretcion.



March 12, 2007 at 12:49 PM · The best way to get rid of a habit is to develop a new (and better) one that takes its place. The rule of thumb is that it takes 21 days to lock in a new habit. However, changing even a small daily habit (especially one that involves routine motoric movements) is not easy. It requires all of your attention, resolve, and creative thinking.

Good luck.


March 12, 2007 at 01:01 PM · promises are meant to be broken; habits, you keep.

March 12, 2007 at 01:12 PM · That's the spirit!

March 12, 2007 at 01:45 PM · sandy, i would like to ask you to comment on the carrot vs stick approaches.

to condition or to recondition someone for something, is there much value or any value at all with the stick approaches? if we look at the training at westpoint, how lance armstrong trains (self-stick?) or the legends that soviets kids played violin under belt and buckles on route to stardom (is that why i never saw one pic of heifetz smile, opps, how dare i?) ,,,,are we missing something..being too soft, that nice talking being too extreme as well?

i have seen some recitals where the kids clearly did not prepare at all and to put it mildly, it was one of the most unbearable moments for everyone, well, except, the supportive family memebers who would go up and make a big deal how wonderful and lovely the performance has been. i mean, how do you break a habit of total irresponsibility when others are so concerned about not hurting the.... feelings? :)

March 12, 2007 at 02:02 PM · Hi, Al:

Of course, the "Vince Lombardi" theory of teaching has its proponents and is a rather traditional approach. It assumes that students learn best if expectations are explicit and at the highest levels of competence. Feedback is direct and brutally frank, and there is little room for sympathy or for overlooking mistakes.

The opposite approach (what you might call the "touchy-feely" theory of education) is all about the student's self-esteem. It assumes that criticism and a focus only on mistakes is harmful not only to the education process but to the student's self-esteem. It is assumed that students learn ONLY if they have high self-esteem.

Neither approach is without its strengths and weaknesses. If you keep telling a kid that they're good when they aren't, and if you keep overlooking their faults and mistakes, you'll produce a lousy musician who has good feelings about him or herself. But if you keep beating someone down, they won't develop the inner motivation to succeed (unless they have the innate talent of a Michael Rabin or they have an awfully strong inner confidence and iron resolve).

But these are extremes. In the real world, some optimal combination (based on the unique individuals and situations) is usually what ought to happen. And there are other issues. How do you inspire a student? How do you instill in a student a desire to achieve excellence, a vision of where their talent can lead, the work habits necessary to persevere, and a love of music and of performing that will carry them through the long, long journey to musical achievement? How do you teach responsibility, follow through, and an appreciation for having a critical ear and high standards?

That is where teaching becomes as much of an art as the complexities of what is being taught. And I'm not sure that there is one simple answer that holds true for everyone. Some characters, like Heifetz, thrive (as a violinist) when expectations are at the highest level and are unforgiving. Some, like Menuhin, thrive when they are inspired by teachers who inspire them to achieve.

Hope that addresses your question.

Cordially, Sandy

March 12, 2007 at 02:41 PM · excellent and thanks.

let's say you are viola teacher (would that make into your ppppps?), would you expect your students to learn under your style, something you are most familiar with, or, do you try to accomodate to everyone, from one extreme to another, in order to scare some and inspire others so both can get going?

March 12, 2007 at 03:12 PM · My approach when I was teaching piano was to keep in mind and frequently address my student's three top strengths and three top weaknesses. This addresses the need for the joy of achievement and the reality of being far away from our potential in a balanced way, and kept me thinking analytically about their playing.

March 12, 2007 at 05:15 PM · Hello, Lezlie.

At the outset, I must issue a 'caveat lector' ("reader beware") warning, because I am an adult who has had only two private violin lessons.

Although I like my teacher very much, she typically provides guidance about the proper way to hold the violin and the bow only if I ask her.

First of all, I am going to check, the next time that I practice, which is several hours a day right now (because an undiagnosed, chronic headache keeps me from finding another job), to determine how I am holding the neck of my violin with my left hand.

Second of all -- and my suggestion is also a question -- would it help to remind students *constantly* that they *must* support the weight of the violin with their chin?

There are, of course, potential health problems with continuing with this hard-to-break habit, but one obvious advantage is being able to adjust the fine tuners (assuming that the violin has four) by having the left had free to adjust the tuners and the right had free to play tune each string via the bow.

(I use a Korg electronic tuner, and I quickly found out, on my own -- so I hope that what I "discovered" is correct -- that I can tune each string much more accurately and quickly by using the bow, rather than by plucking it.)

In addition, I spend time supporting the violin with my chin only, with the left hand in place to catch the violin if something goes awry. This exercise might be helpful for students, but I, again, I am basing my suggestion on personal experience as a 46-year-old beginning violin student. (My experience may differ from the typical young student's: I started playing 'arco' during my second lesson, reserving 'pizzicato' for when it is dictated by the score, when/if I reach that point. Practicing 'arco' makes the exercises more difficult, but I am passionate about learning the violin.)

I hope that this response is of some help!

Thank you.



March 12, 2007 at 05:41 PM · I had a student who came to me like that, and since he was a 14 year old boy at the time, I suggested that he put his hand in the proper position and place a band-aid over the outer portion of his wrist where all the little hairs were. So, if he collapsed his wrist, the band-aid would pull on the hairs of his arm to let him know it was happening.

I did not do this to him during a lesson, but asked that he try it at home. He did, and he has had no wrist problems since.

Of course, I have no helpful ideas for removing the band-aid.

March 12, 2007 at 06:02 PM · It's interesting that the brace and the band-aid solutions are so effective and quick. The thing they have in common is they just truly demand attention to the issue for a very short while. We're talking about such a simple thing, maybe it can't really qualify as a habit and need the "21 days" thinking.

March 13, 2007 at 02:34 AM · How old is the student? If she is in grade school it's totally understandable. But check on a few things. Firsl, look at the violin, is it too big for her? Too small? If so tell her to get a different size. Next, is it comfortable for her? Is her shoulder rest or chin rest uncomfortable? Then adjust the size or get a new chin rest. For long necks I would recommend a Tekka chin rest(sorry for spelling. If she doesn't have a shoulder rest then that's definately the problem. It doesn't work not having a violin with nothing between your shoulder and the violin. Makes you have to hold it up. Depending on your neck size.

March 13, 2007 at 03:30 AM · Greeitngs,

>It doesn't work not having a violin with nothing between your shoulder and the violin. Makes you have to hold it up.

that is correct. That is how Milstein played.That is how Mr Haslop plays. Its also how i play although i am not in their class. Rolland taught his studnets to balance the violin. So did Auer. It certainly doesn`t work for everyone.

It seems The shoulder rest debate is really back in fashion here. No problmes with that but it would be nice to move from all the -you are absolutely wrong- comments to somehting more constructive.



March 13, 2007 at 07:10 AM · This is actually quite a simple problem to resolve.The correct wrist position depends entirely on the position of the thumb.If the wrist is collapsed it is undoubtably because the thumb is reaching backwards towards the pegs.Try putting a little round sticker in the place where the thumb should go and ask the student to place the fleshy part of the thumb on the sticker.The thumb should fall straight in a relaxed postion.Tap the strings with all four fingers to ensure that the hand is in the correct playing position and then tap the thump.Repeat this every so often during the lesson.If the thumb is in the correct position the wrist will not cave in but must remain flexible and relaxed.Any form of self torture is not going to lead to a flexible hand.

March 13, 2007 at 01:58 PM · Hi, Even though you are satisfied with her violin size and rest combo, it can be worth trying the next smaller size for a while. If this girl has narrow shoulders,(either a small frame shoulder-to-shoulder or narrow from front to back), the violin may feel heavy to her, and as though it is at the hand. So she props it up by bending the wrist and raising her hand under the FB. The idea of balancing the violin on the collarbone with the weight of the head resting heavily on top may make more sense than anything that sounds like squeezing the chin down.You could also try a chinrest that crosses the tailpiece or the Wittner hypoallergenic that hangs above the tailpiece. This has an effect of pushing the weight of the violin up on the collarbone and towards the player's left. You can also check how heavy the violin feels to you. Some fractionals are surprisingly heavy overall, or feel disproportionately heavy towards the upper shoulders or fingerboard. Fussing over her stuff, and then saying now it's up to you can be surprisingly effective. Sue

March 14, 2007 at 02:04 AM · >No problmes with that but it would be nice to move from all the -you are absolutely wrong- comments to somehting more constructive.

It wasn't supposed to be a "you are absolutely wrong" comment.

March 14, 2007 at 05:32 AM · I got lost back there while trying to sort out all the negatives...

Doesn't work, not having a violin to not have a shoulder rest not holding it up, because of the absolutely wrongs or the no-how no-ways, and because of Milstein did it that way... It's what I always tell my students, but will they listen to me? No.

March 14, 2007 at 03:12 AM · Wait... What? Sorry that was kinda confusing.

March 14, 2007 at 05:32 AM · What?

March 14, 2007 at 05:36 AM · I've had to retrain a lot of students. I used to just tell them to stop pancaking. I'd remind them about 20 times a lesson, and I spent about a year in frustration before I decided I wouldn't build on top of poor foundations like that anymore. The only success I've ever had was to simply rebuild it all from the ground up.

I might sound radical, but someone who plays like this probably has a lot more issues with their musicianship than just a flat wrist.

March 14, 2007 at 06:28 AM · Greetings,

Emily said

>Doesn't work, not having a violin to not have a shoulder rest not holding it up, because of the absolutely wrongs or the no-how no-ways, and because of Milstein did it that way... It's what I always tell my students, but will they listen to me? No.

No way is it that they are not not listening , its just not presented in such a way they can see whether or not this way is the way or not.

But that`s experience for you.

Or not.



March 14, 2007 at 06:38 AM · I agree with Janet over the thumb placement and finger tapping thing.

On the same line as Janet's, is,(since wrists in beginners typically collapse as the the third finger goes down after an open string....)

you practice opening and closing the fingers in a block in different finger patterns

(ie 1 23 4), no bow, not tapping, just keeping the shape as you gently close and open the string keeping control over what the wrist etc is doing.

For the pizza-delivery hand in kids I have actually had some measure of success with plasticine!!! (don't know if it is called that outside the UK but it is what Wallace and Grommit are made of)

You can stick it under the FB and make a long nose .... this is Grandma's nose and you try not to bend it up as you play. I say SOME measure of success because there are a large number of kids who actually want to squish Grandma's nose!! You can also put eyes and a mouth into the plasticine with your finger nail ... makes for a good game!!!

March 14, 2007 at 08:01 AM · You guys are having way too much fun with your students. Remember, violin is supposed to be drudgery!

March 14, 2007 at 02:35 PM · Why would anyone want to break a perfectly good bad habit?

March 14, 2007 at 05:05 PM · Janet, good point about the thumb. Another possible thumb problem that can lead to pancake wrist is extreme bending of the top thumb knuckle (nearest the nail). If the thumb is properly placed and is straight/relaxed, it's impossible to have a collapsed wrist.


March 14, 2007 at 06:12 PM · I had my students hold a small (palm sized) ball in their left hand while they play. I've used a ping pong ball wrapped wit rubber bands (so it diesn't slip) in the past. It's a fun novelty that also tends to encourage the student to support the instrument with the left hand, not grasp it.

March 14, 2007 at 10:06 PM · I agree with Chris you should try that. I never had any problems with my wrist but I saw that it started to work for my friends.

March 15, 2007 at 06:29 AM · Ping-pong balls eh?? Chris, are you putting the rubber-bands just on the ball ...or attaching the ball to the left hand???

March 15, 2007 at 10:36 PM · just make her practice by placing only finger on the keyboard..never the thumb so that she learns how to hold the violin with her chin and neck.


March 16, 2007 at 01:55 AM · The "correct" wrist position is that position which the wrist normally falls into if you hold your arm upright without a violin. You will notice that the wrist is slightly flexed inward. You will notice that as you bring your forearm forward as if you were going to touch your nose, the wrist flexes outward which is the proper position for higher positions.

In advanced technique especially involving double stops in lower positions the wrist should flex inward more than this "normal" position to make sure that the balance of the hand is on the 4th finger. This works especially well in fast passages in 3rds like the Scriabin Etude in 3rds. It means that your wrist is almost in 3rd position while your fingers extend back to first position.

March 16, 2007 at 02:31 PM · Young students quickly develop bad habits! I have found that parental participation can make a big difference in lessons and practice, and in correcting habits like the bent wrist. Almost all the beginners I see make the mistake of holding the violin with a bent wrist (and often their elbow is also sticking out), because it is easier for them. Their muscles are not developed very well, and often they are not strong enough to hold the violin up correctly, so they compensate and develop the bad habits without being aware. Another thing that helps is having the student focus on their curved fingers and thumb, which I'm finding is a way of side-stepping around always talking about the wrist being straight. The thumb can't point straight up if the wrist is holding the violin!

Good luck =)

March 21, 2007 at 06:51 PM · Just found a relevant quote:

"The pupil who is never required to do what he cannot do, never does what he can do." - John Stuart Mill (philosopher)

June 28, 2007 at 08:03 PM · Sorry to bring up such an old topic.

I'll try the cork and bandaid things though, those seem like good ideas. Thanks for that. I'm not a scientist but I figure tactile feedback is good for muscle memory.

I've been practicing semi-casually since I was 5, and more than 15 years later, I still have the bulging left thumb problem. My most recent teacher eventually gave up on fixing it, even though she seemed to have confidence in me as a student overall.

As for holding the violin with the left hand, there's an easy way to fix that (my teacher did this for me around 10 years ago): each lesson and practice, have the student hold on to the violin with just their shoulder and jaw. Only have a hand there in case it falls. Try to get them to hold it there for a full minute.

I think this particular problem isn't so much of a bad habit as it is physical weakness in the jaw and/or shoulder.

June 28, 2007 at 11:21 PM · Greetings,

>As for holding the violin with the left hand, there's an easy way to fix that (my teacher did this for me around 10

that presuppose it is necessary to fix. I hold the violin with left hand. More illustrious players include Milstein.



June 29, 2007 at 12:26 AM · Yes Buri, there is holding the violin, but there is HOLDING the violin. I really doubt you grab the violin between your thumb and hand, folding the thumb over, collapsing your wrist, etc. That's what kids do. If you tell them to hold the violin with their left hand, yikes. What Lezlie is describing here is clearly a problematic kind of "holding." I don't think most students will understand the subtlety of what, say, Milstein did, or why that even matters, unless you describe it REALLY well. They have to be able to cradle the neck instead of grip it, and yes they'd better learn to use the weight of their head to help hold things up now and again.

It isn't clear to a beginner why this is important, as a beginner doesn't frequently shift during playing nor does a beginner play with vibrato. But you can't just give a student a pass on having a left-hand vice grip because in some extremely subtle way one does kind of "hold" the violin in a certain way.

June 29, 2007 at 09:20 AM · I've done something similar to what Christopher did. One of my adult beginners kept collapsing her wrist. (I call it "pizza wrist" because it looks like you're carrying a hot pizza.) Dr. S on violinmasterclass uses an orange, but I didn't have one, so I used a small rubber ball. The trick is to keep it between your wrist and the neck of the violin while you play. My student fashioned a contrivance made of old socks held together with a rubber band and used this in place of the rubber ball. She practiced with her sock-contraption every day for 2-3 weeks and then weaned herself off of it, always noticing her wrist position. She was able to stop using the sock-contraption and play with a straight wrist.

June 29, 2007 at 10:15 AM · I had this problem years ago when I changed teachers. I don't remember using anything on my wrist, just the constant nagging of my teacher. He wasn't nice about it, so I changed my wrist position in no time.

June 29, 2007 at 11:31 AM · Can I weigh in on the opposite problem (because I sometimes have it): a wrist bent in the other direction? I've used my digital camera to record myself playing and I notice I do that sometimes, especially if I'm trying to do 3rd finger vibrato in 1st position. I put my 3rd finger down and bend my wrist as I do so in order to push my fingers forward and reach the note. It's a problem because it causes tension and poor vibrato. I'm thinking it might come from not moving the left thumb enough.

And, I just wanted to add a word about holding the violin with your chin without any input at all from the left hand. I had teachers who made me do that when I was a kid and I became really proud of how well I could do it. But over time that "skill" developed into its own bad habit: excessive clamping down with the chin that caused indirect tension in my head, back, and left arm. I'm now as an adult working on getting rid of that and using my left arm sparingly, to balance the instrument. It's the only way I can play for more than 20 minutes without pain.

So I think holding the violin up with only your chin is a good goal for students *only* to break a left-hand vice grip. One they've moved beyond that, or if they don't happen to have that problem in the first place, don't emphasize a pure chin hold anymore.

June 29, 2007 at 12:48 PM · I have to agree with Laurie. I tend to hold the violin with my wrist touching the body, and the lower inside knuckles toucing the bottom of the neck, but holding it up with only my jaw and shoulder. There IS a difference, and it shouldn't be confused with holding it up with the hand. However, I trust your judgment that the student is actually holding it with the hand...I used to do that as well until high school. I quit doing it because my fiddle friends were nagging me about it. (Try finding out who your student plays with in orchestra and get his/her friends to start nagging!)

June 29, 2007 at 01:14 PM · Try making him hold the violin against a wall without using the hand for a while and then try the normal way.

I guess you sgould try also with hand shifting in order to make him understand that these are impossible holding the instrument by the hand.

After that I suggest you to use some good old ULTRAVIOLENCE!!

Bad habits sometime can't be broken....arms yes!!

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