Son having sudden problem with 4th finger.

July 2, 2009 at 05:41 PM ·

My 12 y/o son started playing violin in September of 2007.  He was in our local Youth String Orchestra this past year and he was fill in principle in our Spring concert. 

 However, he has recently ( in the last 2 weeks ) developed a problem with playing 4th finger in first position.  He has been playing 4th finger in first position for over a year and NEVER had this problem before.  He does prefer open string to 4th finger though and chooses open over 4th.  When he plays now he presses down on the bow too hard, and you know what that does.  He doesn't have this problem in 3rd position at all.  I had him play his recital song over the weekend and, until the fact that he hadn't practiced it in 6 to 8 weeks got the better of him, he did fine and played at least 2 fourth finger notes perfectly.  He didn't even realize he had played them.

I am at a loss as to how to get him past this.  His teacher has assigned him some simple songs that are basically for teaching 4th finger.  So far it hasn't really helped, although sometimes the notes sound better than others.

Replies (26)

July 2, 2009 at 08:38 PM ·

The tension you’ve noted in his bow is an indirect result of too much tension in the left hand. The body is symmetrical (note how each side mirrors the other in walking); if there is too much tension in one side it so often shows up in the other.  (An excellent way to monitor tension in playing is look to what the opposite side of the body is doing.)

This sounds like the placement of his left thumb.  
I've taken many students whose thumbs have slipped back and under the neck, and it almost always happens when they reach the level of playing as your son.  As their fingers develop technically, their thumbs are an afterthought and beging to drop lower and lower as fingers reach higher and higher.  The result is the left arm and wrist slowly going out of alignment, and a constant battle to use all four fingers with ease takes over.  They begin squeezing the neck, which spills over and affects ease of shifting.  Back in first position the wrist and hand soon can develop crazy and eccentric movements to compensate (symptomatic as well is “over-driving” the thumb).  This all results in more tension, and the problem feeds off itself.  And all this is most obvious in first position where the spaces between notes are the largest--exactly where you seeing it.  In third position the spacing of the notes is more comfortable, and the fingers align correctly with the wrist almost by default at that area of the neck.  (This is why many small children are started in third positon in classical training.) 
So where to begin?  I’ve always used Auer's guide, and have found it almost always totally effective:  In first position the thumb should be placed directly opposite the second finger (F natural) on the D string. This aligns the whole arm and hand, and first through fourth fingers will drop correctly into place. The result is day and night, and almost immediate for both left and right hands.
This is something so many teachers and players overlook, and it is easily understandable.  Any attention this thumb usually gets is an emphasis to be relaxed.  But this won't solve the underlying issue of how the fingers fall onto the string.  And unfortunately, no amount of simple songs and pieces, though well-intended, will probably help.  In fact I would gues this approach is only making the problem more frustratinly evident.  

July 3, 2009 at 09:21 AM ·

Reaching for the 4th finger in 1st position (and other positions where you have to stretch for the 4th finger) requires a certain technique in order to do so relaxedly (unless you have big hands). It's hard to explain, and obviously I can't see what your son is doing already, but firstly he should reach from the finger base, whilst at the same time bring the elbow round, and whatever finger he is stretching from should stretch backwards, to allow the hand to open up. It's important though to allow the elbow to be allowed to swing, to make using the 4th finger feel comfortable and balanced.

July 3, 2009 at 01:07 PM ·

The problem doesn't seem to be the reach.  He is clenching his bowing hand whenever he plays 4th finger in 1st.  He has also been playing these notes for over a year.  This problem suddenly cropped up about 2 weeks ago.

July 3, 2009 at 01:34 PM ·

I think Eric has it identified it all well. Tension is probably coming from your son's choice of what part of his left arm to use as the source the motion of his 4th finger. This is affected by the balance point created by the thumb. Because the fiolin does not require great finger pressure and because it is fairly small, the player has a lot of options on where to find the strength to press down each finger.

(As a cellist (also), I know that larger instrument, the focal point for finger motion and pressure is further down the arm and slecting the right posture for it is absolutely critical). But violin playng is nt free from these considerations.

Off to my left on this eb page i often see Clayton Haslop whose left-hand posture is very open and free and often has the violin resting ON his left thumb. Check it out  - no tension there.

If your son is vibratoing that should provide some way of releasing his grip. If he is not, maybe it is something he needs right now to help him.

Finally, if there is something wrong with the way your son holds his violin under his chin it can conceivably tighten up the finger nerves that emerge from the spine. Any pressure there (in the neck) can affect the fingers.


July 3, 2009 at 02:17 PM ·

I reread your post, and while I'm can't be there in person to diagnose, I'm certain the clenching in his bow is reflecting a tightness in his left hand when using his fourth finger.  The reach may not appear to be the problem because he is achieving only by straining.  This then carries to the opposite side of the body.  Given that his bow only cramps in conjunction with his fourth finger, it is more than likely the root (especially if his teacher is assigning thing to isolate it).

As I said, fourth finger problems pop up a lot at his stage, and unfortunately are overlooked until the things that I described begin to occur. 

Hi Andy- I'd say hand shape/position is important on all string instruments (I had one teacher who said it was everything).  My thumb does shift under like in the photo you mentioned, but when I am back in first position it is adjacent to the second finger.  If I move it back or forward I can still hit the notes, but have to strain to do so.  They simply don't fall and land naturally. 


July 3, 2009 at 02:28 PM ·

He does do vibrato in both positions.  No, his vibrato in 1st wiht 4th finger is still scratachy.  He also holds his violin with it resting ON his left thumb.  He switched it to that position when he started vibrato because he couldn't do vibrato with his thumb next to the neck.  On the now rare occasion he plays 4th finger without thinking about it, he plays it fine.  We are trying to get him to relax when playing. 

I will look at the things mentioned so far when he practices and see what I can see. 

His teacher was actually holding his bow hand while he bowed yesterday and said she could feel his bow hand tensing up whenever he played 4th finger.  She also said that if he was tensing in one place he was tensing other places as well.  She gave him some fingerboard exercises to loosen up his 4th finger.

July 3, 2009 at 03:07 PM ·

"He also holds his violin with it resting ON his left thumb."

If this is what's going in first position, there's your culprit.  

As I mentioned, this fourth finger problem is common at his stage.  They're learning vibrato, shifting, &c. often for the first time, and the thumb postion too often goes under the neck.  This is a small way to cheat and give the fingers extra length, making some things like vibrato seemingly more achievable in first position.  But in the end it is compromising the tendons that lead down and away from the wrist.  As well think of shrugging both shoulders tightly and trying to move your neck.  You can't do it easily until you drop and release them.  Placement opposite the second finger F natural aligns this tendon, and everything falls smoothly into place. 

Some things in Auer's treatise on playing are, indeed, out-of-date.  However, his thumb placement/positon ideas are still spot-on.

The relaxation excerices will only be useful if you address this first.


July 3, 2009 at 02:54 PM ·

July 12, 2009 at 01:13 PM ·

We have tried changing the thumb position and that results in more fingers screaching.

He has it in his head that his 4th finger is a lot weaker so he tries to push the string through the fingerboard in 1st position.  When we remind him he doesn't need to put so much pressure on it he barely touches it.

Still stuck, still working on it.

July 12, 2009 at 09:43 PM ·

Try ask the child what he thinks sounds pretty, and if possible - play for him what it should sound like.

July 12, 2009 at 09:59 PM ·

He knows what it should sound like.  He's been playing 4th finger fine until mid-June.

July 12, 2009 at 11:45 PM ·

Does he enjoy playing?

July 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM ·

Very much!  His goal is full-time priciple violinist.

September 26, 2009 at 01:23 PM ·


After 3 months of work he finally got his 4th finger back this past Sunday (9/20).  Orchestra started back on the 14th with some 4th finger notes, he was shifting to 3rd position in order to play them.  Finally, on Sunday, I decided to try bribing him with a week off from school (we homeschool so he'll still have the same amount of school it will just take longer to complete) and $10 if he could get his 4th finger back.  He did it, except for vibrato but we're working on that.  He was so happy to be able to play with his 4th finger again.

September 26, 2009 at 02:50 PM ·

The best study I know for finger independence is Schradiek No 1. I use it to start every practice session. For a real killer, my teacher gave me Kreuzer 9 - but using 2434 all the way through.

From what you say, orchestra seems to be the factor that's stopping him - is it that the other members don't use 4th finger and he wants to be like them - or are they getting fingerings dictated to them?


September 26, 2009 at 03:28 PM ·

Can you tell me more about Shradieck No. 1?  Where can I find it?

Actually, I think orchestra motivated him.  That was when he found a way around the 4th finger problem by shifting so he would be able to play it.

September 26, 2009 at 03:48 PM ·,_Henry)

Book 1,2, and 3 are here, for free.

September 26, 2009 at 03:51 PM ·

Excellent !  Love the price !!!  Thank You !!!!!


September 26, 2009 at 06:49 PM ·

 Thanks for the link, Anne Horvath!

September 26, 2009 at 07:08 PM ·

My former teacher and friend to Anne, Javier Pinell, says that Shradieck is his hero!  I work on book one and two.

Thanks Anne!  If I only knew of this link two years ago I could have saved a whole $9.98! LOL! ;)

September 26, 2009 at 09:02 PM ·

It looks innocent to tell this but just be sure he isn't hidding anything like "pain in the 4th finger or such" from you or from his teacher...   Perhaps it hurts when he uses his 4th??? (but perhaps not too :)


September 27, 2009 at 03:42 AM ·

It's important to balance the hand toward the third finger rather than the first. In this way, the reach with the fourth finger remaining curved is easier. Our hands are designed to stretch back much more easily  with the first finger than to stretch forward with the fourth finger. A common problem that causes difficulty with the fourth finger is pushing the wrist outward and jutting forward with the fourth finger such that it is streched out straight.This happens a lot with players who are double-jointed. Try turning the hand  and the elbow a little to bring the third and fourth fingers closer to the string so they can reach their targets with little or no stretching.  Allow the first finger as needed to learn to stretch backwards while retaining the curve in the third and fourth fingers. This may be of help:


September 27, 2009 at 07:31 PM ·

Ronald, the video does not balance the hand the way you described in your post, or am I misunderstanding you?  He even tells the student to slide the thumb back under the instrument to reach with the fourth finger.  I would think that a balanced hand would keep the thumb further forward.  Could you explain this better? 

September 29, 2009 at 08:15 AM ·

I am sorry for any confusion. If one rests one's hand by one's side and casually picks it up, more than likely the thumb will  be resting opposite the first finger or perhaps a little towards the second finger. When bringing the elbow around or turning the wrist, the thumb may come under the neck some or lean back, it's a function of the swinging in the elbow- if you look closely, you'll see that very thing happening at :23 seconds into the first video. At :27 seconds into the video, the angle of the first (index) finger is back some. The part of the finger from the base knuckle to the middle joint is leaned back but is also in a straight line with the back of the hand and the forearm. This fits with the idea that when you favor balancing towards your middle fingers, it becomes easier to reach the fourth finger and the first finger is inclined to lean back.

             At about 2:15 in the video  the point is made about balancing the hand towards the two middle fingers which includes the third finger. Some teachers say to balance towards the third rather than both middle fingers but the idea is basically the same.

         I realize there are different schools of thought on where the thumb should be placed and how it finds its balance. The video makes the point that people with shorter hands/fingers will have their thumb more under, but I have seen people keep their thumbs forward and not under as well. I think the key is to aim for balance towards the third or middle fingers and  whereever the thumb finds itself without grabbing or tension or being stuck is fine. Gerald Fischbach used to say "the rule of thumb is that there is no rule of thumb".

September 30, 2009 at 10:28 AM ·

Schradieck, Book 1, is like the violin's version of Hannon. It's great for building left hand finger abilities.

In my opionion, all students should be studying Kreutzer and Schradieck as soon as feasible. A bit of a warning though - you can start to hate violin really easily while practicing Schradieck book 1. It isn't for the faint of heart =).

September 30, 2009 at 10:48 AM ·

That's why I don't prescribe it, at least not more than a pinch at a time.  I'm not one for building hate for one's instrument of passion. 

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