adults and the left elbow

October 31, 2009 at 06:31 AM ·

Hi folks

A little bit of background... I picked up the violin almost 2 yrs ago at the age of 25... I'm a fulltime performing musician (guitar) and I've always been fascinated by the violin... despite being a beginner, I know quite a lot about its history/culture, sometimes more so than some of my professional violin friends/acquaintances.... I've worked ex tensively with violinists in many styles.. and in my 2 yrs of playing the violin, i've been through many teachers, and have even purchased many books/dvds on the subject matter and I feel I've finally found the answer to the question that most people seem to ask: "Why is it important to start the violin at a young age?"

The answer is not necessarily because kids learn faster but because kids are more physically flexible... I noticed this for the first time when I noticed my toddler niece bend in all sorts of unnatural ways!!!

A lot of pro violinists take this for granted just because their bodies adapted to the unnatural ways of holding a violin.... to them the natural way is actually very unnatural for someone who didn't start young...

I'm mainly talking about the left elbow

watch this video:

the fellow talks about the "natural" position of the elbow.... that position is only natural for someone who started young, and more importantly someone who started young and learned the correct posture...

as children, our bodies are much more flexible and the only way to maintain this flexibility is to train ourselves through repetition in order to reach the desired flexibilty...

for violinists, that means having the elbow as described in the above video.... for most adults, this position is actually VERY painful.... yet this is the position that all master violinists seem to use (based on me watching hours upon hours of videos on youtube)....

this is the key to getting a good vibrato....i can force myself into that position, but it is a bit painful... but even in pain i can already notice a vast improvement in my control over the vibrato (despite tensing up)....

For a few months now , I've been doing stretching exercises, and it is no longer as painful as it was when I started out, but even then it s still very dificult for me to bring my elbow to the "natural" hanging down position as described in the video...

i think teachers really overlook this , because not one of the dozens of violinist realized this..... yet they all play with the same elbow position... they all told me the same thing, "just let your elbow hang down naturally".....

for most adults, hanging the elbow down naturally is significantly different... the elbow is much more "behind"

let's compare videos (unfortunately sometimes the camera angles don't make things as apparent)...

adult beginners watch their left hand elbows:

now violinists who started young (with the right training of course).. look how inside their elbows are compared to the adults!

again the camera angles aren't always teh best, but notice the difference in left elbows between the people who start late and the ones who start young!!!

the "natural" position is significantly different!

I just played a series of concerts with an amazing violinist last week, and had the same discussion with him, he was simply unaware of this issue, for him it was just very natural since he had been doing it since chidlhood.

now i'm not saying adults can never play the violin, but in order to reach that high level of proficiency, it seems one must be able to master this very unnatural position!!!

I found this especially criticial for reaching the higher positions...

I've been working on trying to get my elbow to stretch that way through a series of exercises... i dont know if i'll ever be able to do it, but we'll see!

what do you folks think?



Replies (31)

October 31, 2009 at 07:15 AM ·

well, I think you are on to something, and I am the far end of the spectrum; I didn't start the violin until my 50s.

I haven't done as much research into it, I just assumed I was being a real plodder because I don't have time to fit enough practice into my already full life (work full time, have pets and grandkids running about the house willy nilly, etc.).

I will look at the videos when it is not midnight; I just logged in for a while because this is the first time I had to myself all day.

Great discussion point, but you need to index your post; maybe page numbers too?
: )

October 31, 2009 at 10:57 AM ·

If I understand your point correctly, the problem is not placing your elbow in a relaxed position beneath the violin, is it? If you point the palm of your hand off somewhere to the right, then I don't see any reason this would be uncomfortable. The problem is presumably twisting (or supinating) your arm, so that your fingers can reach the string.

I'm sure this must be more difficult for some adults. In my experience females often tend to be more supple than males in this respect. However, I'm not convinced it's just a question of flexibility; I think there are other factors. It's important to have the position of the violin just right for a start. Also, the palm of the hand does not need to point too far to the left. I suspect that the adult beginners in the clips you posted could look more natural with some improvements to their technique, without making things more uncomfortable for them.

October 31, 2009 at 12:12 PM ·

Hi! I didn't watch through the video (only about 5 secs), but I can imagine the rest... :)

Try to hold your arm beside your head, elbow bent, and left hand is holding the elbow, while above your head. Let gravitation pull down your both arms, while keep your head up, not letting it drop under the weight of your arms... (Same applies to the other hand, only, that then the right hand is holding the left elbow, and not the left hand the right elbow....)

November 1, 2009 at 01:51 AM ·

 Boy, that kid playing Hora Staccato is good.

November 1, 2009 at 03:19 AM ·

>Boy, that kid playing Hora Staccato is good.

I agree, that is impressive playing; however, since this thread is about the left elbow, I'm curious why the original poster chose this video.  It seems to me, his left elbow is almost resting on his side and the violin is slanted quite a bit downwards.  He seems to make it work, but it appears quite unorthodoxed to me and not the most desirable position for playing violin.

November 1, 2009 at 10:25 AM ·

That was the old way  of  playing  derived from  Paganini 's technique . The master had his left elbow rested practically on the sternum and since he was a genius the  italian school adopted  the technique . Unfortunately it fitted only  for Paganini 's 'hyperlaxity !

November 1, 2009 at 01:27 PM ·

 What we teach to advance players should not be taught to beginners. When we teach a person how to bow, we don’t tell them to keep their elbow in one place and use their fingers and wrist to move the bow from string to string. We should be teaching beginners to move their left elbow back and forth to make it easier for the fingers to go from string to string. I teach my students to move the elbow up high when playing on the g string and then bring it back so that the fingers are flat on the fingerboard to play on the E string. The elbow needs to learn to follow the radius (arc) of the fingerboard first. This elbow movement makes it a lot easier for students to learn intonation. If you keep your elbow in one place your fingers and hand need to adapt to each string and note to play in tune, this is advance technique. If you use your elbow to move from string to string your fingers and hand only need to keep one form to stay in tune.

Watch the elbow with this guy. His hand and fingers stay still, while his elbow does all the work for the string transfers.


A lot of bad habits creep in when the elbow doesn’t move. This is the most common one I see, the wrist collapses to her left when used on the E string @ 1:30.



Hope this helps 

November 1, 2009 at 03:11 PM ·

Charles, thanks for posting the second I get where my teacher is going with the elbow movement instructions. Seeing it, or lack of it, makes it quite clear.

November 1, 2009 at 03:59 PM ·

Wow, what a great analysis.  Critical thinking is very good for a musician when well use!  I realize i'm lucky to have started at 14  (but learned everything about posture and technique at 16).  I though it was so old and still think it but to see this about left arms is striking.   I used to put my left arm too much inside because I had the bad habit to play on my nails but with correcting the finger spot that presses the string, it corrected my elbow. (so I believe it is also related with the left hand issues such as thumb posture and where you press the string on your fingers (this too is a challenge for late starters!!!)

Thanks for the videos and just by curiosity, Is 125 mark suppose to be good??? (for the first video)  Surely not 125%... Well, it is really really not my business so i won't comment on this one Bravo for the achivments of all the courageous adult beginners!  It is so challenging just to hold the two things... and how frightening to post on youtube.    and I also noticed much stifness and things in other aspects than the left arm so I think stifness is the enemy of all violinists, especially when one starts late!  Maybe we could say similar things with bow arm and... direction...  Sure it is always more easy to observe than to do, like with any physical task and everyone has things to improve!  Violin improvment is never "finish" : )

Thanks for your post!


November 1, 2009 at 05:05 PM ·

hi folks ,  just want to clear some confusion, i'm not specifically talking about where the elbow should be, though it's related...

Unfortunately, the only way to really understand this issue is to have a few violinists in the same room and split them into 2 categories:

1) people who started young and learned the "right way"

2) people who started late

What I'm specifically talking about is the "natural position" and flexibility of the left elbow...

If you started young ,and learned correctly, your elbow should be much flexible and therefore your opinions about the natural position will be biased towards what is already natural for you...

here's an analogy... let's look at gymnasts who can split their legs at a 180 degree angle... something most people especially men cannot do...

now imagine a gymnast telling you " oh it's pretty easy, all you gotta do is split your legs in this natural position"...

easy for the gymnast to say, he grew up that way, and trained from a young age, that "natural" position came to him very "naturally" so it is normal for him to consider it a "natural and relaxed" position

for violin, this is the exact same issue... especially for men, as i did notice that women seem to be slightly more flexible in general

watch the very first video i posted again:

watch it at 0:30 , he talks about the natural position of the elbow... which for him and for all violinists who started young is exactly what he talks about ....

 for most adult beginners (especially men), that position is very unnatural and quite uncomfortable.... though I ve started that I've been working on it and it's definitely getting better... still not quite there yet.

I feel this is a very overlooked issue, and every pro violinist i've spoken to never fully realized the importance until I brought it up to them... they were suprised my elbow didn't "bend that way"!

and my whole point (or at least my hypothesis) was that this elbow flexibilty is the key to really being able to play the violin at a very high level, namely playing in higher positions , being able to execute a clean and good wide and fast vibrato (that occurs often in classical music)...

This kind of thing doesn't apply to a lot of fiddle music (i'm referring to charles cook's second video, the young lady) that is often played in first position and doesn't require "classical" vibrato...


November 1, 2009 at 08:01 PM ·

I actually thought about the splits example immediately when you started this thread Dennis, but I have a slightly different opinion to you (and maybe I'm biased as I started the violin as a child). My thought and experience is, I could never get anywhere near the splits when I was a kid, even though I tried a lot, and went to gymnastic lessons regularly.

In contrast I find that the turning motion and positioning of the elbow is much easier to accomplish, and shouldn't be painful for most people, adults or children. There are loads of children on youtube with dodgy looking elbow positions, so I don't think it's exclusively a late-starting adult problem.  I'm still convinced that it's a matter of correct technique, which is a deceptively complicated thing to achieve on the violin. I'm not doubting that it's painful for you at the moment, I hope it becomes less so in the future.

November 1, 2009 at 10:37 PM ·


it does worry me when people talk about sometying being painful,  especially in term sof body positioning.    It is generallybetter  to take more time and avoid pain.  Nor am I completley inaccord with thisideal image thing.   In my case, as a peverse wexample,  I am actually quite flexible.  I can drop my right arm over my right shoulder,  put my left hand behind me at waist height and grab right wrist with my left hand and the reverse.   I stretch a huge amount everyday.  If I don`t I`m stiffer than the average person within a few days.    But,   in terms of putting the violin up i actually physically cannot do the `hanging down at 90 degrees naturally thing.` I`m not exactly sure why. IT@s probaly a combination of factors including old imjuries bu bascially I have a massive rib cage and my shoulder joint just hasn`t got the space to do that.  Tghus the hanging down is actually an extreme position for me. Thereofre  I simply adjust the position of the isntrument according to my physuique. It doesn`t make the slightest differnece to my playing.

Incidentally last time I saw Perlman he was severly hampered by his right shoulde roperation and unable to raise his bow arm for the g string.  So,  he simply rotated the violin aling its axis until it wa salmost vertical.   Very nice playing;)



November 2, 2009 at 04:20 AM ·

In the video you cited where the player alludes to the natural position at about :38 seconds, I would not describe that position as being natural. He still has pulled his arm to the right beyond where it would rest at his side. I think the elbow movement is a posture related one because what I would consider the most natural position to start with is the one where your arm is resting by your side. When you lift the arm up to the violin from this position and take care not to pull the elbow outward and to the right you will have what I would consider a neutral position from which you may have to move the elbow to the right or left depending on which string you are trying to get your fingers over to.

  In any case, a twist to the right that pulls from the rhomboid muscles in back is definitely not a good thing to do. In fact, with regard to the elbow movement, it is really more a question of away from the rib cage and towards it as opposed to a dramatic push out and to the right which is what it appears the demonstrator in the video is doing, In fact, to limit this push, many violinists let the violin move to the left so their arm does not have to come around as much and further, when they go beyond fifth position, they begin to raise the hand higher so that the bottom of the thumb clears the upper bout of the violin allowing the hand to be closer to the strings and the fingers more over top their marks.

 Finally, it has been mentioned before that no less an eminent violinist than David Nadien did not pull his arm around  so much to the right but kept the elbow back with minimum torque. Observe the following in this video:  The solo begins about 3:02



November 4, 2009 at 06:21 AM ·

It is at best comical and at worst a disinformation campaign for some guy to be standing there talking about violin posture when he is actually NOT playing the violin.  I will try to paste in a screen capture of a very famous and (imho best) current touring violinist....who certainly started at a very young age.    In general my experience suggests that one should ignore all that "if you never started before"  IS  a disinformation campaign....    Ok file upload failed but here is a link. Tom


November 4, 2009 at 01:16 PM ·

 I don't understand why the elbow needs to be so high all the time, Jenine Jansen playing does't look comfortable or healthy at all. When she plays 3rd position on E string her elbow is in the same position as it would be needed for 5th pos. on the G string.To much  constant tension for me.

To answer your question about the elbow flexibility  being the key to playing.No

I would guess it would be 90 -95 %f building of  the mind.

November 4, 2009 at 03:02 PM ·

Jansen has very long arms for a violinist and it is clear to see how she compensates for this. Her use of a shoulder rest restricts rotational motion of the violin, so she has to make all adjustments with her left arm. Adjustments for what? Adjustments to apply the "finger force vectors" into the fingerboard.

I think that far more important than the left-elbow position is the straight wrist that allows the direct "flow" of forces from the shoulder and arm into the fingers. The left elbow is adjusted to allow for this, whatever the fiddler's age at starting to play, or little progress will ever be made.

Perhaps a grain of salt with all this, because I started violin lessons at 4-1/2, after getting my first violin as a 4th birthday present, just 71 years ago, today. But in starting adults' lessons, I see no problem with those who follow instructions instead of "instinct" from day one. Those who start with a preconceived "idea" of what muscles to use, and how, start with bad habits that have to be broken.

There are so many more variables than the way one places the left elbow. It all comes down to the left hand - and what you have to do with the rest of the body (and violin accessories) to enable you to develop technique. It is a personally individual thing.


November 4, 2009 at 07:38 PM ·

just to be clear again, this  is not about what the elbow position needs to be, but what is natural....

i'm saying from wathcing people who started young, i noticed that they tended to be much more flexible than a guy like me who started late.... i've watched videos of people who started late, unfortunately, none of them are accomplished, and their elbows don't seem that flexible either..

and in that gil shaham pic, his elbow does look like it's on the "inside" ... at any rate, this is too hard to talk about, it seems that it's mcuh clearer when it get be demonstrated by a pro violinist and a beginner  like me...

as i said, i had bee ntaking lessons from different teachers and also askign different players about their opinions, they never really thought of it the way i explained it, so it seemed to me like it was something that was taken for granted

November 4, 2009 at 07:41 PM ·

Charles wrote:

To answer your question about the elbow flexibility  being the key to playing.No

I would guess it would be 90 -95 %f building of  the mind.""""


thanks for your input! nonetheless, the fact that she can bring her elbow in like that is something i cannot do or other beginners i've met cannot do, and something that every "accomplished" violinist i've ever met was able to do whether or not they're always in the position... that's the whole point i'm trying to make.

November 4, 2009 at 10:05 PM ·

I started working seriously at age 59, and never had any trouble with left elbow position, except for remembering to keep it where it should be.  A lot of it has to do with the angle of the violin.  The more you stick it straight out in front of yourself, the harder it is to get your elbow underneath.  The farther you swing it to the side, the easier it is to keep the elbow in good position, but you run out of bow arm.  A good position balances all these factors.   Good arm placement has a huge effect on intonation, IME.

November 10, 2009 at 12:11 AM ·

Yes the elbow should be out. It lines up the the rest of the hand correctly, (it does depend on what you want the hand to do), and yes for someone who is not used to the position it can be very painful.  We use to have a contest with the strongest of our friends.  I bet them that even tho they're so strong they couldn't hold the violin up correctly for more than a few seconds.  I always won the bet.  As for the Hora Staccato, that the kid played to show off.  TOO FAST.  Just because you can physically do that, doesn't mean that it is musically correct. In fact the piece doesn't make sense at all at that speed.  Afterall, it is supossed to be a dance.  Heifetz played it fast enough with a much more articulate staccato, so did other great fiddle players.  This isn't a race.  I know the kid is young, but it never is too early to teach muscianship. 

November 10, 2009 at 01:10 AM ·

Joel you're so right.  I hate when people tease musicians telling that they are "weaks" because they are emotional or artistic etc   Well, I never got this told to me of course but many guys musicians I know were slightly teased...  It makes us realize that even the little sized soloists ( Japanese per example)  must be damn strong and resistant to play the violin!   I'll always remember the story of Russel Crow and his shoulder aches from violin...   


November 10, 2009 at 01:30 AM ·

dang,  you ddn`t see me in gladiator.  (I wa s playing a grape...)

November 10, 2009 at 02:48 AM ·

not a prune?   I couldn't resist, Buri

November 10, 2009 at 03:20 AM ·

A little off-topic thing that always strikes me when watching the old videos of the really great violinists is how youthful their hands appear; fingers are slender, quick and nimble, you don't see any thickening of joints, wrinkling of skin,  or veins sticking out of aging hands. 

Heifetz has the hands of a beauty pageant winner.

January 15, 2010 at 12:44 AM ·

Maybe I'm not entirely  correct, but I think one of the biggest left arm problems with many beginners of all ages is that they want to hold the violin so they can see the music and their left fingers at the same time and this brings the violin toward "front and center."

If you hold your left hand out in front of you, palm facing your nose you will see that it is at a 90-degree angle from what you want along the violin neck.. So-- step one is to point that fiddle much more to the left to bring the palm as close to parallel to the neck as you can. Can't do it, huh?

Consider the cellist - perfect position for a parallel palm. Consider the guitarist, different position, but perfect for a parallel palm. Players of both those instruments have been know to get a decent vibrato going the very first day they tried (I know this for sure!).

So the budding violinist has to find a way to move each finger (one at a time is just fine) parallel to the fingerboard using muscles somewhere between the left fingers and the shoulder. Maximum power can be delivered by the big muscles - so it usually helps to keep joints pretty straight (like keeping the back of the wrist flat so the "energy" can get to the hand from the big muscles.

Keeping the violin parallel (side to side) to the ground is one way to make this pretty impossible. What angles will work for a particular player depend on a lot of personal factors: hand size, arm length, flexibility (which can change with age - even for those of us who were holding a fiddle at age 4).

A budding violin player, trying to find general rules for this and that will probably miss the most important things. Watching videos is fine and dandy (I give my new students 2 6-hr DVDs of violin playing) but the real things are happening inside your body, and a teacher who understands this is essential (99.44%) to get one there while you are still outside the final wooden box.


January 20, 2010 at 11:57 PM ·

Well, Yehudi Menuhin had a pretty stretched elbow and he was far from beeing a girl lol ; )  Don't forget to consider the width of the rib cage (thorax). With narrower thorax, it looks as if you could stretch further under the violin but it also as disavantages as feeling as if your arms miss place and less secure hold that with wide and thick thorax/shoulders. 


January 21, 2010 at 03:10 AM ·


Menuhin made a great deal of moving the elbow both to the right and left.   In particular, when playing on the e string he liked to flatten the fingers moving his elbow quite far to the left.



January 21, 2010 at 03:42 AM ·

This is what you can do with yoga or akido too I suppose ; )


January 21, 2010 at 02:00 PM ·

Echoing Anne-Marie.



January 25, 2010 at 07:30 AM ·

thanks for your replies!

February 1, 2010 at 09:36 PM ·

Absolutely what Mr. Brivati said is true.  The most "natural" position for your elbow is a relaxed straight line down the back of your hand through the wrist.  The elbow position should relate to the string your playing on.  In all honesty, the left elbow's function in violin playing is to stay out of your way mainly.  You don't want it resting on the side of your body because that means your violin is probably pointing at the floor, you don't want it making shifts difficult by interfering with your wrist.  If you don't regard the position of your elbow you might end up playing with a crooked wrist and that's never productive.  The guy in the video says that it isn't important to bring your elbow way under to play and that's true to an extent, but you do need to bring it under a little in order to comfortably play on the G string and in the higher positions, especially if you have a small hand.

The 13 year old play Hora Staccato is very talented, it's true.  I suspect his teacher is after him for letting is violin hang down like that though.  It doesn't appear to be hurting his playing in that video but I don't think that habit is helping him either.  In the Hilary Hahn video she's not holding her violin very high, but she's smaller and her elbow is not in her way.

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