Any physical limitations on your playing?

July 9, 2010 at 03:59 PM ·

Let me begin by saying that I'm an adult beginner (60 years old), learning to play the violin for my own enjoyment -- with no intention of joining an orchestra, becoming a concert performer or getting into highly technical pieces.  When I began taking violin lessons (last month), I knew that because of arthritis and some old injuries there might be certain techniques that would be challenging, to say the least.  I've already hit a wall.

When my teacher introduced using the 4th finger, I knew it wasn't going to be easy.  My hands are small, my 4th finger seems short even in proportion to the size of the rest of my hand, and it's also a bit crooked.  When I use my 4th finger, I can't keep the rest of my hand in 1st position -- it just doesn't stretch that far.  But I've been trying.  How in the world do KIDS do it with their tiny little hands??!!!

Any time my 4th finger is involved, my entire hand goes absolutely rigid.  It might as well be carved out of wood.  In addition, the tension goes all the way up my arm, and I can feel a muscle spasm in the middle of my chest.  I can't even breathe normally while this is going on.  And as soon as I can make myself relax (stopping playing), my hand aches severely for several minutes.  Yesterday my hand was in such pain that I sat there with tears in my eyes while I waited for it to subside.  We're not talking Paganini here, folks -- the pieces I'm working on are little one- and two-line ditties that I imagine your average ten-year-old could rip right through.  I've asked my teacher for suggestions on overcoming this tension, but she really hasn't been able to provide any helpful advice.

It's very discouraging to feel so defeated this early in my studies.  I know I can get around the problem for a while, simply by using the next open string (e.g., open A string, as opposed to 4th finger on the D string).  I also know that this will put anything outside of 1st position out of my reach (figuratively and literally).

I've seen references to a course of study (I can't remember the name right now, but I'll search it later) that addresses relaxation problems.  Various folks posting on this board have mentioned there being access to it through YouTube.  My problem with this is that we're on dial-up Internet access, and even a clip of a few minutes' duration can take well over an hour to download.

I guess my main question right now is, have any of you found some supposedly simple technique that had you totally bumfuzzled?  Were you eventually able to overcome it, or have you had to modify your playing to accommodate not being able to do it? 

Replies (23)

July 9, 2010 at 04:16 PM ·

hi there,

I think I would start with a trip to the doctor and then one to a sports medicine specialist.  Perhaps they could devise some non-violin exercises that will loosen the finger and give you more reach. 


July 9, 2010 at 04:22 PM ·

Hi! I read about your situation and I understand your problem. I have a suggestion. Are you playing on a full size violin (4/4)? Why don't you try a smaller violin, say a 7/8? Children play on smaller violins, that's how they do it! I learned on a full size violin and it wasn't easy at all. A full size violin that is a standard size, in my opinion, the measurements are based on men. It seems that way to me. I found out recently that my violin was just too big for me and that had a great deal to do with the problems I was having. I got a new violin. It's a 4/4 but standard size, whereas my last violin was longer than "standard". In other words, it was a violin suitable for a tall man, not a small woman! For years I had that 4th finger problem. I don't have it anymore. I was able to correct my technique instead of compensating for an ill-fitting violin. My suggestion would be, get a smaller violin. At your age, you need that.

July 9, 2010 at 05:00 PM ·

Possibly get a smaller fiddle.

Or consider this. I don't know how applicable it is to you. I have finger problems. Stiffness. Difficulty in stretching. Example: On the A string, first position, 2nd finger C natural, third finger D natural. That's a stretch to keep the 2nd finger in place and play that D in tune.

But I look at it from this point of view:
I can have difficulty touching my toes but a couple of weeks gently stretching and I can make my way to my feet and do it again. So it is with the fingers. I'm accepting my poor tuning but gradually  with patience and perseverance are loosening up, my reach and stretch are improving.

July 9, 2010 at 05:20 PM ·

Hey, it certainly wouldn't hurt to do some stretching! That helped me a lot too.

July 9, 2010 at 06:02 PM ·

 I agree with Lisa about the smaller violin, will be a big help! Also the stretching exercises perhaps also away from the violin, just gentle stretching, don't push past your comfort level much, only just reach it, gently go into it for a second, rest... do 5 minutes spurts every 2 hours or so during your day

July 9, 2010 at 06:06 PM ·

I am small, with really small hands, and I may be developing arthritis in my hands.  Even on my 3/4 violin, I cannot reach the fourth finger with the first finger down.  There just isn't enough hand there. 

So I don't play the fourth finger with the first finger down.  It's not proper technique, but that's life.  I am also an adult beginner, and I am not headed for Carnegie either.  I just like playing.  I suppose if I were to move to a 1/2 size violin, it might work, but I really don't want to give up the sound of the 3/4. 

Picking up the first finger, though, requires losing the hand frame - it's really a mini-shift.  In some circumstances, my teacher has figured out that a proper shift to second or third position has solved the problem.  If you are not already shifting (relatively new for me), you may want to ask your teacher to help you learn this a little sooner to solve the hand size problem.

You shouldn't play in pain.  The 4/4 violin I started with was clearly too big, and started doing real damage to my right shoulder.  If it hurts to play the size you are currently playing, please consider dropping down a size.  Moving from a 7/8 to a 3/4 really helped minimize the pain in my hands.

Good luck. It is so much fun to learn that it is worth finding a solution to the problem that keeps you learning.


July 9, 2010 at 06:20 PM ·

Hi Marsha,

It could be that the pain comes from your muscles, protesting against you asking them to do things that they are not used to. Probably every violinist has experienced this, and watched it go away again as they became better trained. Your teacher could probably tell you.

It could also be arthritis -- that's for your doctor to diagnose.

May your wall melt away soon!


July 9, 2010 at 07:25 PM ·

Marsha if your problem still exists after trying all the advice given in this discussion and the pain is still unbearable I would advise a switch to another instrument that do not use the fingers directly. I am thinking of the pan flute that sounds a lot like the violin, the xylophone, marimba or other instruments where you don't use the pinkies. There is another instrument  that I saw on  You tube (I forgot the name) where you wave your hand in front of an radio/electronic device, and it makes a sound almost exactly like a violin, and with a greater range.

You are a violin starter so it should not be the end all of your life.

July 9, 2010 at 07:41 PM ·

At your age and with old injuries in the mix, I would start with an orthopedic surgeon, one who specializes in hands, and get a prescription/referral from there for a physical therapist.   If you're in a major metropolitan area, you may be able to find people who know something about musicians' injuries.  A smaller instrument or narrower neck may well be a big part of the answer, but pain this severe shouldn't be ignored.

July 9, 2010 at 10:16 PM ·

You won't be prevented from learning shifting if you don't use 4th finger - in fact shifting will save you from using 4th finger. Lots of people I know change fingering to avoid 4th finger, and as you play further up the fingerboard the intervals get smaller and the stretch is therefore smaller too.

I'm another one in favour of a smaller violin - I started learning on a 4/4 and moved to a 3/4 for about 18 months when I had already been learning for that long - I just couldn't do anything around vibrato because of the pain.  The 3/4 was much easier to manage.  Give it a go before you decide that you have to give up.  Maybe you don't need to buy - You're old and smart enough now to kneecap a  seven year old on his way to lessons :)

Maybe your teacehr could introduce you to 3rd position now - there's really no need to get everything fixed in first position before you move up the fingerboard - they're all just notes.


July 15, 2010 at 03:54 PM ·

Thanks to all of you for your responses.  You folks have proven time after time that you're a very caring and helpful bunch!  :)

Just to bounce back a few responses to your responses -- I do have a 3/4 violin, in addition to my 4/4, but the fourth finger issues don't seem to be related to the size of the violin.  I think it has more to do with my hand's past history.  I'm finding that other activities (sewing, etc.) set off the same pain response as playing the violin.  Anything that produces tension in the hand will trigger it.  Not using my fourth finger is eliminating a lot of the tension.  I'm doing some gentle stretching exercises -- I hope that over time I'll get some positive results from those.

Because of some current financial restraints, a visit to an ortho specialist isn't in the picture for now.  

Dion -- other instrument choices a) don't appeal to me (Pan flute); b) take up too much room (xylophone, marimba) and are hard to transport (although I DO like the sound of a marimba); and c) would involve an additional major outlay of funds (both my violins came to me in a very financially non-stressful way).  But there's something even bigger --  for me, the violin isn't just a means of producing music.  It has a presence -- almost a "soul" -- that speaks to me in a way no other instrument does.  I don't know how to fully explain it.  But thanks for the suggestion.

I'll keep trying periodically to see if my hand will relax more while using my fourth finger.  I've heard from a few folks that they had a similar problem that eventually worked itself out.  Hope I have the same result!  :) 

July 15, 2010 at 07:09 PM ·


as Sharelle says,  if the fourth finger is unusable play the violin with three fingers!  Check out Django Reinhart.  (The Jazz guitarist).  Nothing is impossible.

However,  since the problem is not strictly limited ot the violin I would liek to suggets you try Alexander Technique.   Lots of metion of it on this site.   

The instrument Dion mentions is called the theramin. Popularized in part by Hannibal Lecter.




July 15, 2010 at 08:28 PM ·

I sincerely hope that the difficulty you are experiencing clears up.  Definitely take Mr. Brivati's advice.  

Speaking of the Theremin I thought I'd include a video clip, since it was mentioned.  This is Clara Rockmore, possibly the greatest Thereminist of all time.  She was originally a violinist (she was a pupil of Leopold Auer) but problems with her hands ended her career on the violin.  It's worth mentioning here because her sensitive interpretations are remarkable violinistic in nature.

July 16, 2010 at 10:23 AM ·

 Speaking as the un-ordained I would think that the pinkie is absolutely essential for playing classical violin. Playing jazz violin you might get away without the pinkie or an impeded pinkie. But if the pinkie pains you why bother. Django did not play in pain, that is a different ball game.

July 16, 2010 at 09:19 PM ·


I find this response very negative.   The joy of picking up the violin and playing somethignsimple and expressive for otehrs is one of the almost unequalle dpleasures in life.  It can certainly be done with three fingers.  What is the most obvious three finger exercises?  Perhaps a two ocatve scale of g major.  Anyone who can play that with good intonation and a beautiful sound is likely to experience a deep sense of satisfaction at a job well done and a challenge conquered.

What`s next?



July 17, 2010 at 04:49 PM ·

Dion -- "If the pinkie pains you why bother"[?]  If I stopped doing something just because it caused pain, I'd never get ANYTHING done!  My knees hurt when I walk -- do I stop walking, or just use a cane when I need it?

Buri -- Thanks for your encouragement.  I do, in fact, get pretty excited about a nicely-played two-octave G-Major scale.  :)  And when my intonation is right-on and my staccato is crisp on the "Allegro" (page 20, Suzuki Book 1), it totally makes my day.  I'm sure I'll be able to make an "end run" around my fourth finger deficiencies in some cases, and when I can't -- well, no one is keeping score.  Except maybe Dion.  :)  The important thing is spending blissful time with my violin.  I appreciate the fact that you "get it".   

July 17, 2010 at 05:32 PM ·

You can bring your wrist in slightly toward the instrument to help with the 4th finger.  There is nothing wrong with lifting your 1st finger to reach 4.  With your left hand, you might try (sans instrument) practicing extending 4 while 1 reaches back. 

July 18, 2010 at 01:31 PM ·

I stopped playing the violin after developing nerve damage in both hands due to diabetes. I didn't touch it for over five years.  Every time I picked it up to play, I'd end up damaging a muscle which put me out of commission for a couple of months.  One of my doctors told me never to play again.  Another one suggested I see a hand therapist and bring my violin along with me.  Nothing stopped me, ultimately, and over a period of about two years or so, I finally told myself that I don't have to live up to anyones expectations about how I sound on the violin, I don't have a teacher barking at me, I don't have an audience watching me, inf fact, I don't even have to touch the violin in front of a luthier if I don't want to.  I came to the (inner) conclusion, that if I want to spend a month trying to play one note without hurting myself, then I will spend one month and not give a damn about how I played previously, or how long would it take...etc etc.


Don't ever do anything that will HURT your hand or your arm.

NEVER play through pain, that is just simply stupid (I didn't even do that when I was in training when I was much will always learn to play the violin BETTER if you do NOT play through pain)

If you have to 'get out of' 1st position to use your fourth finger, then by all means learn how to do whatever it takes to use your 4th finger WITHOUT HURTING IT.  In other words, it doesn't matter what ***** position you have to be in to use your fourth finger without and your teacher should collaborate to figure out a solution.  If your teacher doesn't have the architectonic wherewithall to help you with this judiciously, then find a teacher who will. If you have to move out of position to use your 4th finger, then so be it.

The above advice about seeing a sports medicine specialist (bring your violin) is a good one.  No need to see an orthopoedic surgeon before that, unless he/she is a sports medicine specialist. 

I've had three surgeries on my hands and am going to have more, and that is not stopping me, and I will make it my utmost job to see that I do NOT hurt myself in the process.

My first Violin teacher survived childhood polio and learned how to play.

Her teacher shot himself through his hand while cleaning his gun, and retrained each finger one by one so he could play again. If my memory serves me correctly, he became the principle violist of the New York Philharmonic.

Remember, its a collaborative experience with the violin.  You can't force it, and the violin can't force it, but between the two of you, there is a way.


July 18, 2010 at 02:42 PM ·

Hey marsha :)

I also think it's okay to lift up your first finger. And besides, you can always use independent fingering, it's not as hard as it seems :)

July 24, 2010 at 09:48 AM ·

There's a violinist in the Phantom of the Opera orchestra in London who had to take a few months off, and have an operation on his hand (or wrist), due to a problem he had (I can't remember the exact details now). When he came back, he was unable to use his 4th finger, and had to play the whole show with just the 1st three fingers. 

Much of the music for Phantom is quite technical, so if it is possible to play Phantom with just three fingers, then I'm sure you'll be ok doing the same Marsha.

July 24, 2010 at 11:08 AM ·


you have a ghost of a chance.



July 24, 2010 at 01:03 PM ·

 Could be identified as ghost pains.

July 24, 2010 at 05:14 PM ·

Guess I should go search out a haunting melody on which to practice my three-fingered technique!

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