What about 'the thumb' when playing with NO rest/sponge?

February 26, 2011 at 01:58 AM ·

Hello, I have searched through the archives and could not get enough information on this so I had to ask:

as I have recently (just in the last couple of weeks) learnt to play without a shoulder rest, and I use no support of any kind, not even a sponge, I now rely totally on the left hand to hold the violin obviously.  My neck is normal, not short I'd say and I do have a gap between the body of the violin and my shoulder so there is never a time where my shoulder will keep the violin level, my hand always has to hold the violin, which is fine, I am now used to this and I even forget I am not using any support now so used I am to it :)

I have been watching some different players on youtube and most of them seem to play with the thumb high up next to the neck of the violin most of the time, up to approximately 4th position until when the thumb will then work its way under the neck for higher position playing.  But then it depends as well, sometimes they are playing notes quite high up and their thumb is STILL sticking right up by the side of the neck!

I don't play many pieces yet purely because I am not an advanced violinst and also because I am not that proficient without a shoulder rest yet, but I played Meditation last week without a shoulder rest and whilst I usually keep my thumb high up next to the neck of the violin for most things, with Meditation I instinctively placed the thumb UNDER the neck of the violin and it stayed there throughout the piece.  I managed to play the piece quite well and had no problem with all of the shifts and vibrato too.  I really don't think I could have played it so well if I had the thumb high up next to the neck of the violin.....

so....does it matter where my thumb is?  am I thinking and worrying about this too much? am I 'analyzing it' too much? shall I just 'relax' and let my thumb 'do its own thing' and it will instinctively do what it wants to do or do I have to 'teach it' the right thing?

for example:  I know there are different ways of shifting up and down the fingerboard, some people when down-shifting will move the thumb first, some will move thumb and hand together.  I move thumb and hand together as this is what I was advised to do and now have got used to.  So maybe there is here as well different things/schools of thought about the thumb having to be high up by neck or under or let it do what it wants?

Thank you in advance for your kind contributions, I really appreciate it.

Replies (36)

February 26, 2011 at 08:17 AM ·


>so....does it matter where my thumb is?  am I thinking and worrying about this too much? am I 'analyzing it' too much? shall I just 'relax' and let my thumb 'do its own thing' and it will instinctively do what it wants to do or do I have to 'teach it' the right thing?

This is probably true.  However , take care to ensure that the thumb hand and arm fucntion as one unit on upward shifts. Think of `intonation` of the elbow....

You may find it useful to move the violin to the left and up a little on upwward sift. This is a common technique among restls splayers.




February 26, 2011 at 12:54 PM ·

 Thank you very much Buri, I'll just repeat what I think you said just to make sure I got it right:

yes, I am 'worrying' about the thumb too much and generally I should just 'relax' and let it do what instinctively 'it wants to do'....and your advice is that on upward shifts I should keep thumb/hand/elbow moving as a unit and I may find it useful (again on upward shifts) to slightly move the violin to the left and upwards.

Did I read it right? :)


February 26, 2011 at 03:19 PM ·

Clayton Haslop is a believer in freedom of the left thumb and playing without a shoulder rest. You can find him on Google.com and even get on his email list. He studied with Milstein.

If you can maintain the vibrato you want, and not lock your thumb against the neck you are well on your way to this change in playing style that you have just begun. It is also, now, very important that you have just the right chinrest to fit YOU! Good luck with that!

The limitations of your own body dimensions and your natural nerve and muscle behaviors will determine what you do with your arms, elbows, fingers and thumb when playing optimally. However other people may do it, you are first of all at the mercy of your own body.


February 26, 2011 at 04:21 PM ·

Roger Rich aka Ruggerio Ricci advises the thumb should be high, in other words, the kneck going almost to the point where the thumb and first finger join. See his Glissando book to view photos and text on this.

I find this works for me.

February 26, 2011 at 05:12 PM ·

 Thank you Andrew, very interesting, and yes, I have found the chin rest which works for me, the Flesch, same as Anne Sophie Mutter, I really need the violin to be just like she places it to play well with no support....

Peter, thanks for that too, however there are times (depending on what I play) that when I have a high thumb and like you said, so high that the neck is almost touching the point where thumb and index finger meet that I get 'stuck' in my playing and can't smoothly go into the next passage of music that I am supposed to play.....of course this may be only 'me' that I am still VERY inexperienced with 'shoulder rest-less' playing (it's only been 2 weeks and prior to that I played 4 years with a rest), I probably ought to give myself time (ie months) before I can really tell whether its my inexperience or my body 'limitation' like Andrew was mentioning.

February 26, 2011 at 05:32 PM ·


I played for 30 years without shoulder rests. Then I found the right chinrest for me (an Original Stuber (made in Germany - not the new-fangled Asian-made ones) and by adding a shoulder rest I could further stabiize the violin for better vibrato. I played with shoulder rests (different ones) for the next 40 years. Now, for the past year I've become "rest-less."

It's changes in my body that have dictated what works best for me. I've had to change my vibrato style (again) to go restless - but also to accommodate to nerve and muscle changes.

I was taught to drop the violin deep into the "thumb crotch" when sliding up to 3rd position and then to gradually move out of the crotch when going up or down from there. I think that what one is trying to do is to change finger "extensions" and hand angles so that the finger spacing on the strings feels much the same wherever you are on the fingerboard. I don't think this feeling comes fast - but over years of practice. However, how one does this depends on hand size - and I have very big hands (for a violinist, anyway). When I was giving my adult son some violin lessons, I noticed how big his hands looked on the violin - so we compared hands sizes - mine are bigger.


February 26, 2011 at 08:51 PM ·

Ricci probably has an exceptional left hand in terms of anatomy. 

You would think violinists would be quoting lots from the book "The Physiology of Violin Playing" but, no, its out of print and bet hardly anyone knows it even exists.

February 26, 2011 at 08:54 PM ·

 Frank, any idea where one would find this book then? (I am UK based by the way)

February 26, 2011 at 09:00 PM ·

A quick Google search for "The Physiology of Violin Playing" brought up several books with that title, by different authors. Who is the author you have in mind?

February 27, 2011 at 03:13 AM ·

Szende and Nemessuri @ 1971.  Foreword by Menuhin and preface by Paul Rolland.   I don't know where you can get the book at a reasonable price and while its interesting in some places its hardly profound.  There is a section MOVEMENTS AND ROLE OF THE THUMB IN VIOLIN PLAYING starting on page 62 which i will summarize in a later post. 

February 27, 2011 at 08:45 AM ·

I was taught (and teach) a thumb position placed exactly between the first and second finger where the second finger is a whole tone above the first finger (F# on the D string).  The position of the thumb is like you were hitching a lift (not pointing up to the ceiling) - although this isn't the best description to use for young kids these days!  A lot of violinists have this thumb position naturally, Perlman for example.  Yes, the side of the thumb supports the violin to a certain extent, but the type of chin rest you use is very important.  It has to have a lip in order to secure the instrument on the collar bone.  Of course this is just one way of playing without a shoulder rest.  Hope that helps. 

February 27, 2011 at 06:13 PM ·

 hello jo, 

i was curious about how my kid holds the violin neck now so i taped her going up and down the e string this morning for your reference. one thing i have noticed, not sure if it is discussed already in this thread, is that, roughly speaking, on the e string, from 1st to 3rd position, the thumb touches the neck on this side, and the base of her index finger also touches the other side of the neck.  

so the thumb and index finger together, in a loose v shape,  help to wedge the neck in the middle.  i don't get the feeling that the contacts are pressured and tight.  in some sections of the clip this contact with the index finger base can be appreciated more, since my taping skill is limited, haha.

then when she goes further up on the e string, the thumb slides more and more under the base of the violin neck for support.

i think into and out of 5th position--perhaps other points for other people-- there is this transition zone where neck support is between thumb/index finger or thumb alone.  so the balance and support has a dynamic side to it at certain shifting zones.

if you look into a mirror, you may see that you may be doing it already intuitively.  i am not suggesting in any way what she is doing on her own is correct or recommended, but i just want to break it down into pieces for your consideration.

on the other hand, i did not tape the g string up and down, but looking at the way she plays, it seems to be different from the e string hold.  even at 1st to 3rd position, there is less index finger input and more reliance on the thumb.  it kinda makes sense, arm angle and hand shape wise. in addn, neck holds on a string and d string will be somewhere in the middle.  know what i mean?


btw, i also wonder if different hand sizes or proportions among the fingers naturally seek out different comfort zones in neck hold methods/styles.  my kid's hand size, from tip of middle finger to palmer crease where hand and forearm meets, is 19 cm.


February 27, 2011 at 08:19 PM ·

 @Frank, see what you mean about "reasonably priced."  Cheapest I found it was $140 US plus international shipping, BUT I can get a copy through my uni. library--thanks for the suggestion, and thank goodness for interlibrary loans!

February 27, 2011 at 08:38 PM ·


Personally I don't like the way your daughter uses her thumb and the whole position of the left hand looks wrong. Of course its not down to me and none of my business, but if I were teaching her I would want to change that. It might help with intonation problems as well.

Just a thought. Hope you don't mind, and perhaps don't mention it to her just yet anyway.

February 27, 2011 at 09:04 PM ·

 why peter

February 27, 2011 at 10:10 PM ·

 peter, don't be a candid gentleman!:)  do tell. or pm me.  

there is perhaps one school that subscribe to the wisdom that whatever the kid learns he/she will get from the teacher.  for the most part yes, but learning comes from so many other angles. 

not sure if you know but my kid plays golf and through out the years her swings and techniques have changed along her physical and mental growth.  everyday we change things on her swing and she is used to change.  

at 3, she could do this and that; at 4 she could do a little differently.  i remember when she was about 4, one teacher suggested her to swing in a way like a textbook.  it is all good but the textbook picture depicted a grown man.

 if my kid learned to swing like the grown man at 4,  she would have a hard time.  it might look good, but the swing won't work because it was not built on her physiology.  so as much as we always kept that textbook pic in mind, we had to develop things that she could handle based on a swing of her liking.  she is 10 now, and looking back, i can see a gradual, natural pull toward that textbook swing which was the seed and it took time to germinate.

but, with violin, things may be different because i don't have the expertise to really judge when keeping some habits is ok and when they can be harmful down the line.  with changes in golf, we can see and measure immediately the outcome.  with violin, it can be much more subtle...

February 27, 2011 at 10:55 PM ·

 Thank you Al for that video, I think tomorrow evening I might ask my son to help me and I can perhaps video my thumb for you all to see ;) though I am far from being as good as you daughter with the violin LOL

I think it will help me as well as I still don't really know what 'I' do with my thumb LOL

John, you made me 'giggle' ;) thanks :)

I found a video of Clayton Haslop actually on youtube aimed at total beginners explaining how to hold the violin and he was showing how to hold the violin and how to shift, here it is actually, see what he says about the thumb (from 6:12)



February 28, 2011 at 08:43 AM ·


Re the video clip of CH.

It obviously works for him but be careful, the lifting of the left shoulder and the left hand position may cause problems for some people. (I have no idea how he sounds).

The best examples of very relaxed and good habits are shown by two violinists in particular, David Oistrakh and Nathan Milstein. They managed to play wonderfully into old age (D O died at 69 but was playing wonderfully still and I heard Milstein live when he was 82)

PS The bow hold demonstrated in your video clip "may" be similar to Milstein's who advocated the Russian school of bowing.

By the way, Milstein does not play with a straight bow - particularly at the point - but it's a non straight bow the right way. Look at his angle. The Paganini 5th Caprice on Youtube is a good example. No one has bettered this playing and few have even equalled it, in my opinion.

February 28, 2011 at 10:02 AM ·

Peter, I understand CH has studied with Milstein for 3 years. (that explains why the bow hold he shows is like Milstein's bow hold...)

also he does not say in the video that you should raise the shoulder at all does he? whether he may raise it or not it's a different matter of course, but he does not tell you to do so nor advises you.  He talks about the thumb and shows you about the thumb and that's what I was talking about too when I referred to his video, the thumb. 

I keep my shoulder well down and relaxed anyway when I play.  Still, it is the thumb I was interested in......but thank you for remind us about the importance of a relaxed shoulder as yes, I think overall we should keep it down and relaxed :)

About the way he shows of using the thumb, I quite like it, it feels good :) I think I was instinctively doing this most of the times anway... I will try to stick to this only for a few days with different things and music and vibrato and will see how I get on with it.

February 28, 2011 at 11:28 AM ·

Hi John, yes I did see his shoulder moving in the video, I was just saying that I was not interested in his shoulder LOL I was interested in what he did with the 'thumb'

and no, I don't use any support for the violin not because of an 'image' thing I am trying to pursue but because that is what I am most comfortable with now that I have learnt to hold the violin this way.  I never really knew how to hold the violin without support until I read Raphael Klayman's web-page and followed his instructions then I had a 'light-bulb moment' and all of a sudden I could hold the violin well balanced on my collarbone like I never could before! since that day nothing feels better/more comfortable then having nothing.  The instant I put a pad/sponge or anything else in between me and the violin I reject it straight away, I don't like it at all, it's like I have an allergic reaction LOL

and now when I play with no rest/sponge it does not even feel like have no rest, I don't even feel like my left hand is holding the violin, I forget all about it most of the time funny enough and only remember when some fast tricky shift comes along as of course I have not mastered these yet as it's only been days I have done 'the switch'.

Don't know if you remember but when I tried in the past to go 'rest-less' I observed that my left bicep was getting 'sore' and it felt like I lifted weights at the gym! well, I don't even feel that anymore! 

My physique is well suited to have no support at all, I don't have to strain anywhere, my neck can stay nice and straight, my shoulder does not lift and stays nice and relaxed.  I will send you a video of me playing with no rest John :) just turn the sound off as I am not that good LOL

February 28, 2011 at 11:42 AM ·

 Hi Jo, regarding the way you are slipping your thumb under for extra support of the violin, I don't see anything wrong with that.  In fact my teacher deliberately changed my thumb position when I first started with her.  It was alongside the neck sticking up as seems to be the common type of hold, and she brought it right down and under the neck. In doing so there is a wide gap between the index finger and the fingerboard, so I had to curl my fingers a little more and bring the hand in.  It took quite some time for me to learn to keep it there but now that it is I have advantages in reaching higher positions quickly on the low strings.  In first position the thumb sticks out of the neck a little and rests against the base of the scroll, and it is a good 'stopping' reference for sliding back to first position. Vibrato, I am still learning but it is more of a sideways movement than a back and forth movement but seems to be happening the way I am being taught. And I guess if I ever manage to ditch the SR, then my thumb support is already there.  I hope that's how it will work for you anyway.  

Cheers Millie

February 28, 2011 at 12:52 PM ·


i must tell you that when she started, at 3 something, with me taking her to lessons, with a combined musical iq of a 3 yo, we were quite overwhelmed by the whole thing, not unlike these days:).  we had paid all the attention to the top plate side of the violin and never gave a second thought to the back plate side.

i believe sr came with the violin so it was just that.  i am not sure but i felt that the location of the sr was never all the way up into the clavicle area, but lower on the chest, like what she has demonstrated recently in that paint video.  it is still possible that the sr did indeed touches the shoulder section of the clavicle since the sr did cross in the shoulder area.  in other words, the sr never ran parallel to the clavicle, but at an angle so they may intersect.

perhaps someone with access to a whole class of beginners can run through an experiment/survey.

at the very first class, ask all students to put the violin up without sr.  then fit the sr to the best possible way and ask all students to now hold the violin with the sr.  then ask which way is preferred, with no leading suggestions from the teacher.

my hypothesis is that most of them would prefer sr at the very beginning because it is more "comfortable" and "secure". 

i wish in the mystical world of violin more things like what i have suggested get evaluated and published.  

February 28, 2011 at 09:17 PM ·

Re: Haslop video

His standard use of thumb is not relaxed (requires least muscular effort).  Its the usual retracted position (shaped like the end of a fork) desiged to create a shelf for the neck to rest on.  Try it without the violin.  With your palm facing you, and fingers slightly curled,  put the thumb in retracted position and then move your fingers.  Moving the fingers is difficult.  Now bend the thumb the other way and try moving your fingers.  It is much easier. 

Considering he advocates using the shoulder (utilizing padding if needed) for supporting the violin why does he need such a tension filled use of thumb in the lower positions?    Its entirely confused and he was taught from one of the 'old masters'?  At least the pro-SR gang presents a coherent (if unfortunately entirely motivated by business matters) argument.  The 'old masters' theme is filled with hodge podge.

February 28, 2011 at 09:53 PM ·

 I'm only a mere beginner but tonight I have played with the thumb the way Clayton shows and I got on ok with it, but that was only tonight.....who knows in the next 30 odd years I will be playing what I will do.....

when I keep the thumb opened up as you explain it Frank, you are right, the fingers feel more loose/relaxed but then sometimes the neck of the violin falls right down into the gap between my thumb and index finger while I do vibrato and then if I have to shift up quickly to a higher position I am 'crippled' and can't do it! whilst if I keep the thumb the way shown by Clayton I can do vibrato and be ready to shift up quickly if needed....as I don't get the neck stuck deep into the hollows....

I guess only time and experience will give me the answer....gotta be patient here, this thread is showing me what I was expecting to see: there's a different pudding for a each person out there :)

March 1, 2011 at 03:42 AM ·


the statement `CH` advocates using the shoulder to support the violin` is utterly false.  Check his blogs. He states categorically and repeatedly the violin is supported by the left hand.



March 1, 2011 at 03:58 AM ·

 i think even if ch advocates using the big toe to hold the violin,  there is still room for respect for someone of his statue.

i think a little caning from singapore will clarify a lot of things. :)

March 1, 2011 at 04:30 AM ·

I don't think Mr. Haslop was implying that the shoulder needs to be raised to provide support (although perhaps he should have said "collar bone" instead)...

March 1, 2011 at 09:04 AM ·

I did not intend to infer that MrC had suggested raising the left shoulder, its just that in the clip Jo reffered to, he did at moments. This does not mean he normally would do it - people do strange things on videos!  (Like playing topless and tapeless ...)

Interesting that he studied with Milstein.

I think the statement that one may be an observer is an interesting one, as that is a sensible position to be in. We learn from observation, we apply it, and sometimes through enhanced listening, we may get to be better or even good! (wink)

March 1, 2011 at 06:12 PM ·

Check his blogs. He states categorically and repeatedly the violin is supported by the left hand.

The reference in question is a Youtube video, not a blog.   In that video, he visually demonstrates how a pad can be bound to the back of the violin.  In contrast,  another 'left hand support' advocate in William Primrose specifically argues against additional support in the form of padding in that it leads to the same problem of raising the shoulder.  What is the point of a pad if you hold it up by the left hand?

March 1, 2011 at 06:35 PM ·

Here is another viewpoint on 'Holding the Violin' from Ricci's Glissando book:  "The concept of "holding" the violin is wrong from the start.  The violin should not be "held" but rather should rest on the outside of the shoulder and lie in the palm of the hand.  The shoulder should be in its natural position and should not be raised because this immediately creates tension.  Moreover, the angle of the violin should be sloping downwards"

lol.  Just another theory that completely ignore anatomical differences in students.

March 1, 2011 at 06:38 PM ·

 Jo, here my own experience on this matter. As a child and teenager I played with shoulder rest and had the neck of the violin rather deep into the V between thumb and index finger. As an adult, after a long hiatus I resumed playing the violin, and decided to go without shoulder rest. Instinctively I placed my thumb much more under the neck, to support the violin better, exactly as your own experience. I would advise you to continue as you feel most comfortable. Now for the continuation of my story: the more and more I developed my playing (I now play much better than I played as a teenager) I find that the thumb has crept up again, but this has been an automatic process over the months and years. As a matter of fact I don't worry anymore about the thumb at all. Actually it does help to remember from time to time to not keep it too far behind, i.e., keep it more in line with your second finger rather than with your first finger, but that is another matter. Finally about the index finger touching the neck by the base joint: in my experience it better does when you are doing fast work, it better doesn't when you are doing slower melodic work (long vibrato notes). But again that was more pronounced with me in the beginning, when I started without shoulder rest. After many months, years, I notice, again automatically, that my index base joint now often also, lightly, touches even when playing the long melodic notes. I would not worry about it and just act as you feel it works best.

March 1, 2011 at 06:56 PM ·

Frank...for one thing, the pad gives the instrument a bit of 'lift...' which then necessitates less of a lift from the left hand.  

Not to start another SR/non-SR argument, but that's a big selling point, I think.

March 1, 2011 at 07:19 PM ·

 Jean, what you say makes perfect sense to me.

I found that if I don't worry about the thumb it instinctively do what it wants to do and to be honest it does do mostly what Clayton shows in the video, which is half underneath the neck and half next to it, that 'v' shape that Clayton talks about.  It works absolutely fine for me, it does not tense up my fingers, I can do a nice vibrato and I quickly move under the neck completely when going to higher positions.

My index finger just like you Jean is lightly touching when I play fast and shift up and down fast and does actually just lightly touch when I even do vibrato, but very lightly, I can move it away if I want to and if needed in even bigger vibrato pieces.  I am not that advanced yet to do octaves and complicated chords and sixths and thirds yet, apart from SLOW scales in sixths and thirds and for these my thumb comes more under the neck I noticed.

The thumb with me does tend to be more opposite my second finger or in between my first and second anyway. 


March 4, 2011 at 04:59 AM ·

Al, I don't see a real problem with your daughter's thumb position. Her hands seems very loose and though there is a tendency for her hand to lean back which causes the wrist to come close to the underside of the neck of the violin  ( in the lower positions) and this position is one not usually advocated as the basic position  for the hand in relation to the forearm  but instead that they should be roughly in a straight line I think that time will tell as she grows and her physiology changes  if this hand "position" will become a problem.

  Regarding Haslop's thumb and index finger position, I  don't see a problem with what he has stated as long as the thumb is relaxed. It tends to find its way if one is not gripping with it. In teaching students the issue has always been for me finding the right balance between the violin resting on the collarbone and the chin/jaw and neck being loose and the neck of the violin resting between the thumb and the index finger such that the thumb does not try to grab and lock the violin's position. As long as I get that balance ( and it is a movable one because of the nature of shifting and crossing from one string to another, etc.) right whether or not  the thumb "positions" itself high or low, inward or outward, straight or bent is not significant.

March 4, 2011 at 12:13 PM ·

 thanks ron for the comment.  in fact, that was the first thing her teacher commented on after the switch.  we have been working on it...we have been trying to work on it:)

March 5, 2011 at 12:08 PM ·

hey :)

i've been playing with no sponge/shoulder rest for 2yrs now and from what ive learnt the thumb should always push towards the neck and should stay in one position obviously your thumb will move when you play higher on the finger board, if your thumb pushes towords the neck then you wont shrug which helps me alot, hope it helps u :)  

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