Help on releasing the index finger side of my left hand from the violin neck.

August 13, 2011 at 05:03 PM ·

 After a whole summer of work at a major music festival full of performances, lessons, rehearsals, and coachings, I found out a major flaw in my left hand technique.  My intonation accuracy has grown tremendously over the past few years, but I realized that I gained it in spite of a big problem....the index finger side of my left hand "braces" itself against the neck of my violin.  I realize that, for the most comfort and efficiency, one should only have the thumb touching the neck of the violin.

Another reason that I felt like I should change is because having this other "brace" on the violin neck causes extra tension, causes me to grip more with the thumb, and it also stops me from having one constant hand position up and down the instrument (I need to constantly change my hand around).

I started practicing by releasing the other side of my hand away from the neck, but I lost ALL intonation.  Not just a little bit...I literally could not find any notes on the fingerboard.  Over a few days, that has improved somewhat, but not much.  However, I do feel some tightness in my left elbow and wrist area, because I think I am getting some tension due to my losing a point of contact (in the index finger side of my left hand not touching the violin).

Sorry for the long post...can someone help me with tips on how I should practice?  I haven't had a lesson yet as I am not home, but I texted my teacher who said to try to focus my hand around my third finger.  Any more advice as to how to gain more accuracy and comfort?

 

Replies

August 13, 2011 at 05:35 PM ·

 Why do you think that releasing the index finger from the neck is a virtue? Why do you want to do this? 

August 13, 2011 at 05:44 PM ·

Brian as far as I can tell there are two schools of thought on this issue.  On one side is a long tradition of contact on both sides of the neck.

I'd like to know more about the 'no contact' school, i.e. its history and some of its more well-known advocates.

 Meanwhile, there are a number of prior threads which address this issue.  This is a good one:

http://www.violinist.com/discussion/response.cfm?ID=15509

...and here are some others (this links to a violinist.com keyword search):

http://tinyurl.com/3df6n89

August 13, 2011 at 11:25 PM ·

 I'm puzzled, too. While it's not good to have the index finger glued to the neck, in a death grip, there's no reason it can't rest against the neck--in fact, for many things you do, it's a great help.

I've found that  one solid 'fact' about technique is that the more flexible and varied your possible options (left hand positions, bow hold, vibrato, angle on the shoulder, whatever) the more things you can execute with finesse, accuracy and greater ease.  

August 14, 2011 at 11:30 AM ·

In Galamian's book on violin playing, he talks about double contact, in other words having at least 2 points of contact with the violin with the left hand. This supplies security for good intonation. In the lower positions these 2 points are the thumb and the left side of the index finger (or base joint of index). When vibrating though in an expressive passage, and with an arm vibrato especially, you may have to relinquish the index finger contact.

August 14, 2011 at 01:11 PM ·

Brian - Whether or not you touch the base of your index finger can be a big discussion. What you are looking for is to release tension and squeezing - that is a given. I understand that intonation going out the window is a result of your experimentation. That makes sense to me. I've re-worked my hand position a few times during my career in an effort to find what works best for me and each time that also meant re-orienting to play in tune.

I encourage you to work on releasing the tension and I'd like to suggest a couple of exercises.

  1. Find some way to prop up your scroll and practice without your thumb. This way you have to use weight to touch the strings to the fingerboard not squeezing. !if you're standing maybe a bookshelf, sometimes sitting on the floor with your scroll on a chair, or sitting on a chair with your scroll on a countertop.)
  2. Put an object in the V that your thumb and index finger make. For students I've used a variety of objects. A marble - if you squeeze it hurts you so you relax. A mini marshmellow - if you squish it you don't get to eat it.

Re-vamping your technique seems like steps backward but getting rid of the tension will catapult you forward.

Best of luck on your endeavor!

Diane

August 14, 2011 at 03:53 PM ·

Helen, thanks for posting that link, it brought up others that I found extremely interesting too.

August 14, 2011 at 08:50 PM ·

Nate, thanks for the video!, am I the only one that think Rabin's hands are too small in proportion to his body???

Anyway, I think explaining a technique problem over the internet is difficult but my guess is what Brian is talking about is he actually grabs the violin with both thumb and index. Does your left hand hurt when you play a lot?.

 One good way to know for sure if this is going to hurt your technique is when you change positions, try to play something that requires you to switch positions let's say from 1st to 3rd, play fast, do it many times,  if you feel your hand stops you, even if it is slightly, then you have a problem in your technique and you need to change it. Your hand should be able to move freely up and down on the fingerboard no matter how fast or slow you play.

 It might be a bad habit, or it might be that the reason you are doing it is because   that's the way your hand is constructed, it is hard to say because we can't see you doing it, it would be advisable you consult a couple of teachers in this matter, but here is something you need to realize. If it is indeed a technique problem then you can change it. No biggie, you just need to start small.

First of all, I am assuming your problem is actually on your left hand and not on the way you keep your violin on your shoulder. A lot of students try to keep the violin on their shoulders by supporting it with their left hands instead of their chins.If this is the case then you need a teacher to show you how to do this.

If the problem is indeed on your left hand, practice open strings first, position your left hand like ready to play on the first position and make sure you are not "grabbing the violin" no pressure anywhere and no grabbing, all of the fingers ready to play, close to the string. Everything relaxed.

Once your open strings are correct, practice scales slowly, note by note check your left hand and try to feel where your problems are, if you are pressing the thumb think about relaxing it and continue playing your scale, if you notice you are pressing your index against the fingerboard then relax it, it should all feel very relaxed.

Once you manage to play scales this way you can move on to arpeggios. And once you have arpeggios you move on to your studies and repertoire. But start small, you didn't get into this bad habit right away, you won't stop doing it overnight but soon you will notice an improvement,  like sometimes you will find yourself correcting your hand without having to think about it.

Don't fixate right now on intonation, if you have to play in public do it the old way so that the sounds come out right but in your private practice try to focus more on correcting your technique and don't beat yourself up if you can't find the sounds right away. Once your brain learns the new way it'll all be fine.

But more than anything my advice is you need a teacher to see exactly what you are doing and correct you, because it might be something else you are doing , for example you might be flexing your left wrist or holding your elbow too far away from your body. Find a couple of violin teachers and ask them to help you.

August 14, 2011 at 09:07 PM ·

FWIW the Youtube video linked above itself has a link to a Yehudi Menuhin lesson on left hand hold which talks about the type of grip Brian seeks to use.  So that begins to answer my question about who the advocates of this approach have been.

August 15, 2011 at 08:05 PM ·

I think you can play great with only thumb and finger tips. Thats the way you play cello. And guitar. But dont you think it is a little awkward for your wrist? Its not very natural on violin. I was worried I might even injure my wrist by playing in that position. And that index contact helps you play in tune alot.

August 16, 2011 at 06:50 AM ·

Tension is a good reason not to do this. First finger on the E string  between 1st and 3rd position is a zero tension zone or should be. You should be able to hold the violin in this position for a very long time with out any muscle problems (tension). When you constantly hold the hand away from the neck you are creating some consistent  tension and you lose your relax zone. 

August 16, 2011 at 06:20 PM ·

 Andrew, the similarities between violin and either cello or guitar end with how the instrument is supported.  Neither cello nor guitar relies on the left hand to help hold it up because each rests naturally on either floor or lap, and, no matter what some people say, the chin/shoulder cannot do the entire job of holding up a violin, without producing neck and back problems in the long run.  The collar bone supports the violin, and the chin holds it in place, but it's always about balance more than pressure or tension, at either end of  the instrument.

One teacher said to think of the violin as a bridge between hand and neck/shoulder/collar bone--but a SUSPENSION bridge, not an anchored one.  It's a useful image.

August 16, 2011 at 08:25 PM ·

Andrew,

I disagree about the guitar. I used to be learning the guitar for a while, but now I just play it.
It may just be that I adjusted my left hand technique for both the guitar and the violin (while I was learning the violin later), but honestly-- It feels a lot more comfortable and easier to draw out the power to press on the strings when I have support. When I see someone play without that index finger support, I see the player TRYING to hit the notes between the frets and struggle in tension.
 

That's my personal opinion anyway.

Cheers,
Theo
 

August 19, 2011 at 09:50 AM ·

 Unless I am vibrating, my left index finger is in contact with the neck of the instrument..how else could I hold the violin? When I vibrate, I move my thumb under so that I can rock on my thumb. If you remove the index finger all the time you risk injury..I have seen this many times. Too much arm twist..in fact, there is a new device made to secure the 'correct' wrist position..looks like a brace..I call it the 'tendonitis maker"

August 20, 2011 at 12:30 PM ·

My teacher Dr. Fadial mentioned what has been posted about Galamian & the 2 points of contact also. One of John's teachers was Charles Castleman (I think he was a close associate of Galamian?). Anyway, I was taught that there is a time and place for the two points of contact and when not too. John mentioned a method book by Galamian who goes into more details about this than I can remember at the moment. Maybe looking through that book will help you find what you need?

I hope all is well with you Maestro...

God Bless,

Royce

August 20, 2011 at 02:52 PM ·

Hi Brian, I've just been looking at a few of your videos. Great playing! I especially liked the Glazunov performance at the Kennedy Center. I'm also in the double contact camp so I have no thoughts on how to play without side-of-first-finger contact. 

Can you be more specific about your struggle? You say your accuracy has grown yet you feel there's a big problem. Your left hand looks fast and fluid, and you don't seem to have any excess tension in the thumb. Is there a specific challenge you're having that's prompted the desire to change your left hand function? Can you describe the 'bracing' in more detail? What impact does bracing have on your left hand? The more specific you are, the easier it'll be to find a course of action. But don't change something that's already working for the sake of changing it, for the sake of dogma.

It's difficult to see precisely what's going on looking at video, so take everything with a grain of salt. But to me it looks like you could maintain alignment through your wrist for better continuity in your left hand posture and better accuracy. It looks like sometimes you 'reach' with your wrist shifting to 3rd/4th positions. Some people say you should never lead with the wrist, but I think it helps with fluid shifting when the tempo is slow enough or when you're shifting within lower positions. But if you lead with the wrist and don't 'snap back' to proper hand posture, the resulting change in hand shape will, in turn, change the feel for finger patterns. This is true also when shifting from high to low positions -- if you 'lead with the thumb' the hand must 'snap back' into proper posture.

Also (although it's hard to be sure from video,) I suspect your hand is rotating under the neck, breaking at the wrist, which also changes alignment/posture of the hand. If your hand rolls under, so to speak, you lose leverage of the fingers (height of the base knuckles) which causes your hand to grasp more, which might explain your gripping thumb. Whatever your strategy for the thumb, following an imaginary groove which runs diagonally along the neck, from bass side at the scroll to treble side at the bout, will help rotate your whole arm under the fiddle when shifting without having to break your wrist -- just remember to snap back into a poised alignment when shifting from high to low. It helps to let your elbow follow the hand, allow your arm to fold and unfold like an accordion (reaching out, reaching in,) rather than just bending the forearm at the elbow. Alignment and hand posture issues can be resolved without messing with contact points of the hand -- I would go further and say that contact points (thumb + side in lower positions, triple contact of thumb + side + palm at transition, double contact of thumb + palm over the bout and in high positions) are essential to teaching yourself good alignment and posture of the hand... only if you let your brain process the data from your hand(s).

Hope you find a solution soon!

JK

August 21, 2011 at 05:24 AM ·

Your playing is great and changing to an extreme way of holding the violin may cause more harm then good at this stage of the game. I do think it's a good idea to practice the occasional scale this way. Helen and Jeewon you play or teach this way, does the  constant tension (pain) ever leave?

 There is one area that really needs to be address in your playing ,and that is your shoulder and neck posture. Your head is leaning way too forward , much like Micheal Rabin's. When this happens your head adds a lot of weight to the violin causing your left hand to support it ,causing more tension making shifting much more difficult. When we play we need to have the hips, shoulders and  ears(more so left) in alignment. When looking into a mirror the left ear should be vertical  with the shoulder and the chin leveled. Buy yourself a new chin rest, one that goes over the tail piece a bit  more. Do adjustments to  your shoulder rest in front of a mirror to achieve good posture. If you get this area right you should get results literally overnight.

August 21, 2011 at 07:32 AM ·

Charles, you wrote, "...and changing to an extreme way of holding the violin may cause more harm then good at this stage of the game. ...Jeewon you play or teach this way, does the  constant tension (pain) ever leave?"

If you're assuming I play with or teach a left hand technique without the use of the side-of-first-finger I'd like to reiterate that "I am also in the double contact camp...", meaning I do believe most people are capable of playing with double contact, i.e. both the thumb and side-of-first-finger making contact with the neck, in most contexts. 

If you're suggesting that playing without side-of-first-finger contact is "extreme," I would disagree. I haven't yet discovered a comfortable way to play with thumb support only, for myself, but if memory serves other members of this site have advocated for it. I would guess that in order be comfortable one would need to play with a fairly flat fiddle, which might indicate certain physical attributes: size, proportions, shape of shoulders, relative length of fingers, range of motion etc.. I'm not sure how anyone can judge how much pain or 'tension' someone else experiences without asking. 

JK

August 21, 2011 at 01:13 PM ·

Brian, checked you out on youtube, wow! Congrats, now I need to go back listen to more of you.

August 22, 2011 at 01:57 PM ·

Jeewon , I guess I read your post incorrectly.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvV4A6lz-0w&feature=related

Brian here is a great video of Yehudi Menuhin showing this hold. At 4:30 you can see how low the thumb is compared to a double contact hold. You will also notice that he plays without a shoulder pad or rest and I think this is the main reason for the hold, to support the violin..

August 22, 2011 at 02:41 PM ·

Thank you all for your responses.  I have found a system that works for me and am working it in.

To John Cadd: I appreciate your comments but I am not changing my teacher for such a slight reason as not watching a video.  She has been working with me for 12 years and has essentially brought me from a beginner to where I am now and I am still being enlightened so much by her.  That Oistrakh video IS enlightening though; thank you very much for that.

Charles Cook: Thanks for your input on my posture!  I noticed that as well, and another teacher of mine that I work with every few months (and this whole past summer) worked with me on that and it has improved, but there is still work to do.

My full time teacher never told me never to have two points of contact.  If anything, I came up with that thought myself when I was in one of my many questioning periods of my technique.  I noticed many of you seem to be questioning my teacher for this reason, and I would like you all to know that she wasn't trying to teach me this way, I was trying to teach it to myself.
 

August 31, 2011 at 04:43 PM ·

 Charles, I've looked at the Yehudi video (lesson n.3).  It's very interesting.  I never knew Yehudi taught this hold.  In the video he clearly says the violin should be held only by the thumb and the fingers 'on' the fingerboard and to have the gap between the fingers and the neck of the violin (the round gap he calls it).  I have learnt to play with no shoulder rest with the double contact, I have to say that with the double contact is it A LOT EASIER to hold the violin with no shoulder rest!  But I am very 'curious' to try the way Yehudi demonstrates to hold the violin and will try tonight.  It feels as though I will find it very different and 'challenging' being used myself to the double contact, but the reason I want to try is because  it looks to me that in the way that Yehudi demonstrates, the index and middle fingers are a lot 'less cramped' in the way the fall in first position.  This hand shape may 'suit me' better.... I am going to try it and see what happens....

oh dear..

September 1, 2011 at 03:11 PM ·

 Well John, last night after nearly 2 hours of practicing the 'Menuhin' hold with my electric toothbrush (joke LOL), with my violin hehehehe, I concluded that actually, it does 'not' help me play any better, therefore I will keep playing the way my teacher taught me which is with the double contact (my teacher would be pleased I am sure LOL)

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