Why Yehudi Menuhin teach to only hold violin by the thumb and the fingertip?

November 9, 2011 at 02:57 PM · I have seen many great violinist hold violin by thumb and their first finger ( Their first finger contact/touch the violin)

But Yehudi Menuhin teach to only hold violin by the thumb and the finger tip.

The first finger dont even touch the violin.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvV4A6lz-0w&feature=related 04:41

Replies (28)

November 9, 2011 at 04:51 PM · although the following clip does not exactly answer op's question, it does raise some points of contention on ways of doing things, along with couple moments of awkwardness:)

starting at 10:40

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vKJBzr2fSI&feature=related

November 9, 2011 at 05:52 PM · speaking of left hand grip, if you look at James Ehnes, it looks like he's holding on to the neck super tight and a lot of professionals have their thumbs high up. I guess it's just talent over technique. Sir Menuhin just wanted to teach them the easiest way i guess.

November 9, 2011 at 06:23 PM · Hi,

Steven: your observation is incorrect. James Ehnes has a very relaxed hold of the left hand. He simply places it like many people in the classic way, i.e. the violin resting on the base of the first finger. The height of the thumb is determined by the length of the thumb and the distance between the base of the first finger and the root of the thumb. The thumb should be bent naturally for its given length. James Ehnes has a particularly long thumb (and other fingers as well), but since he is resting his hand at the correct contact point (the base of the first finger), it goes as high as he needs for his particular hand. If you want more information on this, I suggest reading the section on left hand positioning in Carl Flesch's Art of Violin Playing. You will find that the students of Zhakar Bron, like Vadim Gluzman, Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin also use the same approach to positioning to great success. The advantage of this approach is that it enables a balanced position of the left that is adaptable to the variations found in different hands.

As for Sir Yehudi Menhuin, he has his own view which differs from the traditional approach. It worked for him and if it works for others, then great.

Hope this clarifies some things.

Cheers!

November 9, 2011 at 06:40 PM · hell christian, i have no doubt that james ehnes is very relaxed with his left hand. i think steven was possibly referring to the way he bends his thumb into the G string/FB, possibly the same issue with that boy violinist in that clip.

if someone insists that bending the thumb like that is indeed more relaxing that not bending it, perhaps teachers need to consider that as an individual variation, particularly when the teachers are not taught that way.

i personally do not find bending the thumb like that relaxing and many others feel the same way. try it yourself, bending it close to 90 degree. when i walk around swinging my arms, my thumbs are rather straight and that is the most relaxed angle.

of course, my feeling is that with or without the thumb bending, james ehnes will be great like he is anyway.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xXi5D366n7o

ps. it is only a matter of time when someone is going to start playing violins with five fingers :)

November 9, 2011 at 08:18 PM · Hi Al,

I think you misunderstand... I think that James Ehnes's bending of the thumb to that extent is the fact that it is unusually long, and the distance between the base of the first finger and the root of the thumb is quite short (I can say this from having met and talked to Mr. Ehnes several times). Corey Cerovsek had a similar hand with similar results. However, if your hand is not of that formation (as is the case with the greatest majority of people), then obviously it will not work, since most people have shorter thumbs and a longer distance between the base of the first finger and root of the thumb. In the case of James Ehnes he has great positioning and mechanics and he is extremely well lined-up, but it may look different than someone with a smaller hand who is equally well lined-up (example Hilary Hahn) because of the lengths of his fingers and his body shape. However, in terms of basics, both are are spot on.

What perhaps is a concern to me is that people often make observations without looking at the understanding behind it: in essence distinguishing between the principles and the variations.

This doesn't mean that someone cannot do something different and that it may work for them.

I hope this clarifies a little bit my point.

Cheers!

November 9, 2011 at 08:31 PM · Thanks for posting a link to this video! I've never watched any Menuhin tutorials, and his concepts are incredibly enlightening, regardless of hand shape. I wish I was this articulate! (...with rows of perfect little students and a clear plastic violin, to boot!)

November 9, 2011 at 10:03 PM · "I think that James Ehnes's bending of the thumb to that extent is the fact that it is unusually long, and the distance between the base of the first finger and the root of the thumb is quite short (I can say this from having met and talked to Mr. Ehnes several times). Corey Cerovsek had a similar hand with similar results. However, if your hand is not of that formation (as is the case with the greatest majority of people), then obviously it will not work, since most people have shorter thumbs and a longer distance between the base of the first finger and root of the thumb."

thank you christian for the response.

since you have met him and he also gave you an explanation, and that i have not met him and examined his hand (not taking his word for it:), it is futile for me to argue further. but here is my point based on my reasoning based on my limited observation. please forgive me for being a nuisance since i tend to have this behavior of not taking people's word for it until it makes sense to me.

we are actually talking about his choice of "thumb hold" rather than his shorter bony segment below the thumb joint making that hold necessary.

whether he has a long or longer thumb is irrelevant in this case, imo. in other words, if he has the same length of bone segment below the thumb joint as now AND a short thumb instead of a long thumb, he could still thumb hold like now if he wants to.

it looks to me that his way is to bend his thumb joint with which he "hooks" onto the side of the violin neck. he can hook like that with a "normal", "short" or "long" thumb. it is a choice where and how one wants the thumb to contact the neck. i am not convinced that the choice is made on the anatomical consideration given.

he has large hands. my speculation is that his "shorter" segment below the thumb is not that absolutely short, and i doubt it is shorter than that of a regular 10 year old who plays on a adult sized violin. most 10 year olds do not usually have to learn to hold like that, yet the common denominator is that the neck size of adult violins are rather uniform.

November 9, 2011 at 10:08 PM · Menuhin's hold helped me to eliminate the squeeze of the index finger against the neck which paralyzed my fingers in fast runs.

My index still touches the neck from time to time but there is absolutely no squeeze. Instead, the contact point is free to go on and off.

I believe new players have the tendency to squeeze so playing the Menuhin way is a good way to eliminate this bad habit.

By the way, the only way that James Ehnes can getaway with his thumb is due to his long fingers

November 9, 2011 at 11:04 PM · John talks about the Menuhin vs. the Oistrakh hold. There is You Tube video, to which I would post the link if I were more technically adept, of them playing the Bach Double. Look at these two men. Their builds- hands, arms, fingers, necks- are so different there's no way they could use identical techniques. If Menuhin kept the base of his index finger against the neck his hand would have to fold up underneath the neck, while for Oistrakh to keep a distance, his shorter, thicker hands would have to do all manner of strange things.

November 9, 2011 at 11:14 PM · Hi Al,

To answer your post... I will write my answers in capital letters to make the distinction easier (not to imply anything).

since you have met him and he also said so, and that i have not met him and examined his hand (not taking his word for it:)

I HAVE WATCHED JAMES EHNES AT CLOSE RANGE IN CONCERT, IN MASTERCLASSES AND OBSERVED HIS HANDS WHILE TALKING TO HIM. IT IS A MATTER OF OBSERVATION IN RELATION TO PRINCIPLES OF VIOLIN TECHNIQUE MORE THAN ANYTHING HE HAS MENTIONED.

we are actually talking about his choice of "thumb hold" rather than his shorter bony segment below the thumb joint making that hold necessary.

THE ANSWER IS YES AND NO. I WOULD REFER YOU TO THE SECTION ON THE PLACEMENT OF THE LEFT HAND AND THUMB AND HOW TO FIND THE CORRECT POSITION FOR ONE'S HAND IN FLESCH'S ART OF VIOLIN PLAYING. THUMB HEIGHT IS THE RESULT OF MANY FACTORS THAT ARE WELL EXPLAINED THERE WITH PHOTOS. THE BENDING AT THE ANGLE HE DOES IS HIS CHOOSING, BUT THEN AGAIN WHEN THE THUMB IS LONG, ONE HAS TO BEND MORE TO AVOID TENSION AS WOULD BE THE CASE IN JUST HOLDING THE HAND NORMALLY WITHOUT A VIOLIN

whether he has a long or longer thumb is irrelevant in this case, imo. in other words, if he has the same length of bone segment below the thumb joint as now AND a short thumb instead of a long thumb, he could still thumb hold like now if he wants to.

IT WOULD BE DIFFICULT TO HOLD THE THUMB LIKE THAT WITH A SHORT THUMB AND DIFFERENT HAND STRUCTURE IF NOT IMPOSSIBLE BALANCE IS THE RESULT OF MANY FACTORS (WELL EXPLAINED BY FLESCH).

it looks to me that his way is to bend his thumb joint with which he "hooks" onto the side of the violin neck. he can hook like that with a "normal", "short" or "long" thumb. it is a choice where and how one wants the thumb to contact the neck. i am not convinced that the choice is made on the anatomical consideration given.

WELL, WHEN ONE PLACES THE HAND ON THE BASE OF THE FIRST FINGERS, WITH THE ELBOW UNDER THE INSTRUMENT POINTING TOWARDS THE GROUND LIKE A PENDULUM INSTEAD OF OUT (THE MOST NATURAL POSITION), THEN, THE THUMB HEIGHT IS THE RESULT OF THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE DISTANCE FROM THE BASE OF THE FIRST FINGER TO THE ROOT OF THE THUMB AND THE LENGHT OF THE THUMB. NOW, ONE CAN CHOOSE TO HAVE A DIFFERENT THUMB POSITION, BUT IN JAMES EHNES'S CASE, IT DOES LIE PERFECTLY WITHIN THE STRUCTURE OF HIS HAND AND THE PRINCIPLES OF VIOLIN PLAYING. IT JUST LOOKS DIFFERENT, BUT IT IS NATURAL FOR HIM.

he has large hands.

YES.

my speculation is that his "shorter" segment below the thumb is not that absolutely short

IT IS NOT A QUESTION OF SHORT OR NOT, BUT IT'S PROPORTION TO THE LENGHT OF THE THUMB. I HAVE A SIMILAR THING WITH MY HAND, THAT'S HOW I KNOW, THOUGH MY FINGERS AND HAND ARE NOWHERE NEAR AS LONG AS HIS (NEITHER IS MY LEVEL OF TALENT, LOL!!!)

and i doubt it is shorter than that of a regular 10 year old who plays on a adult sized violin.

HAND PROPORTIONS ARE DIFFERENT WITH CHILDREN THAN ADULTS AND IT DOES CHANGE WITH AGE.

most 10 year olds do not usually have to learn to hold like that, yet the common denominator is that the neck size of adult violins are rather uniform.

VIOLIN NECKS ARE UNIFORM AND NO 10 YEAR OLD CAN DO THAT. BUT YOU MAY GROW BY MORE THAT 18 INCHES BETWEEN 10 AND 18, SO MANY THINGS CHANGE. HOWEVER, USING THE PRINCIPLE THAT I MENTIONED ABOVE, YOU CAN FIND BALANCE IN SPITE OF THE CHANGES. THE HAND MAY CHANGE BUT IT REMAINS PROPORTIONAL AND BALANCED FOR ONE'S BODY.

HAVING JUST LOOKED AT A VIDEO OF JAMES EHNES PLAYING A WIENIAWSKI CAPRICE AT ABOUT AGE 10 AS I AM WRITING THIS, I CAN ASSURE YOU THAT HIS POSITIONING IS EQUALLY PERFECT, BUT NO, HIS THUMB DOES NOT LOOK THE SAME BECAUSE HIS HAND IS NOT THE SAME SIZE OR OF THE SAME PROPORTION AS HE IS MUCH SHORTER.

I hope that this answers some more of your questions...

Cheers!

November 9, 2011 at 11:37 PM · I would like to second Lisa's point that the left hand position should be adapted to the physique of the student.

Some years back I had a false start with taking up the violin. My flat mate was a string teacher, so I thought I would take the opportunity of getting some guidance.

She was a zealot for the Menuhin approach, and insisted that contact with the base of the first finger was a grave technical error.

Physically I am much closer to Oistrakh than Menuhin, and I found the Menuhin hand position close to impossible - I virtually had to do circus contortions to reach the G string, for example. I found the position uncomfortable and insecure to the point that I simply gave up the idea of learning the violin.

Some years later I returned to the instrument and did my own research, and seem to be developing a position that I find much more relaxed and secure.

I know of a teacher locally who insists that all her students use the Menuhin hold, so it seems that my old flat mate is not alone in this view.

From my personal experience I would urge any Menuhin influenced teacher not to be too dogmatic about this, and to allow students with square-shaped hands like mine to try the Oistrakh hand position if they are struggling with the Menuhin hold.

November 10, 2011 at 10:15 AM · Hi Christian,

Just wanted to clarify. I just meant his thumb was bent onto the string not that he has a tight hold.

and yea it depends on everyone's physicality. I mean Perlman has large hands too and sometimes the neck rests between his index and his thumb and it doesn't bother him. but yea..i understand the freakish long thumb thing. My brother's thumb is freakish long too. It's like a index or middle finger

and Thanks al for clearing that up for me

November 10, 2011 at 01:25 PM · christian, thank you for your time and response. i see this is a topic that you have a strong interest in.

you have made the observation that when ehnes was much younger, his thumb position was different (presumably the thumb joint did not bend as much?) and as he grew, his proportion of the thumb area had changed, leading to his current hold. i wonder whether this change came about gradually and naturally, or it was taught to him. i suspect it is the former. the reason that is interesting and significant is that his experiences may shed light onto others who are constantly exploring and experimenting...

you also made another interesting statement, that when someone has longer thumb (out of proportion), a more relaxed state is to actually bend it. i think there is some truth to that and possibly not much of a conventional wisdom on the violin teaching scene in which the knee jerk reaction is probably that a straighter thumb is more relaxed.

fyi, this grasp reflex came to mind:)

http://www.quality-baby-care-products.com/newborn-reflexes.html

November 10, 2011 at 01:42 PM · steven, that is a handy brother to have...when he thumbs up to you, you can really see it:)

i have always felt that perlman's left thumb dances around quite freely, even dabbling onto the horizontal plane, with the tip of thumb pointing downward. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZgpNXo4iuI

among all the living legends, he makes my day every time i see or hear him! i could care less how he manages to do that, ala how federer plays tennis, tiger plays golf, jobs designs things,,,

now, just imagine how much these top guys could have accomplished if they just reign in their thumbs! :)

another factor at play i think is how far the entire thumb can stretch back against the index finger. i am at about 90 degree. i suspect some, like perlman, can pull back much more...

November 10, 2011 at 07:09 PM · Not a big fan of this hold. I find if I place 1st finger on E string ,1st-3rd position, I have zero tension with the index finger touching the side. If I do the same with M's hold theres alway tension , no a lot ,but tension. IMO it's nice to play on a part of the violin that has zero tension so the hand can relax once and a while.

November 10, 2011 at 08:22 PM · Actually, I found that lately I tend to do a bit of both LOL

I do like and do play with the index finger contact but find that lately I am not keeping this on as much as I used to and I tend to have a gap at least 50% of the time I play, I can't say exactly, maybe I have a gap all the time and I go back to a contact when I am shifting a bit like using the contact as a 'walking stick' so that I know where I am going and as I don't use a shoulder rest it's also helping me holding the violin of course. But whenever my index finger is not in contact I don't think I have a big gap there anyway. I think I'll have to ask someone to video my left hand when I am playing as I am not 100% aware of what I am doing...my teacher though who has taught me the left index finger contact hold is not commenting on my hold so obviously I must not have 'digressed' from it too much otherwise he would have 'told me off' hahaha

I have noticed that when there is no left index finger contact with the neck my knuckles will naturally end up higher up over the fingerbord....just as Menuhin used to teach...I also tend to find intonation easier to achieve 'once I am in the position', but maybe because I am used to the index finger contact I then find I have to have the index finger contact to feel secure with my intonation with 'shifting' to another position. Do I make any sense? I have found that with the Menuhin hold my hand will end up in a different 'relationship' with the neck of the violin...it will end up more 'parallel' to the neck..the gap that there is from the base knuckle of the little finger and the base knuckle of the index finger are now not so different anymore and much more 'equal' and this places the fingers in a different relationship to the strings, not as such an 'ackward angle' (difficult to say these things in words...).

I think I have 'blabbered' long enough now LOL better go and practice a bit now ;)

November 10, 2011 at 11:29 PM · Hi Al:

I have indeed a very strong interest in this topic and have given it a gargantuan amount of time, research and exploration.

In the case of James Ehnes, I would agree with you in assuming that the change probably came gradually and naturally. It would seem logical. As he kept his hand lined up on the base of the first finger and that contact has remained throughout the years (not only from the video of him at an early age, but all the live performances that I have seen him do since he was 17) as well as keeping the elbow under the violin, his thumb probably adapted. I cannot vouch with absolute certainty; only he could. I think that he was taught how to line-up but that enabled him to adapt his changes in physiognomy through the years.

I also agree that the longer the thumb in the shape of the hand, normally it will be more bent to be relaxed. Certainly has helped me a great deal.

The baby picture is fantastic in that it is so natural!!! There is a weird kind of wisdom in approaching this issue in much violin teaching that often comes from working in certain methods rather than principles adapted to the variations found in each individual. That is IMHO.

Cheers!

November 11, 2011 at 02:16 AM · Hi Al,

big hands run in my family kinda. like my grandpa is about 5 inches shorter but his hands are almost bigger than mine. I guess i lost some of that. but yea. I can actually have my thumb in any of those holds it's just that I feel more free with the thumb not bent. AT the end of the day, it's all personal preference and talent. Just like Perlman, his thumb just dances on his own. Even he admits his form gets bad sometimes.

November 11, 2011 at 02:47 PM · I watched the first 3 Menuhin videos half asleep, but I do remember him talking later on in one of them about letting the first finger brush lightly against the neck. It was regarding either vibrato or shifting or one of his flexibility exercises, I don't remember. So I don't believe even he held a dogmatic view regarding the space, but advocated flexibility and relaxation foremost.

November 20, 2011 at 05:01 AM · I am coming rather late to this discussion but it seems to me that of far more significance is not the issue of allowing the index finger to touch or not to touch the neck but the issue of the support of the arm through the back muscles that should help carry the hand and with it the fingers both across and up and down the fingerboard.

If the thumb and index finger touch the neck or rather allow the neck to rest between them it should be possible to create a basic movement in the arm to bring fingers over to a particular string or to shift from one position to another. The index finger touching the neck should not be thought of as the culprit in causing tension in using the left hand on the violin. In fact, with a normal tilt of the violin towards the E string, the neck of the violin will tend to rest against (towards) the index finger and away from the thumb. This natural tendency therefore does not have to be avoided by placing all responsibility on the thumb in the lower positions. In fact, because of this tilt or lean, the thumb will be less likely to grab or clutch. The index finger's role should be thought of as a means of shared support and, as long as there is not excessive vertical finger pressure from above, it should be possible to touch fingers on the strings without experiencing tightness and tension.

It is true that, beyond a certain position, the index finger, because of the bout of the violin) will no longer touch the neck so the support for the violin remaining up will fall to the thumb, but the double contact of thumb on one side and index finger on the other side in the lower positions should not be a problem.

There is also no need for the player to create a lateral squeezing of the neck between the two if one trusts the arm movement I described above and allows the violin's slant to be towards the index finger side of the left hand and again remembers to not apply excessive vertical pressure to the strings from the fingers falling.

So, the fingers falling from and fired from the base joints (knuckles) of the back of the hand and supported by the correct adjustment in the turn of the hand and the angling of the elbow (slightly out but also toward one's ribs) creates a very stable feeling for the fingers to not need to press, squeeze, or grab. This elbow and hand movement ( it is not a big movement at all) is used to balance the fingers over the strings so they do not overstretch to reach their destination and also used to help avoid the common problem of the wrist thrusting out to throw the fingers over the string.

Another thing to keep in mind is that as one climbs "up" the violin, it is also advantageous to let the scroll end move to the left so that the left arm does not have to swing around or feel a pull back in the shoulder blade muscles to thrust the arm around to reach over.

If the arm can feel comfortable, it is more likely that the fingers attached to the hand attached to the arm will also feel more at ease and be less likely to grab. When the fingers are right over the destination they seek, all they need do is remain pointed toward the string and drop and lift,down and up. In the higher positions they don't even have to depress the string all the way down to the fingerboard.

April 22, 2012 at 05:45 AM · Speaking as a fiddler who plays with fairly good classical technique, I can tell you that the no-index-finger hold fails completely when you are playing only open strings. And of course most fiddling is done in the lower positions where, again, the index finger is most helpful. I played with no index finger rest for many years, and when I finally gave in to using it, my playing improved dramatically. Also, it became more violinistic, because my left hand was now more secure in position and I was freer to slided among positions as needed. My style is bluesy and Louisiana style (cajun, zydeco), so the violinistic character is important. A side benefit of starting to use the index finger resting hold is that I no longer use a rigid shoulder rest... I use a playonair (or sometimes none) and, again, my playing is freer and better. I've come to the conclusion that you can't play without some minimum of support, and that the index finger is preferable to the shoulder for providing it. I've seen Menuhin on video a lot, and I don't know how he does it without the index finger. So long as you can avoid pinching the violin, I think using the index finger is essential for most people.

April 23, 2012 at 11:21 AM · I would be careful about following any particular advice, and what worked for Menuhin, probably will not work for most people. I would advise looking at and hearing the videos made by players like Milstein, Oistrakh, and Ehnes and other contemporary people like James, who all play the fiddle in a way that probably translates to the average person more easily.

The extremes may be in themselves wonderful players and musicians, but each one may be a "one off." (Look at Tossy Spivakovsky!)

Dogmatism is very dangerous, and this applies to the use or non use of SR's and chin rests, as well as bow holds and left hand techniques.

April 23, 2012 at 03:36 PM · Regarding contact of the base of the first finger with the next of the violin, I was taught "contact is okay, pressure is not."

April 24, 2012 at 06:02 PM · Well put, Paul. I often need that contact for support, but it too easily turns into pressure - and in my struggle to develop a vibrato, I find that pressure against the first finger (or even contact with it, at my present stage of development) interferes with that complex hand movement that I'm still trying to figure out.

April 24, 2012 at 08:41 PM · I see two "schools" here:

a) Menuhin, Chung, Zukerman, myself (no comparison intended!) where the violin rests on the pad of the thumb, which tends to be opposite the index: it is (for my hands) easier to separate the base of the index to vibrate as I wish (and not as my hand allows..)

b) Oistakh, Perlman, Hahn, Bashmet, and many of my students (still no comparison, although..) where the violin rests nearer the base of the thumb, which rises more opposite the middle finger. I notice this is the more common approach.

My students adopt whichever suits their hand best; I use either in my demonstrations.

The "gap"? Indispensable - but not necessarily visible(!) - for vibrato. A 1/32 inch is enough!

It's as simple as that!

April 26, 2012 at 11:43 AM · I thought on the viola vibrato had to be at least 1.5 inches...?

April 26, 2012 at 12:59 PM · At our age, probably, to re-invent the perfect intonation of our youth. Oh sorry, as violists, I meant "invent"!

April 30, 2012 at 09:39 PM · I was youtubing the other day and watched one of a Menuhin master class, it was with Corey Cerovsek at Bloomington. Menuhin brought this left hand issue up with Corey. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaCh-XA7P2E @~ 10:30m

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