Fourth Finger Issues

January 12, 2012 at 04:44 AM · I have been in charge of teaching my high school's beginning orchestra students (only five people). They have been progressing very quickly, for the most part. However, They have had some issues with fourth finger, and I am looking for new methods to teach it better.

The violinists know it, but two of them don't like to use fourth finger too often. The other violinist tends to use fourth finger, but forgets that the following note in the scale is not open. Meanwhile, two viola players have extremely tiny hands. When they reach to play with their fourth finger, they complain that its really painful.

How should I go about helping them with this?

Replies (22)

January 12, 2012 at 06:28 AM · I advocate not stretching the fourth finger. There are a few instances when you'll want to, but for most playing, stretching (and tension) is not the answer.

Have them set the fourth finger comfortably curved on the string where "E" is on the A string. From there, have them reach *back* with the first finger down towards the "B." In order to accomplish this, they will need to completely relax their hands and lay back the wrist slightly, as well as place the thumb on the opposite side of the neck, also completely relaxed. The webbing between the thumb and index finger may have some space, or may contact the neck, depending on the size of the player's hand and the size of their instrument's neck. Essentially, you're building the shape of the hand from the fourth finger down, the opposite of how we build interval spacing from the first finger.

This position may seem counter-intuitive at first, but the benefit to approaching it this way is that all of the advanced fingering challenges that come later (opening chords of the Bach Chaconne, anyone?) and most of Paganini's works absolutely require it to reach the largest intervals. Interval scales like tenths aren't as much of a challenge when you realize that you can open up a huge distance between your index and middle fingers! I have a fairly short pinky, but I also play a 16" viola and have no problem with octaves which is really important when you play chamber music (last movement of the Schubert C Major Quintet, for example).

In the past I got a lot of grief from some public school music teachers about this approach to the left hand. Usually, it was from someone who couldn't play anything more challenging on a violin than "Hot Cross Buns." :P

January 12, 2012 at 08:42 AM · "The other violinist tends to use fourth finger, but forgets that the following note in the scale is not open."

Then they should be taught to listen, and put the next finger down before pull the bow and check to make sure the finger is on the right spot. Do this very slowly.

January 12, 2012 at 12:42 PM · Find out why they are reluctant to use the fourth finger. It is usually because the violin is held with the scroll too far round to the front and the fourth finger can't reach properly.

Rotating the violin to the left can give the little finger greater access to all the strings.

There should be little or (preferably) no left arm pronation, if any.

January 12, 2012 at 01:43 PM · As my very learned friends have already said, it is down to how you set up the left hand and arm. There should be no straining and the left wrist should be flat or bending inwards slightly. Starting with the fourth finger on the string and working back to the first finger is the right way, as has been said in the earlier post.

Eventually all the fingers should flash around the fingerboard with ease and chords should not be a strain. Extending the fourth by a semi-tone should eventually be easy - more a push than as stretch, but the size of hand may have some bearing on this.

January 12, 2012 at 02:51 PM · Was it Galamian who said the point of your left hand position is to reach the notes? Kind of a truism. If your hand is too small to reach the notes then you finger things differently or you get a smaller violin.

If you look in the first few Suzuki books you'll see that fourth finger is not introduced right away, and many of the E's are fingered either open or fourth finger even into Book 3 I think. Then I think the first few pieces have just a couple of E's or B's, not a whole bunch of them.

I don't see why you can't stretch a bit for your E or B, as long as it is not painful. Mild fatigue (the kind you can shake out and keep going) is okay, pain is not okay. Again going by the Suzuki books, the next thing is to reach for C natural from first position on the E string (Lully Gavotte in Book 2, for example).

For those that can reach the E easily on the A string but need fourth-finger strengthening, the old stand-by is Schradieck No. 1. It will take even a good student some months before they can play through the entire 25-stanza exercise without undue fatigue.

January 12, 2012 at 03:14 PM · Second position?

January 12, 2012 at 03:30 PM · Fourth finger extension is not second position, it's first position with an extension. But of course later, when slightly more advanced, you are right, second position could be used.

But at this stage, to be at home in first pos, the methods others have outlined are the right approach.

Of course, I know many of us chicken out of using the fourth finger, and when Mr Ricci suggests that high up we can use third finger rather than fourth to better effect, then I give a little cheer!

January 12, 2012 at 05:04 PM · I am an adult starter, and I have a really tiny hand. If I do not have to anchor my first or second finger, then I can do a fourth finger extension by pivoting.

I have tried setting the fourth finger and reaching back. In some circumstances that can work - it really is easier on the hand. But I have found that to be too slow a process for some music.

The other solution mentioned is a shift to second position. I have been doing this far sooner than most would have learned it because of my tiny hands (Suzuki book 3, I am in book 4 now). For the most part, this has been the best solution for me.

One more thing. I am about 5 feet tall, with proportionally short arms, even for my stature. I play a 3/4 violin, and still have to shift to second position to reach the fourth finger extension. If your students are really small, and are using a full size violin, it may be too big for them. By the usual test of holding up the violin along the outstretched arm and seeing where the wrist hits the scroll, my 3/4 violin is just slightly too big for me.

Good luck.

January 13, 2012 at 05:19 AM · It helps if the wrist does not push out, and check that the thumb is not too high. If the palm of the hand seems to be under the neck, the fourth cannot reach. Try pointing the first finger up to the ceiling to straighten the wrist, reset your fingers normally, then try the four. If the fourth cannot reach with the hand in a proper and comfortable position, they may need a smaller viola. Finally, reach the fourth first by stretching it toward the face, then aim the left corner of the tip onto the right side of the string.

As for remembering not to play a four and an open in a scale, this should improve once the student drills on the new pattern.

January 13, 2012 at 05:55 AM · Finding (or writing) some pieces which use left hand pizzicato is a way of improving the strength of the fourth finger without the frustration of not being able to get it in tune.

For those that can reach it without discomfort, introducing the concept of the fourth finger harmonic can help to further familiarise them with the correct location on the fingerboard - although reassure them that this is tricky and won't always sound perfectly at this stage!

January 13, 2012 at 06:04 AM · > I have tried setting the fourth finger

> and reaching back. In some circumstances

> that can work - it really is easier on the

> hand. But I have found that to be too slow

> a process for some music.

Well, the process of training your hand to "rest" in this shape by default does take practice (and time). It isn't going to happen overnight. ;) However, once it is learned, it becomes an incredibly versatile position from which one can go anywhere, and play the larger intervals (octaves and tenths) without having to stress the fourth finger.

It better not be a slow process at the end...solo Bach, Paganini, Ernst, and Ysaye would be impossible if that were the case!

January 13, 2012 at 06:46 AM · Did you try tilting the elbow forward a little? (Underneath the violin). I find that can give people the right feeling. This shouldn't be taken to an extreme but a little tilt within the range of good position can make all the difference, assuming the hand and wrist are correctly aligned.

January 14, 2012 at 06:06 PM · You might check the angle of the left hand, too. If the palm is pointed towards the face and the fingers parallel rather than closer to perpindicular to the strings, the fourth finger just won't reach.

January 15, 2012 at 12:24 PM · I am an adult beginner and I have been struggling dreadfully with the 4th finger stretch. I have watched demonstrations and listened to the various advice being offered and nothing works for me. However, I do not think

anything should ever hurt!

I find the whole concept that an adult HAS to play a 4/4 quite odd!! One wouldn't make a child use an instrument that is blatently too big for them wo why does an adult have to suffer such a suggestion?

I have tried about 10 7/8ths violins and found that they all vary - some have shorter bodies, some shorter in neck length and some have a short stop from bridge to edge.

One of the major improvements for me was finding a narrow neck - my previous Gliga had a massive spade handle for a neck!

However, a string length of 318-319 and a narrrow neck has provided a wonderful solution - I can reach everything so far.

I know I will be shot down in flames by the many very experienced teachers on the forum but this is just my opinion and being comfortable and enjoying myself will mean the difference between carrying on and quitting.

January 15, 2012 at 01:35 PM · Suzanne

Playing on a comfortable instrument is what matters, so don't worry about us lot talking shop!!

January 15, 2012 at 05:02 PM · When I was a girl, a common fingering for one-octave scales was opens going up, fourth-finger coming down, which supports the idea of finding fourth finger and setting the other fingers back from it. I do a lot of solo adjudicating, and don't see that fingering idea so much any more. // The recent revised Suzuki books use fourth finger much earlier and more frequently than the older versions, though those offered alternate fingerings, including many fourth fingers. "Not liking" fourth finger could be a result of general insecurity and uncomfortable tension in the hand, including clamping at the thumb & index base. Just keep at 'em, be positive, allow time. Sue

January 17, 2012 at 05:08 PM · Suzanne,

A 4/4 violin caused real shoulder damage for me. It's just too big. I agree, play the instrument that doesn't hurt to play. Especially for us adult beginners, we need to be mindful of our no longer 15 year-old joints.

Have fun playing, and if you are on facebook, there is an adult starters page.


January 17, 2012 at 07:34 PM · I never smoke 15 year old joints.

January 17, 2012 at 09:18 PM · Thanks for all of the advice. I'll see which techniques work best with them in class.


January 17, 2012 at 11:22 PM ·

Sue's comment about noticing fingerings in her adjudication work ties in with the thread 'open string versus fourth finger'. This dates from some time ago but can no doubt still be brought up on screen. I don't like fourth finger extensions either - if possible, I'll change to a higher position instead - but they have their moments (preferably not too often in my view).

January 19, 2012 at 05:28 PM · There might be a musical basis for opens going up and fourths going down in scales, above and beyond arbitrary dogma. There are a number of passages one can find where the fingering is 4-3-0 (for example A-G#-A), it's s common musical motif. 0-1-4 is less common in my admittedly limited experience.

I'm heartened by this discussion because I have a 7/8 violin to sell. It's a birds-eye violin, and it's very pretty. I played it since the age of 11 without realizing that it was undersized until I started to shop for a new violin a year ago.

If your violin's neck is too fat, can it be shaved down narrower? Maybe some of our resident professional luthiers can comment on this idea.

Once I explained to my teacher that I was having trouble fingering something comfortably. He watched me play, both slow and fast, from every angle and concluded that there was nothing wrong with my hand position and said something like "Sometimes you just have to manage." But it was just awkward -- it didn't hurt. That's different.

January 19, 2012 at 09:18 PM · I hate using my fourth finger as much as anybody, but I try to use it wherever possible to develop my technique. My teacher is constantly after me to push my left elbow forward, out from under the violin; this makes it easier to bring my left hand around the neck, putting the fourth finger in a better position to hit the D and G strings. I have to remain constantly on the alert; my elbow loves to sneak back toward my torso if I'm not paying attention to it. But it's worth the effort - it really does help me hit notes more cleanly.

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