'Thumb Position'

June 15, 2012 at 05:08 AM · I have called this technique, "Thumb position" because I don't know if it has a correct name. Obviously it is not the same as in cello playing.

I have very small hands (only my hands are small ;-) ) and I find that when I shift into high positions in the traditional way I cannot reach easily. What I do is leave the neck of the violin and place the tip of my thumb against the ribs and bring my hand up and over the body of the violin and my elbow forward. This enables me to play easily. I don't find the transition difficult, either up or down, as I prepare my hand shape before shifting.

I have commented before about my use of shoulder rests and have stated that I don't use one unless I want to. I will clarify. When I don't shift high (below 7th) when teaching, I don't use a shoulder rest. When playing concertos I do, as with my thumb leaving the neck entirely, I don't find the transition easy or safe.

I was talking with my colleagues, and only one uses "thumb position". He too has small hands. How common is it? Does anyone here do it without a shoulder rest?

Replies (17)

June 15, 2012 at 06:27 AM · actually most violinists I work with have small hands so they all shift along the rib or even along the fingerboard when playing on high positions especially on D and G strings. Even my teacher had to do that and his hands were normal size. Actually, he encouraged me to play like that although my hands are quite big because it apparently gives you more space to work with since your hand isn't stuck at the neck.

As for shoulder rest, I been trying but I guess my neck is still too long :(

June 15, 2012 at 06:29 AM · I personally don't do this. I was reading Leopold Auer's book the other day. He said, "If you notice, most of the concertizing artists of today tend to raise their violin a bit higher when high upon the g-string. Not only for the reach, but when you raise your violin, it also improves the tone because nothing is touching the back of the violin"

Or something along those lines. That's a very bad habit. You should never do that. At very least you have to be touching the back of the neck. Remember you can raise your violin a little higher and tuck in your arm.

June 15, 2012 at 06:31 AM · You can download Auer's book of violin. Trust me. Reading it will change your whole view on how you practice and approach things.


June 15, 2012 at 07:17 AM · Nimesh, It's a useful book. I have a copy in my library.

I wasn't looking for advice regarding my own playing. I don't wish to change my technique. I am just curious to know how prevelant it is, and what other players do.

Cheers Carlo

June 15, 2012 at 08:51 AM · Carlo, my teacher has taught me to do exactly what you do in high positions. Elbow nicely under, thumb along the ribs etc. We both have normal sized hands, so I think this is simply a variation of technique that some are taught, and some not.

It works fine for me.

June 15, 2012 at 01:34 PM · I grew up not using a shoulder rest. I found also that when my thumb had to come around was when I struggled to keep my violin from falling down, that is a very bad feeling when you are trying to play a hard passage!

June 15, 2012 at 02:34 PM · On my viola, I bring my thumb onto the ribs from 8th position onwards, and then right round the bout. My 4 fingers are then at right-angles to the strings and I can use all 4 with a decent vibrato. I come along the side of the finger-board, too, when no-one is looking. My fingers are relatively short.

All this requires a firm, but not-constricting shoulder-rest! (See several hundred other threads!)

June 15, 2012 at 04:20 PM · Wow! I was just about to post the same thing! When I start getting to 9th or 10th position I start doing that since I have super tiny hands that even 6 years have bigger than. So according to this discussion I guess it's ok to do that! :)

June 15, 2012 at 09:04 PM · Who here does this without a shoulder rest?

Cheers Carlo

June 15, 2012 at 09:21 PM · Restless? I suppose it is possible if the violin rests on the shoulder, with a non-slip (chamois) cloth, and a chinrest that hooks under the jaw-bone (choke!) But you will never get a clear and useful answer from the "antis"...

Otherwise, play over a very thick carpet!

June 16, 2012 at 04:35 AM · I do this with and without a SR in higher positions on my viola. There simply is no other way to reach that high and get my hand up and around the upper bouts.

June 17, 2012 at 08:24 AM · I was doing a gig last night leading Mozart's requiem. I spoke to a good friend of mine who is non SR user. He said the way to bring the hand down from thumb position is to dip the violin down onto the shoulder when descending. I will try this later today.

Cheers Carlo

June 17, 2012 at 11:59 AM · Hi,

Carlo, I don't use an SR and don't leave the neck with my thumb when going up on the violin. However, for my students that do (because they really have to and those are rare cases), two things come into play that keep the position natural and the movements correct. First, it is important that elbow does not point sideways in any way going up into position, which essentially puts it out of balance. More than anything, this is what causes instabilities with the instrument with SR and non-SR users. Also, the forearm needs to come in, in a straight line and go back the other way. The arm supports the hand, once again all part of staying in balance. If the thumb has to leave the standard position at the end of the neck, then it is best to keep it along the finger board than somewhere on the ribs, so that when going back, the path of the fingerboard will be followed correctly. This also helps in keeping the finger angle relationship the same as in lower positions making it easier for intonation.


June 17, 2012 at 01:28 PM · I have extremely small hands and short pinkies, so my thumb has to move from the neck to the side of the fingerboard (not ribs) from the 8th position onward on the G string and 10th position on the E string. When I first did this, my teacher did not like the idea - she was concerned that it would make secure intonation difficult on high positions, but I have no choice as I cannot make my hands bigger. Luckily I am doing just fine.

As to what to do when playing without SR - Paul asked that question before in this thread, and here was my reply:

"Paul, I do use a shoulder rest, but I just tried playing without, and it's not much of an issue - the tip of the thumb can be under the fingerboard just a little to hold the violin up (It really doesn't take much) so the violin is still supported by the shoulder, head weight (chin), and the thumb - it feels very secure."

I have just tried it again (interestingly, without SR, I have to leave the neck at the 8th position on the E string), and I don't like my previous solution (because of concern of jamming the thumb), so let me revise my solution a little: the thumb just needs to be on the side of the fingerboard with a slight push to move the violin more onto the shoulder. Head weight, shoulder and with a light touch of the thumb will be able to keep the violin secure. It would also help if you lift the violin a little as you move up. It's very important to make sure that the thumb stays in parallel with the fingerboard so you don't risk jamming your thumb at the corner of the neck shifting down. When coming down, the violin will be on your shoulder until your thumb reaches the neck so there is no danger of dropping it. The bow arm also has to adjust to make this work (as you are moving the violin laterally), but I'm sure it's doable with practice.

There you have it - my unqualified advice again. ;)

June 17, 2012 at 07:00 PM · Christian and others who have recommend shifting up against the fingerboard, thanks for this advice. I will try it out in my practice tomorrow. I tried dropping the violin onto the shoulder (when I play without SR I don't let the violin back touch my shoulder at all) for "thumb position" as I had been advised by a collegue, but this was too disturbing and counterintuitive.

Cheers Carlo

June 21, 2012 at 11:31 AM · I tried shifting up the fingerboard. Do you mean the thumb sits on the belly against the fingerboard? I tried this but it felt insecure. I am now bringing the shoulder up, for a second, on the transition. I may have a shoulder rest bonfire soon...

Cheers Carlo

June 21, 2012 at 04:34 PM · I have long, skinny, alien lookin' hands. While I don't really need my thumb to leave the neck on violin, I also play an enormous viola. I imagine that violin + a person with normal to small hands, similar principles might apply;

If I'm spending any length of time above 7th on viola, I need to bring my thumb up along under the rib. It becomes especially crucial if I've got to play double/triple stops, sustained notes that need juicy vibrato, or I've got a bunch of very fast notes. Having my fingers directly over the string(s) vs. reaching makes a huge amount of difference, for me, in clarity, ease, and quality of vibrato.

I've got a Dolin chinrest and I use a Huber foam pad thingy, the set up is rock solid. Even if I've got a radical shift into the stratosphere on the C string, that sucker won't budge unless I want it to. For me the set up is so perfect I'm borderline raving. I owe it all to the Ligeti Viola Sonata first movement.

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