Firmness of left hand fingers.

January 13, 2014 at 07:47 PM · I often find myself rather puzzled when I hear other players speak of their views on left hand finger placement technique. A few people say to place your fingers firmly and attack the strings. While others say to be as light as possible and only press hard enough not to sound a harmonic. What are your opinions on this matter? I have always tried to be light and gentle, but was told to press more firmly. I look forward to reading your responses.

Replies (49)

January 13, 2014 at 10:16 PM · Greetings,

the language you quote almost seems to be confusing two issues so just to check....

There is the idea of fast fingers which are characteristic of top players. This means that your fingers move rapidly to the required note even in relatively slow passages. this is about technical timing versus musical timings the latter being when the note should actually occur in the music itself. This skill can be practice by playing a moderate tempo passage and lifting or placing fingers at th last possible moment before they are required.

If you attack a note with a finger as it were,, yu will make a slight accent or emphasis so this belongs in the realm of musical effect.

Then there is the question of finger pressure on the string. Presssing the string against the fingerboard is not necessary except when playing pizzicato. Something like three quarters pressed down is about right. There are some excellent exercises to practice applying varying degrees of finger pressure in order to sensitize the fingertips in Simon Fischer's books including Basics and 'Warming Up'.

Cheers

Buri

January 13, 2014 at 10:41 PM ·

January 13, 2014 at 11:02 PM · Sassmanshaus (sp?) has an excellent exercise on this - basically its both. A rapid attack and an almost immediate relaxation. His point (and I think its in Fischer Basics too, reading between the lines perhaps on 'fast fingers') is that the finger does two jobs in stopping: the first is to terminate the previous note (which requires some pressure) and the second is to make the new one, which really does not.

So I think a good answer is 'Yes'. :D

January 13, 2014 at 11:19 PM · Greetings,

yes, but this is on ascending passages. When descending one can ando should place the finger as gently as possible.

Cheers,

Buri

January 14, 2014 at 08:16 AM · Buri - hadn't thought of that (I don't remember S mentioning it) but it makes total sense since there is no previous note to stop.

January 14, 2014 at 03:11 PM · My teacher favored a strong downward motion for fingering, or at least that's how I heard him. I note that my "heavy" fingering makes a very crisp trill, for instance, but the sound of the tips hitting the string/fingerboard can be heard if I am playing quietly. Not so good, imo, so something I listen for and work on regularly.

January 14, 2014 at 03:28 PM · Can anyone else hear it Sue? If not maybe its not really an issue - unless I guess you place the finger significantly before you make the note (like before a rest...)

January 15, 2014 at 01:35 AM · Apart from pizzicato, the only other occasion I can think of where you definitely need to put the string into contact with the fingerboard is when you're playing a stopped harmonic.

One advantage of not pressing the strings right down to the fingerboard is that wear and tear on the strings is minimized, therefore lengthening their life and retention of tone. Another advantage is that wear and tear on the player's finger joints is also minimized.

January 15, 2014 at 06:20 AM · I find that's it's frequently necessary to use more pressure than necessary to prevent a harmonic.

There's other artifacts when my fingers are too light, like a scratchiness that I think is the string vibrating against my fingertips. And this is more or less likely to occur depending on how I'm bowing.

In the case of fifth interval double stops, the pressure is quite uneven for me. I think it's typically the left side that is more firmly stopped than the right, but I'd have to check that.

I think trilling might also be an exception, but I haven't puzzled that one out completely yet.

January 15, 2014 at 06:28 AM · Greetings,

?I find that's it's frequently necessary to use more pressure than necessary to prevent a harmonic.

PossiBly this slightly misses the point many of us are making?

There is a minimum amount of pressure necessary for the note to sund rather than being a quasi harmonic scratch. this minimum amount of pressure is not the same as saying touch the strings lightly. Rather it is pointing out that fully depressing the string or hitting them harder for no reason causes tremendous tension in they'd left amd and wear and tear over time.

Cheers,

buri

January 15, 2014 at 08:17 AM · Greetings,

just called to mind a time at RCM when we were being coached by the greta English violnist Hugh Bean. He told us that an wasy way to speed up vibrato for expressive effetc is to simply increaseleft hand finger pressure on that note. This would not be possible if one is already pressing the string down very hard.

Cheers,

buri

January 15, 2014 at 05:56 PM · Buri,

No disagreements there, I just thought that some elaboration might be in order. I was mainly replying to the original poster hearing that you should use only enough pressure to avoid sounding a harmonic. Fischer's Basics said the same thing and caused a bit of confusion for me for a while.

January 15, 2014 at 11:55 PM · Pros to playing lightly (just enough pressure to connect with fingerboard):

Increase in speed.

Consistent or better intonation.

Less to no problems with tension.

Wide vibrato.

Better control of vibrato speeds

A much better chance at have excellent left hand technique.

Able to play fast, in tune trills for longer periods of time.

Less likely to develop repetitive strain injuries.

If you keep your fingers close to the finger board the above is enhanced (except for vibrato).

Watch Kremer's fourth finger, it is usually staying close to the fingerboard.

Kremer plays Bach

Cons to playing with a light touch. Non that I know of.

Pros to playing with a fast attack or learning Sassmannshaus's technique. Non that I know of. If there is a benefit it is barely audible.

Cons to playing with a fast attack:

Finger height can be hard to control.

Major increase in tension.

A higher probability of poor left hand technique. Tension cripples the left hand.

Increases poor intonation.

Slower trills. Long trill durations become painful to wrist area.

Slow vibrato and variable vibrato speeds becomes more difficult.

Finger to fingerboard noises can be heard in recordings.

I my opinion do not let anyone lead you astray into thinking that pressing harder or having a faster attack is better, because its not. It literally handicaps musicians in a lot a ways.

January 16, 2014 at 04:38 AM · Thank you all for your replies, this question has been burning in my thoughts for a long time and it is nice to has one less thing to think about while playing!

January 16, 2014 at 12:31 PM · Charles did a good job highlighting the pros and cons. Basically with more pressure, you get less control and more tension. You won't be able to play as quickly or have as much stamina. The intonation will be no where as good as someone who plays relaxed. Also the vibrato, when too much pressure is applied, is more of a nervous twitch rather than a vibrato.

January 17, 2014 at 04:46 AM · Greetings,

just going through another thread and I found this comment by Christian Vachon that says it all:

'Oistrakh used very little finger pressure as he played in both the bow and left hand, so much so that one of his students told me that even after he finished playing you could not see the mark of the string on the finger! He did not hammer notes either. He believed that an unforced sound created clarity. As for the left hand it is kept light (i.e. zero thumb pressure) and the fingers are active, particularly in lifting rather than in coming down. The finger action must be vertical (many people have a habit of lifting the fingers sideways) - a good way to know this is to look at the finger. It should be above the string it will play on before it comes down and after it comes up. '

Cheers,

Buri

January 17, 2014 at 05:26 AM · One problem I often discover about students is that they use muscles almost from the entire hand to put a finger down. Press firmly on the string require just the muscle around the finger, just like when you're typing on keyboard, or clicking a mouse button (and holding them).

Another benefit to press firmly and yet gently is to allow the finger to secure the pressing point while allowing the joint to move freely thus allowing tight fingers placements e.g. semitones at 5th position and up.

January 17, 2014 at 03:32 PM · The flexion of the fingers comes from muscles in the forearm, not the hand. As you flex the left-hand fingers feel the muscle activity in your left forearm with your right hand and see the tendons move on the back of the hand and the inside of the wrist.

Stephen's reference to “zero thumb pressure” is correct, and is so rarely seen. In actuality the pressure of the thumb should be replaced by a light friction of the distal pad of the thumb against the side of the neck – not under the neck.

An exercise my teacher taught me to get the right sort of the pressure on the strings was to practice scales with the fingers barely touching the strings so that all you get is a glassy harmonic sound. Then very gradually increase the finger pressure until the sound suddenly becomes clear and well-defined. At this point the string should not be in contact with the fingerboard. This is the lightness of touch that should be aimed for.

January 17, 2014 at 04:03 PM · Trevor- I stand corrected, thanks. Interesting to note that a fantastic player that I know told me that one should press the finger all the way down to get better sound.

January 17, 2014 at 04:13 PM · Actually, the lumbricals of the hand also flex the fingers at their base joints. I would suggest finger placement be done with the lumbricals (intrinsic muscles of the hand,) minimizing use of the flexors (extrinsic,) and finger lifting be done with the extensors (extrinsic.) That way the flexors can kick in and provide some 'zing' for an expressive vibrato.

Sometimes though it helps to just think of reversibility (Part 1 and Part 2) which takes care of stuck motions in general. A reversibility exercise for the fingers: lower the finger slowly (glacially) over 4 counts barely touching the string on the count of 1 and simultaneously, explosively lift the finger at its base knuckle as high as possible; repeat. Kick it up a notch, and yell "BAM" during the lift, just to amuse the neighbours.

January 17, 2014 at 10:50 PM · Greetings,

`Kick it up a notch, and yell "BAM" during the lift, just to amuse the neighbours.`

This is not the best attempt at product placement I have seen....

As I stressed in a couple of previous posts violinists are generally better served by an explosive `woof.`

Cheers,

Buri

January 17, 2014 at 11:30 PM · @ Trevor

"At this point the string should not be in contact with the fingerboard"

The String MUST touch the fingerboard to achieve good tone.

Try this: Move hand to 4th position, descend the first finger slowly down towards the fingerboard. While in decent, pluck the string with the RH. You should notice that the tone is poor(dead) until the string touches the fingerboard, and then you will notice a clean tone. If you keep adding pressure to the string you will notice no improvement in tone, unless you are habitually plucking harder.

January 18, 2014 at 12:39 AM · Greetings,

we'll for me there is a problem with the 'must touch the fingerboard' approach. Assuming that one has used the minimum of pressure to archive this goal then when you release pressure on the string during vibrato (a fundamental aspect of vibrato technique) then the finger no longer touches the fingerboard. So is the tone bad when one does vibrato?

I know there are two schools of though on this issue , indeed I studied withal marvelous player who advocated just what yu say. But on the whole an think the trend is to not do this except in specific instances.

Cheers,

Buri

January 18, 2014 at 12:56 AM · 'The String MUST touch the fingerboard to achieve good tone.'

I just tried that, and didn't hear any sound come out of the instrument.

January 18, 2014 at 12:32 PM · I find this a very interesting question, and one where there doesn't seem to be a consensus, as we can see from the thread. For example Auer seems to have taught a hammer-like finger drop, as far as I understand his writings.

By force of circustance I'm pretty much self-taught, so I've tried to work this out from first principles and make up my own mind.

It seems to me that a sensible starting point is the principle that every movement should be as relaxed, natural and simple as possible. Tension and force should only be used if there is no alternative. So provided we can get light pressure to work, we should favour it over a heavy, percussive approach. This should be safer, more agile, and work better into old age (I'm not in the first flush of youth!).

When I play concertina I work with an image from a very fine player who likes to think of his fingers as "dancing lightly on the keys". On the fiddle I'm trying to develop a sense of my fingers "dancing lightly on the strings".

As a sometime cellist I'm also influenced by an idea from modern cello techniqe. In an attempt to reduce left hand injury, many players now place their finger tips on the neck between the strings and stop the string from the side. This works surprisingly well and greatly reduces the pressure required.

On the violin we don't have space to place our fingers between the strings, but I find that combining the idea of a light finger drop with a point of contact somewhat to the side of the string makes for a clean, crisp attack with very little pressure. Also, the curve of a relaxed finger drop takes my finger tip naturally to the side of the string. For me, working on the side of the string works better with light pressure than dropping directly onto the top of the string.

Another left-hand idea I find helpful is an image from Kato Havas that the palm of the hand should be as soft as it would be cradling the shell of a tiny egg.

It's quite a discipline to keep things relaxed and light like this, and I often slip into stronger pressure, particularly when I'm working on a right-hand issue or when playing FF. But when I do pull it off my sound is better and my left hand is much less fatigued.

I'm no teacher so the usual health warnings apply...

January 18, 2014 at 12:38 PM · Ha Buri, the branding didn't occur to me... I was thinking more of a certain boisterous New Awlins chef. I only know the case co. by their unique ability to produce efficient transmitters of shock as a colleague's decapitated fiddle would testify. But me thinks one needs play a fifth lower to emit a respectable woof!

~~~

Getting back to Casey's point I agree the real problem lies with a rigid use of the hand muscles rather than vertical force employed. For instance, the concept of general hand shape wherein the default posture describes a 'c', with fingers uniformly curled and base knuckles generally extended, which forces the base knuckles to be too parallel to the strings and the forearm too supinated, does far more to impede facility than 'hammering' the fingers. The force required depends on context and the player's build. That's not to underplay the importance of fleet fingers, but sometimes, for some people, a heavy-fingered approach is required, as long as it's reversible.

January 18, 2014 at 03:43 PM · Charles, re your last post of 17 January, playing pizzicato or stopped harmonics both require the string to be in contact with the finger board. Bowed playing does not have this absolute requirement.

Something I have observed with my relatively broad (cellist's) fingers is that, although the string itself may not be touching the finger board, the finger itself may be touching. This is probably because I have a low action on my violins.

January 18, 2014 at 04:05 PM · Geoff, re your comment about cellists stopping the string from the side rather than from the top, this was taught by Paul Tortelier (so that's going back a bit), but in relation to harmonics, as I remember. I have used it occasionally in high positions on the cello A, but not elsewhere.

[five minutes later]

Since typing the above I was inspired to try the side-fingering technique on my violin. It works a treat in the very high positions on the E. In fact, with my relatively short fingers it is easier. In a concert coming up we're performing a new work by a local composer which requires the firsts to play a sustained and exposed 3rd octave G in the frosty region of the E string. On my violin that is at the very end of the finger board, and is not easy for me to reach reliably from on top of the string - unless, as I've just discovered, I stop the string from the side, where it is significantly easier. I can now also play the hitherto inaccessible A beyond that G - Dvorak VC, here I come ;)

January 18, 2014 at 07:46 PM · Hi,

Quickly…

Buri: thanks for the quote and kind words! Coming from you, this is high praise indeed!

Being consistent about this is always a great challenge, especially the link between release in the bow and release in the left hand (or vice-versa).

Cheers!

January 18, 2014 at 09:04 PM · Hi Christian,

I gather from Simon`s work that he attaches a greta deal of importance to this concept of delinking. In both Basics and Warming up he demonstrates exercises where one works on individual notes played with various degrees of pressure and scales played with degrees of pressure ranging from zero to the maximum necessary amount. He strongly advocates using this as a practice method for pieces.

Cheers,

buri

January 19, 2014 at 03:33 AM · Greetings,

this morning I was reredaing the introduction Simon wrote for his edition of sevcik opus 1 book 1. He states that after the finger stops the string it should release pressure.

Cheers,

Buri

January 19, 2014 at 04:03 AM · > The String MUST touch the fingerboard to achieve good tone.

I disagree. On modern violins, the projection of the neck is such that the fingerboard is not responsible for stopping the vibration of the string, rather the fingers are. Pushing the strings all the way down to the fingerboard, particularly in higher positions, chokes off the sound.

In practical consideration, there isn't that much a difference in first position since the strings are so close to the fingerboard anyhow. Higher up though...it makes a big difference, particularly as the string height versus the fingerboard increases as you get closer to the top of the fingerboard, to push it all the way down would require increasingly more pressure. This is especially problematic on steel E strings, which change pitch noticeably in high positions when they are stretched beyond their limits.

There is a definite range between a harmonic, stopping the note without hitting the fingerboard, and having the string contact the fingerboard.

However, there is a case where you do want to keep the string firmly depressed and in contact with the fingerboard: playing pizzicato!

January 19, 2014 at 10:47 AM · Trevor

I think the idea of stopping the string from the side was mainly established by Victor Sazer in his radical book New Directions In Cello Playing.

When you think about it mechanically, drawing the bow horizontally should mean that the string is mainly vibrating from side to side. So it seems quite logical that stopping from the side would stop the old vibration more cleanly than stopping from above.

My own experiments seem to bear this out. When I get it right I can play cleanly without getting any pressure grooves on my left finger tips, just "dancing" on the surface of the string.

January 19, 2014 at 05:13 PM · Yes, it's misleading to say the string must touch the fingerboard, but it's also misleading to say that the string doesn't need to touch. If we had fingertips made of wood than we could get the perfect sound with just a little pressure on the string, but the pads of are fingertips are sometimes to soft. The best thing to say would be that string height and string tension are factors in determining if the string touching the fingerboard is necessary.

January 19, 2014 at 08:11 PM · Geoff, another trick that Tortelier taught for use in very high positions was to hold the left thumb underneath the fingerboard, and use the four fingers as normal on the strings, as an alternative to the thumb position on top of the strings. The technique works well, and I've seen it used by a professional soloist.

I don't know whether Tortelier got the idea for pressing the string from the side from Sazer, or vice versa; or whether there was a common source; or whether one or the other thought it up independently. Tortelier was several years older than Sazer and spent some years in the late '30s playing professionally in the USA. I wonder if they ever met.

January 20, 2014 at 05:09 AM · > also misleading to say that the string doesn't need to touch.

No it's not. This is a purely physical characteristic of the modern violin, and you can conduct an experiment to see whether it's possible or not and draw a conclusion from your results. I can understand if a violin is set up with a very low bridge and extremely low tension strings that they might always have contact, but that's not an ideal setup for most players.

In the higher positions, one does not need to press the string all the way down to the fingerboard in order to stop the string. In discovering the range of force necessary to play in this manner, it relaxes the left hand and eliminates the excessive downward pressure on the fingers that makes beginners wonder why they can't move quickly.

Go to page three of the Sibelius concerto and try to push the Bb on the three octave jump all the way down on the E string without causing the pitch to go haywire.

Go to the last movement of the Fourth Ysaye Sonata, and try to push the strings all the way down three bars before the key change to E major without slowing down or messing with the pitch.

Go to the Trio section of the Scherzo (Allegro molto) in Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" String quartet in the Violin I part, and try to make the string contact the fingerboard at the tops of the arpeggio passages, especially measures 31/32.

January 20, 2014 at 05:30 AM · Greetings,

Gene I was going to observe with a touch of humor that this would slice the ends of my fingers but actually it's not that funny. Just in case anyone is weird enough to want to try this kind of thing, please don't. The nerves in your fingertips are important.

Cheers,

Buri

January 21, 2014 at 07:12 AM · Hi Buri,

I forgot to add that these three cases in particular were huge learning experiences for me, because I used to press the strings down very hard when I played back in school. I don't even know why I did that. I couldn't figure out why my big shifts to high positions were never really in tune, I couldn't play the Ysaye cleanly or at tempo, and the Schubert third movement was absolutely punishing.

Then my mentor looked at me one day in a rehearsal where I was playing *viola* on the Brahms op. 18 sextet (and getting killed on the 16th note passages in the last movement) , and said "how much force do you think you need to stop the string?" Well, that triggered an entire month of experimentation and discovery and nowadays I teach my students to develop the sensitivity in the pads of their fingers to use only enough force to stop the string, but no more.

However, I should preface all this with a caveat: in order for this to work, you have to play on the pads of your fingers, with the nails facing up. If you play on the tips of your fingers, with the nails vertical, it doesn't work very well.

January 21, 2014 at 12:34 PM · Hi,

Buri, thanks for the references and food for thought. I will look them up.

In terms of releasing, Pinchas Zukerman once said in a masterclass that it we should help the left hand release by releasing the right one as well, or something to that effect (I can't remember what the exact wording is, sorry…). A very good point in my humble opinion.

Cheers!

January 21, 2014 at 02:33 PM · Rule of thumb (or in this case fingers:) feel the buzz. Make sure you can feel the string's vibration in the finger tips (pads) and you'll never over-press.

January 23, 2014 at 09:51 AM · Jeewon - useful tip - thanks for that.

January 23, 2014 at 12:39 PM · Something interesting is that if you play really high up on the E string it takes hardly any pressure, certainly nowhere near pushing down to the fingerboard. This begs the question: do we really need such a long fingerboard? Did the person who decided it should be this way not understand this fact of violin playing? Did baroque violinists play past the shorter fingerboard? I'm guessing some at least gave it a go!

An interesting thing happened to me. One day my fingerboard fell off. I was interested to see how much I could play without it. To my surprise, quite a lot, especially on the higher strings. I often think of the Chinese Erhu (bowed cousin of the violin) and how it does not have a fingerboard and yet has quite a clear tone.

Anyway, try it and see how little pressure you need, especially as you get higher up the fingerboard.

January 23, 2014 at 07:46 PM · "Make sure you can feel the string's vibration in the finger tips (pads)"

I think Jeewon's on to something here. The fingertips are among the most sensitive parts of the body, so is it beyond the bonds of possibility that with training someone, even a deaf person, could learn is "hear" pitches accurately with the fingers? Perhaps some of the best players already unconsciously incorporate some degree of tactile left hand "hearing" in their control over intonation.

This concept does not necessarily stop at the left hand. I am often aware with my right hand of the vibration not only of the bow stick but of the bow hairs in response to the vibration of the violin string being played.

January 23, 2014 at 07:53 PM · Christopher,

Locatelli was well-known a century before Paganini for exploring the highest areas of the strings (14th position and perhaps higher), and in those days of the Baroque that would have certainly been well beyond the end of the fingerboard. A couple of generations later both Haydn and Mozart, for example, were composing violin concertos with passages up to the high C and D on the E; again, beyond the end of the fingerboard of the time, which was essentially a Baroque fingerboard.

I believe the end of the Baroque fingerboard was somewhere in the region of the 2nd A on the E - that is the highest violin note used by J S Bach. But don't forget P D H Bach, a cousin of P D Q, who explored regions a couple of octaves higher than Locatelli's highest. It is said that dogs kept well away from him.

February 1, 2014 at 02:57 PM · I've only skimmed through these numerous, long posts, but highup on the E (and high up on the viola A) I get a clear tone without the string touching the fingerboard: just enough pressure to prevent the vibrating finger slipping.

My thumb has a counter-pressure: on the side of the neck for the E, more under the neck on th C or G. (Which is why I don't want to have to support the violin......)

This is in no way a universal rule, just what works for me.

The wider, heavier vibrations of the lowest strings are another matter and need holding more firmly.

February 11, 2014 at 07:03 AM · Here is a wonderfully informative video lesson on this concept by my longtime mentor and chamber music teacher, William Fitzpatrick:

http://www.virtualsheetmusic.com/experts/william/pressure/

February 12, 2014 at 10:10 PM · Gene - thanks - that really is a useful lesson from what looks like a most delightful teacher!

Interesting on why the best approach has changed since the days of Auer - clears up a source of confusion.

And the level of left hand articulation he demonstrates has given me a new goal to aim for!

I suspect the difference between the truly excellent players and the rest of us is that they take the care to really master these fundamentals, while we are too keen to move on to the flashier stuff...

February 13, 2014 at 01:03 PM · Hi,

Geoff, every piece at all levels is all about the fundamentals. The more complex the piece, the more of it you have in a shorter time sequence, that's all.

The one thing that I think did not get mentioned yet is the importance of the hand position in general. If you position your hand correctly, with the violin resting on the base of the first finger and the thumb coming up opposite to its own natural height, and the elbow pointing down and not rotated inwards, then the natural forces in play will bring the string down without any effort. Once that is done, then all you have to do if keep the thumb relaxed (i.e. keeping the thumb released on the neck at all times). That is the basic setup for the functioning of the left hand, the only other movement needed is to raise and drop the fingers vertically from the base knuckle keeping them above the string they are playing on or will play. Many a times, when things don't work, it is because we simply have not observed or set ourselves up to realize these fundamental basics. By addressing these first, we can save a lot of time in our practice by putting ourselves in the position to best realize that that we wish to accomplish. In essence, no matter what the level, we are working on and using these simple basics in various ways and combinations.

Cheers!

February 16, 2014 at 09:37 PM · Christian, you posted that advice on basics a couple of years ago and I've tried to take it to heart - it makes a lot of sense to me.

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