Kogan's thumb

April 7, 2014 at 01:37 PM · This has to be seen. I've been trying to figure out thumb placement by non-SR users for ages and am stumped because all you see in all videos is the view from infront or, at best from ontop. This one is different, you see it from the back of the violin. And what do we find that the great Kogan does? First look at 2.02 for a top view - he is nowhere near violin-body end of the keyboard but he has a flexed thumb. You can see this better from the back: 2.22 (and many other places)

Awesome Kogan violin music interview

3.41 is particularly illustrative as he is near the nut and the thumb is clearly right behind the neck. Some of these placements are associated with reaching fingering but others are with vibrato - and answers the question I really had in mind - how do you get a free hand for vibrato when working without an SR.

BTW this is a sensational video that captures Kogan's love of the music and truly superlative technique and musicality


April 6, 2014 at 11:48 PM · I just heard the whole thing - truly amazing. At the end there is a voice over saying that it was annotated by Eric Friedman.

April 7, 2014 at 08:00 PM · Kogan seems to have found his own way to make music. Equally perplexing is his index finger of the right hand, that often lifts up when playing in the lower portion of the bow. Perhaps these were habits of his youth that carried into adulthood. I am unaware of any other violinist who plays like him.

April 7, 2014 at 08:25 PM · The reason I found this is that I've just decided to try playing SR-less again (it went fine before, its even better this time) and needed to find out how people hold the violin up AND do vibrato. This led me to scrutinize three titans: Heifetz, Milstein and Kogan. What I learned thats most significant is that each has what appears to be a unique way of playing and what I infer is that playing resless requires individual tuning depending on your body shape.

The challenge is, of course, the same: hold the violin in such a way that you can do clean bowing and, have a free left hand to do fast fingering and shifts and also generate a beautiful tone. Heifetz is instructive because he is so, well average (never thought I would get those two words in the same sentence!) in shape. Moderate hands, mid range arms (for his body), nothing so particular that I could see. You can study his playing all you like but unless you have a similar body structure you may be wasting your time. But note the left hand almost square to the violin and perfectly placed thumb, supporting at the distal joint. The hand moves up and down as a unit like an old typewriter roller - and exactly as one is supposed to play.

I'm not sure what the body structure difference is with Milstein but he holds the violin as if it was a lapel badge. its stuck to his chest - look at the end pin, its way below his neck and the top edge of his violin is almost beyond the midpoint on the neck. Its astonishing that his bowing is so effortless - he must have long arms.

Kogan has short arms and narrow shoulders - but giant hands. He holds his violin firly with his chin firmly on the chin rest pointing along the line of the violin (often stated as a no-no but several violinists do this). His limited arm range is compensated by spider-like hands that crawl all over the instrument and break every rule in the book. The thumb is on the side, underneath, pointing back (as shown) gripping and often the neck dips deep into the thumb-digit space eliminating the 'gap'. He breaks every rule but manages to maintain a perfect tone and fingering - and musicality proving the old adage that the 'end justifies the means'.

The outcome of this exploration is that if you want to play SR-less - research it well to understand the options but most important find the way that works for your body. There are critical issues [one is letting the violin slope to contact your shoulder and another, stressed in an article Raphael wrote ages ago, is to bring the left shoulder forward under the violin NOT up. This has been to me invaluable advice to get back on the SR-free waggon...].

I better stop!!

April 7, 2014 at 10:22 PM · Greetings,

interesting post.

Milstein has short arms.



April 7, 2014 at 10:25 PM · Thanks Buri - thats may be the missing link (though I guessed the opposite). Bringing his violin down like a banjo means he can shorten the reach of his left arm - but the price is lengthening that of his right (the angle of contact gets steeper so you have to reach out past the violin) so I'm not sure how he does that.

April 7, 2014 at 10:37 PM · Greetings,

no prob. The thing stout the thumb pointing back is not actually breaking a rule. Soviet school players had a tendency to play this way. Indeed, the first decent teacher I went to offered me the choice of p

aging that way or in the pointing up position. He actually called the backward pointing a feature of the soviet school and said that it made the second and fourth potion much more stable but one lost a bit in the odd positions. I have never put this to the test.

Because Milsteins arks were so short he had an unusual philosophy of Bowing. He always said 'do it from the shoulder.' That included bow changes (if you involve the hand and fingers there is a gulp .sic) and even spicatto. It is not advice that everyone could follow.



April 7, 2014 at 10:42 PM · BTW

I think violinist get rather anal about the so called thumb position. Don't get bogged down in the mire. Galamian once lost his patience during one such discussion and stated that it was the finger that are important. The thumb then accomodates accordingly.



April 8, 2014 at 01:14 AM · BTW

although rules can be formulated about the position of the thumb and the way it works in relation to the fingers it is not a good idea to approach the issue from this direction. Indeed, Simon Fischer notes in Basics that one of the simplest ways to find out naturally what the thumb wants to do is to take off the shoulder rest and practice shifting exercises. When one puts the rest back on one should retian the movemnts one has required ina natural way. Simon follows up by saying that he isn`t suggesting one should play without a shoulder rest all the time. But then he never got round to learing to play without one. No reason to as he has a long neck.



April 8, 2014 at 05:10 AM · violinists without thumbs don't use rests simply because they are too hard to put on.....

April 8, 2014 at 07:03 AM · there once was a fiddler called Kogan,

who became Russia`s violin shogun

he stretched so far,

he gobsmacked the Tsar

Although his thumb was a bit of a rogue `un.

April 8, 2014 at 05:36 PM · I have heard - and been taught - about angling the thumb backwards (back but to the side of the fingerboard), its a standard technique. But Kogan's thumb does far more than that. It is aligned along the finger board and directly underneath it. Is that also standard Russian school that I somehow missed? I've never seen it before.

[And john where did you get the stupid idea that we are picking on Kogan - that is exactly the opposite goal of this topic, I am in awe of his playing]

April 8, 2014 at 07:29 PM · John, thanks for mentioning that Leeds article. It is very interesting. Here is the proper link:

University of Leeds - School of Music - CHASE

(By the way, I notice now that John posted that on another thread. But since Elise was comparing postures it seems appropriate here too.)

April 8, 2014 at 09:41 PM · Greetings,

exactly. When I was at RCM there was a brilliant violinist with tiniest hands I have ever seen on a player. Her thumb pointed straight back. Dont know where she is now but was leading player in Singapore Symphony Orchestra.



April 8, 2014 at 11:54 PM · a young Ruski fiddler called kogan,

once had his thumb badly brogan

it healed just fine,

though in a straight line

which is still discussed on Wogan

April 9, 2014 at 12:44 AM · Elise - thanks for the plug! Anyone can review my approach by going to my website http://rkviolin.com then go to "writings" then "fundamentals".

One of the most exemplary players, both for what actually comes out of his instrument, as well as his model form, is Aaron Rosand. There are a number of videos of him paying. But then look at Perlman, Ricci, Accardo. Their thumbs all stick out the way you "shouldn't". In Perlman's case, that's just the way his thumb always is, even w.o. the violin. Then look at Ehnes (who does use a SR) and his hooked thumb - another "no-no". But what results in all cases! What almost everyone agrees to is that the thumb should be relaxed and flexible and responsive - and never press hard against the neck.

For a long time I had that thumb pressing problem. After a brief period of study with Rosand, it went away. W.o. the SR and with my hand more over the instrument and the elbow more under the violin, my thumb angle changed, and gravity helped. Vibrato, which I always did rather well, became freer, and shifting more direct. (This is not to say that you have to ditch the SR to play well. I did admiringly mention Ehnes and I admire so many other great resters - Hahn, Vengerov, Repin etc. etc. etc. But this all ties in with my technique)

I studied for a year with Arturo Delmoni, and at the time still had the thumb pressing problem. He pointed it out to me, but couldn't find the solution for me. (We were both resters at the time.) He related the rather radical way that he learned not to press his thumb. He was studying with Galamian at the time. Art, Mr. G and a few other students were about to car-pool off to Meadowmount. As they climbed in, somehow a car door slammed shut onto Artie's (he came to not like being called that!)left thumb. He screamed in pain, and everyone felt terrible for him - except Mr. G.

"Eeeze best vhat could happen to him" said Mr. G. "What???" cried everyone else in shock. "Eeze best vhat could happen to him" reiterated Mr. G and explained "Zeese vay sumb vant press, no can press." It turned out to be true, but I'd hardly recommend it! A. told me that this perfectly illustrated Galaminan's combination of callousness and optimism!

April 9, 2014 at 05:33 AM · Greetings,

very useful and thought provoking article. thanks for posting it John.

This comment is utterly farcical....;)

`Among the very few surviving advocates of a basically 19th-century posture is the veteran player and teacher Aaron Rosand (b. 1927), as demonstrated on his 2010 DVD Aaron Rosand Teacher.`

Of course the position of the violin is primarily determined by the ability of the player to use the full length of the bow. However, just as one example, when I was at RCM Rodney Friend was teaching to hold the violin more facing forward and advocated the use of a specific shoulder pad. It is ridiculous to suggest that Rosand aside, such virtuoso players and teachers who train some of the truly young artists are somehow looking back to the 19th century and therefore, by implication, deficient.



April 9, 2014 at 09:42 AM · Well theres this video of Heifetz playing the Mendelssohn


April 9, 2014 at 09:54 AM · Greetings,

sorry, I don't quite understand what point is being made in relation to the previous comments. could you elaborate,



April 9, 2014 at 10:10 AM · Well, there's the video of Klayman playing the "Meditation from Thais" ;-D

But seriously, re Auer: on one hand he liked to say (at least to top pupils like Heifetz) "play it with your nose, as long as you make it sound alright". But he did have a specific approach to holding the bow, which I elaborated in an old thread comparing Russian, Franco-Belgian, etc. He also did advocate certain principles of holding the violin, including, specifically, the thumb. V. "Violin Playing as I teach It" p.11. BTW, my first 2 teachers had been students of Auer.

April 9, 2014 at 06:53 PM · John,,

your moderately offensive post makes no sense to me. Perhaps you could think a little moe carefully about what I wrote. I criticize the article for it's -very- clear implication that playing with the violin pointed more to the front was somehow dated or inferior to more modern approaches. I provided a counter example by a world class player and teacher other than Rosand. My -logic- throughout this discussion has been consistent that there is no right or wrong way to hold the violin -if- it is the best way for the individual in question.

your rather patronizing comment about the arm being heavy reflects your lack of knowledge in this area. In fact there is a floating point for the arm which , if understood makes holding the arm up one of the least difficult problems for players who are taught properly.

Not sure why you suddenly chose to address me in such a cocky manner but you sure as heck aren't qualified as a player or teacher to do so.

April 9, 2014 at 11:28 PM · The thumb is the violinist's enemy. It grabs. It gets in the way and is generally a nuisance. To put it into its place, affix 2 bandaids to it so it cannot move without your permission. You can also wrap it in a small bit of cloth which prevents it from its prevention of shifting to higher positions, which it hates due its fear of heights. This beats the hell out of banging the thumb with a hammer, or wedging it in a car door as Artie Delmonie did.

April 10, 2014 at 12:00 PM · speaking of SR-less players, is Nigel Kennedy playing without a chin rest too in this video:

kennedy Bach Aminor

All I could see was a folded cloth...

April 10, 2014 at 08:06 PM · 1) Can I just say that questions and suggestions from thoughtful, inquisitive, ingenious, (even ingenuous?) and totally "unqualified" amateurs very often touch on close observation of details that we Qualified Professionals take for granted.

2) Thank you Elise for a Thumb Thread: violin support, with or without participation from the left shoulder, has a lot to do with thumbs. Some students have to pay concious attention to their thumbs, in order to be able forget them while concentrating on fingers....

April 15, 2014 at 08:24 PM · Elise said: "The outcome of this exploration is that if you want to play SR-less - research it well to understand the options but most important find the way that works for your body."

For me, this sums it up in a sentence!

As a self-taught player, I've found quite dogmatic statements from reputed teachers that the "correct" position for the thumb should be opposite the first, the second, and even the third finger. And I once had an informal lesson from a Menuhin student who insisted that the only correct place for the thumb was under the neck.

What are students to make of this? It seems that a technique that worked for an individual teacher became ossified at some stage and passed down the generations as gospel.

But as Elise and Buri say, the real answer is surely to study your own body mechanics.

My own simplistic approach is:

  1. Ensure my elbow and shoulder are relaxed
  2. Place the fingers over the strings in the most natural, relaxed and efficient position
  3. Ensure the thumb is relaxed and let the position fall where it may: ie the thumb position is determined by the fingers and not vice-versa
  4. Repeat this exercise in every position, and learn to link the positions together smoothly

In my case, abandoning pre-conceived notions of how my thumb "should" be positioned and following this simple approached has helped resolve a number of left hand issues. For me it points a little back, in a position I've never seen endorsed by a teacher, but it seems to work for my physique.

Does this make sense? I can't see why it needs to be more complex - or am I missing something?

April 15, 2014 at 09:15 PM · PS: I've also noticed that his bow hand is positioned father down the bow than conventional teaching would recommend.

This is another area where abandoning pre-conceived form and going with the hold that seems most natural, balanced and comfortable for my own physique seems to be paying off.

April 15, 2014 at 09:52 PM · Ultimately the instrument has to conform to your body - but you also can not deny all of the accumulated knowledge of how best to play a violin. Getting that balance requires dipping into both pots - and the fastest way I think is with an open-minded teacher.

April 16, 2014 at 02:14 PM · Yes but many of us are still students!

Oh, Henry has removed his post..

April 20, 2014 at 02:44 PM · Nate, you are right!!!!

April 22, 2014 at 12:07 PM · Great article! Thanks for sharing John, and for the link Jean.

Great topic Elise and thanks for the link to the Kogan doc!

A few uses for the backward thumb:

1)for leverage: by using the thumb and finger as a unit, turned from the wrist, as when turning a stubborn wingnut or stiff deadbolt, one can add pressure without pressing from the fingers, and alleviate any problems caused by an excessively opposable thumb

2)for greater range of motion in vibrato, in particular, for a vibrato which swings away toward the scroll

3)to stabilize the fiddle on big down shifts, lead with the thumb (useful for rest-less players without a shelf for a shoulder, though I learned that trick from a shelf-shouldered player)

April 22, 2014 at 12:37 PM · Regarding the forward position, it seems (apart from the tucked in left elbow) beginners tend to gravitate to that position instinctively.

April 27, 2014 at 10:07 PM · Hey Elise,

check this out:


(no shoulder rest used)

April 27, 2014 at 11:23 PM · Rocky: he cheated he used one violin as a rest for the other..

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