Help with balance of the left hand

January 5, 2015 at 06:58 PM · I'm really trying to get a free vibrato but I still feel tense in my neck and chest area, and I remembered that dounis always talked about a relaxed and free vibrato with is the basis of left hand technique,but I'm having a lot of trouble doing that,my whole left arm and shoulder tend to get tense while doing vibrato,but apparently he talked about a balance of the hand,which I'm obviously having trouble with or else I wouldn't be tense, any thoughts?

Replies (27)

January 5, 2015 at 07:45 PM · Main problem with vibrato and shifts is the general posture and hold of the violin. I can only guess, but it might help you to check in the mirror your general posture. Being balanced in the hip and shoulders is very important and so-called "talents" tend to have a certain feeling for that balance. There is actually quite good literature about vibrato, aswell as some helpful stuff on youtube. But you should in the end find your own way of doing it. From a distance I can only say: Mind your posture, so that the left shoulder has to hold less and the left hand is more free. Don't lean forward... ever.

About the balance in the left hand: You should be able to roll the fingers forward and backward from your playing position. While vibrating think about the 4th finger, always try to keep it close to the string to maintain a good finger and hand posture. This keeping the fingers close to the string will not necessarily help your hand relaxation, but that as I mentioned, should in my opinion come more from the general posture. The only general thing about the hand, wich could help the vibrato, is the thumb: Keep the thumb in a good position to allow him to be some kind of a hinge for the rest of the hand and forearm.

January 5, 2015 at 08:25 PM · I'm a rank amatuer, so take my advice for what it's worth:

Part of the key of getting the fingers free on the left hand is often making sure the elbow is forward sufficiently enough to allow the weight of the violin neck to rest on the thumb securely.

Play around with that concept-

Hold your violin. If you pull the elbow back, the violin wants to transfer it's weight to the base of the first finger.

Then, try an make an exaggerated move with your elbow far out in front, the violin will then easily rest upon your thumb alone.

Not that you should emulate this, but for illustration, check out how far forward Midori's elbow is here:

It's difficult to isolate one thing. What you may think is an issue with the left hand may actually be an issue with your left elbow or shoulder...

January 5, 2015 at 11:43 PM · Those things are true,but I personally don't use a shoulderrest,so it's a little difficult to emulate these things ,would it still be the same?

January 6, 2015 at 12:15 AM · Well actually I have been having problems with holding the violin completely comfortably,how could I address that keep in mind I don't plan on using a shoulder rest

January 6, 2015 at 01:24 AM · I don't use a shoulder rest either.

Try the experiment I outlined above.

January 6, 2015 at 01:39 AM · Ok I tried it, and it's good,but the problem is that I don't want to support the violin with my thumb because the vln will shake when I do vibrato, and I've spent so much time getting rid of the shaking by practicing without my thumb, so I'm kinda hitting a brick wall here, I'm not sure what Dounis had teach here, only words, but no explanation

January 6, 2015 at 07:57 AM · I don't think its possible to correct or help with problems like this on a forum. Maybe a video of you playing might, or might not, give a clue, but you really need a teacher who is able to sort this out.

January 6, 2015 at 04:10 PM · Why no shoulder-rest?

January 6, 2015 at 04:31 PM · Hi,

Peter is right: hard to give a diagnosis without seeing you. That said, some thoughts...

Professionally and personally, I do not advocate doing the over-rotation of the left elbow. It leads to a lot of tension and can make things harder to balance and I believe it is at the root of many pains that people experience playing the violin. Though many people who use shoulder rests do it and get away with it because of the rest (nothing to do with the rest other that it prevents the violin slipping out of balance from its place following the arm) or have a wrist vibrato, it is a source of great tension for most people; anytime one is out of balance with gravity, the body has to tense up to restore some sense of line with the vertical axis of gravity. Of course, there are many very successful players doing this kind of rotation. But, nonetheless, most people with very relaxed left hands (as among many examples of famous soloists Oistrakh, Grumiaux, Ehnes, Zimmerman, and many many others of course) do not do that, but keep the elbow pointing down, even when going into the higher positions, which are not higher but actually forward.

That said, violin is a holistic thing and one side can affect the other, so here are some things that could help you diagnose what is happening in your playing and how you may wish to address it:

Left hand/harm

1- Making sure that the elbow points down not sideways. Being in line with gravity which works vertically in one of the easiest ways to achieve balance and reduce tension.

2- The violin should rest on the base of the first finger with the thumb coming up on the opposite side to its natural length. Many people hold the thumb too low. Also, to be natural and relaxed it should be opposite the base of the first finger not the tip of the first finger for most people. If the thumb is too far forward, this will also add tension to the hand as the hand will be contracted.

3- The thumb should not press against the neck but must be released. In this regard, the biggest one to watch for is pressing against the neck between the thumb and base of the index. Feeling the need to press often happens if the thumb is not correctly positioned (most often too low) or the elbow is rotated to the right.

4- The shoulder should be down. If one doesn't use a rest, then the violin should be on the collarbone supported by the left arm. If you want to let it rest on the shoulder, then it has to sit on it, and the shoulder must not come up to support the violin (same with cushions or rests). Raising of the shoulder adds tension to everything.

5- Don't raise the collarbone to bring the violin to the chin (or the chin to the chinrest); this happens when the chinrest is too low. If you are doing this, you may want to explore a different chinrest.

Right hand/arm

Sometimes, things we do on the right side create tension that gets transferred sympathetically to the left hand/arm.

1- Overspreading the fingers of the right hand. Many modern players do this, but to be natural and not adding tension, the fingers are meant to be at the width of the hand, which is natural to the hand. The over-extension of the index is the most common to watch for.

2- Avoiding pressing the thumb and fingers into the bow. There is much talk about pressure vs weight, and actually, it is simple. Sound production is from lateral movement. Weight means that your arm/wrist/hand sit on the bow and the bow on the string and give weight as a whole. Pressure comes from pressing the fingers into the bow and is to be avoided. It really adds nothing to sound (it actually chokes it), only tension.

3- Being mindful to lead the bow from the forearm/elbow and not the shoulder. Playing from the shoulder creates instability as it creates a swinging motion in the upper body that can lead one to grabbing. When one presses the fingers into the bow, it tends to lock the elbow, which will make the shoulder more active than it needs to be. Raising of the left shoulder will actually cause the same issue in the bow and can be used as a symptom of something to watch on the left side.


Making sure that one doesn't press the neck/chin/jaw into the chinrest. It is easy to want to grab the chinrest between the neck and collarbone especially during shifts, but this adds a lot of tension. It is a chinrest, not a chin-grab.

General concept

There is quite a bit of fuss over verticality, which gets one into trouble from a balance point of view. The choice of English words for certain movements don’t help the situation actually. Sound production and shifting are lateral or sideways movements, not vertical. The bow doesn’t move up and down but sideways, open and closing the forearm. Same with the left hand/arm. We move forward into higher pitches and outward to the lower pitches, not into higher and lower positions. We also don’t go around the violin and there is no real need to. Keeping the shoulders down, the weight balance vertical and keeping the hands released by not pressing the fingers/thumb into anything and moving sideways, in/out and not up and down can help achieve much better balance and reducing tension. There is a big emphasis by some on high violins, etc., but a higher violin doesn’t actually do much for sound as the bridge rocks side to side and the string vibrates sideways which creates the sound. Downward pressure actually chokes the sound, or more exactly the vibration, reducing resonance and therefore projection. Plus, unless you use uniquely your arm to raise the violin, then all kinds of tension can result from raising the shoulders or arching the back.

Cheers, and hope these ideas can help you diagnose and find find an answer to your issues!

January 6, 2015 at 05:29 PM · Excellent points Christian, and holding the violin too high is worse than it being too low. A level fiddle (or very slightly up) keeps the bow on track and then one can decide where it plays in relation to the bridge and fingerboard.

I think your point about tension or too much pressure from the bow hand having an effect on the left hand is an excellent one as well. If I want a relaxed left hand in a movement like the Gigue in Bach's second (D minor) Partita then the bow hand must be reaxed to play the continually fast groups of six semi-quavers.

January 6, 2015 at 07:29 PM · Greetings,

as Christian says.

The body functions best moving forwards and backwards, or in and out of what one might call the neutral or least stressful position. the neutral position for the left arm is point ing down. The side to side movements operate around this and one should return to it as much a s posisble.



January 6, 2015 at 10:06 PM · So it would be ok to adjust your arm around to the string being played,or should you keep your arm in a single neural position? I'm just asking because this is what I do, the left hand I mean

January 6, 2015 at 10:30 PM · Greetings,

you adjust the position of the elbow as necessary but try not to go too far and get back to the neutral position a such as you can.I think some of the comments I made on a recent thread about stiff left arm hand will apply in your case, too.



January 7, 2015 at 02:30 AM · I know that it is a very sensitive matter for some violinists, but why you don't concider to play with a shoulder rest? Last year I took some students from a teacher, who left my city and teaches without shoulder rest. I have never experienced so much problems with holding the violin up to a level where the bow can safely play. I don't mean to say that without a shoulder rest playing is impossible, you all know, that most old players didn't use it. but they always used something, like a cushion, or a sponge, and they were all small in height, so the frame of the violin was high enough for them.

As for vibrato playing without a shoulder rest is a different world then playing with it. Without a shoulder rest the thumb is very much involved in the hold of the violin, wich brings some difficulties for the vibrato and shifts of course. It is a lot of work and a sensitive matter to get a good position for the left hand when playing without a shoulder rest. If you don't want to spend too much time on it and you feel, that your technique is in the way of music making, try out different chinrests and shoulderrests in various combination, there is nothing wrong with spending some hours at a violin shop, going through all their stuff. Its like with cars, if you want to ride the oldtimer, do it, its stylish and has charm, but if you get in trouble with fixing it every two months concider buying a modern car with automatic, if you want to focus more on where you want to go and how fast.

Setup is a very key component and its always disregarded. Of course Menuhin played without shoulder rest and preaches it, but he was menuhin, he had a violin in his hands from the age of four or even younger and even he struggled a lot with the hold of it.

Once my old teacher got it right on point: YOu can play the right way with or without shoulder rest and you can play wrong with or without shoulder rest. Keeping an eye on the setup can really help you finding something, that is more suited to you and your playing. It will not work wonders, but still its a key part of mastering the violin and its very subtle and sometimes things that feel bad in the beginning can be better than things that feel most comfortable. Its all about searching and finding. Same goes with the posture. Its really a waste of time to correct posture via talking/writing. I could tell you in 10 minutes, where you can improve, if you would be around. I would say, post a video of a scale or something else you want to play and I am sure you will get much more specific advice. Video quality is not important, just that I/we can see your upper body.

January 7, 2015 at 03:46 AM · Greetings,always loveSinmons intelligent and thoughtful posts.

Hoever, it is not true that not using a SR. brings difficulties with vibrato. Nordo I have any trouble shifting.

Be wary of the distinction between shoulder rest and the pads Simon mentions. I am very happy with those kind of things. A SR. is it's special way do doing things and it is not the same as using a pad or whatever.

As Simon so wisely notes, in the end you do one way correctly or the other.



January 7, 2015 at 05:06 AM · Well personally, I kinda have wide shoulders,so to use a shoulder rest for me pushes the violin up too much, course I've tried adjusting and getting multiple rests, but since I don't have much of a chest (yes I'm skinny) when I saw great violinists, I saw thatthey all didn't use a shoulder rest, so I experimented with it, and ever since then, I never went back, it's actually been a more comfortable experience, then with the sr, but this is soley personal preference

January 7, 2015 at 05:11 AM · "I don't want to support the violin with my thumb because the vln will shake when I do vibrato.." (Joey)

..not if the thumb can stay flexible..

"and I've spent so much time getting rid of the shaking by practicing without my thumb" this kind of practice, how did the violin stay up? The scroll against a wall? A hunched shoulder? Re-introducing the thumb can be done very gradually.

Is the base of the index finger helping to hold up the violin (as opposed to resting against the side of the fingerboard)? This will hamper a flexible vibrato. And where is the contact on the thumb? Too near its base, or too near its tip?

" is not true that not using a SR. brings difficulties with vibrato" (Buri)

For me it does (if no support from the shoulder) - it's all so personal.

January 7, 2015 at 05:38 AM · True, I'm just doing these things to help develop a more relaxed frame, but I guess since I haven't worked with a dounis student, I'm probably doing everything wrong anyways, I just thought it could help based on what I've read

January 7, 2015 at 06:10 AM · Greetings,

until you resolve the problem with the neck ,locally nothing will be resolved. Correct functioning of the whole body is based on the correct relationship of head neck and spine..If you can get them, Alexander Technique lessons are invaluable.



January 7, 2015 at 07:28 PM · What Dounis means by a balanced left hand can be illustrated by sitting at a table. Put all four curved fingers down on the edge of the table without the thumb. Let the arm hang. You will notice that the fingers are all balanced evenly, supporting the weight of the arm. If the tabletop were a fingerboard, this would be the ideal position to play fast notes. If, however, you put down each finger individually 1,2,3,4 and lift each after being down you will notice that your hand will move around to balance on the new finger. This transfer of balance is what you want to achieve in a good vibrato. To feel this on the violin you can vibrato on 1st and 2nd finger together, then 2 and 3 together, then 3 and 4 together. You should be able to feel a change in balance of the left hand.

The first exercise in “Fundamental Exercises for the Young Violinist” , Dounis addresses this. In the first 4 measures the fingering is 1234/ in which the wrist flexes in order to be on the 4th finger balance. After that you have 342312 in which the lift of the 4th finger brings you to the 3rd finger balance, the lift of 4 and 3 brings you to the 2nd finger balance, the lift of 3 and 2 brings you to the first finger balance. This exercise should be done using a free vibrato and vigorous lifts.

Dounis advocated a wrist vibrato, not arm. To isolate the hand, practice vibrato in 3rd position with the wrist contacting the body of the instrument so the arm does not move. The violin will not move around if the thumb is independent from the fingers and the vibrato motion is going in the correct direction.

January 7, 2015 at 08:07 PM · Thank you Bruce, for a clear account of this aspect of Dounis' teaching.

BTW I'm always a little surprised by the contact of the wrist with the upper bout in 3rd position: for me it's 4th or 5th; but then I am 6ft tall, with arms to match..

January 8, 2015 at 01:01 AM · Adrian,

You are correct. The contact with the wrist is in what I call middle position and this can vary according to a person's physique. I noticed in a student of mine who is about 6'5" and working on Paganini Concerto #1 that when he shifted to 3rd position his wrist bumped against the violin rib, but immediately disconnected from it. However, he still knew where he was in relation to the fingerboard. He has really great accuracy. Bruce

January 8, 2015 at 10:55 PM · Hey Steve, I have to say something to that quote: "Greetings,always loveSinmons intelligent and thoughtful posts.

Hoever, it is not true that not using a SR. brings difficulties with vibrato. Nordo I have any trouble shifting."

I wanted to say that learning vibrato always brings difficulties, with or without a shoulderrest. But the difficulties are different and if someone has no difficulties without shoulder rest, doen't mean, everyone won't.

I played both, with and without a rest. I know that both is possible and both have their strong aspects and their weaknesses. I only say that the OP should think about his setup as a part of the journey to a good vibrato and a good violin hold and posture (I don't want to even use the word "relaxed", because violin playing is not taking a bath or enjoying a cigarette after...). If no SR is his setup, then well, if he has the same problems with a shoulder rest, there must be something wrong elsewhere, but you can only know after you checked. And by checked I mean play at least a weak or two with it. I am just taking into consideration, what I know from experience no shoulderrest can be a huge problem for the left hand of some violin players, who were told, that no shoulderrest is the only way to go.

i know you got me right, I just wanted to clarify this one.

A teacher you trust, would be the easiest way to work on vibrato problems. But I must say that vibrato is a thing one must experiment a lot with students, they all have different movements and mine are completely different to the ones they successfully use. The thumb plays a great role, but only after the overall posture is confirmed to be good.

January 9, 2015 at 12:00 AM · Greetngs,

you are so right Simon. The SR. issue will never be resolved simply because it is a case by case issue.

I have taught and met hundred of SR. users with tight uncomfortable vibrato and general playing. They take off the rest and suddenly all is relaxed and free with a vastly improved sound. But, I would not argue that this proves SRs are bad. What I think one is actually seeing is quite a normal physiological reaction. When the body plays in discomfort in one position (without recognizing it- homeostasis) when it is placed in another new position the tension will immediately disappear in the short term. Not necessarily in the long run.....

For me, the key it both cases is correct teaching of relaxation and use of e body. The problem with SRs is so many teachers and players assume that it is a universal panacea and therefore if you just stick it up all problems will be resolved. Rather , what has not been taught about use of the body becomes hidden and many players never reach their true potential.

My own very personal view on SRs is connected to the way I look at players general appearance these days. It is encapsulated in a marvelous little clip of Galamian talking to Joshua Bell. He say 'If it looks ugly it's wrong.' I believe Galamian was trying to warn Bell that although he was/is an utter genius his use of the body could be aproblem when he got older. I think it is fair to say that came true to some extent. Anyway, as an example I saw the Czech Phil a few years back. The Conertmaster was an old school, compact , low slung virtuoso. The vice mistress was Japanese (?) player with a SR and the violin held extremely high. She was an extraordinary player of course but somehow it looked -a little- strained in comparison with the older guy although of course she could play anything sstanding on her head. Quite a few years down the line will she be okay? I am not sure. There is a vast amount of unreported damage to professional orchestral players which is largely

y unreported because of fear of losing jobs. My purely personal opinion which I adamantly refuse to debate (;)) is that the misuse of the SR has played quite a significant role in this over the long term.

But again, at the end of the day , the only issue is how you use your body. The instrument adapts to the body and not vice versa will always be my mantra.

BTW three cheers for the vibrato coments. Forget all the is wrist better than arm waffle and just do loads and loads of exercises everyday for the rest of your life. Something good will happen. Untaught vibrato makes me cringe 99 percent of the time.

Warms Regards,


January 9, 2015 at 07:57 AM · I like Bruce's clarification of Dounis's suggestions: effectively shifting the (apparent) weight of the hand onto the playing finger, rather than "gripping" the string with internal hand tension. Cellists must do this often, as they use the fourth finger a lot on very heavy strings. I now notice that I do this on my viola, and I shall pay more attention to this in my teaching..

In fast passages, however, the fingers must have their spacings in advance, and I must rely on a light, quick drop of each finger: no time for balance adjustment nor a free vibrato.

My two un-dogmatic centimes d'euro on the DSR (dreaded shoulder rest):

On my viola (longer, heavier, with more widely spaced notes), I hook the side of my jaw on the edge of the chinrest like most folk, but I do not really use the collar bone; my SR takes the weight, on a relaxed shoulder, and the weight of my head balances the viola see-saw fashion. Using my left hand to hold up the viola seems like trying to lift the chair I am sitting on! I have next to no cramps or stiffness (and at 66 yrs I am a real fuss-pot!)

January 10, 2015 at 02:31 PM · Steven, our slightly off-topic discussion is the most objective SR. discussion I have seen in my life. I will clap on our shoulders for that!

I will not go more off topic, but I found it an interesting thought, that maybe in orchestras the fear of imperfection leads to damage, because people force themself in strained positions just to be perfect. Psychology in orchestras plays a big role. I used to be very tensed when playing in orchestras, with the years I managed to be more relaxed. Well prepared, but also not stiff and trying to be perfect. Its a balance i think. Ignoring players who see the splint in your playing but not the bar in theirs.

January 11, 2015 at 05:01 AM · Hi Joey, you might be gripping too hard with the flexors, extrinsic muscles of the hand (see this thread) so that when you 'throw' your hand away from you as you vibrate, the motion and the gripping fingers pull the fiddle causing you to clamp down with your chin in response.

To balance on each finger requires you to move the hand underneath the finger tip. For maximum flattening of pitch and finger, the hand slides away from you and away from the tip of the finger, straightening the finger. To allow the finger to straighten you must release the flexors in the forearm. To make this easier, release all pressure on the string so that the finger pad just sits on the surface of the string. When you curl back to pitch you can depress the string again. Such control of vertical pressure is crucial for all left hand technique. As the finger flattens onto its pad, the side contact of the first finger must slide along the neck, which means there must be no sideways pressure from the thumb into the neck. Also, it helps to allow the base knuckle of the thumb (which is at the wrist) to open freely.

Depending on hand size and finger proportions, balancing on 4 might require you to slide the hand forward, effectively shifting it up 1/2 a position or so as the pinky finger curls onto it's very tip. Keep in mind I'm talking about training maximum range of motion, not necessarily how you would perform. This is similar to Rivarde's exercise for widening a narrow vibrato, but in this case the most important aspect is the coordinated release of pressure and flexors as you extend the finger, and back. Start very slowly. Once you feel the coordination you can use various rhythmic exercises to time the release and get faster. Eventually you can use pulsing motions. Now this is where you have to choose which action you prefer.

I was taught to throw the hand away from the face. I think this is a New World preference. So you practice as if you were knocking on a door in front of you. Start with one 'knock' at a time. Knock... Rest... Knock... Rest, etc. Then knock knock... Rest... Knock knock... Rest, etc. Keep adding an extra knock in quick succession until you can sustain the vibrato.

The other way to develop vibrato is to use a pushing motion, what some call an impulse vibrato, or finger vibrato. See this thread for further discussion.

In the impulse vibrato, instead of knocking, you press when the finger is at its most vertical. So you push... Rest... Push... Rest, etc. Then, push push... Rest... Push push... Rest, etc.

In both approaches you still need to coordinate the release of the flexors with the flattening of the finger. To practice the vertical motion only, i.e. no bending pitch, no extension/flexion, Dounis' press/release exercise is just like Mimi Zweig's elevator exercise, though she slows it down to really train the motion. As with any technique, it helps to count it out. On 1 tap the finger onto the surface of the string, as you count 2, 3, 4, gradually press the string so that on the next count of 1, the string just touches the fingerboard, at which point you instantaneously release to the surface and start counting and gradually pressing again. For vibrato exercises (and trills, fast fingers, in most cases other than holding a long note without vibrato) you only need to press the string just to the fingerboard and not beyond, since the eventual wobbling motion, or trilling motion, or velocity of the fingers suffice to produce a clean tone. Once you have complete control over pressure you can experiment with a little more pressure, using a little more pad to get a fatter tone, especially on thicker strings, and if you have skinny fingers (no belly no tone, as they used to say:) as long as it's always reversible.

Hope it helps.

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