Vibrato and Contact of the Hand on the Neck

April 13, 2016 at 09:54 PM · I am doing basic daily vibrato exercises and am really starting to get confused about the basic left hand position. My joints closest to my finger tips are fairly flexible and I can get a very good swing when I hold the violin in guitar style- the left thumb has light, static contact, movement originating from my shoulder and/or wrist, but there is absolutely no contact from the index finger side of my hand in this position. Obviously this is really comfortable because the violin is held firmly with my right forearm and the left hand plays no part in supporting the violin at all. When I'm in normal playing position, I can't really come away from the neck with my left hand.

I think most violinists have learned with some constant contact with the index side of the left hand on the neck, right? But I've seen Menuhin's 6 lessons video and he advocates absolutely no contact, ever. This seems like an impossible way of learning how to use the hand frame in a position versus the way Galamian advocates using the contact as a sensory reference.

I meet with a teacher/ accompanist and she almost never touches the neck. She can't really explain anything about why she does what she does.

So I'm just wondering how many of you out there do one or the other and how you'd recommend doing the most basic exercises the way you vibrate? For those of you who have static contact, do you find you come away when you're vibrating or is there still some contact? Less contact? About the same?

Replies (38)

April 14, 2016 at 04:54 AM · The hand doesn't really contact the neck at all so the hand can freely move.

April 14, 2016 at 09:21 AM · I agree with both Menuhin and Galamian, but not at the same time! For passage work, I have a light contact with the side of the base of the index; for vibrato, I need a small gap, obtained by a very slight elongation of thumb and fingers. (In no way does the base of the index support the fiddle.) The adjustment is instant, and probably invisible to the casual observer.

I should add that I play mostly viola, and balance it on a shoulder rest with the weight of my head: no gripping!

I don't "hold" my viola, I "hold it up".

Just my 2 centimes d'Euro.

April 15, 2016 at 02:26 AM · Thanks to you both! So seems like in general free vibrato is achieved with absolutely no contact. And I understand that using a shoulder rest can totally free up the left arm but what about the generations of players that didn't use one? A lot of players still talk about supporting the instrument with their left hand. Not holding but "balancing" or counter-balancing. But most players today and in the recent past vibrate on most notes. So does that mean that those players are/were also totally free with the left hand somehow. And why isn't that written more about in methods and instructional materials? In addition Menuhin also talked about the thumb playing a big role in supporting the instrument as opposed to the two-point contact I thought most players used between the thumb and base of the index joint. I haven't been able to understand how that works either:)

April 15, 2016 at 05:01 AM · I think these who didn't use a shoulder rest probably used little vibrato, and even if they did, it was probably a wrist/finger vibrato.

April 15, 2016 at 05:20 AM · This comment from the Menuhin video in question sums up the point quite well I think.

Andrew Zaplatynsky:

"Maestro Menuhin was a brilliant musician and intellect ( I have heard him and met him), however, much of what he is advocating here is nonsense. The gaping hole between the base of the index finger and the neck of the violin is precisely what causes tention. The base of that finger touching very lightly (there is a difference between tense gripping and grazing contact) and only releasing to allow for vibrato is much more natural. I have heard students who play with Menuhin's approach and they all have difficulty with intonation when shifting down for higher positions. The neck of the violin, when lightly touched, serves as a kind of guide or handrail. Despite what the Maestro says, he never appeared free when playing the violin. If you want to see freedom, observe Milstein, Perlman, or Zukerman."

April 15, 2016 at 08:23 AM · Menuhin's analysis of bowing (in the book, more than in the films) is brilliant, more so than for the left hand. But hands are as varied as noses!! Everybody's right, except those who lay down the law.

But I am pleased to see that Mr.Zaplatynsky agrees with me ;)

Two points:

- Menuhin's thumb-only support is just impossible for many folks.

- Every single "restless" player I have ever seen, live or on videos, uses a raised or padded shoulder from time to time, even those who deny it!

April 15, 2016 at 01:30 PM · I didn't start to learn vibrato until I was 13 years old. Through 8 prior years of violin lessons (ages 4 - 12) no teacher had ever even mentioned the subject. It was my amateur violinist father who showed me an exercise of sliding my left hand up and down the violin neck a fairly small amount to develop an arm vibrato. With a month of practice this was finally narrowed in range until I was able to produce a reasonable sound with arm vibrato. For the first two weeks, however, he advised me to practice without trying to bow any notes at all - just practice the left hand - so that's what I did, but I also continued the rest of my daily practice routine without attempting vibrato.

My vibrato was improved a great deal 20 years later when I found a chinrest that actually matched my jaw shape and started to use a shoulder rest. Then about 22 years after that I suffered some nerve damage in my neck and my vibrato went to h..l.

Recovery required developing hand/wrist and finger vibrato that I still work on 25 years after that.

Cutting to the chase, I think the following factors come into play in developing a vibrato:

1. Question, what type(s) of vibrato will work best for you and at what ranges (up the fingerboard)?

2. Are you using the best chin and shoulder rests to fit your body parts and allow you to position the violin in the best way for your arm and hand physique?

3. How do you position the violin - where do you point the scroll? Can it work better for you if you change that?

If you are having trouble with vibrato in first position (the hardest position for it -- for many people) you might try developing a hand/wrist vibrato in 3rd position and later a "finger vibrato" for higher positions.

I think you may find that a properly executed hand/wrist vibrato in 1st position will force you to separate the base joint of your index finger from the side of the neck while you use it but still allow you to "find your place" at the nut when you need to.


April 15, 2016 at 01:53 PM · Sir Menuhin's left hand was, and remained flawless.

I don't remember his pedagogical material very well, but one should never confuse exercises with what you do in context. If you look at his left hand in performance, he uses the side of finger contact all the time. He never maintains a permanent gap. When the hand rotates away from the neck slightly (forearm supinates) the finger contact takes over to support the neck with the thumb. I think his exercises help to train all the possible active and passive motions to integrate the left hand with the neck/fingerboard. Of course his ideas and writings may not speak to his teaching abilities as far as technique building is concerned.

April 15, 2016 at 06:07 PM · Thanks again everyone. I'm starting to practice with just slow bows on a simple scale and I think I'm starting to get the feeling of coming off and not clutching the neck.

It's interesting in this film of Menuhin directing a masterclass, around 10:40 Corey Cerovsek plays for him. At age 12, playing amazingly and Menuhin appreciates him but says, "I wish I could do something about the thumb, though".

This insight has been great because I'm starting to understand that, like most beginners, I just have too much pressure between my thumb and base joint. Practicing this slow vibrato I think, is enabling me to automatically play with less pressure when not using vibrato as well while still keeping a little of that sensory contact. I try not to obsess about using or not using a shoulder rest. Lately, I will go between using no rest at all, a rolled up hand towel over my collarbone, and an Acoutagrip soloist rest.

I will try to post a video if anyone's interested and it would be awesome to hear your thoughts.


April 17, 2016 at 10:05 AM · A Gap of 1mm is still a Gap.

May 27, 2016 at 06:19 PM · I wanted to bring this back to see if I could get an understanding of what is different (if anything) in the vibrato position/movement if the player is without a shoulder rest and left hand has more of the supporting role. It would be great hearing from stanch non rest users but especially those that were able to transition from using a rest and finally decided on playing without one. I'm hoping that this isn't another excuse for people to preach about why they use a rest or don't use a rest, and this is something I'm just trying to search/experiment for myself either way. I haven't "decided" on anything.

Since the beginning of this post, I've developed a free (albeit slow) wide vibrato with all fingers (except 4) with the shoulder rest. There is little to no contact of the index base joint at the neck. After much practice this can wear on my neck/shoulders a bit as the need to "clamp" is stronger than when just passage playing.

I'm just getting acquainted with this idea of 'no shoulder rest with hardly any contact to the chin rest' (apart from some light pressure when I practice downshifting). But I'm practicing keeping the scroll quite high with the violin simply "sitting" on my collarbone and mostly being supported by my left hand. My thinking was that the thumb needed to create a sort of shelf to free up the rest of the hand but no matter how far I get my elbow around the instrument, I can't see how to do this. Right now, in this supporting position, the index finger is actually very free to vibrate but second and third fingers are quite locked up at the wrist and at the base of the index finger. I'm not worried about my 4th finger right now. All of this revolving around a wrist vibrato.

Since picking up the violin I've often gone from using or not using a shoulder rest and constantly searching. I think that not using one is actually a "skill" like any other that has to be learned with the violin and one that maybe has to be taught meticulously. Often passed over with beginning students so that "playing" skills can be taught immediately. I also think it's possible that there aren't as many teachers that can teach it correctly (or even play without a rest) anymore.

All this time I'd gone with the assumption that I needed to be able to hold the violin with slight left hand support but clamping the violin between the jaw and collarbone, like some magic trick or I needed the perfect raised chin rest to allow me this position (I've got a gap close to 5" between collarbone and jaw)

I recently saw this video series on Mimi Zweig's site (at the bottom of the page entitled "Rest No More?")-

Here is video 1 (of 10)-

Jonathan Swartz, explains that he used a rest for 40 years and began to work on techniques such as 'creating a shelf of support in the left hand, using an inward force of the violin to the body, playing without any downward pressure to the chinrest', among others. And towards the end, he's essentially impressing upon the students it's possible to play with the feeling of having the neck fully extended away from the instrument, having the violin just grounded between the collarbone and left hand.

Watching this entire series really piqued my interest and I highly recommend you check it out whether you use a rest or not. Some really simple, valuable information, imo.

May 28, 2016 at 01:01 PM · When I play restless I use no shoulder at all either, because I can't! But then there are passages I cannot play, and sounds I can no longer make, particullarly on viola.

May 28, 2016 at 10:55 PM · Hi Garrett, I know we've been having a conversation about this elsewhere but I wanted to chime in here and say that one of the keys is not to worry about "freeing" the index finger from all contact with the neck. That would be nearly impossible. You can have a perfectly free vibrato with index finger contact, as long as there's no squeezing between the thumb and index. Cheers!

May 29, 2016 at 02:49 AM · Can't thank you enough for the correspondence, Nathan. It's really helping me narrow things down. And I'm noticing less fatigue/pain in my practice w/o the rest. I think I'm going to need to re-work the slow 1st position pulses like when I first started with the rest. Im sure there is no squeezing when I try but there is just too much friction of the base knuckle on the neck while supporting the instrument for me to control it with any speed/consistency.

Maybe next round I can send you a comparison between with and without the rest and you might see something obvious that I'm doing incorrectly.

May 29, 2016 at 03:05 AM · Basic physics: friction requires a normal force (a force perpendicular to the surface experiencing friction). So your claim that there is friction without squeezing cannot be true. Maybe the inconsistency comes from the word "squeezing" because it implies something specifically between thumb and forefinger, and that is how Nathan described it as well. But regardless of what you are doing with your thumb, your forefinger should not be applying any significant pressure against the neck. This is what I was taught, anyway: Contact is okay, pressure isn't. If that pressure isn't coming from "squeezing" then you have to analyze what you are doing to determine its source. Depending on the position of your violin it could even be gravity (violin lying against finger), or you could be pushing your finger against the neck with the muscles in your forearm and wrist.

May 29, 2016 at 04:14 PM · Hi Paul, yes gravity's playing the biggest part. As I said, I'll keep the scroll quite high. My pinky's fairly short so my basic hand position is one where the thumb is slightly bent w/ contact at about the joint. On the other side, I need to keep my fingers high so I can reach w rounded pinky so the base of the index contact is a bit lower than probably the average person. Jonathan Swartz in the video refers to this as an upward force (actually supporting w/left hand/arm upwards). So the weight, however little, in the V I've created w my hand position is enough where I have some rubbing of the index base and the side of the neck. Hope that all makes sense. Also, all my base joints are fairly parallel w the fingerboard to help the pinky as well. Maybe that position is hindering the movement?

May 29, 2016 at 05:39 PM · Yeah, Jack was able to sound equally bad with or without vibrato...which is difficult to do.

May 29, 2016 at 05:52 PM · Hi Garrett,

I second what Nathan said.

If I may add to that... the neck of the violin should contact at the base of the first finger. Being higher than that usually leads to tension. As for the pinky, I will second what Carl Flesch said, that people over-worry about the round pinky thing. The basic action of lifting and dropping the fingers happens with the base knuckles, so as long as your fourth finger drops in the correct location, how round it is doesn't matter so much. Also, the pressing action between the thumb, finger finger and neck happens mostly in the thumb, so keeping the thumb relaxed (released) usually means that there shouldn't be problems with vibrato with contact of the base of the first finger with the neck.

Some ideas to consider... Hope this helps.


May 29, 2016 at 06:06 PM · Hi Christian, actually I meant to convey that contact of the neck is slightly lower than the base joint (or the line made by the joint when looking at the palm). So that the fingers are in a taller position over the finger board. And this helps me get the pinky closer (and more rounded). I don't have really small hands but the pinky is the focal point for me to shape the hand position and it's short.

Sort of like Galamian's book and the separate pictures of the large hand and small hand in their respective positions. The smaller hand has the thumb lower and base joints higher over the fingerboard. Thanks!

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May 29, 2016 at 07:03 PM · I wouldn't say either picture showed "small hands"! Both I on my viola, and my slender-handed young lady students on their violins, have to lean their 1st fingers further back than in the photos. For us, the "centre of gravity" is more often the 2nd finger.

May 29, 2016 at 09:03 PM · Yeah, well one of the pictures is abnormally large and the other is average to small, I think. Here are my fat hands, haha...

On the A string...

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And the G string...

IMG 0335
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May 29, 2016 at 11:42 PM · Hi Garrett,

The thumb height is determined by two things:

1- how long it is

2- how long the distance between the base joint of the thumb and the base joint of the first finger is

So, a person with a longer thumb and a short distance between the thumb and base joint of the first finger, will appear to have a higher thumb while the opposite is true as well. The primary point of contact is the base of the first finger. To me, the two Galamian pictures seem to have that same point of contact. Just one person has longer fingers and a longer thumb than the other one, and the one with the smaller hand is positioning the thumb further forward, which doesn't make sense as this actually contracts the hand instead of opening it up.

Anyhow, it's always to hard to tell from photos. The main difference I see in your positions, is that you seem to be rotating the left elbow in substantially on the G string. Is there a reason your are doing that?


May 30, 2016 at 04:11 AM · I understand what you're saying, Christian. It was difficult taking these pictures well myself. The G string posture shows the violin a little flatter but yes, I'm definitely swinging my elbow to my right more. Again, to get that rounded pinky posture. I had written another post about my 4th finger. Not about it's length but that it has a prominant curve towards the palm (I think this is fairly common). But with the combination of it being short and curved, if I don't have this round posture and I play a whole step like the pictures above, my third joint will just collapse. I haven't really spent much time practicing vibrato yet with my pinky but I can't see how I could get any kind of vibrato swing without this round curvature. I can feel the tension all the way down in the inside of my forearm near my elbow when the finger is straighter. Maybe it's something that will get stronger over time and become less of a problem. I still have trouble getting the 4th to fall consistently in tune and with enough pressure. And I'm aware of how much it affects my bowing causing tension in my right side. Thank you for your insight.

May 30, 2016 at 01:38 PM · Hi Garrett,

Thanks for the response. Just are just my thoughts, but personally I don't change my elbow position when changing strings (kind of like Oistrakh and James Ehnes). I don't try to get more curved pinky than it's just dropping in place, but then again, I have a very long fourth finger in relation to my hand.

Vibrato is more about the ability of the last joint to be able to bend rather than the curve of the finger. I find that not rotating the elbow or turning the hand, there is less tension and the joint is more free. But there are many roads that lead to Rome or the violin, lol! I also find that with this more relaxed position, there is no need to press with the fingers on the string; it's more about weight.

Anyhow, hope this helped and I certainly wish you the best of luck!


May 30, 2016 at 10:24 PM · I was just thinking the same thing, about elbow rotation, and it reminded me of one of my favorite youtube videos, Shlomo Mintz playing Paganini's 5th caprice. Hopefully I've cued it up to 30 seconds in, because that's where the main body of the caprice starts. It's a great look at how the fingers do all the work: the elbow doesn't have to move when traveling between E and G strings, and the back of the hand is allowed to stay more or less still as well. Something to strive for!

May 30, 2016 at 10:45 PM · Christian and Nathan: Why, then, are we taught so much about elbow rotation? I've found that I don't "need" it a lot either, but I feel like I'm somehow cheating when I'm not doing that. (Of course there are times when I *do* need it, and that's when I wish I had more flexibility!)

May 31, 2016 at 12:54 AM · Wow. Amazing performance.

His hand position (and 4th finger) are awesome. Mintz looks like he's got "mitts" though and I bet he doesn't have any trouble reaching around.

In regards to the elbow being mostly static, is there anything to be said about the tilt he has on the violin? I wrote a separate post about this and was experimenting with an extreme tilt with the shoulder rest but losing the rest sort of forces a flatter profile because of the collarbone. I understand that the flatter the instrument the more the elbow has to come around underneath. But is there anything to the way it affects the hand position? There are so many rotating parts at work on their own axes.

And, yes, Paganini no. 5- I'll get right to work on it! :)

May 31, 2016 at 01:01 AM · Also, it does look a lot like he supinates his left hand a bit and that his knuckles are fairly parallel with the fingerboard.

May 31, 2016 at 08:50 PM · Paul, I hear you... it's one of those things that's often over-taught or over-emphasized. I think that sometimes it starts when someone "graduates" to a full-sized instrument (or grown-up repertoire way up the fingerboard) before they're very big. The elbow then has to come around in order to reach the high positions. Sometimes that habit stays even when the arm is longer, and fully capable of assuming a more neutral position.

The fingers are easily able to change shape to reach the four strings, and this is much easier than moving the arm back and forth, as Shlomo demonstrates.

Garrett, the first finger will almost always be more parallel to the fingerboard than the other fingers, at least for most hand shapes.

The tilt of the violin appears to be more here than other videos of him I've seen; could be the camera angle. In any case I wouldn't call it pronounced. Conventional wisdom puts the violin flatter, partly to allow that neutral left-arm position; but also because even with a flat violin you can raise your bow arm comfortably enough to get to the "guts" of the G-string. The more tilt, the harder it is to manage the E-string without trapping your bow arm against the body. There's an acceptable range.

May 31, 2016 at 08:53 PM · I should have added that near the end of the video, you get a perfect angle to see how he shifts all the way up the instrument, across the four strings, still with a passive left arm. Yes, he doesn't have small hands, but they're not freakish either (at least not in size)! You can surprise yourself by how far you can extend the fingers in a relaxed way (with practice) while letting the arm hang. Those with particularly short arms or small hands have to compensate as needed with elbow movement.

June 1, 2016 at 04:49 AM · Huh. I think that I've spent a bit of time trying to work on that elbow rotation being active to keep the hand static, haha. I thought I'd read that in every violin book.

But if one wanted to practice the opposite- keeping the elbow static, how do you do that? How do you set yourself up? Do you set the position of the elbow straight down from where your hand position is most comfortable on the G string and then compress the fingers to reach back for everything higher up on D,A and E? Conversely, If I start with a comfortable curvature on the E string, I can't reach anything on the G string w/o moving my elbow to the right. Or is the elbow just centered under the fingerboard so that you're reaching out with the fingers for the G and reaching back for the E?

June 1, 2016 at 05:15 AM · In this situation with the Paganini Caprice No. 5, I don't think it's that the elbow has to be completely static. It's just that when you have to play that quickly, you do what is most efficient for your physique. For Mintz, Perlman, and these dudes with the "mitts" they don't have to pivot. Players with a smaller reach will have alternative technical solutions to this challenge. I have a pretty short 4th finger, and I can't get around the middle part of the caprice without stretching unless I pivot slightly...and I do mean "slightly" we're talking about less than an inch of motion left to right. :)

June 1, 2016 at 05:30 AM · I think it's akin to playing straight bows and keeping fingers down. These are rules of thumb that are logical, and I think useful, but in practice aren't actually mandatory.

You either pivot the elbow (rotate at the shoulder) or you pivot at the wrist. Pivoting at the wrist changes the frame, but beyond a certain hand size, length of pinky (evenness of finger lengths) those changes become small enough that intonation is not compromised. For the rest of us, it's better to pivot the elbow.

As for what is neutral, you can choose between a more neutral rotation at the shoulder, or neutral drop of the arm (degree of shoulder abduction using the deltoids.) Elbow pointing to the floor offers a more neutral state for the delts (less abduction) but requires more external rotation (especially as scroll points left.) Elbow pointing at an angle to the left offers neutral rotation, but a little more work for the delt. I don't have any excess tension from pivoting my elbow. Quite the opposite. If I have to play an extended passage on the G string (elbow pointing to floor) I can feel it in my rotator cuff muscles. Going back to the E string (elbow pointing left) provides relief for the rotators.

Here's a good illustration of how to use elbow pivoting:

P.S. Having a pinky almost the same size as the forefinger is pretty freakish! :)

June 1, 2016 at 12:13 PM · I do appreciate those insightful responses. Thanks! May be best to pivot (har!) back to the OP's original question though.

June 1, 2016 at 05:46 PM · All in all, these are good comments on the general question which is hand position. At the time, I was just realizing how different things can be when using a shoulder rest or not using one. When vibrating, I realized how much I came away from the neck with the rest and how I had to be 'anchored' without. You'd pointed out that there has to be tension for there to be friction.

If you try making a basic V with the left hand (as if you were holding the neck of a violin) and then put the first two fingers of the right hand in that space where you'd normally hold the neck. Making the vibrato motion is very easy because there's no weight. Your left arm is hanging and your right arm is being supported by the shoulder. But for me, without any tension, there is still a rubbing of the index base against the right side of my right middle finger. I can hear it fairly well. You can simulate more weight by dropping the support of your right arm into the left hand.

I think my main issue lies here where if I'm supporting the instrument without the rest, there's an upward force with my left arm and the weight of the violin coming down in to that left hand space, it really impedes my ability to "wave" freely. That natural rubbing of the hand against the neck has a tacky contact that makes the motion sluggish. The really confusing aspects were all the things I was reading in the Menuhin books about the role the thumb should play. As if it supported most of the weight.

June 1, 2016 at 06:18 PM · My overall point in sharing this video was to show what is possible through the changing shapes of the fingers. Most violinists do not recognize just how much the fingers will change shape to play up/down the string (i.e. low 2 vs high 2) and across the strings (i.e. longer fingers to reach over to the G string).

June 1, 2016 at 08:08 PM · Also Garrett, some people (like me) think of the violin resting almost totally on the thumb (the base joint). The contact with the first finger is more incidental. Thus no squeezing, but there is contact and friction if you want to think of it that way.

June 1, 2016 at 08:16 PM · I often observe a difference between what we feel we do and what others see us do. For example, I warm up with a few elbow swings from the shoulder, then an "underwater plant" vibrato/shifting motion over the full string length, then home in what looks like a wrist vibrato (with maybe an "impulse" component?)

So I am thinking of the wrist and hand, but stay aware of arm and even shoulder-blade in the backround.

So to answer the OP (!) I "think" with the Gap, but allow contact in fast passages (rather than the other way round.)

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