Hand cramps

February 15, 2005 at 04:40 AM · An intermediate student I inherited recently has a problem with frequent cramping in her left hand. There's some evidence of gripping with the thumb, for which I've prescribed tapping exercises, however her shifting technique is secure. She also gets the cramps during other activities such as writing. Also, she has some tension trouble in her right hand, leading to difficulty bending her fingers and thumb (little finger in particular). So far I've suggested soaking her hands in warm water, and flexing her hand muscles well before practising. But I feel I should have some other solutions up my sleeve. Does anyone have any success stories to share on this subject?

Replies (22)

February 15, 2005 at 09:14 AM · Gripping with the thumb might explain the cramp in the whole hand and the gripping of the thumb may be due to pressure of the violin between collar bone and jaw:this "pincer effect" is reflected into the hand.However since the writing is also affected , the diagnosis of dystonia is to be eliminated by a doctor.

Hair dryer is more effective than warm water soaking but the best is to brush the forearms and hands like surgeons do.

February 15, 2005 at 09:33 PM · Could be a potassium deficiency. Try eating some bananas.

February 15, 2005 at 11:39 PM · Greetings,

I second all of the above and also note that drinking enough water can be helpful in avoiding cramps. But the extent of the problem suggets she needs to see a specialist.

As far as the purely technical aspect is concerned, I would have her do most of he rpractice with the left thumb off the instrument and slightly closer to the nose than normal for a few weeks. Then try to translate the feeling back into thumb on playing.

For the right hand I would do two exericses that are generlaly regraded as being for absloute beginners but which I have fund relevant even to high level players:

1) Spider up and down the stick as it is held vertically.

2) See say the stick using first and fourth finger (midlde ones somewhat passive) beginning in the middle of the bow and woking towards hte heel as the tehcnique become smore comfortable,



February 17, 2005 at 01:46 AM · Interesting responses, thank you. We've tried seesawing in the past, but little finger flatly refuses to bend, and won't stay on the stick...

February 17, 2005 at 02:06 AM · Didn't Heifitz have problems keeping pinkie on stick?

February 17, 2005 at 03:13 AM · I'll take Heifetz's problems any day over mine.

February 17, 2005 at 09:40 AM · Hey, you know, it bothers me that I have had some students for a year and a half now, and we've been through every bow hand exercise I could think of to curl the pinkie and thumb and loosen up all the joints, and sometimes it feels like nothing helps. They come in the same, week after week. I know they're not making the effort to change, so when do we give up? I feel like a broken record.

Sorry, Sue, I invaded your thread. Just the mention of cramps made me about cramp, myself.

April 3, 2005 at 07:54 AM · I'm playing the Bach C major solo sonata fourth movement (allegro assai) and I do fine except I have to use thumb pressure to pull by third finger back to C natural. By the time I get through it, even though it's only slight thumb pressure, the fleshy part of my hand at the base of the thumb is exausted. I've tried to play it without my thumb on the instrument, but then I can't even get my third finger to come back to C natural at all...How can I fix this? I have to play it in competition in a month and i don't want to sound like i'm gripping the notes out by the time I get to the second time through on the second half!

April 3, 2005 at 04:52 PM · I have no idea if this applies at all or is helpful in any way, re: using thumb pressure to pull the finger back in that passage, but I'll throw it out in case it does. Around my third year of playing I had the hunch that I was thinking with the wrong end of my fingers. What I mean is, that to go sharp or flat, or move a finger further, the sense was one of pulling and pushing the finger along from the base joint, as though the movement originated there.

It was that exercise mentioned way back in the archives of v.com for strengthening the little finger, where you wiggle the joint at the nail, that changed my focus. Now the movement originates at the nail joint, as though both the feelers and "motor" are located at the tip instead of at the back, and all has become lighter and easier. It's another one of those things that a teacher won't notice because it "looks" the same from outside, but is easier to do from the inside. If I'm right, then the thumb won't be involved in the same way, and perhaps the problem will disappear. I'm really curious if this will work for you.

April 3, 2005 at 11:51 PM · As soon as I tried to think of it that way I was able to do it! It looks the exact same from the outside, but I can feel different muscles being used...increadible. I've practiced this way slowly for a few hours now and the new spot that gets fatigued is the upper forearm! I can't seem to move just the first joint of either my third finger, or my fourth with ease. I think you have me on the right track here, but my question now is, is my upper forearm just week, or should I even be using that muscle to pull that finger back? Can you describe the finger excersises that show me how to move just that first joint you mentioned? I'm excited here, I think you may have very nearly solved my problem!

April 4, 2005 at 01:38 AM · Hi Andrew, I'm kind of excited myself to find out this helps. I wonder if I've found my new calling = do everything stupid and wrong that one can possibly do wrong after the first year, fix it in the second year, and then have such a perspective of "wrongness" that it gives the ability to diagnose. (I'm mocking myself!).

The exercise was posted in archives by someone who had had problems with her little finger for years, and then at university or college was given that exercise and the little finger problem disappeared. I tried it out, asked my teacher about it, who was faimiliar with it. When I finally made the connection to "putting the brain of the action into the finger joint" and asked about that, the answer was again "Well of course that's the way to do it." rather than the other way (the way you've been moving your fingers, and I had been). But as you write as well, it's not visible how it's done.

It's hard to describe the exercise. You put a finger on your other hand (I don't like touching the thumb because I'm afraid of involving the thumb in tension and so on) --- I put it on the first finger of my right hand because it happens to be there and kind of rest that first finger on the thumb of my left -- kind of like you're about to play a note. Then you push down and release the first joint. You'll find if you watch your bare arm, that you'll see movement all down the inside of your forearm. I was able to do the movement right off the bat with my first finger, the middle was a bit more iffy, and the ring finger couldn't do it without some help. I "helped" first of all by doing the exercise with the easier fingers so I would have a "feel" for it, and giving a gentle push from my other hand until the finger was strong enough to do it on its own (a couple of months). Sometimes I would give the joint a push, but let the finger do the action for raising it. (It's almost like occupational therapy!) My little finger still needs some help.

There is another exercise that corresponds a bit to the "lifting the fingers off the table" for the right hand, a la "violinmasterclass" which I found in Fischer's Basics. In this you raise and lower your fingers but keep the thumb calm, which I check by cradling the fleshy part of the thumb in my right hand so that I can feel it remaining soft and inactive. In both the right and left hand exercises, I would notice again that I would be feeling it around the inside of my forearm, whereas before I had a tendency to tense the whole hand which would go straight up to my shoulders. On my own, I'm playing with having my thumbs go through their individual motions without involving other parts of the hand.

The whole point is that when we begin as adults, we have circumvented the natural slow growth that happens with (well taught??) child students as they grow up. We already have our habits. I have a well founded suspicion that there is such a thing as "strong fingers", and if those strong fingers are lacking, or if our bodies can't differentiate and use "body parts" at will together and separately, then we'll end up using everything together in one solid block in a tense mass. I also find that as my fingers gain strength, I can use them with less tension and unnecessary force.

More and more I'm thinking that there is a whole field of teaching adult beginners that has hardly been explored. I've started pursuing these things on my own because they seemed necessary, and they've made a difference for me.

I'd love to hear if any of these other things help. Usually I shoot out my ideas with a bit of trepidation, since I have not been playing overly long myself.

Just from my experience, I'd say your upper forearm is not weak, but that you are using muscles (tendons?) that you haven't used before. And your experience with the 4th & 3rd fingers reflect mine.

Just to complicate matters, our third finger is "tied" to its neighbours. I use that fact to use the 4th consciously to help the 3rd find its way over to further distances by kind of lifting it over on its bungy chord. (Oh, that sounds so unscientific!)

April 8, 2005 at 11:08 PM · Play right-handed.

April 8, 2005 at 11:18 PM · I think he does. It's called bowing.

April 9, 2005 at 12:02 AM · Hi,

The best I have succeeded in doing is by changing the sense the student has of bow grip to bow hold, letting the violin hold the bow. Starting from the string usually helps. Often, I find that tension in a hand is sympathetic and transfers to the other hand.

How is her bow grip and shoulders? It's too vague a query to try to analyze on the spot.


April 9, 2005 at 05:41 AM ·

April 23, 2005 at 11:18 AM · When I was a beginning student my teacher dealt with this right away. He showed me that I was pressing too hard with the fingers. He pointed out that the motion of the fingers was a quick drop to stop the strings and then a kind of relaxing, while still keeping the fingers where they fell. If you open your hand and practice just flapping the fingers against the palm, but not squeezing, you will get the right idea. It doesn't take all that much pressure to stop a string, just a drop.

May 3, 2005 at 03:27 PM · I've also found that I was pressing on the strings too hard (I dented my fingerboard!). A friend suggested that I try playing with as little pressure as possible -- see how much it actually takes in order to get a true note. It takes barely anything at all. If the student is pinching too hard, that same exercise might help.

Also, how is the student's vibrato? A relaxed vibrato can help to loosen the hand.

June 28, 2005 at 10:24 PM · I've been looking for information about cramping. I only recently started playing again after a ten year hiatus, and while practicing, I am reminded about these hand cramps that I get in both my hands, right at that pressure point between the base of the thumb and the base of the index finger (the "webbing" if you will). When I used to get these, my teacher told me to take a break and massage it. I don't know if I'm doing anything wrong, gripping too hard seems like it might be a culprit (as some of the above responses have suggested for other people), but I don't really know if this is the case. I get these cramps from writing, and sometimes from not doing anything at all. for some reason, this pressure point is especially sensitive on me, and this was evident my whole life. Even when I wasn't plalying the violin for ten years, extra pressure on that spot would hurt a lot.. (it usually hurts most people, but I am especially prone to this.. i think I figured this out when I was taking karate). Anyway, I wonder if there is some sort of massage implement to making this easier. Or if someone might know something I didn't...

June 29, 2005 at 12:18 AM · "I'll take Heifetz's problems any day over mine."

Me tooooooooO!!!!!


July 1, 2005 at 03:24 AM · Work your hand all the time. Stretch it during the day. Do whatever it takes to loosen it up. Heat it. Cool it. Stretch before you play and like any other physical activity, it'll get easier and easier.

-ross christopher


September 27, 2005 at 12:25 AM · I have been playing violin for about 5 years now. I used to have aches in my thumb muscle before, but through practice I eventually got rid of them... or so I thought...

Two days ago, while playing Bach Partitas, my left hand began cramping intensely. However, it's starting to go away.

Although your case probably requires medical attention, most of the time cramps go away with a break or more breaks between playing.

September 27, 2005 at 01:29 AM · Hi,

That is not essentially true. Cramps are usually the sign of tension somewhere, possibly in the case you mention of an incorrectly place thumb. Actually, though sometimes a hand may get tired, it shouldn't hurt to play. I would look into the setup of your hand and placement of your violin, including left shoulder. Those should be adressed immediately before there is a permanent injury.


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