base joint blues

Edited: June 10, 2018, 11:52 AM · There's a lot I need to work on–-but one problem is particularly vexing, and seemingly obstinate.

I don't have small hands. But somehow over the years I have failed to develop (or had and lost) a "classic left hand" per Simon Fischer. My 4th finger tends to collapse and it's really hard for me to keep my base joint close to the neck of the instrument. And I've started to think that this is why I struggle with consistent finger placement, chords/double-stops, and fast passage work involving 4th finger consistency across strings.

But I've been attempting to remedy this with slow Schradieck and Fischer base joint widening exercises and am starting to despair. It's hard. It hurts. It sounds terrible. I feel like a rank beginner. And I'm not really seeing progress. (To be fair, it's hard to do these for more than a couple of minutes at a time because...hard...hurts...noisy.)

Has anyone gone this path before me? Can you give me hope? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? Or should I give away my unaccompanied Bach and sell my violin and take up a new hobby?

Replies (19)

June 10, 2018, 12:11 PM · Have you asked someone for help (i.e your teacher)? I'm sure your problem is fixable. I have a feeling that it has something to do with the way you hold your violin and/or the way your body is alligned. You might be slouching or tensing somewhere. It might be worth posting a pic/video so we can better pinpoint the real problem.
June 10, 2018, 8:54 PM · My teacher has just totally reshaped the left hand of an adult amateur who's older than you are, I think, so it's certainly possible, but it might require guidance. My guess is that if it's hurting, whatever you're doing is incorrect.

One thing to think about is the way that your hand is centered. Balancing your hand more towards the 2nd finger, rather than the 1st finger, gives your 4th finger a lot more support.

June 10, 2018, 9:15 PM · I have a lot of specific exercises I've come up with to develop proper hand structure in adult students.
June 11, 2018, 6:45 AM · Might I add that the base joint of the fourth finger is not necessarily so close to the fingerboard when playing on the higher strings.
June 11, 2018, 1:19 PM · Most student I've seen that have this problem have two issues:
1. the left elbow isn't far enough to the right
2. the left arm/wrist system isn't rotated far enough clockwise (when seen above). If you rotate the arm, the pinky gets closer to the string and can bend. Otherwise, it remains straight and locked. Very common problem.
June 11, 2018, 5:17 PM · Agree with Scott. Just to add that the clockwise rotation can be unnatural and straining. Adjust the angle of your violin hold to make this as natural as possible.
Edited: June 11, 2018, 9:16 PM · hi Katie, I have experienced that you cannot develop a proper "classic left hand" if the end joint of your pinkie is not flexible. perhaps that is the problem. indeed the solution is always to give priority to the pinkie, and stretch the other fingers downwards. but you have to keep the final joints flexible for this to be effective. check out the Rivarde exercise.
June 12, 2018, 6:14 AM · What is a "classic left hand"?

Widening the base joints (abduction of the interossei) is a bad idea, as it inhibits base joint bending, i.e. finger dropping/throwing (lumbrical/interossei flexion.)

June 12, 2018, 8:42 AM · Widening the hand from the base joints can be great if done properly, but don't overdue it. The last thing you want to do is get hand cramps and injure yourself. Where do you experience pain?
Edited: June 12, 2018, 9:18 AM · When I restarted playing two years ago, I redid my left hand setup to solve many of the problems you mentioned. I found Galamian's discussion of left hand setup in his book to be invaluable in working through the reset, in conjunction with Simon Fischer's The Violin Lesson. Balancing the hand more towards the second finger is definitely a key achieving this (as Galamian says), especially if your pinky is short (like mine). Also simple double stops like a 1 or 2 octave scale in thirds are a great way to make sure you are re balancing correctly and shaping the hand well.

However, even if you want to do it, if you don't have the needed amount of hand and finger fine muscle strength, it can't be done. To build that up, you have to think of yourself as an athlete beginning a weight-training program. Simon Fischer's Warming Up book has all of the exercises for the left hand you need. I go through all of those every day in 10 minutes or less, and doing it for 1-1.5 years is all it took to get my left hand in great shape.

I'll add, though, that Aaron Rosand's suggestion to do three octave scales with only the third and fourth finger was also extremely helpful in building strength and balancing the hand correctly. You probably won't be able to do that at first, but after a few months of Fischer I recommend you add it to the daily regime.

Once you get the hang of that, doing those third-fourth finger scales with colle strokes at the frog and then again at the tip is a great way to keep your right hand in shape too.

Edited: June 12, 2018, 10:08 PM · Hi Katie,

Reworking your left hand takes time*, and you have to cycle through various aspects of the left arm several times to bring everything together (and of course, play more and more complex rep to learn new tricks.)

Within the hand:
1) Thumb action
2) Finger action from the base knuckles
3) Finger curl/extension or "Aiming the fingers"
4) Finding the 1-4 frame

The arm:
1) Rotation at the shoulder
2) Angles at the wrist (side to side, and front to back)
3) Angles at the elbow and armpit

And finally you have to find a good chinrest/shoulder rest setup to achieve optimal angles for your proportions.

From your post I'm guessing you're working on p. 93 of Basics. I've always found that section "widening at the base joints" curious. There are many conclusions he draws which I don't believe follow.

First of all, there is no single ideal placement of fingertips. You will see all those postures in Fig. 36 used by somebody, and by the same person in different contexts. Placement depends on the relative lengths of fingers, the shape of fingertips, relative size of hands, and proportions of the arm. Someone with tapered, flat fingertips is going to need a very different 1-4 frame shape than someone with bulbous fingertips and a very long pinky, for instance.

It is true if you place the lower finger on its left side and the higher finger on its right side, the base joints widen. But it does not follow that the fingers squeeze when you place both fingers on their left side. Fingers squeeze when you squeeze them. To aim fingers on opposite edges for the sake of widening base joints, forces a rigidness on finger action.

Finally, such static posing is useful to get an abstract concept of hand frame, but how you shape the frame will always depend on the context of the music (whether chordal, fast passage work, lyrical) and it's the action required in those various contexts which trains left hand function.

More later...

*Editing to add, it should take on average 2-3 mos to rehab

June 14, 2018, 10:54 AM · Thanks, everyone. Yes, Jeewon–I'm working on the exercise where I hold a note on the D-string whilst playing notes on A to stretch between fingers. It's torture. If I recall (away from my instrument and the book) it gets tougher when I'm trying to play 1-2 close to each other while maintaining 4 on the D. I think it's actually in The Violin Lesson (not Basics). Could be wrong. Not near the books right now.

I self-diagnosed this challenge when I was trying to learn the E-major partita and ran into intonation challenges on the lower strings. It hasn't mattered so much in other things I've played but then, I haven't actually done much with double stops or chords. (the last solo pieces I worked on before the Bach were Kabalevsky, Beethoven F Major Romance, DeBeriot 9, Mozart concerti 3&4) and since my last bout of intensive lessons 25 years ago, I've been playing exclusively orchestral and chamber music.

Re: chinrest/shoulder rest, not quite there yet but probably not that far off. I could probably play with a higher chin rest and lower shoulder rest/pad. I think my arm/shoulder are also close. The last two teachers I tried didn't notice anything weird about my set-up initially and when I look in the mirror it looks...normal.

I'm still looking for a teacher–-it's not easy to find someone in the area willing to work with adult students on technical issues.

Edited: June 15, 2018, 5:14 AM · I'll reply in more detail over the weekend, and have a look at Violin Lesson (bought it last year and haven't looked at it yet.)

If you are placing the higher finger on its right side and lower finger on it's left (stoppppppp!!!!!!) to do such stretches, that's a good way to injure your hand, unless you have very large hands indeed.

As you probably already know, when doing tenths you open the hand like a guitarist. The pinky can't really extend beyond the hand much, so wherever the pinky goes, or stays, the forearm moves or stays with it. The side-of-first-finger contact with the neck moves closer and closer to the finger tip as the hand drops under the neck. The hand leans away. The arm responds by closing at the arm pit and opening at the elbow. The elbow swings right.

Those actions can be used for all pairs of fingers. It can get tiring but shouldn't hurt, unless you over do it and strain the hand. I wouldn't do large (for your hand) intervals for consecutive days, probably not more than 3 times/week. Choose higher positions if you want to do them more frequently.

There are some on this site who have said no strength is required of the left hand, but I would disagree. Volume (of work,) speed work, chordal work, big extensions, all require strength, often from muscles you didn't even know you had, and so should be built gradually. And recovery time is necessary to avoid pain and injury.

June 15, 2018, 10:47 AM · Katie just to add, I've been in your situation eight years ago. I restarted after many years, got quickly back up to speed, thought I was a reasonable amateur, until I started working on double stops and more clean fast passagework where it is essential that fingers are nicely rounded and independent and do not touch other strings etc. I understand what you are writing in your original post. I've been there. But you seem to have the right material, Basics, Violin Lesson, etc., and I am sure if you work on it daily you will get much better in a few years. I myself am improving every day. Enjoy the journey.
June 16, 2018, 8:49 AM · So, I just read pp133-137 in Lesson 6 and pretty much disagree with every conclusion he draws, but I'm not sure a critique of Fischer's method would be welcome here. I can't think of a single concert artist who uses active widening of base joints to form finger patterns. A casual survey would show most players (even Perlman) favour a more oblique angle of the base joints rather than a more parallel line. I believe the 'widening the base joint' approach leads to rigidity, as can be see in those who play like that, and is much worse for people with smaller hands or shorter pinkies. Larger hands can get away with it, sort of. For me, the way I was taught, being able to flap the fingers from the base joints leads to the most fluid finger action, and everything else follows from there. I'll leave it at that.
Edited: June 16, 2018, 10:22 AM · Seems to me that where your "base joints" wind up depends on where your hand is. Am I missing something? Following up on Scott, when I returned to the violin after 25 years off, the ONE thing that I never quite recovered was the "swing" of the elbow underneath the violin. My teacher has helped me by constantly encouraging me to regain that (without over-stressing it, of course), and by suggesting rotation and repositioning of the violin so that my older, less flexible body can reach the notes. That said, I'm just really not interested in playing anything with a lot of tenths. A short burst of them is maybe okay but not P24 -- it's just not in the cards for me.
Edited: June 17, 2018, 5:02 AM · "My 4th finger tends to collapse..."

My pinky also collapses. The only remedy is to make sure you have reversible action, i.e. you know how to simply release the pressure that causes the collapse in the first place. Sometimes my pinky locks after it collapses, in which case I've learnt to just finish that passage and compensate with the rest of the fingers, if possible, until I can lift and undo the lock. Here's a thread from last year, Double Jointed Fingers:.

"...it's really hard for me to keep my base joint close to the neck of the instrument."

Don't artificially bring base joints close to the neck by supinating or curling the fingers and extending the base joints. When the fingers are pressing the strings the base joints should be flexed. The base joints extend to lift the fingers off the strings. There are some contexts where the fingers curl and pull the base knuckles closer, but that can only happen if there is a more neutral hand frame to begin with (unless you have large hands.) Leave the base joints at an oblique angle to the neck.

Consistency is a huge topic which has no simple fix. But one concept which is partially addressed by Fischer, Galamian's "steering mechanism," is useful, which is a rotation at the shoulder to swing the elbow left or right. I say partial because contact of the hand with the neck is not addressed. If you rotate the thumb/side-of-first-finger (soff) contact, often called the 'V', about the neck itself, it helps to preserve your 1-4 octave frame as you cross from string to string. It's not a perfect transfer, but the best you can do with least change in the shape of the frame and fingers. So on the E-string the elbow swings left, the thumb is high (the thumb touches the neck more towards the palm) and the soff is low (the soff touches the neck more towards the middle joint. On the G-string the elbow swings right, the thumb is low (the thumb touches the neck more towards the first joint) and the soff is high (the soff touches the neck more towards the base joint.) Of course the exact contact depends on your hand size and shape.

For me to be able to play Fischer Ex. 1, p77, in first position: B, D, C-nat, my thumb is actually underneath the neck, the first, second, and even the third finger is leaning over the A-string, touching the string on its left edge. It's basically his Fig. 78 b) on p137, except the tip joints are simply allowed to curl by rotating the 'V', with thumb underneath and lower fingers rotated over to the left side of the A-string (the picture would represent B, D#, C#.) It's not comfortable, but it doesn't hurt. If it hurts don't do it. The exercise is rather academic. You will never see such a stretch in actual rep. I think it's questionable how useful it is to practice patterns which don't occur in actual music.

If you want to practice 4th finger consistency do position scales and try out the rotating 'V' contact. Also Dounis First Exercise C from Daily Dozen:

Editing to say Dounis' Daily Dozen would be more useful for your immediate needs right now.

Edit 2: tips on the Dounis 1-C, notice the ascending pattern is an 'easy setting' of the hand and descending is a 'difficult' setting. It's useful to anticipate the string cross with the elbow, especially descending. Feel a direct connection between elbow and pinky, so that as you play 3, 2, 1, your elbow swings right, carrying the pinky over it's place on the lower string. You should be able to play a double stop with 4 as you play 1. This direct connection between pinky and elbow, preparing the elbow for the pinky, is very important for pinky consistency.

Edit 3: speaking of which, it's a good exercise to play 1-C as a double stop exercise, tuning fingers to the first finger notes

Edit 4: forgot to mention in Fischer Ex. 1, p77, my soff contact is on top of the strings. If I uncurl my first finger it's stopping a Bb-F fifth, like a capo or bar chord in guitar, touching so the crease is in between A and E strings. When curled the first phalanx is lying on its left edge, parallel along the A string

June 17, 2018, 12:42 PM · Thank you so much, Jeewon! Printing this out and taking it to the music room.
June 21, 2018, 10:24 AM · You're welcome! Hope it's useful.

Bach is complex and requires sophisticated use of contractions and expansions of the frame.

As a prerequisite, it's important to develop a strong sense of frame and double stops, so your hand knows where to go back to after a contraction or expansion. There are tons of exercises you can do on top of regular double stop scales (Dounis, Yost, Bytovetski, etc.) but I like Paul Zukofsky's All-Interval Scale Book Including a Chart of Harmonics for the Violin (real title!) which includes scales in sevenths, seconds, ninths, and 1-4 unisons. It's a deceptively simple straight scale book of all intervals, but to go through the process is transformative. It may be frustrating at first playing scales in dissonant intervals, but after awhile you start to really hear each finger, which pitch belongs to which finger. He wrote it to train for 20th C music, but it's great work for general left hand technique.

The preface is worth studying carefully. He describes the different elbow positions needed, which he calls neutral and rotated (Dounis' easy setting and difficult setting.) But he also notes that various intervals require slightly different rotations for the elbow within the neutral settings (8ve, 7th, 6ths) and rotated settings (2nds, 3rds, 4ths.) The bigger the difference you have between middle finger and pinky lengths the greater range you need in elbow rotation, within a certain hand/arm size and proportions. Basically, for crossed fingers (higher finger placed on lower string, and lower finger placed on higher string) you need to swing the elbow right. For (what I'll call) neighbour fingers (higher finger placed on higher string, lower finger placed on lower string) you swing your elbow left (or neutral, as Zukovsky calls it.) Each finger added rotates the elbow slightly right and vice versa. Opening the hand swings the elbow right and vice-versa. Of course you don't actually measure out how much to rotate in real playing, but such awareness, once habitualized, helps get your arm out of the way for the needs of the fingertips (Dounis said, in the end, we play with our fingertips.)

Another great approach to practice is to always feel and hear the difference. Only then do we know what to change and how. Simply practice changing quality of intervals, e.g. P8 to dim8 (low 4) to P8 to dim8 (high 1); M3 to m3 (using lowering 3, then raising 1 or lowering 4, then raising 2,) etc., remaining aware of finger shapes, hand posture, elbow rotation, contact with the fiddle.

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