Holding fingers down

Edited: June 26, 2018, 12:51 PM · In Wohlfahrt and others we are encouraged to hold fingers down (as marked by a teacher below). Does one have to? I mean does everyone?

Replies (33)

June 26, 2018, 2:04 PM · Most students who are starting wohlfhart are beginners, so chances are that they wouldn't be able to keep consistent intonation and hand positioning without keeping fingers down as guides whenever possible. So if you're able to keep good intonation while going quickly without keeping any fingers down, I don't see much of an issue with not keeping them down.

But, I think there's also an argument to be made for building coordination by keeping them down, and building more efficient finger patterns that will subconsciously show up in later music. Keeping fingers down during 16ths adds stability to the hand. So, if you feel as if you're unable to keep them down, you should be asking yourself "why?" and addressing this accordingly.

I personally have my students keep the fingers down.

Edited: June 26, 2018, 6:23 PM · Frankly, I don't understand. I can see the teacher is trying to keep the specific 1st, 3rd or 2nd finger in position since it is used again in the phrase.

The idea of "holding fingers down" can be overdone. I think the point is to learn to form and hold the "frame" of your hand so that you can move to the required note in the current position "instantly." This is most useful when sight reading music (especially new music).

"Holding the fingers down" can be overdone because students may misinterpret it as trying the "crush" the string into the fingerboard. Holding the frame of the fingers is especially useful when moving from a higher finger to lower ones.

I've thought about this a lot and as a cellist I tend to play with only one finger on the strings at a time (except for double stops and chords) but my fingers are so close to the strings that a tiny backward turn of my forearm will place the next lower finger on the string (my lower fingers may actually be touching the string, but not really holding it). My violin and viola playing are not that much different - only my sounding finger is actually being held down (and no harder than necessary), the other fingers are in place but not actually "down."

Vibrato is less effective if all the fingers are down.

June 26, 2018, 3:16 PM · As an addition to my above comment: I learned the hard way that keeping fingers down is important for beginners. When I had just started teaching, I had everyone do it the way I personally did it (individual fingers, one at a time, rather than keeping any down) because I figured if I could do it that way, they should be able to as well.

This did NOT work.

Beginners really need that stability.

Once you're advanced enough, you can basically get away with anything you want. But in learning materials, they are designed to work for people who are encountering these challenges for the first time. So it's best to follow the instructions (and it's important for teachers to understand the LOGIC behind the instructions in any teaching method).

June 26, 2018, 3:47 PM · My students sometimes say "but you're not holding yours down!"
So I say "I wanted to see if you were paying attention!"
Typical teacher?
June 26, 2018, 4:03 PM · To me, the use of an anchor-finger to maintain the position and "attitude" of your hand is good for maintaining the overall integrity of the key being played.

Learned in the first position, it becomes a bit more important when learning third and higher positions. It is not essential but when I watch professionals perform, those anchor-fingers are often there.

If/when you can maintain the integrity of the key and not use an anchor then you don't need it. In the end it is whatever works for you.

June 26, 2018, 4:21 PM · Holding down a finger that one is returning to a note or two later is not only good for the hand shape, it helps with intonation; the ability to notice in advance that one should keep a finger down is a key part of effective sight-reading.
June 26, 2018, 4:52 PM · Thanks for the answers, they all made sense. Glad I don't have to do it even if Mr Wohlfahrt says so.
June 26, 2018, 5:22 PM · I agree with Mary Ellen: "anchor" fingers are good for learning intervals across two strings, where the hand shape is subtly altered (if you want to stay in tune..)
Edited: June 26, 2018, 6:25 PM · Not letting your fingers fly up prematurely is a critical aspect of mastering the violin but some of those lines seem a little long. Maybe the teacher who drew them in has very specific ideas. For instance: the first 3 only needs to stay down until you cross to the A string. That being said - it HAS to stay down until you've completed the string crossing and the open A MUST sound clean and purely with the 3rd finger on the D string still down. Then the 3rd finger is free to come up, albeit briefly in this case.

Most of those lines only need to be 2 notes long. There are also some critical ones missing, such as keeping your 1 down when you play the 3 on D in measures 10 and 12.

June 26, 2018, 7:56 PM · I guess I should ask the obvious question: WHY are you against doing it, Bud Scott?
June 26, 2018, 10:12 PM · Leaving fingers down can be an extension of the "prepared fingering" principle and is probably necessary at the learning stages. But when used too much it can fatigue the small muscles. If both 2nd and 4th fingers are down, the 3rd finger can be slow. In upper positions sometimes the 1st finger needs to be left down as an anchor or point of reference. One of my teachers said something like "for each piece spend at least one session deciding when to set and lift each finger, and calculate the interval distances of the shifts. Example; on a descending scale prepare each finger one note in advance. The instrument that uses prepared fingering for Every note is the harp. The instrument that never does that is the piano.
June 27, 2018, 12:48 AM · My current teacher is a stickler for both early finger preparation and holding fingers down, much more so than my previous teachers. I soon saw the benefits: my left hand now works much more economically and precise, playing fast and keeping good intonation has got much easier. Also, my left hand became way more relaxed and flexible.
Edited: June 28, 2018, 1:31 AM · I guess I should ask the obvious question: WHY are you against doing it, Bud Scott?

It feels uncomfortable i.e. stretches the fingers unnaturally. I know one will get used to it but that doesn't justify the stretching. I'm gad some don't. Hopefully that gives me some license? Glad it worked for you Katarina.

June 27, 2018, 5:32 PM · If holding down a finger feels uncomfortable, as if you are unnaturally stretching the fingers, then that is a suggestion that your left hand position needs some work.
June 27, 2018, 5:50 PM · Cello literature is very consistent. Place down all the fingers behind the finger "playing" the note, on the string, if possible. (Can't be done in double stopping, for example.)

This leads to better intonation and better tone, on cello.

Of course, not when playing with vibrato.

Now, I have seen this advice in some violin technique texts, too. But it is not the core advice one reads often.

June 27, 2018, 6:56 PM · Bud, please record a video of your left hand (from the left side of the violin, e.g. the thumb side, about 2-3 feet away), playing the first couple lines of the etude very slowly while attempting to keep the fingers down where your teacher specified. I should be able to tell you why your fingers feel uncomfortable doing this.

Also, are your nails VERY short on your left hand fingers?

June 27, 2018, 7:06 PM · "Hold Down" is maybe the wrong language because that implies unnecessary force and tension. I'd rather think of it as leaving fingers resting in a down position when you don't need them.

Your goal playing the Wohlfahrt is to maintain a nice relaxed hand position and have your fingers move with very little wasted motion. If you develop those habits, then later in your career playing passages quickly will come more easily for you.

If you watch great violinists up close, I think almost invariably you will find hands that look effortless and fingers that just rest in the most natural way when they're not needed. If your left hand LOOKS beautiful and natural playing scales, that is probably good.

Edited: June 28, 2018, 4:49 AM · The manoeuvring to F while holding E here seems to involve the elbow rather than just the wrist/fingers. Moving 1 out of the way to allow 2 in seems more sensible.
Edited: June 28, 2018, 8:09 AM · Bud, as many have advised you above, you should take the situation you are currently in as an opportunity to discover that your left hand technique needs improvement. Simply playing E-F-G-A on the D string (or E-F-A for that matter), adding one finger at a time, should involve no manoeuvring of any kind, let alone of the elbow (other than having the elbow hang in the right way to begin with). Just to make clear: I am not implying that it is easy for a beginner to do this correctly naturally. If it was easy there would be no need for Schradieck exercise no.1! It involves increasing flexibility in the base joints and many other things that a good teacher, or the books by Simon Fischer, will teach you.
June 28, 2018, 9:14 AM · In addition to what is stated above, I was never one to hold my hand/finger frame while playing as a kid. As an adult returner, my teacher has insisted that I do this whenever possible BUT we started this by doing two lines of Schradieck no.1 at a time, then adding another two, then another, etc. Now I can do the whole page without a problem, and consistently do this (still with some thoughtful reminders) elsewhere. It's becoming more natural to do, and it definitely improves intonation, sight-reading, shifts, etc.

I started with the fingering pattern of A-B-C#-D-E (so second and third finger close together), then I moved to practicing other patterns such as: A-B-C#-D#-E, A-B-C-D#-E. I'm finally in a place (with my tiny hands and short fourth finger) where playing with my fourth finger, on say the A string for an E natural, does not feel like it is working to stretch (and if I do stretch, it is an extension now). And, I can do this with my other fingers down on the fingerboard. Pretty cool!

Took a lot of time and patience though! Wish it were a quick fix, but nothing on the violin is!

June 28, 2018, 10:42 AM · Holding that E while placing the F causes amazing tension all up my forearm. I think posters are saying if I persist the fingers will eventually 'bend'? the joints become looser? I'm a bit unclear. Moving 1 away beforehand there's no tension whatsoever.
Edited: June 28, 2018, 11:51 AM · As mentioned above, if simultaneously fingering the E and F on the D string is causing tension in your arm, then you are holding the violin incorrectly. Maybe your elbow is too far to the left, or you're gripping with the thumb, or the violin is too deep in your hand. Impossible to say without seeing your hold.

The idea of holding down fingers is that it will slowly train your left hand into forming and maintaining a frame that automatically puts your fingertips above the notes. It also gives you an unconscious automatic feeling of the distance between intervals, not just on one string but across the fingerboard, which is invaluable.

I'm not a teacher so I have no useful specific advice except that the last thing you want to do is build a technique accommodating whatever you're doing wrong. Maybe fixing whatever the problem is, is just what your teacher is having you do. Every change in technique feels awkward at first. I switched my bow hold last year, a change that took a long time to take root, and at first my right hand really ached and I felt like a beginner all over again, pretty awfully, but now there's no pain and the bow hold is more or less instinctual. So have patience!

June 28, 2018, 11:46 AM · Bud, if it causes tension to hold your 1 down while playing 2-3-4, that is exactly why you need to spend time with this etude. There shouldn't be tension in the left hand in general but especially for elementary first position.

Just be patient, practice it extremely slowly, force yourself to really concentrate and relax your hand. Allow your brain to think through what is happening in your left hand and fingers. Press the strings as lightly as you can while stopping the string -- most beginners play with toomuch pressure.

This really is important fundamental stuff. There are at least three important skills being developed here -- playing without tension, proper left hand frame, "dropping" fingers instead of squeezing, and getting used to leaving lower fingers on the string in order to eliminate wasted motion. Eliminating left hand wriggling and extra finger motion is the difference between someone who can play fast and someone who can't.

June 28, 2018, 1:46 PM · Anyone can do this experiment:
Kreutzer etude #9. Try to play it twice. once with the lower finger held down, then allow the fingers to lift. What works better?, Which causes less fatigue? Lifting the fingers looks like wasted, extra motion, but you are actually resting whatever small muscle is used to hold it down, and allowing it to refuel with glucose and oxygen.
June 28, 2018, 4:13 PM · Someone working on Kreutzer 9 probably already has a good concept of left hand frame, whereas someone working on Wohlfahrt 3 probably doesn't.

One can leave a finger touching a string, relaxed without actually pressing down. Maybe "holding" and "lifting" are words that imply effort that we don't really mean to imply?

June 28, 2018, 6:24 PM · Like I said before, please post a video of your hand doing the passage slowly and I could probably immediately tell you why you find it difficult, or if your reasons for not doing it are valid.

Arguing about it via text is just a waste of time for everyone here.

June 29, 2018, 3:01 AM · Joel puts it far more elegantly than my small brain can do. That's what I meant to say. The point of yoga is to squeeze muscle areas briefly so that fresh blood can rush in and replenish areas that don't usually get a good supply.
Edited: June 29, 2018, 4:23 AM · Since Kreutzer #9 was mentioned, here's Nathan Cole explaining the left hand technique of this very etude. Look at him keeping his fingers down (very light, not "holding" or "pressing" them), his left hand completely relaxed:


Not only would I never doubt a master like Nathan Cole, I also can confirm what has already been said numerous times in this thread: what is asked of you in Wohlfahrt is fundamental and will bring your technique to the next level. The way you describe it there really seems to be something wrong with your left hand set up. Of course you can do it your way and call it "yoga". But in my personal experience dodging technical problems on the violin instead of acknowledging and patiently working on them and improving them makes you hit a wall sooner or later.

Edited: June 29, 2018, 10:12 AM · Thank you for that. I'm having a go now and think I prefer not to put 3 & 4 down together.
edit: I just downloaded the first edition. Interestingly it's in 2nd position.

In fact I can find no edition that starts in 1st. Here's Joachim:
His holding down is slightly different from Cole'.s

and more:

edit2: I'm finding Joel's suggestion hardest to learn but ultimately the most rewarding. In Baroque oboe with fast patterns you sometimes don't even have time to touch the hole - you just hover.

June 30, 2018, 4:00 PM · continued-- Wow! the great Joachim recommends doing Kreutzer #9 3-6 times daily? That sounds like what modern sports-medicine people would call dangerous over-training; or old-school improving the playing pool by attrition. The two professions that still don't understand that are the military and musicians. Whether a muscle is large or small doesn't matter; the metabolism cannot supply fuel and oxygen to a tensed muscle fast enough to keep up with the demand. So how does a marathon runner keep it up for two hours --Because each individual muscle is only active during a fraction of the stride cycle. Also-the muscles that open the hand are naturally weaker and slower than the muscles that close the hand. Who, besides musicians, needs to lift fingers with any force? When doing fast runs in orchestral music, like Tchaikovsky symphonies, sometimes I get better results by thinking about lifting the fingers instead putting them down.
June 30, 2018, 7:05 PM · I have found that certain times when you hold down the fingers it can mess with the muscles in some cases. For example: a scale of d minor - open d, 1st e, low 2 f, 3rd g, 4th a up and down, I find that my muscles work better if I release the 2nd finger. If I don't, I feel some restriction. I advocate 1st and 3rd as the dominant anchors in most cases but agree the keeping fingers down thing is a bit overdone sometimes. You need to listen to your muscles as well as your intonation. Also, I don't find the preparation of fingers in advance idea to be so musically intuitive.
July 1, 2018, 12:36 AM · Generally speaking, I see a number of students engage in what I call "whack-a-mole" fingering where a separate motion has to be made in order to get to the next note. I even run into teachers to advocate this, which increases the amount of fatigue and error rate substantially.

Imagine facing down the third movement of the Barber Concerto that way? :P

July 1, 2018, 4:27 AM · When some of us say we don't always keep our fingers down, we're referring mainly to performance repertoire. That's especially true in my case, because as a violist with short stubby fingers I have to lift my 1st finger completely away from the string to get an effective 2nd or 3rd finger vibrato.

But when practicing these etudes where the goal is to develop good hand position and hand shape? I think keeping the fingers down is a must. That develops the muscle memory that allows you to return your finger to the right place quickly whenever the music forces you to temporarily pull your finger away from the string.

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