Asynchronous Development in Bow Arm and Left Hand

January 10, 2019, 4:07 PM · I’ve been playing the viola for a while now and I would say I have a decent technical foundation for my level. My teacher is really good and methodical.

However, while my bow arm is pretty advanced and can effortlessly shape and mold to color each note, my left hand just kinda sucks.

If you saw my bow arm and hold, you might think, “That’s a decent player,” but when you add my left hand, “nevermind.”

While I am able to play in tune +/-1 cent (I focused intensively on intonation for the last month) and can hear and adjust, it just doesn’t come easily or quickly as my right hand development.

With my right hand, I can learn new strokes almost in a matter of seconds.

Learning hand shapes for double stops, extended finger stretches, fourth finger etc. always just seems like a daily uphill battle. By learn, I mean be able to accurately reproduce multiple times.

Shifting for me is fine.

One day, my fourth finger stretches to a perfectly in tune E. The next, it can barely reach Eb. I don’t know it it’s connected, but when I get frustrated and ‘attack’, it’s suddenly good again!

I do etudes daily. If I’m short on time, I usually prioritize left hand development. I’ve been working on Mazas and recently started some Kreutzer.

I practice my etudes slowly and make sure every note is perfect. From a month ago, I’ve made great progress, I think, being more aware of stuff like anchoring and spacing.

It’s a really slow progress however compared to my bow arm. I don’t yet feel the freedom with my left hand as I do my right. I could for hours just play open strings, but am easily frustrated with my left. Comparatively to other players at my level, my left hand might be fine, but it’s incrediblely frustrating for me.

Being able to get my left hand to the same level as my bow arm would really be great.

I feel a lot of it might just be a mental issue (like over thinking).

Is this a normal problem?

Replies (7)

Edited: January 11, 2019, 5:33 AM · I tell my teenage right-handed beginners to do as much as possible with their left hands: brushing teeth, drawing, swapping knife and fork, anything which will connect the neurones of the hand which usually does very little.

Put your right hand in your pocket and try to spend a whole week with only the left!

Edited: January 11, 2019, 7:33 AM · I happen to suffer from this difference in development rates in left hand and bow arm in the opposite way. My piano background helps me in learning the viola in many ways except for bowing and intonation.

My left hand is good for a beginner: relaxed, can form shapes for chord and double stops with minimal efforts (intonation not accurate though - this requires my ears to develop with time and practice), my fingers can do adjustments quickly and easily and they can move a lot faster than what is needed for my pieces at the moment.

However, my bowing is atrocious: I keep hitting the neighbouring strings (admittedly my bridge is slightly on the flat side but the accidental double stops are definitely my own fault), my bow is not straight unless I have my full attention to keep it straight, I'm not digging into the strings in fear of hitting the next string (in my teacher's word, I'm bowing on the "surface" of the strings and not getting the viola sound), but then when I try to bow with more pressure my elbow comes up and right shoulder hunched unconsciously. Not to mention the bouncy down bows whenever I'm nervous.

All these bowing issues annoy me to no end. I really wish my bowing will get effortless and reliable with time and practice; the thought of bowing will always be difficult and demand my full attention just to play cleanly with good tone scares me.

January 11, 2019, 8:36 AM · Catherine, you sound (to me) like my left-handed student.
January 11, 2019, 8:52 AM · When I read "fourth finger stretches" I hear "left hand misplaced". The fourth finger should not feel like an excursion, but an organic default part of the frame of the hand.

I'd start there. If your left hand is placed correctly and it's still too much of a distance, consider the possibility of a smaller viola.

Edited: January 11, 2019, 9:03 AM · I'm not qualified to teach, but could it be a problem with thumb position?

Also it might be worth thinking about something I read in perhaps Fischer: - don't base the hand position on the first finger and reach forwards with the 4th. Instead base the hand position on the 4th and reach back with the 1st.

January 11, 2019, 9:54 AM · Adrian, I found that my piano skills are somewhat transferable to the left hand fingering on viola (it was a surprise to me). My right hand has far better dexterity (as in both speed and finer controls) but it does not help much on learning how to bow.

Coincidentally, I found that my skiing experience combine with piano playing helped my viola hold as a beginner and I could hold the viola for an hour or two without getting tired from the very beginning... So it's weird how everything worked out.

Now I just hope I'm practicing right and the basic bowing mechanics will become automatic and I don't have to put ALL my focus on "not touching the neighbouring string" but it seems very slow going. But this doesn't stop me wishing there are something in my past experience that helps my bowing :)

Edited: January 12, 2019, 11:34 AM · Learn to play the cello for a few years before taking up the smaller instruments. It works!

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