Violinists with small hands

Edited: February 17, 2019, 7:01 PM · First of all, thanks to all of you for the good threads in the archives on the topic of small hands and short 4th fingers. I'm working with my teacher to find the proper mechanics for me to solve this. It's now starting to hold me back from things I am about ready to start working on, so time to address it.

It would be encouraging to see videos of advanced violinists who fall in this camp. Suggest away, and please share your own experiences if you like, either personally or through teaching.

Replies (40)

Edited: February 17, 2019, 6:58 PM · I'm not sure I agree with the idea that you need to conquer the 4th finger before learning to shift. The reason I say that is because in third position the spread of the hand is noticeably less. Also one reason to shift is to avoid taxing your fourth finger! But I can understand if you do not want to develop shifting as a crutch.

The only other obvious idea is to select studies and scales that will help you develop your fourth finger. For example a 2-octave A-flat major scale will have shorter fourth-finger placement on the more difficult G and D strings, and a little more stretch on the A string because of the whole step between the Db and Eb. Play the scale two notes to a bow and go one note beyond Ab (to Bb) on the top end.

I suspect the key is going to be an extra measure of care over your hand position and the swing of your left elbow underneath your violin.

February 17, 2019, 7:05 PM · There are definitely violinists with small hands who cope. Some famous examples include Kyungwha Chung and Midori. Sarah Chang has short fingers but her hands aren't exactly that small. Some small-handed people struggle a bit, while others do just fine. It is such an individual issue that there is no "one-size-fits-all" solution. What I am going to suggest is that you try to balance your hand more towards your 2nd or 3rd fingers rather than your first, and you may also want to move your wrist a little closer to the neck and perhaps let your thumb be opposite the 2nd finger instead of the first. Some people can get more reach with the opposite tactic by placing the thumb back towards the scroll behind the first finger.
Edited: February 17, 2019, 7:14 PM · Thanks Paul, I had already removed my reference to shifting. The real problem is that my hand is small enough that I cannot use my 4th - at all - if any other fingers are on the fingerboard. So it isn't as if it's straining, it currently must be totally independent and I have to move my entire hand down to hit that B on the E string, for example. For now, the interesting part is getting back to the lower notes in tune and fast enough. I won't give my current rate of success on that - it's a beginning - but not an ideal solution. I also didn't know that the spread is less in 3rd position, that's encouraging!

Thanks Ella! Those are helpful suggestions, both for my hand and also for a couple of violinists to look up.

February 17, 2019, 7:14 PM · How wide and thick is the neck on your violin? A thinner narrower neck can make a huge difference to someone with smaller hands and/or shorter fingers.
February 17, 2019, 8:16 PM · George, I will check as soon as I locate my measuring tape. I'm sure it's a standard size, whatever that may be.
Edited: February 17, 2019, 8:51 PM · I have small hands and a short 4th finger whose tip is at the level of the upper knuckle of the 3rd finger.

I posted a Paganini Caprice #16 video relatively recently that's a good illustration of my left hand in standard and extended configurations. Keep in mind that this is with just a couple of minutes of working on this, but still, for pictorial purposes, useful: VIDEO LINK

(Use the period and comma keys to go forward/back by a single frame on YouTube.)

Keep your thumb positioned closer to the 2nd finger than the 1st finger. Place the 4th finger a little flatter rather than trying to keep it fully curved.

My early childhood teachers had the notion that you should make a "table" with your fingers, keeping them really curved. That doesn't work for my hand configuration.

February 18, 2019, 2:33 AM · Ella Yu: "Some people can get more reach with the opposite tactic by placing the thumb back towards the scroll behind the first finger."

I'm currently placing my thumb like that, and my teacher advised me not to because she has not seen anyone doing that ever. Do you have some example of people actually doing that with success of getting to advanced level?

Edited: February 18, 2019, 3:02 AM · My fingers are stubby; my hand is wide enough, but I play mostly viola so that cancels the advantage..

Like Lydia, my pinky only reaches the tip knuckle of my ring finger; but this also depends on the slant (or curve) of the line of base knuckles: another reason to allow the wrist a little nearer the viola body.

I thought of Kyung Wha Chung's 5-year "sabbatical". She has to open her index backwards for passage-work, at high speed and with her intense vibrato. Reading between the lines, she took cortisone (injections?) for the resulting inflammation in her index, to continue concertising, but resulting in tissue collapse. A warning to all us stubby-pinkiers!
Although I am the same age as Ms Chung, I practice a whole lot less, so I have escaped the cortisone bit..

I see small-handed colleagues with fan-like open hands in continual movement back and forth within a given "position". This does not give clean articulation for rapid slurred notes, but it is possible to shift the weight of the hand from finger to finger to reduce the "gripping" element.

Edited: February 18, 2019, 3:07 AM · I have the shortest fingers of any adult I know -- although I'm 5'7", I have friends as short as 4'9" who have longer fingers than mine. And I play viola 99% of the time. My palms are wider than average, which helps a little on viola, but not nearly enough given my finger length.

I'm taking a month off from practicing right now in order to let a shoulder injury heal fully, but here are some recent (last weekend) practice clips that seem to give an OK look at where my thumb and fingers go.

PRACTICE VIDEO CLIPS

My thumb occasionally goes back toward the scroll, but I've skimmed through a few months of my practice videos and can't find a single one that shows it. I'm pretty sure I only do it when I'm playing with 3rd and 4th fingers on the C string.

February 18, 2019, 4:54 AM · I appreciate the comments and clips! At 59 I also have some flexibility issues, of course, and it will take me a bit longer to re-train my left hand than it would have been at a younger age, but I knew that coming in. Right now it's difficult to tell how much is related to having a small hand with short 4th, and how much is related to having only returned to playing 2.3 months ago. Time will tell - but neither will stop me. I'm too stubborn for that and this is something I have a deep desire to do.

Adrian, your description of a "fan like open hand" may, possibly, be similar to what I've been experimenting with, among other things. Good to know that some have made that work. Do you know of any videos where I might see this in action?

Lydia, thanks for the link! I will watch tonight after my violin lesson, and I didn't know it was possible to advance YouTube videos frame by frame, good information. Your tips are appreciated.

February 18, 2019, 9:30 AM · There's a good YouTube video of my teacher from an angle where you can clearly see the positioning of his left hand, including his thumb: VIDEO LINK

His hands are very slightly larger than mine (so unusually small for a man, given that my hands are already small for a woman).

Edited: February 19, 2019, 11:06 AM · These are all helpful videos - thank you! It is very encouraging to see such accomplished violinists who had/has small hands. You also introduced me to two I was unfamiliar with - win/win!

We also made good progress on this at my lesson tonight. My teacher had me move my thumb down to my 3rd finger and - lo and behold - I can actually get my 4th finger down without having to shift my entire hand. I can even keep my 3rd finger down, and the rest are much closer than they were.

I had experimented with moving my thumb before, but not as far down as my teacher directed. It's a beginning, obviously will need to pay close attention to both hand position and elbow.

Having access to your comments and suggested videos prior to my lesson was very helpful. Thank you!

Edited: March 5, 2019, 7:29 PM · I wanted to say that this is coming along, the arthritic finger joints are proving a bit more troublesome then the size of my hands for that 4th finger but we are working with it to loosen things up and there is progress. Placing the thumb down by my 3rd finger isn't quite enough away from the E string, but am working with it. Yes, I know that relaxing the hand is also part of it - but right now that's a bit easier said than done...
March 6, 2019, 12:04 PM · When it comes to violin matters, it's pretty strange how difficult it is to relax.
March 6, 2019, 12:09 PM · Yes it is Nina, indeed it is. That is not the root of my hand positioning challenge but it doesn't help. On the other hand, pun intended, getting very good feedback on my progress so that helps to validate all I'm doing to return to this lovely instrument!
March 6, 2019, 12:35 PM · And thank you, Catherine, for making us think harder about what we really do!
Edited: March 6, 2019, 1:31 PM · Something I seen that might tie into this has to do with the sexes. Apparently as a general rule men and women have slightly different finger lengths.
As an aside, I have a question for violinists wearing rings on the right hand. I have noticed many women wearing their wedding rings on the right hand. I have also been told this is a gay thing. I wear my ring on my left hand but have been told it might help my playing if I removed it. Is this why some wear the rings on that hand?

hands

Here is my hand.Not very big for a man. In typical guy fashion the forefinger is slightly shorter. Palm readers, I have no idea what the "M" means. I hope it's a good thing:)
hand3

March 6, 2019, 1:35 PM · Catherine,

My fourth metacarpal is short, therefore my finger only comes between the middle and top joint of my third finger. I know and share your problem.

I learned how to use second position to my advantage and I can usually do first position music in second as long as I ignore the occasional printed fingering.

Edited: March 7, 2019, 10:30 AM · Timothy- thanks for that chart. I have the short index and 4th finger. In low positions I try to lift the 1st and 2nd fingers off when using the fourth. For very high positions I don't use the 4th, because it doesn't reach the finger-board when the 2nd or 3rd are down. I can do the 1-4 extension on high notes, 2nd and 3rd off the fingerboard. In the low positions I can't do the major tenth or the 2-4 fingered octave. At some point, every advanced, adult, player needs to work out their own personal fingering system, to fit their hand. For me, I try remember that if Django Rheinhardt could play with two fingers, I should be able to play with 3 1/2.
Edited: March 6, 2019, 8:08 PM · Very interesting diagram Timothy - I don't fit fully into any of them. Ring finger longer than my 1st, 3rd the longest, 4th falls below the 3rd joint of my third. My teacher is working on my extension muscles and joints so I can properly use all 4 fingers.

I figured I could not be the only one on the forum with this hand configuration - and also figured that everyone who did would be far more advanced than I currently am, which is always encouraging to contemplate. Returning to the violin after 45 years at 59, well, one expects there to be challenges of different kinds!

Timothy - on the wedding ring topic. Traditionally Eastern Orthodox Christians (which I am, think Greek/Russian/Romanian/Syrian/Lebanese - etc.) wear wedding rings on the right, not left hand. Just saying that there are many different practices for this globally.

March 7, 2019, 7:42 AM · Joel,No problem!
I'm glad you found a solution to get around those issues. Not sure how large your fingers are. My teacher being a woman, has hands about half the size of mine and she makes some of those positions look easy. I am constantly hitting other strings if I attempt to duplicate her playing. I am only now beginning to get into the higher places on the neck...somewhat behind you I'm sure. One technique was to slightly move a finger aside on an unplayed string to make room for fat fingers. Lifting the fingers in certain positions is seen as inefficient by my teacher.

Catherine, Interesting subject matter you presented. I wish you well on your violin journey. I think some things are easier for certain types of hands. Determination can go a long way toward accomplishment no matter what the limitation. In some cases the solution might not be a text book answer IMO, as Joel alluded to.
On the wedding rig topic- Thanks for your reply. I guess if I had two rings and one of them had a stone in it I would be changing hands, at least when playing. I can see where that stone would get in the way on the left hand. I don't have a stone inlaid ring, I sometimes wonder if the ring is holding me back. Weight seems small but this is all subjective. Ants wouldn't agree with me.

Edited: March 7, 2019, 8:17 AM · I'm sure you're ahead of me Timothy, my challenge right now is to reach the 4th in first position without shifting. E4 is fine, now, but the other 3 not so much. I understand why my teacher doesn't want me shifting into the "1st and a bit" position. If the dexterity work we've started doesn't solve things then we will find a modification, but we dont want to start there.

Sounds like the hand size difference between you and your teacher is reversed with my and my teacher. My longest finger (middle) barely extends beyond his palm! He said he's seen smaller hands than mine and isn't too concerned about it. Helps having a teacher who has been teaching for over 30 years.

March 7, 2019, 8:43 AM · As someone mentioned before here Itzhak Perlman had fairly large hands and from the videos it looks like he had sausage fingers. This makes his playing all the more amazing to me. I see a definite advantage to hands that can navigate fast between the strings or smaller hands/fingers. The only disadvantages seem to be hitting two strings at once side by side. This is easier for larger fingers, and moving to positions further down the neck without compromising lower positions. In all fairness there are extremes at both ends. I mean, look at Hillary Hahn. There does seem to be a larger percentage of smaller build people with smaller fingers playing at this point in time who play very well. I don't really know what that means. If I appear to be knowledgeable it's all smoke. I'm feeling my way around just like you are. The only thing I can do is look at potential answers.

There's a lot to be said for mapping the fingers to a particular song and plotting a course of action.This makes hand movements more efficient. I know this but I'm not doing it here...old gorlilla fingers.



March 7, 2019, 11:29 AM · Thanks for sharing the video Timothy! At some point I will become brave enough to share one of mine.
March 11, 2019, 11:00 AM · Timothy - I've seen that hand diagram before. I have the "male" hand configuration, more than the average man actually...my ring finger is like an entire joint longer than my pointer. Pointer isn't particularly short either. My mom has the same, but her hands overall are much smaller than mine. I don't know how any variations matter in terms of violin playing unless you have fingers of extremely different lengths, as that would make it hard to hold a stable hand position.
Edited: March 11, 2019, 11:36 AM · I wonder if the overall size of the hand matters just as much, or more, than the individual finger length/configuration? I'm sure this combination is unique for everyone so there is likely no way to answer it. That's without factoring in the work needed to loosen the finger extension muscles and opening the joints without straining either.

This returning beginner is very happy to have accidentally spanned from E1 to C natural the other day without meaning to. Things change dramatically as I get further from the E string, and for now both D4 and G4 isn't remotely possible without shifting (which I'm not currently allowed to do). We will get there, or modify it needed.

Those of you who have done this so long that you no longer remember what this stage was like, consider yourself fortunate :) I don't remember myself what it was like 45 years ago, but I WAS only 8!

Edited: March 11, 2019, 11:43 AM · The first time I seen the chart it was in reference to a general recognized male/female difference in hand geometry.I say general because well, Leslie is a perfect example of someone who doesn't fall into the general category.

The chart I posted is attempting to tie a study into athletic prowess among females. The only thing I can substantiate so far is that the hands are much more different between people than I had ever realized they are with the notable differences between most male and female hands. I don't know what the percentage of difference is but they have determined a majority of women/men have these traits.
Since every little fraction of an inch is important when fingering a violin then this seemed relevant to adopting a playing strategy to me.
It seems people who have generally longer fingers might be at an advantage. Which fingers are long or short could influence some fingerings for better or for worse IMHO, especially if the differences are radical.

I'm doing all the dumb things beginning players do.Classical playing techniques require the player to have the ability to work far up the neck . Fiddle playing not so much, so I guess a person's goals here matter. In order to do that we need to keep fingers lower to the fret board, know how and when/where to shift and have the ability to rotate the hand both around the neck and forward to higher positions.Maximize finger positions for the song.I'm still in the learning stages. Even though most of my material will only involve lower positions I think It's always a good idea to learn all of it and stay practiced in it, but that's me. I'm not there yet. Not today and probably not tomorrow either:)

I'll probably get blasted for this opinion, but I have noticed many younger people being taller larger than earlier generations. Have you ever seen a civil war uniform? I'm a big guy compared to them. When I was in high school there were only a few tall people in our class. Now it's the other way around.Is this growth hormones in meat? We are raising a generation of giants compared to the past, at least here in the states we are.My son towers over me.*Disclaimer- this is only my opinion and might not apply to your geographical area.* My only real interest in it is to develop playing strategy. I don't want WWIII over genetics in adolescents in 2019.

Edited: March 11, 2019, 3:15 PM · The only place I've ever felt "tall", as opposed to my reality of short, was in a 500+ year old pub in Yorkshire.... Wondered if they were just skimping on building material cost back then, but suspect I would have been average/tall in the 15th/16th century.

I'm in a similar boat re: hand size but I think 50+ years playing fretted instruments has given me a head start with finger reach/flexibility.... and my pinky has always held up its share of the work.

My real interest with the violin is Scots/Irish traditional.... but I listen to an awful lot of classical so who knows.

Shifting is definitely in my future.

March 11, 2019, 3:31 PM · I have long fingers, but they are slender like a skeleton's (not that much, but more, so-called "feminine"-even my wrist is tiny), which means I must lay my fingerpads closer to the fingerboard for vibrato. Thus, every hand has a "problem" to deal with. Big hands have problems, tiny fingers have problems, and so do I, with my spider-leg fingers.

The important thing to remember is to have good fingerings that make sense to your hand.

Often good 7/8 violins help. I had a short fingers-teacher once who had some of these instruments, if I remember correctly.

You can do fingered octaves, double harmonics, tenths, et. al. with a small hand. Be careful, and teach your hand over time to stretch and feel comfortable. Some of these techniques are difficult at first for most people, regardless their hand's shape. No one is born playing said techniques, and it takes way longer than just a week to develop facility and ease.

As for the gender thing, why do I have a woman's hands? It's all generalizations.

March 11, 2019, 9:53 PM · Yes, I think the size of the entire hand is an important factor, not just the length of the fingers but also the width and size of the palm and the flexibility of the hand joints in general. Unlike a number of small handers who have already posted on this thread, I have slender hands but proportionally long and skinny fingers (like Adalberto has), and I do not have a short pinky either.
March 12, 2019, 9:24 AM · The finger thing in women's hands is thought to be tied to the amount of testosterone in the womb or so said the quilt teacher that introduced this concept to me years ago.

I wonder why people don't just use a smaller instrument 7/8 has already been mentioned but why not 3/4 if it is appropriate?

Thumb placement has already been mentioned.Weight on 3rd finger has been mentioned. Bringing the elbow under more can help. Turning the forearm (using the thumb side to initiate the action) can help. Addressing tension is a good idea. Violin placement can make it easier or harder.

Edited: March 12, 2019, 9:48 AM · My understanding is that there is a difference in sound for 3/4 violins over 4/4. If I'm still having this problem when ready to upgrade from my workshop intermediate violin then will consider a 7/8.

My teacher is currently working with me on some detailed dexterity exercises, and moving my thumb down to my third finger really helps, it isn't the final solution but it helps. I knew this would take time. It may well be that a year from know it will be resolved as my extension muscles get stronger, the joints open, and the tension relaxes.

March 12, 2019, 10:25 AM · From what I have heard, the reasoning is there are more full size violin out there for you to try, compare and hunt for the tone you desire. While fractional sizes are mainly used by children and less number of high quality instruments are made. I think it makes sense when you are playing at a high level and want a very particular sound and response.

Personally, I am not sure how much lacking is a well made 3/4 compare to a well made 4/4. I think the sizing topic is even more relevant for violas.

March 12, 2019, 10:49 AM · I went from a pretty large 4/4 violin to a very small 4/4 (I totally lucked out!) and it has made a world of difference.

I can wear a women's small size glove and still have room at the finger tips, my palm is about average/"medium". My pinky barely reaches the top joint of my ring finger - not unconscionably short - but it curves away from my other fingers thus reducing the reach-range for extensions and so on without collapsing the joint.

One of my teachers has hands that are the same general size as mine, and she is an amazing player. Her hand size does not hold her back at all - and she does not use fractional instruments.

It takes time to develop the fourth finger, be patient. I used to not be able to put G4 down without lifting G1, now I can! I also used to be unable to play a fingered octave (ie D1-A4) but now I can. It's been a long road to get to this place.

We're all different, and it takes time to learn how to use our unique attributes in ways that behoove our playing. I'm still learning how to utilize my attributes - hahaha.

March 15, 2019, 12:49 PM · :-) Pamela, so true! My teacher and I agreed on some exercises meant to strengthen, and stretch, my extension muscles and joints. Oy...these exercises are far from musical but I can certainly feel them doing what they are supposed to do. I even feel them on the inside of my wrist - it will take time with these 59 year old hands, but the desire is there - where there is a will there is, indeed, a way! The trick is to do these just enough to get the benefit without straining anything.
March 15, 2019, 1:23 PM · There is a huge tonal difference between a 3/4 and a full-size. The difference between a full-size, a petitely-proportioned full-size, and a 7/8 is fairly minimal.

However, there are far fewer 7/8 violins in existence, which means that it's a tough search. I'd definitely play a 7/8 if I could find one I liked enough.

March 15, 2019, 2:11 PM · In my opinion, very small handed players benefit from playing with a fair degree of sideways tilt to the violin, so that the strings face the center axis moreso. This can be achieved by either lowering the right foot of the shoulder rest or raising the left foot (or both).

Bon musica SR is good for allowing this.

March 15, 2019, 2:27 PM · Agreed Erik on your main point and the Bon Musica.
I have two fiddles; one is an early 19th century European with measurements and details similar to the Plowden....so petit by todays standards [351 lob], The other is one of Don Noon's builds at about 358 lob. both have the same neck/stop/scale length. I don't find it at all difficult to switch from one to the other.

Perhaps because of playing fretted instruments for 50+ years, or being less supple in the shoulder, or maybe even the fact that there is a bit more in the way of my left upper arm/elbow than there was a decade or more ago,,,, I find a more significant tilt toward the center axis/vertical is much more comfortable.

March 15, 2019, 4:17 PM · I agree with Eric. To play with ease on the low strings, I have a 30° tilt on the violin, and 45° on the viola. This is achieved with long-legged left feet (and short right feet) on my Kun Bravo rests, but equally important is my customisation of the two chinrests, which are thus not interchangeable.
Edited: March 16, 2019, 10:22 AM · Lydia - thanks for your comments re: 3/4th and 7/8th sized violins. It confirms what I've read.

Eric - that's an interesting idea, I will experiment and see if that helps. I saw somewhere that raising the scroll up a bit helped, but that caused other problems when I tried it. That really wasn't a surprise but I had to attempt it.

Things are improving, and my teacher tells me my sound is improving even as we start to focus more on intonation. I've no reason to complain at my progress at the 3 month mark. Three months at 59 is rather different than if I were a few decades younger when I decided to return to my first musical love.

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