Locking left pinky at all joints

March 28, 2019, 11:01 PM · Since I began playing the violin almost 15 years ago, I have struggled with stiffness, snapping and locking in the joints of my fourth finger. At first, it was a collapsing issue, which transformed over time into a straightened pinky with a right angle at the top joint (locked at the base and top joint). At that point I couldn’t curve my pinky for the life of me. My left hand technique has improved immensely, which brought my pinky closer to the fingerboard and now it switches between being curved (and completely locked at every joint) to the straightened position mentioned before. There is a lot of stiffness/lack of flexibility in the top joint.
This issue makes octaves or wider intervals, vibrato and even less demanding 4th finger use a never ending challenge.

At this point, I’m at a loss as to what to do. Any ideas or experiences would be greatly welcomed!

Replies (13)

March 29, 2019, 4:55 AM · Jara this is very, very typical. You are not alone! I can relate to you because I've been where you are now.

First of all make sure you play enough on your fingertips.

The second step is to make sure your fingers are sufficiently independent, because otherwise, say, your third finger is going to offload pressure on your pinky. Place a nice rounded fourth finger, nicely on the tip, on, say, the D-string. Bring around your elbow and wrist, don't think of anything else than getting that fourth finger and that fourth finger alone nice soft and rounded on its tip. Don't press, just place on the string. Now keep it there and place your third finger one tone lower. Now lift and replace that third finger repeatedly while keeping the fourth in place. Alternatively, lift and place the fourth finger while keeping the third in place. After a while you can add in the second finger, one tone below the third finger. All three fingers soft rounded and on their tip. Can you keep two of the fingers in place and repeatedly lift up and reset the other finger? This and similar finger independence exercises can also be done away from your violin, just using a pencil or a similar object. I did them for a couple of months while in the office! In the end you can also add the first finger. This kind of exercises are being done your whole life. Hilary Hahn still does them regularly too.

After finger independence, or perhaps in parallel, you can start working on the flexibility of the joints. Place the finger nicely rounded. Now flatten, and release again, repeatedly, the top joint. You can do this with individual fingers or with all fingers at the same time. This is called the Rivarde exercise.

The main idea is that all the strength should reside exclusively in the BASE joints. The other two joints are just there to round your finger and be flexible. Just that idea to develop strength in another part of the finger than where you may apply it now can already do miracles.

There are tons of exercises for obtaining a soft left hand. When I restarted on the violin a bit less than ten years ago I thought it would be impossible for me to obtain a soft left hand. But I was wrong. Many of the exercises them are in the book "The Violin Lesson" by Simon Fischer.

March 29, 2019, 6:38 AM · I agree. Fourth finger rules. No place for digital Darwinism!
Try manipulating, rolling, & squeezing a semi-stiff foam ball "cuddled" by all 4 fingers and the thumb.
Edited: March 29, 2019, 7:31 AM · This is an issue that I looked into in detail as I tried to get my 4th into shape again after several decades. Research suggests that independence of flexor anatomy and function for 3d and 4th fingers varies: Some people have independent flexor tendons for these fingers, and in others they are "ganged" together with immutable limits on independence for flexors. Flexor function is of course what puts the finger on the fingerboard. If this is the case, the only thing that excercises and drills can do is maximize use of our anatomical givens, i.e. work arounds to get the job done. This article is really food for thought on how hand anatomy can be a determinant of violinsts' careers:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235382096_Assessment_of_the_presence_of_independent_flexor_digitorum_superficialis_function_in_the_small_fingers_of_professional_string_players_Is_this_an_example_of_natural_selection

Try the excercises as described to see if you are one of the lucky ones with independent 3 and 4 flexor tendons.

March 29, 2019, 8:28 PM · Dr. C.Z. understands this better than us amateurs. The 3rd and fourth fingers are not completely independent, some of it is genetic. Pianists learn about this sooner than violinists. So we don't fight anatomy and biology. What can help is to lift fingers that are not being used. The majority of the method books have us holding down fingers to guide the next one into place, but after you learn the fingering system there is no point in tensing those small muscles Also, maybe re-calibrate your first position. Start with the fourth finger matching the adjacent open string, curved and comfortable, then pull the other fingers Back to find their notes.
Edited: March 30, 2019, 10:58 AM · I had a locking outermost knuckle on my LH pinky for a long time. Very irritating. The only solution for me was to work on studies to strengthen the 4th finger AND to spend some mental bandwidth constantly when playing pieces that might cause it to lock up. I found over time that part of the issue was how I was doing vibrato, and since my teacher helped me rebuild my vibrato a few years ago, the problem has basically gone away. I get locking only a few times per year and I'm able now to recover immediately.

I recommend Nicola Benedetti's YouTube on Schradieck No. 1. It is an interesting metal exercise basically -- quite interesting.

March 31, 2019, 5:59 PM · Thanks everyone for the responses! Really helpful. I’ve done a bit more experimenting and I’ve noticed that when not on the string, my pinky locks up as soon as the 3rd finger goes down. Another thing I forgot to mention was the tip turns inward towards my third finger, which I imagine amplifies the problem, and the tip is crooked. The base joint is slightly lower set than average and it’s also a little shorter than average.
I certainly don’t have the independent 3 & 4 flexor tendons.
I’m going to try out the exercises you’ve all suggested and maybe see a physio as well.
April 1, 2019, 3:51 AM · With my stubby fingers on the viola, I have to make sure that the line of the base joints is at the height of the string I am playing on. This sometimes means that wrist is nearer the viola's shoulder than what is officially approved!
Edited: April 1, 2019, 3:14 PM · We don't fight anatomy and biology, well then I am happy that I did not know about those anatomic findings, I might well have thought that I was hopeless, whereas after doing just the standard exercises (violin exercises, standard stuff for finger independence, not those exercises proposed in the scientific paper) it improved dramatically and my fingers are now indeed independent for all violinistic purposes although I will probably also be classified, like most people, as dependent by the scientific criteria. What I just mean is, those criteria do not coincide with being able to play the violin with independent ENOUGH fingers and being able to develop a soft left hand. Sorry for venting.
Edited: April 1, 2019, 6:49 PM · To know or not to know, your choice, but we cannot escape our genetic givens, anatomical in this case, or otherwise - only strive to achieve within our limits. Fortunately, we are adaptable enough to devise ways to maximize what we have, and with practice and determination find ways that work, often exceedingly well. To me, the most interesting and alarming implication of the article is that if anatomy varies, those specifically with anatomically independent flexor function of digits 3 and 4 of the left hand have an “inside track” for technical achievement in playing violin. Are these individuals disproportionally represented in areas where technical achievement excels? This one paper doesn’t prove it - more research certainly would be needed. Should those born with ganged flexors give up? Of course not. I offer the article as a unique and thought provoking insight in the bio-mechanics of what we’re all trying to do. I sure was surprised at the authors’ conclusions!
April 2, 2019, 12:03 AM · continued,-- For me, I try to remind myself that if Django Reinhardt can play with two fingers, I should be able to play with 3 1/2.
April 2, 2019, 2:36 AM · thanks Charles. but isn't that obvious, that for each type of human endeavour there will always be people who are genetically/anatomically/intrinsically better at it, will have to work less on the technique and can develop deeply faster? think of sports, math, violin playing, cooking, languages, you name it. I agree, it should still be proven scientifically.
April 2, 2019, 6:12 AM · -Completely agree. In some cases it’s obvious. Tall basketballers surely have an advantage. What surprised me was that hand flexor anatomy/function can be as variable as it is, and appears to be on the list of factors that affect violin proficiency, much like perfect pitch, an inborn attribute that appears to be much better known.

Joel - Thinking of Django Reinhardt makes me take heart that I might improve too if I keep at it.

Edited: April 8, 2019, 10:54 AM · Grateful for this thread - what can one do to improve a locking middle fourth finger joint? I find that this joint locks at the most inopportune times (ie - a quick succession of double stops). At first I thought it was a coordination issue, but this issue has recurred across rep and different fingering patterns (within double stops) so I was really really excited to FINALLY notice what was going on with my fourth finger.

Will try the exercises mentioned above and report back.

(Oh, and I do have independent flexors - which seems to be a bonus.)

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