Reprogramming Left Thumb

July 29, 2019, 10:10 AM · Greetings all! I recently discovered after 13 years of playing that my left thumb has been in the wrong place the entire time. This realization came after acknowledging a series of problems with my left hand, starting with intonation problems in higher positions where my fingers would fall in a different place every time they would drop to problems with the 4th finger either missing the string altogether or not being able to reach far enough without locking the last knuckle - all leading back to the positioning of my thumb. I have always played with the thumb extended straight back well behind the 1st finger. No teacher has ever noticed or corrected me, even in undergrad. While I'm not sure how that escaped them... regardless it did and now I'm in the process of trying to reprogram my left hand placing the thumb opposite the first finger or just slightly in front of it. As you can imagine... attempting to override 13 years of muscle memory is QUITE difficult. My method of approach is currently lots of slow practice staying in position and working across the strings basically playing 2 octave scales, as well as practicing shifts between the positions very slowly and consciously making sure to take the thumb and first finger up and down the neck at the same time, which is a REALLY bizarre feeling due to not having the thumb dragging behind the entire time like I'm used to.

Does anyone have any thoughts or ideas on particular exercises/etudes that might be helpful in retraining my left hand in this situation?

Thanks and cheers to all!

Replies (23)

July 29, 2019, 10:14 AM · When I went through this repositioning as a teenager, my teacher had me do a bunch of the early exercises in Schradieck op. 1 book 1, as well as a lot of Sevcik op. 9, and Sevcik op. 1 books 3 and 4. It took months.
July 29, 2019, 10:45 AM · Ah yes I just came to this realization as well when I was at a summer string camp at UNT this past week. The professor told me she heard that my thumb was behind my first finger. I have no idea how she did that, but she was correct in assuming it was. Maybe she heard the tension in my left hand.

I'd been playing like this since I started violin because when they tell you to turn your hand so that your fourth finger can be allowed to reach the string your thumb naturally goes behind your first finger. But this causes the pinky to become straight and having to reach for the string.

Now thankfully she said this at the first lesson so I was able to start working on it during the week I was there. She also recommended using the early exercises from schradieck and sevcik. You can use one or both of them. She personally prefers Schradieck because of how much they used sevcik when she was learning at the Russian school and is now sick of it. I still have it behind my 1st finger sometimes but now nearly as much as before after just a week. But this was because I had all kinds of orchestra and chamber rehearsals and coachings and such that allowed by to work on this a lot instead of just when practicing, so your results may vary in how long it takes.

One thing to be aware of is to make sure you aren't squeezing your thumb and 1st finger. I thought this meant my 1st finger joint couldn't have contact with the neck, but I believe the idea is just to not squeeze if I'm correct. Also with your thumb it can be anywhere from in front of your 1st finger to even the 2nd finger. It depends on how long your thumb is and what's comfortable for you.

If you're curious, the professor was Julia Bushkova. I also attend UNT but normally study under Philip Lewis during the school year.

Hope that helps

July 29, 2019, 11:34 AM · Christian, I have to say that as unfortunate as it is, I'm also relieved to hear I'm not the only one who has had to go through this! Your story is all too familiar, I am positive that I developed it for the same reason, trying to reach the 4th finger around - my pinky was also collapsing in the same manner. I do have a rehearsal tonight and a chamber concert tomorrow, I've already taken the time to try and go through the repertoire slowly while adjusting the thumb, but I know I will inevitably fall back in the habit while performing once I slip into performance mode. I will just have to mitigate it as best as I can until I can ingrain the new habit. Over the past few days since I realized it, I've been simply practicing scales and shifts slowly and checking the frame of the hand in my mirror. I have noticed that when I'm not slowly and mindfully practicing this new skill, I have caught myself tensing up and starting to squeeze, but as soon as I notice it, I take a breath, drop the violin, and then start again.

Lydia - again so glad to know I'm not alone and thank you for the suggestions! Between the two of you it sounds like Schradieck and Sevcik it is. Luckily, I know I have copies of both on my bookshelf at home, so those are definitely going to get dusted off!

Edited: July 29, 2019, 12:12 PM · Actually if it would help, Julia Bushkova has a youtube channel where she has a series of videos about technique and such. There's one about stretching that helps you see what is possible with the left hand when you don't squeeze in a higher position and then you'll be better able to replicate that in first position.

Here's a link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pBKW_UPRSc

She also has one for fixing dexterity problems in the left hand: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zKYhqtVzwzE

And one for strengthening the pinky: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MrKyFTNat3U

July 29, 2019, 12:33 PM · I think one way that might get your thumb in the right position for you - if you are up to it - is to play without an SR for a while. Its simply not possible unless the thumb plays two roles: one to support the fingers and the other to support the instrument.

BTW some people play entire careers with their thumb behind the first finger - its a pedagogic style suitable for some hand shapes. I read that thumb positioning is very personal and that there are no hard and fast rules (though obviously some things that are destructive for a particular hand, and I guess you found one).

Edited: July 29, 2019, 12:53 PM · My left thumb is very awkward. I must go back to Galamian and Fischer. I think I'm vaguely aware that it's intimately connected with my wrist straightness.
Edited: July 29, 2019, 9:18 PM · It's not so much wrong as it is old-school. I have seen that thumb straight and behind the 1st finger in photos in older method books. I don't want to trigger another shoulder rest debate, but my opinion is that without one, for many, not all of course, the violin will slip down and forward when we completely release the left hand for shifting. The violin then needs constant support from either the base of the first finger or the thumb while shifting. In that method of shifting the hand and thumb move separately, not at the same time.
I recommend having the thumb close to the second finger. That is what Cellists, Guitarists and Bass players do. I call it the Round Hand. Grab a baseball, tennis ball, or small orange firmly. Your fingers will be curved, the thumb opposite the second finger, and the fingers separated, so the knuckles don't collide with each other. We do the same with with the right hand, but that's another topic.
Technical habits are hard to break and the new habit is hard to establish, so give it time. Your left hand technique might break down completely for a week, so don't schedule a concert when you are doing this.
To reset the posture of the left hand, set all four fingers down on one string with one of the four standard finger patterns. Release the thumb, then put it back where it is most comfortable.
I think that part of the reason this is a common problem is that as beginners we learn 1st finger first and 4th finger last. After the beginning stage we can recalibrate the first position by starting with the 4th finger, in tune, curved, comfortable, then pulling the other fingers back from there. The thumb, again, goes where it is most comfortable. ~jq
Edited: July 30, 2019, 1:43 AM · Last night I was trying to find a video of Menuhin I had seen (I don't think he worried about Galamian at all, probably too old to) and thinking, it will depend on hand size, so it has to be comfortable for you.

The biggest issue is the reach of the pinky. If your hand's big, you don't have a problem. Otherwise you have to find the technique to beat the strain.

July 30, 2019, 7:24 AM · If you watch top soloists you'll see their hand positions are all over the map. By definition these people are outliers. Their methods are not necessarily the best examples for students.
July 30, 2019, 8:40 AM ·
July 30, 2019, 9:17 AM · Joel wrote: "that without one, for many, not all of course, the violin will slip down and forward when we completely release the left hand for shifting. The violin then needs constant support from either the base of the first finger or the thumb while shifting. In that method of shifting the hand and thumb move separately, not at the same time."

I suppose that was an argument against going SR-less? Perhaps I was not clear; my suggestion was to do it for a while to rapidly reprogram the thumb to new patterns of usage. IMO when you go back to the SR they thumb will be a lot more independent and I think the problem will go away.

July 30, 2019, 10:06 AM · Hello all! Thank you so much for your thoughtful and insightful replies. Christian - fortunately I have some spare time at work today, so I will most certainly have a look at those videos! I'm happy to report that after a few days my hand is at least "starting" to come around, but there is certainly much more work to be done. Joel - I certainly have gotten that feedback in talking to several other people since this came up for me - that some people do, in fact play with the thumb behind the first finger - but as you mentioned, this seems to work best in those with large hands which I most certainly do not have :) As I mentioned before, this first came up due to issues with my 4th finger and my other fingers never dropping in the same place consistently. Since I have moved my thumb up, I have already found that not only do I have far less tension in my left hand, but my fingers are finally able to move much more rapidly and much more accurately. The trick so far is not falling back into autopilot and letting that thumb creep back again. I find it most difficult when shifting down, shifting upward is much easier to keep the thumb in line for me.

Elise - I actually did take off my shoulder rest for a few minutes in the last few practice sessions just to see - I do wish I could make it work but I simply cannot manage to play and shift in particular without one. Not sure if it has anything to do with the length of my neck? I find that I have to look downward too much causing the back of my neck to curve down which causes quite a bit of pain. I've been told by one teacher that ANYONE can play without a shoulder rest if they are willing to put in the work to achieve it but I'm still not entirely convinced. You are certainly right in that I was playing in a destructive manner having my thumb behind, and I didn't even realize it all this time. Just glad I figured it out before I went any longer :)

Paul - I certainly had that thought, I didn't want to latch on too much to what the top soloists are doing, however I did go back and watch some of Hilary Hahn's performances as well as Ray Chen and Joshua Bell and found that they all use a thumb forward position either opposite the first or second finger or somewhere inbetween, so that made me feel a little better about the whole ordeal.

In any case... again appreciate all of your responses. I have my work cut out for me but it will be worth it! Pulled out my Schradieck and Sevcik books to work a little every day. Will obviously continue to work scales out of my trusty Flesch book and take old and new repertoire slow to make sure I'm absorbing the new technique. Oh how I wish I didn't have a concert tonight but I have no choice but to power through and do the best I can.

Cheers!

July 30, 2019, 9:43 PM · William,

I actually have bigger hands, and even I have limited movement of my fingers when my thumb is behind the 1st finger. A way to see this is to put your thumb behind your 1st finger then try to move your fingers in a playing manner. Then put your thumb opposite the 1st finger or a little ahead of it and try the same thing. The latter will most likely feel much easier as you won't have the tension that having the thumb behind the 1st finger creates. In this case some people with bigger hands (or more accurately a longer thumb) will sometimes like to put their thumb a little farther forward than the 1st finger to compensate for their longer thumb (Julia Bushkova does this and while her hand is small, she has a longer thumb compared to the rest of her fingers).

July 31, 2019, 8:45 AM · Hi Christian!

Gotcha, I see, so that proves to not even be true. I most certainly agree that thumb forward makes the other finger movement much easier and produces a great deal less tension.

I actually logged on again this morning to share this with you - I walked into rehearsal last night before the concert and my last teacher in undergrad who was playing on it with us came up to me and said, "Will - I have a wonderful exercise for you from Julia Bushkova!" and promptly pulled up one of the videos you shared, the one called the "Milstein Exercise". Coincidence at its finest! Needless to say, I will be trying that out and also having a look today at the other videos you shared.

Thanks again for your responses!

Cheers ~

July 31, 2019, 11:58 PM · Wow that is a huge coincidence indeed! Who is your former teacher? That makes me wonder how they came across her videos. I only knew about them because I study at UNT albeit with Philip Lewis instead of Julia Bushkova and happened to come across them one day when I searched her name on youtube. She also brought them up while I was at the string camp wondering if I had seen her channel and I answered in the affirmative. Perhaps there is some sort of connection between your last teacher and Bushkova? The music world is a small one after all.
August 1, 2019, 5:02 AM · that "Milstein exercise" by Bushkova is a great pedagogical aid! thanks for the link.
Edited: August 1, 2019, 5:55 AM · Hi,

William: if I may add to the suggested exercises, I would recommend Sevcik Opus 8. They can be very good for working on maintaining hand position as you shift, as they are precise, to the point and effective. Another thing could be to do etudes in one position such as those in the Whistler books, or the Sitt etudes.

Cheers!

August 1, 2019, 7:22 AM · You might also find useful Julia Bushkova's other Youtube channel ViolinClass. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCmlbf-MPAmMQsBrzr61GLdw
August 1, 2019, 11:53 AM · Jean - My pleasure. Her channel really is a very useful tool. I wish she had started it sooner. But she has To”d me she has more videos she plans on doing.

Bob - that’s actually the same channel the links I gave are from.

August 13, 2019, 9:51 AM · Hi Christian! I'm not sure if she has actually connected with Julia before but she's pretty worldly in her knowledge and resources when it comes to pedagogy - Marcy Trentacosti of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. :) As I have discovered, the music world is QUITE small!

Christian V. - thank you so much, I actually did pull out Op. 8, I think you are right that that would help do the trick.

Edited: August 13, 2019, 3:15 PM · I ignore my left thumb and leave it to its own devices. Unless I look I wouldn't know what it's up to. Suffice to say I play SR-less, have no problems with shifting, and vibrato happens when I want it to. I think my thumb is controlled by what my left hand, fingers and arm are doing at the time, and not the other way around.
August 14, 2019, 7:28 AM · My basic view of this thread is, "what Joel said."

A refinement that occurs to me is when you want to do a semitone shift on the first or second fingers. The thumb needs to be in a position so that it isn't required to move for the shift and is comfortable after the shift.

August 14, 2019, 9:13 AM · Just looking at the video posted above by Nate gives me a neck ache. And a hand ache, and shoulder ache...

Here's what I tell students about the thumb: with the violin down on the couch (it probably needs a little therapy itself...), hold your left hand palm up, fully relaxed. What does the thumb want to do? Slightly bent, just like the fingers. Now pick up the violin but retain that relaxed feeling and the same shape. The thumb should not stick out like you're hitchhiking. The thumb's job is simply not to get in the way. Frankly, when I look at many violinists, I don't know how they've managed to play with their thumb contorted like the video.

Of course I use a shoulder rest. Sure, I went through that whole "I have to try to find a way to play without a shoulder rest just like Ye Olde Masters." Well, I got over it and go on with the playing. So if you have some deep psychological need to play without your shoulder rest and are determined to do so, you might have to find some other way than mine. Lotsa luck.


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