Left Hand Tension / Sluggishness / Intonation

February 10, 2020, 2:40 PM · No matter what I do I can't get my left hand fingers to move fast enough to keep up with my bow and so the notes are not articulated clearly at moderate to fast tempi. I have tried many things to alter my posture to no avail. My left hand feels tense all the time and I can't figure out how to properly hold the instrument to have dexterity and consistent intonation. My teacher is an orchestra musician and seems unable to help. Any advice for how to relieve left hand squeezing and improve intonation? Obviously intonation requires ear training but I can tell there is a separate issue of my fingers not being able to reliably sit comfortably on the fingerboard and hit the same notes consistently even if I am aware of their tuning.

Replies (9)

February 10, 2020, 2:46 PM · When a student comes to me with this issue, the first thing I ask them to do is to play something--a scale, etude, or their solo--with "whistles," that is, with the fingers of the left hand just barely touching the string as if playing every note a harmonic.

It will sound dreadful if done properly. If the notes are still coming through with a core, the fingers are not yet light enough.

Once you have done that, then add *just enough* weight to make the whistling noise go away. This will almost certainly be much less weight than you are currently playing with.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Edited: February 10, 2020, 6:56 PM · Eric, a couple of points. It seems to me that poor posture/hold is at the root of your problems.

Someone being an orchestral violinist is no guarantee that they can teach the violin (although there are of course many who are outstanding teachers). Change your teacher for someone who can see what's going wrong and why, knows how to teach, and can come up with solutions that work. Such a teacher would in all probability take you back to square one, and there is a likelihood that you'll then make the progress you need.
February 10, 2020, 7:20 PM · What Mary Helen said. Your violin setup may also make it harder than it needs to be. What instrument are you playing?
February 10, 2020, 7:34 PM · Tension in the hands are connected. Check your bow hold and maybe try a different bow. You may be compensating for something unexpected, just see what happens.
February 10, 2020, 7:55 PM · Mary Ellen's reply is the answer; the light fingers will eliminate the excessive tension thus allowing fast articulations, and the fingers will be able to make the micro adjustments required for good intonation.
February 10, 2020, 8:01 PM · I would love to share some thoughts! Unlike many other folks on this site, I am not a teacher - just a student like yourself.

I have had very similar problems that I have been working on for the past 8 months or so. And it has gotten better! So don't give up - there are days when I feel like there is too much change that needs to happen, but the change does happen, generally little by little...

I will just share some steps that have occurred in my process of discovering how to free up my left hand.

First, my symptoms were also incoordination between hands, a lot of trouble playing fast notes, intonation, massive tension. My fingers looked liked a spider lifting each of his legs (I was told) as I crawled around the fingerboard. As a result, I didn't really have a "frame" for intonation to remain stable. It was like each time I put a finger down, my hand/brain had to quickly assess the position and adjust. It couldn't just fall where it was supposed to.

The first thing I did was get Schradieck School of Violin Technique. I just worked on the first two exercises, and honestly that kept me very busy. I did each two measure bit in all bowings imaginable (what was written, and then also others. Especially as it comes, with very small bows at the tip, starting both up bow and down bow. Or with triplets. Anything that makes it hard for you). I tried to get it even, and I tried to get it up to 126 on the metronome. I tried to get my fingers to not press as hard as they were used to doing, and I tried to get the motion of the fingers to start from the base knuckles.

It. Was. Awful. Really hard for me. I couldn't seem to get all of them even or up to speed. But I DID learn A LOT of things through trying, and it did help. I would highly recommend it. (I did around 30 minutes to and hour a day for a very long time...). (Incidentally, I just came back to them and noticed how much easier it all is...proof that it does help, but sometimes you don't notice when you're in the middle of it all.)

I noticed through this how connected tension in both hands were to each other...check out this article... https://www.thestrad.com/playing-and-teaching/can-bowing-wrist-suppleness-improve-intonation/1296.article

The next thing that helped a great deal, after I had gotten my fingers used to the motions and not pressing so hard, was to play lots and lots of scales and arpeggios while keeping each of my fingers down as long as possible. Take that very literally. If I started 2-3-4 on the G string, I would place 1 on the D string and only then lift and place 2, while 3 and 4 still remained on the G string, etc, etc. For arpeggios, that sometimes meant a finger on 3 strings while one was in the air. This was uncomfortable (not painful, just strange), but after a few weeks of doing this, it's like my brain clicked and developed a frame or a map of the fingerboard. (Note: in playing, you do a mix of keeping fingers down and not keeping fingers down. But this was a great way of teaching myself distances between notes...)

Related to this, I then made sure that, for every note I play in the music I am working, I know what it is, what position it is, and what interval it is in relation to the next note. (I used to play just almost totally by ear, and would often have no idea what note I was playing...sometimes accidentally "transpose" the melody an octave here and there) If I'm playing an on the A string with 2nd finger, and the key is E minor, my other fingers know where they will need to go within the key (or the harmony that is coming - in other words, that the 3 is high and the 4 is right next to it. In this case, the one can be either...) They are ready to fall. This helped with shifting a great deal, too.

THEN I worked on releasing tension in my thumb.

It might look totally different for you - just thought it might be helpful to hear some ways I have worked on the matter. If I think of anything else, I will write it later! If anything I said is confusing, or if anyone else has any thoughts, feel free to ask or comment and correct!

Wish you the best of luck (or the best of effort?) in your endeavor! Toi toi!

February 11, 2020, 3:08 AM · Hi Eric,

Although it's hard to tell without having seen you, I would add to the comments above that you might try playing in your socks. Tension is often not isolated to one hand only, and you may consider checking for tension in your whole body, starting from the feet up.
Next, you might choose easier repertoire, where you are able to sync your left hand with the bow.
Furthermore, play those faster sections in rhythms rather than even notes.

There are lots of useful suggestions in the comments trail above and I suggest not trying them all at once, but stick with one suggestion for a while and see how that feels before trying another suggestion. Good luck!

February 11, 2020, 6:06 AM · I use a shoulder rest but on my 17 inch viola I can play all of the notes up top and down low with a strong vibrato. This I likely because I’m tall and have large hands. However I think much of it is also likely because I developed a freedom and flexibility in my holding of my rather challenging instrument. I think no shoulder rest playing can be hugely beneficial for playing with shoulder rest as it was for me.

You may want to take some lessons with either a Alexander teacher or even a viola teacher who studied with Karen Tuttle (she was the expert of comfort in string playing)

February 11, 2020, 6:44 AM · Like Anita writes, "hand frame" is the magic word here, and "finger independence". Try lots of left-hand exercises. Some sources for these: first page of Schradieck "School of Violin Technique" was already mentioned by Anita; the first page of Sevcik opus 1 is very similar. Also first exercise of Dounis "Daily Dozen". Generally for this kind of problem solving, Simon Fischer's book "The Violin Lesson" is very valuable. Keep up the spirit!


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