Fourth finger anatomical limitations

Edited: September 29, 2017, 9:25 PM · It varies from population to population but about 10-20% of people don’t have the tendons/muscles to independently flex their fourth finger at the PIP joint. Studies have confirmed that the incidence drops markedly amongst violinists with advanced skills, implying that if you don’t have the independent movement required, then you will not progress to advanced playing techniques.

See this article for more information about a test that shows the independence of the joint.

I’d like to know if people have developed specific strategies to compensate for the limitations on their playing enforced by a missing muscle head or flexor digitalis superficialis for their fourth finger.

I’ve always struggled with fourth finger trills, and other techniques involving my fourth finger. Although I’d describe my level as advanced intermediate, I’m always having to find fingerings that allow me to avoid difficult fourth finger situations.

As exercises can’t grow a new tendon or muscle head, what have other people done to compensate and keep their playing on an improvement trend?

Replies (18)

Edited: September 29, 2017, 10:16 PM · You mean like this article?

I can bend my 4th finger independently from the PIP joint
from the other 3 fingers without holding them, but it's still incredibly hard to do the move they suggest is difficult for people without this ability (the 4th finger on E string, third finger on G string). Could you give me an example where you would need this independent flexibility in violin playing? You say trills, but the trill motion is from the base joint, isn't it?

September 29, 2017, 10:50 PM · I found this video with a much more comprehensible explanation than the article in the OP.

Interestingly, I have independent function in my left hand pinkie but not in my right hand pinkie. And I have never had any trouble with 4th finger trills.

Sorry I can't really answer the question in the OP but it is humbling to think that at least some of my 4th finger facility is due to an anatomical fluke.

September 29, 2017, 11:14 PM · This is good news, now I can become an elite violinist!

Only joking...if only it were that easy

Edited: September 30, 2017, 2:31 AM · Well, my ring finger bends, a little, in both hands, when bending the pinky, but I can lift it and partially straighten it when the pinky is down (much more in the left hand thanks to the viola!).

I have never tried for the stratosphere: I am sure my reflexes are just not quite fast enough. I prefer to be a good all-round musician, share what I have (which ain't bad!) with my colleagues and my young students.

Of course on the viola, I do far more mini (but precise!) shifts to avoid straining the pinky: the combination of effort in the pinky plus the extended arm can induce what I call Viola Elbow.

September 30, 2017, 4:47 PM · Looking through archived discussions here, it's not hard to find comments from people who are concerned about their fourth finger technique, and why it is that they can't stop the PIP joint collapsing. If you can pass the test then that's great, but I have struggled with this issue for 50 years playing solo, jazz, folk, and orchestral repertoire, only recently learning that my fourth finger simply can't be bent at that joint in certain situations.

The video from Mary Ellen above is a really good explanation. There is nothing in this that says that a lack of independent function will stop you from playing the violin, and enjoying your music.

I just wondered if anyone else, having encountered the problem for themselves, had developed any strategies to keep developing their playing to an elite level. I wonder if it would be possible to have elite players and professionals do the simple test so we can see if any have a lack of independent function. It would be very encouraging to find very advanced players with a lack of independent function in the fourth finger.

September 30, 2017, 5:06 PM · Thanks for that video link! I agree that the independent function, while obviously ideal, wouldn't stop your progress. Feeling a strength and lift from the back of the hand starting at the palm joints (I like to think of the hand like a willow tree) has helped me a lot. And if the pinky cannot operate independently of the other fingers, then let the other fingers be involved. Let them rest and move as the pinky needs to instead of wrenching the pinky down by itself. But I always struggle with pinky any way I try to use it
Edited: October 1, 2017, 4:36 AM · For more years as a cellist/violinist than I'd care to remember an important part of my warm-up has been fast trills on all fingers in a variety of positions including, possibly unusually, the 1st finger on an open string (can be useful in Baroque). And before all that the keyboard finger exercises my piano teacher made me do as a small child :(

The secret to fast trills is of course a relaxed left hand and arm.
Edited: October 1, 2017, 9:04 AM · I have non-independence in my right hand and and almost independence in my left. I cannot seem to stop a very small participation of my ring finger when I crinkle my 4th finger. It is tiny - barely perceptible, but exists.
It is interesting to me that 3 of us : the surgeon , Mary Ellen and myself - who have independant or near- independant motion in one hand only, and are violin players - have it in the left, where it would presumably be more helpful . Did we all start as children? Does this in fact help bring about this outcome? (in spite of the surgeons' belief)
October 1, 2017, 8:46 AM · Although I realize they published a scientific paper about this, I'm still not so sure about this. When I took up violin playing again seven years ago, there was no way I could do what the Australian lady in the video linked by Mary Ellen demonstrates. My 3rd and 4th fingers were hopelessly dependent. But I was passionate about improving on the violin and motivated and determined to conquer my limitation. I did all the typical pinky exercises, as I was already 42 years old at the time, this was really tough practicing. Anyway, after a few months the finger dependence was already largely resolved. Nowadays I can readily do what the Australian lady demonstrates and I can do technical things on the violin that seemed ridiculous to me seven years ago, like trilling double-stopped octaves. So I just want to say, practice can do wonders. I am not an anatomist but tendons and muscles are not homogeneous bands of rubber, they consist of individual cells, they are connected by nerves, your brain can do a lot to change and train their capabilities?
October 1, 2017, 9:19 AM · Some players seem to be unnaturally well-endowed in this department;

Mine is about half the length

Edited: October 1, 2017, 7:28 PM · My 50 years of solid work, tertiary level conservatorium training, 15-20 hours of practice every week, and professional performance for 15 years says that effort and training doesn't grow new tendons or muscles, as I still can't pass the test. It doesn't mean I'm unaccomplished. My question isn't about whether this can be fixed with practice. I asked that if people have this issue, what strategies have they used to compensate? For example, my fingering choices are influenced by a realisation that I need to avoid 4th finger trills when possible, as they simply aren't as good as other combinations, being uneven and relatively unreliable.

I started to look at this as I've recently been diagnosed with Dupuytren's disease involving the third and fourth fingers on my left hand. It means that I may be looking at surgery to release the nodules and contracture, but I wanted to make an informed choice about how to move forward. Conducting various anatomical function tests revealed a lack of independent control of my fourth finger.

Edited: October 2, 2017, 3:13 AM · As I often write, Fourth Finger Rules!
In fast passages I set up the hand with a curved pinky: the index leans back and the two middle fingers curl.
In slower passages, I allow the hand to move in micro-shifts to obtain the vibrato I want on any finger.
October 2, 2017, 12:01 PM · Did the test. I guess I can't become advanced.

Man, knowing now that some people CAN do this makes me envy the ability.

October 2, 2017, 7:23 PM · It’s no reason to be discouraged. You can still play, improve, and enjoy the journey.
October 3, 2017, 5:44 AM · I seem to have independent function on both hands. I can't play very well :)...yet.

While the info looks interesting I don't think it really impacts playing as much as it might seem.

The reason I say this is you only need a small amount of independent movement in those fingers from a bent position. It seems easier to do in that hand position. Obviously if we have people here who are at the advanced level this isn't a serious impediment unless the inability to move fingers independently is extreme. You only need small movements.

October 3, 2017, 10:22 AM · I don't have this independent motion, and it's sort of nice to know that it's biological and not my fault. :-)

However, I can more or less manage it in my left hand (i.e., with limited 3rd-finger movement) because I had a teacher who made me do a ton of exercises to develop sufficient control that it doesn't hamper my left-hand agility. I make frequent use of the fourth finger and can do a 4th finger trill without any problem.

Most of the exercises were done without the violin -- various exercises separating the third and fourth fingers. It was tedious and extremely frustrating in the beginning, and I stress that it makes possible a *degree* of independent control. I can't do what's shown in the video of full independence. My teacher back then basically asked me to fidget using the exercises (all focused on "move the 4th finger without moving the 3rd / move the 3rd without moving the 2nd") -- when sitting in class or the like -- over the period of a couple of years.

Edited: October 3, 2017, 1:21 PM · The article didn't indicate whether or not one can exercise the pinky and eventually gain independence.

I used to have a collapsing fourth finger, basically through my entire childhood. When I restarted two years ago I make an effort from day one to rectify this, and had several months to work it out. Now, with the help of this work and some very swift gains in the last few months thanks to Nathan Cole's rolled up tissue ball finger exercises, I have complete fourth finger independence and can even curl my pinky without curling my third finger, as the article discusses.

So, I wonder how right that article actually is. I think testing beginners and if they have weak fingers beginning them on strengthening exercises immediately would be a good idea, though.

Edited: October 9, 2017, 7:38 PM · Right Jason. The Atlantic study does not distinguish between cause and effect. Is it because of hours of practice that most violinists achieve independence or the other way around? While I'm not going to argue with a surgeon on what can and can't be done anatomically, what the study should have done with any foresight is to test how much -right- hand 4th finger independence these same players had. I have a feeling that right hand 4th finger independence would be less prevalent. This is assuming left and right hand are mirrored which can be a big jump in assumption since most people have only one hand dominance. Still I liked what one of the commenters said: it's like saying 100% of weight lifters can bench press their weight whereas only a few % of the general population can. So don't even try?

Finally it's the journey that matters. How many blind piano players have overcome their disability or actors who have overcome their stuttering or pro basketball players because of their shortness? And lets not talk about overcoming negative stereotypes. I might even argue that it's adversity that makes us stronger - how many stories have you read where this person is successful due to overcoming childhood tragedies and the like?

Anyway to answer your question, do you know of Simon Fischer's small book Warming Up? The first section is about the left hand where there are specific warm up exercises which talks about widening at the base joints and trills. After doing these exercises my left hand fingers feel really strong and ready to tackle the hardest of double stops!

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